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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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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.

It seems the Buddha is talking about what is skillful to call mine. Still I wonder: I have some control over my arm (for instance), it’s attached to other body parts I have some control over, and the pain/ease I feel in it makes me think it’s mine. (No one else feels that pain or ease.)

The Buddha is asking a different sort of thing: Is it skillful/helpful? If we attach to what is unsatisfactory, we’ll become unsatisfied. I suppose his answer to this would be: Well, you can do that, but it will not be an aid to unbinding.

I was taught recently that both are denied, but the second one with certain qualifications in line with Buddhist doctrine.

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That is correct and SN 22.59 is delivered to a select group of monks residing in the “Resort of the Seers,” or advanced practitioners.

"Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers). There he addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five: “Bhikkhus.” — “Venerable sir,” they replied. "—Nanamoli

Because that is his point of view, normally the Buddha speaks at the level of culmination of the path unless otherwise indicated, such as suttas addressed to students or those from their content obviously dealing with development of the path, so suttas must be carefully examined to ascertain their level.

An example of development level is AN 3.40 where the conventional self is referred to as the first stage in motivation for advancement, and this is connected with the abandonment of gross sensual pleasures in favour of more refined ones, which is the focus of the second foundation of mindfulness. The second stage is being motivated by the sense that those seers and devas who know the minds of others are watching, which indicates mental development of the practitioner has taken place with themselves now being more aware of scrutiny from that level.

So when reading the suttas the conventional self is taken for granted and unstated as it is at a less noble level of thought conception.

“these are the world’s designations, the world’s expressions, the world’s ways of speaking, the world’s descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them.”—DN 9

Just as AN 3.40 lists three ascending categories, DN 9 also describes the three conceptions of self: physical, mind-made, and formless, so every stage in conditioned existence has a corresponding self. In all stages it is accompanied by the simultaneous reality of non-self.

Contemplating this duality is profitable (Sn 3.12).

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Hi @whibbitt. Welcome to the forum. Perhaps you’ll find additional answers in the similes about the five components of existence. I always found them inspiring:

There is nothing to hold on to in order to be called a ‘self’:

From SN12.61:

4But that which is called ‘mind’ or ‘sentience’ or ‘consciousness’ arises as one thing and ceases as another all day and all night. It’s like a monkey moving through the forest. It grabs hold of one branch, lets it go, and grabs another; then it lets that go and grabs yet another.

Or, as Ajahn Brahm puts it: “This is pretty deep stuff!” There is a series of talks he gave about the “Word of the Buddha” a few years ago. A great amount of time is spent on discussing Right View, and the concept of non-self forms an essential part of it. I have put in the link to the whole series below: :pray:

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I use PM only for administrative matters, so please post any comments here for general discussion.

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Kabir my friend, I am wary of this approach…

…because I believe that unfortunately reality will eventually prevail over any delusion that I may have.

I found the following to be level 9000 profound however :pray::

Yes, it will… and that is why when sentient beings reach the end of life or some other such crisis point where what passes for Self will seemingly be irrecoverably lost, they suffer…

SN56.42
They delight in volitional formations that lead to birth, in volitional formations that lead to aging, in volitional formations that lead to death, in volitional formations that lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. Delighting in such volitional formations, they generate volitional formations that lead to birth, generate volitional formations that lead to aging, generate volitional formations that lead to death, generate volitional formations that lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. Having generated such volitional formations, they tumble down the precipice of birth, tumble down the precipice of aging, tumble down the precipice of death, tumble down the precipice of sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair. They are not freed from birth, aging, and death; not freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair; not freed from suffering, I say.

It is not easy to see through the sense of Self- it is such an ‘obvious Truth’, isn’t it? Questioning it in any way seems to be such an utter waste of time… :slightly_smiling_face:… and there is always the unspoken existential fear that lurks behind the very idea that the Self we hold so dear might not exist…

Which is why I said that one should start with-

How does one define this ‘Self’? What are its properties? Where is it located? What is the proof for it? Why does the idea of losing it cause suffering?

This is neither an easy investigation, nor is it quick. It goes against the grain, and one is constantly hindered by the urge to simply drop it all and make merry while one is still alive (Mara’s minions :rofl:). Samatha meditation is essential if one is to keep one’s mental balance on the path. Gradually, One might then perceive something different from what one has always assumed…

MN107
Some succeed, while others fail…
…The Realized One is the one who shows the way.

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I was hopeful that with modern tech and pharma assistance, enlightenment could be attained in less than 40 days. If, however, I must progress gradually…so be it! (This thread is timely for me)

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Yes, SN 22.95 is a beautiful sutta which teases apart each of the 5 aggregates.

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