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MN 22 - a single anattā doctrine Pali sutta

anatta
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#1

This is a spin-off from the discussion “How do you directly observe anatta?

There @Erik_ODonnell and myself started discussing if the Pali suttas ever say directly “There is no attā” in general - in contrast to the numerous suttas that tell us “The khandhas are not attā” or “The salāyatanas are not attā”.

Erik rightly pointed to MN 22 that has a relatively clear generalized anattā doctrine and I got interested to discuss the sutta in detail to see where its roots are and what the message exactly is.

For the discussion we use the internal reference system of SC. At the top of MN 22 click on ‘text settings’ and activate ‘view text settings’ and ‘line by line’ for the pali display. Otherwise the page might give you different numberings.

The first posts are copied from the original topic…


#2

SC 15.1 is where it starts to get interesting. It says there are six grounds for (self?)views. Do you get which six are meant? I guess 1.form 2.feelings 3.perceptions 4.choices 5.seen, heard, thought, cognized, searched, and explored by the mind (which I guess stands for vinnana-khandha) 6.‘The self and the cosmos are one and the same. After death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, imperishable, and will last forever and ever.’

If these are the six I don’t quite understand why 6 is not included in 5. Is it just a very special case? Or else what are your six?

If that is so far correct, the main subject of the sutta to identify the grounds on which to form an atta-view and to reject them. Do we read it the same way so far?


#3

Also Analayo’s comparative treatment shows that parts of it are unclear, so we have to live with uncertainty. I’d still like to avoid the commentaries…

That the “six foundations for views” in SC 15.1 cover all views is doubtful because view 6.“The self and the cosmos (loka) are one and the same” is just too specific. Also it is ahistoric because the brahmanic view at that time was that only the highest developed beings would reach brahmaloka, the eternal deathless state. Also of the named sectarian movements nobody had this view. So I think what is meant here with loka is brahmaloka, therefore not ‘cosmos’ but ‘realm of highest attainment’.

In short we deal with self-view here, not views in general. What follows though are not so much the ṭhānāni for self-view but the objects of self view, namely the khandhas (1-4 as usual, 5 very unusual) + number 6 that either means “I believe that for the spiritually advanced there is a brahmaloka” or it deals specifically with the view of highly developed brahmins who think that their state of achievement grants them eternity after death. Either way it is an odd enumeration.

My best guess is “The self-view of the uninstructed can be based on an identification with the khandhas or spiritual attainment”

Then it goes on that the instructed ones dis-identify themselves from the khandhas (so far so good) and from number 6 too. Which is weird - because the instructed would simply not be an eternalist. It’s not that he would first have the view and then disidentify from it. What I mean is I can’t help to have a sense-perception or a memory, but in meditative effort I can distance myself from it - why would I as an instructed disciple have the view that I’m eternal to begin with? Unless it’s something that spiritually advanced Buddhist monastics can’t help having as well. Maha Boowa for example told how due to his strong samadhi he falsely thought to have reached the unchanging goal already when in fact he was attached to a pure citta.

Any other interpretations so far?

[Edit: tracing “so loko so attā” confirms that we deal with a spiritually advanced position. Other than in MN 22 we find it only in SN 22.81, SN 22.152, and SN 24.3.

SN 22.81 shows a progression "He may not regard form etc. as self, but he holds such a view as this ‘so loko so attā’.
SN 22.152 doesn’t show a progression but thinks that as soon as I identify with any khandha I automatically become an eternalist - which doesn’t make much sense to my mind.
SN 24.3 repeats SN 22.152 and cryptically adds “in these six cases”, so probably this is where MN 22 got its ‘six’ from]


#4


#5

That makes sense, so maybe we should distinguish two kinds of khandha grasping: 1. the involuntary one, common to animals and non-philosophical humans, giving rise to all kinds of normal phenomena and views 2. an explicit conviction / teaching / agenda that says something like “My spiritual insight tells me that after death my formless essence will merge with the highest deathless realm”…

Coming from the unusual to the exceptional we find in SC 17.1

"Seeing in this way they’re not anxious about what doesn’t exist.” (Sujato, very similarly Gethin)
Seeing thus, he is not agitated over what is not present. (Thanissaro)
So evaṃ samanupassanto asati na paritassatī”ti.

which appears only in this text and lays the foundation for all further anatta discussion of the sutta.

Somewhere in the middle would be a translation as “he is not anxious about what is not”

I just had a deja-vu reading to older thread2 where @Sylvester offers a nice interpretation

Anyhow, I cannot interpret SC 17.1 other than that the educated noble disciple is not afraid of “what is not” - which is that the self is not in the six mentioned before. There is no introduction of an ontological argument here - just before we had the exposition that the khandhas + 6th is not atta. And this is “what is not” - the atta in the khandhas.

Is this at that point agreeable, or is there another good reading?


#6

So far (until SC 17.1) we’ve had a ‘normal’ anatta discourse, i.e. there is no atta in the khandhas + the 6th.

A confirmation that also the more general-sounding “they’re not anxious about what doesn’t exist” means atta-in-khandhas (and not atta per se) follows in SC 18.2-6: “anxiety about what doesn’t exist externally”. What is described here is symmetrically atta-in-objects (again not atta per se).

More difficult is the passage at SC 20.1: “anxiety about what doesn’t exist internally”. Didn’t we have this already before with the khandhas + the 6th? And indeed it is a repetition because here the 6th is singled out and presented again (SC 20.4).

But now we get what seems to be a direct clash between late Vedic and Buddhist teachings. Because now exactly the 6th (“after death I will be permanent”) is contrasted with the Buddha teaching nibbana.

We have to see it again in context: These ‘eternalists’ must have been either advanced meditators or ritualists who thought they have secured the eternally blissful brahmaloka for themselves. Nobody else would have believed at that time to have secured eternity. The Buddha with a superior authority they couldn’t neglect “took away” their eternity, so “they sorrow and pine and lament” (SC 18.6).

SC 21.3 makes clear what all this was from the Buddha’s perspective - merely a ditthi, a conviction, a view (that educated students are not supposed to have)

So when this ditthi is not there consequently there is no “anxiety about what doesn’t exist internally”. So far we are therefore still on the level of ditthis - no ontological axiom has been proclaimed yet (until SC 22), correct?

Again, faithfully following the argument of the text I see no other way to read it but would be interested if some of you do.


#7

SC 22.1 introduces the new idea, that it would make sense to be possessive about something that is eternal. This is problematic at least on two levels:

At face value it’s simply not true. Say “the ring to rule them all” in Lord of the Rings would have been imperishable - why would it then make sense to be possessive about it? It would guarantee eternal conflict and catastrophe. Everyone would be ready to kill me for this ‘precious’
Since the argument leads to arguing against atta soon in the sutta: why to sneak in a dubious possessor of atta? If somebody would claim to possess an eternal atta he would have already two eternal entities, namely the possessor and the possessed.
So the sutta here erects a straw-men and is comfortably dis-proving a self-view that nobody claims to have. If the text-book dichotomy of Buddhism vs. Upanisadic Brahmanism is true the sutta should argue against something of the following: “The essence of what I commonly hold as ‘I’ is the same as the essence of the world. By realizing this the ignorance is lifted, and after the death of the body the last veal will be removed and the perfect identity of the two will be established”

This at least is my iteration of Yajnavalkya’s atman-teaching in Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 3.7. Or else, where in the pre-Buddhist texts do we find the particular concept that is argued against? As I have tried to point out already many times, there is no one atman concept in the Samhitas, Brahmanas and Upanishads covering 1500 years (my guess is rather a dozen) and we would need to identify which particular ‘atman’ the suttas are arguing against - or dismiss the Buddhist anatta-doctrine because it’s misleading and tendentious.

See for example the valid question

As SC 23.1 says, it’s arguing against attavādas (atman-doctrines) that don’t give rise to dukkha. But how for example would my attavāda above lead to suffering? Only if I was reborn in a samsaric state - and who could tell if I were? a Buddha/gifted arahant. We arrive at a faith-argument: It’s right because the Buddha said so, not because of a plausible line of arguments.

The fact that the Buddha in SC 23.5 cannot conceive of an attavāda that doesn’t lead to suffering rather speaks for the lack of imagination of the polemic composer than for a truthful argument.

A more sensible (but less detailed) approach towards attavādas can be found in the introduction to MN 8.


#8

SN 22.81
‘so loko so attā’ is exactly what spiritual self identity is all about.
“Such is the world, such is the spiritual atta”, is the wrong conception.
Loko is the world of senses, (the internal grounds/fields of sensory experience [ayatanani] + the ensuing clinging/appropriated khandhas) - SN 35.82
Note that lujjati does not mean “disintegrating”, but “causing pain”. Lujjati: [Pass.of ruj,corresponding to Sk.rujyate -> pr. √रुज् ruj ]
√ रुज् ruj- to cause pain , afflict (VS.)

So the eye is afflicting, and the associated feeling (for instance), is also causing pain.


You say:
SN 22.152 doesn’t show a progression but thinks that as soon as I identify with any khandha I automatically become an eternalist - which doesn’t make much sense to my mind.

Identifying with a khandha is to believe in the Vedic creed, that khandhas are eternal. That is to say, to identify the khandha made personal pronoun atta, with the spiritual atta - that is to say to believe in the continuity of the personal pronoun atta, as the spiritual pronoun atta.
“This clinging/appropriated khandha is Mine”, is the first wrong conception to be ridden of.

Metta


#9

I think it’s useful to examine some assumptions. I’ve tried to visually illustrate my own assumptions here:

Do you have the same mental model in mind? Or something else?


#10

I agree with lots of it but see even more difficulties. For example heavens and hells are claims of the suttas and theoretically subject to experience - but not really.

For example it’s relatively easy to show that the conceptualization of hell has proliferated over time within the EBT. Maybe it’s just a scarecrow concept to boo people into Buddhism (and other ethicized religions altogether)

So heavens and hells are metaphysical. Next the khandhas and salayatanas - are they congruent? are they different categorizations of ‘everything’? The ayatanas are easier: most senses are clear, only manas remains vague.

Khandhas are a mess (even though people throw them around in this forum as if they are crystal clear concepts). Rupa: shape or physical entity? Vedana: feeling or experience? Sanna: perception or concept? Sankhara: ??? And before people come up with their own house-baked ‘definitions’ - they are not frequent and not consistent - in short: commentarial in nature. The status of jhanas for example is completely unclear.

But since we have this topic now, should we not discuss the sutta? I don’t like to succumb to philosophize over it without first establishing what it is actually saying.


#11

@Gabriel

Are you familiar with KR Norman’s short essay A Note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta

There is also a series of interesting posts by @ancientbuddhism on dhammawheel regarding Anattā and the Upanishads that has a bearing on this discussion.

I’d be interested in what you make of the points in these two sources. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything original to contribute to the discussion myself.

:anjal:


#12

The point I am trying to make is that heavens are hell are “real” within the idea-world of the EBTs.

I guess I should have explained that in the post above; that’s my understanding of the world model that the EBTs present – my own personal model may be entirely different.

Not within the idea-world of the EBTs, where they are possible states of rebirth.

A large part of what the sutta is saying depends on the assumptions one makes beforehand.

My thinking is that by making our assumptions more explicit, we will understand each other better and have a more productive discussion :slight_smile:


#13

Just to tie things back to the title, here is the link to MN22 on SC:


#14

Here (at page 173) is a link to a comparative analysis of MN 22 and MA 200 by Ven. Anālayo.


#15

@Erik_ODonnell

Science tells us today, that there are some other worlds with no matter; but all with information, like ours too.
The thing in Buddhism, is that Buddha said the same (DN 1). And there is one of these dhammas that is peaceful, and with no time involved.
Nibbāna is in your metaphysical territory.
The latter, is just a matter of faith.

I don’t think it is fair to leave what Buddha said, out of Buddhism.

Note:
I see your diagram as a nice attempt to clarify things. And it does.
But may I add this little more.

There is the Buddhist “world” (loka) , defined by the internal ayatanani and the clinging khandhas -SN 35.82 - viz. the kama loka per se.

And there is the rupa loka, defined by the “external” khandhas in namarupa nidana.
If you only stick to the Theravada definition of namarupa (SN 12.2), you’ll never going to understand the latter. You have to include the Agama’s definition SA 298, as such.

Then, in the higher jhanas, there is the arupa loka - when the citta is totally liberated from the world of forms in the fifth jhana.
Here we are concerned with the khandhas in viññāṇa nidana and sankhāra nidana.
And that, I suppose, is the metaphysical territory.


#16

Sorry, but I really don’t understand what you are trying to say.

For example, ‘science tells us’ is a very broad claim. What are you referring to?

DN 1 is also long sutta, I don’t know which part you’re referring to.

I’m not able to understand when I don’t know what science you are referring to, and I also don’t know which part of DN 1 you are talking about.


#17

Thanks @Polarbear! It’s a good paper, I just need more time to work through it… The DW thread echoes my distinct impression, namely that something very specific is rejected with anatta, not all kinds of doctrines.

In the sutta I’m still no further than SC 23. Up until now there are two serious limitations to the anatta-doctrine of MN 22:

  • What is spoken of is an atta that is possessed. To reject something that can be possessed is not difficult. But I don’t see why all theories of the soul / essence necessarily assume that. As I tried to point out in ‘my’ atta-theory it is easy to advocate that ‘me’ as talking-walking-experiencing entity is false, whereas the essence of that is an unchanging formless featureless quality that is somehow falsely identifying itself with the experienced mind/body-mind-ego. And then, with ignorance removed that essence would be bare and purified. Nothing is the possessor here, nor is anything possessed. Thus the argument of the sutta so far (and possibly of the whole sutta) doesn’t apply. If this sutta represents all of the refutations of atta in all suttas the buddhist anatta would be much more limited than assumed. But this necessarily remains a theory.
  • My second objection to the sutta is the somewhat unimaginative dogma that"there are no attavādas (atman-doctrines) that don’t give rise to dukkha". That is simply not correct. I don’t see any dukkha in ‘my’ atta-view (which I just created hypothetically, based on a real atta-view in the Upanisads). Of course somebody can say: “Surely you create misery for yourself with that view” But then I’d like to see a sound dukkha-logic, not just “The Buddha didn’t say it, so it must be false”

#18

The DW thread echoes my distinct impression, namely that something very specific is rejected with anatta, not all kinds of doctrines.

I definitely think that the Buddha formulated the anatta doctrine to contrast specific atta doctrines/views. But I don’t think we can infer that the Buddha would not have also rejected any atta-view that didn’t exist in his place and time. At best it is an open question but I would tend towards the idea that the Buddha would have rejected any new atta-view as well as the ones he was already familiar with. In particular I’m thinking of the suttas regarding the five aggregates where it is said that one should not regard there to be a self within the aggregates, a self as the aggregates, a self that possesses the aggregates, nor a self that contains the aggregates .

See SN 22.47 for example.

SN 22.86 and the sutta just before it also make it logically impossible for a Tathagata, someone who has achieved liberation, to even technically exist. The only way for these two suttas to not be a condemnation of buddhism is to understand them as proposing a no-self view rather than a not-self view. So I’d take these suttas as a condemnation of all kinds of atta-doctrines.

In the sutta I’m still no further than SC 23. Up until now there are two serious limitations to the anatta-doctrine of MN 22:

  • What is spoken of is an atta that is possessed. To reject something that can be possessed is not difficult. But I don’t see why all theories of the soul / essence necessarily assume that. As I tried to point out in ‘my’ atta-theory it is easy to advocate that ‘me’ as talking-walking-experiencing entity is false, whereas the essence of that is an unchanging formless featureless quality that is somehow falsely identifying itself with the experienced mind/body-mind-ego. And then, with ignorance removed that essence would be bare and purified. Nothing is the possessor here, nor is anything possessed. Thus the argument of the sutta so far (and possibly of the whole sutta) doesn’t apply. If this sutta represents all of the refutations of atta in all suttas the buddhist anatta would be much more limited than assumed. But this necessarily remains a theory.

I would suggest that any thought or realization one could have such as the thought, “my essence is an unchanging formless featureless quality” is not the formless featureless quality itself. I don’t see how it would be possible for thoughts, perceptions, instances of knowing, to have an effect on an unchanging formless featureless quality.

But more to your point, I think possessor/possession here would refer to the association between the talking-walking-experiencing entity and the essence/self. If there were no association between the two then there could also be no false assumption. So the self possesses the aggregates (walking-talking entity) in the sense that it is associated with them in some way. Also, it seems that insofar as one does anything at all to realize the nature of oneself as some unchanging essence one is trying to possess that self by means of some mode of the aggregates consisting in some specific instance of knowing. Anyone who is trying to realize their unchanging essence is in some sense trying to possess it/become it by means of the changing sorts of things that are perceptions, thoughts, knowings. So I think MN 22 may be touching on a point about the futility of wanting to be a self or of having a view that you are a self. Nothing would make a difference to the matter if there is an unchanging essence, otherwise the essence is not unchanging.

  • My second objection to the sutta is the somewhat unimaginative dogma that"there are no attavādas (atman-doctrines) that don’t give rise to dukkha". That is simply not correct. I don’t see any dukkha in ‘my’ atta-view (which I just created hypothetically, based on a real atta-view in the Upanisads). Of course somebody can say: “Surely you create misery for yourself with that view” But then I’d like to see a sound dukkha-logic, not just “The Buddha didn’t say it, so it must be false”

While we can imagine that it might be the case that there is a self-view that doesn’t give rise to sorrow, we can also imagine that it might the case that all atta-views do give rise to sorrow, albeit perhaps we would have to imagine that is because atta-views happen to result in rebirth (which is sorrowful) which would not be the logical kind of argument you are looking for. But the early texts themselves suggest that not everything can be realized through mere reasoning. This particular argument suffers from the fault that it would require all the disciples in MN 22 to have supernormal knowledge of the causes of rebirth which seems far-fetched. So presumably it appeared to them that atta-views inevitably lead to sorrow for some other reason. Or maybe they just assumed that atta-views lead to rebirth and the sutta is just about a bunch of monks going through the motions of reciting buddhist dogma.

Anyway, I appreciate your posts and these are just some rough counterarguments that if successful would perhaps help us hone in more on the heart of the matter. I’ll have to think about this some more though.


#19

Yes, this is very safe to maintain as the Buddha’s tenet: we are processing the khandhas wrongly as in any way connected to our selves, and dis-owning them and disconnecting from them in every possible way leads to liberation.

But what about an atta-doctrine that has nothing to do with the khandhas? as mentioned also by others, also non-buddhist teachers of ancient past and present are specifically pointing to the unchanging.

A standard (but silly) ‘refutation’ is “They are full of ignorance. What they claim to be unchanging is in fact subtle but changing after all”. Well, we can say the same argument about any and every teaching including the Buddhist (which of course has been said about Buddhism over the centuries).


#20

Somewhere from Scott Aaronson.
You know information science & philosophy.

O, sure that science hasn’t yet proved either solipsism, nor the infinite (other) worlds (aka MWI), nor even something about a, or about more God(s) in between.
But surely Buddha did speak about the three.

But that wasn’t the gist of my post. Indeed, the note was the core of my message. For I’d rather stick to suttas references.
But you choose that part, evidently