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. 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?" administrator 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. 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.
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 fruit 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. 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. 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 (ahakāra mamakāra)." 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. This is the reverse of the way that the relationship between questions of kamma and not-self are usually understood.
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 -. 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. If you want to put an end to suffering and stress, these two categorical teachings carry duties or imperatives.
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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. As the buddha essay 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. 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? Do i not exist?" However, the buddha listed all of these as unskillful questions. Once, when he was asked point-blank, "Is there a self? Is there no self?" he refused to answer see talk.
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. 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. 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.
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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. After his awakening, the buddha could have talked about anything at all, but he chose to talk on resume 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?". 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.
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 write 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.
are to verse. References to other texts are to section (saṃyutta, nipāta, or vagga) and discourse. Numbering for an and sn follows the Thai edition of the pali canon. All translations from these texts are by the author, and are based on the royal Thai edition of the pali canon (Bangkok: Mahāmakut Rājavidyālaya, 1982) and the budsir iv edition of the canon and Commentary produced by mahidol University, bangkok. May 21, 2011, the buddha's teaching on anattā, or not-self, is often mystifying to many westerners.
The other ajaans mentioned in the talks trained under him. Of these, ajaan fuang and Ajaan Suwat were my teachers. Ajaan fuang, although he spent some time training directly under Ajaan Mun, spent more time training under one of Ajaan Mun's students, Ajaan lee. Many people have helped with the preparation of this book. I would like to thank the people of le refuge who made the retreat possible, and in particular Betty picheloup, the founder of the group, and Claude leninan, my excellent and meticulous interpreter throughout my stay in Provence. Here at Metta, the monks at the monastery helped in preparing the manuscript, as did Michael Barber, Alexandra kaloyanides, Addie onsanit, ginger Vathanasombat, and Josie wolf. A french translation of the all the talks and question-and-answer sessions during the retreat is currently in preparation. If you are comparing the talks here with their French equivalents, feed please be aware that the French is based on transcriptions that are closer to the original talks than are the versions presented here.
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In may of this year, members of le refuge, a buddhist group located in Eguilles, near Aix-en-Provence, invited me to lead a ten-day retreat on the topics of breath meditation and anattā, or not not-self. The retreat provided me with the rare opportunity to gather my thoughts on the topic of not-self under one framework. The result was a series of eight evening talks; edited transcripts of these talks form the body of this book. The talks draw on passages from the pali canon and on the writings and talks of the ajaans, or teachers, of the Thai forest tradition, in which I was trained. For people unfamiliar with the canon, i have added passages from the discourses at the back of the book to flesh out some of the points made in the talks. These are followed by a glossary of Pali terms. For people unfamiliar with the Thai forest tradition, you should know that it is a meditation tradition founded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Ajaan Mun Bhuridatto.