I don’t know about you, but I find it intriguing and sometimes perplexing that I can feel pretty sure I understand the principle of not-self and yet there are times when I still get caught up in taking things very personally. I know I am not alone in having this experience, it is something that still happens even after years of practice.
I have always assumed that letting go of these responses was a bit of a process and that little by little the tendency to take things personally will somehow wear off eventually. But reading an article this week gave me a new way to understand why it is that understanding the teaching on not self doesn’t necessarily translate immediately into being able to interact with the world in a selfless way, and prompted me to think about the issue in a different way
I was reading a journal article by scholar and practitioner Dhivan Thomas Jones about different ways to think about not self (Jones 2020) and he brought up a useful point that I hadn’t really thought about before. He made the point that when it comes to understanding self and not self, there are actually two selves that we could be talking about – either a metaphysical self or an experiential self.
Metaphysical means relating to a reality that is beyond the perception of the senses, or about transcendence, so we are talking about aspects of self after death, before birth, or other things that we can’t know directly. A metaphysical self isn’t something we think about much these days, but in the time of the Buddha many of the questions he was asked about the self were actually about the metaphysical self, such as do we have a consciousness that goes from life to life, are the body and the soul the same, or is the universe eternal? The last question may appear to be about cosmological matters, but it is still a question about self because in the Brahminic tradition self and the universe were the same so questions about the universe were intricately connected to concepts of a metaphysical self.
But at the same time while we generally find it easy to accept that there is no metaphysical self, this doesn’t change the fact that we have the experience of having a self as we go about our ordinary business. Jones refers to this as our ‘everyday self’ or our experiential self. I realised that this was part of the puzzle as to why I thought I could understand the teachings on anicca but still sometimes get really caught up in my sense of self – I hadn’t paid much attention to the difference between the conceptual, metaphysical self and the experiential one.
This made sense to me of why the Buddha so often declined to answer metaphysical questions in the ways that the questioner might have expected, because spending time pondering conceptual ideas about metaphysical selves was a distraction from spending time engaging with and understanding how self arises as part of our experience – this is where our everyday, experiential self comes from.
One of the most famous askers of metaphysical questions in the suttas was a wanderer called Vacchagotta, who cropped up so often that he even has a whole section devoted to him in the Saṁyutta Nikāya. His questions were generally conceptual ones about the nature of life, the universe, the soul, and about what happens after death. (SuttaCentral 2021) Admittedly the suttas with Vacchagotta in them can be somewhat perplexing at times, but through them we can glean some of the deepest points about the teachings, so they are certainly worth the effort to understand.
It was spending some time poring over the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta (MN 72) that lead me onto the topic for this week’s post, and in it we find one of the Buddha’s most famous rebuttals telling us to stay away from metaphysical questions. In this particular sutta Vacchagotta asked the Buddha his position on ten viewpoints that were common at that time about whether the universe was eternal or not, about whether the body and the soul were the same or not, and about what happens to an enlightened person when they die, but the Buddha replies to each question simply that he does not hold that point of view. Vacchagotta asks him what drawback it is that he sees that leads him to hold none of these views and the Buddha replies:
“Each of these ten convictions is the thicket of views, the desert of views, the trick of views, the evasiveness of views, the fetter of views. They’re beset with anguish, distress, and fever. They don’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. Seeing this drawback I avoid all these convictions.” (Bhikkhu Sujato 2021)
The Buddha’s answer is a telling one because he doesn’t engage with the questions on Vacchagotta’s level at all, he doesn’t draw on arguments for or against each of the viewpoints, nor does he offer alternative theories, he simply doesn’t get drawn into it. Instead he says that doesn’t engage with these viewpoints because holding these kinds of views leads to suffering and doesn’t create the right mental conditions that will lead to enlightenment.
This part I had understood before, but with Jones’s ideas about the difference between understanding the metaphysical self and understanding the experiential self I could now see that the Buddha was telling us to not get caught up in thinking about the metaphysical self because it was a distraction from really understanding how self arises as a direct result of sensory experiences.
This is a particular problem, not just because noodling about speculative matters creates suffering, but mostly because understanding not self on a metaphysical level isn’t the understanding of not self that we need to make progress on the path. The self that we need to understand – and the self that we need to understand as not-self – is the everyday one, the experiential one, the one that arises from experience.
Not self or anatta is a difficult to understand part of the teaching, but there are many famous examples in the suttas that are meant to help us to get our head around it. One famous one is the comparison of the self to a chariot, which Jones explores in his article:
“… in the Questions of King Milinda, the monk Nāgasena denies the self using the ‘Chariot Argument’. This argument involves the comparison of the self or person to a chariot. Just as a chariot is an assembly of parts, such that ‘chariot’ is merely a name for the assembly of parts, so by analogy the human being is made up of the skandhas or constituents, and the ‘self’ is merely a name for those constituents. (Jones 2020, p. 2)
Jones says that the chariot argument is appealing because it seems to make sense, and I’ve certainly found it fairly easy to follow the logic – although the chariot may appear to be one object it is actually made of parts, and none of those parts individually is the chariot, therefore on some sense ‘chariot’ is not real, it is just a convention. Likewise a self or a person exists only as an assemblage of parts and conditions, so the self or person is also not real, it too is just a convention.
But while this seems to have a logical symmetry about it, Jones argues that this argument only really refutes a metaphysical self, it doesn’t say anything about the experiential self: even if we understand the logic of the chariot argument it doesn’t really direct us to anything that will impact on our understanding of the everyday, experiential self – although admittedly the deconstructive method that it uses is useful.
The breaking down of experience into its component parts is a familiar approach in the suttas, and the understanding of the world as reliant on different factors and conditions is a crucial element in understanding the Buddha’s teachings, so the chariot argument follows a familiar tack, so it isn’t this aspect of it that Jones seems to take issue with. His concern seems to be more with the fact that it is a logical argument about self and not-self instead of it guiding us towards a direct experience of self and not-self.
Jones suggests that what is really key for us to understand about not-self is to directly observe that all of our experiences are not self, not to get into conceptual thinking and conjecture about it. He holds that what we really need to focus on is the method that allows us to see this:
“… the Buddha is recorded as teaching a method for observing how all experience is non-self in the following way: ‘Therefore, monks, whatever physical form* [or feeling-tone, or perception, or formations, or consciousness] there is – past, future or presently arisen, internal or external, coarse or subtle, inferior or excellent, far away or nearby – all that physical form [and so on] should be seen with right understanding as it actually is in this way: “this is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self”.” (Jones 2020, pp. 4–5)
*This section on form, feeling tone, etc. is referring to the five khandhas.
He continues that this method requires us to go on to deconstruct experiences as they are happening to us, to make sure that we recognise that all of them are dependently originated, that is that they have only arisen because of a combination of factors and conditions. The chariot argument does have some usefulness while we are doing this because we can observe that like the chariot, whatever we are experiencing is made up of parts, of conditions, and if the conditions were not there then the experience wouldn’t be there either.
When we can recognise that each individual experience of self only appears because the right combination of factors has come together to make it arise then whenever we encounter a sense of self then we can know that it absolutely cannot be a real, continuous self because it didn’t exist before the right conditions came together and it won’t exist when those conditions end.
Jones states that this method is one that requires rehearsal, you have to make this line of response habitual so that each sensory experience you encounter is met automatically with this analysis. His issue with the chariot argument is that it does not direct you to this method and that by thinking that we understand the chariot argument, or other ways of denying a metaphysical self, that we think we understand the whole issue of not self when really we don’t, which might lead us to think we don’t have to analyse our experiences because we already understand not-self.
The key thing is to not focus on the thoughts and ideas we have about self because these are only dealing with our metaphysical self; instead Jones suggests that to really understand not-self we have to continuously put our attention on how self arises in response to experience.
I’ve personally found Jones’s ideas about this to be very useful and it helped me to make a significant shift in my moment-to-moment perception of self and not-self. Using the method he suggests the Buddha is directing us to use, I have been better able to make the connection between how my momentary senses of self arise out of experience, instead of perceiving it as being a continuous self who has momentary experiences.
Previously I think I mostly fell into the trap of seeing the self as a case of ‘me misperceiving experience and putting a self on it’. Even though I was treating sensory phenomena as not self, I was still doing it with ‘me’ as the agent who was seeing it incorrectly, or with ‘me’ doing the clinging.
When I applied the method that Jones talked about it made me see that I had been looking in the wrong place. Jones’s way of putting it created a shift for me, instead I was able to witness that a self had arisen as a result of conditions, and because it was the result of conditions then it definitely couldn’t be a real self.
As I mentioned last week while writing posts I find myself occasionally feeling stuck and not knowing what to write. Using the method suggested by Jones I was more able to see that it was the experience of stuckness that created a momentary self, and that by analysing both the feeling of stuckness and the self it created it was clear to see that the self that had arisen was not my ‘true self’. It wasn’t a person I needed to identify with, it wasn’t who I was, it wasn’t a problem I needed to fix, or a story I needed to tell -it was merely a response to a particular experience.
In fact it made me see even more clearly that any and every instance of self that I experienced couldn’t possibly be my ‘true self’ (if such a thing exists) because all of them had only arisen out of my responses to sensory experience. But what it made really clear to me was that this approach was one that needed to be continual and habitual, that each and every sensation that I was conscious of needed to be met with this method of recognising it as only present in my experience because of a combination of conditions.
Selves are being made constantly out of our experiences, so we need to constantly observe and analyse our experiences so we can keep intercepting these selves and keep noting that all of them are not and cannot be self. This was a level of attention to detail and a level of discipline that I have suspected was needed, but until now my application of has been pretty patchy. But I can understand why that would be the case because if you still react as if some of those senses of self are real then you get distracted and taken in by them, and also if you don’t recognise that what you are experiencing is a self then you won’t know to intervene and stop it.
I can appreciate Jones’s argument about the importance of understanding the difference between whether we are talking about a metaphysical self or one that arises from experience because I can see that this was a distinction I hadn’t been making. The only way to really understand the arising of self out of experience is to experience it directly, you have to notice that a sense of self is present and you have to analyse it to see that it is only here because of a particular set of conditions, and conclude that therefore it is not your ‘self’.
Our experiences of self seem very real, and the experience itself is real – we don’t hallucinate a sense of self, we do actually feel like a self is present. But what we feel isn’t actually a self, it is just a construction created by a response to sensory experience. For Jones just thinking about this won’t make any change to how we engage with and understand our experiences when they are happening to us, and I can now appreciate that metaphysical questions encourage us to think about our experiences instead of engaging with them directly, and that is perhaps why the Buddha didn’t give answers to metaphysical questions, and why he would instead direct the questioner towards practice and direct experience.
I’ll admit that I’ve struggled to put just how and why the points Jones made created such a significant shift for me into words, but it has made a big change to my moment to moment experience. In each moment as a feeling comes up, like a knot in my stomach, or an impulse to avoid doing an important task, and then a little narrative starts about ‘I don’t want to do this, maybe I can do it another time’, I recognise that whatever I am experiencing is just a response to experience and it isn’t really who I am. This has allowed me to see just how constructed all experiences of self really are and has given me the freedom to not have to follow my feelings.
To give an example of this, I had an awkward phone call to make and at the time I had pencilled in to make the call I had a spontaneous impulse to not do it. But because I had been breaking down every sense of self that had arisen for a few days I immediately recognised both that it was a sense of self and that it wasn’t real, and let it go instantaneously and made the phone call without a second thought. This kind of clarity doesn’t happen all the time for me, but it does show me that if I can see things correctly then I don’t have to be held hostage by these selves and the uncomfortable feelings they bring with them.
As I said in last week’s post, selves create a lot of suffering and using them as a strategy for happiness is a really terrible and counterproductive one, so getting away from them is a major way to gain some inner peace. What I’ve found particularly liberating is being able to recognise that none of these senses of self are real, that they cannot be real, and that if I can remember that then all I have to do is to let them go and the strife they create will end. Enlightenment in the suttas is sometimes referred to as taking off the yoke or putting down the burden, and these analogies make sense to me when I experience the freedom that comes from the times when I am able to see through that sense of self and simply let it go.
There’s no doubt that the teachings on not self are hard to understand but getting to the heart of them gives us a level of release that nothing else comes close to. We can sometimes forget that the reason we are practicing is to be freed from suffering and get distracted by metaphysical questions, conceptual theories, or perfecting meditation techniques, but at the end of the day all the different elements of the practice are just tools to help us to have the direct experience that will allow us to let go of what is causing us suffering. The self is one of those causes, so learning to let go of it more than key, it is essential to our lasting happiness.
Bhikkhu Sujato (2021): Aggivacchasutta. Access to Insight. Available online at https://suttacentral.net/mn72/en/sujato?layout=plain&reference=none¬es=none&highlight=false&script=latin, updated on 10/7/2021, checked on 10/8/2021.
Jones, Dhivan Thomas (2020): Three Ways of Denying the Self. Available online at https://chesterrep.openrepository.com/handle/10034/623902.
SuttaCentral (2021): Pali dictionary results for vacchagotta. Available online at https://suttacentral.net/define/vacchagotta, updated on 10/7/2021, checked on 10/8/2021.