Absolutizing nonself (anattâ), as if it meant something in contrast to the so-called Hindu âtman, is largely based on an assumption that is not found in the Buddha’s discourses. The Buddha’s use of nonself or in Pali, anattâ, is always referring to what is impermanent and suffering; moreover, it refers to the Five Aggregates of material shape, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness all of which belong to the demon Mara and are murderous. The Buddha even tells us to abandon desire for nonself.
This wrong use of nonself is really operating from the side of empiricism, empiricism being the practice of making the senses and sensory consciousness the sole criteria and judge. If the âtman is something unconditioned, beyond the pale of the senses and, certainly, beyond sensory consciousness, the âtman cannot be. The nonself says so! In other words, there is nothing beyond the sphere of empiricism. In this regard, the entity or individual made up of the empirical Five Aggregates (the nonself) is who realizes nirvana which is simply death. We do not see a dis-identification and liberation from the Five Aggregates such that we are our self and not what is not our self. But this is exactly what the Buddha teaches! We are not the aggregates. We can also attain the deathless element.
If we go farther down the rabbit hole of nonself, there is an anti-religious element in it, as well. This anti-religious element includes mystical knowing by the via negativa which is about emptying out what is not my self. In short, we are supposed to believe that there is no transcendent to realize in this interpretation of Buddhism. Maybe this explains why Buddhism became popular with Westerners—but for the wrong reason. The bulk of Westerners take Buddhism to be a religion of empiricism which wages a war against the evil Hindu âtman as if the âtman is not primary in Buddhism even though it alone realizes nirvana!
This war, if we may call it that, eventually organizes itself into secular Buddhism in which any vestige of transcendent Buddhism has been carefully scrubbed or just ignored. What is marketed is self-help psychology, seated meditation, and other forms of palliation. But this only adds up to epistemological nihilism. The dead end of one's life becomes all too apparent: all goals and meaning are relative. Psychological suffering still remains. There is no dawn, only darkness. Secular Buddhism only hastens the end.