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 [Dhamma Talk]


 

Not-self not No-self

Re: On the No-self Characteristic, Mendis, translation

Anatta means 'not-atta' it does not mean 'no-atta'.

The difference between 'no-atta' and 'not-atta' is very simple:

'No-atta' is an opinion, a conclusion, an inference, a point of view, something that cannot be varified, something that could only be known by someone who knew all things at all times. Even the Buddha did not claim to know all things at all times.

'Not-atta' is something that can be known about most things by any fool, about anything by anyone understanding the meaning of 'mine' or 'me' as indicating something that is under one's own power, not under the power of another or nature.

The Buddhist term is 'not-atta', not 'no-atta.'

What we are talking about here is the implication of the two translations (not to mention the correctness ... to mention the correctness, there is no question: the correct translation is 'not' or 'non' atta).

You will see below how 'atta' should be understood. The issue once that is fixed is that to say 'There is NO atta' is to say that one knows everything. How else could one know that there was no anything? To say that 'Such and such a thing is not the atta,' is something that can be said because whatever thing that is being pointed to can be examined against the criteria for atta and a determination can be made.

 

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MO to HC: The complexity of a response to you is not so much a matter of detail as approach. If I simply deal with the detail, without putting the problem into context, we will get lost in the detail and not see that it is the problem that makes getting the details correct that is the important thing. I will also deal with the detail, but first I need to establish the approach.

The difficulty for you in understanding the Pali is always going to be a matter of the fact that you are not coming at it as a man seeking the answer to the problem of pain. To really grasp the importance of what the Buddha has taught, this needs to be a burning issue. You need, even as an academic, to at least put yourself into this frame of mind as a hypothetical position.

The problem of pain is not simply the problem of physical pain, it is the problem of the pain of endless rebirth into life that is bound up in pain and always ends separating us from what we love, that is, life. It is also the pain associated with the way the forms we take in life are out of our control. You need to try and avoid the western approach of 'we gotta take the bad with the good,' and other forms of trying to justify an imperfect existence. That is an unacceptable answer in this effort and will result in your wasting your time in this study if you hang on to that.

What we have in your questions is a variety of issues that relate to the argument concerning existence and non-existence. In the Pali a position taken on this question is called a 'ditthi'. A point of view. A 'thesis'. What the Pali does is present one with a ditthi that passes beyond the debate concerning existence and non-existence and deals directly and exclusively with the idea of ending any sort of pain connected with existing or not existing which, it is held, is the real reason people debate this question in the first place.

The 'ditthi' given to us in the Pali, the ditthi that overcomes ditthi's, and self-destructs when it is seen clearly, is what you have heard of as 'The Four Noble Truths': The Four Aristocratic Truths or Aristocrats of Truths:

1. This (whatever thing) is Pain.

2. This Pain is a consequence (not 'is caused by' but 'follows as a consequence') of hunger/thirst or wanting.

3. To End the Pain, end the wanting.

4. This is the method: High ditthi, High principles based on that ditthi, High talk, High works, High lifestyle, High self-control, High preparation of mind, high focus, high seeing and high detachment.

You see there that in this there is no discussion of existence or non-existence.

Where this discussion enters the picture is in inference drawn from the detailed presentation of 'high seeing'.

High seeing is another way of seeing these four truths, that way being in terms of kamma:

Downbound (acting in a way bound up in) blindness, the rebound is own-made.

That's the whole of it stated in one way. There are other ways which go into much greater detail.

This way is sufficient to allow you to see that the proposed solution to the problem of pain is that not downbound to blindness there will be no rebound in the own-made.

Enter those who wish to go farther with this and conclude that that is saying that there is 'no self'. But that is not being said. And the Buddha is very specific about this at one point where he says that what others are saying when they say he teaches the annhiliation of the individual is precisely what he is not saying, that always and only he has taught about pain and it's ending.

What he has taught is that there is no 'thing' there that can justify the term 'own' or 'self' [AP = ATTA].

Turning it around, it is precisely the taking up of a ditthi concerning existence that is the blindness that results in own-making.

Holding a position with regard to existence comes in four basic formats: It is. It is not. It both is and is not. It neither is nor is not.

"No self" is the 'It is not' format and is an opinion, a conclusion, an inference, a point of view, something that cannot be varified, something that could only be known by someone who knew all things at all times.

This is a system that states absolutely that what it teaches is to be seen for the self by the intelligent in 'this visible state' (i.e., the so-called here and now but stated in terms that avoid the difficulties of finding a here and a now in a world bound up in Time). No conclusions, inferences, points of view, nothing that cannot be varified, that cannot be known by someone who cannot know all things at all times.

So! To deal with your questions one at a time:

HC: So the question is whether to translate anatta as "no self" or "not self?"

Correct. The 'word' is extremely important in this system. It reflects one's thinking. What happens with this translator often happens: the translation is got correctly, but the interpretation shows what is written is not understood, or, sometimes, the reverse occurs: A translator appears to have the correct understanding but by his choice of words indicates otherwise. Here the translator translates both ways!

HC: I feel that the important fact is that the self is the aggregate of sensations.

Ok, right here we should stop as this is already off-track. You are trying to find a self there where what is being taught is that there is no thing there, whether it is material, sense-experience, perception, own-making, or consciousness, that can be called the self.

You need to understand that a conventional understanding of self is allowed for matters of dealing with the ordinary world, and you need to understand that the meaning of 'self' [ATTA] in terms of this debate is defined as that which is under one's control, not subject to aging, suffering and death.

HC: Insofar as sensorial experience occurs and is percieved, there must be a percieving self, of some sort.

No. That is just you theorizing. In this system, consciousness is an element. Consciousness of being is the consciousness experienced when consciousness is in contact with named (a definition in memory) formed material. This is the limit of 'existence' or 'being'.

HC: Self is functional, albeit nonexistent... Or is it not-existent. But that the self is an artificial creation of the act of perception, a sorta bootstrap effort and result of percieving then shifts the focus of the question onto what, exactly, is it to percieve.

Here you come close but go on to drag in the self. The self is a super-imposition. I say it's like the cursor on your computer screen. It is a convenient way to locate a spot in space/time.

HC: When "I" "see" what is the "I" and what is it "to see?" If not-self is the answer, then what relationship ought "I" to have with that statement?

When you see, leave the "I" out of it. You will find you get along just fine without.

HC: Should I aspire to bloblike inaction, neither doing nor not-doing? Or should I continue about my daily life much as I did before being exposed to this Truth?

I'm not sure how you arrived at this question from the preceding, but the response is that if you see the problem connected with being connected to a ditthi, you need to work at letting go of that ditthi and of those habitual behaviors proceeding from that ditthi.

That is the Fourth Truth. The Magga, or The High Way.

It is essentially a scheme that focuses in different ways on every aspect of living pointing out what should not be done.

High talk is: Train yourself to abstain from intentionally saying what is not true.

It does not tell you what you can say. The assumption is that you will continue to behave as your previous habits have formed your behavior and that you will need to chip away at this behavior by not doing this and that.

It's a long hard journey.

HC: I'm stumbling over the function of these ideas. I can understand the non-reality of the Self. There is no soul, there is no spirit.

Again, this is not what the Buddha teaches. He teaches that there is no real thing there that is the self. There is no thing that is the soul. There is no thing that is the spirit.

HC: There is only a convenient, learned, centerpoint of perception referred to as self, much in the way that we refer to a city by a name and consider it to have an identity, though there is nothing tangibly nor essentially the city. A city is an idea in the same way that calculus is an idea or the self is an idea. They have no reality except in their functioning as a self, or as an equation, or as a mode of governance.

Here you have it correctly.

HC: The self however seeems to be a little closer to home than the city.

Not at all.

HC: But a self cannot exist apart from its community. And lately I've become interested in the ethical relationship of an illusory self with its illusory community. What ought one to do with one's time, with one's life?

Dealt with above: if you recognize the problem is pain, that that is a consequence of wanting, that to end the pain one must end the wanting, then one's course of action is clear: end the wanting. Use the Magga as a way to focus down on the specifics. Whenever you intentionally say what is not true, you are saying it because you want something. That thing you want ends in pain. Let that go.

HC: The options seem to be to do what one will at harm to none, or to follow the scripted paradigms of one's surroundings...

This is what the Buddha dealt with in his first sutta:

Two, me bhikkhus, are ends not to be gone after by one embarking on the seeker's life.

What two?

At the one end: whatever is desire, is yoked to desire for the sweet-life, inferior, peasant-like, of the common man, not aristocratic, destitute of character;

And at the other end: whatever is yoked to causing self-torment, is painful, not aristocratic, destitute of character.

Abstaining from going in either direction, follow the Magga.

HC: If the self is not a Real entity, it cannot be a moral authority, and moral actions must stem not from one man's gut, but rather from an outpouring of one's culture erupting within a spaciotemporal coordinate known as MO, or HC.

First, the end of pain is not achieved through ethical conduct alone.

Second, ethical standards proceed from 'ditthi' point of view. A ditthi taking a position with regard to existence and non existence will ultimately bring one to corruption and unethical standards in that it depends on a bias against all other points of view. The Pali ditthi, based on a position with regard to pain deals indifferently with pain whether it is found to have ultimate existence or not. It therefore saves all, harms none even when pushed to it's furthest extremes.

When pushed to it's furthest extreme it simply self destructs: This [ditthi] too is pain and must be let go.

HC: Self cannot be the source of intuition or gut-feelings of righteousness or of anything else for that matter if all is not-self.

This is a non-issue if you understand how ethical standards proceed from ditthi and that what proceeds from ditthi is learned, acquired. There is no 'real core' there from which proceed ethical standards.

This mind is pure and is corrupted from without. Imagine a sheet of clear plastic covering a door frame. Then imagine trying to step through that door. Then imagine wandering around on the other side of that door with that plastic becomeing ever more wound up and tangled. Ethical standards are one tool one uses to backtrack and unwind that twisted plastic. What is not done ethically when ethical standards are based on not causing pain is always done from wanting.

HC: This not-self desires to take over the world.

Exactly!

HC: But what for?

Also exactly! Absurd. Meaningless. Impossible. Unsatisfactory even if possible because it ends. Painful. Done out of blindness to the consequences.

HC: IS even this a programmed reaction to the aggregation of sensation of my life?

...of this life. Yes.

HC: Are "my" feelings of truth and beauty and love unique to me or identical with those feelings of other homo sapiens?

Feelings of truth and beauty and love can be (at least in theory) unique but are mostly identical with many others. From fear not many venture into what is possible.

HC: And if there are no selves to locate these feelings within, then would it be accurate to say that when I feel love and you feel love, we are in fact experiencing the indentical thing known as love?

Again, The Pali is not saying there is no self. And there are feelings within. They are seen to arise as a consequence of interdependant factors.

When a visible object comes into the range of a functioning eye together with consciousness there arises sensation, perception, own-making, and consciousness of seeing a visible object producing a sensation of pleasure or pain or of neither-pain-nor-pleasure. In the analysis of the being what you are calling love is just another form of wanting and is in essence the same for one and all, gods and man. Experiencing pleasure connected with the experience of seeing a pleasurable object with the eye in the blind individual there arises desire to re-create that experience and action is taken which results in new experience arising.

HC: Does love not exist in the same way that self does not exist and for the same reason?

The same logic applies to any phenomena. There is no 'thing' there that is the essential thing of that thing. It's all the coming together of parts and their names.

HC: Or rather, is there a self, but "this is not it." Hence, "Who feels the pain?" "Not-self."

Exactly the problem. Just leave the issue of self undealt with and see whatever it is as 'This is not self.' Who feels is unimportant. That there is feeling and that there is a way to escape that feeling, that is the issue.

 

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AP: I must say that it's difficult for me to believe that we can talk about not-X without first knowing what X is. It seems an unreasonable approach to gaining knowledge about anything.

Science or learning is always going to be about trying to understand something we don't understand from the start. No? Adopting hypothetical positions and working from them with the known to perhaps later draw inferences with regard to our initial hypothetical?

Beings for the most part, simply by the fact that they are beings, already have made a determination concerning their existence. What is being said in the Pali is that it is that determination itself that is the source of Pain. It is being said in the Pali that the question being dealt with is the issue of Pain, not the issue of Self or Existence. So it is being said in the Pali: "At least for the purposes of this discussion, put away your questions concerning self and existence and focus at this time on what we can see with our own eyes." What we can see with our own eyes is that, whatever May or May Not be the Self, THIS is not the self. How do we know? It causes pain.

We are not asking 'what is not-self?' (we are not looking for a thing that is the not-self), we are saying 'this thing and that thing are not-self'.

The issue of how to understand that a thing is not-self without defining what thing is the self is accomplished by defining the criteria that would need to be in place for a thing to be rightfully called a self or 'me' or 'mine': namely that it would be under one's own control. It would not cause pain. We do not take the western compromise approach of accepting the imperfect solution of a painful existence. This far it might be justified to say there is the need to trust what the Buddha has said. The quest for a perfect solution preceeded the Buddha, but the Buddha has said that he found a perfect solution. Others in turn, following the method he described for attaining it have said that they attained it. So then not having attained it ourselves we cannot call ourselves seekers after knowledge and wisdom if we give up the quest and settle for an imperfect solution when a perfect solution is said to be attainable. We trust in so far as we follow the method as hypothetically leading to a perfect solution and we are rational to the degree that we examine the results impartially.

Its like a scientist looking for anti-matter. He could know right away that he had not found it as soon as he identified any thing as matter. How come? Because his definition of anti-matter excludes anything that is matter. He leaves open the issue of what he may find there when he actually finds anti-matter.

So we can look at a rock and we can say without a lot of confusion: This is not myself. How come? Because we cannot control it.

And we can look at the body and say: 'This is not myself' because we can see that it ages, gets sick and dies, i.e., causes pain against our will. That is, we cannot control it.

And we can say the same thing of any formed material, perception, sense experience, own-made thing, and even consciousness.

Then we can say: "It is only insofar as there is the conjunction of consciousness, formed material and identifications (perceptions) that there is that which is understood to have existence or to be a living being.

The full scope of that is covered by the categories: formed material, perception, sense-experience, own-made things, and consciousness.

As for 'self' and 'existence' it is clearly a matter of point of view concerning these things, a super-imposition, not a matter of ultimate realities.

Those who see how these things come together cannot deny existence and living beings; those who see how these things are subject to breaking apart cannot justify the statement that there is an existing thing or self there. The whole matter of self and existence is an effort made in blindness to establish stability where there is none. The only place where there is stability is in not holding a position with regard to self and existence concerning anything conceivable whatsoever."

One more thing. Nobody has asked this one yet: "OK, so say we accept that we can say "this" is not the self about a thing, how can we say 'There is no thing there that is the self?' without falling into the need for knowing all things at all times as is required for the statement, 'there is no self'?

Good Question. Glad I asked it!

We can make this statment because we have examined the nature of things that have come to be. Things that have come to be are bound by Time. They have beginnings, middles, and ends. That defines a thing that has come to be. Changing and ending are properties that define a thing as out of our control.

See also: Not no Self


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