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(English is not my mother tongue, sorry in advance if I make mistakes)

I recently read Thanissaro Bhikkhu's writings [1] [2] on anatta and although I found his arguments persuasive I am still conflicted.

I invite you to read them at least in part before reacting as they are rich in arguments and answers to the first objections that might come to mind.

Nevertheless, I quote TB's summary of his thesis and the objections he encountered:

These reflections were sparked recently by reading a critique of an article I wrote in 1993, called “The Not-self Strategy.” The thesis of that article (available in the essay collection Noble & True)—which I revised in 2013 both to tighten and to expand the presentation—was that the Buddha intended his teaching on not-self (anattā), not as an answer to the metaphysical/ontological question, “Is there a self?” but as a strategy for cutting through clinging to the five aggregates and so to put an end to suffering. The main argument I presented in support of this thesis in both versions of the article was that the one time the Buddha was asked point-blank, “Is there a self?”… “Is there no self?” he remained silent (SN 44.10). Similarly, in MN 2, he stated that such questions as “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” and “What am I?” are not worthy of attention because they lead to conclusions that fetter a person in a “thicket of views” and a “fetter of views,” including the views that “I have a self” and “I have no self.” In other words, any attempt to answer these questions constituted a side road away from the path of right practice.

The critique—“Anattā as Strategy and Ontology,” written by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi—was brought to my attention just over a month ago, even though it has apparently been around for some time. It takes issue both with the thesis and with the argument of my article, but in doing so it displays the scholarly bias mentioned above: that the practice of the Buddha’s teachings is primarily a process of leading the meditator to give full assent to the accuracy of those teachings as a description of reality, and that this assent is what frees the mind from suffering. Because this bias is not only the bias of the critique, but of so much thought in the Buddhist world, I thought it might be useful to explore how both the thesis of the critique and the arguments used in support of that thesis display this bias, so that it can be recognized for what it is not only in this case but also in other Buddhist writings.

I came across this page where Buddhists are debating the view of TB in opposition to Bhikkhu Bodhi's response. In particular, I found this answer interesting.

I'd like to hear your views on the arguments on both sides. Anatta: only a strategy for realization or a real "ontological" position?

Among the trilakkhanas, anatta is really the one I have the most trouble with. I can't understand it. And the more I learn about it, the more I realize that Buddhists don't seem to understand it either, given all the disagreements on the subject. Even within Theravada, many ajahn of the Thai Forest Tradition seem to reintroduce a form of self by talking about the "mind that does not disappear, immutable and indestructible reality" (which clearly resembles the Hindu atman / purusha). Ajahn Maha Bua, considered by his peers to be an arhat, stated that he "observes the essential enduring truth of the sentient being as constituted of the indestructible reality of the citta (heart/mind), which is characterized by the attribute of Awareness or Knowingness. This citta, which is intrinsically bright, clear, and Aware, gets superficially tangled up in samsara but ultimately cannot be destroyed by any samsaric phenomenon.".

In the Mahayana it's even more obvious, we could talk about tathāgatagarbha, buddhadhātu, dharmakāya, dharmadhatu...

Absolutely all these concepts seem to me to be reinsertions through the window of the self thrown out the door. They all affirm, in one form or another, an ultimate reality, which they call "awareness" or "mind", a state of bliss… wich literally corresponds to the Hindu definition of the supreme self.

Yet the Buddha seems to speak explicitly of this state and describe it as just a step towards the summit:

Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of earth and the perception of the dimension of infinite space—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness. (…)

 https://suttacentral.net/mn121/en/sujato

Even vacuity (sūnyatā) does not seem to be the destination, the infinite nothingness being only a penultimate stage of the jhanas.

What should we think about all this? At the end of the day, it seems to me that the subject can be summed up in one question:

It is often said that the Buddha would have affirmed that all phenomena are without self: sabbe dhamma anatta

Then the question arises as to whether Nibbana is a phenomenon (dhamma) or not. If this is not the case, as some people maintain, it is logical to consider that the supreme reality, being neither impermanent nor dukkha, does not possess the third seal of the no(t)-self either, and to start talking about this supreme mind, awareness, etc., which is not a dhamma, but a permanent and blissful source of all impermanent and unsatisfactory phenomena - by the way, how better to define the phenomenon than as what appears in consciousness? -; in this case, the border with the Hindu atman-brahman becomes extremely thin, not to say non-existent. If, on the contrary, Nibbana is also a phenomenon (dhamma), having no self, the difference with Hindu thought remains but then, what about the other two seals of all phenomena: anicca and dukkha? How to apply them to Nibbana?

Maybe, like dukkha and anicca, anatta must be abandoned once the destination is reached.

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There are several questions brought up here. One I see you asking: is the entire teaching of Buddha- with everything it has to offer -- is a true explanation of reality or is it merely a useful fiction, an expedient mean for achieving a goal (liberation from suffering)?

To me the answer is clear.

Any explanation of reality is a conceptual model. Every conceptual model is an abstract summary - leaving out some details, and emphasizing important features and relationships. Now, what do we mean when we say "important f&r"? Nothing can be important in and off itself. Something is important only inasmuch as it helps attaining some kind of objective. Important is always important "for something". This "important for something" is what defines which features and relationships we keep in our conceptual model and which details we omit. So any explanation of reality serves a purpose. This purpose determines the limits, the method, and the shape of the explanation.

Buddha's teaching is also like this, it is an explanation of reality serving the purpose of liberation from suffering.

It does NOT mean Dharma is a useful fiction. As any conceptual model it is a purpose-chosen subset of the Truth. But it's not enough for something to be true, indeed there is an infinite number of ways to slice and dice the same truth. Dharma must not only be True but also has to be useful. Buddha said times and again: the right speech is not just factual, it must be useful. He also said, in one of the suttas ("the safe bet") - if we assume Theory X as our working basis, how will this choice determine our future? Not every valid theory is useful. Dharma is famously "good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end".

So Buddha's teaching is an explanation of reality serving the purpose of liberation from suffering.

The second topic I wanted to take up, is your comments about Mahayana. The way you characterize Mahayana's position shows your very (VERY) shallow understanding of Mahayana in general and Madhyamaka in particular.

In the Mahayana it's even more obvious, we could talk about tathāgatagarbha, buddhadhātu, dharmakāya, dharmadhatu...

Absolutely all these concepts seem to me to be reinsertions through the window of the self thrown out the door. They all affirm, in one form or another, an ultimate reality, which they call "awareness" or "mind", a state of bliss… which literally corresponds to the Hindu definition of the supreme self.

I suggest that you educate yourself to the Rangtong-Shentong debate before making any statements equating Mahayana's position(s) with Hinduism.

In Mahayana tradition, there's a very clear understanding that Buddha's message comes in multiple stages, called Gradual Training. Theravada recognizes this, too. The teaching is organized in levels from the most simplified to the most accurate. The teaching about rebirth is the most basic. The teaching about Anica, Dukkha, Anatta, Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination - are intermediate. But what is the ultimate teaching?

To me, Buddha's ultimate position is made clear in the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta:

"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with.

...

Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading away, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsessions with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released."

Thanissaro Bhikkhu has a pretty nice post about the levels of teaching, which by the way, also shows how even the teaching of Anatta is transcended on the ultimate level: https://www.dhammatalks.org/books/OnThePath/Section0008.html

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I'd like to hear your views on the arguments on both sides. Anatta: only a strategy for realization or a real "ontological" position?

It is both.

From Sutta Nipata 4.14:

Seeing in what way is a monk unbound,
clinging to nothing in the world?"
"He should put an entire stop
to the root of objectification-classifications:
'I am the thinker.'

This answer talks about a strategy for freedom from suffering, but it also offers an ontological position concerning the self. "I am the thinker" is the hint.

The self is simply a mental idea, a thought, a view. It's an impermanent thought that arises and ceases from time to time.

With the self mental idea as reference, one objectifies and classifies (or reifies) everything else as non-self things. That's papanca. This answer connects self and reification to craving and suffering. This question connects Theravada emptiness to Mahayana emptiness.

It may be argued that apart from the mental idea of the self, there is some other self, that is the True Self.

For this, the answer comes in 2 suttas. The first is the SN 35.23:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all.

“If anyone, bhikkhus, should speak thus: ‘Having rejected this all, I shall make known another all’—that would be a mere empty boast on his part. If he were questioned he would not be able to reply and, further, he would meet with vexation. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, that would not be within his domain.”

If there is something that is the True Self, it must be within the range of The All.

And then from SN 35.83:

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’ And what is empty of self and of what belongs to self? The eye, Ānanda, is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Forms are empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-consciousness is empty of self and of what belongs to self. Eye-contact is empty of self and of what belongs to self…. Whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as condition—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—that too is empty of self and of what belongs to self.

“It is, Ānanda, because it is empty of self and of what belongs to self that it is said, ‘Empty is the world.’”

So, from all the above sutta references, we can see that the self is just a mental idea, and apart from it, everything else of The All is empty of a self and empty of what belongs to a self. It is no point discussing if there is a self beyond The All.

The luminous mind is not anything permanent or unconditioned. That's discussed in this answer. It's simply an impermanently arising and ceasing mental state that is undefiled, that becomes defiled by incoming defilements in a non-arahant.

In this answer and this answer, we can see that Nibbana is not a self or a thought or consciousness or feeling or state of mind, and it is within The All as a phenomena that is a sense object for the mind. It's the only phenomena which is not conditioned, not compounded, not suffering, not impermanent, not arising, not ceasing and not changing.

Here, AN 9.34 gives us the hint about Nibbana:

Ven: Sariputta: “Reverends, extinguishment (Nibbana) is bliss!

Ven. Udayi: “But Reverend Sāriputta, what’s blissful about it, since nothing is felt?”

Ven. Sariputta: “The fact that nothing is felt is precisely what’s blissful about it.

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  • "If there is something that is the True Self, it must be within the range of The All." No. What perceives the range of the All of which the Buddha speaks? This quotation is illogical without assuming an awareness of these elements. The True Self is not "in the range of the All" but what perceives this range, by which there is a "range of the All". "The luminous mind is not anything permanent or unconditioned (...)." So the difference with atman-brahman = process vs. substance? – Kalapa Jan 31 at 17:19
  • That is indirectly answered here. It is related to dependent origination. Basically, the gist of the answer for "what perceives The All?" is that the mind and the processes of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, consciousness and mental formations) working together according to dependent origination is that which perceives The All. These are conditioned, compounded and impermanent. There is no need for anything more than that. – ruben2020 Jan 31 at 17:31
  • It's like saying that the self is an emergence of the 5 aggregates, which the Buddha refutes (MN 109). If that were the case, Nibbana would be an annihilation of that self, which the Buddha also denies. – Kalapa Jan 31 at 17:38
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    Take a look at the Vina Sutta. It uses the analogy of a lute, a musical instrument. Different parts of the musical instrument work together to produce music. But if you break the musical instrument down into its constituent parts, you cannot find music by itself. Similarly, the self is an emergent mental idea that arises when the processes of the 5 aggregates work together according to dependent origination. But if you break down the 5 aggregates into its constituent parts, you cannot find the self anywhere. – ruben2020 Jan 31 at 17:43
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    I think you should think through what has been said here about nibbana and open a new question Kalapa that directly addresses it rather than continue in this comment thread – Yeshe Tenley Jan 31 at 19:05
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I'd like to hear your views on the arguments on both sides. Anatta: only a strategy for realization or a real "ontological" position?

It is both.

It is a fact that the direct realization of emptiness is the true antidote to all that ails us in samsara. As such, we must not minimize the importance of annata - it's true understanding and direct realization of it - as the ultimate way to fulfill the soteriological aims of the Dharma. There is no substitute. Only a full and complete and direct realization of anatta will accomplish our aims.

On the other hand, the emptiness of all phenomena - and its flip side dependent arising - is the ultimate truth. If is the supreme fact of existence. I would not describe it as 'a real ontological position' but if I can infer what you are after with those words... then I'd say, yes, more or less that is what you arrive at or at least it is a necessary step on the path to a direct realization.

Often times, people who don't understand anatta or are confused by it - even at a correct, but limited intellectual/conceptual level - fall back to the thicket of views sutta. But this is sour grapes. And rightly so. This is dangerous stuff. But there is a correct intellectual and conceptual understanding of anatta and it is extremely hard to arrive at and it is by no means sufficient to stop at this level. It is absolutely necessary to arrive at this level - a correct conceptual/intellectual understanding - before proceeding to a direct realization.

The truth is that most lowly beings are not even close to a correct conceptual understanding of anatta and that trying too hard to reach this level can be dangerous to them. That is why the Buddha gave the thicket of views admonition and was silent. He was dealing with an audience that simply was not ready to go further. They did not have the requisite merit to proceed and had they done so at that time they would have harmed themselves. So the Buddha was compassionately telling them what they needed at that time to prevent them from harming themselves.

What people don't understand is that a correct understanding of annata - while absolutely necessary to completing the soteriological goals of the lowly beings - is also extremely dangerous thing to wrestle with. It is a snake that incorrectly grasped will bite and send beings into the lowest of hell worlds, but correctly grasped can be used to extract venom that can be turned into the ultimate medicine. If incorrectly grasped, people will fall to extreme views of annihilationism or eternalism which will wreck their practice and decimate the stores of merit they have built up.

Understanding annata is hard and it is extremely dangerous and it is absolutely necessary and indispensable to achieving the aims of the Buddha for all of us beings. That is why it is so important to have good self assessment for both teachers and students and to understand the risks and rewards. This is dangerous and delicate business. Guard rails are present and are in the suttas and people should heed those warnings and use those guard rails lest they fall into ruin.

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  • Interesting answer. Do you have any references that I can turn to to read a correct conceptual statement/explanation of anatta? – Kalapa Jan 31 at 15:06
  • I can only tell you the things that helped me to get some meager inklings, but I don't know you or your mind or your merit and therefore have no idea if they will help you at all or just lead you to ruin. The things that helped me (non exhaustive) are first and foremost reading and reading and pouring over and translating and looking at commentaries and every opinion that I could find of Nagarjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā. This is the absolute pinnacle source text to understanding anatta. There is nothing that has helped me more. – Yeshe Tenley Jan 31 at 15:11
  • I also have this hunch about Nagarjuna. Thank you! – Kalapa Jan 31 at 15:16
  • I think the book Insight into Emptiness is excellent at giving the guide rails as well and describing what the path looks like up to and beyond the mere way station of arriving at a correct inferential/conceptual understanding of emptiness. It describes the stages you can expect to go through as you embark on the journey to a direct realization. – Yeshe Tenley Jan 31 at 15:16
  • Thanks! I note the reference. – Kalapa Jan 31 at 15:35
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SN 44.10 is not about anatta (not-self).

In SN 44.10, based on the Buddha's final summation to Ananda, the befuddled Vacchagotta essentially asked: "Do I exist?" ("atthattā"); "Do I not exist?" (natthattā). Both questions of Vacchagotta included an implicit belief in "self". That is why they were faulty questions and the Buddha remained silent. As the Buddha concluded:

If I had answered... Vacchagotta... would have got even more confused, thinking: ‘It seems that the self that I once had no longer exists.’

Vacchagotta never ever asked about "not-self" ("anatta"). That Ven. Thanissaro wrote an entire thesis based on the confused questions of Vacchagotta was probably one of the most embarrassing events ever in modern Theravada Buddhism.

While my answer is sufficient to debunk the befuddlement of Ven. Thanissaro, Ven. Sujato replies to Ven. Thanissaro's befuddlement, here: On not-self, existence, and ontological strategies.


Also, 'sūnyatā' does not mean 'vacuity' or 'nothingness'.


Also, "anatta" is "ontological", i.e., an inherent natural reality unrelated to any human perception of it; as clearly said in AN 3.136.

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  • Good answer and that link to Ven. Sujato’s essay is valuable and excellent! Thank you. Makes me want to read more from him. – Yeshe Tenley Feb 1 at 12:49
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First contrary to what mahayanists and the people who do vipassana mediation claim, anatta is not dangerous, that's the point of the buddha. In fact is it seeing that the things which are anicca are dukkha and that things which are dukkha are anatta which make people righteous, worthy of offering and praise.

Mahayanists and the insight people say that their philosophies are dangerous because their wrong methods make indeed people worse and fail to even generate much merit.

Second it is not a good idea to try to think about the dhamma with whatever ideas rationalists talk about, like reality, existence and ontology, true nature and so on. Same thing with trying to cram the idea of time into the dependent origination and asking over how many lives the DO span. Like the buddha say, puthujjanas can only think in terms of either existence or non-existence and when they try to talk about what they experience, they always make a fool of themselves and completely miss the truth. So for instance, for puthujjanas, it makes sense that the mind is the true nature and that phenomena are not real and in fact not even existent. So all the speculations written in the books by the philosophers like Nagarjuna and so on will not help you at all to understand the dhamma. Especially when they speculate on the Bahiya sutta. Like you said, even today some bikkhus in theravada claim that the citta of an arhant does not die, but lives eternally.

People mostly get confused because they mix the path with the destination and it turns out that the path looks a lot like the result, without being the result. The path is memorizing and then forcing the proper view of seeing the conditioned things as anicca, dukkha, anatta, day after day, until there is no cravings at all (which is the result of the path). And then there is also the confusion about the path for making merit and the path to actually be enlightened (the path for making nibanna includes the path of merit (ie sila+samadhi) but wisdom is required for nibanna and samadhi is the bridge between sila and wisdom).

The path is directly built on the right view that the buddha exposes, instead of, say, relying on some moronic view created by some puthujjanas (like about the jhanas, or metta and so on) and then at the last minute, switching to the right understanding of the method (eg about the goal of sila, or the jhanas) and getting the right liberation, ie lack of craving.

So with the path exposed by the buddha, right at the beginning you must always have in memory the teaching and the goal of each step, and forcing the view of anatta, dukkha and anicca. This is called mindfulness and it has nothing to do with what the mahayanists do, nor with the corporate mindfulness, the medical mindfulness and the military mindfulness of the westerners .

It is not like you force to view vedana as dukkha, then once there is right liberation, you discover that in fact vedana is not dukkha. Same thing with anatta. With right liberation, you do not say ''woah in fact volition has been atta all along, seeing it as anatta was a just a trick to get right liberation''.

If you want to ''understand'' anatta, whatever that means, you have to follow the path of the buddha, whatever that is, which turns out to keep in memory the exposition on wisdom by the buddha and forcing to base your life on wisdom instead of whatever wrong view puthujjanas taught you or you actually cling to.

Concerning ''Nibbana is a phenomenon'' that's again from the worthless point of view of intellectuals, of existence and non existence, because those people fail to talk about nibannna as lack of craving, bhava, birth and so on since they cling to their talk about phenomena, realities and true nature. So for instance, you take a shower, you are wet of water, then like everybody you dry yourself with a towel, then you are dry of water. Nibanna would be ''being dry after a having showered''. Even puthujjanas do not talk about ultimate reality when they say that they dry themselves after a shower. But when they talk about nibanna they jump directly to those wrong ideas, whereas drying yourself is exactly like removing craving.

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  • Not a bad answer, if you removed all the negative talk and kept to the point. Seems like you can't speak about right view without contrasting with wrong view all the time. – Andrei Volkov Jan 31 at 20:57
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With atta (identity), one might declare:

Maybe, like dukkha and anicca, anatta must be abandoned once the destination is reached.

Identity is bound up in wishes and if one reads the preceding as wishful of the permanence of self, the following applies:

SN12.64:3.3: If there is desire, relishing, and craving for consciousness as fuel, consciousness becomes established there and grows.

MN44:2.4: That is: form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness. The Buddha said that these five grasping aggregates are identity.”

In addition, the particular difficulty of abandoning anatta with the destination reached, is that anatta would be therefore be construed as impermanent, which clashes with:

DN33:2.1.140: the perception of impermanence, the perception of suffering in impermanence, the perception of not-self in suffering, the perception of giving up, and the perception of fading away.

With anatta, life is:

DN33:1.11.200: So anattantapo aparantapo diṭṭheva dhamme nicchāto nibbuto sītībhūto sukhappaṭisaṃvedī brahmabhūtena attanā viharati. (47)

DN33:1.11.200: They live without wishes in the present life, extinguished, cooled, experiencing bliss, having become holy in themselves.

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  • Can you explain to me how Nibbana could have one seal (anatta) without the other two (anicca and dukkha)? Is this a phenomenon or not? – Kalapa Jan 31 at 17:48

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