By Upasika Khema Sally Jantrarit

One of the most complex concepts in Buddhism for most people is the idea of 'no-self'. We refer to it in the teachings as "there nothing to be thought of as I or mine". In Buddhism we also know that we truly understand Dhamma when we see things as they really are. But is it possible to conceptualize it? That is, to get a picture in our minds, even if we don't completely see the reality of it as an Arahant would? We can understand the concept of greed, anger and delusion. $o could we understand that there is no self that feels, thinks, etc.?
Many people I have met, Buddhists, still fret over the concept of 'no-self'. They feel we can't exist or feel or love or create or work without it. I believe it isri t really that important. And I believe that it is possible for us to do all these things without a 'self .
I believe that the idea of non-self does not mean non-existence; it doesri t mean that we aren't here or that we aren't real. It is an idea of selfishness vs. selflessness. It means that when we act and interact in the world we are not concerned with thoughts about our personal being, feelings or even our own bodies. We act out of compassion or lovingkindness or equanimity or (sympathetic) joy. It releases us from conceit, anger and delusion.
Buddhism shows us that the world and the universe beyond is nothing more than the sum of its parts. All the atoms of the universe, in constant changing states, meet together and form matter. This matter can be plant, animal, or neither, gas, liquid, solid. Atoms connect with each to generate life forms that can be visible and non-visible.
Take the example of a wooden table. A table is nothing more than several pieces of wood cut into various lengths and nailed or glued together to make what we call a 'table'. Take those pieces apart and connect them in a different configuration and you might have a chair or a crate or a seesaw: but it's still nothing more than a bunch of cut pieces of wood.
Think about a film on the movie screen. When we view a movie we believe it to be a continuous flow of experiences but in reality it is only a series of thousands of individual images which, when put in order and fed through the projector, become a flow only because of the speed at which fine individual images are delivered. There is no real action going on, the people on the screen aren't real, there's nothing solid about anything we see.
Look at the human body. It is nothing more than a mass of atoms attracted to one another to create blood, bones, muscles, organs. There are chemicals, enzymes, hormones, and acids in the body and they all work together. But they are not in our control. In fact, our bodies are merely machines run by chemical processes and electricity. The only things we can control are the voluntary functions of the body: moving arms, legs, sitting, walking, etc. Even thinking is a voluntary function in the sense that we can (if we choose to or are capable of it) determine the outcome of thinking (good thoughts generate good outcomes and negative thoughts generate unhappy outcomes). When we make a decision to act, speak or think about something who is doing it? Who is really deciding or thinking or acting?

When we are absorbed in something we enjoy very much, a great book, movie, building a model airplane, listening to a great speaker, we speak of 'losing ourselves' to the object. We speak about not being aware of our surroundings. I see this as a form of 'no-self'. Our focus is on the object and not us.
Animals have minds, they decide, they act, they feel and although they may have a feeling of 'self' they cannot express it. So why is it that humans worry that if they have no self they cannot be fulfilled?
I believe in the world there are two great examples of people who had no feeling of self and yet created more than any Picasso, Mozart, or even Einstein.
Of course there is the Buddha. Everything he did was done out of selflessness. He acted and spoke with no thought for his own needs, cares, or pains. He just did; he taught and roused people to understand what he discovered. He acted purely out of compassion for others, loving-kindness for others, and equanimity. He knew what needed to be done and he did it. He did not need to be concerned with his 'self. It wasn't a necessary part of his existence. He had a purpose and he was able to fulfill it.
In modern times my example of a totally selfless person would be Mother Theresa. She tended to the sick; her faith was so totally absorbing that she never gave a thought for her own needs. She acted because this is what she felt should be done. She helped others; she was compassionate and loving. She probably never second-guessed what she did. There were people who needed her and she was there for them. Yet she accomplished a great deal in her lifetime and certainly made a mark on the world. If Mother Theresa had acted with Right Understanding she would have been a Buddhist.

I believe it is possible to truly understand the concept of 'no-self'. I think we should stop worrying about it. We should stop thinking that if we believe in it we have lost something. It's just something to strive to understand further as we continue to study Buddhist teachings. Eventually, like everything in Buddhism, it will come to our clear understanding. Buddhism is a religion of repetition. The ideas needs to be read and heard over and over again because we have misunderstood them for so many eons in samsara that we should not worry about 'getting it' right away. Old habits die hard. The splendor of Buddhism is that we have the chance to keep hearing it and practicing and slowly it will come into our scope of awareness and understanding. Some day we might even reach Nibbana at which time we will see the reality of 'no-self and say 'Ah, now I've got it'!