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Curious case of the Anatta discourse

In SN22.59 Anattalakkhaṇasutta, two arguments were presented. In the first argument, five aggregates were categorically stated as not-self because they lead to affliction and cannot be compelled otherwise as desired. The second one question if they are fit to be regarded as self since they are impermanent, perishable and Dukkha.

Any thoughts on why two arguments were presented. Why the first is firm on stating Anatta while second ask if they are befitting to be considered as self which seems more tone down? Are the two arguments related in any way? Do you think if there is a significance with the term affliction (ābādhāya) used in first argument vs suffering (Dukkhaṁ) in the second? Are they interchangeable or were they deliberately chosen to be different so as to highlight certain nuances?

First Argument

Mendicants, form is not-self. For if form were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction. And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’ But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction. And you can’t compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’

Second Argument

What do you think, mendicants? Is form permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, is it suffering or happiness?”

“Suffering, sir.”

“But if it’s impermanent, suffering, and perishable, is it fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’?”

“No, sir.”

“So you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

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A recent reflection I had on this.

Having these 2 levels is quite helpful in this golden age of superhero movies.

Consider 2 superhumans below, Medusa from the Inhumans and Mystique from X-men.

Medusa has the ability to control her hair. So she could will her hair to be this shape or that shape or move this or that way. Mystique has the ability to shape shift, so she can will her body to be this shape or that shape, to be this or that colour.

For them, the first argument is not enough to see no self.

They have to consider the second argument.

Even their bodies, hair are impermanent, for it grows old, is subject to death, decay. In that sense, it is suffering. Even with their superpowers, they don’t find eternal happiness (also due to the nature of comic books having to sell conflict in the stories). It is not fit to regard their body, hair, superpowers as “this is mine, I am this, or this is myself.”

Could also be that hard way and soft way can complement each other. If the hard way cannot work, gentler not fit to be considered self might change one’s mind.

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The reason there are two arguments is because of the Buddha’s investigation method, which is to examine both the external or synthesis, and internal or analysis. This means looking at how a thing operates within its environment and also how it is constructed. In general the Buddha was known in those times as a discriminating teacher (AN 10.94). In practice in the suttas the often used method of realization of non-self is through cultivating knowledge of impermanence. The way to approach contemplation of impermanence is to investigate the illusion of continuity exhibited by all material things. Reflection on their hidden life of ageing, decay, and death with concrete examples will eventually disclose the fabricated nature of perception. This meets internal resistance. As Analayo says, this is the ‘power’ aspect of meditation upon which everything else relies. It was this that enabled the awakening of the five companions to stream-entry when the Buddha delivered the present second discourse.

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The two arguments are distinct as pointed out by @NgXinZhao and @paul1 with the rationale for why there are two arguments. I am going to restate their ideas in my own words and based on where I was stuck on this issue.

The first rationale has to do with what we choose to consider or more appropriately feel to be the “Self” and why. In MN 35, The Shorter Discourse with Saccaka SuttaCentral, the example used by the Buddha is the absolute control a monarch has over dishing out punishments. I used to be confused by statements such as “may my form be thus” etc. that follow because most of our waking life is spent precisely in carrying out actions with such intents (e.g. changing diet and exercising for a change in the body). The difference, I realized, is that all such actions are examples of conditionality, but we take it to be examples of control over things. What is actually meant in the monarch example is pure wish accomplishing a goal. The extreme case of this was pointed out by @NgXinZhao by the superhero example and even there, ultimately, changing conditions are producing outcomes. If such actions continue to produce the illusion of continuity and power and control over things then the second rationale comes in. All such forms, thoughts, feelings etc. are impermanent and hence the entire situation is unsatisfactory or dukkha and none of the parts of the composite or the whole composite can be the Self. The method of internal investigation was briefly mentioned by @paul1.

Feel free to add, subtract, append, correct or disregard any of this.

with Metta

PS: It seems to me that the situation must be worse if one aquires certain powers (say via meditation) without appropriate level of insight because for ordinary people there is atleast a daily reminder of lack of control by way of unmet expectations (simple example being not reaching somehwere on time because the train was late).

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There are various kinds of forms -external and internal, coarse and fine etc. External, coarse forms are those encountered by the 5 Sense bases in the human/ animal plane. Internal forms are created by the Mind of the skilled meditator, fine material forms are created at the will of higher plane beings such as devas. Mind made internal forms are the basis for various psychic powers, encounters with Gods at higher planes etc. Being Mind made fabrications, such forms can be willed to be howsoever one wants. IMO, the first argument by the OP refers to external coarse forms which are commonly encountered by ordinary people, the second extends to the other kinds of forms which some skilled practitioners might aspire to, either through meditation or as a future birth.

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Thank you for all the responses. It is wonderful to have a community to discuss and clarify the Dhamma. I was drawn to this paragraph in MN35.

“What do you think, Aggivessana? Consider someone who clings, holds, and attaches to suffering, regarding it thus: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’ Would such a person be able to completely understand suffering themselves, or live having wiped out suffering?”

When one grasp the five aggregates, sense of ownership is established. Being bound to and immersed in the ownership of five aggregates, one would not be able understand Dukkha. This happened to most of the 5 ascetics after the first Discourse.

I suspect that the first argument was given to pry open the grasped of the view of 5 aggregates as self so that they could gain a better chance of understanding Dukkha; to establish right view.

The second argument would then be pertaining to the practice of perceiving impermanence, dukkha, anatta leading on to disenchantment and dispassion so as to be free from grasping which is the fuel for existence.

How do you define a disciple of Master Gotama who follows instructions and responds to advice; who has gone beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, gained assurance, and is independent of others in the Teacher’s instructions?”

“It’s when one of my disciples truly sees any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ They truly see any kind of feeling … perception … choices … consciousness at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all consciousness—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ That’s how to define one of my disciples who follows instructions and responds to advice; who has gone beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, gained assurance, and is independent of others in the Teacher’s instructions.”

And having seen this with right understanding they’re freed by not grasping. That’s how to define a mendicant who is a perfected one, with defilements ended, who has completed the spiritual journey, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, achieved their own true goal, utterly ended the fetters of rebirth, and is rightly freed through enlightenment.

That sequence is incorrect because knowledge of impermanence causes the subsequent understanding of the two other marks of existence. In fact it is not necessary to contemplate dukkha and anatta independently:

“The other two characteristics of conditioned existence – dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anattã (absence of a self) – become evident as a consequence of a direct experience and thereby realistic appreciation of the truth of impermanence. The discourses frequently point to this relationship between the three characteristics by presenting a progressive pattern that leads from awareness of impermanence (aniccasaññã) via acknowledging the unsatisfactory nature of what is impermanent (anicce dukkhasaññã) to appreciating the selfless nature of what is unsatisfactory (dukkhe anattasaññã).42
The same pattern features prominently in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, in which the Buddha instructed his first disciples to become clearly aware of the impermanent nature of each aspect of subjective experience, expounded in terms of the five aggregates. Based on this, he then led them to the conclusion that whatever is impermanent cannot yield lasting satisfaction and therefore does not qualify to be considered as “I”, “mine”, or “my self”.43 This understanding, after being applied to all possible instances of each aggregate, was powerful enough to result in the full awakening of the first five monk disciples of the Buddha. The underlying pattern of the Buddha’s instruction in this discourse shows that insight into impermanence serves as an important foundation for realizing dukkha and anattã. The inner dynamic of this pattern proceeds from clear awareness of impermanence to a growing degree of disenchantment (which corresponds to dukkhasaññã),44 which in turn progressively reduces the “I”-making and “my”-making embedded in one’s mind (this being the equivalent to anattasaññã).45”—Analayo

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You are right that most sutta quote impermanence first. However, if this is the right order, then it makes it more strange that it wasn’t presented as the first argument.

It follows the usual order in Buddhist thinking, for example in the four foundations of mindfulness, body precedes the mind. The first argument is related to the ‘body’ of anatta or how it operates in its environment, the second is mental.

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I mean the two arguments as in the first post. Shouldn’t impermanence, dukkha and not self be stated first before the argument about the five aggregates leading to affliction?

In fact, Ven Analayo’s statement about progression from impermanence is not exactly true for Anattalakkhaṇa sutta. As quoted above, it started with a statement that five aggregates are not self because they lead to affliction. The triad anicca, dukkha, anatta is the second argument.

Mendicants, form is not-self. For if form were self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction.

I am a person who is searching for a life of true happiness and true freedom. Let’s call that life as “self”.

If form is that “self” then it should be truly freedom for me, and I can do whatever and whenever I want with it. Otherwise, it is not freedom for me. However, I cannot always be able to control form. Therefore, it is not true freedom, or it is not the “self” that I am looking for.

If form is that “self” then it should be true happiness, but because it is impermanent then it is suffering. Therefore, it is not true happiness, or it is not the self that I am looking for.

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Thanks for the explanation. Referring to first post, the question is why two arguments when one would suffice? Why the first argument categorically state not self while the second is for the audience to consider?

I replied hard way and soft way above, not sure if you got that.

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Yes, certainly. I’ve read it and it could be a way to understand it. Thanks.

I am looking for a self that is true freedom and true happiness. However, if that self is true freedom but not true happiness, or it is true happiness but not true freedom then I may accept it if nothing else can be found. However, form is not true freedom and also not true happiness. Therefore, I cannot accept it.

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In SN22.59 Anattalakkhaṇasutta, two arguments were presented. In the first argument, five aggregates were categorically stated as not-self because they lead to affliction and cannot be compelled otherwise as desired. The second one question if they are fit to be regarded as self since they are impermanent, perishable and Dukkha.
Any thoughts on why two arguments were presented. Why the first is firm on stating Anatta while second ask if they are befitting to be considered as self which seems more tone down?

Let me try. In this sutta, the Buddha illuminates two sides of the grasping process. aggregates are always viewed from two sides.
1.The objective state of the aggregates. Their nature, lakkhana. That is, something that does not depend on desire, personal perception, etc. Usually these lakhnas are described through negation, emptiness. There is no useful auspicious quality in things. And this is their objective nature:

  • Anicca - impermanent;
  • Dukkha - unsatisfactory;
  • Asubha - unattractive or impure;
  • Anatta - uncontrollable or selfless.

2.There is another contour - this is personal perception. Consciousness can adopt a thing or reject it depending on wisdom or ignorance; disgust, lust, or equanimity. For example, grief, despair, unhappiness are forms of dukkha perceived subjectively. Things can seem constant, stable, or they can be perceived with the help of a philosophical view: this is how a stable column is seen already broken.
The Buddha constructs his argument about the nature of anatta in two ways. It destroys the idea of ​​an objectively existing ontological I, soul - showing uncontrollability, a composite nature. And he also considers subjective self-grasping to things, from a subjective standpoint - is it worth to cling to? Is it worth taking it as “I” and “mine”, or is it better to perceive it as Not-I, alien, hostile? The two contour - subjective and objective - leave no room for speculation, no loophole for craving

Аre the two arguments related in any way?

Seeing objective impersonality, you can change your subjective view. And vice versa - by changing the subjective view, we lose our distorting lenses and see things as they really are, without speculation and proliferation. Papancha caused by our desire affects the way we perceive things.

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"In contrast to his opponents, the Buddha termed himself a defender of ‘analysis’ or ‘vibhajjavada’. He held that after proper rational analysis, assertions could be classified in the following way:[32]

  • Those assertions which can be asserted or denied categorically (ekamsika)
  • Those which cannot be asserted or denied categorically (anekamsika), which the Buddha further divided into:
    • Those which after analysis (vibhajja-) could be known to be true or false.
    • Those like the avyakata-theses, which could not be thus known."—Wikipedia
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Thanks. Interesting viewpoint of approaching the arguments in objective and subjective aspects.

You explain it with the second argument but I suppose it applies to the first as well.

@Myspace

The first argument concerns the first objective contour the inherent characteristic of dhammas. I wrote about it in point 1. That is, it is the empty nature of dhammas. Lack of lasting, ideal qualities in them. For this reason the Buddha in the first argument convincingly asserts the characterization of aggregates.
And it does not require questions about whether it is worth perceiving a thing this or that. it is in its nature.
Lack of control really does not depend on personal desire or way of perception. This is an objective proven fact. The second argument is built on a change in personal perception and experience. For example, a long contemplation of impermanence, changeability, unsatisfactoriness leads to disappointment, to letting go, detachment. The mind tends not to perceive the thing as “I”.

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Good point. Lack of control and impermanence can be observed objectively. Phenomena are originated depending on senses and corresponding objects. Since neither are under the control of a Self or persistent, the resultant phenomena will inherit the same characteristics.

However, dukkha, asuba and anatta are subjective experiences. Relying on and seeking security over phenomena that are impermanent and not within control is obviously not satisfactory.