Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers). There he addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five: “Bhikkhus.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. The Blessed One said this.
“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’
“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…
“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…
“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…
“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’
“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’
That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus were glad, and they approved his words.
Now during this utterance, the hearts of the bhikkhus of the group of five were liberated from taints through clinging no more.
-“Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic” (SN 22.59), translated from the Pali by Ñanamoli Thera. Access to Insight, 14 June 2010. Retrieved on 3 September 2011.
This is a classic thought-exercise used to bring practitioners to an understanding of anatta, or nonself. The teacher asks a series of questions: “Are you your eyes? Are you your hands? Are you your body? Are you your thoughts? Are you your feelings?” to which the student must eventually, perhaps reluctantly, answer “No.” None of these impermanent, ever-changing, aggregate things can be identified as our “self.” One might then object that all of these together form our self. This is true in a mundane sense, but to what action does this truth lead? Possessiveness, defensiveness, clinging. And to what? Only to that which will change anyway, decay, suffer, and die. No clinging to this mass of flickering aggregates will preserve it. This is suffering – the desire for permanence in the impermanent, the belief of permanence in the impermanent. Therefore the Buddha taught anatta.
And we have struggled with it ever since.
We have many concepts of ourselves. We use these concepts in very ulititarian ways, most often to describe ourselves to others. When asked at a party “So, what do you do?” we say, “I’m an accountant” or “I’m an architect.” The semantics belie this statement as merely a description of occupation, however innocent it seems. Few answer “I do accounting” or “I do architecture.” No, we answer “I am…” What we do creates a concept within our minds of who we are. Likewise, where we are from, who are family is, who are friends are, what hobbies we have, how we dress, where we live, whether we drink coffee or coke, and millions of other other aggregate facts about our present existence define our “self.” When those fact change, we have a great opportunity to reexamine our notions of both present identity and permanent self.
For me, this has been a year of “not that.” I am not an architect. I am not Nebraskan. I am not single. These changing circumstances I struggle with, reject, and seek in turns.
I let go of my dreams of architecture with a mix of reluctance and relief. I had defined myself by that path for a very long time and I cannot deny the liberation which came in stepping away from it. Naturally, I quickly replaced it with a new label, but seeing the ease of that change, I can no longer self-identify with my (future) occupation as strongly as I once did. I am not what I do.
The second I fight each day. Though I now have a California driver’s license, it is tucked out of sight behind the expired Nebraska license in my wallet. Many of the seeds of my karma were sown in Nebraska, the fruit of which are still blossoming. To deny this would be to turn a blind eye to causation and fail to examine why I do as I do. However, as long as I cling to being Nebraskan, I fail to fully engage with my present circumstances. I do not follow local politics or know the local area here as well as I did before. I have not found a local sangha despite an abundance of choice. In this case, attachment to a conceptual notion of self is hindering me from being fully present in my current circumstances.
The changes we seek are often no less challenging than those which come upon us unbidden. I have often written of what it is to be single, to revel in it, to be lonely of it, saddened and joyously solitary, horny and frustrated, simultaneously gratified and irritated by the presence of another. After thirty-odd years of chronic independence I have entered into that relationship I had begun to wonder might never come. In that too my identity is challenged. It is very easy to construct our identity as we please when we have only ourselves to please. And it is very easy to cling to the notion that I am that which I have built. But others never see us quite that way.
The bastions and defenses we create around the core of our ego are rarely to shield us from the random movements of an indifferent world. A simple change in location or dress code is rarely enough to shatter them. No, we build those walls against people. It is people who challenge our own notions of who we are or who we ought to be. It is people who show us we are more alike than different. In that similarity we find empathy and compassion – “to suffer with” – and that hurts, by necessity it hurts. So we build the walls. We block both the pain and the glory. But we always build a door, and through that door, before any other, we invite a partner.
It is harder to discount and dismiss the opinions of this “significant” other than random strangers or even beloved friends and family. Thus the term “significant.” We let them through the door. We show them what is behind the walls, as much as we are able. They do the same for us. And just like that, you’ve got two people knocking about in a house (metaphorical or literal) where before there was only one. That takes some adjustment, both in the practical sense and to our notions of self and identity.
I am not an architect. I am not Nebraskan. I am not single. But likewise, I am not a chaplain. I am not Californian. I am not a couple. So we come to the question, the same question Vacchagotta asked the Buddha in the Ananda Sutta (SN 44.10): “Do I even have a self?” The Buddha did not answer.
In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible.
So, instead of answering “no” to the question of whether or not there is a self — interconnected or separate, eternal or not — the Buddha felt that the question was misguided to begin with. Why? No matter how you define the line between “self” and “other,” the notion of self involves an element of self-identification and clinging, and thus suffering and stress. This holds as much for an interconnected self, which recognizes no “other,” as it does for a separate self. If one identifies with all of nature, one is pained by every felled tree. It also holds for an entirely “other” universe, in which the sense of alienation and futility would become so debilitating as to make the quest for happiness — one’s own or that of others — impossible. For these reasons, the Buddha advised paying no attention to such questions as “Do I exist?” or “Don’t I exist?” for however you answer them, they lead to suffering and stress.
To avoid the suffering implicit in questions of “self” and “other,” he offered an alternative way of dividing up experience: the four Noble Truths of stress, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Rather than viewing these truths as pertaining to self or other, he said, one should recognize them simply for what they are, in and of themselves, as they are directly experienced, and then perform the duty appropriate to each. Stress should be comprehended, its cause abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. These duties form the context in which the anatta doctrine is best understood. If you develop the path of virtue, concentration, and discernment to a state of calm well-being and use that calm state to look at experience in terms of the Noble Truths, the questions that occur to the mind are not “Is there a self? What is my self?” but rather “Am I suffering stress because I’m holding onto this particular phenomenon? Is it really me, myself, or mine? If it’s stressful but not really me or mine, why hold on?” These last questions merit straightforward answers, as they then help you to comprehend stress and to chip away at the attachment and clinging — the residual sense of self-identification — that cause it, until ultimately all traces of self-identification are gone and all that’s left is limitless freedom.
In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?
–“No-self or Not-self?”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 8 March 2011. Retrieved on 3 September 2011.
The longer this year goes on, the more I realize that all my old notions of who I am, who I was, are only that – notions. The new ideas I inevitably replace them with are somehow looser and more fluid. The trick is to keep them that way. Do not let them grow into fixed, rigid walls which must be defended. The time will come when they change again. How painful that process is will depend on how deeply I have laid the foundations in the meantime. In this sense, it is not really important whether I ultimately have a self or not, but what I do with the concepts I have built about what defines my self.