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After contemplating death while reading some articles on accidents, it dawned upon me (particularly strongly) that "everything" is out of our control. Everyone wants to be healthy, to have gains, not to have losses, but I recall feelings of helplessness/dejection in the inability to control when we are on the plane for example and there's turbulence and it's all in the hands of the elements, physics and fate.

I contemplated more and more, the past times when I was sick, the various times throughout when I was in the doldrums of my 31 years of life. I can literally feel my heart has sunk as few notches. Though mentally I don't feel disturbed or weighed down, I feel overcome by the sorry fact that we (everyone) no matter how much we wished and tried our efforts, things are just out of our control, that our body, our circumstances, are all Non-self.

I would like to get to a productive state from this place. Please advise? I feel a sense of defeated-ness acceptance regarding this Noble Truth, is there anywhere I can go from here?

  • It seems that you have begun to see non-self before you have lost attachment to a self, i.e. you want to have a self but you know it cannot be found. Therefore the wanting of self should be the center point of your practice, it may help to reflect on how this wanting is also non-self – Hugh Aug 2 '16 at 16:51
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The scriptures (AN 3.38) report, before his enlightenment to Buddhahood, when the unenlightened Gotama lived in three palaces, he had the vision he would get old, sick & die and this vision made him lose intoxication with his youth & life.

Then upon enlightenment, he fully realised the five aggregates that compose life (body, feelings, perception, thought function & sense consciousness) are 'not-self'; and one reason why each of the five aggregates cannot be a 'self' is because each can be subject to affliction & sickness that cannot be controlled (refer to beginning of SN 22.59).

It is reported the Buddha once taught to an elderly man that:

The body is afflicted, weak & encumbered. For who, looking after this body, would claim even a moment of true health, except through sheer foolishness?

SN 22.1

Therefore, although Gotama's original vision of death as a youth resulted in great angst in his mind & a long experimental spiritual search, in the end, his Buddhahood was merely the full acceptance & thus being at complete peace with his original vision of inevitable decay, death & impermanence.

In your situation, the place to go is the development of meditative calm (samatha) & clear insight (vipassana) so the mind is at complete peace & freedom with illness, aging & death (rather than having discomfort with this initial vision). In Buddhism, this is called reaching the 'Deathless'.

Monks, mindfulness of death — when developed & pursued — is of great fruit & great benefit. It gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its final end (culmination).

AN 6.20

  • Thank you for the references. To be clearer (for people who don't read the references you link to) I think that AN 6.20 doesn't say that Mindfulness of Death is by itself of benefit (except perhaps if it's "developed & pursued" correctly) -- e.g. the OP may be already "mindful of death". What is of benefit, the way in which it is of benefit, is if that mindfulness encourages you to investigate urgently and immediately: "Are there any evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by me that would be an obstruction for me were I to die?" – ChrisW Aug 1 '16 at 12:13
  • Mindfulness of death can be of direct benefit because it similar to the perception of impermanence, which the scriptures say abandons conceit. The Dhammapada states those who realise we all must die forget their quarrels. Thus, regardless of what is exactly written in AN 6.20, mindful of death itself can gain a footing in the Deathless when it results directly in ending craving, clinging & selfview. Also AN 6.20 also states: "But if, on reflecting, he realizes that there are no evil, unskillful mental qualities unabandoned by him"...thus it is not only for checking the mind's impurity. – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '16 at 20:41
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In seeing a glimpse of one insight into Dhamma (a rather big part of the Path at that) – that life is Not-Self – you now wonder what next. Now it is good to go deeper into Buddha’s teachings on inconstancy (Anitya), stress (Dukkha), and not self (Anatma). For this understanding and insight into Samma Dhitti to truly sink into you will take time. It is a given. The heart of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Concentration. The other seven factors of the path are pre-requisites to come to that.

If you could take all three characteristics, that anything and everything in life is inconstant, stressful, and not self, and focus on them properly, it will have a big impact. Then you will be clearly established in the road to put an end to suffering. So now is the time for you to will into being the first seven qualities of the Noble Eightfold Path. Desire is a very important factor of the path towards this. Your desire to work towards this goal should far exceed all of your other worldly desires. Only then will you be able to focus on this properly, and to create the right conditions for it. Then you will start developing skilful qualities in your mind. So the first thing that you should do is to associate with people who will encourage you in this direction. Finding the right people to associate goes a long way in furthering in this Dhamma Path. This one factor will help instil an unflinching faith in the Buddha’s awakening. This is paramount. Instilling of ‘Saddha’ is more important than anything else, as it will carry you through the rest of the way.

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You wrote, "things are just out of our control".

If seeing things as impermanent and non-self is Right View, the next factors on the Eightfold Path are Right Resolve, the training in virtue (Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood), and Right Effort and so on.

The fact that there is Right Resolve, Right Effort and so implies that things aren't out of our control, or at least, not all things: for example we can (at least to some extent) control resolve, speech, effort.

Doctrine about karma suggests we can also control intention, or that we're responsible for our intentional acts.

One of the suttas (Ittha Sutta: What is Welcome (AN 5.43)) says,

Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them? It's not fitting for the disciple of the noble ones who desires long life to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the disciple of the noble ones who desires long life should follow the path of practice leading to long life. In so doing, he will attain long life, either human or divine.

The wise person, heedful,
acquires a two-fold welfare:
welfare in this life &
welfare in the next.
By breaking through to his welfare
he's called prudent,
wise.

You said, "when we are on the plane for example and there's turbulence and it's all in the hands of the elements, physics and fate."

That's true to a certain extent. It's also in the hands of the pilot; of the people who designed, tested, and certified the plane; and in your hands when you chose whether and how to travel.

So I see the anatta view as a helpful when you can't control (e.g. after you're on the plane); but you can (try to) control whether you make a good (prudent) decision before you get on the plane. Making a good (virtuous) decision can result in a "lack of remorse" (I don't mind being on a plane ... it was the right decision to make, at the time when I made that decision).

Seeing everything as uncontrollable and inevitably dying may be an extreme (an extreme which Buddhism calls, in English, "nihilism" or "annihilationism", and is considered one of the "wrong views").

I think the definition of "Non-self" is that it's better not to think too much about the self, nor to have definite views about the self. There are other things (apart from Self) that it's good to consider: other people, Dhamma, Sila, and so on. And the classic formulation of Non-Self isn't "this is out of my control", it's "this isn't me and this isn't mine", precisely because having views of self like "this is my body (and it's out of my control)" lead to suffering.

  • The Ittha Sutta is not about not-self & enlightenment. it is mundane dhamma for ordinary people who want worldly 'success' & 'rebirth' in heaven. Seeing everything as uncontrollable and inevitably impermanent is exactly what the Buddha taught as being supramundane right view in the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta. This only becomes the wrong view of 'nihilism' when 'self-view' remains, creating the wrong view that "I" will die. The word 'Deathless' refers to where there is no 'self-view' thus no subject of 'death'. In the enlightened state, there is simply the ending of the five aggregates. – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '16 at 21:01
  • Also, the simile of the 'pilot' sounds like belief in True Self or Atman. The scriptures explains its is mindfulness & wisdom (rather than a self) that 'governs' experience. Thus, although the five aggregates are ultimately beyond control, the mind is able to 'control' or 'eradicate' suffering by employing the mindfulness & wisdom of non-craving & non-clinging. I think you need to provide a quote from the scriptures that states "we can control intention or kamma" because my understanding is the Eightfold Path is for the ending/cessation of kamma (rather than controlling of kamma) per AN 6.63. – Dhammadhatu Aug 1 '16 at 21:08
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    the simile of the 'pilot' sounds like belief in True Self or Atman. I don't think it's a simile: the OP was talking about a feeling of loss of control when on a literal airplane, and "it's all in the hands of the elements, physics and fate". Well it is (in the hands of the elements, physics and fate), but it's also in the hands of the airplane pilot and engineers etc. One of the things that has reassured me on a plane is trust in the diligence of aviation engineers. It's also helpful to be comfortable with the idea of dying, but knowing you had reason to trust helps the lack of remorse IMO. – ChrisW Aug 1 '16 at 21:35
  • Re. whether "we can control", this essay for example says, "In other words, there is free will, although its range is somewhat dictated by the past." (though this isn't "a quote from the scriptures" and this topic is debatable, "we can control" is a view of self that you may prefer to avoid). Re. scripture there is imagery like "a charioteer controlling anger" in the Dhammapada (and e.g. this might be called self-control). – ChrisW Aug 1 '16 at 22:15
  • You might be right though that "controlling intention" was inept, wrong or unclear. I was struggling with how to say that. – ChrisW Aug 1 '16 at 22:18
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"Is there anywhere to go from here?" You go where your desires take you until you are ready to accept right where you are but we all push away where we are and cling to something else. We all do so, in some way or another unless we have mastered the Buddha'Eightfold Path(or a similar path).

Be nonreactive and impartial with things as they are as they occur and you will see how you can have peace and happiness. How? Follow the Buddha's Eightfold Path.

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