Then Vacchagotta approached the Blessed one and said: "Well, now, good Gotama, is there a self ?" The Blessed One remained silent. " Well, then, good Gotama, is there not a self?" Once again, then Blessed One remained silent (Strong 95).
This passage from the Sumyuta-Kikaya (a Buddhist text) deals with one of the most important concepts in Buddhist philosophy: anatman. Anatman is the idea that there is no self; at least no self in the Hindu definition of atman. There are three aspects to the concept of anatman:
1) lack of an essence
3)interdependence on individuals and things.
The idea that selves do not have an essence is based upon the belief on the existence of the five constituents: the body, consciousness, karmic activities, feelings, and perception.
The combination of these five constituents creates who we are: no one part can represent us. Therefore, Buddhists argue that there is no single essence, which leads them to believe that there can be no self.
Impermanence, the second belief, implies that everything changes and that nothing stays the same. This is a critical concept in Buddhist philosophy. If nothing stays the same, then there can be no permanent or constant self. We change with each experience, and with each moment we are alive. Therefore, we are different self every minute of our lives and the concept "self" becomes irrelevant.
Finally, Buddhism also strongly stresses the idea of interdependence, thats the notion that everything affects everything else in the phenomenal world. If one thing changes, then everything changes. Therefore, if the so-called self is dependent on everything else, then, this "self" does not really and cannot really exist on its own.
The concept of anatman does not necessarily mean that there is not a self, however. The text displayed at the beginning of this page illustrates this idea. The quote shows that there is no"self", yet at the same time, there is no "no-self". In this sense, the Buddha is following the Middle way and does not give into either extreme eternalism or annihilitionism. He is also acknowledging the fact that there is a concept of the self, though Buddhism does not adhere to it.
This idea of anatman or "no-self" is evident in Buddhist cultures and society. First, Buddhist cultures generally emphasizes the body as one of the five constituents. In Samkhya Hinduism and in Christianity to the contary, there is a strong idea of seperation between the two. Second, there is also a focus on the present rather that on the past or the future, as some other cultures tend to do. Because o the notion of impermanance, Buddhist know that the only constant thing is change itself, therefore they emphasize the present moment. This notion of enjoying ones present situation is also apparent in cultures of Buddhist religio, and very different than the Western notion of working so hard to plan for the future that one often frogets the present moment they are in.
Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism. Wadsworth, Inc; California, . 1995.