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I've heard it taught by various secular teachers that through mindfulness one can uncover the "true authentic self" because we realise that we are not thought but that we are awareness of thought. Please correct me if I'm mistaken but in my understanding this is not in alignment with Buddhist teachings and a misunderstanding of mindfulness. We can discover that there is an awareness of thought, emotion etc but are we this awareness? Wouldn't Buddha say that even awareness is not self? If we are not thought, not awareness, who or what is the observer? Is the observer just more impermanent phenomena?

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    This question might be already answered here: Is Mindfulness the same as having an Observer? – ChrisW Apr 17 '17 at 3:18
  • My thought about "true self" is that it just kicks the can down the road. What would the true self do, or be, or have, beyond what is available now? If I developed fully in to my true self, then what? True Nature, could mean something entirely different. – user2341 Apr 17 '17 at 12:52
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The mind observes. Consciousness observes. Awareness observes.

I've heard it taught by various secular teachers that through mindfulness one can uncover the "true authentic self"

No. Buddhism does not teach there is a "true authentic self".

because we realise that we are not thought but that we are awareness of thought.

No. Ultimately, there is no "we". Buddhism explains there are only five aggregates, namely:

  1. Physical body
  2. Feeling/sensation
  3. Perception
  4. Thinking/emotions
  5. Sense consciousness

Please correct me if I'm mistaken but in my understanding this is not in alignment with Buddhist teachings and a misunderstanding of mindfulness.

Correct. What various secular teachers are teaching is not in alignment with Buddhist teachings.

We can discover that there is an awareness of thought, emotion etc but are we this awareness?

The mind discovers & the mind is aware. Consciousness knows thought, as follows:

Dependent on the intellect & ideas there arises consciousness at the intellect. The meeting of the three is contact.

If anyone were to say, 'The intellect is the self,' that wouldn't be tenable. The arising & falling away of the intellect are discerned. And when its arising & falling away are discerned, it would follow that 'My self arises & falls away.' That's why it wouldn't be tenable if anyone were to say, 'The intellect is the self.' So the intellect is not-self. If anyone were to say, 'Ideas are the self,' that wouldn't be tenable... Thus the intellect is not-self and ideas are not-self. If anyone were to say, 'Consciousness at the intellect is the self,' that wouldn't be tenable... Thus the intellect is not-self, ideas are not-self, consciousness at the intellect is not-self. If anyone were to say, 'Contact at the intellect is the self,' that wouldn't be tenable... Thus the intellect is not-self, ideas are not-self, consciousness at the intellect is not-self, contact at the intellect is not-self.

MN 148


'Consciousness, consciousness': Thus is it said. To what extent, friend, is it said to be 'consciousness'?

'It cognizes, it cognizes': Thus, friend, it is said to be 'consciousness.' And what does it cognize? It cognizes 'pleasant.' It cognizes 'painful.' It cognizes 'neither painful nor pleasant.' 'It cognizes, it cognizes': Thus it is said to be 'consciousness.'

Discernment (wisdom) & consciousness, friend: Are these qualities conjoined or disjoined? Is it possible, having separated them one from the other, to delineate the difference between them?

Discernment (wisdom) & consciousness are conjoined, friend, not disjoined. It's not possible, having separated them one from the other, to delineate the difference between them. For what one discerns, that one cognizes. What one cognizes, that one discerns. Therefore these qualities are conjoined, not disjoined, and it is not possible, having separated them one from another, to delineate the difference between them.

MN 43


Wouldn't Buddha say that even awareness is not self?

Yes.

If we are not thought, not awareness, who or what is the observer?

The mind is the observer; awareness is the observer; but "we" is not the observer.

Is the observer just more impermanent phenomena?

Yes. Refer to SN 12.61

It would be better for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person to hold to the body composed of the four great elements, rather than the mind, as the self. Why is that? Because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for a year, two years, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years or more. But what's called 'mind,' 'intellect' or 'consciousness' by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another. Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what's called 'mind,' 'intellect' or 'consciousness' by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.

SN 12.61

  • Maybe this is what she meant by: "There are no 'other people' "? – user2341 Apr 17 '17 at 12:54
  • -1 Zen uses 'true self' and various synonyms extensively. – user10515 Apr 23 '17 at 13:20
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    As I said in some posts sometimes can't avoid to offend some conventional Theravadists that their understanding of Anatta is incomplete/incorrect, worsen by bad(!) (sorry) Eng translated Suttas, @GavinSerra. It will lead to terrible future for human, it will be used by those who want to mold the world with their human hands sustaining only their own interests, literally. – Mishu 米殊 Apr 25 '17 at 21:03
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    for True Self believers, there is a Hindu forum here. Happy & safe travels. hinduism.stackexchange.com – Dhammadhatu Apr 26 '17 at 3:16
  • @Dhammadhatu for Nihimsm believers there is also this forum: [link]philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/nihilism. Leading the seeker of Buddha astray by incomplete understanding stated as if quoting from The Gospels (Suttas) the fruit is grim. All the best. – Mishu 米殊 Apr 26 '17 at 4:25
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A being is made up of the 6 sense bases or the 5 aggregates and arise and an impersonal process governed by Dependent Origination. Notion of self is both a view and perception in beings who have not realised reality as it is.

There is nothing

  • which the the being has control over,
  • which is forms a solid everlasting core,
  • which is continuous and persists through existence,
  • worth identifying as a self,

Awareness is also impersonal. It arises due to:

  • sense-organ,
  • sense- object and
  • sense-consciousness

Madhu,piṇḍika Sutta

You have no control over awareness. Say you hear a unpleasant sound. You cannot command: "Stop hearing!". If you hear something pleasant you cannot command: "Do not stop!". Also when say watching something interesting. Memories and thoughts may arise which takes you attention from what you are watching. You cannot command: "Stay with watching only!". This lack of control makes this partly unsatisfactory.

Even the observer is:

  • impermanent
  • unsatisfactory
  • not / non self

Also see: Sutta references which Discuss Self and Not Self under Different Contexts

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    A "being" ("satta") is a view ("ditthi") made by craving & attachment. "Beings" (sattānaṃ & sattanikāye) are products (abhinibbatti) of "birth" ("jati"). See SN 23.3 accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn23/sn23.002.than.html and SN 5.10 accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn05/sn05.010.bodh.html. Regards – Dhammadhatu Apr 17 '17 at 6:52
  • With regard to unpleasant sounds, I find that I no longer feel assaulted by them (usually) because it no longer seems to be happening to me. There is sound. If I were to think: "where is the sound happening?" I would not say that it is happening there, at the point my ears say it originates from. Also, I would not say it is happening here, where I would point to me, or inside my mind, or awareness. It is no longer happening here or there, because there is no longer someone it is happening to. (Sometimes not.) – user2341 Apr 17 '17 at 12:48
  • Make sures there is no I or Me conceiving also. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Apr 17 '17 at 15:11
  • -1 I don't like this use of the skandhas. I know there are plenty of texts which have this understanding, but I don't think it's right. Rather than seeing them as building blocks of reality, it makes more sense to me to see them as a rhetorical aid for investigating the existence (or non-existance) of an individual self. – user10515 Apr 22 '17 at 11:19
  • @GavinSerra this sounds interesting, I wish I better understood you. On the other hand, people cognize in different ways, and the same concept approached differently and spoken of differently can still be just as true, and just as useful. Not sure if the distinction you are making is truly significant, or just point of view difference? How could I find out? – user2341 Apr 22 '17 at 13:40
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Things that arise due to reasons cease once the reasons cease.

Who or what is observing is panchaupadhänakkhandha

Panchaupadhänakkhandha arise due to a reason and cease once the reason ceases.

The reason for panchaupadhänakkhandha to exist is the liking toward them (chanda). Once the liking toward them ceases to exist, so will panchaupadhänakkhandha cease to exist. This is nibbana.

The method of removing this liking is to understand that panchaupadhänakkhandha in terms of the Four Noble Truths, thereby practicing the Noble Eightfold Path.

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Nothing is the observer but there is observing. One must practice just seeing what arises and falls naturally without words and concepts that we use to make a different reality. Conceptual reality is human made as opposed to Ultimately reality that just is what it is, moment by moment, in our experiential awareness.

If you program computers perhaps this will help:

Conceptual reality is to Ultimate reality like Ruby language is to machine language.

We cannot find a self when we see things as they are. As a rule of thumb, everything we experience is empty of self. Everything. Even the apparent observer or watcher.

Not self simply shows us that we are empty of self as the trees and ponds and lakes obviously are empty of self too. To see anatta is to see yourself as just a bunch of impersonal processes.-Metta

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    Hard to 'practice'. It is like riding a bicycle: either you are doing it, or you are not. Once you can do it, you are not likely to fall over ever again. No one can 'teach' it to you, and no amount of explanation will describe how to do it. A bit pointless, really. Why do people undertake this? – user2341 Apr 18 '17 at 21:56
  • Sounds good. Teachers are more like guides and why do people undertake what exactly? – Lowbrow Apr 19 '17 at 1:11
  • Undertake to stop being people. (There is a joke in there somewhere...) – user2341 Apr 19 '17 at 1:31
  • Lol!! ....I think we stop being people because we are to busy being something or someone else. – Lowbrow Apr 19 '17 at 2:10
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Please correct me if I'm mistaken but in my understanding this is not in alignment with Buddhist teachings

Yeah, this is not in alignment with Buddhist teachings.

We can discover that there is an awareness of thought, emotion etc but are we this awareness?

Most of us are lead to believe that awareness is a continuous thing. According to Buddhism, there are two mistakes in that belief. The first is believing it's continuous. The second is believing it's a thing.

In general, an awareness is an awareness of something. In Buddhism, this is called consciousness, wich is six-fold (one for each sense organ, including the mind as a sense organ). These consciousnesses are bindings between sense and object.

So, some people might believe there's an underlying continuous awareness that recognizes a thought. But in Buddhism, we are taught that the moment of recognition is called a contact (between mind organ and thought, "glued" by the mind-consciousness), and before that, there was a very different awareness that was part of another contact with another object through another sense.

The consciousnesses that arise during these events are also called established consciousnesses. It is through contact that there is touching of samsara. When consciousness is not established (i.e. it does not arise), say, when there's no opportunity or interest in "touching anything" (outside, inside, anywhere), then...

“But, bhikkhus, when one does not intend, and one does not plan, and one does not have a tendency towards anything, no basis exists for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is no basis, there is no support for the establishing of consciousness. When consciousness is unestablished and does not come to growth, there is no descent of name-and-form.

-- SN 12.39

“When that consciousness is unestablished, not coming to growth, nongenerative, sn.iii.54 it is liberated. By being liberated, it is steady; by being steady, it is content; by being content, he is not agitated. Being unagitated, he personally attains Nibbāna. He understands: ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’”

-- SN 22.53

“If, bhikkhus, one does not intend, and one does not plan, but one still has a tendency towards something, this becomes a basis for the maintenance of consciousness. When there is a basis, there is a support for the establishing of consciousness…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

-- SN 12.40

Bhikkhu Sujato also discusses this topic in his blog.

  • This post is very confusing, particularly when it wrongly states: "When consciousness does not find a footing, when there's no opportunity or interest in "touching anything" (outside, or inside)...." . There is no such thing as consciousness without a sense object. Consciousness without footing refers to the absence of craving rather than to the absence of a sense object (such as Nibbana as a sense object). Please read the whole of SN 22.53 again and also MN 38. When mind objects end in the cessation of perception & feeling (nirodha sampatti), the mind becomes unconscious. Regards. – Dhammadhatu Apr 17 '17 at 20:11
  • Perhaps my words are not clear to you, I'm sorry. I did not mean what you said I meant. – Thiago Apr 17 '17 at 20:30
  • Consciousness does not find a footing, that means Nibbana? – Lowbrow Apr 19 '17 at 2:30
  • @Uuu Only if avijjā/sankhara came to cessation, I suppose. What it seems to me is that cessation of consciousness is a certain focus area. For example, in the perspective of nidanas, through one side, one practices for the end of craving (where the nidanas on the "top" are put in check) and through the other side, simultaneously (and because of it), ignorance starts to give to knowledge, undermining sankhara (putting nidanas in check from the "bottom") -- in this mode, it's like both sides seem to culminate on consciousness. E.g. see also SN 22.54. – Thiago Apr 19 '17 at 6:35
  • I tried to remove what could be perceived as ambiguous, hopefully it's clearer now – Thiago Dec 2 '17 at 1:15
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I think this question 'who is observing' is a blind alley. If in one moment you have a sense that there is observation, or you reflect 'I am observing' or 'I was observing', so what? And if in the next moment there's no such sense or reflection, what then?

These 'who am I' or 'what is observing' questions are common in some types of Zen, but they're not orthodox Soto Zen. Dogen criticised them, and Menzan Zuiho Osho in his Jijuyu-Zanmai says:

Searching for the subject of seeing and hearing is also useless. The harder you look for the subject, the more you will become tired of wastefully struggling, since what is seeking and what is being sought cannot be separated.

Full text here: https://terebess.hu/zen/menzan.html

I'm not a Zen teacher so I'm reluctant to make categorical statements about Buddhism, but I'd say with a reasonable degree of confidence that you're correct that 'we are awareness of thought' is not what Buddhism teaches.

As to meditation, I don't think it helps us to recognise our true nature per se, but it's probably harder to recognise with a head full of thoughts, and Zen meditation generally involves letting go of idle intellection (it's hard to say what is or isn't a misunderstanding of 'mindfulness' these days because the word has become mainstream and none of us can be sure now what it's being used to mean, so it's probably best avoided if you want to get technical).

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In Ch'an, the mind (Citta) is always described in a metaphor of a mirror. When you asked Who or what is observing, by observing you've negated the whole to parts: the observer and the observed. With these split, added with negations on negations, the world comes to existence - Samsara, so to speak. Without the observed, the observer cannot come into existence. Now this observer is not the Self, because it depends on the observed to exist. Like we can't see our own face. We can only see ourselves by looking into the mirror, the reflection. It is in this context that the Buddha said, Anatta/not-Self. Because what we termed ourselves are the reflections on the mirror, we know that reflection is "not me". With a dusted mirror, broken mirror, the reflection is bad, therefore we can't even see a proper face of us. Here comes in the meditation, quieting the mind (usually endless chattering, commentary, worry, wish that occupied the mind), you are much clearer in seeing your own face (I think here some incomplete understanding by inserting the term true-Self [your "true authentic self"] comes in). Like a bucket with murky water, when it's stilled, the water is clear, that is in this condition that insight can come to the mind.

With above stated, I would say, putting Anatta/not-Self everywhere like some conventional Theravadist in English community did is incomplete/ incorrect. I think you are wise in your learning by saying ...Wouldn't Buddha say that even awareness is not self? If we are not thought, not awareness, who or what is the observer?... However, your this question Who or what is observing is coming from an intellectual perspective, the question conditioned the answer, like by saying observing there is observer and observed. They are not an absolute existence but depended on each other. However, to make use of this to track on The Path, it is to be aware moments of moments, i.e., clearing more the observed(s) (chattering, commentary, worry, wish) thus removed the observer(s) becomes more and more single-minded, you will be able to see your true face. Sometimes in the English Buddhism communities some schools used the term true-Self. In Chinese is 真我. (There are many words 我, 吾, 自己... used in different context, but there are I and Self only in English). I'm afraid since Buddhism was originated in ancient India and reaching prominence in ancient China the English term is rather scarce to convey the meaning in any particular term. Therefore I would avoid using terms such as these.

Addition: Now what is (真)我, or, badly termed Self/true-Self? Like a knife cannot cut itself, an eye cannot see itself, so is this "I" can't see my own face without the mirror, it is here the path of meditation (if anyone is able to reach this stage, at least feeling the body-Self doesn't exist in meditation, which is in fact not yet quiet at it), the journey will be continued without the path.

  • The mind is often described as a mirror in Ch'an, and this is very orthodox, but I don't get it. It seems to imply a separation between things, and Hui Neng famously denied it. Maybe there's a meaning I'm not gettting... – user10515 Apr 26 '17 at 6:52
  • @GavinSerra Master Neng said, 明鏡亦非臺, flipping his Dharma brother Master Shenxiu's 心如明鏡臺, which he didn't flip 心 (Citta?), but 臺... – Mishu 米殊 Apr 26 '17 at 7:32
  • If he flipped the totality of this statement, it should be worded as 明鏡亦非心. Hope you could see the graphical difference if you don't read Chinese :) I think it's really quite a complex Dharma contemplation. But I would also say stating "true-Self" barely is quite risky easy resulted misinterpretation. I read somewhere you mentioned Red Pine, I read by chance small bit of his translation I would say he was - hmmm... not really get it, even misunderstood... it will need more space to explain then this little comment box though ;) – Mishu 米殊 Apr 26 '17 at 7:33
  • I have the Nishijima and Cross Shobogenzo, so I'm used to long tracts of shinji (?) ... :) I've read others criticising Red Pine, so I'd be interested to get your take. His view of the skandhas was already my personal view, so my ego was flattered to find him corroborate :D I will ponder the above shapes a little more (I'm used to this from Dogen) – user10515 Apr 26 '17 at 8:07
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    @GavinSerra hope you're not too wasted with my prolixity :) many seemed contradicted statements can easily be found in Sutras, different masters... bare in mind that what the Path led is leading to what beyond the intellect, consciousness, name-form, concepts, words... to break free from our reality confinement resulted from 無明 (Ignorance?). But what we can do as trapped in the confinement is trying to pull it down to be reached inside this confinement, since we literally has nowhere to go, like Don Quixote pulling himself out from the swamp by pulling at his own hair. – Mishu 米殊 Apr 26 '17 at 8:11

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