How the Buddha originally taught the reflection of not-self (as opposed to no self)

Here’s how the Buddha’s teaching of anatta (not-self) is taught in this day and age.  “The Buddha taught anatta – ‘no self’ – there is no you here.  Fundamentally, ‘you’ don’t exist”.  This is the view that the majority of Buddhists on the internet these days think.  But is it correct?
Problem with this, is:
  1. That’s not how the Buddha originally taught anatta
  2. It becomes a teaching of annihilation

As the Buddha clearly states here, the view that there is no self is annihilation – it is NOT the Buddha’s teaching:

If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism.
Ananda Sutta
So right here, when the Buddha flat out refused to acknowledge the view that there is no self.
Further, the Buddha straight out says the view that “you don’t exist” is wrong:
“So teaching, so proclaiming, O monks, I have been baselessly, vainly, falsely and wrongly accused by some ascetics and brahmans: ‘A nihilist is the ascetic Gotama; He teaches the annihilation, the destruction, the non-being of an existing individual.’
Alagaddupama Sutta
So how did the Buddha teach anatta?
He taught it like this:
  • What is impermanent is painful
  • What has these 2 characteristics – are “not worthy” to be regarded as who you really are.
So the Buddha taught it as a reflection (as opposed to a proclamation about existence).  What it does is it helps clear the field to delineate the boundary between what is and what is not worthy to be regarded as your real Self.
For example, the trees are not us.  The ground is not us.  The tables and the chairs are not us.  So what do we think could really be us?  The psychophysical self of our body and our minds of course!
The psychophysical self is called the 5 skandhas – composed of:
  1. Rupa:  Our body endowed with its 6 sense organs (5 senses + the brain)
  2. Vedana:  The sensations that we feel through the body – be they pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
  3. Sanna:  The perceptions we perceive through our bodily senses
  4. Sankhara:  The body’s physiological activity
  5. Vinnana:  The body’s mental activity
You’ll see the 5 skandhas explained in various ways but in general, it means the body and mental activity.
So the Buddha goes, if you want to see what you really are, you’ll need to examine what you “think” you are (the 5 skandhas) to see if it is worthy or not of being the real you!  So you’ll need to apply the reflection of anicca, dukkha, anatta to the 5 skandhas.  Let’s go through the principle again:
Whatever is transient is suffering
So these transient things that are subject to change – are subject to instability and uncertainty – anything that is subject to change is inherently unstable and has an inherent risk of failing on you – and when that happens, you will suffer:
  • When things change, not being as nice as they used to be (decay) – you suffer.

So anything that changes has the potential to bring you suffering because of decay, death and separation from you.  This is the futility of seeking ultimate happiness from within a realm that changes – because the happiness will also change, decay and die out on you, be separated from you – this type of happiness can not be ultimate happiness because it is samsaric – transient, unstable, unreliable, it’s intensity is always in flux.  This type of happiness is uncertain – so how can it be ultimate happiness if you are at the mercy of it’s wild fluctuations – sometimes up, sometime down.  Therein lies the flaw in any happiness that is subject to change.

So anything that changes is at risk of bringing you suffering.

Now the other thing is to seek happiness in external things (things outside of our self, things that are anatta – not self) once again because of their unreliability and not going according to our wishes.  If you are at the mercy of external influences – things will have the potential to go how we don’t want it – and this too causes us suffering.  So things that are not-self causes us suffering – things that are anatta lead to suffering.


Because if something is really us or is really a fundamental, inherent, natural part of you – we’d be able to just automatically think, “I want it that way” – and it will be that way, in the same way that you automatically extend your hand.  So whatever is really you, you naturally have full, inherent, absolute command over it.  Whatever is not really you – you won’t have natural commanding control over it.  Whatever you can’t control is obviously not you, right!

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