Day Seven

Selves & Not-self

The other night, I mentioned how a healthy sense of self is essential for motivating yourself in the practice. We then got a lot of questions on the issue of not-self, so I’d like to talk about that topic this morning.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about Buddhism is the belief that the Buddha taught that there is no self. Actually, the existence or non-existence of the self was an issue he refused to get involved with. He had a policy that there were certain questions he would not answer, and one of the questions he wouldn’t answer was, “Do I have a self? Do I have no self?” He said that if you held to the position either that you had a self or that you had no self, you would get involved in a tangle of views that would get in the way of awakening. So, he would put that question aside.

What he did talk about was the process he called “I-making” or “my-making” by which you create a sense of self. There are also times when we deny that something is us or ours. He saw both of these processes—self-making and not-self-making—as actions. And the question about actions always is, are they skillful or not? In other words, when is creating a sense of self a skillful action, and when is it more skillful to say that something is not your self? What ways of creating a self are skillful, and what ways are not? What ways of saying “not-self” are skillful and what ways are not?

In both cases, the concepts of self and not-self are perceptions, and we use both of these perceptions as strategies to find happiness.

For example, with the perception of self, when you have a desire and you want to bring the desire about, you create two senses of self. The first is the self as the consumer, the you that will enjoy the results of getting that desire fulfilled. Then there’s the self as the producer, the self that will actually be able to bring that thing about. For example, if you have a desire for a vegan pizza, the self as the consumer is your sense of your self as the person who will enjoy eating vegan pizza. The sense of self as the producer is the self who has the skills and means to bring this about, either the self who has the money to buy the pizza or the self who has the ability to get the ingredients to make the pizza.

Now, this applies to all kinds of desires, both skillful and unskillful. Even to practice the path, you also need both senses of self. For example, Ven. Ānanda, who was one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, said that you need to have a healthy sense of self as a producer. He expressed it in this way: You think of the fact that there are other people who have gained awakening. “They are human beings, I’m a human being. They can do it, why can’t I?” That’s a healthy sense of self as a producer on the path, the self that feels capable of following the path.

As for the self as a consumer, the Buddha recommends that when you’re getting discouraged in the practice, you should remind yourself that you got on the path because you wanted to find a way to the end of suffering. You loved yourself. If you give up on the practice, does that mean you don’t love yourself anymore? This is a healthy sense of self as a consumer on the path.

As we go through life, we create many different selves around our different desires because we see that they’re helpful in bringing about whatever it is we want. It’s in this way that they’re strategies, strategies for happiness.

The same principle applies to not-self. You see that there are certain things that are not worth desiring or certain ideas or certain habits that are getting in the way of your desires, and you decide that you’re not going to identify with them anymore.

Now, as we go through life ordinarily, we tend to adopt these different strategies of self and not-self without thinking too much about them. For example, think back to when you were a child. If some children down the street were beating up on your little sister, you’d think, “This is my sister. I have to go defend her.” But when you got her safely back home and she started playing with your toys, she wasn’t your sister anymore. She was the Other.

We apply these different perceptions pretty unconsciously as we go through life, but when we come to the practice, the Buddha asks us to be more systematic in applying them for the sake of putting an end to suffering. For example, when you’re practicing the precepts, there may be some things that would pull you away from practicing the precepts. Suppose that someone were to offer you some money to lie: You’d have to remind yourself, “That money is not really mine. The things that I could buy with that money would leave me after a while.” So, you apply the perception of self to your precepts, and a perception of not-self to the money and the things you would buy with the money you’d gain from lying. That helps you to stick with your precepts.

Similarly, when you’re practicing concentration, the object of the concentration is yours, and the person meditating is you. As for any distracting thoughts that would come up, that’s when you think about how the perceptions and thought fabrications in that distracting thought are not-self. It’s in this way that you learn how to apply these perceptions of self and not-self more systematically, so that both the strategy of self and the strategy of not-self actually are conducive to a genuine happiness.

It’s only when you’ve fully developed all the factors of the path that you let go of everything, because you’ve found a happiness that doesn’t require any strategies anymore, and the only way to fully experience that happiness is to let go of everything. You don’t identify with perceptions of self, and at that point, even the perception of not-self is something you don’t identify with, either. You have to let that go as well. That’s the way you can find the ultimate happiness.

So, to understand the teaching on not-self, we have to view it within the context of the teaching on kamma. This is the opposite of what many people usually do. They make the teaching on not-self the context, interpreting it as saying there is no self, and then they say, “Well, how does the teaching on kamma fit into that?” And it doesn’t fit very well, because it seems like the Buddha is saying there is no agent deciding how to act, and there’s no one being affected by the action, so why should kamma matter?

The Buddha, however, took the issue the other way around. He started with the principle that there are skillful and unskillful actions, and some skillful actions can be so skillful that they can take you all the way to nibbāna. The question of self as an activity and not-self as an activity fits into that context very well. You use perceptions of self and perceptions of not-self when they’re helpful for the path. In that way, they enable you to follow this path, which the Buddha called the kamma that leads to the end of kamma. Then, when you reach the end of kamma, you also reach the end of the perceptions of self and not-self. All that’s left is the ultimate happiness. And as Ajaan Suwat used to say, once you’ve found that ultimate happiness, you’re not interested in asking whether there is or is not a self experiencing it. The experience is there, with no need for strategies to attain or maintain it, and it’s totally satisfying.


Q: Could you explain the differences between: 1) identity-view, sakkāya-diṭṭhi, 2) self, attā, and 3) conceit, māna? A person who has right view has abandoned personality view, self, and conceit.

A: This issue could be an entire talk, but to be brief: Sakkāya-diṭṭhi, or identity-view, is basically when you tell yourself, “I am this.” And “this” may be the body, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications, or consciousness—or what it is that has these things, something that lies inside these things, or something that contains these things within itself. Any of these views would count as identity-view. The crucial element is that there is the thought in the mind, “I am the same thing as this.” The same goes for self. However, māna, which is translated in English as “conceit,” is the thought, “I am,” or “I exist,” with no “this.”

The texts say that, as you attain the different levels of awakening, at the very first level you abandon identity-view, in other words, any thoughts of: “I am this.” However, conceit or māna is abandoned only on the last level of awakening, and that’s because in the meantime you still have to train yourself in concentration and discernment. The work of developing those trainings will require a sense of “I”—just a sense that there’s an “I.” After all, to develop concentration and to develop discernment, you need to have a sense of “I am responsible for doing this. I am doing this.” There’s a sutta, Saṁyutta Nikāya 22:89, where a non-returner explains that he still has a sense of “I am,” but it’s not identified with any of the aggregates. He compares it to the scent of soap lingering in a piece of cloth after the soap has been used to wash the cloth.

So, when you develop right view at the first level of awakening, you abandon identity-view—the “I am this”—but there will still be a sense of “I am.” Only after full awakening will there be no need for any sense of “I.” But even after awakening, arahants still know who they are as opposed to who somebody else is. For example, when they’re eating, they know which mouth to put their food in. But their attitude toward that sense of “I” is very different from ours.

Q: It’s said that we should not identify with events or phenomena, so when I spread thoughts of goodwill, to individuals or to myself, or to an event in the past, etc., if I say, “May my loving-kindness be beneficial to all beings,” wouldn’t it be better to just say, “May loving-kindness be beneficial to all beings”? When I speak of this energy of loving-kindness, I’m talking about the internal energy that can be called goodwill.

A: This is one area where you actually have to take responsibility for your goodwill. Anything connected with kamma is an area where you have to remember that you need to be responsible. So, here you do want to identify with the wish, because you have to remember to keep giving rise to this wish. It’s not a universal force or innate nature that will come through you on its own. Ajaan Suwat used to comment several times that there were many, many things that the Buddha said are not-self, but still the area of kamma is one area where he said, “This is yours, and you will be the inheritor of the actions.” So basically, the actions are yours. This is one of the areas where you have to take responsibility and develop a healthy sense of self. On this topic, you might want to read the book, Selves & Not-self. It discusses the role of a skillful sense of self in furthering your practice.



Renunciation is the second of the perfections coming under the heading of relinquishment. As with all of the other perfections, it’s based on desire. The desire here is to get beyond the back-and-forth between pain and sensual pleasure, pain and sensual pleasure, where sensual pleasure is your only alternative to pain. As you know, for most people, the main pleasures in life are the sensual pleasures: pleasures of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations. But these are also very closely aligned to pain. Ajaan Chah has a nice image. He says that pain and sensual pleasure are like a snake. One end of the snake has teeth: That represents pain. The other end does not have teeth: That represents sensual pleasure. We think it’s okay to catch hold of the end that doesn’t have teeth because it’s not going to bite us, right? But we don’t notice that the end with teeth is connected to the end that we’re catching, which is why we keep getting bitten.

The Canon provides a similar image in one of its descriptions of hell. As in any description of hell, there’s lots of suffering, but this particular hell is the one that has always impressed me the most. It’s an immense iron box—iron walls, an iron ceiling, and an iron floor. All the iron is glowing hot, so hot that the flames from one side reach all the way to the other side. And all the beings in that hell are there in the box. Every now and then, a door opens in one of the walls, so the beings of hell run through the fire to get to the door. As soon as they get to the door, it slams shut. And then another door opens on another side, and so they go running to that door, and as soon as they get there, it slams shut. This goes on for quite a while. Finally, another door opens, they go running to it, and as soon as they go through, they fall into the hell of excrement. One of the most sadistic hells I know of.

But it’s also a good image for human life. We suffer from pain, and we see no other alternative to pain aside from sensual pleasure. When we see the possibility of a sensual pleasure that would give us some respite from pain, we go running for it. If we can’t get it, we see another sensual pleasure we’d like, and we go running for that, but we can’t get that one, either. Finally, there’s a pleasure we go running for, we attain it, and then it becomes a big disappointment. Either that or, in our desperation to get out of pain at any cost, we run for a sensual pleasure that requires us to behave in unskillful ways that will lead to pain in the future.

That’s the kind of back-and-forth between sensual pleasure and pain that we would like to escape. The Buddha says that there is an alternative pleasure that can get us out of this back-and-forth, and that’s the pleasure of concentration. As he said, this pleasure is blameless in the sense that it doesn’t harm anyone and doesn’t intoxicate the mind. Sensual pleasures are a form of intoxication, but this type of pleasure is not.

One of the first requisites for getting the mind into concentration is that you contemplate the drawbacks of sensuality. In the Buddha’s terminology, sensuality is not the same thing as sensual pleasures themselves. It’s our fascination with fantasizing about sensual pleasures and planning them. So, as a preliminary to getting into concentration, think about the drawbacks of this fascination. To begin with, it makes you dependent on things being a certain way. When they’re not that way, you suffer. This puts you in a position of dependence and weakness.

The Buddha provides many images to depict the drawbacks of sensuality. One is a dog chewing on a bone. There’s no nourishment in the bone, and the only flavor the dog gets from it is the taste of its own saliva. In other words, as we’re thinking about sensual pleasures, the pleasure we get is solely from the way we elaborate on our vision of that pleasure, but there’s no real nourishment there.

Another image the Buddha gives is of a hawk flying off with a piece of meat in its talons, while other crows and hawks are coming after it to get the piece of meat. In other words, sensuality makes your happiness depend on things that other people are going to want to take from you, and they may injure you in the process.

Another image the Buddha gives is of a man who’s borrowed some jewelry and other ornaments from some friends and goes around showing them off. The original owners see what he’s doing and they take their things back. In other words, sensual pleasures often depend on something that other people can give you, but then they can take it back at any time.

These are some of the ways in which the Buddha illustrates the drawbacks of sensuality.

Now, the Buddha doesn’t say that all sensual pleasures are bad. Basically, he says you have to look at (1) what the pleasure requires you to do to attain it and (2) the effect that a particular pleasure has on the mind. If it requires you to break a precept to obtain it, or if indulging in it increases your passion, aversion, and delusion, then it’s a pleasure to be avoided. But if it doesn’t require that you break the precepts and it doesn’t give rise to unskillful states in the mind, then it’s okay.

In terms of the impact that the pleasure has on the mind, there are certain sensual pleasures that the Buddha said are okay across the board. These include the pleasures of going out in nature, the pleasures of having a basic level of health, the pleasures of living in a group that’s harmonious. But in other cases, it’s really going to be up to you as an individual which sensual pleasures give rise to unskillful states and which ones don’t.

However, he also says that even if you see the drawbacks of sensuality but you don’t have the pleasure that comes from concentration, then you’re going to go back to the old sensual pleasures anyhow—or to ones that are even worse. You’ll stay stuck in the back-and-forth, running away from pain toward sensual pleasures that then turn into further pain, perpetuating the cycle.

So, an important aspect of renunciation is not simply that you give up sensuality, but that you provide the mind with an alternative pleasure. That pleasure, as I said, is the pleasure of concentration.

Here I’d like to make a few remarks about concentration practice. We’ve had a number of people saying they want to get into this or that jhāna, and it’s important to remember that when you’re meditating, jhāna is not the topic of meditation. The topic is the breath. In other words, while you’re meditating, you shouldn’t be thinking of jhāna. You should be thinking about and focusing your attention totally on the breath.

The Buddha identifies the themes of concentration as the four establishings of mindfulness, which are the processes of getting the mind to stay solidly, say, with the body or with feelings or mind states or dhammas—in and of themselves. For example, if you’re focusing on the breath, you’re with the sensation of the breath as it is right here, right now. That’s an instance of body in and of itself.

The Buddha describes four levels of jhāna, but it’s good not to worry about them while you’re practicing. It’s better to reflect on them after you’ve come out of meditation. Then, of course, the problem comes, “How do I know what level of jhāna I was on?”

There are some descriptions in the Canon that can give you an idea. For example, in the first jhāna, you drop any interest in sensuality and focus your full attention on the breath. You think about the breath and you evaluate how well the mind is staying with the breath and how comfortable the breath is. There’s a sense of well-being and even a sense of rapture that comes from the fact that you’re free from being burdened by sensual thoughts. You let that sense of well-being and rapture spread throughout the body.

Now, as the breath becomes more and more comfortable, and the sense of well-being has spread through the body, you don’t have to keep thinking and evaluating it anymore. You can simply zero in on the sensation of the breath, to the point where your awareness and the breath seem to be one, and the breath surrounds you on all sides. That would be the second jhāna. There’s still a sense of pleasure and rapture, more intense than before, and you let that spread through the body on its own.

But after a while, the sense of rapture begins to seem unpleasant. You want something that’s more still and more refined. You notice that there’s a more subtle level of energy in the body. It’s like turning your radio on. You hit a station of hard rock and you say, “Oh, that’s a little bit too much for me now. I want something more calming.” So, to get a calmer station, you don’t have to move the radio, you just change the setting. In the same way, you tune in to a more refined level of energy right at the spot where you’ve been focused. In that way, you get into the third jhāna, in which the body has a sense of pleasure, and the mind a sense of equanimity.

As you stay on that level, the breath becomes more and more refined until the in-and-out breath seems to stop moving. There’s a sense that the breath energy in the body is the source of the breath, and there’s no need to get any breath energy from the outside. The breath energies in the body are now so well-connected that they nourish one another. And there’s a very strong sense of being fully aware throughout the body, along with a sense of stillness throughout the body. That’s the fourth jhāna.

The Buddha gives some analogies for each of these jhānas. For the first jhāna, the image is of a bathman. In those days, they didn’t have bars of soap. They had a soap powder that they would mix with a little bit of water and make into a kind of dough, like the dough for bread. In the image for the first jhāna, the bathman is working the water into the dough, making sure that all of the dough is moistened with the water. This, of course, is symbolic for the work of your directed thought and evaluation as they work the pleasure through the body to fill the entire body.

The image for the second jhāna is a lake with a spring near the bottom of the lake. The spring has very cool water, and the cool water is coming up through the lake, cooling the entire lake. This is a symbol for the sense of pleasure and rapture filling the body without your having to do anything.

The image for the third jhāna is a still pool of open water with lotuses growing in the water that haven’t come up above the water, so they’re totally saturated with the still, cool water from their roots to their tips. This is a symbol for the still sense of pleasure, minus the rapture, filling the body.

The image for the fourth jhāna is of a man sitting covered with a white cloth, and there’s no part of the body that’s not covered by the white cloth. The cloth here stands for awareness filling the body.

In all these images, water stands for pleasure, and movement stands for rapture. The image for the first jhāna is the only one with a conscious agent doing any activity: That stands for directed thought and evaluation. In that image, the movement consists of the bathman’s actions for working the water through the soap dough. In the second image, the water flows of its own accord through the lake, whereas in the third image the water is still. In the fourth image, there’s no water and no movement.

These are the images the Buddha uses to illustrate what it feels like to be in these different levels of jhāna.

Now, you still have the question: Which of these levels am I in? My teacher, Ajaan Fuang, when he taught meditation, would give every new student Ajaan Lee’s book on the steps of breath meditation. At the end of the book, there are instructions about how to use breath meditation to get into the four jhānas. But Ajaan Fuang never told his students which jhāna they were in. He’d simply ask them, “What does your breath feel like?” In other words, he wanted them to focus on the actual sensation of the concentration and not to worry about how to label it as this or that jhāna. As you were focusing on that direct sensation, he would say, “If you notice any stress here or any stress there, what are you doing that’s causing the stress?” And then, “Can you stop doing that?” As you’d go deeper into concentration, you’d get more sensitive to the levels of stress you hadn’t noticed before. Finally, you reached the point where the breath stopped.

I noticed, as I was listening to him teach other people, that the descriptions of how people felt their breath would be very different at the beginning, but as the practice got to the point where it settled down and the breath stopped, from that point on, everybody’s practice was the same. The conclusion I came to is that as you’re getting the mind into concentration, when you experience a level of stillness that might be the first jhāna, you put a Post-it note on it. Then if you come to a level of stillness that goes deeper and might be the second jhāna, put another Post-it note there. You keep this up until you finally get to the point where the breath stops and you can stay comfortably with the sensation that the breath has stopped. Then you know, “This is the fourth jhāna.” Then, if need be, you go back and rearrange your other Post-it notes.

I had an experience once when I was camping in Utah. We were going to a place called Powell Point. The guidebook had said that from Powell Point you could see different mountain ranges across southern Utah. You’re up at 10,000 feet, and you have an immense view across the southern part of the state. We turned off the wrong road, though, and it took us to a point, and we figured, “This must be Powell Point,” so we got out and we looked around. We saw mountain ranges here and there, so we tried to identify which range corresponded to the ranges described in the guidebook: “This must be that mountain and that must be this mountain.” We had names for all the mountains. But the problem was that there was one large cliff off to the east that wasn’t in the book. After a while, we realized that that was Powell Point. So, the next day, we went up to Powell Point, and there we realized that the other mountains we had seen the previous day were not really the mountains we thought they were.

Do I need to explain that image?

The important thing about jhāna is that you learn how to deal with the pleasures and pains that come up. At first, you’re going to be dealing with pain as you try to get the mind into concentration, and you have to be unafraid of the pain. You find that with enough directed thought and proper evaluation, you can actually work around the pain, work through the pain, dissolve the pain, and you become less and less afraid of pain.

At the same time though, you have to become more and more skillful with pleasure. As we’ve noted many times in the guided meditation, when the breath becomes pleasant, there is a danger of leaving the breath and going for the pleasure, so you have to learn how not to give in to the temptation to simply wallow in the pleasure.

As a result, when you’re working with jhāna, you learn how to deal more effectively with both pleasure and pain, and not be overcome by them. And as the Buddha says, an important point of having the mind well-trained and well-developed is that you train it not to be overcome either by pain or by pleasure.

At the same time, when you learn how to get more separated from the pleasure and pain, and not be so affected by them, this is how practice in concentration puts you on the middle way. As you may remember, the middle way avoids the pain of self-torture and also the extreme of sensual pleasure. Now, the fact that it’s in the middle doesn’t mean that it’s a neutral feeling halfway between pleasure and pain. It’s not the middle of the snake. It’s something outside of this continuum of running back and forth between pain and sensual pleasure. The pleasure of jhāna puts you in a position where you can look at pleasure and pain, and actually use them, instead of running toward the pleasure and running away from the pain. From that position, you can learn how to analyze the pain and learn about the mind in the process. That’s the first noble truth. Jhāna also teaches you how to be with pleasure and not be attached to it. It also helps you gain some detachment from sensual pleasures, so that you can look at them objectively and be willing to admit their drawbacks. This is how you get on the right track for developing the discernment that leads to awakening.

Listening to this, you should realize that renunciation is not simply deprivation. It’s actually a trade—a trade up. You’re trading your everyday pleasures for skills in the mind that enable you to deal skillfully with both pleasure and pain, and not be overcome by them. That’s what allows you to free yourself from them.

This is one of the reasons why the Buddha said that concentration is the heart of the path—and why renunciation is one of the most important of the perfections.


Q: Is there a difference between jhāna and samādhi, and if so, what is it?

A: Samādhi means any way of concentrating the mind on one object. Jhāna is a type of samādhi where you’re focused on one object but you also have a full-body awareness at the same time. Jhāna is required for the path because it’s only from the basis of that state of mind that you can actually see clearly what’s going on in the entire mind.

Q: Would it be correct to define right concentration basically as the activity of skillfully holding skillful perceptions in the mind?

A: Most of the states of right concentration do require perceptions. When you hold on to, say, the perception of the breath, that helps you stay concentrated on the breath. What makes it concentration is that you hold on to one perception continually.

Q: I don’t really know the characteristics of the different jhānas. At what point should I look into this?

A: When you begin noticing that the mind settles down on different levels or with different characteristics, that’s when you get out your Post-it notes to place on the different types of concentration you notice. If and when you finally do get to the point where the breath stops and it stays comfortably still, that’s when you put on the note that says “fourth jhāna.” Then you look at however many jhānas you’ve labeled before that and you can move the Post-it notes around a little bit. In most of the descriptions of jhāna in the Canon, the Buddha describes four levels of jhāna of form, but there are some where he describes five, and some where he describes three. You’ll figure out how many you have only after you’ve gotten to the point where the breath stops.

Q: While meditating, I use verbal fabrication to keep my concentration, almost like a guided meditation, although I’m guiding myself. Is it okay to do it this way?

A: Yes. The first jhāna includes verbal fabrication of this sort, to help get the mind and its object to fit snugly together. Once they’re snug, then you can drop the verbal fabrication, to see if you can simply stay with the perception of breath.

Q: Any advice on how to develop even more concentration and maybe not always have to verbally fabricate?

A: You do the verbal fabrication as long as you feel a need to adjust things in the mind and in the body. When things seem relatively good, then you can try staying focused on the sensation of the breath, telling yourself, “I don’t need to make any adjustments.” Now, if it turns out that you can’t stay continuously with that state, go back to adjusting the breath and adjusting the mind until things seem better, and then try settling in there again. Finally, you will get to a point where you can stay with just that one sensation without the need to talk a lot about it. But you’ll still need to hold a perception—in other words, the simple label of “breath” or “aware”—in the mind.

Q: In working on the perfection of renunciation or relinquishment, it appears to be necessary to meditate on the four noble truths. In our meditation, at what moment do we start doing that? Also, how is it done?

A: Actually, when you’re working with the breath in the way I’ve described, you’re already beginning to deal with the framework of the four noble truths. You notice where there is tension and you ask yourself, “What’s causing the tension?” Once you identify that, you try to let go of the cause. You notice that the tension goes when the cause has been abandoned. And identifying both the tension and the cause requires that you develop your mindfulness and concentration. So, you’re already dealing in terms of the four noble truths and the duties appropriate to each, simply that as your concentration deepens, your understanding of those four noble truths will deepen as well.

Some people have been describing visions they’ve been having during their meditation. Always remember that the basic rule of thumb is always to ask yourself with regard to any vision: What is the Dhamma lesson of this vision? There was one person who recorded a vision of being surrounded by clear water and had a fear of becoming dirty again. In a case like that, when you come out of the vision, you ask yourself, “What does it mean to be dirty?” Maybe it means breaking the precepts. So, the lesson you learn from that is to be careful about your precepts. Then let the vision go.