One of the fundamental teachings of the Buddha is that of “not self.” But we feel our bodies, we sing and shout, we build and destroy and then say, just like the young Dongshan, “I AM! How can Buddhism say otherwise?”
In the Pali Canon there is a sutra about this. A wanderer asks the Buddha, “Is there a self?” and the Buddha does not answer. Then the wanderer asks, “Then is there no self?” and again the Buddha does not answer. The wanderer gets up and leaves. The sutra doesn't say that he left in anger or confusion or if he left satisfied. It just says the got up and left. After he is gone, Ananda the Buddha's attendant asks the Buddha, “Why didn't you answer?” And the Buddha replies, “If I said 'yes, there is a self' that would support the mistaken view that the soul is eternal. If I said, 'No there is no self' that would support the mistaken view that denies any existence whatsoever. And on top of that, the poor wanderer would ask, 'Does the self I used to have now not exist?'"
The Buddha taught that one of the characteristics of all conditioned phenomena is anatta. “Atta” is usually translated from Pali as “self” or “soul.” “Anatta” is the negation of this: “not self” or “not soul.” How can we understand this?
If you had met me about 30 years ago, you would have met someone who was fairly satisfied with life. I was a loving husband and proud and happy father. I worked hard and was respected by my co-workers. I was strong and healthy. I didn't think everything was perfect, but it was good. Then I had a difficult year. My wife left me for another man and wanted a divorce. The place where I worked had financial problems and I was laid off. On top of this, I became diabetic and had to start taking insulin. My whole relationship with food and with my own body changed drastically. I felt like I had died. The person that I thought I was was defined by my family position, my career and my health. I felt that all of those things had just been turned upside down. The person that I was so sure that I was did not exist any more. And yet, there I was, or at least there was an awareness of being present. I didn't understand how that could be.
This is an illustration of the Buddha's teaching that all phenomena are not self. If we look closely, we have to admit that what we call ourselves is not our body, our thoughts, our feelings, our social relationships... In my understanding, this says that when we go looking for the self, we find nothing that we can point to or hold on to. There may be something beyond conception, ungraspable, but it's practically blasphemy to call it “self” or to even say “there is something.” This is true not only of what we usually call ourselves, but also for what we usually call things. We think we know what something is, but the closer we look, the more elusive it becomes. This is something that modern science is also learning. When we get closer and closer to something, whatever it is seems to vanish and be replaced by something else, but when we keep moving in that too turns out to be elusive. In the end there is nothing to grab on to. Whatever we try use for an anchor, whatever we try to grab on to, just winds up slipping through our fingers. “Oops, that's not it!” We are unable to find anything that is it.
There is no denying that there is the experience of a body, there are sensations, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness. The teaching of not self says don't try to hold on to these as if they could constitute some essential self, because they can't. Don't think of them as unchanging or eternal. They're not. But our ego desperately wants to believe in them and hold on. We try to assert a self and then defend it, and in so doing we suffer greatly and sadly we cause a lot of suffering in those around us.
In Tassajara, the monastery of the San Francisco Zen Center, it is a practice for every new monk to give a short talk about their path to practice. It's called a “Way Seeking Mind Talk.” When I was there, I gave my own and heard many others. Almost every one was a description of a person's collision with the insubstantiality of the body, a career, or of their close relationships. This is what brought those people to the monastery. “If I am not these things, who am I?”
Here is a quote from Ayya Khema:
That person that I've been regarding with so much concern, that person trying to do this or that, that person who will be my security, will be my insurance for a happy life — once I find that person — that person does not really exist. What a frightening and insecure idea that is! What a feeling of fear arises! But as a matter of fact, it's just the reverse. If one accepts and bears that fright and goes through it, one comes to complete and utter relief and release.In order to really do this, to go through this fright all the way to the other side, we need to really know the causes and conditions related to this sense of self. We need to be intimate with our bodies, our sensations, perceptions, thoughts, our consciousness: the five aggregates that are listed in the Heart Sutra. Inasmuch as we can do that, we can release them from our grasp. We don't try to do this in zazen. We can't try to make it happen. The very fact of us trying is asserting and clinging to the fiction of self. We just do zazen and see what happens. We can't let go. Letting go lets go.
The first zen ancestor in China was the Indian monk Bodhidharma. A seeker came to him and said,
“Master, my mind is troubled. Will you pacify it for me?”© 2006, Burai Rick Spencer
Bodhidharma said, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”
The disciple went away and threw himself into meditation in order to comply with this request. Eventually he returned and said, “I have searched for my mind, but I can't find it anywhere.”
And Bodhidharma replied, “There, I have pacified it!”