Anatta: Entry into the Formless

This past Sunday Bobby focused our Sangha’s thoughts on anatta, the concept of no self. Anatta is the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance, that the stories we tell about ourselves to construct an identity are empty and meaningless. We suffer when we perceive ourselves as separate, instead of embracing our connection to everyone and everything. 

To help facilitate and explore the experience of anatta, Bobby presented a guided meditation from Ajahn Punnadhammo entitled “Entry into the Formless” (link posted with permission). This guided meditation is based on the Cula-suññata sutta: the Lesser Discourse on Voidness.

Ajahn Punnadhammo is the abbot of Arrow River Forest Hermitage in Northern Ontario. He has studied and practiced Buddhism since 1979, and was ordained in Thailand in the Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah in 1992.

Below are Bobby’s notes on the talk:

The three characteristics of being:  anicca: impermanence; dukkha: suffering; anatta, , not self

“There is no self.”

Thanissaro Bhikku: The one time the Buddha was asked point-blank if there is or isn’t a self, he refused to answer  he stated that the views “I have a self” and “I have no self” are both a thicket of views that leave you stuck in suffering. When the Buddha taught not-self (anatta) — as opposed to no self — he was recommending a strategy for overcoming attachment, a way of cutting through the mind’s tendency to cling to things by claiming them as “me” or “mine.”  The Buddha never said that “There is no separate self” either. He declined to get involved in the issue of whether any kind of self exists or doesn’t exist.

All suffering arises from identifying anything as me or mine. The Buddha actually said that people suffer because they identify with things that change. When the mind is strong enough that it doesn’t need to identify with anything, that’s when there’s no more suffering.

Dogen Zenji: To study the self is to forget the self……or,   To study the self is to know the self. To know the self is to forget the self.  

Ram Dass:  Dharma is designed to get rid of basic ignorance from which suffering arises. Suffering arises from the ignorance of separateness. Not that separateness isn’t part of the dance, it’s our identification with our separateness. Source of suffering.  

Zen koan: Searching for owner of empty house not finding anyone. who is doing the looking?

The simile of a chariot. When broken up into pieces can you find the essence of chariot?   “Chariot” is the name for the conglomeration of parts in proper order.  So it is with human beings. There is body, feelings, perceptions ,mental formations of consciousness.  But we can’t find essence in just these factors, the five aggregates.  The individual components of body and mind are empty of substance

In Tibetan Buddhism  it is said that nothing exists from its own side. No phenomenon is a self-existent entity. It only exists because of causes and conditions.  Nothing inside or outside can be singled out as a self-existing substantial entity. 

Aristotle: Western things have essence and changing qualities. Buddhism says no essence to be found. No self-existent thing. What we identify as as a thing is only convention a reflection or result of interplay of other things. Momentarily existing entities. Nothing you identify as a self within organism.  

Joseph Goldstein: The Big Dipper is just a random conglomeration of seven stars. But it is shaped in such a way that we give it a name and imbue it with stories. So it is with an identification of self. 

Ajahn Punnadhammo: In meditation, we look at the body and the mind closely and all we find are different factors including the factor of knowing which in itself is impersonal, conditional, relational and empty of substance. There is knowing and the known but no one doing the knowing. 
To impose a self into the system to insert a self is mental shorthand, ignorance. If we look at any given moment, we can’t find a self. It is an unnecessary and extraneous concept.