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BUDDHA’S TEACHING OF ANATTA, DhammaWeb Opinion BUDDHA’S TEACHING OF ANATTA
Ajahn Brahmavamso, Daily Mirror, May 28th, 2010

Untitled Document


BUDDHA’S TEACHING OF ANATTA

(Daily Mirror – By Ajahn Brahmavamso)

Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma Sambuddhassa
Sabbe Sankhara Anicca – Sabbe Sankhara Dukkha – Sabbe Dhamma Anatta

“All conditioned things are impermanent. All conditioned things are suffering. All dhammas (all things conditioned and unconditioned) are anatta”. These are the three basic factors of all existence. It is in order to penetrate these truths that we practice the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha’s teaching on anatta (non-self) is deep and profound because it challenges something very basic to our assumptions about life. The Buddha talked about avijja (delusion) being the root cause of all problems, of all rebirths, the root cause of defilements. He explained what avijja is through the teaching of the vipallasas (the perversions or distortions of view, thought and perception). Namely, the vipallasas say that by view, thought and perception we take what is dukkha to be sukha (happiness); we take what is impermanent to be permanent; we take what is not beautiful (asubha) to be beautiful (subha); and we take what is anatta to be atta, a self.

What do you take yourself to be?

One of those wrongly formed questions is “Who am I?” However, a little bit of reflection should make it very clear that this question already implies an assumption that you are someone. It already implies an answer. It’s not open enough. Instead, one needs to rephrase the question from, “Who am I?” or even, “What am I?” to, “What do I take myself to be?” or, “What do I assume this thing called ‘I’ is?” Consider the human body. Do you consider the body to be yours? It’s very easy to say, “The body is not self” when one is young, healthy and fit. The test comes when one is sick, especially when that sickness is very deep and lasting, or can even be life threatening. That’s when one can really see at a deeper level whether one is taking the body to be ‘me’ or ‘mine’. Why does this fear arise? The fear is always because of attachment. If ever a fear of death comes up at any time, that will show with ninety nine percent certainty, that in that moment one is seeing or thinking that this body is ‘me’, or is ‘mine’. Contemplate this body. Contemplate the death of this body, contemplate the contents of this body, and take it apart as it says in the Satipatthana Suttas . See that with whatever parts of this body, that it’s just flesh and blood and bones. It’s just the four great elements (earth, water, heat and air), just atoms and molecules and chemicals, that’s all. Continually contemplating the body in this way, one will eventually break down the delusion that this body is substantial, beautiful, delightful and one’s ‘own’.

The illusion of control

When there is a self, there will be things that belong to a self. When there are things belonging to a self there will be control, there will be work, there will be doing. This illusion of a self is what creates craving and attachment. This is what creates will. That’s why when people take the body to be the self, then they go and take it to the gym, they take it to the beauty parlour, they take it to the hair dressers, they wash it, they preen it, they try hard to make it look nice. “This is important, this is me. It’s my self image.” Such people think that it’s very important what they look like. They think that it creates their happiness. Other (wiser) people say how stupid they are.

Achievements are not yours

Even deeper than the body is the stuff of the mind. First of all, let us consider the objects of the mind. So often people identify themselves with their thoughts, or with the perceptions or objects, which come up in their minds. For example, it’s so easy to actually take one’s achievements to be ‘me’, or to be ‘mine’. If one takes any achievements to be ‘me’, or to be ‘mine’, the inevitable result of that is pride, and the attachment to praise. How much suffering results from pride? Every time one does something wrong, one will feel that there is some problem there. Very often because of pride, when one does something wrong, one may even break the precepts and lie, just out of taking one’s abilities to be ‘me’, or to be ‘mine’.”

People often say that speaking in public is one of the most terrifying things that one can do. This kind of fear is always because of some attachment. One then needs to ask the question: “Fear of what?” “Fear of losing what?” It’s always fear of losing what is called ‘reputation’. That is to say, the delusions about what one takes oneself to be.

Thoughts are not yours

When thoughts come up in the mind it’s both useful and fascinating for one to consider, “Why did I think that? Where did that thought come from? Why did you think that thought? Is it really your thought, or is it the thought of Ajahn Brahm, or maybe the thought of your father, or the thought of your mother? Thought does not belong to you. Thoughts come according to their conditions; they are triggered in the mind because of causes. It’s fascinating to see that thought is anatta, not ‘me’, and not ‘mine’.

Why is it that thoughts obsess the mind? Thoughts come in and we grab hold of them. We make them stay because of the illusion that they are important. People sometimes have such nice thoughts, they come and tell me later, and they call them ‘insights’. They are just thoughts, that’s all. Just leave the thoughts alone. Don’t take them to be ‘mine’. Therefore, give thinking no value.”

The ‘doer’ is not self

If one thinks “I am in charge”, if that delusion is still there, that will be a major hindrance to one’s meditation. This will create restlessness, and there will be craving for this, that and the other and one will never be able to get into jhanas ( deep states of meditative ‘absorption’)

. However, one must understand that the ‘doer’ cannot let go of doing. They try to do the non-doing. It takes some wisdom to see that this ‘doing’ is just a conditioned process. Then one can let go. When one lets go, then this whole process just goes so beautifully, so smoothly, so effortlessly. With luck one might get into a jhana. In the jhana states the ‘doing’ has gone and it has stopped for a long time. Then one will start to see this illusion of the ‘doer’. To do is to suffer. Doing is dukkha, dukkha is doing. When there is doing, it’s like a wave on the lake. The stillness is lost. When the stillness is lost, like the rippled surface of a lake it distorts the image of the moon high in the sky. When the lake is perfectly still and nothing is happening, when no one is doing anything to disturb the moment, then the reflection is pure, truthful, real, and it’s also very beautiful. The jhanas should give one enough data to see once and for all that this thing, that which we call ‘the doer’, is just a completely conditioned phenomenon.

‘The knower’ is not self

Even deeper than ‘the doer’ is ‘the knower’. The two actually go together. One can stop ‘the doer’ for a little while in the jhanas (deep states of meditative ‘absorption’), but later it comes back again. One even can stop ‘the doer’ for aeons by going to the jhana realms after one dies.

‘The knower’ is usually called consciousness or citta (mind). Knowing is often seen to be the ultimate ’self’. Very often people can get the perception, or the paradigm, in their minds of perceiving something in here, which can just know and not be touched by what it knows. However, at the same time, it can just stand back and not be known, and not be touched by what’s actually happening. Owing to this illusion, one misses the point that whatever one sees with your eyes, or feels with the body, the mind then takes that up as it’s own object, and it knows that it saw. It knows that it felt. It’s that knowing that it saw, knowing that it felt, that gives the illusion of objectivity. It can even know that it knew.

When philosophy books talk about ’self reflection’ or ’self knowledge’, the fact that not only do “I know”, but that “I know that I know”, or that “I know that I know that I know”, is given as a proof of the existence of a self. I have looked into that experience, in order to see what actually was going on with this ‘knowing’ business. Using the depth of my meditation, I could see the way this mind was actually working. What one actually sees is this procession of events, that which we call ‘knowing’. It’s like a procession, just one thing arising after the other in time.

Getting out of the pond, and onto dry land

The only way that one can understand what is meant by, “the self is not ‘the doer’” is to get into a jhana. This means that one is getting out of the pond of doing. The only way that one can really understand that ‘the knower’ is not self, is to get out of the pond of the five senses, and to stay just with the sixth sense. With just the mind consciousness remaining, one will actually see that that which is called ‘knowing’ just arises and passes away. It is granular, it is fragmentary.

The whole purpose of these jhanas is to learn through practice, bit by bit, to let go of more and more consciousness. Then the consciousness completely ceases for long periods of time in what’s called nirodha-samapatti (the attainment of cessation). This is the cessation of all that is felt and all that’s perceived asanna-vedayita-nirodha). Any person who experiences this attainment, they say, will be an arahant or an anagami afterwards. Why? Because they’ve seen the end of consciousness, they’ve touched that as an experience.

With this experience there is no longer any thought or theories or ideas. This is bare experience. All that one formerly took to be ‘me’ is seen as just delusion (avijja). What was anatta? One will realize that for many lifetimes, one had taken all these things to be a self, and that the result was so much birth and consequent suffering. The cause was so much controlling and doing and craving (tanha). Wriggling through Samsara, wriggling towards happiness, wriggling away from pain, always trying to control the world. It’s not what one would like to see. However, through the experience of the jhanas, and the surmounting of conditioning, one has gone beyond all of that. It is not what one has been taught. It is what one has seen, it is what one has actually experienced. This is the brilliance of the Buddha’s teaching of anatta. It goes right to the heart of everything.

(Daily Mirror)
May 28th, 2010