Talk 1

Strategies of Self & Not-self

May 21, 2011

The Buddha’s teaching on anattā, or not-self, is often mystifying to many Westerners. When we hear the term “not-self” we think that the Buddha was answering a question with a long history in our culture—of whether there is or isn’t a self or a soul—and that his answer is perverse or confusing. Sometimes it seems to be No, but the Buddha doesn’t follow through with the implications of a real No—if there’s no self, how can there be rebirth? Sometimes his answer seems to be No with a hidden Yes, but you wonder why the Yes is so hard to pin down. If you remember only one thing from these talks, remember this: that the Buddha, in teaching not-self, was not answering the question of whether there is or isn’t a self. This question was one he explicitly put aside.

To understand why, it’s useful to look at the Buddha’s approach to teaching—and to questions—in general. Once he was walking through a forest with a group of monks. He stooped down to pick up a handful of leaves and told the monks that the leaves in his hand were like the teachings he had given. As for the leaves in the forest, they were like the knowledge he had gained in his awakening. The leaves in his hand covered just two issues: how suffering is caused and how it can be ended [§1].

After his awakening, the Buddha could have talked about anything at all, but he chose to talk on just these two topics. To understand his teachings, we have to understand not only what he said about suffering and its end, but also why these topics were of utmost importance.

The purpose of his teachings was to help people find true happiness. He didn’t assume that all beings are inherently good or inherently bad, but he did assume that they all want happiness. However, they tend to be bewildered by their suffering, so they need help in finding a way to genuine happiness. In fact, this sense of bewilderment gives rise to one of the mind’s most primal questions: “Is there anyone who knows how to put an end to this suffering?” [§2] The Buddha’s teachings are a direct response to this burning, gut-level question, providing people with something they desperately want and need: advice on how to end their suffering. In other words, the Buddha chose to share the most compassionate knowledge he could provide.

Because people have trouble thinking straight when they’re suffering, they need reliable instruction in what really is causing their suffering, and what they can do to put an end to it, before they can actually find the way out of their suffering and arrive at true happiness. And it’s important that these instructions not introduce other issues that will distract them from the main issue at hand.

This is why the path to true happiness begins with right view, the understanding that helps clear up the mind’s bewilderment. Right view is not just a matter of having correct opinions about why there’s suffering and what can be done about it. Right view also means knowing how you gain right opinions by asking the right questions, learning which questions help put an end to suffering, which questions get in the way, and how to use this knowledge skillfully on the path to true happiness. This means that right view is strategic. In fact, all of the Buddha’s teachings are strategic. They are not simply to be discussed; they are to be put to use and mastered as skills so as to arrive at their intended aim.

The Buddha understood that the issues of our life are defined by our questions. A question gives a context to the knowledge contained in its answer—a sense of where that knowledge fits and what it’s good for. Some questions are skillful in that they provide a useful context for putting an end to suffering, whereas others are not. Once, one of the Buddha’s monks came to see him and asked him a list of ten questions, the major philosophical questions of his time. Some of the questions concerned the nature of the world, whether it was eternal or not, finite or not; others concerned the nature and existence of the self. The Buddha refused to answer any of them, and he explained the reason for his refusal. He said it was as if a man had been shot by an arrow and was taken to a doctor, and before the doctor could take the arrow out, the man would insist that he find out first who had shot the arrow, who had made the arrow, what the arrow was made of, what kind of wood, what kind of feathers. As the Buddha said, if the doctor tried to answer all of those questions, the man would die first. The first order of business would be to take the arrow out [§3]. If the person still wanted to know the answer to those questions, he could ask afterwards.

In the same way, the Buddha would answer only the questions that provided an answer to our primal question and helped put an end to suffering and stress. Questions that would get in the way, he would put aside, because the problem of stress and suffering is urgent.

Usually when we hear the teaching on not-self, we think that it’s an answer to questions like these: “Do I have a self? What am I? Do I exist? Do I not exist?” However, the Buddha listed all of these as unskillful questions [§10]. Once, when he was asked point-blank, “Is there a self? Is there no self?” he refused to answer [see Talk 2]. He said that these questions would get in the way of finding true happiness. So obviously the teaching on not-self was not meant to answer these questions. To understand it, we have to find out which questions it was meant to answer.

As the Buddha said, he taught two categorical teachings: two teachings that were true across the board and without exceptions. These two teachings form the framework for everything else he taught. One was the difference between skillful and unskillful action: actions that lead to long-term happiness, and those that lead to long-term suffering [§§4-5]. The other was the list of the four noble truths: the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering [§6].

If you want to put an end to suffering and stress, these two categorical teachings carry duties or imperatives. In terms of the first teaching, you want to avoid unskillful action and give rise to skillful action. In terms of the second, the four truths are categories for framing your experience, with each category carrying a specific duty you have to master as a skill. You need to know which of the truths you’re encountering so that you can deal with that truth in the right way. Suffering must be comprehended, the cause of suffering must be abandoned, the end of suffering must be realized, and the path to the end of suffering must be developed as a skill [§7]. These are the ultimate skillful actions, which means that the mastery of the path is where the two sets of categorical teachings come together.

The path begins with discernment—the factors of right view and right resolve—and discernment begins with this basic question about which actions are really skillful: “What, when I do it, will lead to long-term welfare and happiness?” [§8] The Buddha’s teaching on not-self—and his teaching on self—are, in part, answers to this question. To fit into this question, perceptions of self and perceptions of not-self are best viewed as kamma or actions: actions of identification and dis-identification. In the terms of the texts, the perception of self is called an action of “I-making” and “my-making (ahaṅkāra mamaṅkāra).” The perception of not-self is part of an activity called the “not-self contemplation (anattānupassanā).” Thus the question becomes: When is the perception of self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness, when is the perception of not-self a skillful action that leads to long-term welfare and happiness?

This is the reverse of the way that the relationship between questions of kamma and not-self are usually understood. If you’ve ever taken an introductory course on Buddhism, you’ve probably heard this question: “If there is no self, who does the kamma, who receives the results of kamma?” This understanding turns the teaching on not-self into a teaching on no self, and then takes no self as the framework and the teaching on kamma as something that doesn’t fit in the framework. But in the way the Buddha taught these topics, the teaching on kamma is the framework and the teaching of not-self fits into that framework as a type of action. In other words, assuming that there really are skillful and unskillful actions, what kind of action is the perception of self? What kind of action is the perception of not-self?

So, to repeat, the issue is not, “What is my true self?” but “What kind of perception of self is skillful and when is it skillful, what kind of perception of not-self is skillful and when is it skillful?”

We already engage in these perceptions all of the time and have been doing so ever since we were children. We have many different perceptions of self. Each sense of self is strategic, a means to an end. Each comes with a boundary, inside of which is “self” and outside of which is “not-self.” And so our sense of what’s self and what’s not-self keeps changing all of the time depending on our desires and what we see will lead to true happiness.

Take an example from your childhood. Suppose you have a younger sister, and someone down the street is threatening her. You want to protect her. At that moment she is very much your sister. She belongs to you, so you will do whatever you can to protect her. Then suppose that, when you’ve brought her home safely, she begins to play with your toy truck and won’t give it back to you. Now she’s no longer your sister. She’s the Other. Your sense of your self, and of what is yours and not yours, has shifted. The boundary line between self and not-self has changed.

You’ve been doing this sort of thing—changing the boundaries of what’s self and not-self—all of the time. Think back on your life—or even for just a day—to see the many times your sense of self has changed from one role to another.

Normally we create a sense of self as a strategy for gaining happiness. We look for what abilities we have in order to gain a happiness we want. Those abilities are then ours. The hand we can use to reach for the object we want is our hand; the loud voice we can use to scare off the bullies threatening our sister is our voice. This is why the element of control is so essential to our sense of self: We assume that the things we can control are us or ours. Then we also try to think about which part of ourselves will live to enjoy the happiness we’re trying to gain. These things will change depending on the desire.

Unfortunately, our desires tend to be confused and incoherent. We’re also unskillful in our understanding of what happiness is. Thus we often end up with an inconsistent and misinformed collection of selves. You can see this clearly as you meditate: You find that the mind contains many different inner voices expressing many conflicting opinions as to what you should and shouldn’t be doing to be happy.

It’s as if you have a committee inside the mind, and the committee is rarely in order. That’s because it’s composed of selves you’ve collected from all your past strategies for trying to gain happiness, and these strategies often worked at cross-purposes. Some of them seemed to work at a time when your standards for happiness were crude, or you weren’t really paying attention to the results you were getting—as when you threw a tantrum and got your mother to give you the food you wanted. These members of the committee tend to be deluded. Some of your strategies involved doing things you liked to do but actually led to suffering—as when you hit your sister and got your toy truck back. These members of the committee tend to be dishonest and deceitful: They deny the suffering they caused. This is why your committee of selves is not an orderly gathering of saints. It’s more like a corrupt city council.

The Buddha’s purpose in having us master perceptions of self and not-self is to bring some clarity, honesty, and order to the committee: to teach us how to engage in these activities of perception in a conscious, consistent, and skillful way that will lead to true happiness.

It’s important to understand this point, for it helps to clear up a major misunderstanding that can cause us to resist the teaching on not-self. We instinctively know that our strategies of self-making are for the sake of happiness, so when we misunderstand the Buddha’s not-self teaching—thinking that it’s a “no self” teaching, and that he’s trying to deny us of our “selves”—we’re afraid that he’s trying to deprive us of our strategies for finding happiness and protecting the happiness we’ve found. That’s why we resist the teaching. But when we gain a proper understanding of his teaching, we see that his aim is to teach us how to use perceptions of self and not-self as strategies leading to a happiness that’s reliable and true. In teaching not-self, he’s not trying to deprive us of our strategies for happiness; he’s actually trying to show us how to expand and refine them so that we can find a happiness better than any happiness we’ve ever known [see Talk 5].

In terms of the Buddha’s two categorical teachings, the teaching on not-self is a strategy for helping you with the duties they call for if you want to put an end to suffering and stress: helping you to avoid unskillful action in the first categorical teaching, and to comprehend stress and abandon its cause in the second. You do this in conjunction with some skillful self-strategies that help you give rise to skillful actions and to develop the path. When you master these strategies properly, they enable you to realize the end of suffering. This is why these teachings are included in the Buddha’s handful of leaves.

These are the main points that I’d like to discuss for the rest of the retreat. The important point to notice as we connect these talks with our meditation is that we can view our sense of self as an activity, a process. It’s something we do, and something we can learn to do more skillfully. At the same time we’ll look at our sense of what’s not-self—which is also an activity—and learn how to do that more skillfully, too.

When we learn to do this in the proper way, we’ll arrive at true happiness, free from any suffering and stress. At that point, questions of self and not-self will be put aside. When you arrive at true happiness, you no longer need strategies to protect it—the way you do for forms of happiness that are subject to change—because it’s unconditioned. It doesn’t depend on anything at all. The strategy of self is no longer needed, and neither is the strategy of not-self. As Ajaan Suwat, one of my teachers, once said, when you find true happiness, you don’t ask who’s experiencing it, for that’s not an issue. The experience itself is sufficient. It doesn’t need anybody to watch over it. But to reach that point we have to learn how to develop our skill in employing both the strategies of self and the strategies of not-self. These are the skills and strategies we’ll be discussing each evening during the retreat.