Self & Not-Self: The Buddhist Teaching on YOU

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The Buddha’s teaching on anatt›, or not-self, is often mystifying to many Westerners. 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 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. 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 [§1].

After his awakening, the Buddha could have talked about anything at all, but he chose to talk on 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?” [§2] 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. 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 at true happiness. 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 it. 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. 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 made the arrow, what the arrow was made of, what kind of wood, what kind of feathers. As the Buddha 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 [§3]. 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? What am I? Do I exist? Do I not exist?” However, the Buddha listed all of these as unskillful questions [§10]. Once, when he was asked point-blank, “Is there a self? Is there no self?” he refused to answer [see Talk 2]. 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 [§§4-5]. 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 [§6].

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