The concept of egolessness never found its way into Buddhism, or even the idea of an “ego” which for moderns comes from the stream of Freud’s psychology. For those who insist that egolessness fits with the notion of anatman which literally means not-the-self, they haven’t a good case to argue before the bench of the Buddhist canon or, for that matter, common sense.
More correctly, instead of denying the self in the sense of there is no self (P., nattha attâ) which is nihilism, the Buddha, almost ad nauseam, spoke against wrong identification with the Five Aggregates, or the same, wrong identification with the psychophysical believing it is our self. These aggregates of form, feeling, thought, inclination, and sensory consciousness, he went on to say, were illusory; they belonged to Mara the Evil One; they were impermanent and painful. And for these reasons, the aggregates cannot be our self.
I will go so far as to say that to assert the Buddha taught egolessness is extra-Buddhist. Buddhist egolessness is the handiwork of latter day, 20th century Buddhists. Here is an example of D.T. Suzuki using this term which should actually be rendered “insubstantiality”—certainly not egolessness.
“Buddhists generally talk about the egolessness (anatta or anatmya) of all things, but they forget that the egolessness of things cannot really be understood until they are seen with the eye of prajña-intuition. The psychological annihilation of an ego-substance is not enough, for this still leaves the light of prajña-eye under a coverage” (Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist, p. 36).
If we were to substitute ‘egolessness’ for the Pali, anatta which is Sanskrit is, anatma, it would read like this. By the way, the italics are mine.
“Bhikkhus, form is impermanent; that which is impermanent is suffering; that which is suffering is egolessness (anatta); that which is egolessness is not mine, I am not that, that is not my ego. Thus must this be viewed with perfect insight as it really is” (S. iii. 45).
Here is the same passage only this time substituting ‘insubstantiality’.
“Bhikkhus, form is impermanent; that which is impermanent is suffering; that which is suffering is insubstantial (anatta); that which is insubstantial is not mine, I am not that, that is not my substance. Thus must this be viewed with perfect insight as it really is” (S. iii. 45).
As the reader can see, the second passage is hardly confusing as compared with the first. What is being conveyed is the aggregate of form is impermanent, suffering, and insubstantial; these being the three marks of conditioned existence. These marks, in addition, are not to be confused with our substantial self.
While the cold war continues in the halls of academia and elsewhere as to whether or not the Buddha was a crypto-nihilist who found no value in the self, for those of us with more common sense it is obvious that the Buddha taught his followers to avoid wrong identification with the Five Aggregates, in a word, they cannot be our self. In this light, the use of egolessness makes almost no sense in Buddhism. It only serves to make Buddhism more murky than it is in its present day form.