Continuing with our theme of how the Buddha’s Teachings go “Against the Stream”, we’ll look at one of the most famous Discourses in the entire Pali Canon, the Anattalakkhana Sutta. That Discourse is widely used to support the notion that the Buddha denied the existence of a “self”, in the sense that I, myself, am writing this comment. That’s just silly; the kind of time-wasting wordplay that distracts us from the intertwined tasks of embracing dukkha, letting go of craving, experiencing cessation, and bringing the Path to life.
The term “anattalakkhana” is a compound. The first syllable “an” negates the meaning of what follows, as the “a” in our word “atheist”, or the “an” in “anarchy”. In the animistic theories that were held by many brahmins in the Buddha’s time, “atta” means “soul” : the permanent identity that exists separate and distinct from a person’s current worldly form and that continues to exist when that worldly form ends, transmigrating to a new worldly form. The new form, because it is informed by the same eternal soul, is in some significant way identical with the first form: it is the same Self. Finally, “lakkhana” means “sign” or “characteristic”, in the sense of evidence, or an identifying mark. So the name of the sutta can be translated, approximately and long-windedly, as “The evidence for the non-existence of an essential Self”.
In this sutta, and in most of the other teachings of the Canon in which he addresses the ontological question of whether or not a “Self” exists, the term the Buddha uses is that term atta. And to fully understand what he’s about here, I think we have to remember what a central role that term played in the Brahminic tradition which the Buddha confronted in his Teaching. To that Brahminic tradition, and especially to what was, in the Buddha’s time, the very avant-garde gloss on that tradition that was emerging in the Upanishads, the atta (Sanskrit atman) was not only objectively real, but it was central to the notion of salvation that was the goal of the tradition. Brahman, the Godhead of which God Brahma is an avatar, was the central Reality, the source of all being. Each individual person had his or her own Essential Reality (the atta), beside which everything else about the person was illusory. The goal of all spiritual practice was to recognize that one’s atta was, in fact, identical to Brahman, and to experience the merging of atta with Brahman, Self with Godhead.
In the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha leaves no doubt about what he thinks of the notion of such an entity—an eternal Self or soul. He examines all of the places where one might locate such an atta—a person’s body, that person’s perceptions, feelings, ideas and conceptual formations, the consciousness itself, and he finds each of those incapable of providing the foundation for an atta, a permanent Self or a soul. No matter where you look, you will see the same thing: “This is not mine; this is not what I am; this is not my Self.”
Yet here I am, writing this post. And I intend to continue the project I’ve begun, to cultivate the Buddha’s Eightfold Path in my life. So how do I reconcile this “I”, seeking reconciliation, with that “Self”, that atta, that is “not mine, not what I am, not my Self”? It’s not just a semantic problem, rejecting “ego” but allowing “I”. Our difficulty with the Buddha’s Dhamma here, I think, has to do with something more basic and more important than mere semantics (although I’m not certain that semantics is ever really “mere”). It has to do with how we understand experience.
In our modern materialistic understanding of the world, we make truth claims based on object identification; this is ‘A’; that is ‘Not-A’. Very Aristotelian. And objects are defined by their attributes or properties. So when we speak of a Self, we imply that there is an existent object, with the identifying name “Self”, and with certain properties that determine its location, its dynamic interaction with other objects, its particular capabilities, its distinguishing characteristics, etc. All of those properties together establish an object’s duration, the span of time through which it has existence as a distinct object. And the distinctive nature of the object determines the nature of our experience of it. The object, as a real thing, precedes and conditions our experience of it.
But that, it seems to me, is not how the Buddha understood experience. In the Buddha’s understanding, all that we have to deal with, all that we can know, is this immediate experience, and all experience is conditioned by prior experience and our response to that. Our experience of the world is our only way of knowing it, and our experience of the world is always in process. Experience not only precedes the objects of experience, but our habit of “objectification” is what conditions dukkha.
There is a revealing passage in the Dhammapada, perhaps the best-known and most widely read text from the Pali Canon, in which the Buddha presents a very different take on the notion of “Self” than he does in the Anattalakkhana Sutta.
As the irrigator guides the water to the fields;
As the fletcher sharpens the arrow;
As the carpenter shapes the block of wood;
So the wise person constructs the Self.
Dhammapada, Verse 80, translated by Richard Blumberg
The atta that the Buddha denies existence to in the Anattalakkhana Sutta is the Brahminical atta: the Self/Soul that continues from life to life, conditioning each life by the kamma it’s accumulated in previous lives. That conception of an Essential Self is limiting and constrictive. It is only because such a Self does not exist, in fact, that the wise person is free to construct this Self here and now, this discriminating “I” that can make ethical choices, sign contracts, raise a family, take OLLI courses, write essays, learn new skills, and summon up the effort and intelligence required to bring the Path to life, and so shape what it becomes. This Self is not an object, has no essential existence, but is always becoming, always in process.
I am Richard Blumberg, and I approve this message.