Dismantling Self
Posted on September 18th, 2010

Sunil Vijayapala

Annattalakkhana Suttra followed the famous Dhammachakapavattana Suttra the first sermon by Lord Buddha delivered to the first 5 disciples or Vagga ascetics at Issipatane and showed the paramount importance of understanding Selflessness or Anatta on the road to Nibbana.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  In fact denial or rejection of Self is the stepping stone to the path of enlightenment and gateway to final liberation.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  In this discourse Buddha clearly explains the lack of CONTROL over our afflictions taking into account each of the five aggregates and finally arguing the characteristics of each with respect to Impermanence and Suffering leading into the conclusion of Selflessness.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  We could deduct from this teaching if there was evidence of a self we would have a total control over all our affairs of both mind and body.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  None of the five aggregates taken individually or as a whole shows any characteristics of a self identity.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Mahanidhana Suttra Buddha expounds HOW the notion of self arises in the mindset of an individual.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Again totally rejecting that none of the five aggregates shows any sign of permanency or any sign of non suffering, which leads us to the concept of Anatta or no-self.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  In many more sutras Buddha explains the invalidity of a Self or a transmigrating Soul an extension of the concept of Self or Atta, in Sansaara which is crux of most other dogmatic religions.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Although we tend to agree with the concept of Anatta, its one of the most difficult concepts to grasp, understand and indeed difficult to practice in day to day life.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  An advice given to Bahiya by Buddha, helped the virtuous Bahiya to attain to Arahantship just prior to his mauling by a bull causing his departure from this world.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Self is just another concept created by the mind the master or more rightly, the trickster.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Imagine if we were to control our vital functions such as metabolism, involuntary nervous system, respiration, and flow of blood etc. the chaotic situation it would create.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  The complex involuntary activities inside our body such as cardio-vascular, neurological, metabolic activities go on spontaneously, without the intervention of a self to monitor the processes.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Imagine yourself managing say for example digestion of food, which is a highly complex process of secretion of enzymes at the right time and keeping the right acidity or alkalinity levels for breaking down food to absorb sugars, amino acids etc. to perform our vital activities through maintaining a blood flow providing oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body keeping the right pressure in the vascular system. These highly complex activities go on unabated and occur automatically without the intervention of a soul, self or a being.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Coming back to diseases, we have no mastery over these and bugs just invade our body and inflict various illnesses.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  With the assumption of a self, one would have the power to ward off diseases, yet we depend on our immune system to look after the spread and control, which at times fail and we become sick.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Millions of organisms do depend on our mass of flesh, organs, bones and skin, for their own existence as these act as their sole substratum.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  So who owns this body? Some beneficial organisms do contribute to the well being of a person and without good bacteria or worms living in our intestines our own survival will be in jeopardy, ending a beneficial symbiotic existence.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ This internal world goes on irrespective of a belief in a self or not, however the moment we interact with the external world, the concept of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”IƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ or ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”SelfƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ comes into play.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  When the body needs energy the mind creates a thirst or hunger and we look for a drink or food to overcome that. In an ordinary man at this point the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”IƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ takes over and all hell breaks lose.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”I wantƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ or ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”I eatƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ takes over and a person with a greedy temperament would eat with greed and looks for more food to satisfy his hunger and desire and by doing that creating more kamma vipaake in the process.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  The enlightened ones and Trainers in the Path to liberation think differently and do intake food or drink or engage in any other activities as mechanical processes rather than considering them as being executed by a person or self. They consume food to keep their bodily and mental functions alive or speak or meditate, at all times keeping in mind the absence of a person or being.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Ancients presumed Feeling as Self, yet feelings arise and disappear all the time, dependently originated, through contact of internal and external bases(e.g. sensitive eye and a form), hence impermanent as proclaimed by Buddha in Mahanidana Suttra.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  So does the disappearance of SELF.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  There is Seeing, Hearing, Sensing and Cognising but no Seer, Hearer, Senser or Cogniser(English does not carry some of these words, used here for the sake of explanation only) as explained in Bahiya Suttra.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  The process of walking is there yet no Walker, There is Sitting, Listening, Eating, but no Sitter or a Listener or an Eater.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  There is Meditating but no Meditator and end of Suffering but no Sufferer, there is realising of Nibbana but no Realiser.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  In short there is no entity, a soul, a self, Me, Mine or ‘I’ but only conditionally arising phenomenon in a continuous flux of making and breaking and suffering arising due to attachment to elements which are construed as REAL.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  ItƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s all a process than an entity and aging of elements goes on with no aging of a so called ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”beingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Taking into account consciousness, which operates on the basis of appearance and disappearance and with no manifestation of permanency, the argument could be extended to beings which are essentially a mass of fluctuating consciousnesses, which lack a soul, which believed to be transmigrating from one birth to another.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Although the disappearance or the impermanence of the Body with death is easily understood, to comprehend the disappearance of the mind with death is a bit enigmatic, which would incline oneself to believe in a transmigrating consciousness.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Some ancients did conjecture Consciousness as Self, as Consciousness stands out as the most prominent aggregate of the mind with the continuation of an entity in Sansaara as a Soul.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Consciousness according to Mahanidane Suttra arises due to conditions of Nama Rupa.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Nama covers feeling, perception and mental formations of the remaining aggregates of mind.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Consciousnesses arise and disappear in the blink of an eye to the tune of a billion consciousnesses and so is self, if one considers it to be permanent entity.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Hence self disappears as swiftly as the disappearance of consciousness hence the argument of a self and continuing soul too disappears.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  What continues is not a soul or a self or a consciousness but Suffering or Dhukka as the new Birth continues to bring new suffering.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  The past actions or Kamma and not Chuthi(death) Consciousness gives rise to or conditions Prathisandi Consciousness(new birth), which clearly disproves the continuity of Consciousness from one birth to another.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  OnceƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  consciousness has no means of falling on a substratum of form, feeling, perception or mental concomitants then it is said to be UNBOUND and at this stage consciousness is unable to ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”descend into a wombƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ as explained in Mahanidhana suttra.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  In other words passionless consciousness has no craving, clinging and hence no becoming (bhava) and no new birth.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  This mere Functional consciousness is termed in Paali Vinnaanam anidassanam the consciousness of Arahants.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The consciousness of an arahant at parinibbana becomes define less and cannot be traced.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  As stated in Upaya Suttra of Samyutta Nikaya “If a monk abandons passion for the property of consciousness, then owing to the abandonment of passion, the support is cut off, and there is no landing of consciousness. Consciousness, thus not having landed, not increasing, not concocting, is released. Owing to its release, it is steady. Owing to its steadiness, it is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, he (the monk) is totally unbound right within. He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The characteristic of Permanency of Nibbana element alone will not prove or support the concept of non-existence of a Self.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  As Dhamma points out,

Sabbe Sankara Anicca, Sabbe Sankara Dukkha, Sabbe DHAMMAA Anatta

meaning every Conditioned (made, created) thing is Impermanent, every Conditioned thing is Suffering(decay, diseases, death etc.) and ALL things are NOT SELF.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

Nibbana the unconditioned element too is Not Self and hence everything in the Universe is Anatta.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ One of the initial steps to realize the concept of no self is to lose interest on everything you own or possess or attached.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Initially one needs to dispose of possessions, beginning with material things and wealth, to do away with the concept of MINE.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  At the time of King AsokaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s death he did not possess a single unit of currency and died a pauper. Leaving the household which comes with all worldly problems would certainly assist in overcoming cravings and clinging we all have for both living and non-living entities, which was the direction Buddha showed to all householders.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  A four legged table according to Buddhism is no different from a four legged animal the only difference being one is without life and the other with life respectively.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  As far as the concept of Anatta is concerned both show the characteristic of non-self, so is ear and sound, eye and form etc. etc as shown in Girimananda Suttra.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Once the concept of mine is eliminated the next vital step is to get over the concept of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”IƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”MYƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ which is really tied to self, where ego comes into play, which most humans do suffer.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  My face is handsome, my abilities are endless, my child is gifted, my knowledge and wisdom surpasses others and I am superior and pure in terms of my birth, are common foolish concepts or rather cancers we all carry with us to the grave.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  All likes and dislikes are tied with I and My hence discarding likes and dislikes will help to discard My and I, although easily said yet a Herculean task to practice.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ An enlightened being has totally shed the concept of Self and does not assume himself superior, inferior or equal to others.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Being a householder one may still has the potential to enter the path and become a Sotapane with only seven more births to go.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Visakha at the age of seven entered the Stream and went on to have ten daughters and ten sons who in turn each had ten daughters and ten sons and so on and by the time Visakha died at the age of 120 she inherited around 2000 odd progeny.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  During BuddhaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s time the majority of residents at Sravasti, white clad disciples were Sotapanes.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  A person determined to enter the path needs to dispel doubts about Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha (the four Noble beings, not the common monks), totally abandon practices of rituals, rites, vows, poojas and precepts(the presumption of precepts alone can lead to enlightenment) and discard the concept of Self.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ If one assumes Jhanas and stepping into the Path is sacrosanct and beyond the reach of a householder, that would be a self imposed barrier to path to Nibbana.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  One needs to think of these potential achievements, minimally to enter the Path purely on a mechanical basis, while leading a virtuous life purifying the mind, like Lord Buddha did, who had none to worship and perform poojas.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  One needs to strive and practice hard to overcome mental fermentations as any obstacle in the world can be conquered with the right persistence and right effort.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Sunil Vijayapala

4 Responses to “Dismantling Self”

  1. Janak Says:

    Mr Vijayapala

    One little point relating to your valuable discussion.

    In my personal opinion, referring to the Buddha as Lord Buddha, as done by many people on the understanding that it is an indication of our reverance, may in fact be an insult. The reason is the the title Lord comes from the disgusting British practice of class based hereditary peerage system.

    This relates to your reference to Anatta also. According to D.G. Wimalasurendra (of Laxapana fame, who happens to be my grandfather by the way), Buddha’s preaching of the Anatta philosophy was a direct rejection of the Brahmin practice of the caste system based on an ‘atta’ (soul). They cynically exploited this to place themselves on ‘top of the tree’ and get others to defend and feed them. Therefore, granting him a title such as this or Sir etc could be insulting to his ‘sanatana dharma’.

    Notwithstanding this minor issue, I value your effort to enlighten people on the fine Buddhist principles.

    Thank you

    Janak Surendra

  2. Sunil Vijaya Says:

    Janak – I usually refer to Buddha as Thathagata, which is the most accurate reference, which Buddha himself used. Somehow in this article, I wonder why I deviated. Your correction is accepted.

  3. gunarat Says:

    Thank you Sunil Vijayapala for your well-documented analysis of the concept of “anatta” (no-self).

    Many putative Buddhists, however, do not appear to have grasped the notion of “anatta.” Our entire caste-and-class-based social and political system follows a mixture of Brahmanic and Abrahamic beliefs in “atta” (self).

    One cannot comprehend Buddhism without fully comprehending the ti-lakkhana–anicca, anatta and dukkha. If we live our lives with a true understanding of these three concepts, samsara or bhavacakra will come to an abrupt end.

    The “anatta” concept makes Buddha-worship or god-worship irrelevant. Thus, Buddhism cannot be a religion. Buddha’s “Aggo Hamasmi Lokasmi” claim itself becomes highly questionable.

  4. Sunil Vijaya Says:

    gunarat – Buddhism is not a religion nor a philosophy. It’s not dogmatic and shows no signs of syllogysm, rationality etc. which coins with all other religions and philosophies, especially western. Thathagata was a empiricist. Buddhism is unique and cannot and should not be compared with anything except to identify as the Universal Truth. The 4 Noble Truths of suffering, period. Some do attempt to observe signs of Science in Buddhism and vice versa. This is a cateclysmic, diabolical analysis. Abhinna, the powers gained at 4th Jhana defies all laws and theories in Physics and other sciences, so we need no go any further. We have been conditioned by especially western ideologies for far too long and now its time to uncondition ourselves from Miccha Ditti and fall in line with Samma Ditti. I attempt to approach the concept of anatta, from inside out. i.e. highly sophisticated activities going on ‘inside’ without the intervention of a self, which could be extended to ‘outside’. Ignorance is the cause of all evil in this world and self plays a major role. Thanks.

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