Posted by: Wei Yu

As this Buddhist term Anatta gets mentioned quite often in this blog, I think it is worth some clarifications.

Did the Buddha teach No Self? There are articles which states that the Buddha did not teach No Self, but Not-Self (Anatta). Indeed, the term Anatta refers to non-self. Why non-self and not no-self? I think to term it non-self brings the point that Anatta merely rejects the view of an existent self, but does not assert non-existence of self, which is another equally erroneous extreme. Actually I have no problems with calling it No Self at all - as long as it is not taken to mean that a self becomes non-existent (rather, it should mean that no existent self within or apart from the five aggregates could be established to begin with, that could become non-existent, both or neither).

Cooran (moderator of Dhammawheel) pointed out that a note to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of this sutta is worth considering:

‘’We should carefully heed the two reasons that the Buddha does not declare, ‘’There is no self’’: not because he recognizes a transcendent self of some kind (as some interpreters allege), or because he is concerned only with delineating ‘’a strategy of perception’’ devoid of ontological implications (as others hold), but (i) because such a mode of expression was used by the annihilationists, and the Buddha wanted to avoid aligning his teaching with theirs; and (ii) because he wished to avoid causing confusion in those already attached to the idea of self. The Buddha declares that ‘all phenomena are nonself’’ (sabbe dhamma anatta), which means that if one seeks a self anywhere one will not find one. Since ‘’all phenomena’’ includes both the conditioned and the unconditioned, this precludes an utterly transcendent, ineffable self."

(Part of Note 385 on Page 1457 of The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi).)

While it is true that Anatta is more like 'non-self' than 'non-existence of self', I do not agree with some of the articles' assertions that the question of the existence of self is simply a question to be put aside as something irrelevant to liberation. Although it is true that the four extremes are rejected by Buddha, it is not so much because it is 'unrelated to liberation', rather it is more like 'all the extremes views are false and relate to self-view in one form or another, and hence prevents liberation' and as such, all such false assertions/views must be abandoned through insight and realization in order for there to be liberation. Those articles, while explaining the rejection of the four extremes, fail to elucidate the realization of Anatta and the freedom from views (i.e. self-view) that result from such realization.

Furthermore, "Not-self" is not just a "strategy of letting go" or "strategy of perception devoid of any ontological implications" as certain articles may state or simply, but rather it is a truth, and there must be experiential realization of this truth. The Buddha constantly talks about discerning the three characteristics as an insight into dharmas, that is to "
discern, as it actually is" all dharmas as inconstant, unsatisfactory, and non-self. In Bhaddhekaratta Sutta, in reference to anatta, instructs a practitioner "that which is present he discerns — With insight as and when it comes". If not-self is merely treated as a strategy, what has it got to do with insight and clear discernment into the way things actually are? After realizing the truth, there is naturally letting go of I-making, but it is not due to 'taking not-self as a strategy to dissociate with things'. That would be far away from realizing the essence of anatta as described in Vajira Sutta (excerpt quoted below).

To understand what this realization of anatta entails, it is important to first understand what exactly is this self-view we are dealing with, the self-view that is relinquished permanently upon realization. The view of a self means believing or holding the view that there is an independent, unchanging, self-entity that persists from one moment to the next and one lifetime to another, and is the agent, controller or experiencer of stuff in life. "Self" thus has the quality of permanency, independence, separateness (separate from the flow of experiences), and agenthood (being the controller, perceiver, experiencer of things). If there is any such thing, it could qualify as Self. However, the realization of Anatta is that there is no such Self. It is the realization as I wrote in my commentary on Bahiya Sutta, the realization that in seeing, there is no three things: the Seer, that is doing the seeing of the seen. (Seer seeing seen) Instead, in the seeing, there is JUST the scene - that pure, vivid experience of scenery. That's it. No experiencer apart from the experience. This realization that "seer seeing seen" is a false view or perception of reality relinquishes the notion of a self or agent, but it does not establish a conceptual position such as "the self does not exist" because non-existence only pertains to an existent going into non-existence. This realization is not a new conceptual view to be held on to, but a complete freedom from self-view. In seeing JUST the seen, and all notions pertaining to existence or non-existence of self doesn't apply there.

As I see it, without abandoning ALL views of the existence (and likewise, the non-existence, etc) of the self, we cannot gain liberation (or in fact even stream entry, which requires the abandoning of the view of self). 

However, to call it not-self or non-self also leans itself to possible misinterpretation which I shall discuss later: such as treating 'not-self' as a form of dissociative practice.

If we look into the Buddha's discourses, the Buddha rejected views pertaining not only to the existence of self, but also the non-existence of self, the both existence and non-existence of self, and the neither existence nor non-existence of self. These four extreme positions are utterly rejected by the Buddha.

In reality, both self and dharma is neither existent nor non-existent (nor both, nor neither): since self and dharma has never arisen to begin with, cannot be established to begin with, cannot be pinned down to begin with, therefore self and dharma cannot go into non-existence, or be both and neither.

Here, the Buddha clarifies:


..."What do you think: Do you regard the Tathagata as form-feeling-perception-fabrications-consciousness?"

"No, lord."

"Do you regard the Tathagata as that which is without form, without feeling, without perception, without fabrications, without consciousness?"

"No, lord."

"And so, Anuradha — when you can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, 'Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"

"No, lord."...

And all the great Buddhist masters from the past have said the same things with regards to what Buddha said above:

As Chandrakirti states:

"A chariot is not asserted to be other than its parts,
Nor non-other. It also does not possess them.
It is not in the parts, nor are the parts in it.
It is not the mere collection [of its parts], nor is it their shape.
[The self and the aggregates are] similar."

And Padmasambhava states:

"The mind that observes is also devoid of an ego or self-entity.
It is neither seen as something different from the aggregates
Nor as identical with these five aggregates.
If the first were true, there would exist some other substance.

This is not the case, so were the second true,
That would contradict a permanent self, since the aggregates are impermanent.
Therefore, based on the five aggregates,
The self is a mere imputation based on the power of the ego-clinging.

As to that which imputes, the past thought has vanished and is nonexistent.
The future thought has not occurred, and the present thought does not withstand scrutiny."

And Nagarjuna states:

“The Tathagata is not the aggregates; nor is he other
than the aggregates.
The aggregates are not in him nor is he in them.
The Tathagata does not possess the aggregates.
What Tathagata is there?”

And the Vajira Sutta states:

Then the bhikkhuni Vajira, having understood, "This is Mara the Evil One," replied to him in verses: "Why now do you assume 'a being'? Mara, have you grasped a view? This is a heap of sheer constructions: Here no being is found. Just as, with an assemblage of parts, The word 'chariot' is used, So, when the aggregates are present, There's the convention 'a being.' It's only suffering that comes to be, Suffering that stands and falls away. Nothing but suffering comes to be, Nothing but suffering ceases."

Notice that the Buddha said that you cannot find the self of the Tathagatha inside nor apart from the five skandhas (aggregations):
there is no Tathagata to be pinned down as a form-based or a formless Truth or Reality. This means that the so called 'self' actually cannot be found, located or pinned down as a reality just as the word 'weather' cannot be found or located as something inherently (independently, unchangingly) existing (apart or within the conglomerate of everchanging phenomena such as clouds, lightning, wind, rain, etc) - the label 'self' is merely a convention for the five skandhas or the body-mind aggregates, which is a process of self-luminous (having the quality of luminous clarity, knowing, cognizance) but empty phenomenality, in which no truly existing 'self' can be found within nor apart from them.

And if we cannot pin down an entity called 'self' to begin with, how can we assert the non-existence of a self: which means that an existent 'self' annihilates or goes into non-existence? To assert non-existence, you must have a base, an existent entity to begin with, that could become non-existent. If the convention 'self' is baseless to begin with, then existence, non-existence, both and neither become untenable positions.

So as you can see, the whole point of Anatta is to reject the view and notion of an existent self, without thereby asserting the non-existence of self. I would like to borrow Loppon Namdrol's quotations on this regard:

"The great 11th Nyingma scholar Rongzom points out that only Madhyamaka accepts that its critical methodology "harms itself", meaning that Madhyamaka uses non-affirming negations to reject the positions of opponents, but does not resort to affirming negations to support a position of its own. Since Madhyamaka, as Buddhapalita states "does not propose the non-existence of existents, but instead rejects claims for the existence of existents", there is no true Madhyamaka position since there is no existent found about which a Madhyamaka position could be formulated; likewise there is no false Madhyamaka position since there is no existent found about which a Madhyamaka position could be rejected."
As I have said since long ago (with regards to the emptiness of self in persons): in seeing always JUST the seen without a seer, in hearing always JUST the heard without the hearer - as what the Buddha taught in the Bahiya Sutta that led to my realization, explained here. So, no (existent) self - but also no no self. The main point is that in seeing JUST the seen (no self, no no self or whatever)! I am not asserting non-existence or any new positions to cling to, I am simply rejecting the false, misconceived, learnt view that there is an agent, a self, that stands behind the activity of seeing, hearing, thinking, etc. For in order for me to assert non-existence, there must be some base in which I can assert its non-existence, but such a base or entity cannot be found, and when the emptiness of an inherently existent self is realized, the four extreme positions cannot be established.

The liberation of the view of an agent, a self that stands behind experience as an agent that controls, or perceives, phenomena - due to the realization that such a view is utterly unfounded in the reality of 'in seeing always just the seen', liberates you from self-view without proposing any further positions to be held on to (such as the non-existence of self). 

I often say that the insight into Anatta and Shunyata is not a conceptual position I cling to, but a realization and wisdom that when actualized in daily experience, is indeed a non-conceptual freedom and wonder.

Only when we see Anatta as a realization (not merely a technique to dissociate, but a realization into a dharma seal, a characteristic of phenomenon or truth) which liberates us from false views about reality, instead of something to support a position of our own, will we be able to gain liberation. It is not also not merely an experience whereby the sense of self dissolves which is temporary and is in fact rather common - but a permanent abandonment of a false view seen to be false through realization, leading to a stable non-retrogressing experience of the freedom from self-view in direct experience of 'in seeing just the seen, in hearing just the heard', etc.

The Buddha says,

"Bhikkkhus, as purified and bright as this view is, if you covet, cherish, treasure and take pride in it, do you understand this Dhamma as comparable to a raft, taught for the purpose of giving up [i.e. crossing over] and not for the purpose of grasping?" "No, venerable sir." "Bhikkhus, as purified and bright as this view is, if you do not covet, cherish, treasure and take pride in it, would you then know this Dhamma as comparable to a raft, taught for the purpose of giving up [i.e. crossing over] and not for the purpose of grasping?" "Yes, venerable sir."

As you can see, the raft of the Buddha works as merely a non-affirming negation that frees us from ALL views whatsoever.

Dependent Origination is too a raft; it is like the stick that stirs the fire and is eventually consumed by fire without leaving any trace. 

Loppon Namdrol have said elsewhere:

"In other words, right view is the beginning of the noble path. It is certainly the case that dependent origination is "correct view"; when one analyzes a bit deeper, one discovers that in the case "view" means being free from views. The teaching of dependent origination is what permits this freedom from views."

The teaching of Anatta (as I define it as the emptiness of self in persons), and the teaching of Dependent Origination (which further leads to the realization of the emptiness of self in all phenomena) are simply rafts that lead to some fundamental insight that burns away our false views and perception about reality.

Only when we are able to liberate ourselves from such false perceptions, can we stop clinging to self, and phenomena, and as a result end our afflictions, attachments, and sufferings.

No amount of trying to force ourselves to stop suffering or attachments is ever going to work, if fundamentally we hold self and phenomena to have graspable, inherent existence, that is subject to birth and death, etc. If we hold on to things as 'I', as 'mine', as objects that are real and hence conducive for grasping, craving and so on, we are never going to be liberated. Only when we give up (through insight) our attachments to the sense of 'I', to the sense of things as 'mine', to the sense that there are 'things' (by realizing them to be completely illusory and empty), will we then be able to experience what liberation is.

Having said all these, I should also mention the pitfalls of calling Anatta not-self or non-self.

The problem with calling Anatta not-self or non-self, is not so much the term itself, but that people generally think of not-self as implying a practice of dissociation. This means there is still I, here, trying to dissociate from 'other objects' as 'not-self'. As a result, I still cling dearly to the sense of 'I', or maybe a very subtle grasping (which can occur at the I AM level or even the substantial non-dual level to a subtler degree) to Knowing or Awareness as the true self beyond all objects.

So the point is: I can dissociate from all objects as 'not-self', but still cling to an ultimate non-objective Subject/Self. Therefore such a form of dissociation is never going to get us to understand what Anatta is all about. And this is also not what the Buddha set out contemplation of Anatta to be.

Why do I say so? Because the Buddha's method of contemplating on Anatta is not like the Advaita Vedanta technique of self-inquiry, contemplating on Anatta is very different from the practice of 'neti neti'. The practice of 'neti neti' is done in order to reject the not-self in order to find or discover the Self. To put it in Namdrol's terms, the Advaita technique resorts to affirming negations to support a position of its own. Why? The not-self of Advaita is established only in contrast with the True Self.

The contemplation of neti neti, or dissociation, the separation of the witness from the witnessed, Self from not-self and so on, is done to 'support' a position of a true Self. So with regards to the phenomenal world of everchanging things, I reject as not me and mine, for I am the ultimate Witness that is perceiving all these.

This is the false View no. 4 described in Sabbasava Sutta: "...As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress." - the commentary of 'Middle Length Discourses' book explains, "of these six views, the first two represent the simple antinomy of eternalism and annihilationism; the view that ‘no self exists for me’ is not the non-self doctrine of the Buddha, but the materialist view that identifies the individual with the body and thus holds that there is no personal continuity beyond death. The next three views may be understood to arise out of the philosophically more sophisticated observation that experience has a built-in reflexive structure that allows for self-consciousness, the capacity of the mind to become cognizant of itself, its contents, and the body with which it is inter-connected. Engaged in a search for his 'true nature,' the untaught ordinary person will identify self either with both aspects of the experience (view 3), or with the observer alone (view 4), or with the observed alone (view 5). The last  view is a full-blown version of eternalism in which all reservations have been discarded."

The Buddha's contemplation of Anatta however, is not done with any of such views. The Buddha was very adamant throughout his teachings that the purpose of contemplating the three characteristic of phenomenon, namely: impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and non-self are done not to discover some ultimate reality, but rather to result in knowledge and vision of things as they are (as being empty of self) which leads to dispassion and ultimately cessation (nirvana) of suffering and afflictions. The result of contemplating as such results in the realization of Anatta.

As we can see, contemplating, and realizing the three characteristic has the effect of letting go of all attachments. It does not in any way strengthen the subject-object dichotomy, the sense of an observer apart from the observed. Contemplating non-self in the Buddha's sense does NOT mean dissociation, it does not mean seperating the observing self from the observed objects: it simply means contemplating non-self in the midst of directly experiencing pure sensations as they are, resulting in the insight into Anatta, and hence relinquishing ALL sense of self with regards to all sensations, including even the sense of an observer.

To support my claims I will discuss one of the most popular technique the Buddha said could lead to the attainment of Anagamihood and Arahantship in as little as 7 days and at most 7 years (of course you must be seriously practicing it with a background of right view and understanding, otherwise you can't possibly have right mindfulness to begin with, which is why not everyone who meditates become enlightened so quickly), which is the Four Foundations of Mindfulness found in the Satipatthana Sutta (which I highly recommend everyone to read) which is according to Wikipedia the most popular Buddhist text. In that technique, one is mindful/aware of every sensation. You may think ‘oh this is probably some typical Witnessing technique found even in common self-help books to dissociate from all forms and experiences in order to transcend to the formless Self or Watcher’, BUT notice that the Watcher is nowhere mentioned in the sutta (and any other Pali sutta for that matter) and more importantly: the Buddha’s repeated expression in the sutta of "observing the body in the body," "observing the feelings in the feelings," "observing the mind in the mind," "observing the objects of mind in the objects of mind." Why are the words, body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind repeated? Why ‘observe the … IN THE ….’? It means you are living and experiencing IN and AS the sensations, and not observing the sensations in and as an observer/watcher and the sensations are not meant to be disassociated from in order to get to an ultimate reality or transcendental Self! 

The Buddha's method of contemplating anatta therefore is for practitioners to have direct experience and contemplation of pure sensations as in Bahiya Sutta, 'in seeing just the seen, in hearing just the heard'* WITHOUT the filtering of the conceptual mind, the false sense or conception of a self, or the passions and afflictions that causes all manners of craving and aversions for the sensations, so that insight and realization can arise, so that true liberation and abandonment can take place, and it is only in this context that contemplating anatta can be understood. And this is the insight meditation taught by Buddha himself, which, at least in the Pali canon, is considered as the most direct path to liberation (however note that the term 'direct path' is used differently by me in my e-book).

*Bahiya Sutta said, "Then, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized. That is how you should train yourself. When for you there will be only the seen in reference to the seen, only the heard in reference to the heard, only the sensed in reference to the sensed, only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."

Udana Sutta says, "Now, a well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — who has regard for nobles ones, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma; who has regard for men of integrity, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma — does not assume form to be the self, or the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form. He does not assume feeling to be the self... does not assume perception to be the self ... does not assume fabrications to be the self... He does not assume consciousness to be the self, or the self as possessing consciousness, or consciousness as in the self, or the self as in consciousness.", "He discerns, as it actually is, not-self form as 'not-self form' ... not-self feeling as 'not-self feeling' ... not-self perception as 'not-self perception' ... not-self fabrications as 'not-self fabrications' ... not-self consciousness as 'not-self consciousness."

A lot of people think contemplating not-self means dissociation or on first impression it may seem like a different set of instructions from Bahiya Sutta but actually it is exactly the same as Bahiya Sutta. Many people think of not-self as meaning "does not assume form to be the self" (which means there could still be a person or witness dissociating himself from form), yet anatta is not only that, since it negates also “the self as possessing form, or form as in the self, or the self as in form” (no possibility of a witness or awareness which contains or observes form - form is just form without any referent of self - whether it is a self seen to be inside my body, or my body inside me as if I am a container-like awareness!), in other words, exactly as per Bahiya Sutta, “Then, Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen... only the cognized in reference to the cognized, then, Bahiya, there is no you in terms of that. When there is no you in terms of that, there is no you there. When there is no you there, you are neither here nor yonder nor between the two. This, just this, is the end of stress."
The Buddha also specifically rejected the notion of Self as infinite and formless (prevalent for those who hold the 'Ground of Being'/all-encompassing container of phenomena sort of Self-view) in Maha-nidana Sutta: 
"The one who, when delineating a self, delineates it as formless and infinite, either delineates it as formless and infinite in the present, or of such a nature that it will [naturally] become formless and infinite [in the future/after death], or he believes that 'Although it is not yet that way, I will convert it into being that way.' This being the case, it is proper to say that a fixed view of a self formless and infinite obsesses him."

Many people practice vipassana as a kind of dissociation, not understanding that anatta-contemplation as Buddha intended it actually leads to insight-discernment of anatta, not-self, which is not a form of dissociation or merely a rejection of 'form = self' but a rejection of the view of self pertaining to forms, feelings .... consciousness in all manners (including as happening to self, in self, or self in it, etc), including any self of a permanent, independent, separate nature, or of agency (perceiver, controller), such that there is "In reference to the seen, only the seen, no you in terms of that". It furthermore ends with, "this, just this, is the end of stress."

The Buddha is very clear that all sensations are without self in any form whatsoever - whether as an observer, or a container, or something inhabiting forms like a soul in a body. He rejected all kinds of self-view and taught that the direct path to liberation is the practice of mindfulness as taught in Mahasatipatthana sutta. His entire path of practice is in sync with his view and realization. He did not talk about Self nor about dissociation (he did talk about dispassion which is important but an entirely different matter however), he talked about the aggregates, the elements, the sensations and manifestation and their nature - empty of self, impermanent (dissolving, releasing, disjoint), unsatisfactory (ungraspable and passing - nothing is satisfying). He taught that by contemplating as such, you can gain insight, release, liberation.

So do not mistaken anatta with neti-neti. The neti-neti (not this, not that) of Advaita self-inquiry is a process of dissociation, i.e. to get to/realize the fundamental true self, one must dissociate from all thoughts and concepts as being 'not self'. What remains in the absence of conceptual thoughts is the true self. While in the absence of conceptual thoughts, arises a direct non-conceptual realization of a palpable and undeniable presence-existence-consciousness is discovered and feels as if one has touched the very core of one's existence itself, and this experience should not, and in fact cannot be denied, nonetheless the very framework of self-inquiry (Who am I? already presumes a purest identity) and the practice of dissociation based on the existing framework of duality and inherency... the realization, experience, framework and practice all come together to strengthen the existing framework of duality and inherency where it appears there is a true Self behind and transcending all phenomena as the transcendental witnessing consciousness. One then fails to understand, until further investigation, that this realization and experience while true, does not actually require the faulty framework that posits an inherent substantial reality. That the pure presence discovered is simply another manifestation that does not convey anything 'ultimate', 'independent', or 'permanent'... in fact all transience turns out to have the same taste and intensity of luminosity, and are all empty of self.

Anatta on the other hand is not a process of dissociation - it is first and foremost a dharma seal that is always and already so - always in seeing just the seen never a seer, never was there a self. Secondly, the way of contemplating anatta is not via dissociation but via contemplative *deconstruction*. In other words, contemplating on anatta or anatta as a truth doesn't set up opposites like true self vs not-self. There is no observer or Self that could dissociate from the observed. Instead, it is a process of deconstruction. Deconstruction means really challenging the idea of an inherent self, an inherent awareness, or a subject, by investigating experientially if it it holds up to reality. It deconstructs our idea of a 'seer-seeing-seen', or a 'self/Self' into its constituent components such that at the end, we realize that there is no agent, no self/Self, not even a super-Awareness transcending phenomena as an ultimate identity, but rather the very notion of 'self/Self' or 'Awareness' is being deconstructed into its impermanent constituents of experiences, (in seeing just the seen, in hearing just the heard, no seer/hearer) thus we realize that even what is known as 'Awareness' is also empty of any substantial self, being a mere convention for the flow of self-luminous phenomena. It is at this point where the Buddha says, "you can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life". He never said something like "the Tathagata is the truth and reality which is the pure consciousness transcending all forms" as his Advaita counterparts would put it.

Likewise, the dharma seal of Impermanence should also be understood likewise – as a seal rather than as a method of dissociation (many people are doing dissociation via impermanence instead of realizing impermanence as a seal, a truth). As Thusness pointed out years ago, there is a difference between realizing impermanence (the attainment of stream entry is described as the opening of the dhamma eye which realizes that "Whatever is subject to arising is all subject to cessation.") and using it as a method of dis-identification and dissociation. Realizing impermanence as a seal leads to the perception of the disjointed, bubble-like and self-releasing aspect of phenomena and no-self. As Thusness said years ago, “With the right view, reality itself is [seen as] impermanence, and it has to bring about a new understanding and and not enhance our dualistic and inherent tendencies. What is the use of teaching dis-identification and dissociation if the path leads to further inherent and dualistic thoughts?”

It is important to take note here that from I AM to One Mind to No Mind and Anatta (Also see: Experience, Realization, View, Practice and Fruition), the self-luminosity is still as intense and important - it is not denied at all. Anatta does not deny luminosity. We're not saying 'The Pure Consciousness of Advaita is bullshit', nothing of that sort! In fact, the realization of anatta makes this experience of non-dual luminosity all the more effortless and intense! Every transient experience is naturally luminosity-bliss in anatta. So Anatta does not deny anything but simply deconstructs the view of inherency and duality we form about it. In the same way the process of deconstructing the notion of a solid car with its own independent car-ness entity into its constituents (such as windows, engine, steering wheel, pedals, cooling system, etc etc) where no car-entity can be pinned down does not in any part of its inquiry ever deny the appearance/experience of what appears to be a car, but nonetheless the entire notion of a solid car gets deconstructed at the end yet the appearance is still as vivid as ever, in fact even 'clearer' because now there is no longer the layer of false notions obscuring the true face of it. As the old masters said, "Keep the experience, refine the view." One Awareness is deconstructed into the pure-consciousness of each of the six sense doors without a perceiving subject, pure-consciousness of sight and pure-consciousness of sound and the pure consciousness of non-conceptual thought (the "I AMness") are all of the same intensity, yet disconnected and radically different in manifestation and arising in different conditions, all equally pure and empty. Every arising is one whole and complete manifestation. Presence/Luminosity/Awareness is not denied, but simply realized to be empty of self or substantiality.

As a side-topic:

If there is no existent self, or a soul, how does it fit in with Buddhist doctrines like rebirth? Or even more simply (for those who don't believe in rebirth), how does feeling, sensing, perceiving happen, without an existent self?

The Buddha's answer to this is direct, simple, yet profound. He explains this through dependent origination:

"Who, O Lord, feels?"

"The question is not correct," said the Exalted One. "I do not say that 'he feels.' Had I said so, then the question 'Who feels?' would be appropriate. But since I did not speak thus, the correct way to ask the question will be 'What is the condition of feeling?' And to that the correct reply is: 'sense-impression is the condition of feeling; and feeling is the condition of craving.'"

The same would apply for rebirth, which actually is a term for the continuity of a causal/karmic process and not of a self-entity. 

Who is reborn is asked falsely, as the Buddha did not say 'he reborns'. The correct way to ask would be, 'What is the condition for birth?' And to that the correct reply is: 'with ignorance as condition i.e. false view and clinging to a self, birth arises'. The next birth is neither the same nor different from a previous birth in the same way that the flame of a newly lighted candle is neither same nor different from the previous candle, being merely a process of causal continuity instead of the passing on of an unchanging soul-entity.

As we can see, Dependent Origination only truly makes sense when we are not obscured by self-view. Before the realization of Anatta, D.O. can be grasped intellectually, but not fully actualized due to dualistic view, and therefore cannot be fully appreciated. Hence to realize D.O. we have to realize Anatta, then when everything becomes seen as causal processes, the insight into Shunyata (as in the secondfold emptiness, the emptiness of phenomena) can arise with further contemplations and pointers.

One last thing: although it is the case that all phenomena are empty of self, one must not go to the extreme by denying or rejecting conventional self or doer, which brings in the problem of rejecting karmic responsibilities and so forth. In one of the scriptures, the Buddha talked about self-doer -- basically the idea is that you get what you sow in terms of karmic cause and effect. Does this contradict the teaching of anatta? It does not.

What we have to understand here is that whenever the Buddha talks about self (in many places in the suttas), he is speaking about it purely as a conventional self. As Thusness told me in 2012, "To me [the matter] is just, is "Wei Yu" an eternal being... that's all. No denial of Wei Yu as a conventional self". There is no denial of a conventional self or doer, only an inherently existing, changeless self/agent/doer existing in and of itself.

For example in the Araham Sutta, the Buddha states,

He who's an Arahant, his work achieved, Free from taints, in final body clad, That monk still might use such words as "I." Still perchance might say: "They call this mine." ... Would such a monk be prone to vain conceits?
[The Blessed One:]
Bonds are gone for him without conceits, All delusion's chains are cast aside: Truly wise, he's gone beyond such thoughts.[1] That monk still might use such words as "I," Still perchance might say: "They call this mine." Well aware of common worldly speech, He would speak conforming to such use.[2]In the Potthapada Sutta, the Buddha is stated,

"In the same way, when there is a gross acquisition of a self... it's classified just as a gross acquisition of a self. When there is a mind-made acquisition of a self... When there is a formless acquisition of a self, it's not classified either as a gross acquisition of a self or as a mind-made acquisition of a self. It's classified just as a formless acquisition of a self.

"Citta, these are the world's designations, the world's expressions, the world's ways of speaking, the world's descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them." [10]

In the Dighanakha Sutta, the Buddha states, "A bhikkhu whose mind is liberated thus, Aggivessana, sides with none and disputes with none; he employs the speech currently used in the world without ahdering to it."
However the Neo-Advaitins however would not be able to accept this as they are unable to distinguish the conventional and the ultimate, therefore they reject conventional self, karma, afflictions, path, cessation (nirvana) and so forth. Nagarjuna says, "The Buddha's teaching of the Dharma is based on two truths: a truth of worldly convention and an ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the distinction drawn between these two truths do not understand the Buddha's profound truth. Without a foundation in the conventional truth the significance of the ultimate cannot be taught. Without understanding the significance of the ultimate, liberation is not achieved."

For further elucidations on the two truths based on the Madhyamika teachings, see
Dependent Arising and the Emptiness of Emptiness: Why did Nagarjuana start with causation?

For further reading, see Thusness's article Realization and Experience and Non-Dual Experience from Different Perspectives
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3 Responses
  1. robertk:

    This is an old post from ven. Dhammanando that i liked ... 3364&st=60
    Citing the relevant suttas is unlikely to be persuasive to those who have fallen for Thanissaro's mystical drivel, for Thanissaro would simply interpret them differently or else would translate them differently so as to make them support his view. A good example of this is the following passage from the Alagaddūpamasutta, which is one of the starkest and most uncompromising assertions of the non-existence of self.... until Thanissaro gets his hands on it:

    attani ca attaniye ca saccato thetato anupalabbhamāne
    (MN. 22; also cited in the Kathāvatthu's debate on the puggalavāda, Kvu. 68)

    And here are some extracts from an old article of mine discussing this phrase...

    First I cite seven translations of it:

    "...since in truth and reality there obtains neither self nor what belongs to self..."

    "...since a self and what belongs to a self are not apprehended as true and established..."

    "...where a self or what belongs to self are not pinned down as a truth or reality..."

    B.C. Law:
    "...But both soul and that which belongs to soul being in truth, and forever, impossible to be known..."

    I.B. Horner:
    "But if Self and what belongs to Self, although actually existing are incomprehensible..."

    Mahāmakut Tipiṭaka:
    "...meua attā lae borikhān neuang duai attā bukkhon theu ao mai dai, doey khwām pen khong jing, doey khwām pen khong thae..."

    Mahāchulalongkorn Tipiṭaka:
    "...meua thang ton lae khong thii neuang kap ton ja yang hen mai dai, doey khwām pen khong jing, doey khwām pen khong thae..."

    Then my comments:

    Of the seven renderings above, those of Horner and Law are completely off the map, while the remaining five are more or less defensible so far as purely philological considerations go.

    There are two key terms in the passage that give rise to disagreement: firstly, the participle "anupalabbhamāne"; secondly, the phrase "saccato thetato". How one conceives the meaning of these will determine how one interprets the passage; and how one interprets the passage will determine how one goes about translating it. The problem, of course, is that every translator's interpretation of the above phrases will be determined - or at least influenced - by his prior assumptions about the Buddha's teaching.

    Let's start with anupalabbhamāne. This is the present participle of the passive form of the verb upalabhati, inflected in the locative case. In front of it is placed the negative particle na ('not'), which changes to an- in accordance with the rules of euphonic junction.

  2. Upalabhati means to obtain, get or find. So in the passive voice it would mean to be obtained, gotten or found. With the addition of the negative particle 'na' the meaning would be "not to be found."

    Here's one familiar example of the verb, to be found in every Indian logic textbook:

    vañjhāya putto na upalabbhati.
    "A son of a barren woman is not to be found."

    (Or as western philosophers would phrase it, " 'Son of a barren woman' does not obtain."). Elsewhere the same will be predicated of "horns of a hare", "flowers in the sky", etc.

    And here arises the first point of controversy among translators and interpreters of this sutta: does the phrase "not to be obtained" mean the same as "not exist"? Ñāṇamoli, Bodhi and myself would answer yes. A mystically-inclined monk like Thanissaro would answer no. Unsurprisingly Thanissaro has chosen a rendering ("not pinned down") that stresses the epistemic or cognitive, and would tend to imply that a self does (or at least might) exist, but one that is too inscrutable to say anything about.

    To continue, when the verb na upalabbhati is made into a present participle, the meaning would be "non-obtaining" (or more precisely, a "not-being-obtained-ness"). When this present participle is inflected in the locative case, then various meanings are possible, and here arises the second point of controversy. What function does the locative have in this context? There are three possibilities:

    Spatial or situational stipulative: "Where there is a non-obtaining of self..."
    Temporal stipulative: "When there is a non-obtaining of self...."
    Causative: "Because there is a non-obtaining of self..."

    Ñāṇamoli, Bodhi and I of course favour the causative, for the other two would leave a loophole that there might be some time or place where self does obtain. Thanissaro of course favours a reading that will leave his mysticism intact. So here too it's a case of our prior assumptions determining how we translate.

    Now for "saccato thetato". Sacca means true or a truth; theta means sure, firm, or reliable, or something that has these features. Adding the suffix -to turns these words into adverbs. Here I'm not really sure about the relative merits of the above translations, or even if there is a difference between "X does not obtain as a truth" or "X does not in truth obtain." Not that this matters greatly; the crux of the matter is obviously the word anupalabbhamāne. The difference between my old rendering and the Ñāṇamoli/Bodhi one is that I had taken saccato thetato to be an adverbial qualification of anupalabbhamāne, whereas Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi make it more like an adjectival qualification of "self and what belongs to self." I now think that their rendering is more likely to be correct. At least it seems to accord better with the Ṭīkā to this sutta.

    Best wishes,
    Dhammanando Bhikkhu