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Gap in My Understanding of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (SN 22.59)

In the Buddha’s discourse of the non-self characteristic, I can understand his first set of arguments for why Form, Feeling, Perception, Choices, and Consciousness are not-self because of their propensity for affliction and our lack of complete control over them, but I have trouble understanding his next set of arguments. He says that Form, Feeling, Perception, Choices, and Consciousness are also not-self because they are “impermanent, suffering, and perishable.”

I am not trying to dispute the Buddha on this matter, but I ask: how does it follow that because Form, Feeling, Perception, Choices, and Consciousness are impermanent, suffering, and perishable, they are non-self? What am I missing here?

I’m using Ajahn Sujato’s translation if that helps. Thank you :pray:

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“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self’”? — “No, venerable sir.”—SN 22.59

Impermanence is instrumental in the following two characteristics of existence because every conditioned thing is changing according to the cycle of birth, growth, maturity/ decline, ageing, death. Taking what they see to be permanent, beings form an attachment. This attachment to the object as first seen remains, but those objects age, causing a disjoint between perception and reality, producing sorrow and suffering in the beholder.

The craving for things at their ripest stage in the cycle of impermanence is connected with the primal instincts for survival, so to be overcome the asavas require application of appropriate attention (SN 46.51, Ahara sutta- Food)

The ripe apple as the peak of the cycle is an important motivator in western culture, not only in the Adam & Eve story, but also the Apple company, for opposite reasons in each.

In the Buddhist Anapanasati sutta fourth tetrad, contemplation of impermanence leads to dispassion, perhaps its symbol should be an apple core :

"[13] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on inconstancy.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on inconstancy.’ [14] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on dispassion [literally, fading].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on dispassion.’ [15] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on cessation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on cessation.’ [16] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on relinquishment.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on relinquishment.’

“This is how mindfulness of in-&-out breathing is developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit.”—MN 118apple core

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I would suggest starting from the other end. What is your understanding of “Self”? Then one can work it backwards… is that thing permanent? What would happen if it was lost? Would you suffer?
If your stated intention is to find the end of suffering, why on earth are you taking this thing to be “Self”? What if you drop it and consider it “Non-Self”. How would that work? Would you be happier?

It’s important to be completely honest with oneself during these kinds of reflections. The Buddha’s teaching is an experiential approach… the suttas are akin to lecture/ demonstration notes, scribbled down by students, amalgamated and cleaned up! :joy:

(This is a clarification of the type of approach, not an invitation to practice in this manner! There can be many paths … each person must find their own way, preferably under the guidance of an expert Teacher.)

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SN 22.59 is the Buddha’s definitive statement on non-self, and it is definitely described as being based on impermanence, not starting from non-self. That’s the reason there is no mention of suffering or non-self in the first section of the Anapanasati sutta: knowledge of impermanence should be established first. Saying the contrary is contradictory to the Buddhist teaching method, and defies the material relationship between impermanence, suffering and non-self. Knowledge of suffering and non- self arise automatically as a consequence of contemplating impermanence. Following the first section of the Anapanasati sutta, the theme of impermanence is further developed in the second section on the Four Establishings of Mindfulness, as a means of subduing the “greed and distress with reference to the world,” which also appears in that section.

“The underlying pattern of the Buddha’s instruction in this discourse (Satipatthana sutta) 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 The importance of developing insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena is highlighted in SN 47.40, according to which this insight marks the distinction between mere “establishment” of satipatthãna and its complete and full “development” (bhãvanã).46”—Analayo

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Atman ie Self , in Hinduism, is considered as eternal, imperishable, beyond time, “not the same as body or mind or consciousness, but is something beyond which permeates all these”.

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Yes, it is exactly this thing that the Buddha begins with. The approach is akin to our modern Scientific approach, viz falsification.

Let us say that Atman (Self) exists. Now where or what is it? The Buddha works through each aggregate and shows that no matter where or what we may view as Self, that thing is Impermanent, the source of suffering and therefore not fit to be regarded as Self. … ie. it is “Not Self”. … so far, so good!

Now it gets tricky! This is just the finger pointing at the moon.

What then is one left with? What is the sound of one hand clapping? If one correctly understands this, one has seen what one is. Such a one becomes a Stream Enterer.

(@paul1 : When I said to start from the other end, I said to start with first defining Self, then follow the standard sequence of Impermanence, Suffering etc. I am not saying one should start from non-Self. :slightly_smiling_face:)

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The reality is that reading is a major source of Buddhist learning today, and the scholar-monks who write the books can be considered a teacher in the terms of MN 95. It is wise to take advantage of the best teachers available globally when they are accessible through the written media.

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Non-self (anatta) must stand for some kind of negation or denial of atta (self). The question then, of course, is what exactly is meant by this word atta (not that straightforward a question I think, others may have better answers than me :slight_smile: ).

My thinking on this issue would begin with the second noble truth that attachment is the cause of suffering. In my opinion, at least one of the purposes of attachment is in some way a seeking of security, safety and refuge. A problem with this is that if the object of attachment is impermanent, then eventually it will be lost and this will cause suffering. Even mere awareness of its transience while we still possess it may cause underlying unease.

Many spiritual approaches posit, though, that there is actually something (a fundamental aspect of being, a True Self or something inherently divine) that is permanent and eternal and can be depended upon, and that worldly attachment is perhaps just a misguided and warped form of this or even a form of denial of something more real (what Christians might call the Love of God).

It seems to me that Buddhism teaches, however, that there is no such permanent and fundamental foundation that is capable of offering such safety or that is worthy of such reliance (is something that causes suffering worth depending upon?), that even consciousness is just a product of conditions, on death ceasing, even if a certain chain of dependent causation carries on into another life, but everything still being thrown to the undependable and uncertain winds of karma.

The Buddhist solution to this conundrum is the complete relinquishment of all dependence and all attachments (even towards any hoped for true self). If then suffering is always the result of any attachment, then with no more attachment, there will be no more suffering.

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The relevance and innovation of the concept and realisation of anatta is highly contextual to the alternative spiritual views the Buddha and his disciples had around them 2,500 years ago.
I don’t know your spiritual background but it may help to read “non-soul” where you read non-self? :anjal:

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Perhaps it’s useful to contemplate the meaning of ownership. I’ve had trouble with the idea that the aggregates can’t be “me” or “mine” because they’re not in my control. Why can’t I own or be things that aren’t in my control? Similarly, with regards to impermanence and suffering, the question seems to be “why can’t we own or be things that are impermanent, suffering and perishable?” Why can’t we just have an impermanent self? How does impermanence necessitate non-self?

So then why don’t we look at what it means for something to be ours or our self. What is that? It’s hard to even imagine because there aren’t any examples of true ownership in the world. The closest we get is our ownership of our kamma, but even that is not ownership in the way we feel we own the aggregates. All we have is the sense that there is a self somewhere in the aggregates. So what would have to be the characteristics of something that is “me” in any meaningful sense? If the aggregates are a self and impermanent, what is it that makes this self yours?

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The 5 aggregates are subject to change, you have no say in that fact.

Not being able to do anything about the fact that those aggregates are subject to change, means you are liable to that change also.

In other words, the very basis for yourself are things which are subject to change and which you have no fundamental control over. Therefore, is it wise to assume that those things belong to you? Or that you are those things? Because if you were those things or anyone of those things, then they would not change in anyway that was disagreeable to you.

Your very being is dependent on things that are subject to change (anicca) regardless of what you desire. That sucks (dukkha). And not having a say over the nature of those things means that those things cannot possibly be yours to begin with(anatta).

If they were yours, they wouldn’t suck or change against your wishes.

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@Gabriel_L @Gene It makes a lot more sense to me as non-soul instead of non-self. I have some basic familiarity with the concept of atman in Hinduism so I have read anatta as “no atman” in the past.

I guess the crux of my issue was that I did not read the sutta in reference to the beliefs of the time but rather compared it to modern western philosophical notions of “self” which differ substantially to atman (I’m thinking specifically of Locke’s notion of self.)

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The following details in the SN/SA suttas may be useful for understanding the notion of “self”:

  1. The reason why “impermanence (anicca) is suffering (dukkha)”
  2. The various terms for the notion of “not-self” (anatta)

See pp. 55-60 in Choong Mun-keat The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism.