Talk 6

Not-self for Mundane Happiness

May 26, 2011

For the past three days we’ve been talking about a skillful perception of self. Tonight and tomorrow night we’ll be talking about the skillful perception of not-self.

These two perceptions actually go together, because when you develop healthy self perceptions, they help to ensure that you use not-self perceptions in a healthy and mature way. You’re not depriving yourself of your means for finding happiness. You’re actually adding a new set of strategies that can help you find greater happiness. You realize that certain things lie beyond your control and that through accepting that fact, and letting go of your identification with those things, you can find happiness more easily and effectively.

As the Buddha indicated in the passage we ended with last night, we already have experience in applying the perception of not-self to everyday experience. If you see people burning leaves and twigs, and you know that those leaves and twigs don’t belong to you, you don’t get upset. In fact, if you think back to your childhood, you realize that the perception of not-self is something you’ve been developing all along, and for this very reason: It aids in your pursuit of happiness. The times when you learned that something was not under your control and you accepted the fact that it was futile to try to control it: That enabled you to let it go as not-self, as not yours, so that you could focus your efforts in areas where you could exert control. For example, if one of your toys got broken and couldn’t be fixed, you learned that you could be happier if you stopped carrying it around, and instead focused your attention on the toys that were still in good-enough shape to play with.

In this way the perception of not-self is the other side of the coin of the perception of self. Once you define self, you draw a boundary around self; what lies outside of that boundary is not-self. If you do this skillfully, it can focus your attention on the areas where your efforts can bear fruit, and can help you avoid trying to control things that you can’t.

The general difficulty here is that some things lie to some extent under your control, but not totally. There are also things that once were under your control but now no longer are—for example, as in a relationship that has died. Another difficulty is when you feel a need for something even though you can’t control it—as in a relationship that’s very unstable. That sort of thing is difficult to accept as not-self.

Now, these difficulties are made easier when you talk with other people who help you realize that these limits on your control are normal for everyone. In other words, there’s nothing particularly wrong with you. The other way of making this process easier is to find something else to control. For example, when one relationship dies, you find another one.

Still we have the problem that sometimes we listen to the wrong people who encourage us to try to control things that we really cannot control, perhaps through magical thinking. Magical thinking is the belief that something can be made good simply through the power of your thought or through the power of a ritual practice. Another frequently unskillful way to try to control things is through prayer. As the Buddha once said, if prayer really worked, there would be no poor people in the world, no ugly people in the world, no untimely deaths [§29].

The other extreme is when other people encourage you to give up exerting any control over anything at all. They tell you to try not to have desire for anything; just accept everything as it is, and be content that that’s all you can do. This, of course, makes it impossible to practice the path. You simply try to clone awakening: You hear that an awakened person has no desire, so you tell yourself to have no desire; an awakened person has no preferences, so you tell yourself to have no preferences. This is twisting the horns of a cow in trying to get milk and seeing that no milk is coming out, so you say, “Oh, well, there must be no way of getting milk because I’ve been twisting the horn for a long time. So I should just accept the fact that milk is unattainable.”

That’s an unskillful use of the not-self perception.

The Buddha’s strategy in using the perception of not-self is to train you to understand accurately what does lie under your control and what doesn’t; abandoning what doesn’t; and then using what level of control you do have in a skillful direction so that you can ultimately put an end to suffering.

Now just as there are two levels of right view—right view aimed at a happy rebirth and right view aimed at gaining total release [§30]—there are two levels in the Buddha’s strategy in skillfully using the perception of not-self.

Tonight, we’ll talk about the first level—the skillful not-self perceptions that will result in a happy rebirth—and we’ll discuss the second level tomorrow.

Some Western people have trouble with the teaching on rebirth, but usually that’s because we don’t know how to use the teaching skillfully.

To begin with, it’s important to understand that, in teaching rebirth, the Buddha was not just adopting a cultural assumption from his time. Rebirth was a hot topic in ancient India. Some people argued that it did happen, others argued very strongly that it didn’t, with the argument centering around how you defined what a person was, and then showing how what you were could or couldn’t take birth.

So when the Buddha was teaching rebirth, he was consciously taking sides on the issue. But he did it in a novel way. Instead of trying to define what does or doesn’t take rebirth—things you can’t even see—he talked about rebirth as a process that happens through clinging and craving: mental actions you can observe and can exert some control over.

Now, the Buddha never said that he could prove rebirth, but he did say that it’s a useful working hypothesis—and for two reasons. One is that the practice will ultimately confirm that it is true; and, second, that it’s useful for fostering skillful attitudes that help in developing the path.

The idea of repeated rebirth might seem to be an extreme example of creating a large sense of self. After all, there’s a lot of “I” in thinking, “If I’m going to survive death, I should plan for how and where I’m going to be reborn.” However, the act of assuming rebirth is also an important lesson in not-self because you can’t assume that you can take everything with you. There’s a lot of what’s currently “you” and “yours” that you’re going to have to leave behind. So you have to focus carefully on learning what you can and can’t take with you. The things you can’t take with you, you have to let go as not-self. This forces you to take a long, hard look at what in this lifetime will be of value not only now, but also after you die.

This realization also forces heedfulness. Your only guarantee of a safe rebirth is when you’ve had your first taste of awakening. As long as you haven’t yet had that taste, your old kamma can drag you down to the lower realms at any time. So you have to develop a sense of urgency in the practice if you really want to find a happiness that’s secure. You have to be prepared to go at any moment.

Ajaan Lee often compared the process of preparing for rebirth to the process of preparing for a trip—or for a sudden forced emigration. You need to know what’s good to take with you and what’s best left behind, and keep the things you’ll really need close at hand. As when you go camping: If you try to take too many things, you weigh yourself down. If you don’t take enough, you starve and suffer other hardships. So you have to know what you really need.

A story about Ajaan Lee illustrates this point. Once he was going to take a number of his students—both lay people and monks—on a trip into the forest. They were going to meet at the main train station in Bangkok, take the train up to Lopburi, and then go into the forest from there.

Now Ajaan Fuang went along on the trip, and he knew that if you went with Ajaan Lee you had to take as little as possible, so he packed only a very small bag. But many of the other students didn’t know this. Some of them brought three or four bags, and large ones at that. Perhaps they thought they would hire porters in Lopburi to carry them into the forest.

At any rate, when they got to Hua Lampong, the main station in Bangkok, Ajaan Lee saw all of the bags that everyone had brought, so instead of getting on the train he started walking up the train tracks. Now if the ajaan is walking on the tracks, everyone else has to walk on the tracks. So very quickly, people started walking behind him, struggling to carry all their bags. After a while, many of them started complaining that the bags were too heavy. At first Ajaan Lee said nothing and just kept walking. After a while, as the complaints got more insistent, all he said was, “If it’s heavy, throw it away.”

So, one by one, the students stopped to sort out their bags. Whatever they really needed, they put in one bag. And as for the remaining bags, they threw them into the lotus ponds on either side of the tracks. When they got to the railroad station at Saam Sen, which is the next railroad station north of Hua Lampong, Ajaan Lee saw that everybody’s bags were small and manageable, so he let them all get on the train. In this way he taught them an important lesson: that you have to be very careful and selective about what you try to take with you.

And what can you take with you? Two things. One is your actions; the other is the qualities of the mind. Traditionally, there are seven treasures you can take with you: conviction, virtue, shame, compunction, learning the Dhamma, generosity, and discernment [§31]. These are inner treasures that can carry over into the next life. Think again of going on a camping trip. One way of keeping your baggage light is by having lots of skills: knowing how to find what you need in the forest, how to forage for food, how to start a fire without matches, how to build a shelter if you don’t have a tent. In the same way, by developing these seven inner treasures you take skills with you—skills you can use—and you don’t have to load yourself down.

The Canon gives other lists of qualities you can take with you as well, such as the ten perfections: generosity, virtue, renunciation, discernment, persistence, endurance, truth, determination, goodwill, and equanimity.

Notice that these lists contain the basic acts of merit: generosity, virtue, and the development of goodwill. As we have already noted, each of these meritorious actions gives lessons in developing a skillful sense of self. At the same time, each also gives practice in developing a skillful sense of not-self, for each involves giving up something of lesser worth for the sake of something of greater worth. Each requires that you see the things of lesser worth as not-self.

For instance, the Buddha recommends seeing generosity as a trade. Every time you give, you gain something in return. You gain a higher state of mind, the respect of others, a sense of fellowship with the people around you, and a more spacious sense of your life. You learn how to see that the item you give away is not yours and that the quality of mind developed through giving is more worth holding on to.

The other forms of meritorious action also teach important lessons in not-self. When you try to develop virtue, you’ll find voices in the committee of your mind that resist the precepts. You have to learn how not to identify with them—and how to do it skillfully—as part of developing virtue as a treasure or a perfection. Similarly with the practice of goodwill: You learn to see ill will as something you don’t want to identify with. As Ajaan Lee said, if you have ill will for someone, it’s like leaving a magnet in the world. It’ll pull you back to that person when you get reborn. So you want to learn to see thoughts of ill will as not-self.

There’s another list of teachings that helps you take a long-term view of what’s worth identifying with and what’s not. It’s called the eight worldly dhammas: wealth, loss of wealth, status, loss of status, praise, criticism, pleasure, pain. These, the Buddha says, are basically what the world has to offer—and it’s not much, is it? You notice that they come in pairs. It’s impossible to have one without the other. If you try to hold onto your wealth, you lose it anyhow. If you try to identify with whatever status you have, it makes it difficult when you lose that status. The same with praise and criticism, pleasure and pain. So, it’s best not to try to hold on to these things, but it is possible to get good use out of them while you have them: to use the things you can’t take with you as means for developing qualities of mind that you can.

For instance, take a look at the money in your wallet. Is your name written on it? No, it’s the name of the government. They can take it back whenever they want to. It’s not really yours. Even with your credit card: It may have your name on it, but it also has the bank’s name, and we know who’s really in charge of it. So while you have that wealth, try to make good use of it. Use it in a way that gives rise to virtues in the mind, such as generosity and goodwill.

Similarly with status: Try to use the power that comes with status to do good for the world. When you suffer loss of wealth and loss of status, learn how to take advantage of what they have to offer, too. For example when you lose wealth and status, you find out who your true friends are. You’re also forced to become more ingenious in making do with little. This develops your discernment and ingenuity.

When praise comes, try to use the praise in a skillful way. Remember that the people praising you are trying to encourage you to keep on doing something. Don’t let the praise go to your head, thinking that you’re already good enough and that you don’t have to try to do better.

At the same time, though, you have to remember that when people praise you they sometimes have ulterior motives. They may be encouraging you to do something that isn’t really right, so you have to be careful. As for criticism, if the criticism is true, you’ve learned something important about yourself, something that you can learn to correct within yourself. Your faults are easy to hide from yourself, which is why the Buddha says that if someone points them out to you, think of that person as someone who’s pointing out treasure. If the criticism is false, you’ve learned something about the other person. It may not be something you want to learn, but it’s good to know.

Ajaan Lee also said to watch out for status and praise. Once you have a high status and people praise you, they confine you with their desires. If, on the other hand, you have no status and people call you a dog, remember that dogs have no laws. They can go wherever they want.

What this means is that you learn how to take advantage of all of these things when they come, whether they’re good or bad, and realize that none of them will last permanently. You can’t really hold to them as yours, you have to see them as not-self, but if you use them to develop good qualities of the mind, you’ve gotten the best use out of them: developing good qualities that you can use in this lifetime and that will carry over after death. You’ve made a wise trade.

The Buddha also says that when you learn how to look at gain and loss over the very long-term, over many lifetimes, it helps you to overcome your attachment both to wealth and to disappointment and grief. He says to remind yourself that you have already experienced extremes of wealth and poverty many times, in many different lifetimes, so you shouldn’t get carried away with whatever wealth you have in this lifetime, or jealous of other people’s wealth, or upset about whatever poverty you fall into. Realize that material things come and go, but the state of your mind is the most important thing you have. This is how you develop the discernment to deal skillfully with whatever comes your way, both in this life and in the next.

In other words, the Buddha has you look at life and death over the long term, realizing that in order to develop good qualities in the mind you have to abandon your attachments, your sense of self around many things. But this is a trade, a very wise and advantageous trade. You gain many important skillful mental qualities in return.

Now this is not just an exercise in delayed gratification, because even in the present moment you gain a healthy sense of self, one that’s always trying to learn how to do what is skillful, always trying to learn from mistakes, and always willing to learn how to let go of unhealthy ways of identification.

Contemplating these facts gives you a sense of empowerment, of command. You can shape the life that you want, the life that will give rise to long-term happiness, both now and in the future.

However, this contemplation also gives rise to a sense of heedfulness. You see that you need to be careful in how you order your priorities.

Eventually, though, it gives rise to a sense of disenchantment. You realize that things like wealth and status, praise and pleasure, come and go, come and go, and they begin to lose their allure. You don’t want to make them your top priority.

This combined sense of empowerment, heedfulness, and disenchantment is a healthy combination. On the one hand, the element of empowerment keeps you from trying to take the short-cut of giving up at the beginning of the path. In other words, you don’t just say, “I’ll just accept the way things are and not really strive for anything better, and try to find peace that way.” Instead, you try to find peace by developing your powers, and you discover that a great measure of happiness can be found in this way. You gain discernment in deciding what is really important in life and what sorts of happiness are more valuable than others. In this way, you’re actually pushing against the characteristics of inconstancy, stress, and not-self. You try to find a sense of happiness that is somewhat constant, easeful, and to some extent under your control.

But then you run up against the limitations of this sort of activity. You work hard to get good things in life, but then to develop generosity you have to give them away. By following the precepts, you gain a good lifetime, but even a good lifetime involves aging, illness, and death. Even heavenly beings have to die. You also realize that, over the long term, the comfort that comes from good actions can often lead to heedlessness and complacency: People born into good conditions all too easily take them for granted and get lazy. They start abusing their good fortune.

So even the good things in life contain their dangers. And when you take a long-term view, whatever narratives you plan for your next lifetime begin to seem petty, because given that there’s all that aging, illness, and death, there are going to be many, many tears. As the Buddha once said, which do you think is greater? The tears you have shed over many lifetimes or the water in the ocean? And the answer is the tears.

There’s another sutta that makes a similar point but more graphically. The Buddha once asked some monks, “Which do you think is greater? All the water in the oceans or the blood you have shed from having your head cut off? Think of all the times you’ve been a cow and you had your head cut off. Think of all the times you’ve been a sheep and had your head cut off. All the times you’ve been a pig and had your head cut off. All the many times you’ve been a human being but you were a thief and had your head cut off. All the many times you were a highway robber and had your head cut off. The many times you committed adultery and had your head cut off. For each case, the blood is more than all the water in the oceans.”

The monks who heard this talk all became arahants right away.

When you think about things like this, you start looking for release. You see that even the greatest happiness in the realms of rebirth has its limitations, and that the only really true happiness is freedom. That’s when you’re ready for the transcendent level of the Buddha’s teaching on not-self.

Which is what we’ll discuss tomorrow night.