Showing posts with label Atman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Atman. Show all posts

21 March 2014

Ethics and Nonself in relation to the Khandhas.

image via theconsciousprocess
Back in January 2014 I wrote an essay exploring the idea that there were irreconcilable pluralities in Buddhist metaphysics. In that essay I focussed on the poor fit between Buddhist ethics and the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda. And I said that "On the face of it this problem ought to have produced a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, though to the best of my knowledge it never has." I no longer believe that it did not create a crisis in Buddhist philosophy, in fact on further reflection we can see a number of high profile responses to just this problem.

One example is found in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakā Kārikā where he has noticed the problem of what I call "action at a temporal distance".
tiṣṭhaty ā pākakālāc cet karma tan nityatām iyāt /
niruddhaṃ cen niruddhaṃ sat kiṃ phalaṃ janayiṣyati // MMK 17.6 //
If the action remains until the time of maturation, then it would be eternal
If it ceases, being ceased, how does it produce a fruit?
Nagarjuna's answer insists on the metaphysics of emptiness which has the same disconnect from moral imperatives that I've already described.

Having finished my essay on the disconnect between ethics and dependent arising I serendipitously found a passage in the Majjhima Nikāya which asks almost the same question as I had been asking. In the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (The Great Discourse on a Fullmoon) a certain monk asks a serious of question about the pañc'upānānakhandha or five masses of fuel (aka the five aggregates of clinging).

The answers add up to an exposition on how to meditate on the khandhas. We learn that the khandhas are rooted in desire. And that the desires take many forms related to how the khandhas might be arranged in the future. The khandhas are defined in a circularity: any kind of form is rūpakhandha, etc. Then we discover that the four elements (mahābhūta) are the condition for rūpakhandha; that contact is the condition for vedanākhandha, saññākhandha and saṅkhārākhandha; and that nāmarūpa is the condition for viññānakhandha.

Crucially sakkāyadiṭṭhi, literally the view that there is a true (sat) substance (kāya), though more often translated as 'personality view', comes about when we relate to the khandhas in terms of attā or 'myself'. With respect to each of the khandhas we may experience pleasure and joy; but we must remember that each khandhas is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial; and "escaping" from each comes about when we do not feel desire in relation to it, which in this context seems to relate to anxieties about future existence. In order to remove all tendencies towards thinking in terms of a substantial self, including "I making" (ahaṃkāra), "mine making" (mamaṃkāra) and "the tendency to opinions" (mānānusayā), one must not relate to the khandha in terms of etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā 'this is mine, I am this, this is my self'.

Although the order does not match up we can deduce that the two sets of three are related:
  • ahaṁkāra leads to the thought eso ahaṃ asmi 'I am this'.
  • mamaṁkāra leads to the thought etaṁ mama 'this is mine'.
  • mānānusayā leads to the thought eso me attā 'this is my self'.
Now having heard this it occurs to a certain monk (presumably the same certain monk though the pronouns are unclear) who says:
iti kira, bho, rūpaṃ anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā; anattakatāni kammāni katham attānaṃ phusissantī'ti? (MN iii.19 = SN iii.82)
It has been said, Sir, that form is without self, sensation is without self, apperception is without self, volition is without self, discernment is without self: which self will be affected by actions performed by a non-self?
We don't know the background of this monk, but we do know that he can't be a Brahmin, because it is explicit in Brahmanical beliefs about the ātman that it is not affected in any way by worldly actions and such a question would not occur to a Brahmin. More likely he is a Jain. In any case this question is similar to the one I raised about morality. If there is no self, then who is affected by actions? Although it breaks protocol to ask this, it's important to see that it rests on an understanding of moral imperatives. The question suggests that the whole system is too abstract to be a motivation to good behaviour.

Unfortunately the answer supplied in the text does not address the question directly, though it does give us an indirect hint about the author of the text. The Buddha is (apparently) concerned that some idiot (or perhaps the monk himself; again the pronouns here are quite confusing) might see the question as a conceited attempt by a contemptible man to usurp his place as teacher (the terms are quite gross). It seems to me that such a paranoid response is far from characteristic of Gotama in the Pāli literature. He is usually supremely confident of his place in the world. Next he has the monks rehearse the same teaching in a slightly different way. It is simply emphasised that what is impermanent, unsatisfactory and insubstantial cannot be one's self, and that the khandhas are all characterised by impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality.

There is a tautology involved in the last of these because although I'm translating it as "insubstantial" the word is anattā. Of course what is anattā is not attā, this is simply what the word anattā means. The Buddha simply says that what is not the self cannot be the self. Which is clumsy of the author.

While the bhikkhus were delighted and satisfied by these words, we have reason for dissatisfaction. It's clear enough what is intended here. We have the the outline of a meditation practice involving reflection on the khandhas. If one is thinking in terms of khandhas, then this is how one ought to think about them. But how does this translate into other areas of Buddhist thought? Particularly ethics? And why is ethics so often taught in terms of a sense of self that is substantial and stable over lifetimes (as in Jātaka stories)? Even if it is a metaphor, why is it a helpful metaphor? Why is there no answer?

What our interlocutor was doing was trying to shift the discussion. He was saying that if this is what the sense of self is about, then how does karma work? If there is no self then who experiences the consequences of actions? We've already see that the question of "who suffers" (ko vediyati) is an "unsuitable" or even "unhealthy" question (no kallo pañho SN ii.13). The Buddha simply emphasises phassapaccayā vedanā, vedanāpaccayā taṇhā 'sensations arise from the condition of contact; contact from the condition of greed.' This is how we teach metaphysics, but it's not how we teach ethics. 

The Buddha's answer suggests that whoever composed this discourse felt quite uncomfortable about the shift and was unable to answer it. He could only repeat himself. In the Pali texts people who ask the kinds of question I'm asking here are given a hard time. They are rebuked and chided. So far I've found no patient explanation of how everything fits together, just the answer that it's an unsuitable question. This appears to be the approach of modern writers on Buddhism as well. But if we are at all interested in the notion of Buddhism as a single system of thought stemming from a single mind then a major disconnect like this ought to be important and interesting.

One solution I proposed was that the attempts to see or outline unity in these teachings might be a cultural artefact for us. We have a predisposition to see everything in big bang terms, i.e. in terms of a singularity from which all the diversity we currently see must have developed from zero diversity in the past. It's a kind of parallax error, like the illusion of train-tracks converging in the distance. We have embodied this conceptual error in the tree metaphor which depicts evolution as a linear process with binary branches that always diverge and never converge. Except that everywhere we look at evolution we do see convergences. Our very cells are the result of the convergence of at least three kinds of bacteria that all contributed to the structure of eukaryote cells in varying ways and some of which, like mitochondria, retain their identity billions of years later. This process is now known as Symbiogenesis and was established by Lynn Margulis.

Similarly there is clear evidence that Buddhism is not the result of a single man having thoughts over the course of his lifetime, but is instead the result of a culture or even a complex of interrelated cultures imperfectly assimilating and syncretising a variety of elements. This does not rule out an historical Buddha, but it does mean that we must attempt to see him in context. 

In discussing this disconnection between theory and practice with my friend Śākyakumāra he came up with an interesting analogy. We might think about the distinction between describing what someone does when they drive a car, and the idealised instruction we give to new drivers. There is a single goal, a single activity, but two view points. What we are describing above is the practice one does after cultivating samādhi or at least samatha, while the basic teaching on ethics focusses on mechanics. When we are driving and turn a corner, we do not think, now I'm turning the steering wheel which transmits a rotary action through a rack & pinion and causes the wheels to turn in a different plane (rolling the steering wheel causes the vehicle to yaw), or about braking and shifting gears and the other mechanical tasks involved. One simply does the action, and very often one's attention is elsewhere watching the road, ensuring we are on the correct route, scanning for dangers, etc. But when learning to drive one's attention is divided between coordinating limbs, consciously working the machinery, and scanning the environment (which is why most of us first drive a car in an empty car-park). It is essential to be clear which is the brake and which the accelerator and when to use each, and at first this must be done consciously.

In this view the teaching on ethics is purely pragmatic. It need not be perfectly philosophically integrated with other aspects of the Buddhist worldview because the intention is merely to get a practitioner up to speed on how to approach practice. Once they are practising effectively the question of how to behave is less of an issue since mindfulness and empathy become the best guides to how we treat other people. Unfortunately we have a tendency to mystify these qualities and put them on a pedestal where they seem out of reach. But every human being has mindfulness and empathy in abundance. Being social animals we are evolved to treat our peers and colleagues well under most circumstances. One of the main reasons we might not is that we are brutalised by living unnatural lifestyles in large, over-crowded, industrialised, urban societies. Evolution works over 10,000s of generations, whereas we have utterly changed our living environments in a matter of 10,000 years resulting in a certain amount of confusion.

We are usually taught that Buddhism is a smoothly integrated whole, but that is an illusion created by pedagogues. Once one moves out of the spotlight of ideas that teachers wish to highlight (for whatever reason) one almost immediately encounters matter which does not fit whatever paradigm one is working with. I suggest that ethics remained a separate department that was never fully integrated into Buddhism. This statement may elicit surprise from many who see ethics as central to Buddhism, but in Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics I tried to show why this might be so. In that essay I concluded:
"In the face of the plurality of doctrine, usually the best we can do is select a subset of the teachings that hang together and gloss over the discontinuities. A dense and complex jargon combined with an anti-intellectual discourse helps us to obfuscate such problems. Even those who study the texts more directly are doing so through cultural and historical lens that predispose them to see unity and continuity and to gloss over evidence of the opposite."
I find it difficult to take in the vast sweep of Buddhist ideas across time and space. It's a vast and complex field of study. Most of us can only take in a small part of it. Most Buddhists are probably happy with their little subset of comfort and/or inspiration. Exploration is within strict limits defined by confirmation bias (which recall is a feature of reason and not a bug). Texts are authoritative to the extent they confirm our views and are myth/legend/metaphor/interpolations to the extent that they disconfirm our views. We're easily disconcerted, much like the author of the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta and all too willing to plaster over any cracks that appear. But to me the cracks are the interesting part.

One of the advantages of study is that it helps to identify where we are comfortable and where we are uncomfortable. It can help identify assumptions and presumptions. The kinds of disconnects I'm identifying are hard to see because they are cracks that previous generations have plastered over. They're mostly unwelcome because they force us to consider that our religion is less than perfect and that is an uncomfortable feeling. But the truth is important if sometimes unpalatable and discomfort is the starting point of the Buddhist religion.


06 April 2012

Ātman, Ego, and Rebirth

sheaf and flail

medieval peasants thresh
a sheaf of barley with flails

WHAT FOLLOWS IS my translation of the Sheaf of Barley Simile (Yavakalāpi Sutta S 34.248), along with some threads which I draw from it. The simile relates to my research into papañca: the past participle papañcita is used in a context that helps us to understand that word. Here I will be focussing on some other implications.

I have restructured the text so that the last part condenses several pages into a couple of paragraphs - without losing anything of importance. The central metaphor of the Yavakalāpi Sutta is that how we think about our existence determines whether we bound or free.

Sheaf of Barley Simile

Suppose that a sheaf of barley were laid at a crossroad. And six men might come bearing flails, and those six men might thresh that sheaf of barley. That sheaf of barley would be well threshed by those six flails threshing. Then a seventh man might come bearing a flail, and he might also thresh the sheaf of barley. So that sheaf of barley would be more well-threshed by that seventh flail threshing.

Just so the uneducated hoi polloi [1] are struck in the eye by pleasant and unpleasant forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, and mental objects. If an uneducated hoi polus[2] strives after future rebirth, that foolish person is more well-battered, just as the sheaf is more well threshed by the seventh flail.

Once upon a time the devas and asuras were massed for battle. The Asura Lord Vepacitti addressed the asuras: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the asuras are victorious and the devas are defeated, then binding Sakka, Lord of the Devas, with bindings, with his neck as the fifth[3], then lead him to me at Asurapura (the City of the Asuras). Sakka also addressed the devas: "If, sirs, in the midst of the battle the devas are victorious and the asuras are defeated, then, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, then lead him to me at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. In that battle the devas were victorious and the asuras were defeated. Then the thirty three devas, binding Asura Lord Vepacitti with bindings, with his neck as the fifth, lead him to Sakka, Lord of the Devas, at Sudhamma, the Hall of the Devas. There Asura Lord Vepacitti is bound with bindings, with his neck as the fifth.

When Asura Lord Vepacitti thought "the devas as just (dhammika) and the asuras are unjust (adhammika) now here I am going to the city of the devas”, then he perceived himself released from his binding with the neck as fifth, and possessing and endowed with the five divine cords of pleasure enjoying himself. When, however, Asura Lord Vepacitti, thought "the asuras are just and the devas are unjust, now I will just go to the asura city”, then he perceived himself as bound by bindings with the neck as fifth. And the five divine cords of pleasure faded away. So subtle were the bonds of Vepacitti, but more subtle are the bonds of Māra. Thinking (maññamāno)[4] is the binding of Māra, not thinking is release from the Evil One.
'I am…'
'I am this…'
'I will become…'
'I will not become…'
'I will be beautiful…'
'I will be ugly…'
'I will be aware…'[5]
'I will be unaware…'
'I will be neither aware nor unaware…'
…is an opinion (maññita), an anxiety (iñjita), a writhing (phandita), a proliferation (papañcita), [6] a state of conceit (mānagata)…

Opinions, anxieties, writhings, obsessions and states of mind are a disease, a boil, an arrow. 'We will dwell without the conceit of opinions, without the conceit of anxieties, without the conceit of writhing, without the conceit of obsessions, having destroyed conceit' this is how you should train.

The first point to make is that opinions etc, including papañca, are something that we add to the perceptual process, they are the seventh flail. We're already battered by the experience of our six senses, and then we add to the battering. This is consistent with texts such as the Salla Sutta which make a similar distinction between the pain from the senses, and the suffering of our reactions to pain. However the specific thing that we add in this case is striving after future rebirth (āyatiṃ punabhavāya ceteti).

However what got me thinking about this text today was that I was reconsidering my blog post Early Buddhists and Ātman/Brahman. It is here that I note my discovery, I think for the first time, that no Brahmin ever talks about ātman in the Pāli Canon, and that the Buddha never debates the subject with a Brahmin. This strongly suggests that, at the very least, we have to re-assess the idea that the Buddha was familiar with the Upaniṣads, or the extent to which the Buddha (i.e. early Buddhists) might have been familiar with Upaniṣadic themes.

In Yavakalāpi Sutta the Buddha takes an approach to self that, as far as I know, is not one that is found in the Upaniṣads. The statements above--the 9 statements starting with 'I am' (asmīti)--are not about an essential or eternal self; much less the merging of the self into brahman for the attainment of immortality. Where the Upaniṣadic ātman is trans-personal and identified with creation or creator, these statements are very much concerned with personal identity and personal continuity. So in reading this text we are not talking about the Upaniṣadic ātman, we are talking about the simple sense of being a self and having a first-person perspective.

Coming back to future rebirth, we see that seven of the nine statements use the future form of the verb, i.e. bhavissāmīti--'I will be', or 'I will become'--and therefore concern people's anxieties about a future life. It is entirely natural in a culture with a rebirth eschatology to be anxious about future lives, indeed as a moral technology this belief system actually depends on people having these anxieties to motivate their compliance with moral norms.

But this text is saying, quite distinctly, that opinions or anxieties about a future life are sources of suffering over and above the suffering induced by the senses. The ideal disciple does not indulge in opinions and anxieties about future lives. We might say that this is because they train for release from saṃsāra. However consider the simile involving Vepacitti which seems to be an allegory with the message that how we think about our sense experience, or (perhaps) what we make of our sense experience, is precisely what binds us to saṃsāra.

There's a interesting feature of the text. For humans being bound by the five cords of sensual pleasure (pañca kāmaguṇa) is synonymous with being caught in saṃsāra. The devas and asuras however operate in a different way. When Vepacitti perceives things correctly--perceives the devas as lawful or just (dhammika)--he is endowed with the divine version of the five cords. When his perception is distorted, the cords fade away. And note that the text speaks of seven flails related to the five physical senses, the mental sense, and then striving after rebirth as the seventh; while there are only five cords of sensual pleasure, and thinking. Indeed the problem for humans is precisely thinking (maññamāno), which is the verb usually associated with activity of mind (manas).

In any case the message is quite clear: even if you do believe in rebirth, it only causes unhappiness to think about rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to wish for a better rebirth; it only causes unhappiness to speculate about the nature of rebirth; in short: thinking in terms of being reborn is generally quite unhelpful. The whole point of Buddhism is to be liberated from rebirth, to not be reborn, to escape from the cycle. What the allegory of Vepacitti suggests is that if you even think in terms of rebirth, then you are caught in Māra's bonds. So the disciple should not be thinking in terms of rebirth at all, not having opinions or anxieties or conceits with respect to rebirth.

Therefore, even if you do believe in rebirth, there is no advantage in thinking about it or talking about it, and considerable disadvantage in doing so. It is best not to think about rebirth at all, since thinking in those terms binds you to Māra's realm. Belief in rebirth only leads to speculation, worry, proliferation and conceit which poison our minds.



[1] assutavā puthujjana: suta 'heard' sutavant 'possessing the heard' i.e. educated; puthu (many) jana (people). Greek hoi polloi 'the many'.
[2] pollus is the singular of polloi.
[3] This appears to mean bind his four limbs plus his neck.
[4] The word refers to all kinds of mental activity: thinking, imagining, having opinions; being convinced, being sure. The context suggests that here it refers to having opinions.
[5] saññin – possessing perception or recognition, a perceiver.
[6] The word iñjita is a past-participle (used as substantive here) from iñjati 'to shake, turn about, move, or vacillate'. In Pāli trembling is often associated with fear. The Pali Commentary says: "the reason for the meaning of 'iñjitaṃ' etc., is that through the vices (kilesa: lobha, dosa, moha, i.e. greed, aversion, and confusion ) beings shake (iñjita) and writhe (phandita), and are obsessed (papañcita) because they are afflicted by states of carelessness."

23 September 2011

In My Eye

In my eyeI'VE COMMENTED BEFORE on the episode where the Buddha speaks to Bāhiya in a post entitled "In the Seen...". He begins the famous speech with: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard...". This is somewhat cryptic, but I noted that I had found another sutta which acts as a commentary on the Bahiya incident: The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72).

My translation of part of the text says:
Having seen a form with mindfulness [sati] forgotten,
attending to the delightful appearance;
Experiencing an impassioned mind,
and remaining attached to that;

In him numberless sensations multiply from that form,
Covetousness and worry impair thinking.
Thus suffering is heaped up and nibbāna is said to be remote.
The gist is that without mindfulness, delight in the pleasures of the senses overcomes our minds and our minds are impaired. As a result we heap up suffering and are unlikely to be liberated - we will remain in thrall to pleasure seeking. Those who are mindful, do not delight in the pleasures of the senses, do not heap up suffering, and for them nibbāna is close.

In contemporary Buddhist presentations we usually find the idea that there is something other than the "seen in the seen" attributed to Brahmins. Compare the text above with this passage from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (CU)
atha yatraitad ākāśam anuviṣaṇṇaṃ cakṣuḥ sa cākṣuṣaḥ puruṣo darśanāya cakṣuḥ | atha yo vededaṃ jighrāṇīti sa ātmā gandhāya ghrāṇam | atha yo vededam abhivyāharāṇīti sa ātmā abhivyāhārāya vāk | atha yo vededaṃ śṛṇvānīti sa ātmā śravaṇāya śrotram || CU 8.12.4 || [1]

Where the eye gazes into space, that is the puruṣa of the eye. The eye is for seeing. The one who experiences "let me smell this" is the ātman. The nose is for smelling. The one who experiences "let me say this" is the ātman. The voice is for talking. The one who experiences "let me hear this" is the ātman. The ear is for hearing.

atha yo vededaṃ manvānīti sa ātmā | mano 'sya daivaṃ cakṣuḥ | sa vā eṣa etena daivena cakṣuṣā manasaitān kāmān paśyan ramate ya ete brahmaloke || CU 8.12.5 ||

The one who experiences "let me think this" is the ātman. Mind is its divine eye. [The ātman] sees the delights and
pleasures of the world of Brahmā, with this divine eye, the mind. [2]
Here CU is proposing that there is something other than the seen in the seen. In the seen we find 'the one who sees', which here is described as both puruṣa 'person' and ātman 'self' - the two are synonymous.[3] It is this ātman which, through the divine eye, sees the pleasures of the world of Brahmā/brahman (the word could mean either the creator god, or the universal essence; a distinction entirely lost in the Buddhist Canon). Elsewhere we find that this self is to be sought within the heart (i.e. through introspective meditation) and having once identified it, it becomes one's whole world (idaṃ sarvaṃ). The analogy I use is that when one falls in love, one's lover becomes one's whole world. We might also think of a meditator absorbed in samādhi, where the samādhi itself becomes their whole world.

Buddhist critiques of this kind of material are probably familiar to Buddhist readers. CU seems to propose that there is an 'entity' behind experience, an experiencing 'person' or 'self' which has the experiences. Discovering this self within oneself is what enables the seer to be liberated. However note that there is a discrepancy. The Brahmin does not aim to see the delights of this world. This is confirmed in many passages throughout CU as well as other Upaniṣads. Ordinary desire and the delights of this world are as much an anathema in the early Upaniṣads as they are in early Buddhist texts. The Brahmin ascetic aims at union with brahman, and thereby escape from saṃsāra. However the Buddhist criticism focusses on paying attention to delights of the senses. Is it because they deny the possibility of anything behind the senses, or have they just missed the point? I think it's not out of the question that the Buddhists simply did not understand the main points of the Upaniṣads and that the beliefs being criticised were not in fact held by Brahmins. Indeed as far as I can see such beliefs are not even attributed to Brahmins in the Pāli texts.

The Buddhist critique of ātman rests on the idea that, as an immanent aspect of brahman, it is substantial, permanent and makes us happy when we find it. Although the idea does not occur in the suttas, compare this description of nibbāna from the canonical Cūḷaniddesa:
Nibbānaṃ niccaṃ dhuvaṃ sassataṃ avipariṇāmadhammanti asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ.
"Nibbāna is permanent, constant, eternal, not subject to change, indomitable, unshakeable." [4]
Such a statement is common enough in Buddhism. How is this different? The essential difference here is that Buddhists assume Brahmins to be speaking literally, and take their own almost identical statements metaphorically. This assumption goes unchallenged amongst Buddhists. Why? I suggest that it is because of deep seated prejudices against, and antipathy towards, Hinduism. Our identity as Buddhists is bound up with rejecting Hinduism - even if only nominally. However I do not believe that the Brahmins were speaking literally. Rather, I'd say they were struggling to put into words their own meditation experiences, and were themselves inventing a new metaphorical language to do so, and rejecting their own 1000 year old traditions in the process. There's no a priori reason to assume unsubtly or stupidity on the part of Brahmins. In fact Brahmanical thinking of this period is scintillating and full of subtlety. A few centuries later the Buddhists of India adopted precisely the same kind of essentialist metaphor for tathāgatagarbha! Buddhists also posit a faculty other than the six senses—with no name I've been able to discover—which can discern nibbāna or "the Unconditioned" [sic] or "things as they really are". How is this different from the 'eye' which sees the brahmaloka? Note that Buddhists also adopted this Brahmanical idea of the brahmaloka, but again they took it literally. Which suggests that they simply did not understand the idea. The Buddhist criticisms of those seeking rebirth in the brahmaloka are wide of the mark, and more or less irrelevant from the point of view of the Upaniṣads. This is not to say that criticism is not possible, only that early Buddhist texts are wholly unconvincing in their criticism.

I am not suggesting that there is no difference in the doctrinal positions of Buddhism and Brahmanism. Clearly there are differences. However Buddhists have long exaggerated and distorted these differences. Modern Buddhists, like their ancient counterparts, seem largely ignorant of the Upaniṣads or the nuances in them. And as I come to better understand them myself, I am becoming increasingly doubtful about the idea that Buddhist doctrine is a reaction against Upaniṣadic Brahmanism: one can hardly react against what one is ignorant of. This raises interesting questions which I hope to address in the future.

For an inspiring and vivid account of the Brahmanical religion I heartily recommend this book:
William K. Mahoney. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. State University of New York Press.
I must warn traditionalist Buddhists however: this book may cause you to experience sympathy and respect for Brahmins, which could be detrimental to your Buddhist faith.


  1. Chāndogya Upaniṣad. Sanskrit text from
  2. My translation follows Valerie Roebuck's which is more literal than Patrick Olivelle's.
  3. As an aside I would once again like to point out the mad way we capitalise these words when they are in a religious context. We want to say that 'Self' is somehow different from, more important than, 'self'. Capitalising suggests either something substantial (a thing), or something transcendental (beyond our ability to sense or understand). Sometimes, paradoxically, both . Neither is very helpful. The Sanskrit 'ātman' is ambiguous, and the ambiguity is part of the fun. If we try to make clear a distinction when our source text is (perhaps deliberately) ambiguous we are not doing justice to the text: ātman means 'body, and self, and the immanent aspect of brahman.' And especially in the early Upaniṣads all three meanings are found. If we try to fix it as one or other we lose nuances, and we may in fact obscure the meaning.
  4. The CST version of the Pāli Canon does not include PTS page numbers for this text. It is from the commentary on the Pārāyanānugīti gāthā from the Sutta-niptāta. CST p.201.

24 October 2008

Anatta in Context

In comments to some other posts I discussed the context of the idea of anatta (Sanskrit anātman) and I thought it might be useful to give it more prominence. Anatta is usually translated as no-self, or as non-self. Misleadingly it is often rendered as egolessness - I'll get to why this is a problem shortly.

Anatta is the third of the tilakkhaṇā or three marks. In the Dhammapada 279 it says that sabbe dhammā anatta - All dhammas are non-self. The order of presentation of the lakkhanas is significant. In fact it is helpful to work through them backwards. We might ask for instance why are all dhammas anatta? They are anatta because of the second lakkhana - dukkha. Dhp 278 says in fact that sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha - all compounds are suffering.

Backtracking a little we need to look at what atta or ātman is. Ātman, using Sanskrit because it fits the context, is a concept introduced by the philosophers associated with the Upaniṣads. It was introduced not that long before the Buddha and was a distinct move away from the Vedic religion which had revolved around sacrifices to gods, and bonds between this world and the cosmos known as bandhu. It was also associated with a new idea about reincarnation - Joanna Jurevich has shown that reincarnation in a nascent form is, contrary to popular opinion, present in the Ṛgveda. However the Upaniṣads made reincarnation dependent on the actions of the person, on their carrying out of their religious duties and ceremonies. Ātman here was the immanent aspect of godhood - brahman. Not to be confused with the masculine personification of godhead Brahmā. Brahman was an abstract absolute transcendental principle. However the Upaniṣads equate ātman and brahman. The latter idea became highly influential in the popular form of Hinduism known as Avaita-Vedanta. The immmanent and transcendent aspects of godhead were not two. Brahman was said to have only three attributes (trilakṣaṇa) : satcitānanda - being, consciousness, and bliss. Ātman seems to have been the most influential religious idea in India at the time the Buddha was born. One's attitude to ātman - to the nature of selfhood as immanent godhood - was what defined many religious discussions, just as the existence and influence of the Christian God define religious discourse in the present.

Returning to the Buddhist anatta idea we can see that where there is an experience of dukkha - suffering, misery, diappointment, grief, etc, then that is not blissful. What is not blissful is not, ipso facto, ātman. Now the Buddha says that all compounded experiences are disappointing. The Buddha seems to have considered all experiences associated with the senses or the mind, which he considered as being synonymous with all unenlightened experience, as being disappointing (dukkha). Hence his constant refrain that the senses and the cognitive apparatus are anatta - not the ātman.

Note also that the Buddha taught that cittā - consciousness - arises in dependence on contact between a sense organ and a sense object. Because of this we must consider all sense experience as compounded or complex. More crucially cittā ceases when the contact ceases. Now if consciousness (cit) is a dependent product of contact, then brahman in it's cit aspect is conditioned! This is a major blow against the Upaniṣadic philosophy that doesn't get much attention these days because Buddhists are largely ignorant of that philosophy and fail to see the relevance of it.

We need to briefly mention that the reason that the Buddha said sabbe saṅkhārā dukkha, was because he had already observed in Dhp 277 that sabbe saṅkhārā anicca. Compounds are compounded of dhammas - and these are the objects of mano, the mind, and therefore saṅkhārā is more or less synonymous with cittā when used in this sense. Because we fail to properly see dhammas as ephemeral and fleeting (see also Language and Discrimination) we find all of our experiences disappointing. (The argument for unpleasent dhammas is more complex, but it also amounts to disappointment).

So in forward order: experiences are fleeting; because we don't get this at a fundamental level we find experiences disappointing; and because experience is not blissful it cannot be ātman. So nothing related to the body, senses, or mind - the apparatus of experience - can be the ātman. This is the proper context for the idea, and is the only context where it really makes sense.

Now for a variety of reasons, most of which relate to later Buddhist failure to take interest in the context the Buddha was operating it, the doctrine became decontextualized. Buddhists began to make new explanations for what the Buddha meant by anatta. One of the most prominent became that the Buddha taught that we have no self. There is apparently, and here I rely on Sue Hamilton, no explicit denial of self per se in the Pali Canon. What the Buddha denies is that any aspect of our experience is ātman in the sense of immanent godhood. The Buddha is trying to reframe the religious discourse away from ātman and towards a consideration of the existential experiential situation - he repeatedly refused to answer metaphysical questions and responded that he taught "suffering, the cause, the end and the way to end suffering".

A popular version of this corruption is that the Buddha taught something called "egolessness". Now this is problematic in several ways. The term ego is introduced by Freud's English translators - he called the psychic function in question "ich". Using Latin led to a reification of the term in popular usage - it moves from being an abstract function, to being a concrete part of the person. One can now speak of "having an ego", for instance, as though ego is a "thing". One can have too much ego, or perhaps too little. This is a dismal error that flies in the face of Buddhist approaches too being as process as well as what is intended in psychological jargon.

Buddhists take this one step further by making the ego wholeheartedly bad, and proposing that all people should be egoless. A person with no ego would be incapable of communication or learning, or any kind of interaction. Egolessness would be disastrous for the individual. I've expounded this at length in the past. Ātman as the immanent godhood is nothing at all to do with the ordinary sense of self. The Buddha even at one point suggests that a sense of self is essential for the development of empathy! I've suggested that the English word "selfless" is much more in keeping with the Buddhist concept - it means not, someone with no self, but someone who is altruistic! A final irony is that Buddhists who promote egolessness are often the same ones who are proponents of the doctrine of tathāgatagarbha (literally "the matrix of one who is like that") - or Buddha nature. Now some of the tathāgatagarbha literature equates the tathāgatagarbha with ātman (see for instance Williams, p.98-9). So while treating anatta as egolessness, they promote the idea of an intrinsic immanent Buddhahood which is like the ātman. So we're basically back to Vedantic eternalism at this point, the very kind of idea which anatta was designed to critique.

The idea of anatta is often elevated to being "the doctrine of anatta". I don't think it was ever intended as a stand alone doctrine. It seems more likely that it required not only a Buddhist context, but the Vedantic context against which it was being offered as a polemic, in order to make sense. So on the whole it does not make sense in the present. Anatta was part, and only a part, of a Buddhist demolition Vedantic arguments which are not relevant in the modern west, though it may still be relevant in India. What we need at present is a Buddhist critique of the Christian idea of creation, and the scientific idea of evolution. Both tend to draw attention away from the existential situation and from the problems associated with the apparatus of experience - and therefore neither are likely to be helpful in the Buddhist Enlightenment project. Perhaps a subject for a future rave...


  • Hamilton, Sue. 2000. Early Buddhism : a new approach. The I of the beholder. Richmond, Surrey : Curzon.
  • Williams, P. 1989. Mahāyāna Buddhism : the doctrinal foundations. 1st ed. London : Routledge.