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Buddhism begins with The Truth of Suffering. That seems like the best point to get someone's attention, and is basically indisputable. The Truth of Impermanence is fairly easy to accept, because we see things change, and everyone dies. But the Truth of Not-Self - no separate, permanent self - is the major departure from Hinduism, and all other religions, as best I know. Realization of this truth amounts to nonduality.

If someone can realize Anatman then is this not basically the whole teaching? With the large number of Self-Inquiry groups and websites devoted to nonduality and the many interviews and books about it available, it seems like a more direct path to realization, and more accessible than Buddhism (in its many forms). Is it?

EDIT: I seem to be drawing fire for my phrase "the whole teaching". OK, disregard that but the point is: if you "get" Anatman, doesn't everything else have to fall in to place over time? With that one realization, you can realize everything, and without it, you will never make it all the way. Is that not so?

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    This is apparently something of a "vexing question." I guess it was pointless. – user2341 Nov 11 '15 at 0:04
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    700 views, ten low-voted answers. There's glory for you! – user2341 Nov 11 '15 at 13:47
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    Did you get an answer that you can use? If not, maybe you could elaborate a bit on your question, so that you can get an answer that will answer your question more in depth. – Lanka Nov 12 '15 at 13:58
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    @Lanka Thank you for asking. I guess no one actually agrees with me. Also, each answer is apparently quite different. I have to go with Deborah Westmoreland when she said, "There are no other people." For put them side by side / The one the other will include / With ease and you beside. And I say that Anatman is deeper than the 3, For hold them, blue to blue / The one the other would absorb / As sponges, buckets do. This is what I find when I look in someone's eyes. It goes beyond wisdom, compassion, or desire. But then, I am a Hetaira Archetype person, so I would say that. – user2341 Nov 13 '15 at 4:45
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    Ok, good. Remember that it dosent matter if anyone agrees with you or not. That is not the point. Practice insight meditation and you will get your answer. As long as one has not gotten insights/experiental knowledge by oneself, its just blind belief, to believe what others say. Go and practice so you can get the insights for yourself. – Lanka Nov 13 '15 at 5:49

13 Answers 13

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If someone can realize Anatman then is this not basically the whole teaching?

It's certainly a great step forward on the path, but it is not the whole teaching.

This is the whole teaching.

That was a joke! But seriously, there is no truly objective answer to your question. Anattā is just one slice of one of the many pies of Buddhism. As a "mark of existence" it holds equal importance alongside the other two, dukkhā and aniccā.

If someone can realize Anatman then is this not basically the whole teaching?

What about saṃsāra, kamma, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Middle Way, the Four Immeasurables, dependent origination, emptiness, and The Three Jewels? And a bunch of other stuff?

I too crave simplicity in Buddhism, but the more you look around, the deeper and broader the teachings become. There are 43 volumes in the Pāli Canon. The teachings are vast.

If someone can realize Anatman then is this not basically the whole teaching?

It could be your whole teaching. Buddhism is a highly individualized practice. Our paths may run parallel, or at times criss-cross, or at other times go in entirely different directions: but in the end, we can all reach our own way to the end of suffering, and each way may be truly unique.

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    Looking at the chart you linked to, if one abandons Identity-View, that marks Stream Entry, and then it is basically a foregone conclusion that one will go all the way to the end. But without abandoning Identity-View, one cannot really begin, other than by calming the mind. Anatman is a "watershed" change in view, yes? – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 2:13
  • The chart is really just a visual curiosity -- I don't think it's meant to be viewed as an actual learning tool or a real path. If anything, it serves to illustrate how complex and intertwined the various Buddhist concepts can be. – newbold Nov 10 '15 at 2:16
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    @nocomprende You picked on identity-view, but don't you think you might just as well say that abandoning "doubt" or abandoning "ritual" marks stream entry? – ChrisW Nov 10 '15 at 9:56
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    @ChrisW Identity-View is more equal. Think: what separates humans from everything else in the universe? Self-concept. That one thing is responsible for all of the suffering that we cause. Someone I know is fond of saying things like "You are not your own God", or "He realized he is not his own God." Aside from the theism reference, this statement puts us in the proper relationship to existence. It amounts to Anatman (or nonduality), as best I can tell. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:39
  • Compassion is reality. Always and forever. – sova Feb 1 '16 at 21:36
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No, anatta is not the key point of Buddhism, and Buddhism is not nondualism.
That would be too easy ;)

Shunyata, the Mahayana extrapolation of anatta principle, is getting closer.

If I had to pick one point to explain it all, I would say TATHATA.

  • So, if someone had grasped Tathata but not Anatta, you would say they are farther along? I feel like they are two ways of knowing the very same thing... – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 2:48
  • Yeah I would say so. They are not the same thing. – Andrei Volkov Nov 10 '15 at 3:05
  • @Andrei Volkov - It would be great if you could elaborate on Tathātā. – Motivated Nov 10 '15 at 7:10
  • @Motivated You can find it here. – ruben2020 Nov 10 '15 at 11:15
  • @Motivated maybe that should be a separate question: "what is Tathata?" – Andrei Volkov Nov 10 '15 at 17:10
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Buddhism has many core principles which work as complete paths. However, like other projects, it helps to use a variety of techniques to cover all bases.

The unifying principle in Buddhism is letting go of clinging to reduce suffering. Looking at some core Buddhist principles through this lens, you will see that each address clinging in a different -- yet compatible -- way.

  • Realizing Emptiness undermines our belief in the ultimate existence of the things we cling to.
  • Realizing No Self undermines our belief in the one who clings and is a specific instance of emptiness.
  • Realizing Suffering undermines our desire to cling in the first place by noting the dissatisfaction of all we cling to.
  • Realizing Impermanence undermines our desire to cling in the first place by noting that what we cling to will change (or vanish) and hence hurt us.

So the question here isn't whether any concept -- including Anatman -- is sufficient in itself. I believe the answer to that question is yes. Rather the questions are...

  • Is your realization of any of the concepts complete enough that you don't need the others?
  • Are you facing any particular challenges that may make some concepts particularly beneficial for you?
  • If I realize "no self" then there is no root to feed further clinging. The other aspects are just hacking at the branches. I agree that Anatman might well be the hardest concept, but it is the core. Once there, there is nowhere to go anymore. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:29
  • @nocomprende: do you want to ask a follow up question, "what kind of attachments might one still have after grasping anatta"? – Andrei Volkov Nov 10 '15 at 21:42
  • @AndreiVolkov I can't see attachments surviving long in that case. Whatever they are, they will run down, so it is not much of an issue. – user2341 Nov 11 '15 at 0:01
  • Every neuroscientist understands Anatta - do you think they don't have attachments? – Andrei Volkov Nov 11 '15 at 0:16
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    @AndreiVolkov It's not about understanding, it's about realizing. Every physicist understands heat, yet none of them understands heat like a person who had his/her hand burned. That's what Anatman is; not the understanding of no-self, but the experience of it. Understanding can only take you so far in Buddhism, which is why practice is required -- to cultivate the experience. – R. Barzell Nov 11 '15 at 15:02
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Nirvana is the central concept of Buddhism, there 37 factors which cover the teachings leading to Nirvana. When you practice this as get to Nirvana you see the 3 marks of existence of which one is anattā

  • From the definition page: "Nirvāṇa literally means 'blown out', as in a candle. In the Buddhist context, nirvana refers to the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished. In Hindu philosophy, it is the union with Brahman, the divine ground of existence, and the experience of blissful egolessness." Wow, sure sounds like non-self to me. I can't see any meaningful distinction here. You could not attain this without Anatman, and Anatman is a sufficient condition as far as I can tell. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 3:12
  • Anatman is any way a reality we do not perceive due to ignorance. When ignorance is removed by practice of the path and developing the path you get Nirvana. Realising Nirvana is the central goal and the teaching that direct you to do this. Understanding Anatman is one. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Nov 10 '15 at 4:12
  • So, is money more important (goal) or being a good businessperson (means)? I can teach someone the means. I can't teach them the goal, that is inherent. Because I said "most important concept" I guess people could differ on whether the means or the goal is "most important". My Bad. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 4:17
  • Means is the 37 factors which get you there or teaching leading to liberation. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Nov 10 '15 at 4:19
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If or given that Buddhism "begins with The Truth of Suffering", then I'd guess that "cessation" (of suffering, e.g. the Third Noble Truth) might be fairly high on the list of important concepts.


From a Theravada perspective maybe Saṅkhāra is important. Arguments for its being important can be inferred from that Wikipedia article, i.e.:

  • The Buddha's exclamation about the "housebuilder" when he became enlightened
  • The Buddha's last words

Anatman might be a special case of Saṅkhāra, i.e. if you understand Saṅkhāra then you understand Anatman (because the conventional "self" is an example of a put-together fabrication).

Understanding Saṅkhāra presumably results in understanding Anicca too.


From a non-Theravada point of view I recommend this answer:

  • It suggests there isn't a single most important concept (which is important in 'understanding Buddhism'; see also "Buddhism is a highly individualized practice" from newbold's answer; and see also the Buddhist Paths to liberation being plural)

  • I also like that answer for his description of the Tathagata-Garba.


Alternatively maybe compassion is the most important concept, the 'sine qua non' of Buddhism (i.e. the characteristic without which Buddhism wouldn't exist because the Buddha wouldn't have taught his doctrine), if I'm right in assuming that compassion is what motivates Bodhisattvas.


And of course Bodhi is an important concept, as a goal and as inherent in the name "Buddhism".

  • The Shankara page refers to "Volitional Formations", which are thoughts that I choose, right? The Housebuilder quote is on that page: Oh housebuilder! You have now been caught! You shall not build a house again. Your rafters have been broken. Your ridgepole demolished. Who would the Housebuilder be, other than the self-concept? If this is what the Buddha exclaimed at the moment of enlightenment, then it was at the event of realizing Anatman. As far as I am concerned, this is complete proof of my assertion. Thank you. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:53
  • *Volitional Formations* are thoughts that I choose, right? The "formations" include "thoughts", but "things" too are fabricated. And according to this article they are "will" and "conditioned by ignorance" so I guess they're closer to "I want" rather than to "I choose". Per the last paragraph of that article if you have a view of anatta you might still see sankhara "as unstable, conditioned processes rolling on with no one in charge" and eventually (with practice) put an end to them. – ChrisW Nov 10 '15 at 21:47
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I think a very important concept in Buddhism is the middle way. From the perspective of practice, it refers to the middle path between indulgence and asceticism. From the perspective of philosophy, it refers to the middle way between eternalism and annihilationism. This theme keeps reappearing everywhere in Buddhism and seems to be unique to it. This is discussed in this answer.

Anatta is the concept where there is no absolute eternal permanent self, that is behind all phenomena. At the same time, there is a self that is not annihilated completely at death. The self is not standalone and emerges out of the interworking between form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. How the perception of self is formed is covered in dependent origination.

Anicca too has a connection to this middle way. The universe is neither eternal and absolute, nor is it an illusion. It is real, but it is always changing. However, the universe is empty as in devoid of a permanent self.

Another important middle way concept in Buddhism is that the person that is reborn is neither exactly the same nor totally unrelated from the person in the previous life. This is discussed in this answer.

In physics too, similar ideas appear in quantum mechanics, with the wave-particle duality as an example.

In Advaita Vedanta, Atman (the Self) is permanent, standalone and not different from Brahman, the ultimate eternal reality. The Atman is also considered the Eternal Witness, which extends to the idea of Eternal Consciousness, that every being has the same "I" which is the Atman, which is ultimately Brahman. The Self Inquiry method of Sri Ramana Maharshi asks "who am I?" and seeks to lead the spiritual seeker towards Self Realization, that "I" am not this temporary person (the little "I"), but rather the Eternal Consciousness (the big "I"), the Atman, who is Brahman.

This is quite incompatible with Buddhism, because the Buddha refuted not only a permanent self (in this answer), but also the idea of Eternal Consciousness. In this sutta, the Buddha rebuked Sati the monk, for holding the view of Eternal Consciousness (related to Atman), and corrects him by teaching the concept of eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness etc. According to this, consciousness is not an Eternal Witness, but rather, arises with sensation and perception. According to this sutta, the five aggregates are empty as in, devoid of a self.

Hence Advaita Vedanta is quite different and incompatible with Buddhism. However, according to this question, what is common or similar between the two is the fact that both Nirvana and Brahman are eternal, unborn and undying.

  • As a mystical person and not really a rational one, I respect the Middle Way. My question was actually an attempt to focus one the core of the teaching: the "middlest" thing in it. I think that the debate over aspects of consciousness etc is not to the point. If we realize that there is no separate, permanent self, everything else opens up. It is the most revolutionary concept possible for human beings. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:32
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Anatta is one of the 3 marks of existence. The others being; anicca and dukkha.

The whole teaching is the "most" important. One cannot just take out a piece of the teaching. It does not work like that.

The Noble Eightfold Path is a complete teaching that needs nothing to be added or removed from it.

Sila, Samadhi, Panna. All groups are needed in order to win Nibbana.

  • I do mention all 3 Marks in my question. My point was simply: is there a fulcrum concept where if one places the most effort, everything will be accomplished? If one could only state one sentence about The Path, what would it be? – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:36
  • If one could only state one sentence about the Path, my words would be: Practice the technique correctly, practice diligently and with great effort. – Lanka Nov 11 '15 at 7:26
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Practically speaking, I think the most important concept in Buddhism is that through our own efforts, we are all capable of enlightenment. Teachings of any sort - be they on non-self, suffering, or impermanence - are ultimately meaningless unless we are capable of direct realization ourselves. Without that possibility, the entirety of Buddhism is just an empty philosophy (no pun intended!). Believe it or not, the idea that individual agency could result in liberation was quite scandalous at the time of the Buddha (e.g. the Brahamajala Sutta). Like most examples of genius, it's something we take for granted now.

I think it's a bit presumptuous to say that impermanence and suffering are obvious. They are just a subtle as anatman and, in fact, cannot be understood in full unless the others two marks of existence are also seen directly. Ultimately what is most important is our potential to make this realization for ourselves.

  • Yes, Self-Effort is the Buddhist equivalent of the "Good News". Where now to focus that effort, I wonder? What one idea, if I could overturn it, would cause all the other dominoes to fall? Hmm... – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:33
  • I don't think there is one. Even the Buddha had to realize suffering, impermanence, and non-self jointly. And enlightenment rarely happens as abruptly and completely as it did for him. Most people spend years honing their realizations and perfecting their understanding. That's true in the suttas and in general practice. – user698 Nov 10 '15 at 20:48
  • When I speak with people about nonduality or related ideas, everyone accepts that things are "not satisfactory" (a translation of Dukkha), and everyone accepts that things are impermanent. They debate over whether "people" have a permanent essence. But every person who is not nondual resists the idea of Anatman. All of them. Universally. This is the door that is locked for them. Open this door and they are free, even if it takes a while to resolve some things. They will not run back in to the burning barn if they realize non-self. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 21:01
  • You sure about that? ;-) Seriously though, I think it may be a bit mistaken to assume that removing any one obstacle is going to result in enlightenment. Delusion is network of deep, interlacing roots. Pulling out even the largest doesn't necessarily destroy the system. – user698 Nov 11 '15 at 0:34
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The subtlety here is that understanding of this truth is not realization of this truth. I might have an experience of ego-shattering transcendence and yet, the very (next) moment, act selfishly out of long-worn old habits. The practice of realization is one of purification and ceasing to establish new roots for future suffering.

In the Zen tradition we often chant/study the Heart sutra, which sums up the fruition of practice as "gate gate paragate parasamgate, bodhi svaha". Loosely, "gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it." It's not enough to understand anatta, I must go beyond even understanding not-I and find myself realized in living my life. I have to go beyond going and find a way to be present by ceasing to imagine that I am (not). Which is all just a fancy way of saying this is a real practice to be lived and not merely a philosophy to be understood.

  • In my question I do specifically say realizing the truth of Anatman, not just thinking it. I like your "roots" analogy. There used to be a popular commercial from Round-Up Herbicide that said, "No Root, No Weed, No Problem." so, if the idea of a separate self is the root of the issue, eliminating only that resolves all the problems. – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:24
  • Supposing it's the root problem, the real trouble is that knowing the nature of the root isn't the same as pulling it out. Buddhism, in practice, is like an exercise program. If you want to run a marathon, you practice running. If you want to end suffering, you practice cessation via the eight-fold path. Different Buddhist traditions have their own takes on this and prescribe their own specific practices, but they're all essentially pointed in the same direction. The key here is that there is no short-cut; there are not-one not-two ways about it. – Dan Bryant Nov 10 '15 at 20:35
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    There are many paths and many ways to make progress. But what would characterize a Realization, for you? Nirvana is described as "blowing out"... of what? What is blown out? If Nirvana is the goal, then what is the means of that event / attainment? – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 20:48
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    Those are different questions with their own subtleties worth elaborating on. You might want to pose them as separate questions (though I suspect both have already been answered here a few times before.) In short, suffering is extinguished and the means is the eight-fold path, which is rooted primarily in ethics, with study being part of the mechanism for clarifying and motivating the ethical reforms. – Dan Bryant Nov 10 '15 at 21:05
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In order to understand the underlying cause of ignorance, or the human propensity towards false notions of self, anatman is essentially important. In order to fully fathom interdependency, it is essentially important. When the Buddha did not accept, or rejected, the notion of selfhood, the kind of self that was being rejected was characterized by three features: a self that is unitary, that is permanent, that is independent. And so then the question followed, what is the nature of self ? how can we understand the existence and nature of self ?

In one of the sutras, it states that just as the notion of a horse and carriage and chariot arises on the basis of the collection and aggregation of its parts, in the same manner, from the collection of various mental and physical elements, the concept of the person or the individual arises. So although in reality self is a phenomenon that is contingent upon the existence and reality of the physical and mental aggregates, when we perceive our own self, when the concept, the notion of self arises in us, in our naïve understanding of our nature, it tends to appear to us as if it is somehow self sufficient, as some kind of self governing reality.

This notion of self as a self sufficient substantial reality is false, and not only is it false, but the grasping at this notion of self is then a form of distortion. In this grasping the self is elevated to an independent and self sufficient status. Also there is a risk when we focus on, when we reference as reality, the continuity of the self (when I was young, when I was middle aged etc), in that if one focuses too much on the continuity of the self there is the danger of holding on to this notion of a permanent self. In the Buddhist vernacular, this distorted perception is referred to as ignorance... [paraphrased/extracted from a 2009 talk by HH The Dalai Lama]

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It is said that wisdom (about emptiness) and compassion are the most important concepts in Buddhism. But then agian, how can concepts be the most important thing in Buddhism?

If one focuses too much on the anatta-side, one risks getting into nihilism. So the emptiness/no-self doctrine is important, but if one does not supplement it with compassin, there is no use.

  • Thank you. I was reading in another question that part of Emptiness is not-self... So of course it all connects up. I think that nihilism and lack of compassion would have to be a form of self point of view still (what I would call a Neo state). A nondual point of view would be that self and other are one thing, so it is as well to help another as oneself - there is no important distinction. For example when Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself" it probably was supposed to be a description of the point of view ("we are one") rather than a commandment ("do this"). Ignorance is deep. – user2341 Nov 19 '15 at 13:16
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The most important or the final concept in Buddhism is realizing "Four Noble Truths".

All the other concepts are within it. and should not separately consider.

According to the first sermon "Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta", the base point of understanding is realizing "Anichcha".

That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, the group of five monks delighted at his words. And while this explanation was being given, there arose to Ven. Kondañña the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.

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I did some research and found the following in this document: the Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse

The Translator's Introduction at the top ends with this paragraph:

In each of these cases, once the sense of attachment and identification with name-and-form can be broken, the mutual dependency between consciousness and name-and-form is broken as well. This brings about total freedom from the limits of "the extent to which there are means of designation, expression, and delineation... the extent to which the sphere of discernment extends, the extent to which the cycle revolves for the manifesting (discernibility) of this world — i.e., name-and-form together with consciousness." This is the release at which the Buddha's teachings are aimed.

I read this as saying that breaking the identification with name-and-form is sufficient and is the "release at which the Buddha's teachings are aimed", which is what I have been asserting in my question.

This section is from Assumptions of a Self:

"Now, Ananda, in as far as a monk does not assume feeling to be the self, nor the self as oblivious, nor that 'My self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling,' then, not assuming in this way, he is not sustained by anything (does not cling to anything) in the world. Unsustained, he is not agitated. Unagitated, he is totally unbound right within. He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'

It seems to me that the Buddha was saying that if we stop making assumptions about the self and trying to solidify it through definition, but instead simply accept that something goes on there about which we need not concern ourselves, then "There is nothing further for this world" - that the goal is in hand.

From this I draw the conclusion that realizing Anatman is necessary and sufficient for (eventual) liberation. If so, that is the place to apply effort.

  • That says that name-and-form depend on consciousness: without consciousness there's no name-and-form. So perhaps consciousness (not name-and-form) is a more important concept than name-and-form? And then according to The Twelve Nidanas, consciousness depends on Saṅkhāra (not mentioned in this sutta). So perhaps Saṅkhāra are the most important concept than consciousness (according to Theravada Buddhism). – ChrisW Nov 11 '15 at 1:10
  • @ChrisW Wherever you can apply a lever to move your conscious mind (using your conscious mind), is the place to focus on. Pick the easiest place to begin the inquiry. I do not know if most people would find it easier or harder to question consciousness or Sankhara than Identity-view or name-and-form or whatever. The point is, if you break one of the links of the chain that holds up the false belief of a separate, permanent self, the illusion falls. Any link will do. Bart Marshall says of Self Inquiry, "We are trying to maneuver the mind in to a position where it disappears." Not impossible. – user2341 Nov 11 '15 at 1:14
  • I think that "Anatman" means "not a permanent self" ... there is no permanent self e.g. because everything (including all things all sensory experiences and all ideas) is impermanent. Is that (the same as) what you mean by "non-duality"? Also if you want to read more about the Theravada doctrine about self, I recommend the answers to How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same? – ChrisW Nov 11 '15 at 1:33
  • @ChrisW Since Impermanence is already one of the 3 marks of existence, reducing Anatman to no permanent self would be redundant and needless. Nothing is permanent, therefore the self is not permanent by inclusion. I thought that the key point of Anatman is that a separate self does not exist. But as I delve in to the literature... So I cut the Gordian Knot and said, whatever it is, it has to go. We can agree on that much. So what can we accomplish with that in hand? Tell others. This is getting reminiscent of the Arrow Parable. I have never seen so much resistance to a simple idea! – user2341 Nov 11 '15 at 1:46
  • What I mean by nonduality (watching out for Raptor Attack) is that one no longer makes the distinction. it has ceased to matter. – user2341 Nov 11 '15 at 1:48

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