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Bodhi vs Ṭhānissaro debate

I understand this argument when the Buddha speaks to normal lay people or secterian atta-ists. I don’t understand this argument at all when he talks to very advanced monastics. Sorry, but it’s in the nature of language that everything can be misinterpreted. In the 1000s of suttas there must have been someone ‘with little dust in their eyes’ - and there were. And they also would misinterpret?

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He said many times that there is no self to be found neither within the aggregates neither anywhere else in the world. He always used “there is no self to be found”, he never used “there is no self”. That would not only be subject to misinterpretation but it would also be semantically incorrect.

I think Brhamajala Sutta gives the answer to this question.

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.01.0.bodh.html

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The quotes would help in this case, don’t you think?

Again, a quote would help if you mean a specific passage. It’s a long sutta…

The quotes would help in this case, don’t you think?

There is even such a thing as deliverance through voidness…

And what, friend, is the deliverance of mind through
voidness? Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a
tree or to an empty hut, reflects thus: ‘This is void of a self or of
what belongs to a self.’ [298] This is called the deliverance of
mind through voidness.

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Exactly.

I try to avoid using the word “subject” in such cases. As i understand it, in Buddhism (and in science, or at least I think it should be in science!) all “principles” or “natural laws” are mere descriptions (upādāya paññatti). Thus they are generalizations inferred from experience, but they do not “exist” in any sense, and hence have no power to “subject” anything.

So the better way to phrase it would be, “Is it appropriate to describe Nibbana in such terms?”

To which the answer is, sure, why not? Nibbana is described as not-self in the late canonical Parivara, which shows that the early Theravada tradition, at least, had no problem using it in that way. I don’t think it’s philosophically problematic: clearly, Nibbana doesn’t fulfill the normal requirements for something to be a “self”.

I think it’s more just a matter of context; these specific phrases were dealing with a different topic (insight meditation), so it’s not a good idea to use them to support an argument on the nature of Nibbana.

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Discussions around self and no-self are pointless as they are assuming there are objects in this universe.
I believe the Buddha as I am was interested in processes not in objects.
Processes start, evolve and then cease due to causes and conditions, there is nothing solid, no essence about them.
Seeing everything, including ourselves, as processes brings a very deep understanding of the dhamma.

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Indeed, that is true, but one of the most important processes to understand is the one through which self-view arised. This opinion that there is a self did not appear because of nothing, it appeared because of something, it appeared through a specific process.

It is not enough to just leave it like that. The “higher dhamma” regarding dependent origination, how the aggregates work, no self, etc. is all about explaining in detail how it all works. Only by seeing in detail the processes that are behind it can we fully understand it.

The kind of inferring you seem to be referring to is known today as induction. While inference in general can be misapplied, induction seem particularly prone to misuse. I think it’s certainly difficult, in a non-sarcastic way.

It’s clear to me these pitfalls were well known by the Buddha. A general teaching on problems of inference is found in the Cūlahatthipadopama Sutta (MN 27).

But we also find the particular issue of induction in DN 1:

Here, monks, a certain ascetic or Brahmin has by means of effort, extortion, application, earnestness and right attention attained to such a state of mental concentration that he thereby recalls past existences – one birth, two births, … ten births, a hundred births, a thousand births […] Thus he remembers various past lives, their conditions and details. And he says “the self and the world are eternal, barren like a mountain-peal, set firmly as a post. There beings rush round, circulate, pass away and re-arise, but this remains eternally. Why so? I have by means of effort, extortion, attained to such a state of mental concentration that I have thereby recalled various past existences…That is how I know the self and the world are eternal”

…while the Buddha appears talking about the “origin of the world” in rather differently manner (SN 22.100):

Bhikkhus, this saṃsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving….

That is, while the induction is reproved in the former quote (particularly, in the case of the world), it is carefully absent in the latter.

I think the same care can be seen in MN 22:

Bhikkhus, you may well cling to that doctrine of self that would not arouse sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who clings to it. But do you see any such doctrine of self, bhikkhus?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Good, bhikkhus. I too do not see any doctrine of self that would not arouse sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who clings to it.

So, in the absence of an explicit assertion, It seems prudent to take to heart the advice the Buddha gave to Mālunkyāputta (MN 63):

Therefore, Mālunkyāputta, remember what I have left undeclared as undeclared, and remember what I have declared as declared.

Not only prudent, but probably the safest route to preserve his words as they were handed down.

Finally, we read the Buddha saying the following of the Noble Disciple (SN 12.20):

When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, […] he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ‘Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being—where has it come from, and where will it go?’

At the same time, he praised investigating the teachings:

‘How is this? What is the meaning of this?’ They make open what isn’t open, make plain what isn’t plain, dispel doubt on its various doubtful points.

So, I think there’s value in discussing how the suttas should be interpreted and how the dhamma should be practiced. But, if following the example of a Noble Disciple is of value, discussing whether there’s a self or not, apart from the texts…perhaps it’s not something valuable – maybe, the opposite.

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I am not sure this is still within the same context, but here a quote from the Venerable Dhammanando over from Dhammawheel:

The writer you quote seems to be treating the Dhammapada Commentary’s interpretation (which he approves of) as if it were the sole and normative definition of dhammā in this context. But in fact it’s unique and exceptional. Everywhere else the commentaries support the view that the writer rejects, the usual gloss being:

‘Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’ ti sabbe tebhūmakasaṅkhārā aniccā.
‘Sabbe dhammā anattā’ ti sabbe catubhūmakadhammā anattā.

‘All saṅkhāras are impermanent’ means that all saṅkhāras belonging to the three planes are impermanent.
‘All dhammas are not self’ means that all dhammas belonging to the four planes are not self.
(SA.ii.318; )

The three planes are those of sense-desires, refined-form and formlessness. The four planes are the same with the addition of the supramundane. (Source: https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?t=16264#p232064)

Ven Ṭhānissaro doesn’t actually claim this, namely, that the Buddha was an eel-wriggler. The Buddha did not eel-wriggle in the sutta that you say that Ven Ṭhānissaro takes out of context. The Buddha remained silent as to not eel-wriggle. If we are thinking about the same sutta.

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I have a feeling you too have only read the first half of that sutta just like Thanissaro. In the second half of that sutta, the Buddha explains why he answered like that.

His alternative was eel-wriggling, IMO, hence why he did not do it. Attempting to engage with Vacchagotta’s vexation in such a manner would lead down that path, if we together presume that there would be an attempt to avoid Vacchagotta believing that his self had been annihilated. One person can’t have a conversation between two people.

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Okay, well that may well be correct, I am recalling an essay I read many years ago. I’d like to see some contexts, though, I’ll see if I can find them.

We start developing a sense of self/ego at the age of 18 months to two years as result of our interaction with the world. The primary function of the ego is to influence how others perceive us. It is an always-changing-construction that we constantly build and defend against others believing we will be stronger if we have a strong ego. Interestingly the more the ego is diminished the stronger we become and we navigate much more smoothly in the world. I should remember that as a child I had no ego and that I was functioning very well. Why did I built an ego then? Because I was starting to crave for … whatever and was not getting it.

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Self-preservation is an Anusaya. (latent factors).
Any being has an ego whether small or large even if we are unconscious.
Arahants are conscious but they have eliminated the self-identification.

Thank you for this pearl of wisdom Bhante, this helps very much with the questions I asked you the other day regarding consciousness. Furthermore, I have discovered your youtube videos and am working my way through them, very informative and enjoyable.

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Hi piotr and all, :slight_smile:

The anattā teachings are, I think, clearly a refutation of the variety of attā ideas. Take the texts where the Buddha says (paraphrased): “Wanderers of other sects belief this and that to be a self, but I don’t belief this and that to be a self”. (SN44.7 - 8) We can take this at face value; there is no need to see it as a strategy. In DN1, MN102, etc, we see that the wanderers of other sects were not teaching “self strategies”, but were making claims to truth, just as essentially all religions still do now, and have always done before. And so the anattā teachings, being a direct response to those views, are claims to truth too.

I was quite surprised to see people are on the fence about this. It’s not that the suttas are unclear about it, in my opinion. So here’s a few things I think are incorrect in the essay The Limits of Description: Not-self Revisited. I’ll only address its main points.


On the Buddha not answering:

  • In SN44.10 the Buddha remained silent when Vaccha asked, “does the self not exist?” (The Pali is n’atth’attā?, usually translated “is there no self?”.) The essay argues the Buddha refused to answer because “questions related to the […] non-existence of the self aren’t worth paying attention to”. (p7) But the Buddha’s own explanation is: “If I would have replied ‘the self doesn’t exist’ (n’atth’attā), that would have confused Vaccha even more, making him think the self he had was no longer there.” So according to the Buddha it’s simply a pragmatic decision to stay silent—one clearly based on the belief that ‘the self’ in fact doesn’t exist, since otherwise he could have said whatever else he believed and Vaccha would not have been so confused. So in light of his own explanation, the Buddha must have been silent because he actually believed there was no self.

  • On the same sutta, on p9: “If, in SN 44.10 he had wanted to state such an analytical position [“there is no self”] to Ven. Ānanda, who was present at the conversation and who surely would have understood him, he would have. But he didn’t.” He did, though. He said that his knowledge (knowledge, not strategy—I’ll get back to this) was sabbe dhammā anattā, “everything is without a self”. This is just how the Buddha preferred to say, in effect, “there is no self”. The Pali n’atth’attā sort of assumes “the self” implicitly and also has the connotation “the self won’t exist”, so can be mistaken as an annihilist statement. But sabbe dhammā anattā doesn’t have those problems, and is also more pragmatic, because it forces you to consider sabbe dhammā, ‘every thing’. So that’s what the Buddha used.

  • We can wonder why the Buddha didn’t answer Vaccha in another way, but it will never be more than guessing. My own humble guess is that it’s because Vaccha asks these kinds of questions again and again throughout the suttas. The Samyutta Nikāya even contains a specific section on Vacchagotta (assuming it’s the same guy) asking such questions, which alone makes for 55 suttas. (SN33) And then there’s MN72 and such, as well. So that’s why the Buddha anticipated his reaction, and didn’t try to teach anattā to him yet again. I think this guess is much more reasonable than all that the essay infers from mere silence. This unique sutta should be interpreted in light of others, not taken as the “main argument” (p3) for things it doesn’t say, in my humble opinion.

On wrong views:

  • Contrary to what the essay makes me belief on p3, p9 and elsewhere, MN2 does not say “there is no self” is a wrong view or a wrong reflection. The closest the sutta gets to that, is “I have no self”. But what is wrong here, is not the “no self” part, but the “I have” part: it is the thought/conceit “I” or “mine”. All wrong ideas in MN2 come down to some sort of view of “I”, “mine”, or self. But the view “there is no self” is never said to be wrong—not just in MN2, but in the entire Canon—which goes to show it is actually quite alright. (“I have no self” is exactly the kind of wrong view Vocchagotta would have ended up having in SN44.10.)

On “existence or non-existence”:

  • SN12.15 is about dependent arising & cessation, “the truth (dhamma) that lies in the middle” between an eternal self (“it will exist”) and the annihilation of a self (“it won’t exist”). Dependent arising/cessation is an explanation of how life works. It is not a “mental state” “where there are no thoughts of ‘existence’ or ‘non-existence’” (p1&11). It is not “an advanced stage of right view” (p11) either, but the standard right view of all the noble ones: “One who sees dependent arising sees the truth (dhamma).” (MN28) It’s the right view where you “don’t assume to have a self.” (SN12.15)

  • P8: “[I]f you assumed that there was no self […] you’d fall into either of the two extremes listed in Iti 49”. The extremes in Iti49 are actually both views of self: “devas and humans delight in existence”, which implies an eternal self, and “this self […] at death, is annihilated and destroyed”, clearly the annihilation of a self. Neither of these is “there is no self”. They are the opposite.

On the arahant after death:

  • SN22.86 explains that the Buddha did not take any of the four positions on what happens to an Tathāgata after death (he still exists, no longer exists, both, or neither), because there is no self, no essence that is the Tathāgata even before death. It’s not that (p8) “you can’t even define [a Tathāgata] in the present life”, that there is a Tathāgata who is beyond the limits of language—it’s that “Tathāgata” is just an empty name, a label, it’s nothing real. So you can not say that it lives on or that it ceases to be. It’s like asking, “where does the wind go when it stops blowing?” or “where does a flame go when it goes out?” (“Just as you can not point at a flame which disappears, blown out by a gust of wind, so you can not point at ‘a sage’, liberated from body and mind, who disappears.” — Snp5.7.)

  • On p7: “When [the Buddha was] presented with the fourfold question […] he refused to agree to any of the alternatives. If he held the unspoken assumption that there really is no self, then he wouldn’t have had to take such pains to avoid taking a stand on the issue.” The reason the Buddha himself gave for his refusal is the exact opposite of this. In SN44.8, when explicitly asked why he didn’t take any of the four positions, he responded it was because he saw no self in, among, outside, or as the owner of the five aggregates. (Cf. SN22.79.) Again, the problem with all four statements is that they all assume the Tathāgata, i.e., a self. It’s not about something existing beyond the limits of description.

There are also some issues with translation:

  • According to the PTS dictionary yathābhūta means “in reality, in truth, really, definitely, absolutely; as ought to be, truthfully, in its real essence”, but p12 translates it as “in the course of actually happening”. That this is wrong is evident from SN22.55, for example, which says: “According to reality (yathābhūta) he understands that consciousness will cease to be.” You obviously can’t understand that consciousness is going to cease one day “in the course of actually happening”. Other things to be understood, not as they happen, but according to reality, are birth and death, what is wholesome and what is not, what the eightfold path is, the fact of impermanence, et cetera. This wrong translation skews the interpretation of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (SN22.59) quite a bit. (p7) (In old translations Venerable Thanissaro had yathābhūta correctly as “as it actually is”. The new translations—three different ones in the essay, p7,11,12—are all incorrect.)

  • SN22.55 also says: “According to reality he understands consciousness, which has no self, to have no self.” This is not a perception to lessen suffering “as it is happening”, but an actual understanding, an insight into reality. As you may have noticed, it says, “he understands” (pajānāti). Similarly, you often find yathābhūta and anattā together with words like pañña (understanding or wisdom), ñāna (knowledge), vijjā (“true knowledge”, the opposite of avijjā, “ignorance/delusion”), and such. Understanding and insight: that’s what the Buddha had, not mere techniques. I’m pointing this out because the word “discernment” (p7) has many connotations that the Pali pañña doesn’t. Pañña means actually understanding something.

Part of the essay discusses the suttas where anattā is said to be practiced as a perception. These suttas do not refute the standard interpretation of anattā, but are complementary to it, as Bhikkhu Bodhi has pointed out at length. To put it briefly: the truth of anattā is not just to be taken as truth, as a simple fact, but also to be realized, to be practiced towards. This requires changing deeply ingrained wrong perceptions into perceptions that accord with the truth, so we can get to see according to reality (yathābhūta). So the perception of anattā is a strategy of sorts indeed. But anattā itself is not.


So is there a self? Sure, it’s a “metaphysical/ontological question” (p3). But not one that is beyond answering, and certainly not beyond the Buddha’s reach, or anybody’s reach. It’s not impossible to see the aggregates/six senses can stop and infer from that that there isn’t a self.

When, friend, a bhikkhu understands as they really are the origin and the passing away of the six bases for contact, in this way his vision is well purified. (SN35.245)

This is an inference. Obviously whoever said this still had six senses. But he knew that they will forever cease in the future, probably also that particularly the mind arises and cease all the time, (like day and night - SN12.61) and that they therefore aren’t self.

And to know whether there is a self or not is not just a metaphysical question. If we are to fully understand rebirth, karma, and samsara it’s actually very pragmatic. It’s actually just a start in understanding these things. (That’s why it constitutes stream entry, not arahantship.)

“The world is empty of a self.” – SN35.85


My two cents !

Thanks for reading. :slight_smile:

I wouldn’t have gone to these lengths if Bhikkhu Bodhi hasn’t gone to much greater. :smiley: Apparently the ideas that anatta is a strategy is not as marginal as I thought. :slight_smile: Sorry if I misrepresented the idea.

:sunny:

:penguin: :cactus:

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Thanks so much, Sunyo, that was well put.

One passage that I would add here is that of Mogharaja at Snp 5.16. Thanissaro contrasts this with the questions of Vacchagotta, saying that the Buddha answered Mogharaja’s questions, whereas he didn’t answer Vacchagotta. The difference must be that Mogharaja asked about a strategy:

How should I view the world so that the king of death does not see me?

But if you look at the text, rather than just the immediate passage quoted by Thanissaro, it begins with Mogharaja saying this:

Dvāhaṃ sakkaṃ apucchissaṃ
I have asked the Sakyan twice,
Na me byākāsi cakkhumā
and the seer has not answered me.

Vacchagotta, of course, just asked once and left. So if he had been as patient as Mogharaja, perhaps we would have been spared all this!

According to the commentary, the reason the Buddha delayed answering had nothing to do with whether it was strategic on ontological, but because when he first asked, Mogharaja was not ready. But as he sat patiently with his friends, and listened to the various questions and answers, his wisdom matured, so the Buddha answered when the time was right.

Obviously we can’t rely on this as a historical source, but it is not unreasonable. And it is basically the same reason the Buddha gave for not answering Vacchagotta: because the questioner would not have understood properly.


In addition, there is also the problem that “existence” implied “eternal existence”, which I have previously discussed in a couple of posts:

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I learned something interesting on this by listening to Bhikkhu Bohdi’s audio course on Pali, Lesson 3, last night. He was covering the reading number 1 on page 29 of the book A New Course in Reading Pali. And there the reading is from the Questions of King Milinda. And the king asks Nagasena “Is there anyone who transmigrates from one body to another?” Nasasena says “Certainaly not.” And the king says “But if nobody transmigrates from one body to another then everyone is free from evil karma!” And Nagasena says “If there were no relinking, then everyone would be free from evil karma, but because there is relinking everyone is not free from evil karma.” And the king says like “So then there can be relinking without transmigration?” And Nagasena says “There can be relinking without transmigration.”

Whereas the online translation easy to find says “rebirth” Bhikkhu Bohdi and the text book also show the term has a notion of reunion, hence Bhikkhu Bohdi suggested relinking as a translation. Now Bikkhu Bohdi for his part towed the line of Theravada orthodoxy in saying what is opposed here is a soul, and he said what is being asserted is a mind-stream etc etc as is usual. But, the translation relinking, and transmigration being set against relinking is interesting because to me it shows that the issue is not one of teaching soul vs no soul, but of corporeal soul vs extra-corporeal soul. In other words, what is opposed is the notion that the soul literally lives in the body, literally exits the body at death, literally enters a new body, VERSUS the idea that the soul is outside the body (presumably also outside the world, or transcendent) and only loses a link to one body at death and establishes a new link to a new body without actually entering that body (i.e. creates a vinnana and puts it in the body on its behalf, per dependent origination, where it is said that where there is ignorance then there is sankhara (formation/creation) then vinnana then namarupa, etc., i.e. where this extracorporal transcendent soul is still ignorant it creates a consciousness to emanate forth and sit in the body on its behalf).