No, this is not a post about childish teasing or catty comebacks. This post is about anatta – no self. It’s an important Buddhist concept, but it’s also a beguiling one. Some confuse themselves by devoting a great deal of energy into solving the apparent riddle that if there is no self, “then who am I?” Others take the extreme, almost nihilist and literal view that no self means there is no individual identity at all, “we are all one with the trees and the molecules and the air that blows.” This can lead to the very wrong conclusion that “we don’t exist.”
“If there's no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual life?”
As an aside, there’s been ongoing discussion about the “difference” between Western and Asian Buddhism, causing many to assert that we ought to stop this “meaningless” discussion and just talk about Buddhism (I’m afraid that at times I have been one of these, “can’t we just talk about Buddhism?”). But the dichotomy is real, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu touches on this when he talks about Westerners’ “Judeo-Christian background.” Folks, this perspective, this ken, is fundamentally different from the Hindu influence found in South Asia and the Confucian influence found in East Asia. These varying cultural backgrounds have real influence on how we not only perceive the world around us, but how we categorize and “understand” these concepts.
But once again, I digress.
The Buddha knew that to answer such questions like “Do I exist?” or “Is there a self?” was to lead one into a rabbit hole of circular intellectual activity. To directly address the issue of self or no-self was to continue one’s attachment to either concept, which was a source of suffering. The Buddha’s teaching is all about how to end suffering, so to dwell on issues relating to “self” would have been the antithesis of his teaching.
And yet, the Buddha was always talking about the self. Or was he?
In the Dighanaka Sutta: To LongNails (MN 74), the Buddha tells Aggivessana: “A monk whose mind is thus released does not take sides with anyone, does not dispute with anyone. He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi explains that what the Buddha is telling Aggivessana is that “an arahant may use the words ‘I’ and ‘mine’ without giving rise to conceit or misconceiving them as referring to a self or ego.” The Buddha states similarly in the Samyutta Nikaya and the Digha Nikaya when he says, “These are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world, which the Tathagata uses without misapprehending them.”
Let’s make it simple. The image I selected for this post is of me when I was 4 years old. I say it is an image of “me,” when “I” was a little boy, but the boy in that photo is completely different from who “I” am today. And not just because I am 52 and have different likes and dislikes than I did then. I am so different that I am completely biologically different now from when I was 4; every single cell in my body is different now. In fact, every 7 years, my body completely rebuilds itself with new cells. So biologically speaking, I am not the same biological living mass of matter now as when I was 45.
Yet here I am. And those who have known me for more than 7 years would look at me and say, “there you are.”
This is the source of dukkha – that we are impermanent beings living in a world of impermanent phenomena. We are constantly changing, as is the world around us, and yet we speak and act as though everything was permanent. How have you been? It’s good to see you again. You’re looking the same as ever. Ah yes, it’s the same you.
But like an arahant – despite the fact I am not and nowhere near being one – I can cultivate an attitude of ease and accept that this is how the world works while still gaining wisdom about the impermanency of self. And so yes, I tell others I am gay; I love another man who makes me feel comfortable and brings me happiness and joy, and I hope I do the same for him. I love to cook and enjoy having friends over for dinner. I am a Frank Zappa aficionado; I enjoy wine; I like to ride my bicycle along the Lake Michigan shore here in Chicago; and I am going to have fun when I go to see Scissor Sisters next week.
I have a couple blog posts in the works, but the topics are tricky and what I wish to say about them is elusive. So I thought I would turn to something more direct, such as responding to one of the topic suggestions I received via comment in this earlier post. And the question/suggestion is one posed by Ricercar who asked: “Why are some people so sensitive to feedback (good or bad), almost to the point of being dysfunctional?”
At the heart of this question is a desire to understand others. What remains hidden within this desire, however, is the motivation for wanting to gain this understanding. In other words, why do we need to understand others? And often the actual reason we have for understanding another person’s behavior is the wrong reason; if we’re honest, most of the time the reason is selfish – we think we ought to know despite the fact there is no good reason for us needing to know.
This brings to mind an experience I went through many years ago while I was working at a residential treatment facility for children diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders. The boys in the unit where I worked were there for a variety of reasons, but most had been abused.
Right there, all of you reading this have brought forward in your mind a concept of what that means – being abused. Maybe It’s a general understanding, or perhaps it’s a personal understanding either because you are a victim of abuse or you know someone personally who experienced abuse. And based on these different levels of “understanding,” it is very likely that you also have a continuum within your mind regarding the validity of each level of understanding. In other words, if you’ve personally experienced abuse, you will likely consider your understanding of what “abuse” means to be superior to someone whose understanding of abuse is based solely on reading the book, “Sybil.”
This is a bit of a digression, but nonetheless worth bearing in mind. Because if you’re a victim of abuse, your understanding of this violence is not superior to someone who has not been abused – it’s just different. But back to my story.
There was a boy in the unit who was very neurotic. He handled praise very poorly. He would lap up the praise, but afterward frequently do something negative that would result in some form of restriction. It was almost like he didn’t believe he was worthy of any praise and to prove that, he would intentionally do something negative.
Following a therapy session, this boy returned to the unit and went to his room; nothing odd there because it was quiet time and all the boys in the unit were in their rooms. But this boy had a plan. My co-worker on the shift, a woman, was conducting the room checks when she found the boy had attempted to hang himself with his belt. There was no physical injury, no need to rush him to a doctor. My co-worker tried to find out what prompted this, but the boy wouldn’t talk. In this line of work, we often did a lot of tag-teaming; if one staff member was unsuccessful dealing with a kid, we let someone else try.
It was the most surreal conversation I’ve had with someone. The boy did open up to me, but he would only talk to me from beneath his bed. Turned out that during his therapy session, he learned that his mother was coming later in the week to visit him. No wonder he wouldn’t talk to my co-worker, a woman. The boy didn’t want to see his mother – he hated her – but believed he wasn’t being given a choice. So rather than meet his mother, he’d rather die.
Why would you rather die than see her? I asked. Asking a question that begins with “why” is a dangerous one because more often than not, such a question is an invitation to receive a shrug of the shoulders as the response. Any parent can tell you that when a child is caught misbehaving and the child is asked why he or she did the deed, the most common response is “I don’t know.” But this boy told me why.
He hated his mother, a mean-spirited alcoholic bitch of a woman who whored herself during repeated excursions. During these periods of drunken promiscuity, particularly when he was very young, she would lock him up in his room for days without access to food or a bathroom. She would leave newspaper on the floor as if he were a puppy that hadn’t been housebroken. And when she would return to find the mess in his room, she would fly into a rage and shove his face into the excrement.
Listening to this, many of the maladaptive behaviors this boy engaged in, particularly his intentional sabotage of any praiseworthy actions, made sense: I understood the why. But I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that his maladaptive behaviors remained maladaptive, his anti-social behavior was still anti-social; no matter how horrible his mother had been, it didn’t excuse him. It did, however, allow me to be compassionate and empathetic.
Thich Nhat Hanh often speaks of being able to listen deeply and use loving speech. When we speak with someone, especially if it is someone we care about, and the other person is aloof or sharp with us, or even seems to be unable to accept what we are saying, our initial response can be one of confusion, even of feeling hurt. But if we can stop this selfish thinking and bring to mind the thought, “this person is suffering,” rather than dwelling on “this person is a prick,” we are opening up an opportunity for us to be compassionate and beneficial. When we are in that frame of mind, we can listen deeply and with loving kindness.
My recollection of the boy who didn’t want to see his mother is an extreme example. I’m not trying to say that all people who can’t handle praise are victims of abuse. What I am saying is that suffering is at the heart of any maladaptive or antisocial behavior we encounter. We don’t need to know why someone is unable to handle praise or criticism; we just need to open our ears and eyes and avoid viewing this behavior as a personal affront. In fact, directly questioning someone about their puzzling response only draws increased attention to it, likely leading to increased anxiety and more inappropriate behavior.
By practicing the Four Brahmaviharas – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity – we become less obsessed with our egos and simultaneously become more beneficial to others. This is not an easy practice, but it is a critical one.
In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72), the Buddha tells the wandering ascetic Vacchagotta that the Dhamma is deep and very difficult to understand – that it cannot be understood through reasoning alone. I could have read about that boy’s background in his clinical file; everything he told me was in it. But listening to him tell me all this, his voice coming from beneath his bed (it was like he was returning to the darkness of the womb), I was able to experience this information in a way that no reading of a clinical file could reproduce.
After reading an item at Huffington Post about the alleged Republican gay group called GOProud getting smarmy conservative pundit Ann Coulter to headline its Homocon event, I started to think about how this is related to the four fears of water. It was difficult enough for me to comprehend the Log Cabin Republicans, but at least they embrace being gay. GOProud seems bent on neutering the gay politic entirely by ridiculing gay activists by portraying them as taking all the fun out of politics.
I didn’t know that politics was supposed to be fun, you know, like karaoke or your first circle jerk or kissing a boy for the first time (or the second, or third, or fiftieth, or …).
This group asserts that it stands for “individual liberty” and that “every individual should be equal under the law.” But selecting Ann Coulter as your headliner for your inaugural event? This woman (and I use that term in the general sense), whom GOProud has dubbed “the right wing Judy Garland,” famously called former presidential candidate John Edwards a faggot and labeled a Mississippi high school girl an “irritating lesbian” because she dared to challenge the “sanctimony” of a heterosexual-only prom. She’s called Al Gore a “total fag,” and let’s not forget this salacious slag’s knock on Jews, saying in 2007 that they “need to be perfected,” as if she were queen of the Borg. Ann Coulter is no Judy Garland; rather she is the antithesis of the class and grace Judy Garland exhibited, particularly when it came to Garland’s gay fan base.
As I said, all this reminds me of the four fears of those who go down by the water: The fear of waves, fear of crocodiles, fear of whirlpools, and the fear of sharks.
In the Catuma Sutta, the Buddha uses this simile to explain how some who enter the holy life leave it because they are unwilling to accept the demands of monasticism (while the link goes to Wikipitika, I am referring to the translation by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi).
With the fear of waves, the novice decides he doesn’t like being told how to act, how to dress, and how to move his body. With the fear of crocodiles, the novice decides he doesn’t like being told what he can eat and drink and when he can eat or drink it. With the fear of whirlpools, the novice quickly decides that he misses the sensual pleasures of the lay life, of being able to dress as he pleases and accumulate wealth and possessions. And with the fear of sharks, the novice gets turned on by women (or men) and decides he would rather indulge his woody than live celibate.
This self-loathing and denial most noticeably exhibited by the gay “conservative” is really quite perplexing, and undoubtedly a primary factor in why the most sensational political sex scandals almost always involve conservative Republicans. These pseudo-gays consistently lambast the more colorful and, yes, stereotypical members of our community as being inappropriate representatives of the gay community, all the while wearing fishnet stockings and black lace panties beneath their three-piece pinstriped suits.
Instead of fearing the waves of homosexual sensibility, instead of fearing the crocodiles of taking dramatic stands on important issues, instead of fearing the whirlpools of mingling openly with the dancing circuit boys or the drag queens in the pride parades, instead of fearing the sharks of openly accepting same-sex sex without a shred of guilt and all that entails, these moes need to cut loose and join the chorus singing, “Don’t dream it, be it.”
Yes, it is important to have fun. But there’s a time for seriousness as well. And there’s not a single minority issue in American history that was ever successfully changed by being nice about it. It takes dramatic and sometimes shocking acts of civil disobedience. That’s why we celebrate Stonewall, and not the founding of the Mattachine Society.
Expanding upon my previous post – on how we can overdo our practice, particularly when we’re a new convert – I began recalling something my original teacher said one time. Whenever I feel like my practice is losing focus, I return to his simile of the three-legged stool.
I’m sure my teacher hadn’t originated this simile. The essence of this image can be found in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s writings, and that of Thanissaro Bhikkhu as well. But its simplistic beauty is worth sharing, because it had a profound impact on my practice.
Because, you see, Buddhism in America tends to attract intellectual types, and intellectual types tend to over-think just about everything. And when it comes to Buddhism, well, their seemingly erotic fascination with esoteric passages and the nuances of the Pali language often comes off as if they were preparing a dissertation on what the Jhanas symbolize within 21st Century life for the North American heterosexual male.
Sheesh. It’s just Buddhism folks. Yes, it’s profound; yes, it can radically change your life; yes, it can lead you to a sense of happiness unlike anything you can think of or anticipate – but it doesn’t require you to stand on your head while chanting an archaic language from memorized texts in an effort to subtly dissect the mind into its components parts, if there are any component parts to begin with.
All Buddhism requires of you is to be fully aware of what you are doing right now, and understand the consequences of those actions, because out of what happens right now your future arises.
It’s your movie; it wasn’t written for you; you write it as you go along.
Enlightenment doesn’t just magically happen because you belong to the right temple and chant all the right words with all your heart until your voice feels raspy and weak. Enlightenment is not delivered by Santa Claus because you’ve been a good boy or girl and followed all the precepts by rote without a shred of comprehension about what the precepts mean. Shit, happiness doesn’t even come that way. Skip the enlightenment part – how many of us are really invested in achieving total release? Come on, anyone out there? If you are, then you are wasting your freaking time reading this blog or anyone else’s blog.
I want to be a good person. I want to be beneficial to others. I want to avoid actions that harm others. I want to be happy. And when I die, I want it to be without fear.
What about you?
What my practice has taught me is that over-intellectualizing hides the truth. Buddhism will reveal the truth – if you let it. But to have that happen, keep it simple; which brings me back to my teacher’s simile of the three-legged stool.
There are three parts to a successful Buddhist practice: Sila, or virtue; Samadhi, or concentration; and Panna, or wisdom. Now think of each of these three parts as a leg on a stool. If each leg is the same length, then the seat of the stool – that’s you – is level and useful for comfortable sitting. When you sit on such a stool, it is stable and you feel secure, comfortable; you are so comfortable that you can do other things while sitting on that stool without ever thinking about whether it might tip over or you might fall off.
In other words, you are safe to be around.
Given that image, imagine what that stool might look like if all you do is read the suttas. You’ll be able to quote the Buddha like some Bible thumping idiot on a city street corner, but you won’t have a clue as to why people don’t like you. Or if all you do is meditate. You’ll have one hell of a tranquil mind, but you won’t be using its potential; when people go to a dictionary and look up the word “boring,” your photo will be there as the definition. Or if all you do is follow the precepts. You’ll be one unhappy celibate sonofabitch with spiders and cockroaches and rats all over your house, wishing you could join your friends for a beer now and then (I will spare all your delicate sensibilities about the sex part, but let me assure you, it ain’t pretty).
Yet, I’ve met people who I can quickly tell either do nothing but meditate, or do nothing but read the suttas, or who do nothing but blindly follow the precepts and then criticize everyone else for not following them. In fact, that was one of my turn-offs about Zen Buddhism; almost every Zennie I met did nothing but meditate and enthusiastically proclaimed that they needn’t do anything else. I can happily say that my respect for Zen has been enhanced by many of the Zennies you can find in my blog roll.
To be able to develop wisdom, you need to know the Buddha’s teachings; but before you are able to really grasp the teachings, you must develop your concentration through meditation so that your mind is focused; but to effectively develop a focused mind, you must follow the precepts to develop the virtue necessary to have a mind filled with ease, knowing you haven’t done something to bring about bad kamma; but to properly follow the precepts, you must have the wisdom to understand what they mean and how to apply them in your life; but to have that wisdom, you need to know what the Buddha taught and ….
Wisdom is knowing what is worthy of your mind’s attention, not memorization; concentration is having the ability to use your mind to investigate the way things really are, not how you think they are; and virtue is having compassion toward others by developing the Right Actions that lead you to be harmless, not refraining from an action because someone said it is wrong.
When my teacher shared this, my brain was like – duh! This led me to attending the weekly guided meditation sessions he conducted, and to me setting aside 20 minutes every day for meditation at home. It led to me attending his weekly Dhamma class when we methodically went through the suttas and talked about what they meant in today’s world. I still read the suttas over and over. And it led me to come to the dhammasala to work. I helped build the new meditation hall, helped set up and clean up before and after special occasions, and I also started hosting Dhamma study sessions at the library in the town where I lived, because the dhammasala I was attending was a 90-minute drive away and I could only go once a week, sometimes twice if I was fortunate.
That was 10 years ago. And for the most part, that remains my practice today. Am I successful? Depends on your measure. Am I happy? You betcha, but that also depends on how you measure happiness. Am I happy that my partner Benny had to leave the country to go back to Hong Kong? No. Am I happy about the fact I don’t know when or if we’ll ever be together again? No.
But am I happy that today I know my actions were honorable, beneficial and compassionate?
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.