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 [Dhamma Talk]


AN 6.38

The Buddha refutes the idea that there is no self and no other.

Read the Sutta

Recommended translation: Self-doer, Olds translation
Index to available translations: AN 6.38



From the Introduction to the Olds Translation

This sutta addresses a perception attained through meditation where the meditator perceives the nature of what he has previously believed was 'himself' and 'the world' as being an illusion — a work of the imagination made from a play of light — and comes to the conclusion that 'there is no self'.

The way this is to be put following Gotama's system is: 'There is no thing there that is the self.' The Pali is 'Sabbe dhammā anattā.' = All things not-self.

The difference between the statement that there is no self and the statement that there is no thing there that is the self is that the former is a point of view, the latter is something verifiable by the observation that, by definition, existence is bound by a progression of identified shapes and consciousness, [aka: Time].

Whatsoever comes into existence comes to an end.

Whatsoever comes to an end is not under one's control and cannot therefore be called one's own or one's self.

To say such an ending thing is the self would be to say, to quote Gotama: 'Myself comes to an end in myself."

To describe this phenomena with a point of view is to place one's self in conflict with the opposing points of view — e.g.: there is a self; there both is and is not a self; there neither is nor is not a self — and will lead to behaviors that will in every case bring one to a bad end.

Today we have groups who hold each of these positions, but the most pernicious of these views is the view that there is no self in that it leads to belief that there is no consequence for inhuman behavior ... and even more damaging, that there is no need for personal endeavor to escape the disadvantages of identifying with what is not the self.

With regard to behavior and it's consequences, Gotama's system speaks of kamma or sankhara, action and reaction, or own-making and identified-with experience.

From early on, the student of Buddhism will have been told that to say things like: 'I went to the store today,' 'please pass me the salt,' 'This is my ... mine ...,' etc. is acceptable if one retains in mind that one is 'speaking conventionally.'

While this is largely considered a 'mere convenience', there is nothing in Gotama's system which is insignificant. The problem with 'existence' and the coming to an end of things is precisely the subjective nature of this phenomena.

The individual experiences himself and the world through the senses.

A sense-object comes into contact with a sense organ and together with consciousness is experienced as sensing as an individual.

The phenomena is generated by way of a previous intent by an identified-with individuality to create experience as an individual.

The problem with existence as an individual is the identification with its unpleasant aspects, such as dying, and worse the subsequent confusion leading to an endless repetition of the sequence.

The solution to the problem is subjective.

It is the subjective individuality that has generated the desire and attachment that resulted in experience as an individual.

That desire and attachment must be seen, understood, resolved and let go within the subjective experience; it ends at the level where it began.

This sutta translation is important from another aspect.

What I call the 'Rhys Davids/Stead' translators, those who rely primarily on the understanding presented in the Pali English Dictionary and which are all, more or less, as I have said elsewhere many times, 'editings' of the original PTS translations, all miss the magic of sutta discourse. The magic is further obscured by the use of abbreviation. The student of the system is by these two phenomena deprived of the need to slow down and visualize what is being said and done.

This sutta is a typical case. The sequence of terms is a progression. The progression is of a dual nature. It can be taken in the 'conventional' way as a series of mere logical arguments; but it is also to be seen as showing the way to the solution of the problem. For this latter to become clear the meditator must sit down, visualize and understand the significance of the progression, or, if hearing the sutta face to face, it is the repetition of the formula which will induce a state where this progression is 'visible' to the mind.

This is how I understand and attempt to translate this sutta and why it is important to have this new translation and to be able to relate it to the Pali.



The Anatta-me Lesson

It is vital to an understanding of Dhamma, to the escape from kamma, to the attainment of freedom, to the attainment of detachment that this be clearly understood:

It is not:
"There is no self,"
it is:
"This is not the self," or "All Things are Not-Self," or "There is no thing there that is the self."

The statement: "There is no self," is a diṭṭhi, a point of view, an opinion, a theory, an hypothesis, a deduction, a baseless conclusion, unprovable, wrong, and a thing which prevents attaining escape from kamma, the attainment of freedom, the attainment of detachment. It is a statement that is not made by the Buddha and is against true Dhamma.

It is a point of view, or opinion because it is one among several ways of seeing the phenomena of individuality.

It is a theory or hypothesis because it postulates an unproven position.

It is a deduction or conclusion made from the statement "sabba dhamma anatta". But to say "There is no self" is not a conclusion that can be drawn from the statement 'all things are not the self' (suppose there were a self that was not a 'thing'? And in fact the definition of existence in the Buddha's Dhamma, the definition of a 'thing' which has become a 'thing', a dhamma, is not that which is commonly understood as the meaning of existence. In this system 'existence' means the living of a living being that has come into existence through own-making or con-struction by an individual and consists of named-form plus consciousness [DN 15]— being some sort of identified being in some sort of world of beings — such a definition allows for consciousness outside of existence, just not individually identified-with consciousness); it is not the same thing as to say "there is no self." The latter is an absolute statement. For it to be stated truthfully by someone, that person would need to be able to see all things at all times, past, future and present. Even the Buddhas do not claim such vision.

It is unprovable because it is impossible for anyone to say such a thing is true from personal knowledge.

It is wrong because there are opposing opinions and points of view on the matter. From those points of view it is wrong.

For him who sees the coming into existence of things there can be no holding of the opinion: "There is not";
For him who sees the passing out of existence of things there can be no holding of the opinion "There is."

It is a thing which prevents attainment of escape from kamma, attainment of freedom and detachment because an individual who holds the belief that there is no self has no incentive to improve himself or escape kamma or existence in this world. In this visible world his philosophy is "Eat, drink and make merry, for tomorrow we die!" or "We're not here for a long time, we're here for a good time," or "We only have one life, so make the most of it," and thus he is bound to kamma. At the break-up of the body at death he will be unable to adhere to his position that there is no self and will identify, as he has habitually done, (as he would see if he had any reasonable degree of knowledge of himself) with the disintegrating elements and follow them into rebirth.

It is a point of view condemned in the Dhamma as being the annihilationist view.

On the other hand, to say "This", or "'All Things' are not the self" is to point to something that can be seen for himself by anyone who looks at the matter understanding the criteria defining the idea of self in the Buddha's system: That it is something that is under one's control; that it is without change (in the sense that it is always "me" and "mine"); that it is without pain, ending and subject to rebirth in accordance with kamma. The individual can see of himself how it is out of his control, changes and is painful and he can determine that all things that have come into existence are by definition of the same nature.

Here's the thing. Understanding this not-self idea clearly is not enough, neither is understanding and seeing the logic, neither is understanding and seeing the logic and believing that it is the correct way to see things. What is needed is to be able to see that This is not the self is a fact. You need to be able to look down there or out there and see the body or whatever it is you have previously felt was the you of you and see it as a separate entity. Not you. A thing that is not your self out there. It is only then that it can be let go. It cannot be done sitting there 'seeing' no self. You can't see no self. How can you then let it go?

Here's the other thing that is important: If you do not have this idea clearly in your mind, you have not yet broken the sakāyadiṭṭhi and breaking the sakāyadiṭṭhi is one of the three things you must do in order to be able to call yourself a Streamwinner and being a Streamwinner is necessary to assure yourself that rebirth in Hell, as a Ghost or daemon or animal is no longer a possibility for you.

Otherwise you may be a Streamwinner by faith, but if you die in that state there is this much that must be done by you before you move on in the next life. Now is the Time!

Be careful! Do not let yourself carelessly state this matter or by reading without paying attention accepting the incorrect statement as made by others.

See especially: [AN 6.38] Self-doer, Olds trans, introductiona and translation.
See also:
MN 147
MN 148.
AN 10.6. High-Getting, Olds translation. And the next 2 suttas, but samādhi is not 'concentration'! In response to a question by Ānanda, the Buddha confirms that there is perception beyond existence.
MN 60. The Buddha explains a logical way to behave when faced with uncertainty as to what one should believe.
This sutta should be read by every skeptic and every realist who can see of himself that he does not know or see such things as the workings of kamma, rebirth according to one's deeds, the existence of Heaven and Hell, gods, God or the Devil, etc. The logic of the sutta is incontrovertable, indeed. It only makes sense to cover your bets. To hold the position that 'there is no' (kamma, God, etc.) is actually to say that one 'knows,' and to say that one knows means that one is claiming to know all. How else could one know that 'there was not'? If a thing exists, it can be seen. Perhaps not by everyone, but sooner or later it can be seen. If a thing does not exist, one would need to see absolutely everything to know that it did not exist. And then, maybe you missed something. Then, too, to say that one knows that 'there is not' is to say that one knows more than those who have said that 'there is.' That is 'exalting one's self and disparaging others.'



How to Reason Out the Idea of Not-Self

If body, sense-experience, perception, own-making and consciousness were one's own or one's self, then it would not be subject to aging, sickness and death, grief and lamentation, pain and misery and despair, and one would be able to command:

'Let my body, sense-experience, perception, own-making and consciousness be such and such and not such as so.'

Body, sense-experience, perception, own-making and consciousness are unstable.

What is unstable is painful.

What is unstable,
painful in essence,
is not fit to be thought of as:

"This is mine."

"I am this."

"This is the self of me."

This is the way to regard body, sense-experience, perception, own-making and consciousness,
whether past, future or present,
personal or external,
gross or subtle,
low or high,
far or near.

So seeing,
one experiences distaste for body, sense-experience, perception, own-making and consciousness.

Experiencing distaste one becomes distanced.

Distanced one is freed.

In freedom,
Seeing Freedom as Freedom,
One is free,
and one knows:

"Rebirth is behind me,
lived is the best of lives,
duty's doing's done,
there is no more it'n-n-at'n for me."


MN 38

Sati's Error

The well-known sutta in which the Buddha explains the idea that consciousness is a conditioned phenomena and is not the self that transmigrates from one birth to the next.

This is a very important sutta to understand clearly. (The Chalmers translation is too abridged to be of much help, see the other translations for a better perspective.)

All consciousness is a result of the coming together of conditions.

There are various sorts of consciousness depending on the conditions which give rise to it.

Consciousness is not a self that transmigrates from one existence to the next.

The subjective aparent continuity of individuality from moment to moment and life to life is a matter of illusion. A case of mistaken identity: Identification with conscousness assumed to be the continuation of an identification with consciousness that performed deeds with the intent of creating this consciousness.

After determining that it is individualized consciousness (among the various sorts of consciousness) that Sati believes transmigrates from birth to birth, the Buddha deals with that form of consciousness from the point of view of the factors on which it is dependent and the mechanism of rebirth itself. The mechanics of the arising of consciousness in ordinary rebirth must be understood before it can be seen how there arises a second sort of consciousness that is not dependent on individualized existence.

There are then two general categories of consciousness: Consciousness conditioned by things of Time; and consciousness conditioned by things not of Time.
Consciousness conditioned by things of time (the six senses) is a thing of time and comes to an end.

This is the consciousness of the ordinary individual.

When consciousness is conditioned by consciousness of freedom from things of time, it is consciousness conditioned by things not of time.

That consciousness, though it is conditioned, has not been own-made, identified-with, and is not an 'existing thing' but is only a consciousness of not being a thing, is not identified-with as "I" or "mine", and because not dependent on something that comes to an end, does not itself come to an end and is the goal of this system.

Again: Consciousness arises dependedent on conditions.

If the conditions present are consciousness of freedom from things of Time, the resulting consciousness is consciousness of consciousness of things not of Time. It has arisen as a result of conditons, not as a result of the willing of an individual (i.e., own-making, or sankharaming.) Consciousness, freed from things of time, is unlimited, not bound to Time, deathless... Nirvana: Out of the Woods; Nibbāna, unbound.

Returning to the sutta: An individual who sees consciousness like this does not speculate about the past, future or present nature of a self. He may have vision of past lives, but he also sees that none of them were the self of him. He knows of the future that there is no thing which will be identified with as the self. He knows of the present that there is no thing there that is the self. This is a simpler way of seeing things than the divisions that are created by the assumption of individuality and consequently he is not confused about things of the past, future or present. Things come to be as a consequence of conditions (kamma); without conditions they do not come to be; on the ending of the conditions that brought them about, they cease to be. For all things. Not just "me" or "them".

If you can see how ordinary rebirth-consciousness arises as a consequence of conditions, you can then see how with different conditions (consciousness of consciousness of things not of Time) a different sort of consciousness can arise and you can direct 'mind' to that second sort of consciousness which, unending, deathless, and free from time is clearly superior.

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