‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ A comment on the recent dialogue about the anatta doctrine in Buddhism
Posted on March 20th, 2019

By Rohana R.Wasala

There was recently an exchange of views published in The Island newspaper between February 22 and March 14, 2019 and here in Lankaweb in the same period concerning the concept of ‘anatta’ in Buddhism (traditionally translated into English as soullessness, no-soul, non-self, etc). One of the most definitive responses, in my view, was from Ven. Bhante Dhammika of Australia (‘myself, yourself, no-self’/The Island, March 8, 2019). He has hinted that he might further elaborate his explanation in the future, which will definitely prove useful for all of us students of Buddhism. Except for Bhante Dhammika, all the others who contributed to this discussion in their own admirable ways, I think, are in the same category (of students of Buddhism).Of course, even learned monks including Bhante Dhammika, in my view, would prefer to describe themselves as students of Buddhism until they are ultimately ‘Awakened’.

Bhante Dhammika’s use of a billiard ball analogy to suggest how, probably, mental energy passes on at the death of a person to be reborn elsewhere would be quite attractive to those who think that the concept of rebirth is indispensable for Buddhism. Science teacher Bodhi Dhanapala from Canada (The Buddha’s ‘Anatta’ doctrine and mathematical thinking’ Lankaweb, March 12, 2019) has a thought provoking thesis relating to the same subject from a mathematical point of view (which I am still trying to grasp as a layman, though). He thinks that the cycle of rebirth in the Buddha’s teaching is a PROCESS or a becoming, and that the Buddha’s focus in his first sermon is the cycle of rebirth within one lifetime, which is SAMSARA; there is no reference to a next birth. This, I think, is not to say that belief in a cycle of deaths and births that goes beyond this life should be rejected. It’s only that such a belief, whether true or false, does not matter to Buddhism. We are dying and being born again all the time; cells in our bodies are replaced everyday and we change physically every moment; we change mentally even faster. The pali term ‘nama rupa’ (Name and Form, or physical and mental energies, as Ven. Dr W. Rahula translates the term – Pl. see below) refers to these two changing phenomena. The process of arising and dying (Samsara) exists whether there is a next life or not. I am among those who are attracted to Bodhi Dhanapala’s opinion. Bhante Dhammika’s view (expressed in the two concluding paragraphs of his article) is uncertain in this regard. Bhante Dhammika’s illustration of the changing nature of the physical identity of a person over time within their lifetime by comparing the current physical image of a grandmother to a childhood photograph of her is an effective way of explaining the illusion of continuity in flux (illusion of a fixed identity or self) that we experience everyday. He draws our attention to the Buddhist teaching’s insistence on the necessity of the experiential ‘realization’ of the ultimate truth as distinct from a mere intellectual grasp of the same.

With the exception of Bhante Dhammika and Bodhi Dhanapala, none tried to spell out their own understanding or interpretation of the term ‘anatta’ precisely or at all; nor did the others try to offer a/the commonly accepted definition of the anatta concept. Of course, this was not an omission on their part. It was probably because the initial focus of the dialogue was not ‘anatta’ itself, but the challenges the idea faced in history and still faces from religio-ideological rivals of what is considered pristine Buddhism.

Incidentally, Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula, an undisputed authority on Buddhism (including both the dominant sects of Theravada and Mahayana) explains Samsara as ‘continuity of existence, cycle of existence’. There is a very good explanation that touches on this subject in Chapter III of his classic treatise on Buddhism ‘What the Buddha Taught’(1959) under the heading The Second Noble Truth: Samudaya: ‘The Arising of Dukkha’.

Dr Asoka Weerakkody (‘Anatta’ – what’s in a name?’/The Island, February 27, 2019) wrote: Buddhism (or preferably, Dhamma) is a uniquely logical form of belief, compared to all others. But anatta is its Achilles’ heel. The basic triad of dhamma, anicca, dukkha is easy enough to comprehend. They are real; you see them and feel them. But anatta in contrast is a metaphysical concept, which does not sit easily with the rest of the concepts”. Logical or illogical mere unquestioning belief or faith has no place in Buddhism.  Bodhi (Awakened or Awakening) through one’s own effort without the help of an external agent is the goal of Buddhism. To talk about a ‘basic triad of dhamma, anicca, dukkha’ that excludes ‘anatta’ is unusual. The actual formula is ‘anicca, dukkha, anatma’. In what sense Dr Weerakkody used ‘dhamma’ here is not clear to me. (The term dhamma is applied in Theravada Buddhism in multiple senses as explained by Dr Walpola Rahula in ‘What the Buddha Taught’: the word has the meanings of ‘Truth, Teaching, righteousness, piety, morality, justice, nature, all things and states conditioned or unconditioned, etc.) Dr Rahula explains nibbana/nirvana as an unconditioned state. In this connection (that is, regarding the term ‘dhamma’), he refers to three verses in the Dhammapada  as ‘extremely important and essential in the Buddha’s teaching’. They are nos 277, 278 and 279. The three verses together enumerate the three characteristics of ‘anicca, dukka, anatta’ (transience, suffering, no-self). These traits are collectively called ‘Tilakkhana’ or the Three Characteristics (of Existence); all three are metaphysical concepts (i.e., philosophical ideas about the nature of reality or what we conventionally take to be reality). The three Dhammapada  verses state in turn: ‘All conditioned things (samkara) are anicca or impermanent’, ‘All conditioned things (samkara) are dukkha or suffering’, but ‘All states (dhamma) are without self or anatta’ (I have here marginally modified Dr Rahula’s English renderings of the opening lines of the three verses without altering their meaning.) He explains why the Buddha said ‘All states (dhamma) are without self’, instead of ‘All conditioned things (samkara) are without self’: That is because the Buddha wanted to categorically deny an unchanging eternal Soul or Atman either within an individual or outside. In order to do this, he replaced ‘samkara’ with ‘dhamma’ in the third verse. The term samkara (or conditioned things) means the Five Aggregates, all conditioned things and states, physical and mental. But ‘dhamma’ includes both conditioned and non-conditioned things, the Absolute, Nirvana; all are without self. So, the Buddha teaches that ‘All dhammas are without Self’, there is no Self, no Atman, not only in the Five Aggregates, but nowhere else too outside them or apart from them”, as Dr Rahula puts it.

The concept of anatta is of pivotal importance to  Buddhism; it is its lynchpin, not its Achilles’ heel.  Dr Rahula explains why anatta should be considered crucial to the Buddha’s teaching and how the anatma doctrine is unique to Buddhism. He also suggests how it distinguishes Buddhism from other religious teachings. This information is found in Chapter VI titled ‘The doctrine of no-soul: Anatta’ in ‘What the Buddha Taught’, where he writes:  

Two ideas are psychologically deep-rooted in man: self protection and self-preservation. For self-protection man has created God, on whom he depends for his own protection, safety and security, just as a child depends on its parent. For self-preservation man has conceived the idea of an immortal Soul or Atman, which will live eternally. In his ignorance, weakness, fear and desire, man needs these two things to console himself. Hence he clings to them deeply and fanatically. ……. …………………  According to Buddhism, our ideas of God and Soul, are false and empty. Though highly developed as theories, they are all the same extremely subtle mental projections, garbed in an intricate  metaphysical and philosophical phraseology. …………….. The Buddha knew this quite well. In fact, he said that his teaching was ‘against the current’ (patisotagami), against man’s selfish desires…..”.

Hence, the anatma doctrine separates the Buddhist teaching from other religious traditions that are based on the concept of Soul or Atman. Professor Carlo Fonseka’s gracefully lighthearted claim that he has formulated the aphorism that the anatta doctrine divides Buddhism from all other religions, and unites all forms of Buddhism” (The Island/February 22) is a well authenticated one.

Finally, a word about the verse line ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ in the title of this essay. It is from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem Among School Children (1926). This poem lends itself to a Buddhist interpretation. It can be read as a meditation on the impermanence, insubstantiality, and unsatisfactoriness of our existence. We know that, by his time, many English and other European intellectuals had long been taking a special interest in Eastern languages, cultures, religions, and philosophies, and had been deeply impressed by what they discovered. Yeats himself was interested  in Indian ‘mysticism’. In Buddhism, however, he came across something very different. Among School Children can be described as a reflection on Tilakkhana or the Three Characteristics (the subject of the three Dhammapada  verses referred to above): anicca, dukkha,and  anatma (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and soullessness), the realization of which is the Path to Purity. He relates these to his own sixty year old life and the unrequited love that he had in his youth for a very beautiful woman (Maude Gonne, Irish nationalist and fiery revolutionary). He himself was not bad looking as a young man; he too ‘had pretty plumage once’, he modestly claims. Though Yeats loved the woman passionately, she rejected his four times repeated marriage proposal, before marrying someone else. In the poem, Yeats (then a Senator, ‘a … public man’ at sixty years of age) makes an official visit to an elementary school in Dublin. He is shown around by a nun. Looking upon ‘one child or the other there’ he dreams of the Ledaean  beauty (Maude Gonne) whom he loved in the distant past. Her present image  (‘hollow of cheeks’, lean and haggard) ‘floats into the mind’. Thinking of his own similar decrepit condition, he muses whether a youthful mother, were she to visualize her sixty-year-old son, would think him

A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

(i.e., whether he was worth the pain of bearing him and the anxieties involved in launching him into the world as a separate individual). Youth passes; beauty decays; love doesn’t last. We worship only images of our own making. There is no essence to them. The images that the nuns worship are not different. They also break hearts, because they are insubstantial. They are  products of their imagination, too. What we take to be substantial are only empty images, mere self-born mockers of man’s enterprise” (creations of our own imagination) as Yeats derisively describes them in this philosophical poem.

The four lines at the end of the poem deal with the theme of insubstantiality.

 O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

In the above two lines, the poet addresses an imaginary chestnut tree and asks it what is its true identity, its substance or essence, or its ‘soul’ as it were: is it the leaf, the flower, or the trunk? We know it’s none of these. The name chestnut tree is applied to all of them together as a single living organism that ‘blossoms’. When the constituent parts are taken apart, the chestnut tree disappears, no essence is left. There is nothing by way of any ‘chestnuttreeness’. The metaphor here is from nature.

The last two lines use an image from the human world, that of the dancer. 

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

 ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ presents another fine illustration of the anatma concept. The dancer is lost in her dancing. She is not conscious of herself during the dance. That is, in her complete absorption in her performance, she’s apparently got rid of even the illusion of  ‘Self’ that she normally experiences in life like all of us. (According to Ven. Rahula, getting absorbed in what one does, without having the consciousness ‘I am doing this’, is real Mindfulness.) As far as the spectators are concerned, the dancer ceases to exist when the dancing stops (you can’t separate the dancer from the dance). Yeats’ dancing figure helps one to make sense of the Buddhist teaching that there is doing, but no doer; there is suffering, but no sufferer, etc. That is, in the case of what we conventionally identify as an individual, suffering is a reality, a truth, but the ‘sufferer’ is an illusion, is non-self.

6 Responses to “‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ A comment on the recent dialogue about the anatta doctrine in Buddhism”

  1. Randeniyage Says:

    I would refrain from giving similes not given by Buddha
    Let Buddhism be understood by Buddha’s words (Dhamma) and no one else’s. Undisputed authority on Buddhism is not any monk, but Buddha.
    Most scholars have translated Anattha as “non-self”. What is wrong in it ?

  2. Vaisrawana Says:

    Mr Randeniyage, this article doesn’t say there is anything wrong in using ‘non-self’ as an English equivalent for anatta/anatma. In fact, the article ends with the term used in an undisputed sense. Maybe you are posing the question with some other writer in mind.

    However, a person who tends to ‘split hairs’ in language matters could say ‘non-self’ implies an erroneous acknowledgement of a ‘self’. I can suggest two simple analogies to explain this. When we say ‘non-smoker’, it doesn’t negate the existence of smokers, or a ‘non-citizen’, it does not mean that there is nothing called a ‘citizen’. So, one could argue that non-self is not a suitable substitute for the concept of anatta. But as far as most Buddhist scholars are concerned, they don’t make an issue of this.

  3. Ratanapala Says:

    Lord Buddha has given us a set of tools that would help to chart a course through the quagmire of Samsara and to develop a means to see through and transcend ‘views’ whether religious, scientific or mathematical. He told us ” I only show you the Way” – it is up to us to traverse to the end and see for oneself”.

    We, on the other hand, have built ever more beautiful and awe-inspiring camps on either side of this road and are trying hard to predict what is at the end – just as astronomers are building ever more powerful telescopes, scientists ever more powerful particle accelerators, and colliders and hypothesis to see the end or the beginning of this assumed reality and existence. Although the end always seems ‘just around the corner’, just as the horizon it recedes and presents us ever more complex vistas to ponder.

    It was just at the end of the 19th Century the famous mathematician Laplace said we now have all the tools to understand reality back to its beginning and as much further into the future as we want just with the understanding of Newton’s and Maxwell’s theories. However, this was not to be – the advent of the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics has put all this in disarray. During the whole of the twentieth century and a fifth of a century into the 21st, we are no closer to that elusive Ultimate Reality!

    What Lord Buddha said is that it is a Beautiful Path but at the same time a Lonely Path for one has to traverse it oneself till this continuum of ever-changing consciousness enters the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana! The “Views” however beautiful be they religious, scientific or mathematical are only views that will forever keep us entangled in the quagmire of Samsara.

    We are much like school children discussing the complexities of higher mathematics at elementary school level!

  4. Vaisrawana Says:

    Touche, Ratanapala! an apt comment.

  5. Charles Says:

    Ratanapala sayss it well. Bodhi Dhanapala rounded up his discussion by saying” …….In reality, when we go to practice Buddhism, all we need is the eight-fold path and not all this details about what happens to Nama Roopa etc. So, even if there are differences of opinion in these philosophical matters, they become side issues only.”

    There cannot be an educated man’s Buddhism and an ordinary man’s Buddhism.

  6. Vaisrawana Says:

    “There cannot be an educated man’s Buddhism and an ordinary man’s Buddhism.” Very true, Charles.

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