Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part One of, oh, about Three

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, March 19, 2011

Impermanent are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Suffering are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

Without self are compounded things,
Prone to rise and fall.
Having risen, they’re destroyed,
Their passing truest bliss.

So, we have this self thing, or rather don’t have it but think we do. The self is at least in part a product of the human mind, it is a fabricated or compounded thing. We have seen in the previous weeks that the self is both necessary for the function of sustaining human life, and the source of all that ails us. What are we to do? This is right at the locus of the Buddhist project: it is a matter of training the mind with regard to the human dilemma.

The self is a fabrication, but not an isolated fabrication; it gives rise to a vast structure of additional fabrications, emotions and intentions and behaviors that are sustained by and help sustain that self. With the sense of self springs forth the resolve to get for it what it wants, and to protect it from what it fears, to engage in acts of speech body and mind on behalf of the self. It gives rise not only to a self-centered intentionality but also to a self-centered conceptualization of the world, populated with additional fabrications that best serve self-interests and cleansed of fabrications that don’t. Any development of qualities of mindfulness, concentration or mental purity are simply distractions from self-centered impulses.

This mesh of fabrications, emotions and behaviors is like a wooden bridge designed to retain its structural integrity even as some individual part might fail or be devoured by termites. For this reason it is impossible to remove the self alone; you would just get a self-shaped hole that would then be fabricated back into something substantial, like the hole of a donut. For instance, if your stake is too strong in fame and gain or your actions are directed exclusively by greed and hatred, you will have too much energy invested to let go of the fabrication of the self that provides justification for this investment.

By way of analogy, it is hard to let go of the notion that money has a substantial existence as long as you are earning, spending and investing it. It is hard to let go of the reality of Santa Clause as long as you are leaving cookies for him that disappear in the night, as long as he leaves cool toys for you by morning, not to mention spotting him getting kissed by your mom. It is hard to let go of the notion that God exists as long as you are praying to Him, as long as He is blessing you with His presence and as long as He intervenes in the world for your benefit. It is easier to sustain the sense of presence of a departed loved-one as long as you keep his bedroom as it was, and his chair in front of the T.V. Your intellect might tell you otherwise, but the stake you place in these things is nevertheless too great to let go of them any further than intellectually.

The task in Buddhist practice is to loosen the grip of the self and all of its manifestations, partly through proper understanding and aspiration, partly through giving up the behaviors rooted in the self, and partly through gaining awareness and deconstructing the actual processes by which selves are fabricated by the mind and through which these in turn give rise to having a stake in them, and to suffering. It is necessary to focus not only on the delusion of self, but at the same time on its manifestations because these all reinforce each other.

Given the embeddedness of the self in a greater structure of fabrications, intentions, behaviors, connections and attachments, it is important to recognize that the termites of practice cannot simply attack the self, they must seek to eat away at the various parts of the entire wooden bridge until the whole thing collapses under its own burdensome weight, plunging the self, its fabrications and urges, and self-centered behaviors into the depths below to be washed away by a torrent and carried into the clear blue sea.

On the Noble Eightfold Path the mind is tuned, honed, sharpened, tempered, straightened, turned and distilled into an instrument of Virtue, Serenity and Wisdom. The sense of self, tweaked, twisted, thinned, stretched, readjusted and spun, does not make it through to the end of the Path. This is the ultimate triumph of selflessness. I would like to consider how the termites of practice eat away at the bridge of self-centeredness with regard to each of the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path, but to begin with the religiosity that is prior to the Path.

The Termite of Simple Religiosity.

I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of religiosity in Buddhism. It seems to be a universal function of almost all religion to in some way or another weaken the grip of the self or the stake we place in the self. One way in which religion does this is by dethroning the self from the central role we tend to accord it by replacing it with a higher being, a higher truth or a higher purpose. God commonly serves this function. The closest equivalent in Buddhism is devotion to the Triple Gem as a guide to a life entirely outside the grasp of the self. The Buddha realized that life, the Dharma instructs us how to realize that life and the Sangha inspires us with living examples of devotion to that life. Even before the Buddhist child has any understanding of what that life involves the reverence for an alternative to self-centered life begins to gnaw at the grip of the self. Entering into an understanding of the Dharma takes the Buddhist into the company of the Sangha onto the Noble Eightfold Path toward the attainment of the Buddha.

In addition, many practices running through all religiosity, including Buddhist, are physical expressions of selflessness, including bowing, which seems to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep roots, and including the various expressions of respect or veneration. It somehow has an inherent capacity to confront self-centered attitudes. Ritual also has the capacity to step outside of self-centered behaviors and attitudes, insofar as they are actions that are fixed and prescribed rather than driven by self-centered volition. They also are generally connected with, and therefore reinforce, the elements of higher truth described in the last paragraph, generally as expressions of reverence.

Religious communities also tend to foster an environment relatively safe from otherwise pervasive samsaric conditions, such as competition and anxiety overload. The Buddhist community in particular has generosity in its veins, and various means of promoting and ecouraging this as a fundamental value, so that for the member of that community the need to protect personal interests naturally wanes.

All of these things serve to eat at and weaken that entrenched sense of self. Religiosity has the capacity also to encourage wholesome mental factors such as kindness and tranquility. This is the beginning of qualities further developed in the Noble Eightfold Path, which will itself as a whole further develop selflessness.

The Termite of Right View.

Right View develops on three levels, through familiarity with the teachings of the Dharma, through reflection and finally through insight beyond conceptual thinking, seeing things directly as they are. Familiarity with the teachings and reflection are not sufficient for the full development of Right View, because they do not in themselves shake up our world in the way Buddhist practice calls for. For example, a theoretical physicist while on campus inhabits a curious intellectual word of strings of vibrating probabilities that have already jumped this way or that depending on who is observing at the moment, but at home inhabits the same old world—wife, dog, kids, dinner, TV—that most of us inhabit; the one does not impinge on the other. Not-self should impinge. If it does not impinge you will continue to be caught up in suffering, in Greed, in Hatred, in misperceptions, in unskillful and harmful behaviors. So far in this series of posts on Non-Self I have attempted to impart Right View of the first two levels. At its best this should provide the closest jumping off point from which to plunge into an experience beyond concepts, beyond language that will call forth a radical reorientation.

To understand insight beyond conceptual thinking, consider what the potter knows. The potter goes beyond mere conceptualizations of his domain and learns the materials and tools by feel or intuition, in ways that cannot readily be put into words. In fact, much of what the potter knows from experience is known not by the brain but by the fingers. By the same token, the greater part of Right View is a direct experience of the way things are, unmediated by conceptual thought. When we got into the path we found ourselves actually working with the material of life, just as the potter works with his or her materials and tools. Very prominent in the Buddhist path is the mind itself, which is the primary material we work with.

What is it that the Buddhist practitioner sees directly? In short, the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and not-self, along with the Four Noble Truths, which connect relate suffering causally to the misperception of self and its consequences. We become aware of a world in constant flux, where changes propagate continuously through an ever evolving network of contingencies, in which we seek in vain for any semblance of solid ground, any constant we can grab onto. But as soon as we grasp something we think we can rely on it begins to melt away in the constant flux of existence. It is painful when our hopes and plans cannot keep pace with reality. What we seek more than anything in this flowing network of contingencies is a self, a constant reference point, a lasting identity, and trying to hold on to this becomes the most painful thing of all. No wonder we had always felt so insecure and anxious. The only way out is for our minds to become as open and as fluid as the world.

The termite of Right View can chew away at our conventional misunderstandings to help us see what is needed directly, but he will not succeed without the aid of all of the termites of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Next Week: The Termites of Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

8 Responses to “Non-Self and Buddhist Practice – Part One of, oh, about Three”

  1. TheNaturalMind Says:

    “The only way out is for our minds to become as open and as fluid as the world.”

    How can “we” open “our” minds if there’s no-self?


  2. bhikkhucintita Says:

    It is not that there is no self, it is that it arises from mind as a fabrication. It is as real as anything else. We also fabricate that that self “has” a mind. That is the mind that needs to be as open and as fluid as the world.


  3. TheNaturalMind Says:

    So there’s mind, which composes a self, and a part of that composite self is another composite structure, the self-mind. And its the self-mind that needs to be open and fluid?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      More or less, and openness and fluidity are possible with the release of the self, the self-mind and any other obstructing fabrication. So the self-mind cannot be entirely open and fluid.


  4. TheNaturalMind Says:

    Okay, thank you. Very insightful post.


  5. Branko Says:

    Sorry, I’m not a native speaker and I have a problem understanding the last part of the following sentence:

    “The task in Buddhist practice is to loosen the grip of the self and all of its manifestations, partly through proper understanding and aspiration, partly through giving up the behaviors rooted in the self, and partly through gaining awareness and deconstructing the actual processes by which selves are fabricated by the mind and through which these in turn give rise to having a stake in them, and to suffering.”

    Who has stake in what? Could you please reformulate it somehow?

    Thank you


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Sorry. That sentence is a lot to chew. It is intended to summarize the discussion of the last few weeks and to anticipate that of the next weeks.
      I use “stake” in roughly the way others have used “attachment.” The Pali word is upadana, which actually means fuel, that which fire attaches itself too when it burns with craving. I like “stake” because one can have a stake in both the positive and negative.
      A stake arises in fabrications, first in the fabrication of the self, then in what serves the self and what is a danger to the self, or an obstacle in getting what the self wants. To loosen the stakes is to loosen the control the self imposes. To loosen stakes is partly a matter of recognizing the delusion behind them and partly of giving up the behaviors that come from having a stake.
      I hope that helps.


  6. Branko Says:

    Thank you Bhante. And I keep reading your posts with great interest.



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