I have mentioned the Ti-lakkhana or the “Three marks of existence” in a past blogs on impermanence (Anicca in Pali) and Suffering or un-satisfactoriness (Dukkha in Pali). The last of the three is probably one of the most important, and one of the hardest to get your mind around, of the Buddha’s teachings. Not-self (Anatta in Pali) is the absence of an abiding or permanent self.
What exactly does that mean? Didn’t I mention before that we can prove the Buddhist teachings (The Dharma) to ourselves in an almost scientific way? You may ask then, “Well “I” am sitting right here reading this blog so that proves that “I” exist don’t it? Is this some kind of Ontological Nihilistic religion? I like myself, I don’t want to give “me” up!
In my previous blog “The Swastika and the Chocolate Box” we discussed the idea of impermanence. I asked you to think of something in the universe that is truly “permanent”. If you look deeply enough at anything you will see that it has a period or time to exist. There is nothing that we know of in our physical universe that exist permanently. Everything that we can detect is the result of some number of conditions coming together, existing, and then coming apart again. Everything in the universe is under constant change or is in a constant flux. That in a nutshell is Anicca (impermanence). So an important thing to note here is that the conditions that came together to form something were here both before and after the “thing” itself. “Nothing” in the universe comes from nothing, becomes, and then disappears into nothingness. If this is true with everything else then why do we think that this does not apply to us?
The Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh verbalized this with great clarity in a talk he did a number of years ago. I am no Thich Nhat Hanh so I cannot verbalize it as clearly as he did but I will paraphrase what he said as I remember it. At the beginning of his Dharma talk he told the story of how a tree came into being. He described the conditions that had to be in order for the tree to come into being and that if any one condition was not there we would have no tree. You have to have a seed from another tree, he said. The seed has to be put into the soil to get its nutrients and minerals, then you have to have water, and light from the sun, and air for the new plant to breathe. If any one of these conditions is not there you have, no tree. So just like science you can see that the tree did not come from “out of nothing” and become a tree. It was “dependent” (we will talk about dependent origination later) on a number of conditions to be in place before it could “come into being”. He then held up a sheet of paper and tore off a very small piece. He asked the audience if anyone could tell him a method to destroy or annihilate this little piece of paper and make it be nothing. Of course there were a variety of creative methods offered but it seemed obvious that there would always be some remainder of the paper left. Then someone mentioned burning the paper, surely that would do the trick. Then the Monk skillfully pointed out that if you lit the paper it would change into smoke, light, heat, moisture, and ash. Essentially it went back to all the forms that had come together before that were needed to “be” the tree. So in the end you cannot make the paper become “nothing”, all you can do is change its form. I found this to be a very profound illustration of this difficult concept.
There is an old Zen Koan (an unsolvable riddle used as a training method in Rinzai ZEN) that asks “What was your true face even before your mother was born”? Normally you cannot apply logic to Koan’s but it seems that this one suggests both that you had a “face” before you were born and asks what it truly was? So I guess the question is what was this “face” and why and how did it exist before? First we have look at the statement about Anatta at the top of the page. What does “Not-self is the absence of an abiding or permanent self” mean. What is an “abiding or permanent self? Why is it absent?
Zen Master Dogen said:
“To study the Buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas.”
Remember in the discussion on impermanence I gave an example of laying out a set of photographs taken on your birthday each year since you were born. Then I asked which one was you? The obvious thought that most people would give without any thought would be, “they all are”! I used the phrase “without any thought” for a reason. The reason is that most people have never given this idea any thought. Why would they? I know that I am here. This whole concept is foreign to most westerners mind. So now let’s take a closer look. What is it in these photos that you identify as you? We know scientifically that there is not a single cell in your body that was there when you were one years old. We can also agree that our mind is totally different today than it was as one years old. So what is it that you identify with your “self”? Is it the shape of your nose? That mole on your check? What is it? Some people will likely say the soul. What exactly is a soul? Let say when you were born your parents named you Bob. You have gone through your whole 50 years of life as Bob. You are well acquainted with Bob and have no doubt in your mind that Bob exists. But what if your parents would have named you Bill? What about Bob ( a very funny movie!)? Would Bill have all the same experiences as Bob? Isn’t Bill or Bob just a label for something else entirely? We have always thought that we have been here since we were born and that we exist as our “self” totally apart and separate from everything (and everyone) else. Of course there is “you” and there is “I”. Remember how the Manji showed all opposites (dualism) are really a false notion and that everything is under constant change from one state to another? Well believe it or not so are we! And so is Bob!
In Shingon Buddhism there is something called a 6 level pagoda. I think next to the Manji this is one of the most important Buddhist symbols. There are 5 levels that are represented as a different shapes. Each shape represents one of the 5 basic elements that make up all things in the universe. The bottom level is a square and it represents the element, earth. The next level is a sphere and it represents the element, water. The next level is a triangle or pyramid shape and it represents the element, fire. Then next level is a half moon and it represents the element, air. The next and top level is jewel shaped and it represents the element, space. I am sure you are thinking, wait a minute that is only five levels and those are not elements anyway. What gives? The six element is “Consciousness” because it is thought to exist both outside of the elements and is invisible or has no physical form (it is not represented as a shape) and it is also contained within each of the other five elements. The elements are not to be thought of in terms of the periodic table. Earth represents all things that are solid, water represents all things that are liquid, fire represents light and heat, air represents all things that are a gas, and space represents the dimension of space. One thing to note is that time is not listed, we will talk about that later. So they have a broader meaning than the term element usually means in the west. The principal is basically the same though in that all things in the universe are made up of some combination of these elements. One thing to note is that since consciousness is contained within each of the elements it means that consciousness is part of inanimate things although in an inert state. That means that consciousness is the common element to all things in the universe. In “Star Wars” terms it is the Force!
This means if we look closely we are made up the same way and of the same things (the elements). We are the sperm and the egg that fused together and passed on to us physical and mental attributes from our parents. We are all the physical elements that make up our body. These technically are such elements (earth) as carbon and other elements that are the physical building blocks of all things. The “water” and other liquids that are in our body. The “air” that we need to breath. The heat (fire) that our bodies generate and give off. The “space” that we occupy in the universe and lastly the consciousness that animates us. That sounds an awful lot like that tree we talked about earlier. So the 6 level pagoda not only represents all things in the universe it represents us. More importantly we are made up of the same stuff (elements) as the universe and this thing called consciousness permeates all things therefore we are not separate from everything else.
When you were developing in your mother’s womb you probably didn’t have a sense of “I” yet. If you were hungry the feeling was just that, “hungry”. If you were warm the feeling was, “warm”. If you felt happy the feeling was, “happy”. Sometime later after we were born we start to associate these feelings with “I am hungry”, “I am warm”, and “I am happy”. Maybe it is due to the separation from the mother but however it first occurs it is quickly reinforced. I feel hungry, my stomach feels empty, but then then when our mother feeds us we feel, “I feel warm, I feel content, I feel full, I am happy.” This is where dualistic thinking originates. It is where the idea of I and you separate from everything else begins. The Buddha said that “ignorance” (Avidya in Pali) was the root of the “12 links of dependent origination” (we will look at this later). Ignorance does not mean stupidity. It means that you are unaware of the truth and due to being unaware of the truth you go on to form ideas and opinions based on a false notion. Well as it turns out the false notion is “I”.
When we die we go through an elaborate set of steps to try to preserve our bodies. We have the body embalmed. We put ourselves in a casket. Then we put the casket in a steel vault and then often a concrete box. We have a very strong desire to preserve ourselves as we were in life and will do almost anything to accomplish this. The problem is that it is all an illusion! If you come back several thousand years from now and dig up the concrete box, remove the steel vault, take out the casket, and open it up what will you find? Will you find “you”? No, you will find a pile of dust!! So even with all the elaborate steps to try to preserve the “self” forever, it fails. It was a silly notion anyway if you give it some thought. Ask yourself was that body that was in the casket really “you”. I seem to remember that you had much more personality than when I found you in that box! Where did you go? The truth is that “you” were an aggregate made up of all those physical things that we talked about (that have now turned to dust) and the consciousness that animated you. If you take any part of this aggregate away it is not you.
If you know that we came together as a result of a multitude of conditions. And you know that you cannot identify what exactly this thing called the “self” or your essence is exactly then the idea of Anatta (not-self) is not such a crazy idea. If you are not “you” than who or what are you? Well we are here reading this blog right now. The truth is that what we have wrong is our understanding of what we are and what our true “self” is. Out of ignorance we have created and reinforced this idea of a “self” that is separate from everything else, that belongs to “us”. Also we have concluded that when we die that we either become nothing or our “soul” continues on somewhere else without the rest of us. The truth is that we are connected with and part of everything in the universe. The universe doesn’t exist without us and we do not exist without the universe.
There is a movie called the “Little Buddha” that apart from the fact that Keanu Reeves plays the part of the Buddha and that the Enlightenment scene of the Buddha has way to many mystical overtones, it is overall a really good movie. It is the story of a Tibetan Lama that goes looking for his reborn master after the master has died. He goes on to find two young boys and one girl that are all candidates for his reborn teacher. There is a part where one of the boy’s father is confused about the death of a close friend and tells the old Lama that he just cannot believe in reincarnation (neither do Buddhist by the way, we will discuss that later). The old monk is making a cup of tea and he starts explaining to the father. “The cup is like our body and the tea is like our mind”. Then he takes the cup and slams it into the table and shatters the cup. He very calmly starts wiping up the tea and says “even though the cup is broken and is no longer a cup the tea is here on the floor and here on the table and then, wringing out the cloth so that the tea comes out, and here in the cloth, the tea is still just tea. So the tea was all over the place in and on different objects but it was still tea (mind or consciousness). I think this is a pretty profound demonstration of the idea of not-self. The part that probably confused most people watching it was that you are expecting him to choose one of the three kids but instead he picks the girl and both boys! They are all his teacher! I think it was enough confusion to most people that the old man could come back as a little girl but to return as all three was really something. This also challenges our idea of who and what we are.
Notice that I used the word “reborn” instead of reincarnated to refer to the old lamas teacher. The Buddha taught “rebirth” and not reincarnation. Reincarnation means that you come back in someone else’s body. If we use the Dharma as a tool to measure the truth of something we have to see that reincarnation is not in line with the Buddha’s teaching. If Anatta (not-self) is a core teaching there is no “permanent and abiding “self” to be reincarnated! Rebirth on the other hand means that all of the things that made you are still here after your death so when something or someone else comes into being doesn’t follow that some or all of “you” exists in “them” or “it”? So in the end this “I” that we have known and loved for all these years is just an “idea” or a illusion. Yes we are a physical “being” that does exist in the universe but it is our “idea” of what that means that is incorrect.
Once we are over the trauma of realizing that our precious “selves” may not exist as we have always thought we have known them, you are probably thinking “so what is good about this”? In Mahayanna Buddhism there is a pivotal Sutra called “The Heart Sutra”. The full name is the “Prajnaparamithrdaya Sutra” or the “Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom” sutra. This Sutra explains the idea of Shunyata or emptiness. The idea of Shunyata or emptiness is closely related to Not-self but is to in depth a topic to cover now, so I will talk about it in a future blog. Near the end of the sutra it is said:
“The Bodhisattvas rely on the Perfection of Wisdom,
and so with no delusions,
they feel no fear,
and have Nirvana here and now.”
What is it that we all go through life fearing the most? I am pretty sure that would be death. If you understand Anitta (Not-self) you know that “we” were here before, during, and after “we” so there is no “death” and therefore no fear. So if we have always been “here” and always will that means the idea of death is a false notion and therefore we do not need to fear it. Death is not the end.