Where is the I?: The Second of the Dharma Seals: Nonself or Anatta – 7/17/2017

To begin, let us do a quick little exercise. Close your eyes, and take one very deep breath in, and release it to the very bottom of the out-breath. Now, point to yourself. Continuing to point to yourself, open your eyes, and look around the circle. What were you pointing to?


Present observations of where the pointing was directed.

Anatta: An – Without/Absense  Atta – Self or Soul

Nothing has an existence separate from all other things. Everything must inter-be with everything else.

Read Thich Nat Han’s Story of the peanut butter cookies. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, p. 124

If we look around the present world, there is an awful lot of “discriminative perception” or separateness – Christians and Muslims, Jews and Palestinians, Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans/Democrats/Independents and this does not even begin to touch the ways that people see themselves separate – not only as groups, but as individuals within groups.

At the heart of the Buddha’s teaching here is the basic idea that “we are what we perceive.”

History of the Anattalakkhana Sutta:

In the story of the Buddha, prior to his awakening beneath the bodhi tree, the Buddha undertook various austerity practices.

He had studied with several re-known teachers, but along with 5 other ascetic monks, came to believe that ultimate awakening came from conquering the body, and so they left the teachers and wandered – for 6 years

The practices included various forms of self-mortification. He lived on leaves and roots, on a steadily reduced pittance of food; he wore rags from dust heaps; he slept among corpses or on beds of thorns. The utter paucity of nourishment left him a physical wreck, and near death.

And as the story goes, the monks were offered sweet rice, and the Buddha accepted the offering. Well, one can only imagine the drama here, as the other ascetics felt that Gotama had gone soft. And they left him.

And so the Buddha, who was not a Buddha yet, walked to Bodh Gaya, and sat beneath the bodhi tree determined not to arise until he had found the path to pure awakening. And so he sat and sat, for, as I understand it, between a week and 49 days. And he got it.

And then he spent 7 weeks just sort of wandering in the bliss of his new-found freedom. At which point he came to believe that he needed to teach what he had learned.

And he went looking first for a couple of his teachers, but after walking for some time, he learned that they had died. And so he went looking for the 5 ascetics. It took him some time, but he was eventually directed to a forest grove around Benares and found them.

The First Sermon: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of the Dharma in Motion

1 of the 5 ascetics understood it and was immediately freed, but the others were still not getting it.

And so he gave the Anattalakkhana Sutta.

And the other 4 were immediately awakened.

So, apparently, the thing has some power.

In this discourse, the Buddha analyzes the constituents of a person’s body and mind (khandha) and demonstrates that they are each impermanent (anicca), subject to suffering (dukkha) and thus unfit for identification with a “self” (attan). The Pali version of this discourse reads:

“Form, … feeling, … perception, … [mental] fabrications, … consciousness is not self. If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’ But precisely because consciousness is not self, consciousness lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’…

“Thus, monks, any form, … feeling, … perception, … fabrications, … consciousness whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every consciousness is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

“Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, disenchanted with consciousness. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”[

The Five Aggregates:

Skhanda/Khandas: literally means a heap or a mass or bundle

  • Form – the physical body, sense organs
  • Feelings – pleasant, unpleasant, neutral
  • Perception – identifying experience through distinctive marks and features
  • Mental (Volitional) Formations – the multifarious mental formations involving volition, choice and intention
  • Consciousness – a mysterious thing we are born with which allows us to know through the use of the senses

At the core of all of these is the fact that we have very limited, if at all, control over any of it.

Carol Wilson talks of an early retreat with Upandita where she was struggling with some difficult emotion, and he said, “It’s Anatta – out of control.” Are you making that emotional state arise?

And if there was a separate abiding self, the aggregates themselves would not lead to affliction.

And we get weary trying to control the uncontrollable.

And so, does this mean that we don’t even exist?

NO!!! Actually, when asked, the Buddha took the diplomatic approach – well, I wish it was an approach our diplomats used more often – and did not answer the question.

If he had answered that there was no self, he would be supporting the Annihilationists, and if he said there was a self he would be supported the Eternalists – both of which were ongoing movements in the day.

It is a confusing topic.

The more we try to think it through, the worse it gets.

There is a story of the Buddha’s cousin and attendant Ananda who was determined to become awakened. And so he tried to re-create all of the conditions for it to happen. And he sat, and sat, and sat, and it really was not going well. And so, finally, he decided to go to sleep, and as he was preparing his bed, all clinging left and he was fully realized.

So, what do we do?

When we notice the sense of self arising – we investigate it with interest. Which all starts with awareness.

We notice that personality is not a constant thing – it is very changeable.

One of the obstacles is that the sense of self is frequent, familiar and cozy – and thus we don’t really want to look at it. There is no real impetus to do it.

It is a palpable experience that arises 10’s of thousands of times a day.

-And so we have plenty of opportunity to look at it.

But it is kind of like looking for hidden objects in a drawing – Insights Magazine, Magic Eye. When there is just the right mental  energy, the perspective shifts, and we see what is hidden.

I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with a group  of men earlier today, and multiple times after someone had spoken –  and we were talking about the rich world of character defects – someone would say, “I really identified with what so and so was saying.”

What does that mean really?

One thing it means is that we shouldn’t take ourselves and our own experience so damn seriously, because our experiences are really not unique.

“Self-doubt in our ability to be aware is the biggest hindrance to understanding Anatta. Our personality is a reference point that Westerners really solidify. Our personality views are reinforced over and over.”

Ajahn Sumedho

“Grasping and clinging in the mind creates our sense of self. It can be super subtle and thus quite hard to see.”

“Learn to generate contentment in the moments when there is a voidness of self. When self dies.” (Which happens many time a day.)

Ajahn Buddhadhasa


The sense of self is not a bad or horrible thing to be rid of, but it complicates everything.

Ex – The system of eating utensils at MAC

When we can let the clinging to our own bodies, feelings, beliefs, opinions, memories, desires, fears go, we can create space in out day.

We are just trying to create enough space through mindfulness to see behind the curtain of the magic show.

“In the seeing, the is only seeing. There is no seer.”

The Buddha

Thoughts without a thinker.

In terms of the Characteristics of Existence or the 3 Dharma Seals, we have covered:

  • Anicca – Impermanence/Change
  • Anatta – Absence of an independent and abiding self.

And next time,

  • Dhukha – Unsatisfactoriness

In the words of Wes Nisker – Things change, life is difficult, don’t take it personally.