How do you directly observe anatta?


I would like to get more specific if possible because clearly some doing and observing is more ‘suffering’ than others. I think I understand where you are coming from with the fundamental stand of “all doing…” but it is merely dogmatic, because nobody lives like that.

But back to observation. My position was “it is not possible to observe not-self”, not as self and not as not-self either. I should be more precise… When self is gone no matter what happens it is not-self - talking, eating, observing. When self is still there, no matter what you do there is self, even when it seems to be a “selfless” observation.

So it is not an observation that creates the switch from self to not-self, it simply cannot. Because there is no ‘observation ex nihilo’. Each observation is rooted in a ‘view’ or an unconscious stand - which is per definition not accessible to my conscious pursuits.

To use a sutta term - the asavas are not something that I can just change because I feel inspired or sit down for meditation. They are the under-current of what happens all the time.

What seems to be a paradox (“How do I change what is unconscious?”) I think can only be done by a proper re-programming, i.e. the Dhamma (not that I can pinpoint it precisely) changes my unconscious. Understanding is the key, facilitated by a proper explanation. Practice ideally strengthens it, but also has the great capacity to lead me astray if my understanding is flawed.

And that is my big issue with the texts. Some people here say “The suttas are the perfect words of the Buddha”, but they are for historical reasons formulaic and imprecise, they are memory aids wrapped in narrative. To shoot the rocket 1° in the wrong direction simply misses the moon (not to speak of 30° or 50°).

Our discussions show that almost no aspect of the dhamma is perfectly clear. It’s of course not non-sensical either, but to claim that by reading the suttas I would know exactly how to practice is proven wrong by the fact that neither this educated forum nor the myriad less involved practitioners are filling nibbana with enlightened beings.

Sorry for the broad monologue, but the practical point for me is that we can at least be precise about what we know, and precise about what we don’t know. To throw around enlightened buddhist slogans like “everything is conditioned” or whatever usually has no real application nor does it help to properly ‘re-program’ the unconscious.


Everything is conditioned including ‘wrong view’ sakkaya ditti or self view . As you correctly identified wrong view can be corrected by hearing, reading the teachings with correct view, and of course contemplating them as well. This forms the logical or analytical basis for not-self. However there are times when we expect something to be there and are surprised there was nothing there- like expecting something to be in a particular room but finding to my surprise that it isn’t there. Similarly when we explore mindfully beyond conventional designations into the deepest layer of experiencing ie the aggregate level where all phenomena start breaking apart, we are surprised to find that there isn’t a Self, a homunculus ordering things about, and that it is fully automated (via causes generating effects). This is looking under the hood of the world, or the act of experiencing/phenomena or working of the six sense bases. This insight is applicable to everything that can be possibly experienced (as will be apparent when doing this EBT based vipassana), including the observer-observed dyad (it takes care of, itself). The book-learning helps open the mind to the possibility of not-self. While the vipassana shows you there is not self. After this the meditator is ‘independent of anyone else’ for this teaching, as stated in the EBTs.

We can learn something new and understand that a strongly held belief is wrong, or at least be in a position to appreciate a different view.

with metta


Really, what a sloppy metaphor :wink:


The Buddha actually said something similar. I think it was just a figure of speech: :joy:

For all the world’s streams that reach it, and the rain that falls from the sky, the ocean never empties or fills up. In the same way, though several mendicants become fully extinguished through the natural principle of extinguishment, without anything left over, the natural principle of extinguishment never empties or fills up. This is the fifth thing the mendicants love about this teaching and training. AN8.19

With metta


And yet you are the heir to your kamma?


Interesting observation. I sometimes ask myself “Who or what is being mindful, who or what is making right effort, or attending appropriately, or whatever?”. I have no answer, so I guess it’s a sort of koan. :yum:


I don’t think it leads anywhere, but sometimes it’s good to follow dead ends, just to make sure they are. For example we can take the perspective of Dawkin’s egoistic gene - does it have an evolutionary benefit to have a humunculus/observer? It seems so, at least mice and (normal) humans are reproducing more than monastics.

So if by following the dhamma we are working against a genetically pre-installed operating system we face a pretty tough adversary - something like a modern Mara.


With strong mindfulness I have the sense of just observing - just seeing, just hearing, just feeling, or whatever. But it feels like the observer/observer duality is very deeply ingrained, so it is difficult to step outside of for very long.


It’s driven by ignorance so as long as we think there IS an observer we will look for one. It is only the act of looking for an observer, that creates one, and labels a random mental object, as an observer. :smile:

With metta


There appears to be some misunderstanding here regarding quotes used in response posts. Until the moderators have an opportunity to address it, the thread is temporarily locked.


Another way to think about anatta is as a consequence of anicca and dukkha. This seems to be a common way the Buddha teaches people what anatta is. E.g. from SN 22.49:

What do you think, Soṇa? 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, Soṇa, 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.’

So maybe a way to see anatta can come from first looking at unreliability and suffering, and then seeing how anatta follows from that.


Hm, could you expand on that? Even this sutta seems/pretends to employ a series of logical conclusions from the previous steps. Or is it a commandment then in the form of ‘you shall not see what is anicca etc. as atta’?

The latter would be an interesting basically faith-based reading: I’m telling you that what is anicca etc. is not atta.

But I guess that’s not how you read it - what is your take?


Guys, there isn’t any æther in my room right now.

How can I directly observe that there is no æther?


But the starting point is not real. Who established that there is no “aether”? More realistically it is:

“Somebody I trust said there is no aether in my room. How can I find out if it’s true?”

Or do you say it must be true because he said so?

(Btw, happily repeating myself: The Buddha did not say ‘there is no atta’ - as you wrote correctly ‘there is no atta in my room (the khandhas or even linguistically correct: in the ayatanas)’)


I chose æther because we would likely all be believing in it, in the 1800s, for instance, that would be possible.


Yeah, this is a bug I noticed some time ago, if you try to quote from a quote, it will put author of the post as the author of the quote, instead of the author of the original quote… is this at all clear what I have written above? :wink:


Since the questions starts with ‘What do you think, Soṇa?’, and the person is answering the questions, and the Buddha asks “if X, does it make sense that Y?”, to me it is pretty clearly a teaching situation and not a commandment situation.

IMO, the Buddha also, like a good teacher would, spells out the correct conclusion for the people who might not have understood (the “So, Soṇa, you should truly see any kind of form at all…” part)

Not counting the few suttas where the Buddha actually does say there is no atta (MN 22, MA 62, SA 105) one explanation for this could be that ‘there is no atta’ could be taken as a metaphysical statement, i.e. a statement about things that lie outside the realm of experience / a statement about things that cannot be known.

The only way to avoid metaphysics is to talk only about things that can be known.


Not exactly on the OP but perhaps worth saying in this thread. Every being has suffering, sometimes more than others; knowing this, may all abandon conflict, clinging to views, everything other than equanimity. Pro tip: gotta manifest metta and karuna on the way.

edit: just opinion :slight_smile:


MN 22 is interesting and MA 62 has the clarity I would expect of someone promoting a “there is no self” doctrine. I don’t read Chinese but there is no reason to distrust Bingenheimer’s translation. Shall we discuss MN 22 here? It’s more about inferring anatta than observing it…

That’s right I guess. Isn’t it interesting that while EBT Buddha was not an ontologist he still employed inference a lot, especially when it comes to anatta?

It seems like he used observation or common knowledge to establish anicca, and then projected the result of it into a realm of metaphysical inference (dukkha and then anatta) - which was then fixed as an unobserved yet fundamental truth, forcing the unconscious to acknowledge it, thereby automatically generating a ditthi, spilling into a sati and a sañña which are both actively practiced in meditation or even in normal life.

(most of it is a theory, anattasaññā is sutta though, mostly AN)


I am using MA 62 translated by Shi Chunyin and Kuan Tse-fu (both are translators I am not familiar with) which you can read here* if you want to see another translation.

MN 22 contains the same teaching on not regarding as ‘me, mine, myself’ the things that are impermanent and suffering. Do you see anywhere it is different?

Honestly, I brought up MN 22 and the other suttas because I’ve seen ‘the Buddha never said there was no self’ posted a lot, and it bugs me because it is strictly speaking not true.

'* From; which are OK to download and read for personal study.

What do you mean by ‘realm of metaphysical inference’?