I was looking over some old notes of an investigation I was doing a couple of years ago into the nature of self, and I noticed the notes read with an almost poetic tone so I decided to arrange them into a Dhamma poem. I’m not a frequent poem writer, it does occasionally seem like the right way to express something though, so I just go with it when that happens.
While Zen is better known for its contemplative poetry, the Theravadin texts also contain examples of poetry, many going back to the time of the Buddha. Among them, the Therigatha poems (The Verses of The Elder Nuns) are the oldest known collection of women’s literature in India, with some dating back to 6 BCE. If you are interested in poetry from the Pali texts have a look at the Khuddaka Nikaya, these particular translations are by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
For some contemporary writing you might enjoy the poetry of Ajahn Kalyano on his website at https://www.openthesky.co.uk/
But while this isn’t a post about poetry, and I confess I don’t read a lot of it, it is an opportunity to talk more about investigating self and not self. I’ve posted about this topic before, but I won’t apologise for the repetition because it is a very big subject, and worth the effort to really get a handle on.
In my previous post Let’s Talk About Not Self Baby, I was exploring some ways to practice with not self. In it I suggested that one of the biggest limitations to understanding not self is that we need to use the very thing that creates most of our sense of self to do it – the conceptual mind. As the Third Zen Patriarch says, “To seek the Mind with the discriminating mind is the greatest of all mistakes.” 1
Ajahn Chah used to say it was like looking for your horse while you were riding it; we have to use the mental function that misperceives self to somehow see its own mistake and then correctly perceive self. This is why we sometimes have to come at the issue from the side.
In Western academic and intellectual approaches we want to know what something is, but the teachings only really tell us what self is not. For Western minds this can be frustrating, and it is very easy for us to become dismissive of something if we can’t find a straightforward answer for it.
Indian approaches, historically, were more welcoming of investigating the world by examining what it is not, a eliminative kind of approach that means whatever is left must be the answer. So at the time the Buddha was giving his teachings, his method of talking about the self would have been familiar to his audience.
Would he teach it differently if he was here in the West, in the present day? Perhaps, one of his great skills was his ability to understand just what each individual person needed to hear to enable them to grasp the important points of the teaching. Maybe he would give us a slightly different angle into the subject that worked with our intellectual and analytical way of thinking.
But then again, perhaps he wouldn’t. There is enough information in the teachings for even the most rigidly academically minded Westerner to understand the teachings of not self; the issue that blocks us really is an over reliance on, and an overestimation of the usefulness of, the conceptual mind.
It is only when we are able to let go of the worship of the thinking mind that this teaching can begin to make sense, so perhaps the Buddha would leave things just the way they were to force us to loosen our grip on using logic and intellect.
Just try thinking about not self; it gets very confusing very quickly. Like Vachagotta when he asked the Buddha directly about self and no self, once we start the wheels of our brain working on it we can find ourselves bewildered, and wondering where the self we thought we had before we started thinking about it has gone.2
If this isn’t self, then am I not here? And if I’m not here, then where am I? And if this isn’t self, then what is? Is this all a dream? What is really happening? If it’s all not self then we’re not really here, so nothing matters then, right? If you are so convinced that you are not really here then go to the biggest, angriest bloke you can find and smack him over the head with frying pan. (Please don’t!)
You might be surprised to hear me say it doesn’t actually matter if self does or doesn’t exist, but that is only because it isn’t important to achieving the aim of the teachings. Buddhism is not a comprehensive exposition of knowledge about the all intricate workings of the universe, and the teachings are not an encyclopedia. As the Buddha explained, he had access to much more knowledge than he ever taught, but chose to only focus on one issue:
At one time the Buddha was staying near Kosambī in a rosewood forest. Then the Buddha picked up a few rosewood leaves in his hand and addressed the mendicants: “What do you think, mendicants? Which is more: the few leaves in my hand, or those in the forest above me?
Sir, the few leaves in your hand are a tiny amount. There are far more leaves in the forest above.”
“In the same way, there is much more that I have directly known but have not explained to you. What I have explained is a tiny amount. And why haven’t I explained it? Because it’s not beneficial or relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I haven’t explained it.
And what have I explained? I have explained: ‘This is suffering’ … ‘This is the origin of suffering’ … ‘This is the cessation of suffering’ … ‘This is the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering’.
And why have I explained this? Because it’s beneficial and relevant to the fundamentals of the spiritual life. It leads to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. That’s why I’ve explained it.
That’s why you should practice meditation …”
Specifically talking about self view, the Buddha explained that paying attention to the wrong things will create a sense of self, and thus create suffering, so he advised us, in simple terms, to just not go there:
When you pay improper attention, defilements arise, and once arisen they grow. When you pay proper attention, defilements don’t arise, and those that have already arisen are given up…
Because of paying attention to what they should not and not paying attention to what they should, unarisen defilements arise and arisen defilements grow.
This is how they attend improperly: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? After being what, what did I become in the past? Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? After being what, what will I become in the future?’ Or they are undecided about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? This sentient being—where did it come from? And where will it go?’
When they attend improperly in this way, one of the following six views arises in them and is taken as a genuine fact. The view: ‘My self exists in an absolute sense.’ The view: ‘My self does not exist in an absolute sense.’ The view: ‘I perceive the self with the self.’ The view: ‘I perceive what is not-self with the self.’ The view: ‘I perceive the self with what is not-self.’ Or they have such a view: ‘This self of mine is he who speaks and feels and experiences the results of good and bad deeds in all the different realms. This self is permanent, everlasting, eternal, and imperishable, and will last forever and ever.’ This is called a misconception, the thicket of views, the desert of views, the trick of views, the evasiveness of views, the fetter of views. An uneducated ordinary person who is fettered by views is not freed from rebirth, old age, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. They’re not freed from suffering, I say.”
So the Buddha advises us directly to not speculate about what self could be, because ironically it creates a sense of self. Not only that, the ideas it creates are confusing and complicated, a thicket of views no less. On top of that he also advises us to stop sticking our beaks into everything and anything, and just concentrate on the things that will lead us to the end of suffering. Everything else can wait; we should just concentrate on our biggest problem for now, which is suffering.
So without being able to noodle about not self in our usual fashion, we need to find other ways into the issue. That is where my notes came from; instead of pondering what self is, I asked myself where do I see the evidence of it? When do I know self is manifesting? How does self behave? What does self sound like?
Trying to experience self or not self in the moment is difficult, so looking back at our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours to see if we can find tell tale signs of self is a way we can begin to learn what self looks like. Then once we learn what it looks and feels like, its signatures and modus operandi, then it is much easier to spot it in real time.
So over the course of a few weeks, I just jotted a line in my note pad whenever I had an experience that I realised was a manifestation of self. The pattern I started to uncover in myself was that self driven behaviours tended to cluster around resistance to experience. Any time I didn’t like it, or I didn’t want it, or I was too tired, or I wanted it to happen faster, or I wanted to be over there instead of being over here, I saw that was being created from a perspective of self.
There is nothing calm, or open about self; it is tight and restless, never content. For me, the self driven states are uncomfortable, negative ones, so now I can understand when I feel negativity or discomfort that I should investigate to see where self-view has co-opted my experience for itself. Usually when I uncover it, I can let it go, and let go of the negativity; so understanding not self isn’t just a dry technical matter, it is in itself a potential source of peace and freedom in every moment.
This is the whole point of trying to understand self and not self, it is one of the ways that we create suffering for ourselves and for other people. By mistaking things that are not self as being self, we cling onto things that can never be the way we want them to be, and ultimately we suffer because of it.
We get pleasure from things that are beyond our control, and so we suffer because we cannot have pleasurable experiences when and how we want. We experience pain and discomfort from things that are beyond our control, and so we suffer because we cannot stop unpleasant experiences from happening. When we see the mistake we are making we stop trying to hold onto those things, stop hoping that maybe it might be our lucky day and we can have what we want, accept that those things can never make us happy, and put them down.
We’re all different, but in many ways all the same. Your manifestations of self will be individual to you, as mine are to me, but underneath them all will be the same processes. Have a go at looking for how the self makes itself known in your world, see if it helps you to understand the issue a little better, and see if it brings a bit more peace into your life.
The incorrigible i
i doesn’t have time for this,
i doesn’t want to,
i has a problem with everything,
i doesn’t like it.
i is always focused on the end result,
i doesn’t care where we are now;
i wants to know the cleverest ways,
It is never enough to just get it done.
i doesn’t enjoy the journey,
i wants to know if we are there yet;
i only thinks of the destination,
i doesn’t care for the train or the road or the station.
i wants to take everything for itself:
Sights, sounds, smells, feelings, touch.
i is an impostor, afraid of being found out,
i can have nothing, but always wants more.
i is afraid, i is under threat,
i is weak and fragile,
i is as strong as an egg shell,
But is it i, or is it you?
i could smash at any moment,
i can crack under the slightest pressure.
i is always afraid,
i is fear, and fear is i.
i sneaks in and then “i am mindful”,
i sneaks in and then “i am concentrating”,
Even trying to get away from i,
i says “i must escape from this relentless i!”
i wants fear to be defeated,
So it can be a better i,
i wants you to be more bold,
So you can make i a fearless i.
How to escape then,
this relentless, incorrigible i?
Be wise to the i, be wise to its tricks,
Never, never believe the i.
Watch the breath, watch the mind,
Want for nothing but what’s here,
Take the control, turn down the noise,
And in the quiet you might find the not-i.
- p 42 Small Boat Great Mountain by Amaro Bhikkhu