Anatta (pali) or anatman (Sanskrit: अनात्मन्) in Buddhism refers to the state of "not-self" (ego-nothingness, lack of selfhood). In the earliest texts, the Buddha usually used this term to teach that all that our senses perceive (this includes thinking) cannot actually be described as "I" or "mine".
That is why we should not be attached to them. The Pali suttas classify the phenomena experienced by man into five groups ('skandhas' - the five aggregates of being). These provide the basis for attachment and the sense of self. In the nikayas, the Buddha says that it is not only attachment to the five skhandhas that results in unhappiness.
Anatta is not a denial of the self, but is one of the (third in the list) characteristics of existence. In the early texts, the Buddha used it to explain that it is the Self, the non-existence of the soul. The word does not indicate that there is no essence of self, but that it is not the Self-image that our consciousness has created.
We have to get rid of the self identified by form, perception, thought and consciousness in order to reach our higher self. These things are by their very nature ever-changing things with which to identify our self, which we believe to be constant, leads to unhappiness. We must learn to live with them, as with the sun, the rains, the winds, and the seasons.
The anatta doctrine is not a form of materialism, since Buddhism does not necessarily deny the existence of mental phenomena (such as feelings, thoughts and emotions) that are independent of material phenomena.
Therefore, the traditional translation of the word anatta as "non-spirit" can be misleading. If "soul" refers to a disembodied component of a person that somehow lives on after death, then its existence is not denied by Buddhism.
In fact, human beings (Pali: puggala; Sanskrit, pudgala) can be described as having a constantly evolving consciousness (Pali: samvattanika vinnyana), a stream of consciousness (Pali: vinnyana sotam; Sanskrit: vidzhnyana srotam), or a continuation of consciousness (Sanskrit: chitta-santana).
They are caused at death or when the elements merge (skandhas) to awaken another group of skandhas. However, Buddhism does not acknowledge the existence of a constant or static reality that remains constant behind the corporeal or incorporeal elements of ever-changing beings.
According to the records, the Buddha corrected one of his disciples who thought that in rebirth the same consciousness is reborn without change.9 Just as the body changes from one moment to the next, so do thoughts come and go.
According to the doctrine of anatta, there is no permanent state of consciousness that experiences these thoughts, as in Cartesianism. Rather, we can speak of the appearance and disappearance of conscious thoughts, with no thinking being behind them.
Once the body dies, the thought processes within the body continue and are reborn in another body. Since the mental processes are constantly changing, the new person will not be exactly the same, but also not entirely different from the person who died.
While Buddhism does not recognize the permanent self, it does not deny the empirical self (composed of a constantly changing physical and mental phenomenon). This can be referred to as "I", "you", "existent", etc. Early Buddhist texts describe the enlightened person as constantly changing and with an extremely high level of empirical self.
Anatta in the Nikaya
The Buddhist term anatta (Pali) or anatman (Sanskrit) is used in the sutras as both a noun and an adjective for phenomena, whether they are non-self or non-self in nature. It applies to all things from the macrocosm to the microcosm, be it a physical body or the cosmos as a whole.
It also applies to all mental mechanisms that are impermanent. The term is often used in conjunction with the terms dukkha (imperfection) and aniccsa (impermanence). These three terms are often referred to together as the composite phenomena: aniccsa, dukkha and anatta.
In the Anatta Sutta in the Samyutta Nika, an important foundational text of the Pali Canon, the Buddha is asked by a layman what anatta means: "Monks, form is selfless, sensation is selfless, perception is selfless, impulses are selfless, consciousness is selfless.
Thus seeing, the learned noble disciple experiences turning away from form, turning away from sensation, turning away from perception, turning away from impulses, turning away from consciousness. Experiencing turning away, he becomes callous.
Because of this insensibility, [his consciousness] is liberated. When it is liberated, knowledge appears: liberated. He understands: he has destroyed birth, he has lived the holy life, he has done what is necessary, there is nothing more left for this state of being."