Anatta And The Experience Of Reality by Will Pascoe

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Anatta And The Experience Of Reality by Will Pascoe

Atta (Pali) = Atman (Sanskrit) =? As with so many words the meaning may depend on the context, on the cultural bias of the speaker or writer, or on the cultural bias of the hearer or reader. For our purpose here Atta, or Atman, is generally translated as self, soul, or ego all of which may have the connotation “individual person or personal identity”.

If ‘atta’ refers to a personal self then ‘anatta’ refers to that which is not-atta, not that personal self. However it is also not uncommon to see anatta translated as ‘no self’ and the Concise Pali-English Dictionary has “anatta: [adj.] soul-less. (m.), non-ego.” This poses considerable difficulty as ‘ego’ denotes a sense of or belief in a separate and individual personal entity and ‘soul’ is most commonly understood as being some kind of person, usually immortal, who inhabits a human body. Both of these views would appear to speak against the Buddha’s teaching of the impermanent and temporary nature of phenomena. However an important point is made here and that is that ‘anatta’ is an adjective, a describing word, referring to qualities. More of that soon.

So, is it ‘self’ or no self? ‘self’ or not self? Does self = soul = immortal “x”? And then, understanding these matters, may we experience ultimate reality?

There is considerable debate, discussion, and argument around the use of the Pali language words ‘atta’ and ‘anatta’, what they mean in their historical and cultural contexts, and how they were used by the Buddha Gautama. It would take much more time and space than is available now and here to thoroughly review all of the Buddha’s discourses that mention ‘atta’ and ‘anatta’. However there are a couple of common threads running through most of the uses of the words in question in the Pali Canon and it is on those that we will focus here. Hopefully we will be able to fit some pieces together to point us towards liberation.

Am I a self or … not a self… or not-self? What is a self? What is ‘not self’? Is there a ‘self’? Is that my soul? Is any of that ‘me’?

These and similar questions have plagued human minds for thousands of years but sadly not many will look closely at the questions and few will earnestly seek answers, even though answers have been available for a very long time in the writings of the sages and their followers. More than 2500 years ago the Buddha Gautama gave us his wise guidance on these questions.

Can earnestly inquiring into these questions lead to liberation, to the full expression and resolution of the Four Noble Truths? Perhaps they can but they need to be asked and discussed not as a topic for argument or for promoting an egotistical display of knowledge or opinion, but with a deep and sincere desire to be free. What did the Buddha say?

The Buddha’s Teaching of Anatta by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (http://www.hinduwebsite.com/buddhism/essays/not_self_strategy.asp)

“Books on Buddhism often state that the Buddha's most basic metaphysical tenet is that there is no soul or self. However, a survey of the discourses in the Pali Canon suggests that the Buddha taught the anatta or not-self doctrine, not as a metaphysical assertion, but as a strategy for gaining release from suffering: If one uses the concept of not-self to dis-identify oneself from all phenomena, one goes beyond the reach of all suffering and stress. As for what lies beyond suffering and stress, the Canon states that although it may be experienced, it lies beyond the range of description, and thus such descriptions as "self" or "not-self" would not apply.” (underlining mine – Will P.) Debate has raged for a thousand years or more over whether the Buddha Gautama taught a doctrine of self (personal self as opposed to Self, the universal reality or essence of being) or of soul or ego.

The Totality of Five Aggregates is not Ego (separate self)

“The learned and noble disciple does not consider corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations, or consciousness as the ego; nor ego as the owner of one of these aggregates, nor these aggregates as included within the ego, nor the ego as included within the aggregates. Of such a learned and noble disciple it is said that he is no longer fettered by any aggregate of existence, internal or external.”

Essentials of Buddhism, Ven. Pategama Gnanarama Ph.D p.47 (http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/essentialsof.pdf )

‘ego’ in this translation appears to be used in the commonly accepted sense of self-concept, a collection of beliefs about oneself that embodies the answer (erroneously) to the question "Who am I?"

soul/self ’ – this translation, for most who understand the English language reasonably well, has the connotation of an immortal soul that survives the death of the body; not spirit, but a “me” that will survive death in some way, either a new life immediately after death or a new life upon resurrection of the body. It is apparent from reading the Buddha Gutama’s discourses that he was not teaching the reality of an immortal soul/ego/individual self.

Anattalakkhana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya XXII, 59

‘The body, monks, is not self. If the body were the self, this body would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible (to say) with regard to the body, "Let my body be thus. Let my body not be thus." But precisely because the body is not self, the body lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to the body, "Let my body be thus. Let my body not be thus." Feeling is not self.... Perception is not self.... Mental processes are not self.... Consciousness is not self. If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, "Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus."

But precisely because consciousness is not self, consciousness lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, "Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus." 'How do you construe thus, monks--Is the body constant or inconstant?

'Inconstant, Lord.'
'And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?'
'Stressful, Lord.'
'And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: "This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am"?'
'No, Lord.'
'...Is feeling constant or inconstant... Is perception constant or inconstant... Are mental processes constant or inconstant...Is consciousness constant or inconstant?'
'Inconstant, Lord.'
'And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?'
'Stressful, Lord.'
'And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: "This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am"?'
'No, Lord.'
'Thus, monks, any body whatsoever--past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near: every body -- is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: "This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am." 'Any feeling whatsoever.... Any perception whatsoever.... Any mental processes whatsoever.... Any consciousness whatsoever--past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near: every consciousness--is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: "This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am." …

'Seeing thus, the instructed Noble disciple grows disenchanted with the body, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with mental processes, and disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is released. With release, there is the knowledge, "Released." He discerns that, "Birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world."'

And then there is this interesting discussion:
"What do you suppose, followers, if people were carrying off into the Jeta Grove bunches of sticks, grasses, branches, and leaves and did with them as they wished or burned them up, would it occur to you: These people are carrying us off, are doing as they please with us, and are burning us?”
“No, indeed not Lord.”
“And how so? “
“Because Lord, none of that is our soul, nor what our soul subsists upon! “
“Just so followers, what is not-who-you-are (anatta), do away with it; when you have made done with that, it will lead to your bliss and welfare for as long as time lasts. What is that-you-are-not (anatta)? Form, followers, is anatta (not who you are), neither are sensations, perceptions, experiences, consciousness" [MN 1.141]. http://hercolano2.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/anatman-in-detail.html

Ignorant of the truth of ‘not self’, the majority of people identify as an individual ‘self’ that is different from and separate from all the other selves on this earth.

I – ME – MYSELF – MINE

Every human woe, every war, every fight, every conflict, every argument, every craving and attachment, every destructive stress, can be traced back to the delusion “I am this body and mind. I am a separate ‘I’”. Am I self or not self? Is there a ‘self’? What is self? What is ‘not self’? Am I asking the right questions? Good question! And what makes a good question a “good” question? The Buddha’s guide to questions is useful here:

  • Does it lead to the end of attachment?
  • Does it lead to the removal of unsatisfactoriness?
  • Does it lead to the end of suffering?

Am I a self or do I have a self?
Who wants to know? I do. I want to know.
Who or what is ‘I’? Ah, that’s a good question. It’s I, me, myself. (the 3 most important people in the world?)
 Really? What is I, myself? Is it Body? Mind? Body/mind?
WHO AM I REALLY? If we are going to ask these kinds of questions, could the best question be WHO AM I?
Let’s look at that a little deeper.
Is the map of Perth actually Perth? The map is not the territory. The label is not the thing.
We use labels for everything, including ourselves, “I am … (whatever name I choose to use). I am Australian/Indian/Chinese… male/female/xxx… father/mother… husband/wife… son/daughter… brother/sister. I am friend… teacher… student… Doctor… Reverend… Venerable”
These are JUST LABELS…. They are useful labels and no problem … until …
I am…(my label) = “and no one else on earth is uniquely ME”
The label is not the thing itself BUT BELIEVING IT TO BE SO SEPARATES US FROM OTHERS CREATING DIVISION.

WHO AM I? - ‘my’ story – a few labels for Will P.

From a young age I was interested in Comparative Religion studies. I had a good childhood but by early 20’s was plagued by bouts of manic then depressive personality disorder. As the depression deepened suicidal thoughts came more frequently until I actually formulate a plan to kill myself.

However a Christian conversion turned my life around. I fervently read and studied the Bible but as I did I saw more and more that the doctrines of the Christian churches did not always find support in an unbiased reading of the Bible. Ultimately there was no choice but to leave Christianity behind and move on.

For some years I studied Counselling Psychology and Psychotherapy, majoring in Stress Management and Sleep Management, Control/Choice Theory, and Reality Therapy. And life rolled along fairly well with a couple of career changes, marriage and divorce, two wonderful children and all the while I was reading Upanishads, Buddha Sutras, philosophy, and psychology.

Then early in 2009 I began to earnestly examine the question, “Who am I?” and continued to do so after returning to China to teach English.

The Buddha’s teachings of the impermanence of things, the doctrine of Dependent Origination, and Sri Ramana Maharshi’s instructions for Self-Inquiry brought awakening. The inquiry began, not as a mental exercise, but as a quiet contemplation of questions about the nature of reality and then became more concrete with direct questions,

”Can I be this body? Can I be this mind? If I am this body why is my sense of being not diminished with the loss of part of the body? If I am the mind where am I when the mind as ‘I’ is not present, for example in deep sleep? I began to question the basic assumptions most of us hold about our existence.

We really must question our assumptions.

For example: Did the sun rise this morning? Of course not. The earth moved creating the illusion that the sun was rising.

Question the illusion. WHO AM I? Am I this body? Am I mind? Am I body/mind?

“I don’t exist!” Taizhou University, China, Sep.2010

Awareness of Presence – Presence Awareness

Please note – the question was not, “Do I exist?” or “Am I a self” or “Do I have a soul?” According to the Buddha these would just lead to further discussion and are not ‘good’ questions.

On the other hand, “Who am I?”, when diligently inquired into, will reveal the impermanence and unreality of our personal ‘self’ assumptions.

“I don’t exist ……but here ‘I’ am.” But as what am I here? How am I here?

All I can say with absolute certainty is “I am”. Not, “I am Will, I am… this or that” (those are anatta). No longer a doer. No longer believing I have free will. No longer believing I am in control of my life. Not even ‘I’ really. Just, “AM”. Empty. No thing. Not annihilation. The blissful empty Awareness of Presence – Presence Awareness

'Seeing thus, the instructed Noble disciple grows disenchanted with the body, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with mental processes, and disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is released. With release, there is the knowledge, "Released." He discerns that, "Birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world. “ Anattalakkhana Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya XXII, 59

As for what lies beyond suffering and stress, the Canon states that although it may be experienced, it lies beyond the range of description…..
(from ‘The Buddha’s Teaching of Anatta’ by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

“…. may be experienced”
Not “I experience”
Not “my experience”

“Experience is anatta”
Experiencing is atta – reality

How so?
Experience is based on the “I” thought – “I am experiencing this; this is
                                                    my experience”
Experienc …ing is before the “I” thought
Are you hearing now?
Were you hearing before the thought “I am hearing”?

Are you seeing now?
Were you seeing before the thought “I am seeing”?

“I am …this or that” is ‘my’ experience.
The experiencing just is; it is being-ness itself without the “I”.

If we remove the ‘I’ does the experiencing change? Does the beingness change? No. Is this not reality?
Presence awareness is unchanging reality.
Right here, right now is REALITY.

Where else can we ever live? We can only ever be right here, right now.

Ultimate reality is experienced – but not by an ‘I’
The ancients called it satcitananda
sat (being) + cit (consciousness/awareness) + ananda (bliss) = the blissful consciousness of being = liberation, peace, nibbana, Buddha nature.

MAY ALL BEINGS BE LIBERATED

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