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Nowhere to be found

Self and not-self in the Pāli Canon


By Alfred Weil


The Buddha’s original teaching distinguishes between two categories of truth. On the one hand, we find in the Dharma doctrines of a relative, preliminary, ‘introductory’ nature. These elucidate the benefits of developing a generous heart and proper ethical behaviour, answer questions about death, transcendence and rebirth, give advice on training of the mind and the practice of meditation. At this ‘introductory’ level, the Buddha’s teaching still runs parallel to the core tenets of major religious and philosophical worldviews (including Western ones). On the other hand, the Buddha went further than all of these, as he went on to teach truth of an absolute, final, ultimate nature to audiences that he considered adequately prepared to understand this ultimate truth. He summarised that core of his teaching in the famous doctrine of anatta: the doctrine of ‘not-self’, ‘not-I’, of the ‘inessentiality’, the insubstantiality of all phenomena. It is this view of reality that is the genuinely and exclusively ‘Buddhist’ one. It is – in the words of the Buddha himself – paṭisotagāmin, which literally translates as „going against the stream”. In other words: This ultimate truth runs counter to any other religious belief or philosophical opinion about the ‘ontological status’ of the ‘world’ and of the ‘I’.

Saccaka, a contemporary of the Buddha – who, however, followed Nigantha Nathaputta’s teaching –, once asked the Awakened One: „What is your teaching in a nutshell?“

The Buddha’s brief response to this question was the following:

Form is changeable, feeling is changeable, perception is changeable, determinations are changeable, viññāṇa is changeable. Form is not-self, feeling is not-self, perception is not-self, determinations are not-self, viññāṇa is not-self. All determinations are changeable. All things are not-self.

(Majjhima Nikāya 35)

In my paper, I will undertake to elaborate on the intrinsic meaning of this key statement by which the Buddha conveyed to Saccaka the very core of his teaching.

The Conventional ‘I’ and the Belief in ‘I’

Our ordinary, ‘mundane’ experience of life is fundamentally shaped by the impression „I am in the world!” This impression follows naturally from our root experience of duality: The reality that we experience ever appears bi-polar, divided into subject and object. In any one moment, a multitude of phenomena is ‘encountered’ by an ‘I’ via the interacting senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, with the sense contacts getting ‘organised’ by the mind (our sixth sense, according to the Buddha), getting ‘arranged’ as a world of things in space and time, a world ‘inhabited’ by both dead items and living beings. Neither the experience of ‘I’ nor the experience of ‘world’ is (as such) questioned by the Buddha, since either is – qua Erlebnis – authentic and thus irrefutable. Hence, we find in the Pāli Canon an abundance of terms that describe various aspects of our ‘animated’, ‘personalised’ world. In his numerous conversations with monks, nuns and laypeople, the Buddha frequently refers to human beings by their given names (e.g. Sāriputta, Anāthapiṇḍika, Mahāpajāpatī, Visākhā) and identifies groups of people of a specific rank or with a specific function as e.g. mahārāja, bhikkhu, bhikkhunī, and brāhmaṇa. By making use of generic terms such as manussa („human being“), purisa („man“), puggala and sakkāya („person“), bhūta („living being“), or pāṇa („animated being”), the Buddha distinguishes various ‘classes’ of living beings (satta). It goes without saying that he also uses personal pronouns such as ahaṃ (‘I’), tuvaṃ: (‘you’) to make distinctions between his interlocutors and himself and among other (groups of) people, respectively.

With great ease (which, nowadays, may strike some of us as slightly ‘awkward’), the Buddha names even beings living beyond the human and animal realm. In the Pāli Canon, the fact of the existence of sub-human and super-human beings is (as it were) pre-supposed, is always taken for granted. Here, transcendent beings appear ‘categorised’ into distinct ‘classes’, inhabiting a great number of various ‘realms of being’. We find terms such as deva (‘gods’), who are presented as existing in many different forms and manifestations; nerayika, i.e. ‘hellish beings’ that are doomed to suffer in the lowest realms, the ‘hells’ of existence (they are vast in number as well); and tiracchāna, ‘creatures of the animal realm’, a realm which (as we are well aware) is not transcendent to the human one and is characterised by a great variety of species, too. Of himself, the Buddha speaks as ‘the Tathāgata’, the one ‘thus-gone’ or ‘thus-come’, i.e. the one having reached the very end of the path of purification, having completely awakened from the dream of existence.

The categorical divide, the watershed between the ‘uninstructed commoner’s’ view of things and the Buddhist view (at its deepest level) lies in a fundamentally different understanding and ‘appreciation’ of the concept of person or personality. The Buddha carefully avoids to draw any (necessarily false) conclusions from the experience of ‘personality’ while, as already said, not questioning the intrinsic authenticity of our ‘personal’ experience as such. Neither does he claim the subjective or the objective ends of our experience to be any kind of ‘absolutes’, ‘beings in themselves’, eternal ‘essences’ or ‘substances’ (to do which would be atta-vāda, ‘the doctrine of self’); nor does he ‘overestimate’ either the subject or the object by endowing them with ‘value’ of any kind:

The Tathāgato, having seen the visible, does not conceive of ‘a seen’, does not conceive of ‘an unseen’, does not conceive of ‘visible’, does not conceive of ‘a seer’; having heard the audible, does not conceive of ‘a heard’, does not conceive of ‘an unheard’, does not conceive of ‘audible’, does not conceive of ‘a hearer’; having experienced the experiencable, does not conceive of ‘an experienced’, does not conceive of ‘an unexperienced’, does not conceive of ‘experiencable’, does not conceive of ‘an experiencer’; having contrived (viññatvā) the contrivable, does not conceive of ‘a contrived’, does not conceive of ‘an uncontrived’, does not conceive of ‘contrivable’, does not conceive of ‘a contriver’.
(Anguttara Nikāya 4,24)

In the Buddhist understanding, ‘personal’ nouns and pronouns (as enlisted above) are characteristic of our ‘conventional’ use of language, which is an indispensable means of our orientation and communication in daily life. Our everyday language makes use of distinctive terms (vohāra) that have been coined by way of pragmatic convention, in order to designate experiences common to members of a social group. They are used to ‘name’ experiential contents that we encounter moment by moment. In these ‘encounters’, we pre-select from a notional ‘entirety of potential experiences’ certain experiential contents shared by our environment. Via this pre-selection, we attribute to our experiential contents specific ‘personal’ meanings that are ‘meant’ to help us in our cognitive orientation in and our pragmatic dealings with the ‘given’ reality, which presents itself as a ‘world of purposes’. Thus, we get used to naming the contents of our experiences conforming to ‘pre-fixed’ linguistic patterns. Such patterns do not relate or point to an ‘ultimate reality’ existing ‘beyond’ the named phenomena.

Man’s fundamental error lies in attributing to both the perceived things and living beings an ‘essence’, which is subsequently construed either as ‘God’s creation’ (as in theistic religions) or as a ‘brute given’ (which is the notion of philosophical materialism). In a Buddhist view, both these approaches reflect the ‘commoner’s’ basic attitude: ‘I’ (as a ‘person’) and the ‘world’ (surrounding ‘me’) are entities that ‘exist in themselves’. It is the (erroneous) view of ‘my’ faculty of perception ‘reaching out to’, ‘mirroring’ objects that exist outside or beyond ‘my’ experience as such. This virtually indelible, ‘natural’ attitude then gets verbalised: „I am perceiving this thing, hence it exists!”; or: „I can see and hear this thing because it exists!” In other words: The ‘uninstructed commoner’ is prone to substantialising his experience of ‘I’ that arises in the process of sensual perception. Almost inevitably, he falls victim to sakkāya-diṭṭhi, ‘the belief in I’, in an ‘independent, individual self’, since he is inclined to take what he perceives ‘for granted’, to consider it ‘to be true’, without reflecting critically on the origin of his experience. This ‘naïve’ attitude is due to the untrained mind’s ingrained tendency to be satisfied with only the ‘shiny’ surface of phenomena while not noticing their conditioned arising: ‘where they come from’ (ayoniso manasikāra). Thus, the untrained mind gets trapped in the habitual patterns of unreflected experience and of ‘blindly’ reacting to that experience: It gets caught in the web of sakkāya-diṭṭhi.

What Follows from the Belief in ‘I’

We are not concerned here with questions that satisfy a purely intellectual interest on our part or that may be treated in an ‘abstract’ philosophical manner. Our approach here is an existential one, since the ‘trap of sakkāya-diṭṭhi’ is a danger for each and every one of us: We are told by the Buddha that our belief in ‘I’ (in our ‘individual identity’) is in fact the root cause of dukkha (‘suffering’). Our experience of the ultimate inadequacy of things and of the suffering that is therefore connected with them originates in sakkāya-diṭṭhi. The Buddha explains that wherever there ‘is’ an ‘I’ (or, more correctly, the unreflected assumption of ‘I’), this ‘I’ feels threatened; from this feeling of threat and endangerment in the world then follow anxiety, sorrow, concern and perpetual ‘care’ about the survival and welfare of that ‘I’. Our existential concerns may find expression in thoughts and words such as: „I hope that nothing bad will happen to me!”; „What does the future hold for me?”; „I hope that I will stay healthy, will keep my job and secure my income!” and the like. Wherever there is (imagined) an ‘I’, a ‘self’, a ‘personality’, there is necessarily something ‘lacking’, something to be wished for, or, on the other hand, something ‘dreadful’, something to be afraid of. In short: There is always experience of unsatisfactoriness, frustration and pain proper. First and foremost, man’s identification with ‘self’ is related to his own body: In and via his body, he experiences as ‘painful’ (dukkha) old age, illness, and death, which bear the message of the intrinsic ‘vanity’, the changeability and impermanence of all phenomena. By its very being born, the body is set to lose (sooner or later) its health, vitality and beauty, in general: its capability of experiencing ‘pleasure’ in the world. Our physical well-being gets (more or less) frequently interrupted by illness and injury. No one of us can avoid the final encounter with death and the painful experience of dying. As regards man’s identification with the mental components of his ‘person’ (for example, with ‘his’ feelings, ‘his’ will and thoughts), things are not actually different. Feeling unpleasant or directly painful sensations is (at times) as unavoidable as finding ourselves (probably all of a sudden) in difficult or even dangerous situations or as having to put up with undesired and unexpected events (e.g. the loss of a spouse or of close friends). In many (or most) cases, our ‘personal’ wishes and lifelong dreams will remain unfulfilled. Our acquired knowledge, our ‘personal’ skills decrease and vanish, our memory fades, we are bereft of people, pastimes and locations dear to us. It is against this background that the Buddha’s truth of the ending of dukkha might dawn on us as an alternative to our situation of suffering:

Overcoming the illusion of ‘I’ – this, truly, is the ultimate happiness!

(Mahāvagga 1,3)

Unmasking the Belief in ‘I’

It should have become clear by now that Buddhist spiritual practice is ultimately aimed at  overcoming the illusion of ‘I’, of ‘self’, and at ending the ‘selfish’ actions that are triggered by that illusion. For the Buddha, the belief in ‘I’ is tantamount to ignorance (avijjā). To overcome this deep-seated ignorance of man, the Buddha advocates taking an undistorted, realistic view of things. Attaining to such right view requires a radical re-orientation, a downright ‘conversion’ in the mind. In the following, I will sketch four realisations, to practise which can help bring that conversion about:

1. Realising that ‘the solid’ is a compound structure
Under this heading, we necessarily come across the Buddha’s teaching of the five existential factors. A ‘person’ or ‘personality’, appearing to our naïve perception as ‘homogeneous’, as ‘solid’ (as if ‘made of one piece’), is revealed, on careful inspection, as a ‘layered edifice’ made of several distinct ‘building bricks’, an intriguing compound structure that is comprised of five ‘interlocking’ constituents. These are, in their turn, intrinsically ‘composed of components’ as well. The Buddha always lists the five factors of existence as follows:

(1) Rūpa: ‘Material’ form as experienced via the body’s six senses (‘corporeity’)
(2) Vedanā: Feeling, sensation (pleasant or unpleasant in reaction to sense contact);
(3) Saññā: Perception = the experience of ‘being in the world’;
(4) Saṅkhārā: Mental acts (volitions, determinations), speech acts, and physical acts;
(5) Viññāṇa: The (usually unnoticed) intrinsic dynamics of the perceptional sequences, or: the ‘momentum of their own’ that the saṅkhārā have gained; more specifically: the pre-conscious expectation of, the unreflected ‘being in’ for further experience of ‘I am in the world’.

Wherever these five factors of existence are present, there is a basis for sakkāya-diṭṭhi to arise. As soon as those five have been ‘dismantled’, any further belief in ‘self’ is impossible:

Dependent on what is there „I am“, not independent of what? Dependent on form is there „I am“, not independent of form. Dependent on feeling ..., dependent on perception ..., dependent on determinations ..., dependent on viññāṇa is there „I am“, not independent of viññāṇa.
(Samyutta Nikāya 22,83)

Our existential dependence (in the sense as outlined in the above quotation) occurs through our identifying one or more of the five factors (khandha) with ‘me’, through appropriating one or more of them as ‘belonging to me’ or as ‘mine’. Usually, our preferred object of identification and appropriation is our own body (rūpa), but we may as well resort to our emotions, perceptions, intentions and thoughts, or to any combination of them, to arrive at that dependence on the khandha. As such, the process and its result are always the same: From genuinely several components of our experience, from genuinely distinct existential factors we ‘make’ ourselves an aggregate image of ‘I’ and endow it with ‘essence’, with ‘substance’. By assigning certain designations to a complex of experiential contents we end up with an attitude of ‘entirety’, ‘individuality’, ‘identity’. It is particularly the ‘persuasive’ co-arising at any one time of all khandha (in their own intrinsic dynamics) that entices us to endorse the notion of a ‘self-identical’ person or ‘permanent’ being:

(Māra, the Evil One)
“Who has created this living being?
Where is the maker of this living being?
How has this living being come into being?
How will this living being cease to be?”

(Bhikkhunī Vajirā)
“Why are you clinging to the word ‘living being’?
That, Māra, is your utterly mistaken view of things.
Where there is only an aggregation of aggregates,
A ‘living being’ cannot be perceived.

Just as with regard to an assemblage of the required parts
The word ‘vehicle’ has come into use,
So the term ‘being’ has been coined
To denote the presence of the factors of existence.

It is only suffering that comes into being,
It is only suffering that is present and ceases to be.
Nothing but suffering ever arises,
Nothing but suffering ever ceases.”

(Samyutta Nikāya 5,10)

2. Realising ‘the static’ as dynamic
From a Buddhist perspective, being and non-being are deeply misleading terms. They make a promise in terms of the ‘reality’ of things that these, on closer inspection, cannot fulfil. The very opposite (as it were) holds true, since the terms arising (to be) and ceasing (to be) are far more adequate descriptions of the reality that we experience. Particularly with regard to the term at issue here, namely the term ‘I’ or ‘person’, a fundamental change of perspective as suggested by the Buddha will dissolve the apparently ‘static, permanent I’ into a dynamic, virtually ‘incessant’ sequence of (distinct) physical and mental processes.

Within this uncontrollable ‘flood of perceptions’, physical and mental processes function as triggers of each other, thus bringing (and maintaining) each other in(to) existence. The Buddha advises us therefore to examine those five factors (which themselves are no ‘static data’ either) in their dynamic interplay: By way of sense contact, forms associated with feelings will bring about perceptions; perceptions will entail volitional impulses, resolves and determinations which will manifest themselves in actions of mind, speech and body; out of these actions and their (usually unreflected) repetition, a habitual ‘drive’ aimed at having pleasant perceptions (and avoiding unpleasant ones) will develop over time. This ‘drive’ then generates and shapes ‘our’ (usually growing) affinity for experiencing certain forms, certain feelings etc. that the ‘I’ – having arisen just in and via the very process of experiencing! – is ‘yearning for’. The ‘I’ – as the conditioned counter-pole of any one experience – is now in for certain (conditioned) experience(s) of an ‘I being in the world’. To put it figuratively: We get fascinated by a ‘dazzling show’ that is being ‘put on’ by the five factors of existence.

That way, we may realise the necessary circularity of those existential processes as the very constituents of ‘personality’: They have to trigger each other off and have to perpetuate themselves via each other. Hence, a ‘self-identical I’ that would ‘always stay the same’ is nowhere to be found. Instead, we find an intrinsically dynamic double-pole experience, which we are inclined to call our ‘individual’ or ‘personal’ one.

It is important to note here again that ‘I’ appears by way and as a result of our experience: In this process, none of the five factors of existence is ‘made of one piece’ either: Each and every ‘part’ of this ‘quintet’ is in itself a compound structure. That is exactly the reason why the Buddha termed the five factors of existence khandha = ‘aggregates’, ‘accumulations’, ‘heaps’. In a Buddhist perspective, any static, substantialist understanding of ‘person’ is therefore necessarily mistaken: Nothing ‘stable’, ‘solid’, ‘self-identical’ or ‘substantial’ is ever able to ‘reside’ within or among the five factors of existence. But even apart from or beyond these khanda, an ‘eternal soul’ or a ‘world in itself’ – denoting ‘transcendent’, ‘everlasting’ absolutes – do not, cannot exist:
The world is ever inclined to endorse either of two views: the view of existence and the view of non-existence. But for him who sees, with the highest wisdom, the arising of the world in actual fact, ‘non-existence of the world’ does not apply; for him who sees, with the highest wisdom, the ceasing of the world in actual fact, ‘existence of the world’ does not apply.
‘Everything exists’, this is the one extreme; ‘nothing exists’, this is the other extreme. Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches The Middle Way.
(Samyutta Nikāya 12,15)

Against this background, the frequently asked question as to ‘who’ or ‘what’ is reborn into a ‘new life’ – since Buddhists believe in the rebirth of living beings – may be readily answered without a self-identical ‘I’ being ‘to hand’. To put it in a nutshell: As finding a ‘consistent person in this present life’ has proved impossible ­– we have found instead a dynamic, multi-faceted interplay of physical and mental events –, there is, of course, no self-identical being ‘standing ready’ to pass on into ‘its next life’. The virtually incessant unfolding of the process of experiencing, of ‘being in the world’ simply continues after (what we call) ‘death’. Death, in this perspective, is considerably ‘de-mystified’, is revealed as a somewhat more ‘radical reshuffling’ of the five factors of existence. The continuance of ‘personal existence’ after death is therefore well conceivable by Buddhists, without resorting to notions of an ‘eternal self’ or a ‘world in itself’ outlasting their ‘individual’ death.

3. Realising ‘the absolute’ as dependent
The ‘I’, the ‘personality’ are directly experienced, primary phenomena that are (exactly as such) authentic. On the other hand, the assumption of ‘I’ is a second-order phenomenon appearing only in abstraction from our immediate experience. In the Pāli scriptures, we find the following simile for its arising: Just as, in a lamp, its flame appears in dependence of an intact wick and of suitable lamp oil, the assumption of ‘I’ appears only if ‘supported’ by particular conditions.

The Buddha used to compare personal existence to a continuous ‘process of nutriment’, understanding ‘nutriment’ in a figurative sense as well. Without nutriment, neither physical nor mental phenomena could come into existence and ‘subsist’. Hence, repeated acts of appropriation (‘nutriment’) are the root condition of the assumption of ‘I’. Most prominently, ‘nutriment’ is of paramount importance to one’s physical shape. The ‘material’ body (1) with its sense faculties is kept healthy only through a frequently repeated ‘intake of nutrients’. The body’s sense contacts, in their turn, become the ‘sustenance’ for feelings (2). Feelings ‘nurture’ perceptions (3). Perceptions ‘feed’ action in thought, speech, and body (4). Through (usually ‘mindless’) repetition of action, we ‘fix ourselves’ idiosyncratic patterns of thinking, speaking and behaving (5). These become the mind’s ‘automated recognition programme’, become its ‘personalised’ grasp at reality, its ‘individual’ way of experiencing the ‘I am in the world’ (5).

So we arrive at the insight that ‘I’ or ‘person’ is constituted via the appropriation of elements of not-I. ‘I’ and ‘person’ do not and cannot exist in and as themselves; they can exist only if embedded in a network of specific conditions. ‘I’ and ‘person’ become real only in correlation with other phenomena – they arise in dependence on, have their origin in other things:
Approaching things, seizing things, getting intimate with things, clinging to things: That is the way of the world. But if one does no longer approach things, does no longer seize things, does no longer let his mind dwell on things, does no longer get intimate with things, does no longer let things engage him, does not longer yield to his thirst for things, having the right view: ‘There is no I’, if one does not waver, has no doubt that ‘whatever arises is suffering’, that ‘whatever ceases is suffering’ – then he possesses real knowledge, in which he no longer depends on anybody else in the world.
(Samyutta Nikāya 12,15)

In this remarkable passage, the Buddha points out the important fact that ‘nutriment’ is not necessarily an unstoppable, self-perpetuating, ‘obsessive’ process. It can be terminated, along with the notion of ‘I’. As soon as this termination is achieved, the entire existential process – which the Buddha has revealed to be dukkha throughout: an ultimately unsatisfactory and inadequate situation – is cancelled and ‘fades out’.

Conversely (and this may be important to note), an unconditioned, ‘absolute’ beginning of that process – which has revealed itself as the necessarily conditioned, dependent origination of phenomena – appears impossible: Those particular conditions that become the basis (‘nutriment’) of a particular phenomenon are, in their turn, conceivable only as links in a beginningless chain of conditions precedent. Hence, a ‘very first beginning’ of dependent origination is unthinkable. Man’s apparently ineradicable obsession with ‘taking a snapshot’ of that ‘initial moment of the universe’, with reifying that ‘original cause of the world’ as ‘the birth of matter in a big bang’, or with deifying it as ‘God’s creation’, is therefore untenable from a Buddhist point of view. The latter belief in particular, i.e. the belief in a ‘personal God’ having ‘created’ man and all other species (as it were) ‘out of nothing’ will strike Buddhists as odd.

The Buddha’s following ‘autobiographical account’ may adequately illustrate the Buddhist view of the innumerable past lives that the ‘individual’ has lived prior to its current existence. In that famous passage, the Buddha describes his final mental breakthrough, which – thanks to his mind having been well-prepared by a long meditation practice – enabled him to see the beginninglessness of existence directly:
I recollected innumerable past lives: one birth, two births, three, four, five, ten, twenty births, thirty, fourty, fifty births, one hundred births, one thousand births, one hundred thousand births. I recollected many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion. There and then I lived, had that name, belonged to that family, had that job, lived on that food, experienced that pleasure and that pain, lived to that age. Passing on from there, I re-appeared elsewhere. Here I had another name, belonged to another family, had another job, lived on other food, experienced other pleasure and other pain, lived to a different age. Passing on from there, I re-appeared here.
(Majjhima Nikāya 4)

4. Realising ‘the sovereign’s’ existential lack of power
We humans have the impression of being – in principle – free, ‘sovereign’ individuals. We claim to be ‘autonomous’ in our decisions – to a relatively large extent at any rate. Within certain limits, we consider ourselves free to do what we like to do (or, conversely, to not do what we do not like to do) and to become whatever we want to become. On looking more carefully, however, we discover a real ‘chasm’ gaping between our naïve assumption of ‘sovereignty’ and our frequent experience of the fundamental lack of control over whatever we tend to consider ‘ourselves’. Unreflectedly, we are inclined to view our ‘own’ body and mind as such ‘sovereign entities’ – and yet, at decisive moments in our lives, we quickly have to admit that they are ultimately uncontrollable, even alien to us. We have to realise, often painfully, that we are not ‘master in our own house’. Our ultimate powerlessness and helplessness are both amazing and tragic.

Nobody is ever in a position to determine their peculiar way of ‘being embodied’ or their peculiar way of feeling. Our mundane wishes, such as ‘I want to be taller!’, ‘I want to look like her!’, ‘I want to live to ninety!’, will – in all probability – remain unfulfilled. Our ‘firm’ resolves, like ‘Now I will stop feeling that way!’, ‘I will now think about this and will stop thinking about that!”, will – for the greater part – not have (noticeable) effects. Why not? Because the five factors of existence have (long since) gained a momentum ‘of their own’, (usually) overruling our well-reflected ‘best intentions’. Setting our personal ‘likes and dislikes’ against that powerful drive of the five factors is tantamount to clutching at straws along the river while being carried away by its raging torrents. Most often, our present endeavour to will differently does not effect such changes in our ‘personality’ as might enable us to act differently.

More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha had already pointed out this – usually ignored – fact, which has partly been re-discovered in our ‘modern’ age, most prominently by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis: To his contemporaries, Freud’s doctrine of the hardly controllable ‘Unconscious’ came as a real shock. Today, it is clinical brain research that ‘threatens’ the alleged sovereignty and autonomy of the homo sapiens. The Awakened One put his fundamental insight in a both simple and comprehensive manner:
„What do you think, Aggivessana? As you say: ‘Form is my self, feeling is my self, perception is my self, determinations are my self, viññāṇa is my self’ – are you really in control of that form, of that feeling, of that perception, of those determinations, of that viññāṇa? Are you really in a position to determine: ‘May my form, my feeling, my perception, my determinations, my viññāṇa be like that, may they not be like that’?“
„Of course not, Master Gotama.“
(Majjhima Nikāya 35)

Shifting perspectives – bringing about a ‘conversion’ of the mind (and heart)

One who has realised the structural ‘conditioned-ness’ of a phenomenon has thus been put in a position to apply his realisation in practice and to influence, to modify the phenomenon, even to prevent its arising. If the illusion of ‘I’ is conditioned, overcoming that illusion is possible.

Buddhists, then, are faced with the (ultimately) highly rewarding, but (admittedly) extraordinarily difficult task of transcending the ‘I-perspective’ that is bound to arise ‘spontaneously’ on most occasions in our lives. Transcending becomes necessary at the level of our ‘theoretical’ understanding of conditionality, as well as at the more ‘practical’ level of our very perceiving a situation and of (re-)acting in this situation.

I should like to point out three aspects of that transcending in some more detail. We find the Buddha’s succinct wording of these three aspects in many prominent passages of the Pāli Canon, amongst others in a famous conversation that the Buddha had with his son Rāhula:
„Whatever form there is, Rāhula: past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or delicate; mundane or sublime; close or remote – each and every form should be viewed, by one seeing clearly, as it really is: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not a self for me.’”
„Only form, o Noble One? Only form, o Blessed One?“
„Form, Rāhula, and feeling, and perception, and determinations, and viññāṇa likewise.“
(Majjhima Nikāya 62)

Here, the entire ‘I-complex’ and all the five constituents of personality (and of ‘the world’), respectively, are ‘put in brackets’. Their actual ‘existence’ is challenged in three ways:

(I) The first step is an ‘indirect’ approach by which the Buddha wants to prevent any notion of ‘I’ to sneak in ‘through the back-door’. The cue for that practice is: ‘This is not mine’ (“n’etaṃ mama”). The Buddha advises his followers to not regard anything whatsoever as ‘being their property’. No subject-matter, no ‘material’ thing in the world should ever be viewed or defined as ‘belonging to me’, since where there is ‘mine’, there is automatically ‘I’ as well, and this is exactly the perspective to be transcended. The practice recommended by the Buddha here cuts deeply into our unreflected habit of mentally appropriating ‘our’ world, or to be more precise: our experience of ‘world’. Apart from their usage in pragmatic, ‘everyday’ language, there are no ‘my’ house, ‘my’ wife, ‘my’ cough, ‘my’ body, ‘my’ feeling or ‘my’ consciousness. This new, more realistic way of viewing the world is justified by the very nature of things: We really do not have power or control – sensu stricto – over any one thing in the world. Corporeity or form, as well as all other khandha, obey their own ‘natural laws’ that lie outside our sphere of influence. As we have seen, the khanda have no raison d’être apart from appearing, changing and disappearing. Hence, we cannot make any demands on them, make them our permanent property, preserve them in their present state: The label ‘mine’ is only a (dangerous) fake.

2) In a second step, the Buddha advocates a different approach to our way of experiencing the world, in order to (gradually) bring about a change of that experience itself. The key word here is: ‘This is not I’ (“n’eso aham asmi”). An important part of Buddhist spiritual practice is dealing ‘consciously’ with our perceptions, maintaining ‘clarity of mind’ in our encounters with the world. More specifically, this means continuously and intentionally ‘keeping in mind’ (initially, at a purely intellectual level only) the reality of ‘not-I‘ (anatta) while still having the spontaneous experience of an ‘I being there’ (asmi-māno) in a given situation. Thus, this practice aims at correcting mentally our ingrained attitude of ‘I am in the world’ in line with our (now) better knowledge.

In the further stages of one’s spiritual development, it is well possible to transcend even that immediate experience of ‘I am’: to experience I-lessness directly. The insubstantiality of all phenomena is then realised as a matter of fact. The very embodiment of I-less experience is a Buddha, an Awakened One, who has fully awakened from the dream of ‘existing’. A Buddha ‘lives in’ and ‘experiences’ a world, but in doing so he is no longer limited to an ‘I-perspective’: Neither does he have any ‘self-related’ concerns nor does he perform any ‘self-made’ actions. Innumerable experienced meditators – not only from a Buddhist lineage – have borne witness to the fact that ‘experience’, ‘consciousness’, ‘awareness’ are possible without an ‘I’ added to them. In certain advanced meditative states (jhāna), the fundamental division into a subject and an object – which we usually experience – is overcome, simply falls away. In such states of very deep concentration, the mind is ‘absolutely’ clear, is fully ‘awake’ without experiencing any polarity between ‘an I’ and ‘a world’. In their stead, there is increasingly blissful experience of unity (samādhi) where ‘division’ or ‘difference’ is bound to decrease in line with concentration deepening.

3) A third aspect of practice relates to the ‘epistemological’ level, to the formation and formulation of theories. Here our cue is: ‘This is not a self for me’ (“na m’eso atta”). This third step is concerned with freeing oneself from any false notions and opinions about reality. The human mind has an innate tendency to merge and ‘inflate’ several distinct experiences into comprehensive theories and ‘orthodox’ dogmas. The mere sensation of ‘I am’ – as such authentic in a given situation – is thus quickly turned into the thesis and affirmation of an ‘I really being there’, into the idea or even ideology of a ‘true self’, ‘eternal soul’ and so forth. If no phenomenon whatsoever can be ‘self’ sensu stricto, any ingenious concepts or elaborate definitions of ‘self’ will necessarily be inappropriate: They will always end up ‘reifying’ or ‘deifying’ an initially simple, primary experience:
“If anyone were to say: ‘The body is self’ – that would not be tenable. The body’s arising and ceasing are clearly discernible. Its arising and ceasing being discernible, one would have to conclude: ‘My self is arising and ceasing.’ That is why ‘the body is the self’ is not tenable. Hence, the body is not self.
If anyone were to say: ‘The mind is self’ – that would not be tenable. The mind’s arising and ceasing are clearly discernible. Its arising and ceasing being discernible, one would have to conclude: ‘My self is arising and ceasing.’ That is why ‘the mind is the self’ is not tenable. Hence, the mind is not self.’”1
(Majjhima Nikāya 148)

Conclusion and outlook

If not looked at with only an ‘academic interest’, the Buddha’s teaching of anatta will have a deep impact on many theoretical and practical problems that ‘we’ have to solve every day. Viewed from a Buddhist perspective, many of these problems will have to be approached in a radically different way. At the personal level, following the Buddha’s insight might entail modifying one’s life project under ‘spiritual’ auspices. But also at the social level, the actual realisation of anatta would shed new light on many ethical and bio-ethical issues and would necessarily lead to radical re-orientation in various branches of scientific research.
Here, I should like to just briefly touch upon one of those imaginable issues: A (or even: the) most crucial one would be the question as to how an ethics is possible without an ‘I’. We may note in this regard that Buddhism – in spite of or thanks to its teaching anatta? – has developed a most plausible and highly inspiring ethics. As it cannot resort to notions of a ‘self-identical person’, Buddhist ethics is based on the ‘natural’ correlation of the intrinsic moral quality of any action (the ‘cause’) having an exactly ‘equivalent’ effect upon the agent as well. One can derive that correlation from existence itself if one pays attention: It is ultimately one’s ability to see for himself the conditioned-ness of all phenomena, including ethical ones.

Buddhist ethics starts from the obvious fact that all living beings have basically the same interests and desires: They all want to be happy and healthy, safe and sound, and they fear unhappiness, pain and injury. Any action performed in thought, in speech, and via the body should therefore respect the others’ sphere of interest, their own longing for happiness and satisfaction in life. The goal of Buddhist spirituality is ‘minimising’ painful experience of any kind, at any level of existence, and, in the last instance, overcoming it completely, once and for all (dukkhanirodha). The Buddha’s great claim is to have acquired the knowledge necessary for helping others pursue and reach that highest goal.

Inevitably, our actions will promote or inhibit our own well-being along with others’. From this we can easily derive a suitable standard for an ethically appropriate and inappropriate conduct, respectively. In this regard, the world’s major religious are all in agreement with each other, holding that ethical behaviour, by default, alleviates suffering. In Buddhism as well as in other religions, one’s ‘virtuous’ conduct, one’s ‘goodness’ means ‘being good enough’ to advance both one’s own welfare and the welfare of the society one lives in.The highest aim of Buddhist ethics is therefore to avoid the deliberate, intentional causing of any harm to any living being. This basic rule is applicable to all our activity in thought, speech, and as physical action. The core of this ethics is summarised in the Buddha’s five precepts (panca sīla), by which he advises his followers to make a strong resolve at and to put their best effort into 1) not killing, 2) not stealing, 3) not misbehaving in their sex life, 4) not telling lies and 5) not intoxicating their mind with alcohol, drugs etc. It is of paramount importance to note in this context that the Buddha defines the very intention motivating one’s external ‘performance’ (i.e. the action that is perceived by others as well) as the action proper and thus highlights it as the actually ‘decisive’ aspect in terms of an action’s ‘moral value’.

It goes without saying that Buddhist ethics is far more comprehensive and refined than that and is only briefly outlined here. Its firm basis is the doctrine of karma. ‘Karma’ means that acting and experiencing are inextricably linked to each other, as they are mutually interdependent. Unethical behaviour will necessarily entail painful experience, while virtuous conduct will, by default, result in pleasant experience. In Buddhism, ‘selfish’ behaviour is therefore regarded as unskilful, as ‘inviting trouble’ – by the same rationale, ‘altruistic’ behaviour is viewed as skilful and ‘auspicious’. Man’s love and empathy for his equals and in fact for all living beings originates in his insight into the true nature of things. In Buddhism, ethical behaviour is the natural outcome of deepest wisdom: namely that I will never be able to achieve ‘my’ happiness in conflict with or at the expense of my fellow beings. And the core of that wisdom is the realisation of ‘my own’ relativity:

There is suffering, but no sufferer is there.
There is action, but no actor is there.
There is release, but there is no-one released.
There is the path, but no wanderer is there.
(Visuddhimagga XVI)

Translations from the Pāli by Alfred Weil. English translation of the essay (from the original German) by Mathias Weber


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