Saturday, July 3, 2010

Selflessly embracing this self

What is this fascination we have with the concept of some true, underlying nature? So often one encounters this notion of "returning to the source." What is this seemingly irresistible attraction that so many of us seem to have for a place, a time, or even a timeless, placeless something that somehow, finally, we can say is really me?

Ven. Thanissaro rips apart the idea in this new article, particularly in the section labeled, "No Innate Nature." He states that the idea of Buddha nature is "excess baggage on the path."

On the flip side of this coin, we find the type of perspective as apparently conveyed in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. One exposition of the concept can be found here in a blog entry titled, "No nirvana without self."

So which one is it? Self? Or no self?

In the Dhamma, there should be no confusion. When we look closely, we can realize that the question itself is ill-conceived, unhelpful, and ultimately of no benefit. We have in the teachings the clear idea of "not-self," Anatta, which is that visceral reality that nothing in our experience can be regarded as me or mine. That means we can know very clearly what is not self. Yet in MN2 the Buddha also makes clear that it does no good to dwell on a conceptual understanding pegged to the notion, "I am not." Indeed, the Buddha calls that type of thinking "inappropriate attention."

"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'

We can recognize that this deep wish we might feel to find an underlying "nature" may be a manifestation of identity view. And if we look closely, we might see that the nature of this desire is suffering, and also that it is an impermanent, changing phenomenon, arising and then passing away, then perhaps arising again.

The apparent dichotomy between what sometimes is termed the "positive" teaching and the "negative" teaching -- using either the "self" or "no-self" position as a teaching platform -- reflects the underlying weakness of teaching with words. The Buddha taught in different manners to different audiences, depending on the disposition he detected in his audience. From that perspective, regardless of one's tradition, one might understand how seemingly contradictory teachings can be handed down. But remember: The Buddha's teachings are to be put into practice. They are not intended to be used as the basis for cultivating disputes and arguments.

It can be confusing, if we spend too little time on the practice side of things. We might hear that, yes, we are the owners of our kamma, heirs to our kamma. We might hear that, yes, luminous is the mind. And conversely, we might hear that, no, there is no abiding self beyond these aggregates, beyond this All. And all of it is true. But none of it is true in the way we might conceive it is true. Our opinions, our beliefs, all of these mental formations are themselves entwined with this round of samsara. But this Dhamma path is the path of liberation through not-clinging.

Yet the Buddha does not advise a practice of turning our backs on all of this. Indeed, in that very same MN2, the Buddha advises us to attend to it. But to attend appropriately:

This is stress... This is the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices.

This appropriate attention is itself an expression of inner renunciation. What a wonderful freedom it is, to recognize that we hold such-and-such belief, to see it for what it is. Maybe we believe there is some underlying Buddha nature. Aha! There is our belief. I see you! There's no need to beat ourselves up about our beliefs. Nor is there any reason to try to defend or justify them. They are what they are. And from experience we know that they will change from what they are today.

If we are to walk the path that the Buddha teaches, the Dhamma path, then we must be kind to ourselves, recognizing that the beliefs we hold are part of this heap of aggregates.

The Buddha gives a seemingly unrelated teaching in MN21:

"Suppose that a man were to come along carrying a hoe & a basket, saying, 'I will make this great earth be without earth.' He would dig here & there, scatter soil here & there, spit here & there, urinate here & there, saying, 'Be without earth. Be without earth.' Now, what do you think — would he make this great earth be without earth?"

"No, lord. Why is that? Because this great earth is deep & enormous. It can't easily be made to be without earth. The man would reap only a share of weariness & disappointment."

"In the same way, monks, there are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. ... In any event, you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person's welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will equal to the great earth — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves.

With awareness imbued with good will equal to the great Earth. Abundant. Expansive. Immeasurable. Free from hostility. Free from ill will.

According to tradition, on the night the Bodhisatta was about to attain to perfect awakening, he was confronted by Mara. And the Bodhisatta reached down and touched the Earth.

Sometimes one hears of the distinction between self with a small 's' and Self with a big 'S', as if the concept of self can be ennobled if we hold it in just the right way. But regardless of how we conceptualize it, whenever we conceptualize it we have an opportunity to understand what is happening, here and now. With awareness, with equanimity, we can see things just as they are.


  1. I think the real issue here is cross-tradition translation. We might assume that the anatta doctrine of Theravada is pretty antithetical to the Tathagatagarbha teaching (of which the Mahayana Mahaparanirvana Sutra is one example) - however we need to realize that both these terms only make sense within the system in which they are expounded. The Mahayana, to be frank, has totally different views on a lot of things, from abhidharma and the path, emptiness of dharmas, etc. So when we critique a tradition other than our own, we should be careful and precise in our language. Also, I'm sorry to say, I think your Zennist friend which you linked to is either very imprecise with his language or doesn't really know what he's talking about. His argument that the existence of the path necessitates a self is pretty... weak. The use of the grammatical self in his quotation from the Therigatha is a case in point - returning to the question of, well, in what way do we use the word self here? There are two quick passages I'd like to draw your attention to. One is UD 8.3,

    The other is from Maitreya's Ornament of Sutras, and I'll just paste it here.

    The mind is aware that nothing other than mind exists.
    Then, it is realized that mind does not exist either.
    The intelligent ones are aware that both do not exist
    And abide in the expanse of dharmas (dharmadhatu) in which these are absent.

    Now, I'm not arguing that these two passages are arguing the same thing. In fact, the second is explicitly referring to an understanding of enlightenment which is freed from both the taint of defiling emotions AND the second group of wisdom taints which is a peculiarly Mahayana understanding of nirvana. And, we can see how the second passage also mentions Madhyamaka (not in agreement with Theravadin Abhidhamma) as well as Yogacara philosophy. So, once again, attention to the "behind-the-scenes" use of language reveals something other than correlation. It seems that the Zennist is advocating a quasi-Yogacara philosophy (excuse me for putting words into his/her mouth) with regards to a sort of repository of experience - this position, while historically grounded and is part of the Hosso school in Japan still, is a very much a minority position. The Zennist also does not bring into play the Prajnaparamita and Madhyamaka, which Yogacara does not deny.

    So, in summary, sorry for my long, rambling soap box comment, but I wanted to try to bring some clarification to your understanding of the Tathagatagarbha, because I don't think the Zennist was helping. And, maybe I'm all jacked up too, but, in approaching the profundities of the Dha(r-m)ma in all its fascinating permutations, let's not be quick to adjudge a verdict on a subject which only a Buddha can truly understand. Peace

  2. Indeed. Thank you for this insightful comment.
    - J.B.