What is Life?
One of the major difficulties that Buddhists find with the teaching of Anatta is that if there is no soul or self, then what is this? What is it that thinks, wills, feels or knows? What is it that is reading this? In summary, what is life?
In one of the most profound of all suttas in the Buddhist scriptures, the Kaccnagotta Sutta (SN 12, 15), which was to play a major role in later Buddhist history, The Buddha stated that, for the most part, people's views on the nature of life fall into one of two extremes. Either they maintain that there is a soul, or they hold that there is nothing at all. Unfortunately, too many Buddhists confuse the teaching of Anatta and side with the view that there is nothing at all.
The Buddha condemned both extremes with a devastating argument based on experience. It is untenable to maintain that there is a soul because anything that can be meaningfully considered as a soul or self the body, will, love, consciousness or mind - can all be seen as impermanent. As The Buddha put it "One cannot say that there is (a soul), because a cessation (of all that can be a soul) is seen". On the other hand, it is untenable to maintain that there is nothing at all, because it is obvious that life is! As The Buddha put it "One cannot say that there is nothing, because an arising (of all phenomena) is seen". Thus, as the Buddhist philosopher-monk Nagarjuna (2nd century CE) was to remind everyone, The Buddha clearly denied the doctrine of absolute emptiness.
Even today, most people fall into one of these two extremes. Either that there is nothing at all and the mind, love, life is complete illusion, or that there is an eternal soul with God as the corollary. Both are wrong.
The Kaccanagotta Sutta continues with The Buddha pointing out that there is a middle that has been excluded in this dichotomy of views. There is a third option that avoids both extremes. So what is this 'middle' between the extremes of a soul and nothingness? That middle, said The Buddha, is Paticca-samuppda.
When The Buddha stated that it is untenable to hold that there is a soul or self (or a God) because a cessation is seen, He explained what He meant as: "From the cessation of delusion, kamma formations cease; from the cessation of kamma formations consciousness ceases ... from the cessation of birth, dukkha5 ceases". He was referring to the passing away process called Dependent Cessation. This impersonal process is the very thing that we identify as life. Moreover, it includes all the 'usual suspects' that masquerade as a soul: the body (part of nmarpa), will (part of the kamma formations, sometimes tanha), love (part of the kamma formations and mostly part of updana, clinging), consciousness (vina) and mind (part of salyatana and often equivalent to vina). These usual suspects are clearly seen in the light of Dependent Cessation as transient, insubstantial, granular and fading away soon after they arise. They are all conditioned. They exist only as long as they are supported by their external causes, which are themselves unstable. When the external supporting causes disappear, so do each of the usual suspects. Because these things do not persist, since they do not continue in being, it is untenable to hold that there is a soul, a self or a God.
When The Buddha stated that it is also untenable to maintain that all is pure emptiness, void, nothing, because an arising is seen, He explained what He meant as: "From the arising of delusion, kamma formations arise, from kamma formations arises the stream of consciousness in the next life ... from birth arises dukkha!" He was referring to the arising process called Dependent Origination. Again, this impersonal process includes all that we can know as 'life'. Because this arising is seen, one cannot say they are not. It is not an illusion. These phenomena are real.
A simile might help here. In mathematics a point is a concept drawn from the science of life. It describes aspects of real phenomena. Yet a point has no size. It is smaller than any measure that you can suggest, yet it is bigger than nothing. In a sense, one cannot say a point is, because it does not persist, it does not continue in space. Yet one cannot say it is not, as it is clearly different from nothing. The point is similar to the momentary nature of conscious experience. Nothing continues in being therefore it cannot be something. Something arises therefore it cannot be nothing. The solution to this paradox, the excluded middle, is the impersonal process.