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From the beginning, the Buddha’s teachings featured the Three Marks, or Characteristics, of Existence: anicca (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfactoriness), and anatta (not-self). Here I introduce the Three Characteristics and then go into the teaching of not-self in detail – what it means and doesn’t mean. For example, did you know the Buddha did not teach that we have no self?

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Three Characteristics of Existence: Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta [1:45]
The Buddha’s Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic [4:20]
Why Identifying Things as Self Is a Problem [9:47]
A Lifelong Process of I-Making and My-Making [12:31]
Our Obsession with Self [15:45]
Even the Idea of No-Self Is a View of Self [19:00]
The Goal Is Freedom from Any View of Self [22:26]
Conventional Self Versus a View of Self [24:30]
The Buddhist Practice of Perceiving Not-Self [26:51]
Conclusion [30:07]
References

I usually cycle through five general topics on this podcast, and according to my schedule this should be an episode on Zen teachings. However, I really wanted to share with you the Zen teaching about how “to study Buddhism is to study the self,” and I realized the Zen teaching on studying the self is dependent on the foundational Buddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self. So, I’m doing a Buddhist teaching episode on anatta first, and then next week I’ll cover the Zen teaching about studying the self.

The Three Characteristics of Existence: Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta

Shakyamuni Buddha’s very first teachings were on the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Noble Path. I will cover those topics in detail in upcoming episodes, but I first wanted to explain a sort of “background” teaching that is inherent in the Four Noble Truths, namely the Three Characteristics of Existence (also known as the Three Marks, or Tilakkhana in Pali). The Three Characteristics are anicca, which is impermanence or inconstancy; dukkha, which is stress or dissatisfactoriness, and anatta, which is not-self.

In the Dhammapada (verses 277-279), the Buddha puts it this way:

“All conditioned things are impermanent” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All things are not-self” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.[1]

As far as I can tell from my Pali Canon research, the Buddha didn’t usually – if ever – lay out the Three Characteristics as an explicit, separate teaching, as in, “Always remember the Three Characteristics.” However, the Buddha does mention each of the characteristics frequently, including in his first sermons.

For example, in the “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” sutta,[2] considered the Buddha’s first formal teaching to his disciples, he focuses on the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths. However, the first of the Four Noble Truths is the recognition of the characteristic of dukkha, which is alternatively translated as stress, dissatisfactoriness, or suffering. The second Noble Truth is about realizing the cause of dukkha, the third Truth is about learning how dukkha can be ended, and the fourth Truth is the Eightfold Noble Path which leads to the end of dukkha. (I will explain the juicy and subtle concept of dukkha in my next Buddhist Teachings episode, because it deserves a whole episode to itself.)

The Buddha’s Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic

The Buddha’s second sermon is considered to be “The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic,” and here’s where he explicitly mentions all three characteristics – although, again, not as something called “The Teaching of the Three Characteristics.” In this second sermon, the Buddha proposes that if various things we identify as self were actually self, they would not cause dukkha, which is translated here as “stressful,” or “lending itself to dis-ease.”

“I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Varanasi in the Game Refuge at Isipatana. There he addressed the group of five monks:

‘Form [that is, our body], monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’”[3]

The Buddha proceeds to follow the same line of reasoning for feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications, and consciousness, concluding that each of them are not-self – that is, each of them has the characteristic of anatta. (Note: In this particular sutta, the Buddha appears to define our sense of self as that over which we feel we have control, but elsewhere in the Pali Canon it’s acknowledged that our sense of self can be tied to other things as well.)

The five aspects of a human being listed in “The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic” – form, feelings, sensations, perceptions, mental fabrications, and consciousness – are called the skandhas, or aggregates. Taken collectively they are supposed to represent everything we are: our bodies, our feelings of attraction, aversion, and indifference, our perceptions of all sense-objects including thoughts, our concepts, ideas, and volition, and our consciousness of all of it. So, when the Buddha proceeds through the list of the five aggregates with a particular teaching, it’s meant to be an exhaustive application of the teaching to our entire experience as human beings.

It’s significant, therefore, that in the next part of the “Not-Self” sermon, the Buddha proceeds again through the five aggregates, pointing out that each of them is impermanent – that is, each of them has the characteristic of anicca. In other words, our form, feelings, sensations, perceptions, mental fabrications, and consciousness change over time. The Buddha then makes the point that what is impermanent (anicca) is also stressful (dukkha), and says it is unfitting to regard what is “inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’.”[4] That is, what has the characteristics of anicca and dukkha should also be viewed as having the characteristic of anatta, or not-self.

What does the Buddha mean when he says it’s “unfitting” to regard impermanent and stressful things as self? This isn’t about some kind of rule or standard someone needs to fulfill to be considered a good Buddhist. Rather, when the Buddha says something is “unfitting” or “inappropriate,” what he means is that it does not lead to spiritual liberation. The “Not-Self” sermon concludes with his observation that a well-instructed disciple of the Buddha, when faced with what is marked by anicca and dukkha, thinks “This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.” In so doing, the disciple grows disenchanted with the five aggregates, becomes dispassionate, and is therefore fully released from the cycle of suffering and rebirth (refer to Episode 6: Arising of Buddhism Part 2 for an explanation of the view of rebirth and transmigration common at the time of the Buddha).

Why Identifying Things as Self Is a Problem

So, time to slow down and examine this teaching of anatta, not-self, more carefully. The Pali Canon can present a little like the dialogues of Plato or Aristotle, in that the teacher leads his audience through a line of reasoning and reaches a conclusion that his audience agrees with – but that doesn’t mean we, as modern readers, actually understand the reasoning or why the conclusion follows from it!

In the Samyutta Nikaya 22.15, the Buddha explains the relationship between anicca, dukkha, and anatta more succinctly (remember, “bhikkhus” are monks):

“The body, bhikkhus, is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is suffering. What is suffering, that is not-self. What is not-self [should be considered as] ‘This is not mine,’ ‘I am not this,’ ‘This is not myself’: in this manner it should be seen according to actuality with perfect wisdom.” [And so on, for feeling, perception, mental activities, and consciousness.][5]

Basically, the idea is that everything we might identify as self or belonging to self is subject to change. When something we rely on is subject to change, we experience dukkha. Dukkha at its mildest is a vague sense of stress or existential dis-ease, but depending on what kind of change we’re dealing with, dukkha can be experienced as dissatisfaction, anxiety, depression, or even acute suffering. When relying on something causes us dukkha, it’s better not to rely on it.

Of course, the process of identifying something as self or as belonging to self is a subtle one, perhaps not so easily summarized by the phrase “relying on” something. Elsewhere in the Pali Canon, the Buddha referred to this as “I-making” and “my-making.”[6] What’s really going on when we regard something as, “This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am”?

A Lifelong Process of I-Making and My-Making

The Buddha didn’t speculate on why or how we end up I-making and my-making – he just made eloquent observations about how obsessed we get with the process, which I’ll share in a bit. However, I personally find it easiest to get my mind around the process of I-making and my-making by thinking about human development, so I’ll offer my thought process here although it’s not technically a Buddhist teaching.

As a baby in the womb, you had all of your needs met automatically and probably experienced very little discomfort. Connected as you were to your mother, it was unlikely you had any sense of being a separate self. Upon birth, however, you experienced cold and hunger – and no matter how attentive your parents were, they didn’t always manage to instantly satisfy your needs or desires. Who knows exactly when, but at some point, your baby brain conceived of separation between you and the other people and objects in your environment. You wanted milk but whoever delivered it in a tardy fashion was clearly not you.

As you grew up, your sense of separateness, individuality, and uniqueness steadily grew. You recognized more and more aspects of your world that were not you, and more and more beings with agendas that often ran counter to yours. Through the comments and reactions of others, you started to form a concept of yourself relative to others – you were male or female, short or tall, smart or stupid, rich or poor. You learned there were certain things or people you were able to – or were allowed to – control or have special access to, and these were, therefore, yours.

Subsequently, over the course of your entire life, you have been diligently involved in an elaborate process of I-making and my-making. As adults, our sense of self is so complex that we apply “this is mine, this is my self, this is what I am” to all kinds of things, including our memories, opinions, abilities, relationships, bank accounts, possessions, and spiritual attainments.

Now, this kind of I-making and my-making in and of itself can be practical and is not necessarily a problem. It’s realistic to recognize the difference between my body and yours, my house and yours, and my job and yours. Dukkha arises because of an extra mental and emotional investment we make: We want self to be enduring and permanent, and therefore we want what we identify as essential aspects of self to be enduring and permanent.

Our Obsession with Self

When you get right down to it, the whole I-making problem is the result of our survival instinct coupled with the intellectual ability to anticipate our own eventual experiences of discomfort and loss, and our inevitable demise! Human beings are burdened by an existential anxiety that can range anywhere from acute angst to a subtle but pervasive sense that things aren’t exactly as we’d like them to be. We wonder how to protect and look out for ourselves in this uncertain world. What is it we need to protect, anyway, and what is its nature?

In the Majjhima Nikaya number 2, the Buddha lists the kinds of concerns that preoccupy unenlightened human beings:

“This is how he attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? …Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future?’ …Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’

“As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self… or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self… or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.”[7]

Even if you find it difficult to follow the whole Buddhist teaching about impermanence, dukkha, and not-self, I imagine you find this description of the existential quandary of self at least somewhat familiar!

Even the Idea of No-Self Is a View of Self

This last Pali Canon passage addresses one of the most essential aspects of the Buddhist teaching of not-self. It points out how any view about self leads to dukkha – even the view “I have no self!” The teaching of anatta is not, as many scholars have suggested and many Buddhist practitioners believe, a teaching that we have no self. That would be a metaphysical proposition that a Buddhist would need to try to understand and verify for themselves in order to be released from dukkha. It would encourage even more speculation on self, and not ultimately lead to liberation. As Thanissaro Bhikku explains in his introduction to the Majjhima Nikaya 22 on the Access to Insight website:

“…the view ‘I have no self’ is just as much a doctrine of self as the view ‘I have a self.’ Because the act of clinging involves what the Buddha calls ‘I-making’ — the creation of a sense of self — if one were to cling to the view that there is no self, one would be creating a very subtle sense of self around that view (see AN 4.24). But, as he says, the Dhamma is taught for ‘the elimination of all view-positions, determinations, biases, inclinations, & obsessions; for the stilling of all fabrications; for the relinquishing of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.’”[8]

It might seem a little confusing to imagine how someone who holds a view that there is no self is nevertheless clinging to a sense of self. In the passage above, Thanissaro refers to another Pali Canon sutta where the Buddha explains how a fully enlightened being, while having vast knowledge of everything in the world, never gets fettered by fixed views about who knows, what is known, what is unknown, etc. I take this to suggest that if someone holds on to a view they have no self, the very formation of, and attachment to, that view betrays a subtle view that one’s self very much exists.

Why would someone be attached to the view that we have no self? It may not seem like such a view would be much of a consolation, but human beings are strange creatures. For example, a view that your sense of self is a complete illusion and there is no self at all to be found anywhere might be a useful one to recall when you’re upset – a way of reasoning yourself out of your self-concern, or a way of emotionally distancing yourself from life. However, it’s not Buddhist practice because it’s not ultimately very effective. If you still have a sense of you who is relieved by the thought of no-self, you’re still clinging to the idea of a self with a characteristic of not existing.

The Goal Is Freedom from Any View of Self

This whole discussion of the nature of self and views of self can get pretty confusing. It can seem like an understanding of it is always just around the corner… as if we just hear the right explanation, the nature of self will become clear. However, this very confusing quality of the discussion of self is exactly the point: no matter how we try to frame it, it becomes “a thicket of views,” “a contortion of views,” or a “a fetter of views.”

What the teaching of anatta points to is the ultimate futility of trying to establish any fixed view of the self. After describing the various ways we go about I-making and my-making, the teaching culminates in the apparently simple admonition to just stop regarding anything as “This is mine, this is my self, this is what I am.” The Buddha never counsels his students to adopt a different view of self. Over and over he describes how, if a disciple practices correctly, she or he does nothing more than refrain from the process of I-making and my-making.

For example, in the Samyutta Nikaya 22.1,[9] the Buddha explains how, if someone assumes any of the five aggregates to be the self, he will be afflicted in body and in mind. On the other hand, if someone “does not assume” the five aggregates to be the self, she is not “seized with” ideas about the self, and when the five aggregates “change and alter,” she “does not fall into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair over its change and alteration.” In other words, the practice is simply not to assume.

Conventional Self Versus a View of Self

Is it really possible to refrain from identifying anything as self, or as belonging to self? Common sense would tell you it’s not. According to common sense, we need to maintain a strong sense of who we are and what is ours in order to look out for ourselves and our families. To a certain extent this is true; it is necessary and practical to designate the particular collection of five aggregates we seem to be inhabiting – including all of the physical and external aspects of our lives under the aggregate of “form” – as “I” or “me.” It is necessary and practical to recognize what is closely associated with us and designate it “mine.” This is what Buddhists often call our “conventional self.” Just as we call wooden pieces assembled in a particular formation a “chair,” but don’t attribute to the chair any enduring, permanent essence of “chairness,” so we can use ideas about our conventional self to act and communicate in the world without assuming anything else about the self.

Given our unique human existential burden, however – a consciousness of ourselves as individuals over time, coupled with an ability to anticipate our own change, alteration, and eventual demise – we aren’t satisfied with a conventional concept of self. We want there to be some kind of unchanging essence within us, some kind of soul that will survive anything that might happen to our five aggregates! Either we assume there’s someone in control of this body and mind, or that our awareness, volition, feelings, and consciousness are a sign of something inherently real underneath everything. We may believe this someone we assume is present within us will disappear after our physical death, or that it will continue on in some way, but our conviction that we exist in this real and inherent way remains unshaken.

The Buddhist Practice of Perceiving Not-Self

How do we give up our view of an enduring, inherent self? The Buddha recommended carefully and thoroughly examining each of the five aggregates and directly observing the reality that 1) they are impermanent (anicca), 2) relying on them is, therefore, unsatisfying at best, and results in suffering at worst (dukkha), and 3) no inherently-existing self can be located within them, or outside of them (anatta). Essentially, practitioners were to use the Buddhist methods of meditation, concentration, and mindfulness to explore their own, direct experience. With time and effort, they would be able to see the truth for themselves, and become thoroughly convinced that it wasn’t worth it to keep trying to locate, identify, or even understand the inherently-existing self they assumed they had. Instead, given the mental flexibility they developed through meditation, they would actually experiment with not assuming anything to be the self – and then they would experience release from dukkha as a result. This is described in the Pali Canon this way:

“When a monk’s awareness often remains steeped in the perception of not-self in what is stressful, his heart is devoid of I-making & my-making with regard to this conscious body and externally with regard to all themes, [he] has transcended pride, is at peace, and is well-released.”[10]

In actual daily practice, you turn away from preoccupation with self toward reality itself. You discover it’s possible to do everything you did before, but without overlaying a view of self onto everything. Instead of interpreting everything we encounter in terms of self – whether it’s attractive or beneficial, aversive or threatening, or neutral and irrelevant to us – we simply notice our feelings and thoughts as part of the greater landscape of our life. It’s actually much nicer to be without I-making and my-making; when liberated from the obsession about self, we find we’re better able to take care of our lives and respond appropriately. It’s really quite amazing to discover how useless it is to hold that extra view of an inherently-existing self.

No matter how long we’ve practiced, we almost always have at least some vague sense of self, but we recognize that this is an emergent phenomenon and not an indication of a real, enduring, inherent, independent self-essence.

Conclusion

Anatta, or not-self, is one lens through which you can view all of Buddhist practice. It’s not the only one, by any means, but in many different traditions the problem of a self-view is considered central. In Zen, for example, one of the terms for awakening is kensho, which means “seeing the true nature of self.” I’ll talk about the Zen approach to self in my next episode! If after listening to this episode you still can’t get your mind around anatta, don’t worry. The take home lesson is not some complicated, metaphysical proposition about the nature of self and whether or not it exists. The take home lesson is that, without spiritual practice, human beings are usually obsessed about themselves in ways that cause great confusion and suffering, but through practice it’s possible to let go of certain processes of I-making and my-making and achieve a greater degree of freedom and peace.

 


Photo Credit

Painting of the first teaching Buddha Gautama gave after his enlightenment, at the Deer Park in Sarnath, India (close to Varanasi). The five monks in the foreground are his five old friends, who suspected that Buddha would attain enlightenment and stayed close to him, but subsequently lost faith in him when he abandoned the practice of extreme asceticism, just before his attainment of enlightenment. The teaching he gives here is most probably the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta. By Sacca~commonswiki [GFDL] CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

References

[1] “Maggavagga: The Path” (Dhp XX), translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.20.budd.html.
[2] “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” (SN 56.11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.than.html.
[3] “Pañcavaggi Sutta: Five Brethren” (SN 22.59), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.than.html.
[4] “Pañcavaggi Sutta: Five Brethren” (SN 22.59), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.than.html.
[5] “Samyutta Nikaya: An Anthology”, by John D. Ireland. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html .
[6] “Sañña Sutta: Perceptions” (AN 7.46), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.046.than.html.
[7] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html.
[8] “Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations” (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html.
[9] “Nakulapita Sutta: To Nakulapita” (SN 22.1), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.001.than.html.
[10] “Sañña Sutta: Perceptions” (AN 7.46), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.046.than.html.

 

 

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