No-Self

“The left brain has created this illusion of self by noticing a pattern of categorical differences between you and others and combining those observations with memory, preferences, and the perspective of the “pilot,” who seems to be steering the ship of the brain and body. Our definition of self depends in part on our difference from others. There is no “me” without “not me.”

(Chris Niebauer “No Self, No Problem”)

Welcome to part 1 of my multi-part series on understanding the Buddhist notion of not-self. Releases are to come weekly for the next few weeks.

Each essay will focus on parts of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, the Buddha’s second discourse, given after reached enlightenment. 

Each week I’ll share a short exercise to drive the point home. This is a brief exposition on the often misunderstood Buddhist idea of Dukkha and how it relates to the Budda’s assertion that the self is illusory.

I’d like to provide a warning, of sorts, about this series. Yet, within this warning lies my motivation for even writing about it.

This subject, more than any other, seems to induce the severest of hurt fee fees. I have found realisation to not resemble anything I particularly wanted or thought was sexy in a “mystical” sense. When discussing this ultimate insight (it is an insight, not an idea) into our organisms’ psyche, the very ordinariness of it all seems almost a letdown. It is all, undoubtedly, self-affronting.

There is a danger you will feel psychologically molested on having read this. If you are a highly sensitive person, prone to depression of flights of mania, it’s worth asking whether this work is for you. Many esoteric seekers may simply be unwilling to accept what the Buddha pointed to all those years ago. He points to something and says, “this is not working how you think it is; you are not participating as you feel you are”. 

As my friend Calvin Iwema says in his book The Path to Personal Power – “you don’t want this”. Almost everyone does not want this. It is because this insight takes a giant dump on everything we do and everything we think about ourselves and the world. Everything we think about our mighty will. And yet, if obtained, it is a spectacular realisation. It’s almost comedic.The Great Cosmic Joke.

For the sake of introduction, a quote from the end of the “Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic”: (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.mend.html)

“Now during this utterance, the hearts of the bhikkhus of the group of five were liberated from taints through clinging no more.”

What does this passage tell you?

It tells me two things: 

  • Firstly, the 5 renunciates that were present and received this discourse from the Buddha in person clearly had some exceptional karma.  
  • Secondly, it tells me that this teaching is almost the central fulcrum of the Buddha’s teaching. It is the jewel since all 5 ascetics were “liberated from taints” upon hearing this instruction.

For our average knucklehead, an aversion to the idea we don’t really have a self is perfectly understandable. Beware to him that attempts to awaken them from their slumber.

Bizarrely, some of the fiercest blowbacks I’ve received are from actually Buddhists themselves! Even after years of being Buddhists and sitting on cushions, some have not obtained a single dew drop of this understanding, to the point where any discussion of it enrages them; they start flailing about with accusations of “nihilism”. My best guess is that such violent reactions stem from an unconscious fear of death, something ubiquitous in our civilisation. Understandably, many hang on to the idea of a soul containing a magical life scroll, written by a stable self and sealed at death with their all-too-often morbidly unimpressive personality’s wax seals. 

Thinking from the perspective of the Universe, whose feelings are rarely, if ever, taken into account by this selfish species, I would likely want to rapidly cleanse myself of any “persistent individual” remnants of most people. Mr Clean style – but that’s just me. Better yet, why not simply refrain from even allocating persistent individual remnants in the first place?

Having said that, maybe they’re right. Maybe there is an eternal personable soul. I don’t know…and it doesn’t really matter for this subject.

There is another subset of offended individuals who require belief above all else. For them, exotic religion can be a type of belief. New age, orgonite and crystals. Acquiring “spiritual optimisation products” to assist with the great struggle of seeking, to finally find the place where something will happen.

To them, seeking is an identity. This habit is oft referred to as “spiritual materialism”. We are all belief fashionistas. Yet, the entire time, the act of seeking itself is self-delusion

Although the seeker provides an excellent spiritual example, we need to cut them some slack. It’s not totally their fault. 

The entire species runs on belief, and the whole species is deluded.

“To live in a world of abstractions—based on language, concepts, beliefs, patterns, labels—is to live in a dream world rather than reality.”

Chris Niebauer 

Importantly, this delusion stems from how we abstract ourselves into reality.

Cope, as I’ve always maintained – is the fundamental human driver. Cope is how we frame our myriad petty simian objectives…such as wanting to be recognised as unique. We construct luxurious edifices of nonsense on top of unrecognised metaphysical beliefs or abstractions about ourselves, abstracted from our language and symbolising abilities. Read as many books as you want. You’ll waste your time and never find this ultimate answer.

Thank you for indulging my attacks in this rant so far. However, I would like to offer some further observations about our species before we move on. By the way, I am not above any of these critiques. I only know these assertions to be true because I’ve seen it all in myself:

  • Because we’re focused on coping, true transcendence and ultimate understanding are the last things on anyone’s life menu. Operating as a coper precludes one from even having the chance to glimpse what is really happening.
  • People shit on with Heraclitus or Lao Tzu quotes like “no one steps in the same river twice”, but that’s not what adherents or commenters who make such quotes are really after. Most of these people want a set of beliefs they can hang on to, and they like exotic ones in particular because it makes us look notable for holding or knowing them. The map the quote implies is far too self-challenging for a genuine embrace.
  • The true motivation for the multitude of tour scumbot brethren, besides eating and breeding, is simply coping. I loved the cope meme when it first came up – I don’t think anyone recognises how deep that rabbit hole goes, however. It’s not just liberals or whatever; it really applies to us all.

So it is to our benefit that everything presented in the Sutta is, as it always is with the Buddha, strikingly clear and lacking indulgences like those I’ve just engaged in.

As we will see, not-self is always the case and always has been. Not a destination that is reached or a “result” of “cultivation” or “seeking”.

It is simply the case. And you notice it, or you don’t. It also doesn’t matter if you don’t accept it. It’s there, or rather, not there. Regardless of what you think, that’s the beauty of insight. It’s not an academic position to be argued with – it is a perceptual shift. 

If you do mediative work and have a good teacher (yeah, I know, right, akshually do something other than talk shit and post about Hitler as Vishnu aNd a BaSeD Aryan, imagine that), you can have this insight yourself. A glimpse isn’t too hard – but remember, as we’ve discussed, you don’t want this.  

I want to start with the idea of affliction in the Sutta. The reason for this is that this is the most commonly and brazenly misunderstood concept about Buddhisms in right-wing twatter circles, or whatever it is: 

 “Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

The Buddhist notion of dukkha, or suffering, is painted as some sort of weakness inherent in the prescription of the Buddha. The Buddha is often cruelly subjected to soyjack memes constructed by the most ordinary of online midwits and based statue-head accounts. I often wish they would do what they see as the greatest good, going to war, then they may understand the fundamental nature of what the Buddha is getting at here.

As usual, this criticism comes from a place of profound retardation and an unwillingness to do the work. It also fails to account for the totality of what the Buddha is saying and pointing to. Dukkha is critical in understanding no-self.

Walking on the beach this morning, I forgot to pack my usual water bottle. I had proceeded some distance before I noticed it was missing; the noticing was spurred by sensations associated with thirst. A dry tongue and phenomena related to that. This sense of desire, although by no means severe, nevertheless continued to linger right to the end of my walk. 

The affliction was replaced with a temporary sense of pleasure when I drank upon returning to my motorbike. I noted how this sense of satisfaction disappeared almost immediately. It was replaced with another lingering feeling and desire, this time for a coffee. Again, this simply arose, as if from nowhere.

It was interesting because whilst writing this article, I was thinking of a way to best express Dukkha – outside of the cretinous misinterpretations levelled at it, where it is often wrongly interpreted or translated simply as ‘pain’. I guess it can be, as anyone who has or has had a BPD wife or girlfriend will note this phenomenon when it comes to food, for example.

Generally, in the West, we have running water, sufficient food, ability to purchase whatever we need at a whim – it becomes easy for geniuses online who, despite saying they “hate the modern world, the Buddha was soy” – ironically expose themselves as cheerleaders for their decadent existences. We don’t view these desires as afflictions as we can quickly satisfy them. Important to remember this has not always been the case and wasn’t so in ancient India.

When faced with a lack of water this morning, even for a short time, the was a strong sense of desire and thirst for my entire walk. This is referred to as affliction of form in the above quotation. I realised that the ease of procurement prevents us from observing this simple thing: that so-called afflictions arise from somewhere other than our “commanding selves”. Our sense of self has absolutely no control over what appears. We can choose to detach from it, but we can’t decide to stop it.

There was nothing I could do other than simply observe the feeling of thirst that could make the craving disappear. It remained. If form, that is, the body, sensations, and desires were self, I would be able to control them… 

When we extrapolate further and think about what drives everything we do, we can boil it down to the persistent pursuit to satisfy affliction. Everything comes from some other place, and we feel we act on this feeling, this desire to sate desire. Remember, since we don’t control form, this form is not a self. Yet, we walk and act as if it is.

Now, this is the Buddha’s point: 

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.”

With such grace, he says that our delusion is that form, our bodies, sensations, desires or consciousness, are of us and, thus, ourselves. Think for a few moments about how you refer to these things. I am thirsty; I am x, y or z. 

Since we have zero control over what is going on, whatever is going on, cannot be what we refer to as a self. Which I believe simply to be commentaries we run on what is happening. A kind of perceptual mirage; we see something in the desert, and once we look closely, we realise there’s nothing there.

Before you say, “oh, that’s so obvious”, think a moment about how we act. We all walk around in this self-willed state of mind constantly. The way we speak, the way we frame things. We are the master of our wills, I notice people commonly say. However, if this were the case, that we are in control as we feel we are, then the self would have complete control over form and affliction. We don’t have that.

The self can be seen then as a mirage cast in a vast expanse of impersonal form and affliction.

I recall recently watching my grandmother slowly pass away. Her body was disintegrating, as was her ability to think and be conscious. She reminded me almost of a failing robot, as incoherent memories and speech arose. At this time, the Buddha’s words rang truer for me than they ever had previously. Whatever my grandmother was at that time, it was not a stable self. It was form and affliction; at the moments before and at her death, this self was nowhere to be seen.

And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

Aging provides us with another excellent frame to try to understand what the Buddha is saying. We cannot control the ageing of our form – even when bodybuilding, a desire not of ourselves arose to motivate this action. Once in the gym, because we have no control over form, the results we get never measure up to how we want them to. 

Exercise: Take a minute or two to sit down. Think about some actions you took today. Write down one or two. Recollect your experiences.

Where did the initial desire come from? If you think you know, try to locate that place in space. Where is it?

Did you consciously formulate the desire?

Were you able to control the deisre, other than by satisfying it?

If you did not create the desire, were not able to control the desire, and acted to sate the desire, what does this tell you about your idea of self in relation to it commanding the body?

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1 thought on “No-Self

  1. Thanks for grappling with this topic. I too always cringe whenever stumbling across one of those RW buddha memes. They never fail to assert the first noble truth, and always seem to forget or ignore the remaining three.

    On dukkha, one of the best descriptions/breakdowns of it I ever came across in English was by Joseph Goldstein. He broke down the word into two parts.

    The Pali translates roughly as:
    Du = “bad”. Kha = “the empty axel hole for a wheel”

    So one way of thinking about dukkha, and what it entails would be similar to the results of an ill-fitting axel on a cart or vehicle… a bumpy ride. There are both ups and downs. Vicissitudes of life etc.

    I think this more accurately points at the actual far reaching definition of dukkha, as a word encapsulating ALL of experience, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. This is sadly lost in English renditions of “pain” or “suffering”. Moments of mundane sensory satisfaction are also dukkha.

    Thank you and I look forward to following the rest of your writings on this topic.

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