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Anatta and rebirth


#1

Dear Bhantes,

Thank you for this course in Karma and Rebirth.

How anatta must be understood in relation to rebirth and vice-versa?

For example, do no-self means no-rebirth? Or, there is rebirth, but no one going through it, for example, the self is a sequential illusion, appearing moment after moment? Or there is a virtual self, surely ever changing and therefore impermanent, but that flows (or proceeds) from one moment to the other? Or otherwise?

Thank you and with metta,

Bussho


#2

Hi Bussho!

The self means something stable, permanent and unchanging - what we unawakened beings consider to be our true essence, wether it be our body, our mind or some kind of an immortal soul, that trevels from life to life. The Buddha rejected any kind of a self like that and said that whatever we take to be that self is impermanent and suffering (because eventually it vanishes). Therefore a wise person doesn’t consider anything theirs, them or their self.

I think you pretty much said it here. When we see a movie, there really isn’t any movie there - just a fast sequence of still pictures with empty spaces in between flashed fast enough for our mind to create an illusion of movement. Now we might understand that in theory but we still enjoy the movie and even go and see the sequel when it comes out :smiley:

I think of the stream of conciousness in a similar way - just six different types of conciousness with blank spaces in between - the only problem is that this movie called life has endless sequels and most of them arent any good.

The way rebirth happens without a self is described in detail in the teaching of the Buddha called dependent origination or dependent arising or paṭiccasamuppāda in pali.

With metta.


#3

Hi Bussho

I really like the questions you have posed. The attachment to the idea of the “self - sequential illusion” which you talk about seems to be the driver for rebirth, but I’m also in awe of our sheer biology which clings to sense desire in spite of our cognitive abilities, reasoning and practice. Maybe this is why having an experience where the “self” has vanished, even if only for a moment, is so important to the process of waking up.

Your questions also seem to point to what Anuradha asked - what happens to a Buddha after death? that is, when the conceit “i am” has been dismantled and understood, then what is in store upon the demise of the body at death? I’m not sure a specific answer was given by the Buddha.

N


#4

Dear Nicola and Dear Raivo,

Thank you for your posts :slight_smile:

Hope to discuss more with you (and other students) on this matter.

Just want to clarify one point:

The self is not necessarily “something stable, permanent and unchanging”. All depends how you define the self.
These 3 examples in my previous post resume (in an exaggerated way) different points of view in Theravada or Theravada influenced teachings and that one can found here and there. As the course is on early buddhism, I did not included different later teachings on this matter (like Nagasena’s “same but different”, Shantideva’s “it is another who dies and another will reborn”, Huang Po’s “One mind”, …), which would have made things even more complicated.

The trick is that the tenants of each approach (talking only for Theravada or Theravada influenced teachings) argues that their view is based on Tathagata’s teachings :slight_smile:

SN 22.86, like SN 22.85 clarify things, but for someone (or, may be, we must say "beyond someone and no one ") who has attained the goal. Yet, some Self definitions in Upanishads present some similitude with how the state of Nirvana is described, like both being not describable by our common senses and concepts.

First of all, what I try to understand is the proper “early buddhist texts” point of view (or points of view) on this matter. And, for example, the Self=Nirvana equation is not one (or it is?). And hope Bhantes will help me about this (Bhantes, thank you again for taking time to doing this course and responding to our questions! It is a rare occasion for me to learn from Theravada monks that are also experts on early buddhist texts. By the way, thank you also for your book “authenticity of the EBT”).

I am also interested in bibliographical references, if you (Bhante or not) have any, don’t hesitate to share ^^

Thanks again!

With metta


#5

I think when the self is mentioned in the suttas, it does mean the atta or atman or a permanent essence or a core of a being.

Of course we can define the self in any way we like. To me the Buddha’s teaching on non-self is not about that we can’t take anything to be our self, but that we shouldn’t take anything to be our self. At least if we want to end suffering.

That comes out pretty clear from the Buddha’s second sermon: http://suttacentral.net/en/sn22.59

With metta.


#6

Dear All,

One of the simplest ways that this has been explained is Ajahn Brahm’s mango tree and seedling simile. He would tell the story of a mango seed from it’s parent tree being planted into the ground. In due time the seed sprouts into little a seedling and then to a within a year or so, grows into a sapling. After many more years with good nourishment, it fully matures to a big tree. The mature tree then produces fruit, as sweet as the parent’s fruits. He would ask then what transferred from the parent tree to the this new tree? Nothing really transferred from the parent tree. No single part of each tree are identical. But what is similar is the process of their growth, nourishment, maturity, and the production of fruit.

I hope this helps a bit:

May you be free.

Anjali,
russ


#7

Hi Bussho,

When a student of the Buddha asked him this question, the Buddha simply said “not a valid question!”

It can be somewhat puzzling, but the reasons will be better understood if we re-examine a few common misconceptions around this:

Misconception 1 Rebirth occurs due to a self moving from one body to another: This is inconsistent with the core teaching of the Buddha, because if this were true, then the only way to attain nibbāṇa (end of rebirth) would be to annihilate oneself! Then what is the point of nibbāṇa?

Now in Hinduism, the Bhagavadgita, makes this claim, but also claims that the self is eternal and not destroyable. Liberation is said to consist of realizing the relationship between the self and the “super-self”. Different branches of Vedanta interpret this relationship differently. But if this were true, then there is no way to end rebirth at all, because the eternal self is still around! What is to prevent this eternal self from being reborn again?

Instead, according to the Buddha, rebirth is a phenomenon that is fueled by another process called bhava, becoming, which in turn is fueled by craving and clinging. For most of us, rebirth is about some thing behind the process, but the Buddha saw this purely in phenomenological terms. So in other words, rebirth happens as a result of us creating a thought-world motivated by our craving. If craving were not present, rebirth cannot occur. This is just like the relationship between fire and its fuel, which is exactly the imagery the Buddha uses.

This is precisely why nibbāṇa can even be achieved: because it is possible to put an end to craving, without annihilating oneself.

Misconception 2 Self is a thing, that either exists or does not: Actually, it is better called ‘self-ing’ (if such a verb could be coined), in the sense of an activity. We are constantly creating this sense of self through our actions. So it is not so much that our self exists, and our self acts, but that our actions “create” our selves through our actions. And this process is called papañca.

In reality, this activity of ‘self-ing’ is happening all the time. So it seems like there is always a self around here. But actually, we are generating the notion of self around some activity. It is not bad to identify with something. One of the misconceptions is that if we put an end to all identification, that would be nibbāṇa. But that is hardly the case. If it were true, we could simply commit suicide instead.

In reality the path begins with strong identification with people of integrity and disidentification with misguided people. One has to have strong ideas of a “good life” and identify oneself as living such a life. But at the same time, one can’t just identify oneself as a “good” person when one is committing murder, or stealing food. Our identities are also shaped by our actions and the thought-worlds created by them.

Misconception 3 Anatta means “no self”: By far, this is the most common misconception about Buddhism, and it is quite unfortunately perpetuated by the works of the prominent 20th century Buddhist Walpola Rahula. As a doctrine, the Buddha could not have taught something as ludicrous as “no self”. The perception of self as an agent of actions is crucial to the central tenet of kamma. For example, I can only pee for myself!

The primordial question that underlies the spiritual quest is “What when I do it, would lead to my long term well-being?”, which contains two explicit words showing the perception of self. In fact when a brahman approached him and said that he held the view that “there is no self-doer, and no other-doer”, the Buddha styled that as a completely ludicrous position, completely unheard of!

So the Buddha couldn’t have taught that there is no self. Instead, the Buddha taught that both the perception of “self” and the perception of “not self” are strategies for happiness that we ought to use skillfully. We should use the perception of self with regard to things that will give us long-term happiness, while developing perception of anatta or “not self” for things that produce only short-term happiness, and therefore unworthy of identifying with.

Notice that I talk of the “perception of self” or the “perception of not self”. I don’t talk of it as if it were a regular “characterisitic”. In fact the term “three characteristics” (tilakkhaṇa) appears only in the Abhidhamma commentaries. The Sutta Pitaka itself treats anatta as a perception - saññā. So the Buddha talked of anatta as a strategy of perceiving experience, not as a metaphysical reality.

As an example, when we are generous, we have a perception of self (or identity) as the giver, which gives us a feeling of being spiritually wealthy. At the same time, we develop the perception of “not self” with regard to the object given away - now it belongs to someone else. When we associate with wise people, we are consciously making a choice of the identity we want to have around us. Associating with the wise brings about a particular perception of self that is required as a stepping stone to enter the path.

Misconception 4 The five aggregates are the self: Another misconception coming from literature that claims that the Buddha taught that there is no self. In fact these are precisely what the Buddha said is not your self! A major misconception around the five aggregates is that the aggregates are things. So we look for the aggregates as objects or materials. But the Buddha used the phrase “five clinging aggregates” (pancupādānakkhandhā). He treated them as activities of the mind, not as materials.

For example when the Buddha says that the body is an aggregate, he is talking of our experience of the body, and what we fabricate around it. He is not talking of the material body alone. In fact, with regard to the material body, he teaches us to develop a sense of equanimity, through body contemplation, composed of various disgusting parts. So materials (rūpa) are only worth of equanimity - not worth considering as self. Here again there is the perception of not self with regard to the material body.

Again, our feelings (vedanā) towards ourselves and other beings can play a major role in the development of the sublime attitudes - the brahmavihāras. In this we again use our perception of self and other.

Now when we think of our body, we don’t just think of it as materials, but more in terms of what we can do with it. The problem with the five aggregates is precisely that we have a modicum of control over them and our mind takes that on face value and assumes it to be the self. So the Buddha has us examine the body (rūpa) and see to what extent the body and what we can do with this body can be deemed a self. He called the things we do with the body, or activities we do to experience the body as sañkhāra - fabrication.

Even the perception of self, and the perception of not-self are sañkhāras. The entire noble eightfold path is a sañkhāra, a very specialized one at that. But it leads beyond all sañkhāras. At that point all questions of self, not self, or other melt away.


#8

Dear Balaji,

Yes, but the reason the “self-ing” happens is that we have a perception of a permanent self in the first place. This perception or view is called sakkāya-diṭṭhi in the suttas. This deep-seated misapprehension of reality cannot be removed by simply stopping the self-ing. A deep insight into the nature of the five aggregates is required.

Kamma just requires a stream of consciousness that is separate from other streams of consciousness. A person is just this stream of consciousness.

We need to distinguish between the self as a metaphysical reality and the reflexive pronoun “oneself”. The Buddha did not reject that one does actions “oneself”, and this would indeed be ludicrous. When one does an action oneself, the same stream of consciousness will experience the result at a later stage.

This is not correct. Here is a quote straight from the EBTs, AN3.136: “All phenomena are not-self.” (Sabbe dhammā anattā.)

If there is no self then perceiving things as non-self makes very good sense! The Buddha doesn’t say anywhere that this is (just) a strategy.

At the time of the Buddha self and non-self often referred to doctrines of eternalism and annihilationism respectively. It is because both of these doctrines are seen to be false that questions about them melt away.

I have recently had a long discussion on this topic with someone else. Anyone who is interested can read the discussion here.

With metta.


#9

Ven. sir, Bhante Brahmali,

I enjoyed reading your discussion with Yum Shallom. Personally, I learned from Bhante Thanissaro and Bhante Pasanno, and so my choice of words reflects their way of teaching. See for example Bhante Thanissaro’s essay on this topic (Not self strategy).

May I respectfully respond to some of your points. All my theoretical understanding is due to the kindness of my teachers. Needless to say, any errors in my understanding are due to my own ignorance and foolishness. So kindly pardon those.

Agreed. Definitely a deep insight into the nature of the clinging aggregates is required. But insight into the nature of the aggregates, or eradication of the deep-seated avijjā is not going to come about by assuming that there is no self either. In fact, such an assumption is also another extreme form of wrong view that the Buddha rejected. One would have to view the activities of the aggregates in the framework of the four noble truths.

So it is not so much that sakkāya-diṭṭhi is factually wrong and that if we replace it with the notion of nātthi atta (there is no self) we would be fine. Instead, the framework of sakkāya-diṭṭhi is a strategically counter-productive to the project of producing long-term happiness, and instead the framework of the four noble truths is a better strategy towards that goal. And in that framework, anatta is just one of the strategies.

Now the four noble truths have been rather trivialized and are often taught in “introductory courses” on Buddhism here in the west, today. But the Buddha saw this as a deep insight, a breakthrough that comes about after the mind has been stilled. So even if we read the four noble truths and discuss it, we are not getting rid of sakkāya-diṭṭhi. We would have to (perhaps sit in deep meditation and) observe each of our fabrications in terms of the four noble truths and drop them one by one. This is what the Buddha called “entry into emptiness”.

Maybe. You’re right that he doesn’t explicitly style it as a strategy. But Bhante Thanissaro’s translator’s note to the Alagadupama Sutta makes a subtle point. He seems to indicate that belief that there is no self is not what anatta entails - not even in his “most thoroughgoing teachings”.

Thus it is important to focus on how the Dhamma is taught: Even in his most thoroughgoing teachings about not-self, the Buddha never recommends replacing the assumption that there is a self with the assumption that there is no self. Instead, he only goes so far as to point out the drawbacks of various ways of conceiving the self and then to recommend dropping them. For example, in his standard series of questions building on the logic of the inconstancy and stress of the aggregates, he does not say that because the aggregates are inconstant and stressful there is no self. He simply asks, When they are inconstant and stressful, is it proper to assume that they are “me, my self, what I am”? Now, because the sense of self is a product of “I-making,” this question seeks to do nothing more than to induce disenchantment and dispassion for that process of I-making, so as to put a stop to it. Once that is accomplished, the teaching has fulfilled its purpose in putting an end to suffering and stress. That’s the safety of the further shore.

For a simple lay person like me, scholastic matters don’t mean much. I care about which one I can use as a strategy to find long-term happiness. To me Bhante Thanissaro’s explanation seems to be something that can be applied practically to meditation and normal spiritual life. How could I apply the idea of “no self” to my life?

If we take ‘self-ing’ as an activity (a fabrication) that is sometimes useful (such as the sense of building an identity by associating with wise men, or the sense of self-esteem coming from acts of generosity), but sometimes harmful (even self-esteem can produce too much pride), then the real question is no longer whether a self exists or not, but whether ‘self-ing’ at this moment is productive to my long-term happiness or not.

This can definitely be applied to meditation. In fact I think either Sariputta or Ananda says somewhere in MN that even though the practice transcends conceit, a certain type of conceit is required to begin the path. And conceit is a kind of ‘self-ing’.

I think you specifically refer to this part:
Uppādā vā, bhikkhave, tathāgatānaṃ anuppādā vā tathāgatānaṃ ṭhitāva sā dhātu dhammaṭṭhitatā dhammaniyāmatā. Sabbe dhammā anattā.

I agree that this part does make it seem like this is a natural characteristic independent of our perception. Thank you for pointing out.

I agree.

In Ananda Sutta SN 44.10, the Buddha cites two kinds of reasons for not answering Vaccagotta’s question. One is that his answers would be then conforming to either one of the extreme views of eternalism or annihilationism. The second was that by answering the question in either the affirmative or the negative, he would hinder Vaccagotta’s spiritual growth and leave him further bewildered about such psychological matters.

But just seeing the two doctrines as false is not the only reason why notions of self and not self are said to melt away. The ideas of self and not-self are strategies that we have used all this while in saṃsāra to get happiness, thinking that the short-term happiness it yields is all there is. But when one attains nibbāṇa, neither perceptions of self nor perceptions of not self are required any more to produce happiness. A security beyond the dimensions of space and time has been realized. The raft is set aside and one is free to go wherever one pleases.

But if with regard to such a happiness, a trace of clinging and ‘self-ing’ still remains, it is termed by the Buddha as the highest form of clinging (AN 9.36), something that anāgamīs are characterized by.

I have heard of this very often, especially in Sri Lankan and Burmese schools. But actually, the Buddha talks of a living being as something “fetterred” to one of the aggregates (SN 23.2). So by this definition an arahant cannot be described as a “being” at all, yet he is not unconscious, and his consciousness is completely unsupported. So I don’t know if “stream of consciousness” is appropriate to describe a person or a being.

That said, the idea of stream of consciousness does come from the Canon itself. There is a place in the Canon where the Buddha gives the analogy that kamma is the field (khettam), consciousness is the seed (bīja), and craving is the moisture (sineho). So when craving is present, it results in papañca, and new consciousness is produced as a result. So this is how consciousness proliferates, taking support from the low (hīnāya) conditions, and remains fettered.


#10

Dear Balaji,

It seems to me that you are positing the existence of a self outside of the five aggregates that can choose to use a strategy of self and a strategy of no self when it suits it and that can enjoy Nibbāna after the five aggregates of an Arahant break apart. Or am I mistaken?

With metta,
Raivo


#11

Dear Raivo,

I didn’t intend to mean anything like that. Pardon me if I am not very clear.

Please do refer to Ajahn Thanissaro’s essay “Not self strategy” for a detailed explanation. But I’ll try to offer whatever little explanation I can. But kindly pardon me if I am not very clear.

Your question assumes that a self exists independently, and it acts. Maybe I could paraphrase your question as “Who chooses to perceive self or not self?”. But that is not the sort of question that the Buddha answered. See Phagguna Sutta for example, where he brushes aside questions like “Who feeds?”, “Who makes contact?” etc. Instead the Buddha focuses on the issue of what should and shouldn’t be done, and how they should be done, keeping the results in mind.

The Buddha illustrated this very well to his own son Rahula. He begins by telling Rahula, “That’s how little of a contemplative there is in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie.” Look at the perception of self involved here. Even feeling shame is a sort of perception of self. But he talks of shame, and not guilt. Shame is on having acted in a particular way, seeing the action as beneath oneself. But guilt is to see oneself as a bad person, underserving in some way. This sort of perception of self is avoided.

So the important question is not so much “Who is perceiving as a self or not self?”, or whether there is a self or not, but “How to choose the potential to act, so that it leads to my long-term happiness?” The notion of self comes basically from our potential to act. That is why the whole issue of self is better thought of as an action, rather than as an entity that exists or does not exist.

Let’s look at another example: Say there are two students in a class, one good at math and the other, not so good at it. Now the teacher could divide the kids as “math kind of kid” and “not a math kind of kid”. Considering oneself to be “not a math kind of kid” the second one is quite unlikely to make any progress in math at all. On the other hand, considering himself to be a “math kind of kid”, the first one would become complacent and fail to develop other skills outside of math.

Instead if the teacher teaches them to analyze their own skills in this way: “What skill do I lack, and how may I try to develop it?”, then with effort, both kids will learn well. They will see the ability to do math not as an intrinsic capability that they either have or not have, and instead see it as a skill.

In the same way, having been bewildered by dukkha in saṃsāra, one person may think “I am a sinner, tainted with Original sin. Only God can save me.” and another person may think “I am intrinsically pure and undefiled. Defilement is just a superficial layer on top”. Both fail to spiritually evolve, either due to stupidity, or complacence. Instead if they analyze their own actions and see where there are areas of improvements, then they can make spiritual progress.

Now, so far you have seen how a perception of self can be detrimental. Now we shall see some cases where a perception of self can be used profitably.

Now take the student that is not so good at math. He considers: “What do I do to solve a math problem right? Maybe I need to observe the other kids more.” Having thought so, he associates with kids that are better at math than him. He then observes their studying practice and how they work at home. He thinks to himself: “Here is an example. Maybe I too should sit and train myself?” Having done that, he observes that he watches a lot of television. So he considers: “What if I watch television only after I have done my math homework?” He comes down to do his homework thinking: “Now I am going to be productive. May I become better at math.”. And having come down to do his homework, he sees that he lacks a lot of fundamental skills. He thinks, “I should train myself in arithmetic of large numbers, and then move on to simple algebra.” In this way, the student will make significant progress in math.

Now in a similar way, we can take the spiritual seeker. Having observed that one has bad company and doesn’t associate with wise people, one thinks to himself: “I should associate with wise people. Why do I associate with these drunkards?” Having seen a community of monks, practicing well, one thinks to oneself: “Here is an example of how one could live a good life. Can I too make small attempts to live a similar life?” Having considered so he considers: “I have amassed a lot of things and distract myself in sensual pleasures? How may I live a simpler life?” Having considered that he decides to donate, and thinks: “I am making good karmic use of my wealth. May I be happy in the long term”. In doing so he observes that he doesn’t have many fundamental skills. He has hatred for himself or for others. So he considers: “I should carefully observe my resolves. What sort of resolves do I engage in? Why do I generate hatred for myself or others?”. He sits down to meditate at home thinking: “I shall meditate on metta - or goodwill - for myself and others. Then I shall observe my mind more deeply”. In this way, he makes spiritual progress.

Notice that each of his thoughts here involve thinking in terms of self, but also as an agent of actions. In each case, he considers the choices he has and chooses what ought to be done. In the earlier examples, he was pronouncing a judgement over himself.

I hope that helped. If not, perhaps it is better you seek advice from wiser people in the Sangha.


#12

Dear Balaji,

It’s possible (even very likely) that we are just misunderstanding each other. It is also possible that we mean completely different things when we say self. I understand that it takes craving to start the process of overcoming craving and that seems to be what you are getting at.

To me, when it comes to a notion of self, a potential to act isn’t necessary, only an identification with one or more of the five aggregates or to put it another way, an identification with some part of our experience (“I am” or “I am this”).

If we’re talking about what would be best for our long term happiness then that would be the ending of rebirth. As I understand the Dhamma, that’s only possible when we clearly see that there’s really no being here in the first place, just form, feeling, perception, volition and conciousness…all impermanent, suffering and not self. To me that is a very useful way of looking at things in everyday life and especially in meditation.

With metta,
Raivo


#13

Ok, I probably should have read this before my previous answer to you but I have read it now and would like to make two comments:

On page 10, Venerable Thanissaro says: “Second, the passage shows that such questions as ‘Is there a self?’ ‘Is there no self?’ ‘Am I?’ ‘Am I not?’ ‘What am I?’ all fall into the category of questions that should consistently be put aside, regardless of who asks them. Thus the Buddha’s first three reasons for not answering Vacchagotta’s questions hold not only in Vacchagotta’s case, but in every case where those questions or their equivalents are asked.”

Now in that MN2 passage, the questions ‘Is there a self?’ or ‘Is there no self?’ are never mentioned. What I’m getting at, is that there is a huge difference between ‘Do I have a self?’ and ‘Is there a self?’ and similarly ‘Do I not have a self?’ and ‘Is there no self?’. The first way of phrasing makes it possible for a self we own to be annihilated but the second way makes it possible for no self to exist in the first place. Since I’m relying on the English translation in making that conclusion, I might be totally wrong. So please correct me if the Pali makes my point pointless. :smiley:

Secondly, in chapter 6, Venerable Thanissaro seems to be talking about unfabricated or unconditioned phenomena experienced in Nibbāna. I understand that Nibbāna is free from conditioned phenomena, but to leap to a conclusion that therefore it has unconditioned phenomena seems to me to be bordering on craving (similarly, abandoning the view ‘I have a self’ does not automatically mean taking up the view ‘I have no self’).

I’ve come to think of Nibbāna as the cessation of experience that is made permanent through realizing that compared to it everything experienced (even the subtlest form of happiness) either is painful or leads to pain. Maybe the Bhantes can comment if I’m headed in the wrong direction here…

With metta,
Raivo


#14

Hi Raivo,

Thanks for your interesting questions. Your point that the two questions are totally different is somewhat right. But the Pali Canon doesn’t draw the implication you draw (you draw the implication that one expression would mean that it is possible for just my self to be annihilated, and the second expression would mean that there is no self to begin with).

The Pali for the passage you quote from Ven. Thanissaro’s translation (MN 2) goes as follows. Here we see examples of the statement of cognition “I have a self”.

tassa evaṃ ayoniso manasikaroto channaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ aññatarā diṭṭhi uppajjati. ‘atthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati; ‘natthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati; ‘attanāva attānaṃ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati; ‘attanāva anattānaṃ sañjānāmī’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati

Here the Pali words go - one could translate it either literally (as shown first), or in the way you have framed it:

atthi me attā’ti (that my self exists OR that I have a self)
natthi me attā’ti (that my self doesn’t exist OR that I don’t have a self)

Note however, that after this, the Buddha follows it up with other statements that he classes together “through the self, I know self” or “through self, I know not self” etc. This is precisely the question you asked earlier: “Is there a self (outside of the aggregates) that chooses to perceive self or not self?” The Buddha says that one of inappropriate attention attends in such ways.

Now we will take another place in the Canon (SN 44.10) where the second kind of question (“Is there a self?”) is presented:

ekamantaṃ nisinno kho vacchagotto paribbājako bhagavantaṃ etadavoca: “kiṃ nu kho, bho gotama, atthattā”ti? evaṃ vutte, bhagavā tuṇhī ahosi. “kiṃ pana, bho gotama, natthattā”ti? dutiyampi kho bhagavā tuṇhī ahosi. atha kho vacchagotto paribbājako uṭṭhāyāsanā pakkāmi.

Here are the Pali words again:

***kiṃ nu kho, bho gotama, atthattā’ti?***: (Now, is it the case, O Gotama, that there is a self?)
***kiṃ pana, bho gotama, natthattā’ti?***: (Is it then the case, O Gotama, that there is no self?)

And we know that the Buddha remained silent to both questions!

So in other words, the Buddha would not have answered the questions “Is there a self?”, “Is there no self?”. Furthermore, he criticized the belief that “there is a separate self that chooses to perceive self or not self”. In other words, he didn’t want us to think of what the self is and try to define its locus, but to think in terms of what we can do with our potential to act. It is only to the extent that we can act, that we have control.

This is why Ven. Thanissaro emphasizes that the central teaching of the Buddha is NOT anatta - it is kamma. Anatta is a teaching that fits in that framework of skillful and unskillful karma.

This pragmatic emphasis is seen even in the Buddha’s explanation of the mind. He never defines what the mind really is. He only says what the mind can do. And intention (cetanā) is what he defines as kamma (cetanāhaṃ, bhikkhave kammam vadāmi - AN 6.63). And despite being the master of the apt simile, even the Buddha has to admit that he cannot find an apt simile to describe how swiftly the mind can change.

So, instead of thinking in terms of “Do I exist?”, “Is there a self?”, all of which are motivated by a desire to know the extent to which we have control, the Buddha offered us a different framework to think: the four noble truths. In this framework, the focus is on our actions and the results it produces. Each of the four noble truths come with its own duty. For example the first sacca (dukkha) is said to be pariññeya (ought to be understood/known/fully comprehended), the second sacca (dukkhasamudaya) is said to be pahātabba (ought to be abandoned). And so forth. The problem with us is that we do the wrong duty with regard to the truths. For example, when we encounter dukkha, instead of understanding and knowing it, we try to abandon it! We were supposed to abandon the cause of dukkha!

I don’t think Ven. Thanissaro is coming to the conclusion that there are unconditioned phenomena in nibbāṇa. Can you please point out how you came to that conclusion? In fact, nibbāna itself is the end of all conditioned phenomena.

I don’t think that is quite right. Nibbāṇa is beyond the horizon of our normal experience, sure. But it is certainly not the end of all experience. But you’d very probably be right in saying that in comparison to nibbāṇa, even the subtlest form of happiness is painful.

I don’t know if I answered your questions at all. And I do hope you would forgive me, and find someone more helpful, if I confused you instead. If on the other hand, some Bhante finds any errors in my understanding, I would be happy to be corrected.

Mettā,
Balaji


#15

So you are saying that to end rebirth, we just need to know that there is no being there at all? So then how does the perception of a being cause one to be reborn?

Your approach is similar to a later Buddhist school’s approach of simply denying the problem altogether. If there is no being at all, then there is no suffering, and no need for liberation at all! Problem solved, because there is no problem to begin with!! This however, is definitely not how the Buddha approached it. If there really is no problem to begin with, then why did the Buddha leave us with his last dying words on heedfulness? Why did he even have to teach if there are no beings to begin with?

The fact is that there are dangers out there in the world, and dangers within us. The dangers out there, can cause physical damage, and can be controlled only to a certain extent. But the dangers within are more insidious, but well within our control. This is a very important point the Buddha makes.

So one can’t just say “sabbe sañkhārā aniccā” and think that we are seeing the truth as it is. We have to first form a refuge, a protection for the heart, by developing skillful qualities of the mind, and then deconstructing the whole notion of a being.

And when one comes to deconstruct the notion of a being, and gets enlightened, it is not that there is no being at all to begin with.

Instead one comes to understand that what is called a being is actually composed of clinging to the five aggregates. It is NOT composed of the aggregates itself, but composed of the clinging to the five aggregates. One then sees that this clinging leads to punabbhava - rebirth. And so one puts an end to clinging altogether. For this one has to put an end to the āsavā (effluents/cankers/leakages).

So there is a lot to do here. It is not merely “there is no being here to begin with”.

This is precisely the problem with our sāṃsārik condition. We don’t think in terms of our potential to act, but instead in terms of “I am”, or “I am this”. This is precisely what is called sakkāya-diṭṭhi. And it is a tricky problem to get around, because one can’t get around it by merely assuming “I am not”, or “I don’t exist”, or “I am not this”.

In fact, some philosophies like Vedanta reinforce it by stating that it is all one needs to realize. And on the other hand, the atheists and secularists reinforce the opposite view “I am not” or “there is no self”. As Ven. Brahmali pointed out, one needs deep insight into the nature of the clinging aggregates to weaken sakkāya-diṭṭhi. And only when there is dispassion (nabbidā) with regard to the clinging aggregates, can one start the destruction of the āsavā. When all the āsavā are destroyed, then one has done his job - there is no further rebirth.

Hope this helps.

Mettā,
Balaji


#16

Hi Balaji,

All I meant to point out was that in MN2, all the questions have an “I” in them or presuppose the existence of a being, but Vacchagotta’s didn’t, so I’m not sure if Venerable Thanissaro was right in using this passage as an example to illustrate his point. The difference to me is like instead of “It is liberated” one would know “My mind is liberated” at the time of liberation. Also, notice that the Buddha left out the view “through not self, the not self is known” from the list of views that fetter.

And to clarify, I didn’t ask whether there is a self that chooses to perceive self or not self but if you proposed the existance of such a self :stuck_out_tongue: I kind of got that impression from your first post. But I’m glad to know that neither of us actually do so.

As to the rest, I feel a bit outgunned here, so I’d be glad if the Bhantes helped clarify things when they get the time.

With metta,
Raivo


#17

No, what I’m saying, is that in order to end rebirth we need to clearly see as it actually is that there is no being there at all.

I basically agree with this.

How is thinking “I have the potential to act” different from “I have a body” or “I am concious”. In the first case, we cling to volitional formations aggregate, in the second case, to the form aggregate and in the third case, the conciousness aggregate. Isn’t it all sakkāya-diṭṭhi?

With metta,
Raivo


#18

Hi Raivo,

I am a little puzzled now. So when someone clearly sees what a being really is, you call it “clearly seeing as it is that there is no being there at all”. Is this true?

It is not that there is no being there at all. In fact, precisely because there are beings that can follow him, the Buddha taught the Dhamma.

It is a different matter that when one puts an end to clinging, one cannot be described as a being, or a non-being. One is completely beyond description, altogether. But that doesn’t mean that there was no being there to begin with.

Thanks a lot for the wonderful discussion, though. :smile:

Thanks,
Balaji


#19

Indeed! You’re absolutely right! :smile: But to give up all clinging to all aggregates, first one needs to grab hold of some intentional aggregates to begin with. One can’t start with completely abandoning all aggregates. The problem is not with the aggregates themselves. When used well, they can be very useful indeed. The problem is with our clinging to the aggregates.

If you have a ladder and wish to climb up a building, you have to first grab hold of the ground and the ladder before you get on to the first rung. Then you need to have a good grip on the first rung with your left foot before you step on the second rung with your right foot. If you don’t you’ll slip.

In the same way, you need to make use of the aggregates first to form a path. When you carry the aggregates around, they weigh on you like a pile of bricks. But when you lay them down and pave the road with it, it forms a path. And indeed this is what we do with the aggregates. We use our body to meditate, we use bodily fabrications like breath, posture etc. That is using the rūpa khanda. We then direct our thoughts to the breath, whether it is long or short, comfortable or not, that is saññā khandha. Then we use our will to train ourselves to perceive the whole body, or we use the will to generate goodwill (mettābhāvanā) for others and ourselves. This is sañkhāra khandha. Even giving up sensual pleasures is an intention and is a sañkhāra. And so forth.

When we are caught in the flood of samsāra, we have to grab hold of the raft. Only when we have reached the safety of the further shore that we should give up the raft. This point is beautifully illustrated by the Buddha in the Alagadupama Sutta. You may want to read the translator’s note for further explanation of this point.

So before we “let go” of things, we have to first build a good refuge and protection for ourselves. We build a refuge and a path with the five aggregates and grasp things properly. The problem is that we use the aggregates unskillfully. So we need to drop the unskillful ones and develop skillful uses of the aggregates first. It is only later that we drop whatever remaining clinging we may have for the aggregates. At that point, we would have gone beyond the categories of skillful and unskillful. We would be in the safety of the further shore.


#20

Hi Balaji,

I think so, but words are tricky and as can be seen from our back and forth, it’s hard to understand what the other person actually means by their words. :stuck_out_tongue:

What I meant to say, is that beings only exists in a conventional sense and not in an ultimate sense. If they really existed and after liberation ceased existing, that really would be annihilation. But because our (illusion of) self is exclusively made up of “non-self parts” it can be said that there really is no being, just a complicated non-self process that ignorantly believes there’s some permanent self in the very core of it and that keeps on getting reborn just because of that illusion.

I would also like to thank you for our discussion. Perhaps we both came out as winners from it. :wink:

With metta,
Raivo