Saturday, October 23, 2010

Buddha, Self, and No-Self

“Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of actions is there.
Nirvana exists, but no one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.”
(Visuddimagga, 513)

The Buddha taught that there is no permanent individual self (anatta), and that if we fully realize this for ourselves we will be enlightened just like him. The important word here is ‘realize,’ for if we merely hold the view of not-self, we will not actually be enlightened, but rather clinging to a concept. The concept, or view (ditthi) of not-self is, from the Buddhist perspective, an improvement on the self-view (atta-ditthi), but it is still a pale imitation of the real thing. Believing something is one thing, but knowing it is another and the Buddha stated that if we really wish to escape the claws of suffering, we must realize what the extract above by Buddhaghosa describes as “Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.”

The Buddha’s teaching on not-self is unique among the world’s great religions, with all the other major faiths making the assumption that there is a soul or self of some description or another (atta-ditthi). They take as true what Buddhism classes as the eternalist view (sassata-ditthi), which is one of the two extreme views criticized by the Buddha. Eternalists believe that there is a permanent, individual soul in each of us that lives forever, either being reborn life-to-life, or being sent to heaven or hell upon physical death. Hinduism is an example of a faith that postulates that an eternal self reincarnates through a myriad lifetimes, with Sikhism and Jainism promoting essentially the same idea. The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – tell us that we have undying souls that either end up in heaven or hell after death, depending on our behavior during just one life upon this earth.

The other main form of self-view is the annihilationist view (uccheda-ditthi), which states that although everyone does indeed have a separate self, it does not precede or survive this life. This is essentially the materialist view that modern scientifically-influenced people hold, such as the Darwinists and other non-religious people. The difference between this view and the Buddha’s is that annihilationism still presumes the existence of a real self (atta), whereas Buddhism declares that there has never been a self (anatta). The Buddhist understanding of no-self will be explored a little later, but first, we have a brief excursion to make into a third group of false views that the Buddha listed which, like him, denied the existence of a permanent, separate self, but unlike him, also denied the law of karma.

The first of these three anti-karma beliefs is called the inefficacy-of-action-view (akiraya-ditthi), which states that because there is no self, no karma and no karma results, our actions are meaningless and without any karmic consequences. The next idea is that of the view of non-causality (ahetuka-ditthi), in which the believer in no-self holds the opinion that things happen purely by chance, without prior conditioning factors, and that in turn our actions have no direct influence on future occurrences, either. The last false understanding of there being no self and no karmic process is called the nihilistic view (nattika-ditthi). Nihilists suppose that the universe is empty not only of any self or karmic process, but that it is also therefore empty of any meaning. It doesn’t matter what we do, because there’s no one to suffer our wrong doings and no one to benefit from our virtuous behavior. As with the annihilationist view, nihilism has gained a certain popularity with some modernists, among them anarchists and materialistic hedonists, who feel that they can do whatever takes their fancy as nothing really matters anyhow.

“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and the idea of nonexistence. But for one that sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12:15)

As his words to the monk Kaccanagotta illustrate above, the Buddha held what he considered the Middle Way between the extremes of eternalism (“the idea of existence”) and annihilationism (“the idea of nonexistence”). In this quote, by the word “world” the Buddha means the world as it is experienced, in other words, all sense data that is received, interpreted, and reacted to by the mind. It is existent in that mental and physical phenomena are apparent, and yet it is nonexistent in that there’s no distinct self here experiencing it all. In this light, it is worthwhile rereading the verse from the Visuddhimagga found at the top of this article, as long as you see that there is in truth no one actually doing the reading!

With the teachings on karma and dependent arising (paticca-samuppada), the Buddha also avoided the extreme positions taken up by those holding ideas like the inefficacy-of-action view, the view of non-causality, and the nihilist view. Karma and karmic fruition describe existence in terms and actions and their consequences; that is to say, whatever we do, say, or think has repercussions far beyond this present moment (although they certainly influence current events also.) Recognition of karma and its results negates the idea of non-causality, as well as giving nihilists pause for thought. The Buddha’s radical, and like anatta unique, teaching of dependent arising also leaves those with the inefficacy-of-action view much to ponder, in that it describes a clear and logical set of conditioning factors that give order and meaning to life. Here’s a typical description of dependent arising as given by the Buddha in the Pali Canon:

“On ignorance (avijja) depend the karmic formations (sankhara); on the karmic formations depends consciousness (vinnana); on consciousness depends mind-and-form (nama-rupa); on mind-and-form depend the six sense-bases (salayatana); on the six sense-bases depends contact (phassa): on contact depends feeling (vedana): on feeling depends craving(tanha); on craving depends clinging (upadana); on clinging depends becoming (bhava); on becoming depends birth (jati); and on birth depends decay-and-death (jara-marana)." (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

From this description of the process of dependent arising it can be seen that the Buddha espoused a very detailed alternative to the non-causal and meaningless philosophies we have been examining. Whether we accept (or even fully understand) dependent arising, the step-by-step nature of its progression from ignorance (of the way things truly are) to eventual decay and death has a certain appeal that can leave the nihilists and other hedonists seeming rather inattentive and shortsighted. If we are to be attached to views, surely the Buddha’s Right View which includes karma and dependent arising makes more sense to both the mind and heart than the views of the eternalists, annihilationists, and thir ilk. (This article is not the place to explore dependent arising in more depth, but if there is interest on the part of this blog’s readership, it certainly can be the focus of a future post.)

Returning to the Buddha’s conception of karma and rebirth, some readers may be wondering how, if there is no permanent, separate self to be reborn, rebirth takes place, and also who, if there is no such self, it is that performs actions and receives their results. Well, a highly-detailed account of dependent arising was the Buddha’s main response to this question, but in the modest environment of a blog, a somewhat simpler explanation will be attempted! It is aspects of the mind that are reborn rather than a soul or personality, as such. Mental habits, attachments, and thought processes not only traverse time and space by ‘popping up’ in our brains during this life, but can also enter an embryo or foetus, a bit like radio waves or electrical impulses traversing the ether to be received at some future point. According to the Buddha, karmic results can also manifest (in relation to the mind-elements that created them) in future lives, as well as in the present one.

Another way in which the Buddha nullifies self-view is with his teaching of the five aggregates (panca-khandha), which he stated comprised the entiety of a person, leaving nothing to be considered as a permanent, separate self or soul. The five aggregates are as follows:

• The aggregate of corporality (rupa-khandha)

• The aggregate of feeling (vedana-khandha)

• The aggregate of perception (sanna)

• The aggregate of mental formations (sankhara-khandha)

• The aggregate of consciousness (vinnana-khandha)

The first aggregate of corporality means the body, that is, the physical components that make it up; the second aggregate of feeling indicates those emotional responses to mental and physical stimuli, the three basic forms of which are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral; the third aggregate of perception refers to the recognition of objects, both mental and physical, and includes memory; the aggregate of mental formations applies to any psychological qualities, including volition, concentration, faith, compassion, delusion, hate, and envy; the aggregate of consciousness is that awareness dependent upon one or other of the other four aggregates, such as consciousness of feeling envy. As the following quotation points out, in his teaching of the five aggregates, the Buddha leaves no room for a separate, individual soul or self:

“Now, if anyone should put the question, whether I admit any theory at all, he should be answered thus:
The Tathagata is free from any view, for the Tathagata has understood what corporeality is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what feeling is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what perception is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what mental formations are, and how they arise and pass away. He has understood what consciousness is, and how it arises and passes away. Therefore, I say, the Tathagata has won complete deliverance through the extinction, fading away, disappearance, rejection, and getting rid of all opinions and conjectures, of all inclination to the vainglory of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’”
(Majjhima Nikaya, 72)

It’s interesting to note in the above words that not only does the teaching of the five aggregates cancel out self-view, but it also negates any views of whether the self exists or doesn’t exist, for as written at the top of this article, the Buddha taught that we need to realize that there is no permanent separate self if we wish to awaken to reality. Clinging to the view of not-self (anatta) is not enough: we must see this Truth and then live from it to really benefit from it. Otherwise, we are caught up in the realm of views, which as the Buddha declared, he did not enter into to. Transcending both self and all views, we fulfill the words from Buddhaghosa’s verse that opened this exploration: “Nirvana exists, but no one that enters it.” Bon voyage, no one!


Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Nice post. I think the challenge with this topic in general (and by saying this I'm not talking about your post specifically, but the topic in general) is that without some actual meditative experience of it, it's a very hard concept to people to understand, let alone for them to grasp if it is at all possible as a real experience. It tends to pop people's brains out and they get caught up in trying to understand the views and concepts. Thus a contradiction ensues - while the topic is intended to educate people about the issue of views it also serves to keep them stuck struggling to understand the views and concepts. Such is the challenge of the Dharma (teachings).

As we meditate more the mental attachment to these concepts and self views gives way to just the experiencing of life. That is, there is the direct experiencing of life and a direct awareness of "the way things are". By this I mean we experience life free from views and concepts, a mind of direct perceiving. You could liken this to words trying to describe the taste of apple. We begin to realise any views of concepts about "apple" are irrelevant if you simply take a bite and directly perceive it. If we then ask ourselves "Who is tasting this apple?" no doer can be found but still we taste it. How miraculous! This is something anyone can do and investigate on their own.

And such all of life is like a mirage. It is seen but if we ask "Is it there?", well no the mirage it not but then again it is still seen!!

With this it becomes easier to understand what is meant by "Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found". Much like the mirage, it is seen but no observer can be found.

Great post, definitely food for thought and good contemplations for the meditation mat.


Buddhist_philosopher said...

Great post indeed, Gary! I've had several conversations over the past few years about this topic, a tricky one even for Buddhists :)

An early and popular school of Buddhism, the Pudgalavada, even proposed a 'person/pudgala' that must stand in for the missing atman (atta); thus turning, it seems, this Buddhist teaching on its head.

Later, several Mahayana sutras explicitly claim the existence of atman, that anatman was just a provisional teaching.

And nowadays there are some scholars following suit, trying to find the 'true' self that the Buddha, even in the Pali suttas, must have been alluding to.

As Dean says, without experience of this, it might just be too hard to wrap one's mind around.

G said...

Thanks Dean, for your insightful comments. Yes, meditation does enable us to deepen our experience of the Subtle, as the Buddha described 'it.'

Useful points you make about the Anatman/Atman teachings that have arisen through the history of Buddhism, Justin. More examples, perhaps, of why clinging ot set views in this subject leads to nescience, not enlightenment.

With experience of this, it's even harder to put into words, for the futility of such an undertaking is fully realized - but we can only try!

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Yes, that is exactly right we have to try. That is the dilemma and the challenge.

After any significant realisation there is a few stages we go through, one is understanding it correctly ourselves. Another is learning to integrate that realisation so our lives so we aare in alignment with it, that can take a lot of time. The other major challenge is when we ask the question "What is the function of this realisation?" The realisation in itself is fine but what is it's function? And then once we understand it's function how do we teach this? How do we make it digestible for people so that they understand, are motived and continue to practice.
That in itself presents another whole challenge and is something I'm still coming to terms with.

Talking personally, if I may, it's taken me nearly 10 years to get to a point I feel congruent and ready to talk about it, to teach and to start up my own meditation group, which I'm intending to do in the new year. But even then I feel like a child learning to swim in a very large ocean. So excuse me while I grab my floaties (swimming aid) and head out to swim. ;-)


G said...

Your observations of your experiences, Dean, are valuable for the rest of us to reflect on, for sure. And, as 'teachers' that's all anyone can do; nothing on 'Buddha Space' is ultimate truth to be dogmatically clung to, but for our wise reflection.

It certainly does take a lifetime to integrate our lives into this Vision, and various stages and levels of awareness will be experienced, but in the end, it is this 'Buddha Space' that is the essential element in the whole escapade. (Incidentally, it is our lives that must fit in with this Knowing, and not the other way around!)

Thanks for great comments, Dean.
(And good luck with your meditation group.)

Anonymous said...

Very well written piece! I have been practicing Buddhism for a couple decades, with the understanding that there is no permanent "personal" self. What is revealing to me, is that the three poisons, greed, hatred, and ignorance still play a part in my life. I am especially aware of ignorance.
Though it is true that no "personal" self can be found, i have met no one who is fully awake enough to live free of being entangled to its' illusion. So upon reflecting of ones' ignorance there arises a concept and acceptance of the illusion of self. Maybe a practice of non-reflection is advisable , though the three poisons still arise, they are not categorized as "ours", or "mine" and the practice of living with no-self can happen without interruption. Of course some illusions are bigger than others, so i am not advocating perfection. Just practice.

G said...

Anonymous - a very well written comment!

You make excellent points about practicing the Way, especially the part about accepting the illusion of self, at least for the time being. For, even after looking Home again and again, each occasion seeing the Nobody here, the mind still reasserts itself whilst mana (self-conceit/the vague feeling of being separate) remains.

Thank you.

Bobby said...

Hey guys, not only is there no "permanent self" there is no self at all. Here's a different angle from what you've read here. Let me know what you think: Enlightened Love Story

G said...

Read the story, Bobby. Very interesting.

One question: if there is no self, who is that cries: "I see now that I am an illusion," as your sister wrote to you after her "enlightenment?" There's too many 'I's here, isn't there?

Again, in your resignation letter you wrote, "I must do this for myself." Who is this 'I' that must do this for 'myself'?

Perhaps your experiences are akin to what Buddhism would call 'entering the stream,' but if it is, there's quite some way before you fully transcend the delusion of 'I.' For, whilst a 'stream-enterer' has let go of sakkaya-ditthi (the notion of being an 'I'), they have not transcended the underlying feeling of being a self, which will still make claims like "I did this," and "I did that," and believe them.

It is very noticeable that for someone that claims there is no self and that the realization of this formed the heart of his "enlightenment, there's a hell of a lot of self in your writings, mainly centering around what 'I' did and said and wrote. Generally, your blog is very interesting, Bobby, but enlightening? That's another story...As your already "enlightened" Bobby, no doubt you won't take these observations personally, as you've no self to do so!

Be well,

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Bobby, I agree with G here.

When you write "there is no self at all", then who is writing that comment?

While there may be insight it is very easy to then grab onto that insight like it is a thing that we've attained. "I'm enlightened!", we pronounce out loud, but then who pronounced it? In a second we are caught again. This is pretty tricky and we don't realise the self just immediately jumped straight back in and did it's same routine all over again. This is why talking about any sort of attainment, even thinking about it, even feeling like we have it in the slightest sense, is very problematic. And then we flip back the other way, "Ah, no self". And back and forth we go for a while, maybe years, back and forth, then eventually we start to change. At this point I'll let the Venerable Ajahn Chah speak:

"At first you hurry to go forward, hurry to come back, and hurry to stop. You continue to practice like this until you reach the point where it seems that going forward is not it, coming back is not it, and stopping is not it either! It’s finished. There’s no stopping, no going forward and no coming back. It is finished. Right there you will find that there is really nothing at all."

So all I'll say is "keep going, go steady, this too shall pass". At every stage, at every insight, in every day repeat this, over and over.


G said...

Nicely put, Dean. And who better to quote on this than Ajahn Chah? Thank you.

Bobby said...

Hey guys, no offense taken. You're responses are incredibly common, I am not offended. Also, I am not here to challenge your beliefs, so I apologize if that's what it appears I am doing here.

As for your response, labels like , "I", "me", "you" must be used to communicate. They are pretty handy.

You said, "there's quite some way before you fully transcend the delusion of 'I.'" Enlightenment isn't about transcending "I", it's simply the realization that there is no "I". Put another way, "I" (ego) is simply a mind-made construct. Once you see that you are done.

Now, I perhaps you are thinking that the self must be permanently transcended or seme shit like that. That is false, and rather pointless. You can't survive or interact with the environment without it.

Take care gentlemen.

The attainment of truth is possible only when self is recognized as an illusion. Righteousness can be practiced only when we have freed our mind from passions of egotism. Perfect peace can dwell only where all vanity has disappeared -Buddha

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Bobby, these are some good points you make and you aren't wrong in saying them, but you also aren't right either. You seem quite sure of your views about this.

When you say "You're responses are incredibly common" maybe this is because people care about you? I made the exact same mistake as you and I wish someone had been so caring. I lost quite a few good years stuck in that same rut. You must also ask yourself "How deep does the rabbit hole go?", "Maybe there are people who have travelled further?", "Am I at a point where I can stop listening?", "And if I'm at a point where I feel I can stop listening then what have I attached to?"

Please heed my advice and say to yourself:

"keep going, go steady, this too shall pass"

I'll leave you to contemplate further. Oh, any maybe take a read of this too:

No need to respond, I've said enough, and I won't bother you any further. Peace to you on your path.


Bobby said...

I want to be clear on one thing. My comments do not reflect my views of awakening. These are the facts. To awaken is to see the truth in the illusion of self.

Once awake, there is always further. Make no mistake. The journey has only begun once are awake.

The existence of self is an illusion, and there is no wrong in this world, no vise, no evil, except what flows from the assertion of self -Buddha

G said...

Your last comment brings all the comments posted here together, Bobby. Seeing there's no self still leaves this present moment to be lived. It can be lived in the light of No-thing or from the viewpoint of the ego. And this does indeed start now and continue in this now forever...

Bobby said...

Very nice guys. I have been humbled here. I am glad I stumbled upon this site.

It took me a while to see it (I was being stubborn), but I see now that you guys speak truth.

It's good to find some others out there.

And Dean, very nice article.

G said...

Awakening continues...

Bobby said...

Hey guys. I've been working on clarity over the last few days.

This blog post was the result, will you have a look?

If you have any comments, or have anything else you'd like to add, I'd appreciate you leaving some comments.

Take care

G said...

The link leads to Nowhere, Bobby - just where it ought to! LOL

Anonymous said...

Hi All,

Thank you for sharing your wisdom. Are any of you familiar with Tony Parsons? What do you think of his point of view that seeking only reinforces the seeker and the sense of separation and there's nothing anyone can do to wake up because there isn't anyone?


Bobby said...

Wow Amy, you revived an interesting thread. Look at my arrogance. LOL.

I'll let Dean or G respond to your question.

G said...

Hi Amy & Bobby.
Not familiar with Tony Parsons, but the name rings a bell...somewhere! Yes, ultimately speaking, there's no one here to wake up. There are the aggregates of clinging, however, and simply believing or saying that there is no self does not equal seeing the fact, let alone living from it. This is where the skillful means (upaya) employed within Buddhism come in, to facilitate that seeing into reality. It's true that 'seeking' is 'seeing' minus the 'k,' but it's quite a 'k' that must be understood: the khandhas!

Anonymous said...

I also am not familiar with Tony Parsons. Statements like these come from a place of realisation and are an expression of the ultimate reality, however, solely relying on these as ultimate truth negates everything that occurred in ones travel up to the point of the realisation.

Its like eating a meal and once full saying, "there is no longer hunger so there is no point eating". It negates the eating process that lead to the point of satisfaction. Understanding the two together is important. Relying solely on this expression of truth is in itself misleading to others still suffering from hunger and needing to be fulfilled. And so it is also with the spiritual path. Ultimately we do realise that all of our seeking previously was in itself perpetuating our suffering, but this seeking also led us to a place of realisation and thus freedom from that suffering. Ironic but true.

The seeking for truth in itself is an inherent drive based on unawareness and thus the seeking is inherent regardless of self. We don't however understand this fully until we become fully aware to the nature of reality. But to negate the journey that leads us to that realisation is a mistake also.

Typically when we hear statements by teachers like Tony Paron's we think that is the full picture of the(ir) teachings, but then if there was "nothing anyone can do to wake up because there isn't anyone" then why is Tony Parson's (or anyone) teaching at all? Hmmm ... makes you wonder right? There is a reason they teach, and that is because there is skillful means that leads suffering people to awakening. So take the statement in measure with the rest of his and other's teachings.

I hope that is helpful.

In Kindness,
Dean 'Jagaro'