|“ANatTA” (NON-SELF) IN BUDDHISM |
| Ven. Ajahn Brahmavamso|
"All conditioned things are impermanent. All conditioned things are suffering. All dhammas (all things conditioned and unconditioned) are anatta". These are the three basic factors of all existence. It is in order to penetrate these truths that we practice the Noble Eightfold Path. We equip our minds with power through the abandoning of the five hindrances; then we can actually uncover these truths by experiencing the deep states of meditation. In fact, once one of these three basic characteristics of existence (ti-lakkhana) is seen in its fullness one will also see the other two in their fullness. As the Buddha said, "What is impermanent, subject to change, is suffering, and that by its very nature cannot be taken to be 'me', 'mine', or a 'self'. Whatever is taken to be a self will cause suffering" (SN 22, 59). In fact, the permanent happiness of a self is impossible.
The Buddha's teaching on anatta (non-self) is deep and profound because it challenges something very basic to our assumptions about life. The Buddha talked about avijja (delusion) being the root cause of all problems, of all rebirths, the root cause of defilements. He explained what avijja is through the teaching of the vipallasas (the perversions or distortions of view, thought and perception). Namely, the vipallasas say that by view, thought and perception we take what is dukkha to be sukha (happiness); we take what is impermanent to be permanent; we take what is not beautiful (asubha) to be beautiful (subha) and we take what is anatta to be atta, a self. Never in that teaching of the vipallasas did the Buddha say that we take what is self to be anatta. It's always something that is anatta that is taken to be a self. This is because throughout the Buddha's teachings there never was, in any way whatsoever, an atta (self) postulated.
One of those wrongly formed questions is: "Who am I?" This is an inquiry that many people in the world follow, "Who am I?" However, a little bit of reflection should make it very clear that this question already implies an assumption that you are someone. It already implies an answer. It's not open enough. Instead, one needs to rephrase the question from, "Who am I?" or even, "What am I?" to, "What do I take myself to be?" or, "What do I assume this thing called 'I' is?" Such questions dig very deep into one's avijja (delusion). Only then can one start to really look at what it is that one takes one's 'self' to be. Consider the human body. Do you consider the body to be yours? It' is very easy to say, "The body is not self" when one is young, healthy and fit. The test comes when one is sick, especially when that sickness is very deep and lasting, or can even be life threatening. That's when one can really see at a deeper level whether one is taking the body to be 'me' or 'mine'. Why does this fear arise? The fear is always because of attachment. One is afraid that something which one cherishes is being threatened or taken away. If ever a fear of death comes up at any time, that will show with ninety nine percent certainty, that in that moment one is seeing or thinking that this body is 'me', or is 'mine'.
Contemplate this body. Contemplate the death of this body, contemplate the contents of this body, and take it apart as it says in the Satipathana Suttas. See that with whatever parts of this body, that it's just flesh and blood and bones. It's just the four great elements (earth, water, heat and air), just atoms and molecules and chemicals, that's all. Continually contemplating the body in this way, one will eventually break down the delusion that this body is substantial, beautiful, delightful and one's 'own'.
When there is a self, there will be things that belong to a self. When there are things belonging to a self there will be control, there will be work, there will be doing. This illusion of a self (taking oneself to be something substantial) is what creates craving and attachment. This is what creates will. That's why when people take the body to be the self, then they go and take it to the gym, they take it to the beauty parlour, they take it to the hair dressers, they wash it, they preen it, they try hard to make it look nice. "This is important, this is me. It's my self-image." Such people think that it's very important what they look like. They think that it creates their happiness. Other (wiser) people say how stupid they are. Other people tell the truth. The point is that if you take the body to be you, you will want to control it. Some people get upset when they start to get old and ugly and smelly. They start to get upset when they get sick, because they realise they can't control this body.
The struggle to control
Some people who I've seen dying try and control their body to the very end. To be with someone when they are dying, and to see them struggling for the last breath, and trying to control everything, this is one of the saddest things to see in life. This is real suffering. Then you see those other people, who have more wisdom, those who can let go and not struggle at death. Realising that this body is not theirs any more, they don't care about it any more and they don't try to control it. The 'controller' has gone. When this controlling has gone, then so much peace, ease and freedom naturally arises in the mind.
Even deeper than the body is the stuff of the mind. First of all, let us consider the objects of the mind. So often people identify themselves with their thoughts, or with the perceptions or objects, which come up in their minds. That's why in the world when someone makes a mistake they usually say, "I wasn't feeling my self today". "When I do something right, that's the real me."
Anatta; not 'me'; ‘not mine'
When thoughts come up in the mind it's both useful and fascinating for one to consider, "Why did I think that? Where did that thought come from?" Very often one can trace these thought patterns back to teachers who inspired you, either in words or in books. Why did you think that thought? Is it really your thought, or is it the thought of Ajahn Brahm, or maybe the thought of your father, or the thought of your mother? Where did that thought come from? Thought does not belong to you. Thoughts come according to their conditions, they are triggered in the mind because of causes. It's fascinating to see that thought is anatta, not 'me', and not 'mine'. Why is it that thoughts obsess the mind? Thoughts come in and we grab hold of them. We make them stay because of the illusion that they are important. People sometimes have such nice thoughts, they come and tell me later, and they call them 'insights'. They are just thoughts, that's all. Just leave the thoughts alone. Don't take them to be 'mine'. If one takes thoughts to be 'mine', then one will go and beat someone else over the head with them, and argue about who's right and who's wrong. Letting them go is far more peaceful, far more joyful. Thinking is one of the biggest hindrances to deep meditation. Thinking so often stops one from seeing the truth, from seeing the true nature of things.
Therefore, give thinking no value. Give it no interest. Instead, give that value and interest much more to the silence. For those of you who have experienced long periods in meditation, where not a thought has been going on in your mind, isn't that nice, isn't that beautiful, isn't that just so lovely, when there is peace in the mind and not a thought coming up? Remember to cherish that thought of no thought. Then it's a thought that ends thought. All truth, all insight, all wisdom, arises in the silence.