Note how I ended Part 1 of this post. I did not say that “once I have no self, then I am free from suffering.” Why? Because those two little phrases “I have” and “I am” both assume a self, an entity that “has” and “is.”
Many Buddhists miss this point and skip over “no self” when talking about the Buddha’s goal to end suffering (dukkha). They go right to feeling good, stress reduction, gratitude, forgiveness, self-compassion, and other practices that are all about helping ME. I’ve even had to sit through guided meditations on lovingkindness that aim to make me feel better because I have kind thoughts for others. A 2017 article in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle is titled “Forgiveness is not Buddhist.” The method the author uses to analyze forgiveness can be applied to many other currently popular practices:
The self-interest implicit in this exercise … reinforces attachment to a sense of self. As taught by some Western Theravada teachers, this self-interest is made quite explicit: people are encouraged to practice forgiveness to make themselves feel better. For me, at least, such interpretations go against the basic tenets of Buddhist practice.
If your eyes glaze over when I start getting wonky, you can skip the rest. The first paragraphs say it all. But I continue because I continue to struggle with my own sense of self. (And just that sentence is loaded with the challenges of that struggle.)
There are many suttas in the series of teachings about the processes of human living that we use to make a self, the Khandasaṃyutta in the Saṃyutta Nikāya. The suttas analyze how we live into five groups of activities: bodily, perceiving, feeling, willing, conscious. There are four ways we tend to look at each of these to make selves. For example, I can look at my conscious activity as my self, or think that my self has conscious activity, or that conscious activity is inside my self, or that my self is conscious activity. We then tend to hold on to (cling to) this self identity in order to function in this crazy world. That’s why the suttas call them “groups subject to clinging.”
In this series there is a wonderful sutta about an old monk named Khemaka, who was “sick, afflicted, gravely ill.” When his fellow older monks approach Khemaka to see if he knows how “no self” might alleviate his suffering, they find that Khemaka fully understands how we cling to a self through these processes. But when the monks tell Khemaka that he must really be enlightened, he says “I am not an arahant …. Friends, [the notion] ‘I am’ has not vanished in me,” even if I don’t regard any of these processes as “This I am.” Khemaka then resorts to a simile to explain how hard it is to rid ourselves of the conceit “I am.”
Suppose, friends, a cloth has become soiled and stained, and its owners give it to a laundryman. The laundryman would scour it evenly with cleaning salt, lye, or cowdung, and rinse it in clean water. Even though that cloth would become pure and clean, it would still retain a residual smell of cleaning salt, lye, or cowdung that had not yet vanished. … So too, friends, even though a noble disciple has abandoned the … fetters, still, in relation to the groups subject to clinging, there lingers in him a residual conceit ‘I am,’ a desire ‘I am,’ an underlying tendency ‘I am’ that has not yet been uprooted…. SN 22.89
Just as the owner of the clothing might “put it in a sweet smelling casket” to get rid of the laundry smell, Khemaka describes how to uproot “the residual conceit ‘I am,’ the desire ‘I am,’ the underlying tendency ‘I am.'” He contemplates the rise and fall of these processes we use to make and cling to a self.
The older monks may say that “the Venerable Khemaka has explained, taught, proclaimed, established, disclosed, analysed, and elucidated the Blessed One’s teaching in detail,” but there’s a lot more involved in that phrase “contemplating the rise and fall” of processes. I’m still at the start of staying focused just on the rise and fall of breathing.
The Buddha tells the ascetic Bāhiya what’s going on when ultimately focusing on the rise and fall of each moment.
And since for you, Bāhiya, in what is seen there will be only what is seen, in what is heard there will be only what is heard, in what is sensed there will be only what is sensed, in what is cognized there will be only what is cognized, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be with that; and since, Bāhiya, you will not be with that, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be in that; and since, Bāhiya, you will not be in that, therefore, Bāhiya, you will not be here or hereafter or in between the two—just this is the end of suffering. Udāna 1.10
In other words, there is just seeing going on. I don’t conceive ideas of what I’m seeing. I don’t feel emotions about what I’m seeing. I don’t tell stories about what I’m seeing. I don’t make wishes about what I’m seeing. When I free myself of these activities, then I don’t see. There is only seeing going on.
On the road to “no self” it is possible to learn about oneself. Actually, that last sentence is a good example of “the residual conceit ‘I am.'” The next step on the road to “no self” is to see what I’m doing, not “to learn about myself.” Important, but not there yet. Two more I’s still going on: I see what I’m doing. When there is only seeing of doing, there is no I and “this is the end of suffering.”
Back at where I am still struggling, I recently observed how I am addicted to adrenaline. This was the next level below the insight I had in May about how I become excited when pursuing a train of thought. Recently I saw how that excitement both stimulated and fed on the release of adrenaline in my body. I saw this when looking at an instance where I was disagreeing with something someone said during one of our dhamma discussions. The disagreement was all in my head. It was more quibbling than arguing. But the adrenaline flowed and kept the quibbling going.
A friend recently said that I was “taciturn in the group settings we’ve shared.” I’ve learned to say less over the years of chats with fellow meditators before and after a sit. Back in 2018 I posted a description of how I used to get into disagreements during these chats. Now I just keep it to myself to preserve the peace. I’m still arguing all the time in my head. Looking into what was going on in there helped me see how much I like the adrenaline rush I could feel.
Another sutta earlier in the series in which Khemaka appeared analyzes a number of the ways that the Buddha behaved as “homeless” in the sense of not having a self as a home. The final behavior was that “he would not engage people in dispute.” To explain this line, the Venerable Mahakaccana describes what I’m doing all the time and what needs to be eradicated on the way to “no self.”
And how, householder, does one engage people in dispute? Here, householder, someone engages in such talk as this: ‘You don’t understand this Dhamma and Discipline. I understand this Dhamma and Discipline. What, you understand this Dhamma and Discipline! You’re practising wrongly, I’m practising rightly. What should have been said before you said after; what should have been said after you said before. I’m consistent, you’re inconsistent. What you took so long to think out has been overturned. Your thesis has been refuted. Go off to rescue your thesis, for you’re defeated, or disentangle yourself if you can.’ It is in such a way that one engages people in dispute. SN 22.3 Haliddakani Sutta.
Another insight I’ve (!) had lately is into the rest stop at which I seem to be stuck in my project to explore the many ways that Buddhist philosophers forget or even contradict the teaching about “no self” as a mark of how we exist. I had been thinking that this project had just become another victim of my tendency to embark on a grand scheme and then get bogged down in the execution and become bored with it as I pursued new interests. True, but I also realize now that finishing the project will require getting further along on the path to “no self.”
Not to conclude, but just to bring this to an end: baseball is on my mind. Yes, that loaded word “my.” Tommy Lasorda, the long time manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers died this week. Now I’m going to compound the challenge to all I’ve been saying about “no self.” When the death notice mentioned that Tommy had been with the Dodgers organization for 72 years, I thought to myself that I have been a Dodger fan for at least 70 years. I vividly remember the day in the Spring of 1951 when my father and my maternal grandfather took me from my second grade recess play yard to drive me down to Ebbets Field to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play. I was hooked for life, and still proudly wear a Brooklyn Dodgers hat most of the year. Just another example of why “no self” is such a difficult concept and practice.