In the Words of Buddha

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10 other followers

Follow In the Words of Buddha on WordPress.com

Who are you?

toyenanupalippati

toyenanupalippati

Serious Buddhist practitioner.

View Full Profile →

Theravada

Literally the “teaching of the elders,” Theravada Buddhism is purported to be the oldest surviving school of Buddhism, tracing its origins back to Gotama Buddha through the textual integrity of the Pali Canon.

Advertisements

Buddhism and Pacifism: The Buddha’s Path of Peace

Among world religions, Buddhism is unique in its embrace of peace in all its teachings and its condemnation of violence at every level. Not once will one find a scriptural passage in which the Buddha approves of violence of any form. Unlike many of his contemporaries who advocated animal sacrifice, and unlike the many religious teachers who came after him promoting violence against so-called “evil”-doers or heathens, never does the Buddha advocate punishment, torture, revenge, killing living beings, nor causing physical harm to humans, animals, or even plants.

In the Pakinnaka-Vagga of the Dhammapada, a collection of the teachings of the Buddha, it is stated:

“Those disciples of Gotama ever awaken happily whose minds by day and night delight in the practice of non-violence.”

(Dhp XXI 300)

Here, the Buddha (whose clan name was Gotama) is said to be a proponent of the practice of peace. In practicing non-violence, an actively pacifistic current emerges in the Buddha’s teachings. Not only does one refrain from violence, one also actively practices non-violence.

In a passage from the Sutta-Nipāta that dates to the earliest teachings of the Buddha, we find the Buddha denouncing killing not only directly but indirectly through influence upon others. Not killing, in the Buddha’s doctrine, naturally follows from not injuring:

“He should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should he incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.”

Dhammika Sutta (Snp 2.14)

Thus is non-violence extended to all beings. In ancient and modern times alike, one often hears of battles waged across kingdoms or nations, cultures and civilizations in which women and children are to be spared, but the opposition, often male soldiers from the enemy clan, must be killed for the protection of one’s own religious or political values. Yet in the Buddha’s teaching, peace is to be practiced toward all beings, whether weak or strong, whether defenseless or capable of defense. This egalitarian approach to the extension of peace universally derives from the vision of equality with which the Buddha taught to regard the world.

In treating all beings with equal respect, one naturally loses the tendency to form strong preferences or unhealthy attachments to some while maintaining aversion to others. For instance, in another passage from the Sutta-Nipāta, the Buddha combines the doctrine of pacifism with that of renunciation of social attachments:

“Renouncing violence for all living beings, harming not even a one, you would not wish for offspring, so how a companion? Wander alone like a rhinoceros.”

Khaggavisana Sutta (Snp 1.3)

Many of these admonitions of non-violence stem from the Buddha’s teachings on anger. Often a motivating force for violence, anger is likened to fire by the Buddha. Its capacity to burn and do damage is enormous when uncontrolled.

“You make things worse when you flare up at someone who’s angry. Whoever doesn’t flare up at someone who’s angry wins a battle hard to win.”

Akkosa Sutta (SN 7.2)

“A man conquered by anger is in a mass of darkness. He takes pleasure in bad deeds as if they were good, but later, when his anger is gone, he suffers as if burned with fire. He is spoiled, blotted out, like fire enveloped in smoke.”

Kodhana Sutta (AN 7.60)

As a means of tempering anger with non-reactivity, the Buddha suggests exercising restraint of oneself.

“Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.”

Dhammapada 103

“Provoked with many words from contemplatives or ordinary people, he shouldn’t respond harshly, for those who retaliate aren’t calm.

Tuvataka Sutta (Snp 4.14)

“The fool thinks he has won a battle when he bullies with harsh speech, but knowing how to be forbearing alone makes one victorious.”

Samyutta Nikaya I, 163

One of the Buddha’s disciples, the bhikkhu Brahmadatta, reiterates this teaching in the Theragatha, a collection of verses by elder monks:

“You live for the good of both — your own, the other’s — when, knowing the other’s provoked, you mindfully grow calm.”

(Thag 6.12)

Thus are anger and violence abandoned, teaches the Buddha. Thus are non-violence and peace, both peace of mind and peace within the world, attained.

All is Not Self: The Buddha’s Rejection of Atman

Throughout all his teachings, the Buddha never once pointed to a soul or absolute self (आत्मन्; Sanskrit: ātman; Pāḷi: atta) in or outside the aggregates that comprise a conventional being.

There are some who will claim that by stating the aggregates are not self, the Buddha left open the possibility of a self beyond the aggregates. Yet this feeble attempt at an argument falls apart immediately upon investigating the Buddha’s teachings with any depth.

To begin, it may be helpful to consider the context in which the Buddha spoke of self. At the time of the Buddha, the varied schools of religious and spiritual practice and philosophy veered to two extreme doctrines: Sassatavada and Ucchedavada, or eternalism and annihilationism, respectively. Whether the Brahmanic tradition that informed present-day Hinduism whose adherents invested their faith in the existence of an eternal Godhead described in the Vedas and Upaniṣads, or the materalistic schools of the time that denied the existence of any sort of afterlife whatsoever, both were guilty of extremism in their dogmatic approaches to metaphysics. In contrast, the Buddha, as is claimed on countless occasions, taught the “middle path,” the “middle way,” the “middle road” between these extremes: Majjhimā Patipadā.

In reference to the other religious teachers and philosophers of his time, the Buddha spoke the following discourse:

“Monks, whatever contemplatives or brahmans who assume in various ways when assuming a self, all assume the five clinging-aggregates, or a certain one of them.”

“Samanupassana Sutta: Assumptions” (SN 22.47)

Here the Buddha notes that when others affirm the self, they do so in a particular way. All point to one or some combination of the five aggregates: form (rūpa), feelings (vedanā), perceptions (saññā), mental formations (saṅkhāra), and consciousness (viññāṇa). After all, these are the aspects of our psychophysical makeup that are most easily mistaken for a self of some kind or another.

In the case of the Sassatavadins or eternalists, a tendency to identify self with various aspects of mind emerged, allowing for the existence of an eternal soul that outlives the body. This is reflected in early non-Buddhist, Brahmanic texts such as the following, in which ātman is identified with mind at various levels:

That Atman (self, soul) is indeed Brahman. It [Ātman] is also identified with the intellect, the Manas (mind), and the vital breath, with the eyes and ears, with earth, water, air, and ākāśa (sky), with fire and with what is other than fire, with desire and the absence of desire, with anger and the absence of anger, with righteousness and unrighteousness, with everything — it is identified, as is well known, with this (what is perceived) and with that (what is inferred).

—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5

This tendency to identify self with mind (among several others) is mistaken according to the contemplative framework within which the Buddha taught, which logically and straightforwardly laid out the following formula:

aniccā = dukkhā = anattā

impermanence = suffering = not-self

In other words, anything that is impermanent (as the mind is, which can be corroborated through empirical observation) is subject to suffering (again true for the mind, as can be verified through phenomenological examination) and is therefore not self.

This is an immediate flaw with the Sassatavada or eternalist mode of approaching the question of self.

On the other hand, among the Ucchedavadins or annihilationists, a stronger tendency emerged to identify self with material form. Given that the Ucchedavadins were a materialist school, their preference was to rely on evidence gathered via the bodily senses. Upon death, the body is no longer animated, and thus, according to their model, all mental and conscious life is annihilated.

Yet it is important to note that while the Buddha rejected the existence of an absolute self or ātman, he did not teach that upon death, there is the annihilation of self.

Throughout his teachings, the Buddha rejects the notion that the aggregates, either alone or together, constitute a self. Not only does he deny that any of the five aggregates, individually or in combination, constitute a self, he also extends this to ALL possible notions of an absolute self or ātman. The following scriptural quotations attest to this consistency in the Buddha’s categorical rejection of ātman as a whole:

“Sabbaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā.”

“All, bhikkhu (monk), is not self.”

Aniccādi Sutta (SN 35.34)

This is echoed by the following:

“Sabbe dhammā anattā.”

“All phenomena are not self.”[1]

Uppādā Sutta (AN 3.137)

And further echoed by the Buddha’s strong admonition:

“Sabbesu dhammesu anattānupassī viharati.”

“Dwell realizing that in all phenomena there is no self.”

Anattānupassī Sutta (AN 7.18)

These are unequivocal, categorical statements made by the Buddha in which he rejects the possibility of ātman in every way. In stating that ALL (Sabbaṃ; Sabbe; Sabbesu) is not self, the Buddha denies the possibility of ātman not just in the aggregates, but at all levels, rejecting the very notion of ātman all together. In letting go of the notion of a soul or self, the bonds of dissatisfactory experience are shaken and no longer is the delusion of ātman present to serve as an obstacle to enlightenment. This is the most sublime peace.

[1] For the recurrence of the Buddha’s categorical rejection of an absolute self via the statement “sabbe dhammā anattā” or “all phenomena are not self” see:

MN 1, 4. mahāyamakavaggo, 5. cūḷasaccakasuttaṃ (MN 35)
SN 3, 1. khandhasaṃyuttaṃ, 9. theravaggo, 8. channasuttaṃ (SN 22.90)
SN 4, 10. abyākatasaṃyuttaṃ, 10. ānandasuttaṃ (SN 44.10)
AN 3, 3. tatiyapaṇṇāsakaṃ, (14) 4. yodhājīvavaggo, 4. uppādāsuttaṃ (AN 3.137)

See also the abundance of teachings by the Buddha and his foremost disciples rejecting an absolute self in the Khuddaka Nikaya:

KN Dhp, 20. maggavaggo (KN 2.20)
KN Th, 15. soḷasakanipāto, 1. aññāsikoṇḍaññattheragāthā (KN 8.246)
KN Nidd I, 4. suddhaṭṭhakasuttaniddeso
KN Nidd I, 9. māgaṇḍiyasuttaniddeso
KN Nidd I, 10. purābhedasuttaniddeso
KN Nidd I, 11. kalahavivādasuttaniddeso
KN Nidd I, 16. sāriputtasuttaniddeso
KN Nidd II, pārāyanavaggo, pārāyanavagganiddeso, 1. ajitamāṇavapucchāniddeso
KN Nidd II, pārāyanavaggo, pārāyanavagganiddeso, 2. tissametteyyamāṇavapucchāniddeso
KN Nidd II, pārāyanavaggo, pārāyanavagganiddeso, 4. mettagūmāṇavapucchāniddeso
KN Nidd II, pārāyanavaggo, pārāyanavagganiddeso, 5. dhotakamāṇavapucchāniddeso
KN Nidd II, pārāyanavaggo, pārāyanavagganiddeso, 8. hemakamāṇavapucchāniddeso
KN Nidd II, pārāyanavaggo, pārāyanavagganiddeso, 18. pārāyanānugītigāthāniddeso
KN Nidd II, khaggavisāṇasutto, paṭhamavaggo
KN Nidd II, khaggavisāṇasutto, tatiyavaggo
KN Nidd II, khaggavisāṇasutto, catutthavaggo
KN Paṭis, 1. mahāvaggo, 1. ñāṇakathā, 1. sutamayañāṇaniddeso
KN Nett, 4. paṭiniddesavāro, 1. desanāhāravibhaṅgo
KN Nett, sāsanapaṭṭhānaṃ
KN Peṭ, 2. sāsanapaṭṭhānadutiyabhūmi
KN Peṭ, 2. sāsanapaṭṭhānadutiyabhūmi, tatthimā uddānagāthā

Each of the above contains the exact same statement in rejection of an absolute self: “sabbe dhammā anattā,” meaning “all phenomena are not self,” extending beyond the five aggregates to everything that exists.

The Aggregates as Taught by the Buddha

In the teachings of the Buddha, there exist five aggregates (स्कन्ध; Sanskrit: skandha; Pāḷi: khandha) which are often mistaken for self insofar as they are the aspects of our psychophysical makeup with which we often most identify.

The five aggregates go by the following designations in Pāḷi:

1. rūpa – form, matter, corporeality (e.g, the physical body as a whole and its various organs and parts)

2. vedanā – sensation, feeling, affective tone (e.g., pleasant, unpleasant, neutral – pleasure, pain, neither)

3. saññā – perception, cognition, discrimination (e.g., of qualities, features, characteristics of objects entering the sense fields)

4. saṃkhārā – thoughts, impulses, mental fabrications (e.g., opinions, ideas, habits, mental processes)

5. viññāṇa – consciousness, discernment (e.g., of sensory experience, eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc.)

These five aggregates, which are likened to heaps of phenomena, can for the sake of parsimony be called form, feeling, perception, impulses, and consciousness.

The Buddha frequently asserted that none of the aggregates should be identified as self. Instead, they are all without self, empty of self, without self-nature. In the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59) and elsewhere, the Buddha often repeats the formula:

“rūpaṃ bhikkhave, anattā…
vedanā bhikkhave, anattā…
saññā bhikkhave, anattā…
saṃkhārā bhikkhave, anattā…
viññāṇaṃ bhikkhave, anattā…”

Or in other words, as is found in the Mahāpuṇṇama Sutta (MN 109) and elsewhere:

rūpaṃ anattā, vedanā anattā, saññā anattā, saṅkhārā anattā, viññāṇaṃ anattā

This stock phrase, which reoccurs all throughout the Buddha’s teachings, means “form, bhikkhus (monks), is not self… feeling is not self… perception is not self… mental properties are not self… consciousness is not self…”

In more full translation, this is what the Buddha taught:

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22.59)

Thus, as can be read from the words of the Buddha himself, the five aggregates are not to be confused with any sort of self. To further illustrate this point in poetic form, in the Phena Sutta, the Buddha compares the aggregates, the phenomena that comprise a person, to foam in a river, bubbles in water, a mirage, and other illusory, impermanent phenomena. The aggregates are all empty, he asserts:

“However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they’re empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately”

Phena Sutta (SN 22.95)

The Self as a Chariot – Conventionally Constructed & Conveniently Designated

“Just as, with an assemblage of parts,
The word ‘chariot’ is used,
So, when the aggregates are present,
There’s the convention ‘a being.'”

Vajjira Sutta (SN 5.10)

In the teachings of the Buddha and his disciples, everything that pertains to “self” is conventionally constructed. By this, as the Buddha thoroughly explains on myriad occasions (e.g., see the entire Khandha Vagga — The Section on the Aggregates, comprising 1/5 of the Samyutta Nikaya, which itself contains 2,889 suttas or discourses spoken and affirmed by the Buddha and his disciples), anything termed “self” consists of countless component parts that for all intents and purposes seem to exist, at least in a practical sense. In Buddhist philosophy, therefore, the “self” is conveniently designated for the sake of conforming to standards of language in common use in everyday parlance.

“Imā kho, Citta, loka­samaññā lokaniruttiyo lokavohārā lokapaññatti­yo, yāhi Tathāgato voharati aparāmasanti.”

“For these, Citta, are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world. But a Tathāgata [one who has fully realized the truth] makes use of them, but does not misapprehend them.”

Potthapāda Sutta (DN 9)

Since the self is conventionally constructed, a convenient designator (in common use in the world), it has only a conventional existence for the sake of convenience. In the same sense that a chariot is conveniently said to be built of its component parts, the conventional self is likewise made up of five aggregates: form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness.

1. form – rūpa

2. feeling – vedanā

3. perception – saññā

4. mental fabrications – saṃkhārā

5. consciousness – viññāṇa

The aggregates are “heaps” of phenomena. They are mistaken as “self” because it is convenient to think of them as such, for the sake of navigating ordinary life in the most conventional manner. Yet at the level of deeper truth, there is no self to be found in or outside of them. We are amalgams of these aggregates, like a chariot built of many parts. Yet neither together nor alone do they constitute an ultimate self.

Like a chariot, the self is just a convenient designation for an assemblage of parts, a heap of phenomena.

Thus it can be said that the self is a convention, not an ultimate truth.

Any reference to “self” as ultimate truth thus deviates profoundly from the Buddha’s teachings on the non-existence of an eternal soul (nivāsī-atta).

Take the metaphor of the chariot. Even in a literal sense, the wheel, the axel, the rod, the various parts that hold the chariot together and so on, by themselves do not constitute the chariot. Even together, they amount to nothing eternal, above and beyond the parts that make the chariot a “chariot.” A chariot is simply a convenient designator (in other words, a word) for a heap of parts, just as a “being” is a convention of language. Seeing that “self” is merely a convention of language can be profoundly liberating, as the Buddha experienced himself upon his enlightenment and liberation from all suffering.

Self vs. Not-Self – A Brief Comparison of Two Indian Religions

Throughout his teachings, the Buddha vehemently denied the ancient Indian notion of selfhood, “etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā” (that is mine, I am that, that is my self) with its counter-statement, “netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā” (this is not me, this is not mine, this is not my self)[1]. While never denying that the self exists conventionally (sense of self) as an empirical truth that is experienced in everyday life, the Buddha rejected the notion of an ultimate core, a permanent substratum, and an enduring selfhood that persists through time.

The language in which the Buddha denied an ultimate self stems from the Upaniṣadic and Vedic phrases so ham asmi and aham asmi, both meaning “I am.”

so ham asmi

सोऽहम् अस्मि

aham asmi

अहम् अस्मि

In the ancient Indian religious traditions from which modern Hinduism derives, heavy emphasis was placed on the existence of a soul, a permanent self, or ultimate personality. The earliest Upaniṣads, some of the foundational texts of present-day Hinduism, contain powerfully succinct expressions of this belief in a soul and its unity with an impersonal God, or Brahman.

aham brahmāsmi

अहं ब्रह्मास्मि

“I am Brahman”

Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad | बृहदारण्यक उपनिषद्

tat tvam asi

तत् त्वम् असि

“Thou art that”

Chāndogya Upaniṣad | छान्दोग्य उपनिषद्

While these statements may be striking, they were not accepted by the Buddha. Ultimately, personality-view (sakkāya-diṭṭhi) or belief in an ultimate selfhood, is considered a fetter on the path of wisdom taught by the Buddha[2].

The Buddha taught that there is an empirical self that operates phenomenally, but no trans-empirical equivalent like a Soul. There is no characteristic or set of characteristics that remains constant throughout life, or even in future lives. Self is not transcendental. It does not transcend impermanence and suffering. Self is malleable and ever-changing. It is subject to arising and passing away, subject to suffering.

Self is an instantaneous arising and passing away of various causes and conditions, not a persistent entity. Personal identity is a deceptive, elusive phenomenon. Self can be understood not as a being but as a process. The belief in a self is an assumption, not a reality. In the Buddha’s words:

To an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person, touched by experience born of the contact of ignorance, there occur (the thoughts): ‘I am,’ ‘I am thus,’ ‘I shall be,’ ‘I shall not be,’ ‘I shall be possessed of form,’ ‘I shall be formless,’ ‘I shall be percipient (conscious),’ ‘I shall be non-percipient,’ or ‘I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient.’

Samanupassana Sutta: Assumptions (SN 22.47)

Thus, all statements of “I” – whether “I am” or “I was” or “I will be” – are understood as assumptions by the Buddha. They amount to nothing absolute and instead reflect our contact with ignorance – not knowing things as they are. When the illusion of a self as observer drops away, reality can be seen clearly, without being filtered through the lens of a someone who is watching. This state that is absent of self is the realm of the Buddhas.

[1] For the Buddha’s rejection of self-identification or “atta” see:

Discourses from the Majjhima Nikaya

MN 8, MN 22, MN 28, MN 35, MN 62, MN 109, MN 140, MN 144, MN 148

Discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya

SN 4.16, SN 12.70, SN 18.13, SN 18.14, SN 22.8, SN 22.15, SN 22.16, SN 22.17, SN 22.45, SN 22.46, SN 22.49, SN 22.59, SN 22.71, SN 22.72, SN 22.76, SN 22.77, SN 22.79, SN 22.82, SN 22.91, SN 22.92, SN 22.118, SN 22.119, SN 22.124, SN 22.125, SN 24.31, SN 24.32, SN 35.1, SN 35.2, SN 35.3, SN 35.4, SN 35.5, SN 35.6, SN 35.54, SN 35.55, SN 35.70, SN 35.167, SN 35.168, SN 35.169, SN 35.170, SN 35.171, SN 35.172, SN 35.173, SN 35.174, SN 44.2, SN 44.7

Discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya

AN 3.134, AN 4.177, AN 4.181, AN 4.196, AN 10.93,

[2] For the Buddha’s rejection of personality-view or “sakkāya-diṭṭhi” see:

Discourses from the Digha Nikaya

DN 33

Discourses from the Majjhiima Nikaya

MN 2, MN 44, MN 64, MN 109

Discourses from the Samyutta Nikaya

SN 1.21, SN 2.16, SN 22.82, SN 22.155, SN 35.149, SN 41.3, SN 45.114

Discourses from the Anguttara Nikaya

AN 3.95, AN 6.89, AN 6.90, AN 6.91, AN 7.85, AN 7.92, AN 9.67, AN 10.13, AN 10.76

The Buddha’s Teachings on Not-Self – Anatta – An Introduction

Much of what we experience in life revolves around the notion of a self to which experiences happen, a someone who does the experiencing, an “experiencer” of experiences. We commonly assume that there is some agent that acts, some doer that does, some-thing that some-how is. While this holds true at the conventional level, at the ultimate level as understood in Buddhism a fixed self does not exist – self is an illusion.

The Buddha’s teachings on anattā (non-self) are intended to illustrate the transitivity of identity. They are not an absolutist negation of selfhood. Instead, they shake the foundations of person-ality we have been conditioned to believe in and mistakenly use to set up boundaries between self and other. Specifically, anattā is the Buddha’s refutation of the Brahmanic (ancient Indian) notion of a permanent, enduring, transcendental, eternal, persistent Self, termed Atman in Hindu texts such as the Vedas and Upaniṣads. According to the Buddha, there is no self that is ultimate and immortal, separate and individual.

Rather than uphold a mistaken Soul-theory (self view or sakkāya-diṭṭhi) as many of his contemporaries did, the Buddha described the experience of self as impermanent, non-enduring, conventional, mortal, and not greater than the sum of its parts.

In order to demonstrate the logic of selflessness, the Buddha utilized one simple formula:

aniccā = dukkhā = anattā

impermanence = suffering = not-self

Using this formula, the Buddha often begins by describing the aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, consciousness), which are the aspects of our experiences with which we tend to identify most, as impermanent. He then describes that which is impermanent as subject to suffering. Finally, the Buddha simply states that whatever is subject to suffering is unfit to be called one’s self.

In summary, that which is impermanent is unsatisfactory and that which is unsatisfactory is not-self.

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…

“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22.59)

One of the most prevalent teachings given by the Buddha is that none of the aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, consciousness) should be regarded as defining a person. Any other definition of self outside the aggregates would also not suffice, nor would a definition of self as the sum-total of the aggregates. Ultimately, all views of self must be set aside, since they obstruct clear vision of non-identity and the interdependence of all beings.

For the purpose of seeing things clearly, the Buddha denied the immortal, unborn and Supreme Self (paramātmā — परमात्मा). Holding views of a self (in any form) is a hindrance on the path to awakening.

“Monks, where a Self or what belongs to Self are not pinned down as a truth or reality, then the view-position — ‘This cosmos is the self. After death this I will be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity’ — Isn’t it utterly & completely a fool’s teaching?”

“What else could it be, lord? It’s utterly & completely a fool’s teaching.”

Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22)

Although the word “fool” may seem harsh, it merely illustrates the Buddha’s understanding that it is foolish to believe that the self will stay the same forever, unchanging and immortal – foolish because such thinking only leads to immense disappointment, dissatisfaction, dismay, distress, and dis-ease. Self-view is the cause for much of our suffering, whether it manifests as self-criticism, selfishness, self-consciousness, or in other forms. To grasp at the notion of a fixed self creates the conditions for extreme stress (the need to defend one’s self, prove one’s self, and so on) and builds an illusion of separateness from others, whether we realize it or not. Rather, the Buddha showed the way to be liberated from self, liberated from impermanence, and thus liberated from suffering.

“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’

“Any kind of feeling whatever…

“Any kind of perception whatever…

“Any kind of determination whatever…

“Any kind of consciousness whatever, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near must, with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not my self.’

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59)

One cannot find a self that is not subject to change. Hence, no permanent self. In other words, there is no ultimate self, only the sense-of-self that arises and ceases at every moment. This realization dissolves the distinction between “self and “other” so that no separation remains.

The Three Marks of Existence – Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – The Characteristics of Reality as Understood in Buddhism

The three marks of existence (Pāḷi: tilakkhaṇa; Sanskrit: trilakṣaṇa) or three seals are a major cornerstone of the Buddha’s teachings. In Buddhism, they represent the Buddha’s enlightened understanding of experiential reality, a reality that is not just theorized about but actually experienced, meaning it can be confirmed and verified through one’s own experience as well. Thus, these three characteristics of reality practically define the Buddhist path of wisdom.

Repeated all throughout the Pāḷi Canon (the earliest written record of the Buddha’s teachings) and accepted by all Buddhist traditions is the fundamental refrain spoken by the Buddha:

sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā

सब्बे संखारा अनिच्चा

sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā

सब्बे संखारा दुक्खा

sabbe dhammā anattā

सब्बे धम्मा अनत्ता

Comprising the core of Buddhism, these universal phrases essentially point toward the truth as understood in Buddhism, namely:

All that is conditioned is characterized by momentariness.

All that is conditioned is characterized by dissatisfaction.

All phenomena (all that is conditioned and unconditioned) are characterized by selflessness.

Most modern translations typically follow the more common rendering of aniccā as impermanence, dukkhā as suffering, and anattā as not-self. The meaning is preserved, with the same three characteristics upheld:

All that is conditioned is subject to impermanence.

All that is conditioned is subject to suffering.

All phenomena (all that is conditioned and unconditioned) are not-self.

An additional way of examining these phrases is with the following alternative translation in mind, again with the meaning preserved:

All that is conditioned is transitory.

All that is conditioned is stressful.

All phenomena (all that is conditioned and unconditioned) are without substance/substratum.

In all these translations, the key terms are the three marks themselves. Our experiences can be summarized in terms of their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selfless nature.

aniccā = अनिच्चा = impermanence

dukkhā = दुक्खा = suffering

anattā = अनत्ता = not-self

These phrases appear time and time again in the Buddhist teachings, reinforcing their centrality to Buddhism. For instance, see the following discourses as a mere handful out of thousands of instances in which this formula occurs in the Sutta Piṭaka:

“What do you think, monks: is corporeality permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, Lord.” — “And what is impermanent, is it painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, Lord.” — “What is impermanent, painful, subject to change, is it fit to be considered thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’?” — “Certainly not, Lord.” — “What do you think, monks: Is feeling… is perception… are mental formations… is consciousness… permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, Lord.” — “And what is impermanent, is it painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, Lord.” — “And what is impermanent, painful, subject to change, is it fit to be considered thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self?” — “Certainly not, Lord.”

Alagaddupama Sutta: The Snake Simile (MN 22)

“What do you think, Aggivessana? Is form constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, Master Gotama.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, Master Gotama.”

“…Is feeling constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”…

“…Is perception constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”…

“…Are fabrications constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”…

“What do you think, Aggivessana? Is consciousness constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, Master Gotama.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, Master Gotama.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, Master Gotama.”

Cula-Saccaka Sutta: The Shorter Discourse to Saccaka (MN 35)

“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent?…

“Is perception permanent or impermanent?…

“Are determinations permanent or impermanent?…

“Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent pleasant or painful?” — “Painful, venerable sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.”

Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic (SN 22.59)

As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “What do you think, Rahula — is the eye constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, lord.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, lord.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.”

“What do you think — are forms constant or inconstant?”

“Inconstant, lord.”

“And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

“Stressful, lord.”

“And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

“No, lord.”

Cula-Rahulovada Sutta: The Shorter Exposition to Rahula (MN 147)

Whether to his own son the venerable Rahula, his chief attendant the venerable Ananda, the five ascetics with whom he first practiced who were to become the first five bhikkhus (monks) of the sangha (community), or others who sought his teachings, the Buddha carefully explained the three seals as interconnected characteristics of worldly existence. That which is impermanent is unsatisfactory and that which is unsatisfactory is not self.

It should be made clear that not everything is impermanent and not everything is subject to suffering, although the not-self characteristic is universally applicable. Only those experiences that are conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion are impermanent and subject to suffering. There is, however, an Unconditioned (that which is not conditioned by greed, hatred, or delusion) – liberation, freedom.

The first two of the three seals (aniccā, dukkhā) apply to all conditioned things (saṅkhārā) and thus are transcended by the unconditioned release from suffering and the rounds of rebirth (Pāli: nibbāna; Sanskrit: nirvāṇa). The third seal (anattā) on the other hand applies to all phenomena (dhammā), conditioned and unconditioned alike.

In comparison to saṅkhārā, the Pāli term dhammā carries a much broader, inclusive connotation that leaves nothing out. Hence the centrality of the self-less characteristic, which defines the Buddhist path and makes the existence of a God with any immortal or ultimate selfhood utterly incompatible with Buddhism.

Ultimately, the three marks / three seals / three characteristics are a summary of the Buddhist understanding of reality, for the purpose of clarity of wisdom and liberation from all ills.

Meeting Suffering With Imperturbability – Upekkha – The Buddha’s Teachings on Equanimity

upekkhaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. upekkhañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yo paṭigho so pahīyissati.

“Develop the meditation of equanimity. For when you are developing the meditation of equanimity, irritation will be abandoned.”

Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 62)

Upekkhā, or equanimity, is perhaps the most neglected of the brahmavihāras, simply on account of its neutrality. Whereas loving-kindness, compassion, and empathetic joy carry positive, even desirable connotations, equanimity is by definition neutral and seemingly unexciting. However, when cultivated wholeheartedly, upekkhā is among the most valuable qualities of the mind and heart, as it allows us to remain confident and unperturbed in the midst of suffering.

Of course, being imperturbable does not mean that one is indifferent, emotionally blank, or otherwise unmoved by the suffering that surrounds us. On the contrary, upekkhā is mindful non-reactivity and non-impulsivity – the capacity to respond to suffering in a balanced, harmonious, and wholesome manner, keeping one’s composure in times of hardship.

This state of balanced equanimity is especially helpful in the face of unpleasantness. Rather than add fuel to the fire, piling more coal or timber on top of a flame, one can take a step back from whatever sensation arises with the aid of upekkhā and assess the situation with an unbiased, non-judgmental mind – from the vantage point of mindfulness. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough how equanimity is not a form of indifference, surrender, or giving in to suffering. Rather, it is being able to discern the cause of suffering mindfully, without adding more fuel to the fire in the process.

At the semantic level, the Sanskrit etymology of upekṣā (ऊपेक्खा) can be traced to “upekṣ,” meaning to consider carefully, and the verbal root “ik,” to look at. In Buddhist practice, this careful consideration and quality of observance is rooted in mindfulness, remembering to pause rather than reacting impulsively.

In one discourse, the Buddha describes equanimity, upekkhā, thus:

“He who sees clearly with discernment the abandoning of greed & distress is one who oversees with equanimity, which is why the monk on that occasion remains focused on mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world.”

Ananda Sutta (SN 54.13)

In this sutta, “putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world” means being unaffected by these extremes, letting them pass through without being perturbed by them. This places upekkhā high among the qualities cultivated by the enlightened ones.

In fact, of all the brahmavihāras, only equanimity is classed as as a factor for awakening (upekkhā-sambojjhaṅga).

“There is the case where a monk develops mindfulness as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. He develops analysis of qualities as a factor for Awakening…persistence as a factor for Awakening…rapture as a factor for Awakening…serenity as a factor for Awakening…concentration as a factor for Awakening…equanimity as a factor for Awakening dependent on seclusion, dependent on dispassion, dependent on cessation, resulting in relinquishment. This is how a monk — in dependence on virtue, established on virtue, having developed & pursued the seven factors for Awakening — attains to greatness & prosperity in terms of mental qualities.”

Himavanta Sutta (SN 46.1)

Meeting suffering with equanimity gives rise to dispassion. With the mind secluded and not drawn out by the various externalities of the world, one may cultivate the deepest and most imperturbable equanimity, among the seven factors of awakening that characterize the Buddha’s and his disciples’ enlightenment.

Finding Joy in the Joy of Others – Mudita – The Buddha’s Teachings on Empathetic Joy

muditaṃ, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvehi. muditañhi te, rāhula, bhāvanaṃ bhāvayato yā arati sā pahīyissati.

“Develop the meditation of appreciation. For when you are developing the meditation of appreciation, resentment will be abandoned.”

Maha-Rahulovada Sutta (MN 62)

In Buddhism, mudita is the quality of appreciative or empathetic joy, especially in the joy of others. Considered by some to be one of the most difficult brahmavihāras to cultivate, mudita requires strength to embody. Its meaning is hard to capture, and although “gladness” and “appreciation” come close, nothing can quite encapsulate the boundless joy it entails.

This joy is of the non-covetous kind, not the kind that is withheld and guarded possessively. In being an empathetic variety of joy, mudita is a boundless and immeasurable joy which is overflowing and naturally shared.

Increasingly in our world of scarcity, we tend to assume that joy is of a finite quantity, meaning there is only a limited amount of it to go around. In other words, if I am happy, that comes at the expense of others’ happiness. On the other hand, if my enemy is happy, that makes me unhappy. These are the assumptions under which people unfortunately operate in everyday life.

Contrary to all this, mudita is the sharing of limitless joy. Given that there are 7 billion people on the planet, and their joy can be ours too, there is more than enough joy to go around. Joy, in actuality, can never truly be depleted. We may experience cycles of joy and disappointment in our individual lives, but no one can take joy away from us. When we can tap into the joy of others, the joy of the seven billion other humans on this planet, we are never without it. Thus arises boundless mudita, finding joy in the joy of others.

Mudita involves the ability to find joy in the joy of others, to delight in the joy of others, to rejoice in the joy of others.

There is no reason we cannot enjoy the joy of others, participating in their joy as if it were our own, thereby joining others in the experience of infinitely available joy.