Talk 7

Not-self for Transcendent Happiness

May 27, 2011

Last night we talked about the teaching on not-self on the mundane level as it relates to the issue of rebirth and kamma. On this level, you apply the perception of not-self in a selective way. You look at the skills you can take with you, you figure out what things would prevent you from taking good skills with you, and you try to perceive the second set of things as not-self. In this way you can develop the conditions for a good rebirth and the ability to deal with whatever you may encounter as you go through the cycle of death and rebirth.

But as you contemplate the issue of rebirth, you begin to see that even if you develop good mental qualities, the whole process is still very risky and uncertain. When things get comfortable, it’s very easy to get complacent, and to forget to keep working at developing good qualities. And even the best life in the cosmos has to end in separation and death. You’ve experienced these sufferings countless times in the past, and if you don’t gain release from the process of rebirth you’ll have to endure the same sufferings countless times in the future. When this realization goes deeply into the heart, you’re ready for the transcendent teaching on not-self.

That’s the topic for tonight’s talk.

The transcendent teaching on not-self derives from transcendent right view, and transcendent right view comes in two stages.

The first stage sees experience in terms of the four noble truths of suffering, its origination, its cessation, and the path of practice leading to its cessation. As you may remember, each of these truths carries a duty: If you want to put an end to suffering, suffering should be comprehended, its cause should be abandoned, its cessation should be realized, and the path to its cessation should be developed as a skill [§7]. The purpose of the transcendent teaching on not-self is to help you perform each of these duties.

In the first noble truth, the Buddha identifies suffering with the five clinging-aggregates. Notice that the aggregates themselves are not suffering. The mind suffers because it clings to them. As I’ve already mentioned, clinging is also similar to the process of feeding. We keep doing something again and again—that’s the clinging—as a means of finding happiness: That’s the feeding.

A good example of this is an experiment some neurobiologists once did with mice. They located the pleasure center in each mouse’s brain and planted a little electrode in there. When the mice pushed their heads against a little bar, the bar would give a mild electric stimulation to the pleasure center. They got so addicted to pressing their heads against the bar—doing it again and again and again—that they forgot to eat and they died. They were “feeding” on a pleasure that was very immediate and intense, but provided no nourishment. That’s why they died.

The same principle applies to the human mind. We usually feed on the aggregates in a way that provides no real nourishment, and so our goodness dies.

On the transcendent level of right view, the Buddha has us use the perception of not-self as a means for comprehending this clinging and feeding to the point where we feel no more passion for it [§32]. But his approach is a little indirect. As we’ve already seen, instead of telling you simply to stop feeding on the aggregates, he has you turn them into a path: the health food that gives strength to the mind to the point where it no longer needs to feed.

The primary example of this is the practice of right concentration. As we’ve already said, right concentration is composed of the five aggregates, and the feelings of ease, rapture, and refreshment that come from right concentration are health food for the mind. You learn through this practice that you can find a sense of happiness that comes from within, and you no longer need to go looking for nourishment outside.

To develop this sort of concentration, you have to apply the perception of not-self in a selective way. You hold on to your concentration, and apply the perception of not-self to any distracting thoughts that would pull you away from the object of your concentration. As you gain skill and maturity in applying this perception in this way, it can enable you to let go of many attachments to other, lesser forms of happiness that you now realize you no longer need: in particular, the pleasures of sensuality. When you realize you no longer need them, you find that there was nothing really there.

One of my favorite cartoons shows a group of cows in a pasture. One of the cows is jerking its head up in a sudden state of surprise and realization, saying, “Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!!”

The Canon has a similar story. A blind man has been given an old dirty rag and told that it’s a clean, white cloth. He’s very protective of his clean white cloth. But then his relatives take him to a doctor and the doctor cures his blindness. He looks at the cloth and realizes that he was fooled: It’s just a dirty old rag.

The Dhamma point both in the cartoon and in the story is that we often blindly look for pleasure in things that—when we come to our senses—we realize were never all that satisfying to begin with. In some cases, the pleasure is actually unhealthy, causing you to do things you later regret.

The practice of jhāna provides the perspective that allows you to step back from your sensual passions and all your other unskillful ways of looking for pleasure to see that they weren’t worth the effort put into gaining them. This forces you to step back from the unskillful committee members that push for those ways of looking for pleasure, and to ask whether you want to continue associating and identifying with them or not.

This process isn’t always easy. You tend to identify with those unskillful committee members because you associate them with pleasure. But the practice of jhāna helps make this process of dis-identification possible. When you can see that—in comparison to the blameless pleasure of jhāna—these other committee members also bring you stress and pain, you can more easily regard them as not-self. You can let them go.

As the practice of jhāna matures, there eventually comes a point when you realize that only one attachment remains blocking unconditioned happiness, and that’s attachment to the path itself: in particular, to the practice of concentration and the development of discernment. This is where the Buddha starts having you apply the transcendent teaching on not-self all around, and not just selectively. In other words, you apply the perception of not-self to every instance of clinging to the aggregates, even to the aggregates that go into jhāna and discernment. This is how the not-self teaching helps you with the duties of comprehending stress and abandoning every form of craving, clinging, passion, or delight that would give rise to stress.

The following passage shows the main stages in this process. First you master the state of jhāna. Then you try to develop perceptions that give rise to a sense of dispassion for the jhāna. Once you’ve developed that sense of dispassion, you develop the perception in which you see all-around dispassion and cessation as desirable. Then you learn how to drop even that perception and stay right there. That, the Buddha says, is where full awakening can occur.

“Suppose that an archer or archer’s apprentice were to practice on a straw man or mound of clay, so that after a while he would become able to shoot long distances, to fire accurate shots in rapid succession, and to pierce great masses. In the same way, there is the case where a monk… enters & remains in the first jhāna: rapture & pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation.

“He regards whatever phenomena there that are connected with form, feeling, perception, fabrications, & consciousness, as inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a disintegration, an emptiness, not-self.

“He turns his mind away from those phenomena, and having done so, inclines his mind to the property of deathlessness: ‘This is peace, this is exquisite—the pacification of all fabrications; the relinquishing of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding.’

“Staying right there, he reaches the ending of the fermentations. Or, if not, then—through this very Dhamma-passion, this Dhamma-delight, and from the total wasting away of the first five fetters [self-identity views, grasping at habits & practices, uncertainty, sensual passion, and irritation]—he is due to be reborn [in the Pure Abodes], there to be totally unbound, never again to return from that world….

“[Similarly with the second, third, and fourth jhāna [§22].]” — AN 9:36

A couple of points in this passage need to be explained. First: When the Buddha talks about the ending of fermentation, he’s talking about awakening. The fermentations are the defilements that come bubbling up in the mind.

Second—with regard to the second stage where the Buddha says to perceive the aggregates in the jhāna as inconstant, stressful, etc.—there are other passages in the Canon that expand on this point. In these passages the Buddha recommends that you apply three questions derived from the original question that he said was the basis of discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” At this point in the practice, he recommends looking more closely at the idea of long-term happiness. Focus on the word “long-term.” You know that jhāna is a long-term happiness, but now you realize that long-term is no longer good enough. It’s inconstant.

The Pāli term here, anicca, is sometimes translated as “impermanent,” but that’s not what it really means. Its opposite, nicca, describes something that’s done constantly and reliably. You can depend on it. But if something is anicca, it’s unreliable. It wavers. If you try to base your happiness on it, you have to keep tensing up around it—like trying to find some rest while sitting on a chair with wobbly, uneven legs.

So when you see that even the long-term happiness of jhāna is inconstant—unreliable and wavering—you realize that it’s not really all that pleasant. Even in what pleasure it does offer, there is stress. And because there’s stress, why would you want to claim it as yours?

This line of thinking corresponds to the three questions that the Buddha has you ask at this stage in the practice [§19]. The first is, “Is this constant?” And the answer is No. That leads to the next question: “If it’s inconstant, is it pleasant?” Again the answer is No. That leads to the third question: “If something is inconstant and stressful, is it fitting to say that ‘This is me, this is myself, this is what I am?’” In other words, “Is it skillful to lay claim to this?” And the answer again is No.

Now, notice that the Buddha is not asking you to come to the conclusion that there is no self. He’s simply asking you to see if this way of creating a sense of self is skillful. His method of analysis, when it’s consistently applied to all of the aggregates, gives rise to a sense of disenchantment and dispassion for any possible type of clinging. But notice: You’re not doing this out of pessimism. You’re doing this for the sake of your own true happiness, but now it’s better than long-term, longer than long-term. You want something totally timeless and reliable [§20].

As that passage just now indicated, sometimes this series of questions leads to full awakening, but sometimes it doesn’t. It leads instead to the state of non-return. Now, the level of awakening at non-return is not bad. A group of people once came to see my teacher, Ajaan Fuang. They had been studying Buddhist philosophy and had heard that he was a good teacher, but they didn’t know what he taught. So they came and asked him to teach them. He said, “OK, close your eyes and focus on your breath.” And they said, “No, no, no, we can’t do that.” He asked, “Why?” And they said, “If we focus on the breath, we’ll get stuck on jhāna and then we’ll be reborn as brahmās.” And Ajaan Fuang responded, “What’s wrong with being reborn as a brahmā? Even non-returners are born as brahmās. And being reborn as a brahmā is better than being reborn as a dog.”

In other words, if you haven’t attained jhāna, it’s hard to let go of sensual passions. And people stuck on sensual passions—even if they’ve studied Buddhist philosophy—can easily be reborn as dogs. So the dangers of jhāna and non-return are much slighter than the dangers of not reaching those attainments.

Still, if possible, the Buddha does encourage you to try to go beyond the level of non-return and gain full awakening. This is where he brings in another teaching, another perception. In Pāli, the phrase is, “Sabbe dhammā anattā,” which means, “All phenomena are not-self [§33].” This applies both to fabricated phenomena and unfabricated phenomena. And it’s important to note here that this perception is part of the path, not the goal. In other words, it’s not the conclusion you come to when you arrive at awakening; it’s a perception you use to get beyond your last attachments.

As the above passage states, what keeps a non-returner from gaining total awakening is a type of passion and delight: passion for the deathless and delight in the deathless. “Passion-and-delight” is another term for clinging. Even when the mind lets go of its clinging and passion for the aggregates, there still is something it may cling to: the experience of the deathless that follows after letting go of the aggregates. The mind can regard its experience of the deathless as a phenomenon, as an object of the mind. Where there is an object, there is a subject—the knowing self, the sense of “I am” [§34]—and this provides a foothold for passion and delight to arise: You instinctively want to control whatever you like, and so you try to control the experience of the deathless, even though the idea of “control” here is superfluous—the deathless isn’t going to change on you—and counterproductive: The self created around this desire for control actually gets in the way of total freedom. To counter this tendency toward control, the Buddha here has you apply the perception that all phenomena are not-self, even to the experience of the deathless. This is what gets rid of the “I” in “I am.”

There’s another passage relevant to this point where the Buddha says that when you see all phenomena arising and passing away—and this includes everything, including the path and your clinging to the deathless—when you watch everything arising, arising, arising, all the time, the idea of non-existence doesn’t occur to the mind. When you see these things passing away, passing away, passing away, the idea of existence doesn’t occur to the mind. At that point, the ideas of existence and non-existence are irrelevant to your experience. All you see is stress arising, stress passing away [§35].

This has several ramifications. If ideas of existence and non-existence don’t occur to you, then the question of whether the self exists or doesn’t exist wouldn’t occur to you, either. This gets rid of the “am” in “I am.” This also does away with your fear of going out of existence if things are let go, because the mind isn’t thinking in those terms.

At the same time, you’re reaching the higher stage of transcendent right view, with a higher and more refined level of duty. As you remember with the four noble truths, each of the truths has a duty, but in this case—when you see everything arising and passing away simply as stress—all the duties are reduced to one: You comprehend things to the point of dispassion. This means that you let go, let go, let go even of concentration, even of discernment, even of the act of clinging to the deathless. In the words of Ajaan Mun, all four noble truths are turned into one. They all carry the same duty, which is to let go of everything.

This allows the mind to experience nibbāna not as a phenomenon, but as a total experience. At this point, you’ve found total happiness, which no longer needs any protection, no longer needs to be maintained. There’s no longer any issue of control or non-control. There’s no need for the strategy of self to create this happiness, and no need for a sense of self to consume or experience it. Where you don’t draw a line to define self, there’s no line to define not-self. Where there’s no clinging, there’s no need for the strategy of not-self. So strategies of self or not-self are all put aside. Even the strategy of dispassion itself gets put aside. At this point, the mind no longer has need for any strategies at all because it has found a happiness that’s truly solid. It’s not a phenomenon, it’s a happiness. The Buddha calls it a special form of consciousness that doesn’t need to be experienced through the six senses, or what he calls “the all” [§36]. It’s directly experienced as total freedom. And at the moment of awakening, there’s no experience of the six senses.

However, after the moment of awakening, when the mind returns to the experience of the senses, this sense of freedom stays. The Canon illustrates this with an image—not a pretty image, but very memorable. The image is this: Suppose there’s a dead cow. You take a knife and remove the skin, cutting all of the tendons and tissues that connect the skin to the cow. Then you put the skin back on. The question is: Is the skin still attached to the cow as it was before? And the answer is No. Even though it’s right next to the cow, it’s no longer attached. In the same way, the practice of discernment is like a knife. It cuts through all of the attachments between the senses and their objects [§§37-38]. Once the attachments are gone, then even if you put the knife away, you cannot connect things in the way they were before. The eye still sees forms, the ear hears sounds, but there’s a sense that these things are no longer joined [§39].

As I said, the image isn’t pretty, but it conveys the point that once total freedom is found, it’s never lost.

One final point. As we said in one of the earlier talks, you are limited by what you are obsessed with. You define yourself by your obsessions and attachments, and that sort of definition places limitations on you. When there are no longer any attachments or obsessions, you are no longer defined [§§40-43]. And because you are no longer defined, you can’t be described as existing, not existing, neither, or both. In other words, ideas of the existence of the self and the non-existence of the self no longer apply. As for perceptions of self and not-self, those are like the knife that has been used to cut things through but now has been put aside.