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I tried to find an analogy that would help me to understand anatta: Just as we can say "there is no self" (there are just mental aggregates interacting with each other and eventually causing some bodily reactions), we can also say "there are no computer programs" (there are only electrons arranged in different patterns, and they eventually cause some changes in the output devices).

Buddhism claims that anatta is the ultimate truth, and that it is beneficial to know that truth. I wonder if it applies to my analogy, too: can we regard "no computer programs" as the ultimate truth?

I don't see how it could be beneficial for a computer user or a programmer to realise that "there are no computer programs". If we assume that the analogy is correct, there should be no benefit in realising that "there is no self".

I see two points where the above reasoning could be flawed:

  1. It is actually beneficial to realise that "there are no computer programs".
  2. It is not beneficial to realise the above, but there is no analogy between "there are no computer programs" and "there is no self".

Which point is true and why? Or is it something else that is the problem here?

EDIT: There are already quite a few general questions about anatta. Here I hope to get answers that would comment on whether the analogy I presented is relevant to understanding this concept, and relate to the specific questions I asked.

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    I'm kinda wondering whether you are asking for an analogy for or an explanation of anatta or if you are asking why realizing anatta is beneficial. – user698 Nov 4 '15 at 18:35
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    I don't think your analogy is exactly correct. It's not so much that there are no computer programs, but that all programs are actually part of a whole. Which, to me, seems like the idea behind open-source libraries, and therefore has been beneficial for many programmers, and programming as a whole. – DaaaahWhoosh Nov 4 '15 at 20:33
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    I would agree that looking at programs as inseparable parts of a whole integrated computer system is by far my preferred way-of-thinking. In that sense it is true, there are no programs (except when we arbitrarily instantiate one for abstraction as part of our use). Self could certainly be viewed the same way. – Darren Ringer Nov 4 '15 at 20:45
  • If you don't have a notion of an "atman" in yourself (and who in the modern world has such a notion at all?) - how can this be a problem when the Buddha has just denied such a "splitter of the Brahman" in each living individual? Isn't then such a pondering completely meaningless? (Just asking) – Gottfried Helms Nov 4 '15 at 20:46
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I find it helps to try to relate things back to the core teachings: suffering, the cause of suffering, the extinction of suffering and the way to achieve that. So the relevant teaching here as I understand it is not "there is no self" but rather "clinging to a false sense of self causes suffering."

On its face, "there is no self" is patently false, much like the claim that there is no computer program. There's room here to quibble about language, allowing you to see it one way or the other, but that distracts from the real matter at hand. Suffering is a visceral thing and getting to its root requires delving into the nitty-gritty viscera of this self-delusion. Otherwise "there is no self" is just a word game.

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It's because the understanding you are describing is intellectual. Enlightened understanding of anatta isn't factual, philosophical, or based in analogy. It is a realization. When the veil is lifted, we see it directly. It's like realizing for the first time that you have use of your legs. It puts you in a complete different world.

  • This still doesn't explain it. I know that bhāvanā maya paññā is more profound than cintā maya paññā, but both types of wisdom are still regarded as beneficial in Buddhism. – michau Nov 4 '15 at 18:24
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    Not for soteriological purposes. – user698 Nov 4 '15 at 18:25
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If a computer program were to realize the truth about itself then:

  • It wouldn't be surprised to find bugs (i.e. unwanted behaviour)
  • It wouldn't be surprised to find subroutines (encapsulated behaviour)
  • It wouldn't be surprised to find side-effects (interactions between this and that)
  • It wouldn't be surprised to find that its interactions with other software/programs/systems sometimes work as desired or "designed", and sometimes don't
  • It wouldn't resist being upgraded with newer/better versions
  • It wouldn't have an inflated view of itself as being more capable than it actually is
  • And (possibly) it wouldn't suffer from dukkha
  • But how the realisation that "there are no computer programs" would lead to realisation of all the truths you mentioned? – michau Nov 4 '15 at 21:01
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    Because "a computer program" is an ideal, you have an idea of how it's going to behave and how you're going to use it and enjoy it and keep it etc. Without an "ideal" that's not the same as the "real" there's less scope for expectation/surprise/disappointment/dissonance. – ChrisW Nov 4 '15 at 23:43
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Neko already explained it pretty well.

The realization of Anatta on an intellectual level, simply cannot happen.

The doctrine of Anatta is too profound. One must realize it through the practice of insight meditation and the gaining of experiental knowledge.

Imagine an onion. An onion has many layers. Intellectual knowledge can only penetrate the top layers. Experiental knowledge can penetrate all the layers, right into the core of the onion. Its the last type of knowledge that one needs to realize the marks of existence and eventually Nibbana.

  • This doesn't explain it. I know that bhāvanā maya paññā is more profound than cintā maya paññā, but both types of wisdom are still regarded as beneficial in Buddhism. – michau Nov 4 '15 at 18:24
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    Well that is the teaching given to us by the Buddha. I cannot provide a better answer than that. These doctrines cannot be understood intellectually, but only through direct seeing of reality, i.e. experiental knowledge, gained through the practice of insight meditation. – Lanka Nov 4 '15 at 18:28
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In Buddhism the concept is there is nothing worthy of identifying as self since you do not exercise absolute control over whatever you identify. Put it another way if there is something which is everlasting and unchanging and within your control you can rightfully call it self but there is no such thing as as everything (5 aggregates) that creates a being is changing.

Ultimate truth is what you realise through meditation which transcends the spear of Perception and Views. Basically what pertains to:

  • phenomenon of consciousness (citta)
  • associated mentality (cetasika)
  • materiality or physical phenomena (rūpa)
  • nirvana

A normal person will Perceive oneself as such, but in reality you cannot be exactly what you perceive and also you do not become exactly what you perceive of want to be. (Say a person is 80 but wants the body of a 20 year old.) Hence when you transcend Perception (Sanna) you will realise there is no everlasting controllable part which is worthy to be called or identified as self.

Buddhist concept of non self stems from the contemporary belief system which gave definition and doctrines of the Soul. Since there is not part which is unchanging or immortal or which is completely in your control the Buddha rejected the contemporary definition of Atta hence becoming the doctrine of Anatta. This is what has been translated as non self or no soul to English.

Also see:

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