Firstly, let me discuss the term anatman, which is Sanskrit [anatta in Pali] for no-soul. The term contrasts with another Sanskrit term, atman [atta in Pali] which means soul or self. These two opposing terms mark a crucial distinction of Buddhist views from other Indian, particularly Vedic views of selfhood. According to the prevailing view of the Buddha's time, there is in each person an essence or soul--called atman--that is eternal and indestructible and carries the karma of all its activity from one life to another in an eternal cycle of becoming known as samsara. The Buddha accepted that there is indeed an eternal cycle of rebirth based in the actions or karma for which there are morally lawful results. But his astonishing claim was that there was no eternal self that carried any karmic burden. There was just karma. Indeed, it is the blind belief in self that is the most potent source of karma and once it is understood that the self is not eternal, but is merely contingent upon a craving for existence, karma effectively stops and spiritual liberation or enlightenment is found.
Like most people I found this doctrine rather baffling. After all, if there is no self then to whom could such an allegedly liberating insight be addressed? It took quite a bit of reading and reflecting before I understood that no-self belongs with two other features of Buddhist philosophy, impermanence and suffering, to appreciate what the Buddha was arguing for. Essentially, a self cannot be permanent or eternal because everything about it is in perpetual flux. Yet the desire for permanence, especially to be permanently satisfied by sating all desires, is certain to perpetuate misery. But the way the self is conventionally understood was not denied. People were still taken to be individuals with distinct personalities and there was a sense that each person must find a path based in his or her karmic disposition. Seen from this point of view, no-self may seem more a metaphysical doctrine then a psychological way of looking at human experience. But in fact, no-self is profoundly psychological for it tells us how the self is constructed out of craving and sees that this process of construction plays out moment by moment. No-self is a way of deconstructing experience, that is to say of analysing how experience is constructed from a futile attempt to create a lasting self. And although this doctrine was primarily developed for those who want to follow the Buddhist path, the analysis of all things as impermanent and hence no-self, can be used in many other contexts, especially one such as psychotherapy.
Still, how does the notion no-self square with the of the idea of psyche or soul? If we accept that Buddhism has no problem with being a person, the problem may simply seem to vanish. But I think there is more to the matter and that Buddhism has a great deal to say about human experience in addition to providing a map for enlightenment. The Buddha knew about the passions, the follies and the nobility that can arise in human experience and he was surpassingly perceptive about character formation. Moreover, Buddhism has always called for the cultivation of character with a view towards increasing the human capacity for wisdom and compassion. In other words, Buddhism gets us in touch with our deepest human qualities by abjuring our selfish wish for a lasting self. But does therapy do that and should it even aspire to do so?
In my view, psychotherapy should not be a preparation for taking Buddhist vows. Therapy is about helping people become more self aware so that their lives can become more fulfilled and meaningful. But such fulfilment and meaning must emerge in the terms of their own life experiences. Becoming Buddhist or subscribing to the dharma need not figure into this at all. Nevertheless, when Buddhism tells us that the roots of all suffering arise from the three poisonous passions of aversion, greed and delusion, we have much to learn from the Buddhist analysis. So even if we stick to the goals of conventional therapy of developing a healthy, functioning ego, we can benefit by what Buddhism has to say about becoming better, more contented people. Soul work, in other words.
Now I know this explanation is rather glib and not very satisfactory. But the point I am driving at is that self awareness which is crucial for psychotherapy, is also a supreme value of Buddhism, even though no-self is central to Buddhist thinking. Dogen, the great Japanese Zen Master and founder of the Soto school, expressed this paradox well: "To study the self is to forget the self." Alas, this leaves a vexing question for people like me who style themselves Buddhist psychotherapists. Can forgetting the self ever be a value for psychotherapy?