The Truth of non-self

All phenomena of life are impermanent and dukkha. Seeing, colour, hearing, sound, feeling, anger, greed or generosity, they all arise because of their own conditions and then they fall away immediately. There is no abiding ego or "self" who could cause the arising of these phenomena or exert control over them. Realities which are impermanent and dukkha are non-self.

We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Kindred Sayings on Sense, First Fifty, Chapter 1, §1, impermanent, the personal) that the Buddha, while staying at the Jeta Grove near Sāvatthī, said to the monks:

The eye, monks, is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is dukkha. What is dukkha, that is void of the self. What is void of the self, that is not mine; I am not it; it is not my self. That is how it is to be regarded with perfect insight of what it really is.

The ear is impermanent... The nose is impermanent... The tongue is impermanent... The body is impermanent... The mind is impermanent. What is impermanent, that is dukkha. What is dukkha, that is void of the self. What is void of the self, that is not mine; I am not it; it is not my self. That is how it is to be regarded with perfect insight of what it really is... .

We then read that through insight all clinging to the senses and the mind is eradicated and that there are consequently no more conditions for rebirth. In the fol­lowing suttas the same is said with regard to colour, sound, scent, savour, tangible object and mind-object. They are impermanent, dukkha and void of the self.

The truth of non-self, in Pāli anattā, is an essential element of the Buddha’s teachings. This truth has been taught by the Buddha alone, it cannot be found outside the Buddhist teachings. Those who come into contact with Buddhism for the first time may be bewildered, even repelled by the truth of non-self. They wonder what the world would be without a self, without other people. Do we not live with and for other people? It is difficult to grasp the truth of non-self and its implications in daily life.

What is called in conventional language a "person" or "self" is merely a temporary combination of physical phenomena and mental phenomena, which are depending on each other. They have been classified as five groups, in Pāli khandhas: one group of all physical phenomena and four groups of mental phenomena—feelings, perceptions, mental activities and consciousness. The five khandhas are in a flux, in a constant process of formation and dissolution. There is nothing lasting, nothing eternal, nothing unchanging in life.

The khandhas which arise, fall away and do not return. Present khandhas are different from past khandhas but they are conditioned by past khandhas, and present khandhas condition in their turn future khandhas. We read in the Dialogues of the Buddha (I, number IX, Potthapāda Sutta) that the Buddha explained to Citta about the three modes of personality: the past, the present and the future personality. They are different, but the past conditions the present and the present conditions the future. We read that the Buddha explained this by way of a simile:

Just, Citta, as from a cow comes milk, and from the milk curds, and from the curds butter, and from the butter ghee, and from the ghee junket; but when it is milk it is not called curds, or butter, or ghee, or junket; and when it is curds it is not called by any of the other names...

Just so, Citta, when any one of the three modes of personality is going on, it is not called by the name of the other. For these, Citta, are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world. And of these a Tathāgata^[Literally, " Thus-gone", epithet of the Buddha.] (one who has won the truth) makes use indeed, but is not led astray by them.

We call by such or such a name what are actually the five khandhas. People have different characters, different per­son­ali­ties. In reality there is nothing static in what is called a person. The present personality is different from the past personality, but it has originated from the past personality. We read in the commentary to the Debates (to the Kathāvatthu, Chapter I, the Person, 33, 34):

Given bodily and mental khandhas, it is customary to say such and such a name, a family. Thus, by this popular turn of speech, convention, expression, is meant: "there is the person" The Buddhas have two kinds of discourse, the popular and the philosophical. Those relating to a being, a person, a deva (divine being), a "brahmas", are popular discourses, while those relating to impermanence, dukkha, non-self, the khandhas, the elements, the senses are discourses on ultimate meaning. A discourse on ultimate meaning is, as a rule, too severe to begin with; therefore the Buddhas teach at first by popular discourse, and then by way of discourse on ultimate meaning.

The Enlightened One, best of speakers, spoke two kinds of truth, namely, the conventional truth and the ultimate truth, a third is not known.

Therein, a popular discourse is true in conventional sense. A discourse on ultimate realities is also true, and as such, characteristic of things as they are.

Before studying the Buddhist teachings we only knew con­ventional truth: the truth of the world populated by people and animals, the world of persons, of self. Through the Buddhist teachings we learn about the ultimate truth: the mental phenomena and physical phenomena which are impermanent.

The truth of non-self is ultimate truth. It is deep and hard to penetrate. It has been taught by way of similes in the Buddhist scriptures and in the commentaries. The great commentator Buddhaghosa, in his book the Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), illustrates the truth of non-self with similes from Buddhist scriptures. The Path of Purification is a comprehensive exposition of the Buddha’s teaching based on old commentaries and the tradition of the monks in Sri Lanka, written in the fifth century A.D. Buddhaghosa explains that when one thinks of a whole of mind and body, one clings to the concept of person, whereas when this "whole" is seen as different elements which are impermanent, one will lose the perception of "self":

We read in the Path of Purification (XVIII, 25, 26):
As with the assembly of parts
The word "chariot" is countenanced,
So, when the khandhas are present,
"A being" is said in common usage

Again, this has been said: "Just as when a space is enclosed with timber and creepers and grass and clay, there comes to be the term Ôhouse', so too, when a space is enclosed with bones and sinews and flesh and skin, there comes to be the term Ômaterial form'^[ see Middle Length Sayings I, number 28]."

Further on (XVIII, 28) we read:

So in many hundred suttas it is only mentality-materiality that is illustrated, not a being, not a person. Therefore, just as when the component parts such as axles, wheels, frame, poles, etc. are arranged in a certain way, there comes to be the mere term of common usage "chariot", yet in the ultimate sense when each part is examined, there is no chariot and just as when the component parts of a house such as wattles, etc. are placed so that they enclose a space in a certain way, there comes to be the mere term of common usage "house", yet in the ultimate sense there is no house,so too, when there are the five khandhas of clinging, there comes to be the mere term of common usage "a being", "a person", yet in the ultimate sense, when each component is examined, there is no being as a basis for the assumption "I am" or "I"; in the ultimate sense there is only mentality-materiality. The vision of one who sees in this way is called right vision.

If life can be considered as existing in just one moment, it will be less difficult to understand the truth of non-self. In the Mahā-Niddesa (number 6, Decay) the Buddha ex­plains that life is extremely short. In the ultimate sense it lasts only as long as one moment of consciousness. Each moment of consciousness which arises falls away com­pletely, to be succeeded by the next moment which is different.

We read in the Path of Purification (XX, 72) a quotation from the Mahā-Niddesa text about the khandhas which are impermanent:

No store of broken states, no future stock;
Those born balance like seeds on needle points.
Break-up of states is fore-doomed at their birth;
Those present decay, unmingled with those past.
They come from nowhere, break up, nowhere go;
Flash in and out, as lightning in the sky.

One is used to thinking of a self who coordinates all the different experiences through the senses and the mind, a self who can see, hear and think all at the same time, but in reality there can be only one moment of consciousness at a time which experiences one object. At one moment life is seeing, at another moment life is hearing and at another moment again life is thinking. Each moment of our life arises because of its own conditions, exists for an extre­mely short time and then falls away. Seeing arises dependant on eye-sense, on colour and on other factors. It exists just for a moment and then it is gone. Seeing arises and falls away very rapidly, but then there are other moments of seeing again and this causes us to erro­neously believe that seeing lasts. The seeing of this moment, however, is different from seeing which is just past. Colour which appears at this moment is different from colour which is just past. How could there be a self who exerts control over seeing or any other reality? Realities such as kindness and anger arise because of their own conditions, there is no self who could exert control over them. We would like to speak kindly, but when there are conditions for anger, it arises. We may tell ourselves to keep silent, but, before we realize it, angry words have been spoken already. There was anger in the past and this has been accumulated. That is why it can arise at any time. Anger does not belong to a person, but it is a reality. We are used to identifying ourselves with realities such as anger, generosity, seeing or thinking, but it can be learnt that they are mental phenomena, arising because of their own conditions. We are used to identifying ourselves with our body, but the body consists of changing physical phenomena, arising because of their own conditions. Bodily phenomena are beyond control; ageing, sickness and death cannot be prevented. Realities come and go very rapidly, they can be compared with a flash of lightning. One cannot exercise any power over a flash of lightning, it is gone as soon as it has been noticed. Evenso, one cannot exert control over the mental and physical phenomena of one’s life.

The outer appearance of things deludes us as to what is really there: fleeting phenomena which are beyond control. We read in the commentary to the Dhammapada (Buddhist Legends II, Book IV, Story 2) about a monk who meditated on a mirage, but was unable to reach the state of perfection. He decided to visit the Buddha and on his way he saw a mirage. We read that he said to himself: "Even as this mirage seen in the season of the heat appears substantial to those who are far off, but vanishes on nearer approach, so also is this existence unsubstantial by reason of birth and decay."

We read that he meditated on this mirage. Wearied from his journey he bathed in the river Aciravatī and then sat near a waterfall:

As he sat there watching great bubbles of foam rising and bursting, from the force of the water striking against the rocks, he said to himself, "Just so is this existence also produced and just so does it burst." And this he took for his subject of meditation.

The Teacher, seated in his perfumed chamber, saw the Elder and said, "Monk, it is even so. Like a bubble of foam or a mirage is this existence. Precisely thus is it produced and precisely thus does it pass away." And when he had thus spoken, he pronounced the following stanza:

"He who knows that this body is like foam, he who clearly comprehends
that it is of the nature of a mirage,
Such a man will break the flower-tipped arrows of Māra and will go
where the King of Death will not see him."

We read that the monk at the conclusion of this stanza reached the state of perfection. Māra represents all that is evil, he is the King of Death. The person who has era­dicated all defilements will not be reborn, there will not be for him anymore old age, sickness and death, thus, the "King of Death" will not see him anymore.

Life is like a mirage, we are time and again deceived and tricked by the outer appearance of things. We believe that what we experience can last, at least for a while, and that there is a self who experiences things, a lasting person­ality. We take our wrong perceptions to be true, we have a distorted view of realities. Through the development of precise understanding of different realities which appear one at a time, our distorted view can be corrected.

It is difficult to understand and accept that whatever arises does so because of its own conditions and that it is beyond control. People generally want to control their lives, to take their destinies in their own hands. It can, however, even on the theoretical level, be understood that it is impossible to control one’s life. One cannot control one’s body, one cannot control the different moments of consciousness which arise. When there is, for example, the tasting of a delicious sweet, there is bound to be clinging to the flavour immediately after having tasted it. Tasting arises dependent on tasting-sense, on flavour which impinges on tasting-sense and on other conditions; clinging to the flavour arises because of its own conditions, because of the accumulation of the tendency to clinging. Different moments of consciousness succeed one another so rapidly that it seems that several of them can occur at the same time. So long as there is no precise understanding they cannot be distinguished from each other. In reality only one moment of consciousness can arise at a time. I will give an example of different moments of consciousness, arising each because of their own conditions. Someone had given me a huge teddybear which I put in a chair. Time and again it happened that when I walked past it at dusk there were moments of fear before I realized that it was a teddybear. There was seeing which experienced colour or visible object impinging on the eye-sense, and then, before knowing that there was a teddybear, there were many other moments of conscious­ness. There can be fear on account of what is seen, before it is known that it is a harmless object. There were moments of recognizing and defining and when there was the registration that there was only a toy, the fear was gone. This example illustrates that there are different conditions for the different moments of consciousness which arise. They arise each because of their own conditions and in a particular order. They arise and fall away so rapidly that there would not even be time to control or direct them. There is no mind, no soul which lasts, merely rapidly changing moments of consciousness.

It is inevitable that questions arise with regard to the implication of the truth of non-self in one’s life. People generally have questions as to the existence of a free will. If there is no self, only empty phenomena which appear and disappear, can there be a free will, can one have a free choice in the taking of decisions in life? Are a free will and self-control not essential elements of human life? The truth of non-self seems to imply that one’s whole life is determined, even predestined, by conditions. The answer is that a free will presupposes a lasting personality who can exert power over his will. Since there is no "self", merely impermanent phenomena arising because of conditions, there is no free will independent of conditions. The will or desire to act can be wholesome at one moment and unwholesome at another moment. When there is anger, there is volition which is unwholesome, and it can instigate words of anger. When there is generosity, there is volition which is wholesome, it can motivate deeds of generosity. There can be the decision to do particular things, such as the development of generosity or of understanding, but there is no person who decides to do this. There are different moments of decision arising because of different conditions. What one decides to do depends on past accumulations of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness, on one’s education, on the friends one associates with. It may be felt that, since accumulations of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness in the past condition one’s actions, speech and thoughts today, one would be a helpless victim of these accumulated conditions. What is the sense of life if everything is determined. So long as there is clinging to a concept of self there is enslavement, no freedom. When understanding is developed which can eliminate the clinging to a self one becomes really free. Also the development of under­standing is conditioned, it is conditioned by previous moments of understanding, by association with someone who can explain the Dhamma, by the study of the Buddhist teachings. Whatever we think or do is dependent on conditions which operate in our life in an intricate way. The seventh book of the Abhidhamma deals entirely with the different conditions for all mental and physical phe­nomena of life, with the aim to help people to have more understanding of these condi­tions. Even freedom is dependent on conditions. The more understanding of reali­ties develops, the more will there be the letting go of clinging to the importance of self, the clinging to wrong perceptions of reality. Eventually all defilements can be eradicated by right understanding and is this not what can be called the highest freedom?

In order to be able to understand the truth of non-self, the difference has to be known between what is real in the ultimate sense and what is real in conventional sense. It is difficult to clearly know the difference and I will deal with this subject again later on. Seeing, hearing, colour, sound or thinking are real in the ultimate sense. This does not mean that they are abstract categories. They have each their own characteristic and they can be directly expe­rienced. Seeing, for example has a characteristic which is different from the characteristic of hearing. These char­acter­istics do not change, they are the same for everybody. Seeing is always seeing, hearing is always hearing, no matter how one names them. Concepts or ideas such as person, world, animal, are conventional realities one can think of, but they are not real in the ultimate sense. Thinking of concepts such as person or animal is not necessarily unwholesome; we can think of them in a wholesome way or in an unwholesome way. However, we delude ourselves if we take concepts for realities. It is essential to learn the difference between realities and concepts, otherwise there cannot be the development of the Buddha’s Path.

So long as understanding has not been developed to the stage that the momentary breaking up of physical phenomena and mental phenomena has been realized, it is impossible to see things as they really are. We believe that seeing lasts for a while and that what is seen also lasts. Our world seems to be full of people, we believe that we really see them. In reality seeing doesn’t last and colour which is seen doesn’t last either. When we "see" people the situation is the same as watching the projected images on a screen which are rapidly changing. We "see" the image of a person or a thing, but the outer appearance is misleading. In reality there are many different moments arising and falling away, succeeding one another. There are processes of seeing, recognizing, classifying, defining and thinking. When it seems that we see a "whole", the image of a person, it is actually thinking which is conditioned by seeing, by the experience of what is visible.

The Buddha spoke about all that can be experienced through the senses and through the mind in order to help people to develop understanding of realities and to know the truth about them, to realize them as impermanent, dukkha and not self. Seeing is a reality, but it is not self, hearing is a reality, but it is not self, thinking is a reality, but it is not self.

A question which may arise is the following: if people do not exist, what is the sense of developing kindness, which has to be directed towards people, what is the sense of committing oneself to the improvement of the world? The answer is that knowing the truth about realities is no impediment to deal with people, to perform deeds of kindness and to commit oneself to the improvement of the world. Buddhism does not propagate a passive attitude towards the world, on the contrary, it promotes the performing of one’s tasks with more unselfishness, with more wholesomeness. We usually think of people in an unwholesome way, with clinging, aversion and delusion. We cling to an image of ourselves and also to images of other people. We have an image of how they should behave towards us. When someone else does not conform to the image we have of him we are disappointed or even angry. Clinging to images we form up conditions many kinds of defilements, such as conceit, jealousy, avarice or possessiveness. Through the Buddhist teachings we can learn to think of people in the right way, that is, without clinging to false images. While we are in the company of people and talk to them there can be the development of understanding of realities which appear through the senses and the mind. The realisation of the truth that there is no lasting person or self, merely fleeting phe­nomena, does not mean that one has to shun one’s task in society. The Buddha himself was caring for other people, he was thinking of his disciples, he was intent on the welfare of all beings, but he had no wrong view of an abiding person, of a self. He was an example of kindness, patience and compassion. He visited sick monks and looked after them, he preached Dhamma for forty-five years. He exhorted people to develop kindness and compassion towards other beings. Even when one has realized the truth of non-self one can still think of beings, but instead of thinking with clinging, with selfishness, there are conditions to think more often in the wholesome way, and this is to the benefit of oneself and others.

There is no lasting substance or self in the combination of fleeting physical phenomena and mental phenomena we call "person". Neither is there a "higher self" outside. Some people believe that what we could call a self will after death be dissolved into a "higher self" into the "All", or the cosmos. This is not the Buddha’s teaching. Even nibbāna, the unconditioned reality, is not self. All conditioned phe­nomena of life are impermanent, dukkha and not self. The unconditioned reality, nibbāna, does not have the characteristics of impermanence and dukkha, but it does have the characteristic of non-self. We read in the Dhammapada (verse 277-279):

All conditioned realities are impermanent.
Who perceives this fact with wisdom,
Straightaway becomes dispassionate towards suffering.
This is the Path to Purity.
All conditioned realities are dukkha.
Who perceives this fact with wisdom,
Straightaway becomes dispassionate towards suffering.
This is the Path to Purity.
All dhammas are non-self.
Who perceives this fact with wisdom,
Straightaway becomes dispassionate towards suffering.
This is the Path to Purity.

The text states that all dhammas are non-self. Nibbāna is not a conditioned reality, but it is real, it is dhamma. Therefore, when, the text states that all dhammas are non-self, nibbāna is included.

The development of the eightfold Path is in fact the development of understanding of ultimate realities: of seeing, colour, hearing, sound, of all that can be expe­rienced through the senses and the mind. The reader may find it monotonous to read in the texts of the scriptures time and again about these realities. The aim of the teaching on ultimate realities, however, is the eradication of the concept of self. The clinging to the concept of self has to be eradicated first before there can be the elimina­tion of other defilements. When a person can be seen as five khandhas, mere elements, which are arising and vanishing, there are conditions for being less inclined to attachment and aversion towards the vicissitudes of life, such as praise and blame, gain and loss, which play such an important role in our life. We read in "The Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint" (Middle Length Sayings I, number 28) that the Buddha’s disciple Sāriputta explained to the monks realities by way of elements. He explained that the body should not be seen as "I", "mine" , or "I am". We read:

Your reverences, if others abuse, revile, annoy, vex this monk, he comprehends: "This painful feeling that has arisen in me is born of sensory impingement on the ear, it has a cause, it is not without a cause. What is the cause? Sensory impingement is the cause." He sees that sensory impingement is impermanent, he sees that feeling... perception... mental activities are impermanent, he sees that consciousness is impermanent. His mind rejoices, is pleased, composed and is set on the objects of the element.

We are inclined to blame other people when they speak in a disagreeable way, instead of realizing that there is merely sound impinging on the ear-sense, elements impinging on elements. So long as there is clinging to a self realities cannot be seen as mere elements. This sutta makes clear that it is beneficial to understand the truth of non-self. It can only be realized very gradually, in developing understanding of the realities included in the five khandhas.