Here, Ajahn Pannavaddho (the Senior western disciple of Ajahn Maha Boowa) juxtaposes:
- The 5 khandhas/skandhas – the body its physical and mental processes VS
- The Citta – your real Mind (not your thoughts or mental processes)
So the key here is to notice that in contrast to what many western Buddhists now believe – the 5 khandhas do NOT represent absolutely everything because the Citta is beyond your khandhas.
How to Reflect Using Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta
The khandhas (the groups that we mis-take to be our psychophysical self) are anicca – ephemeral, in constant flux – they keep changing and are uncertain – so they eventually decay and die. Whatever is impermanent is subject to this dukkha, this flaw, this unsatisfactoriness, this suffering of having to decay and die.
Whatever is anicca is dukkha, whatever is dukkha is anatta. These 3 characteristics are inseparable – and were repeatedly taught by the Buddha to be reflected upon in conjunction with each other as a triad.
Whatever is impermanent is subject to suffering and whatever is suffering not fit, not worthy to be regarded as Self. This is how the Buddha taught us on how to reflect:
“Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it:
- Is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” —
- “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.”
- “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”?
“No, venerable sir.”
Source: Anattalakkhana Sutta
Here the Buddha is teaching us the pattern of how to reflect using anicca, dukkha, anatta with the respect to our 5 skandhas:
- Is your body permanent or impermanent? Impermanent (anicca)
- Now impermanent things – are they dukkha or sukha? Are they painful or pleasant? Painful (dukkha)
- Now what is anicca and dukkha fit to be regarded as Atta? Are what is impermanent and painful worthy to be regarded as you? Your Atta/Atman? Can you say that this body is “me”? Who I really am?
No. So your body is not your self – it’s not who you really are (not the Atta – anatta).
And you can repeat the same pattern for the other 4 skandhas.
Analogy of Renting your Body as a House that you Live in for a time
So your body is just a vehicle, a machine that you’re using temporarily, a house that you’re inhabiting and being conscious through in this life. It’s like renting a house for a short period of time.
Thinking of your Body like Wearing Clothes
You can also think of it as wearing clothes – wearing a certain set of clothes in this life – clothing made of your flesh. But it’s not who you really are. When it comes time for us to die, the body can no longer function – it can no longer sustain life – so we move on.
Using your body is like using a Smartphone
Your body is also like having a computer with a camera and microphone – for example, like your smartphone:
- Rupa: The hardware is the physical the structure of the phone – the physical form (rupa). The phone’s camera and microphone are like the eyes and ears on our body – they allow us to see the outside world.
- Nama: When you turn the camera on – it’s processor is like our brain with it’s mental processes (nama) – it takes information from the outside world using it’s senses (the camera and microphone) and processes it to create a video of what it perceives of the outside world.
So can you say that your smartphone is you? Is your phone fit to be regarded as you? Is it right to say that your phone is you? No. Your smartphone is not the user – it is not self.
Can you say that you are IN your smartphone? Can the user be found INSIDE the smartphone? No. You don’t need to be physically inside your smartphone to be able to use it.
These days – with wireless, you don’t even need to be physically touching your computer or smartphone to be able to control it. Likewise, our Buddha Nature, our True Self is not an impermanent physical thing (because we tend to think of ourselves in physical terms, e.g., pointing to me in my chest) – and so is not “located” anywhere in space. Physical things are located in the realm of space and the Buddha Nature is beyond that.
What is happening when we seek for things in the external world?
You are just USING the phone’s camera and mic and apps – in the same way that you are “using” this body with it’s senses and brain processing – to try and get whatever happiness you can in the external world. So your body is like a machine that you’re using to try and seek for and grasp at and hold on to external happiness in your life for as long as you can.
We seek for happiness and pleasurable experiences externally in the outside world because we don’t know any better. Our awareness goes out the gates of our senses (salyatana) to experience the world of the senses – seeking beautiful sights to behold and sounds to experience.
Time and Space are “Perceptions” that we experience through this body of ours
We move our body through space and time in the world of the senses to seek what we want, thinking that we will gain happiness there – seeking a beautiful partner to be with, understanding, intelligent partner, beautiful healthy kids, a hot new car and a gorgeous new house. And it’s good to seek these things if we’re not harming others.
Yet we remain unmindful of the flaws in this type of happiness – we do not fully realize the drawbacks of that type of happiness – the instability, uncertainty and ephemerality of it all because we are relying on external factors beyond our control for this happiness. Partners can say and do things that upset us, kids may disappoint us and cause us grief, your hot car can get scratched and dented and your new house is probably the most stable but you’ve got to keep up the mortgage payments until you’ve paid it all off.
What no self in the 5 skandhas really means
Now the Buddha said that you won’t be able to find a self in any of the 5 skandhas – this is true. So you won’t be able to find your self in your body (rupa) or your mental processes (nama). But does that mean that there is no self? Does that mean that there is no “you” there? No.
If you try to take your smartphone apart and try to find the user in any of the physical components of the phone or inside it’s processor or any of the apps – will you find the user there? No.
And if you don’t find the user in any of the components of the phone or apps – does that mean that there is no user? No.
So just because the Buddha said that you won’t be able to find a self in any of the 5 skandhas – is NOT an absolute, nihilistic teaching of “No Self”! It just means that your body and your thoughts and emotions are not who you really are.
Similarly, who we really are – our Buddha Nature – may not be a physical thing in the realm of space and time. So we are not necessarily inside our body, even though we perceive things through our body’s sensory organs – perceiving sights through our eyes, sound through our ears, tastes, touch, smells and thoughts through our tongue, skin, nose and brain.
The Citta/the Nirvanic Mind is Beyond the 5 Skandhas
Now in contrast to the skandhas, our Citta, our real Mind (not our brain) is NOT impermanent because it is not born and so can not decay or die. Being NOT impermanent, it is not subject to suffering. And whatever is not subject to suffering is NOT not-self. A double negative, which cancels each other out.
A Negation cancels the previous Negation out
To illustrate this double negative, let’s say you have 1 unique apple – we’ll call it “this apple”. Everything else is NOT “this apple”. So we can point to everything else in the world and say that everything else in the world is “not this apple”. Now if you say that something is NOT “not this apple” – then it is NOT “everything else in the world that is not this apple”. And so it must be this apple!
This is also why in mathematics a minus multiplied by a minus becomes a plus. In other words say you have:
- The assertion – this apple
- You negate the assertion – not this apple
- You negate the negation of the assertion – so you cancel the negation out – which gives you the assertion again
So whatever is not anicca, is also not dukkha. And whatever is not anicca and not dukkha is not Anatta – it is not not-self.
So whatever is not impermanent (i.e., is eternal) is not suffering. And whatever is eternal and not suffering is therefore not not-self. Therefore it is the Self!
The 4 Virtues of Nirvana
And what else is not subject to suffering? What, by definition is totally free of dukkha? Nirvana. So Nirvana is your real, eternal Self – your True Self – who you really are – and is eternal and blissful – totally free from suffering.
And indeed, in the Sutras, the Buddha often spoken of the 4 Virtues of Nirvana:
- Permanence – eternal because it is free from the realm of time – impermanence only occurs within the realm of time and change – because it is only through change in time that things decay and die. Nirvana is akaliko – timeless – with no birth and therefore has no death – and so, is free from the drawbacks of impermanence and ephemerality.
- Bliss – because Nirvana is totally free from dukkha – unsatisfactoriness/suffering. It is totally satisfactory – to the point of being the ultimate happiness – Nibbanam paramam sukham – “Nirvana is the highest happiness!” said the Buddha.
- Purity – not impurity
- True Self – because once you eliminate everything that is not your real self – your real self is revealed!
A Zen Question for you to Investigate Deeply
So, knowing that your body is not you, then one interesting thing to contemplate is “Who is it that is carrying this body?” “Who is carrying around this flesh bag?” or “Who is dragging around this corpse?”
In other words, your body is like a lump of meat – but who is controlling it? Investigate deeply – ask yourself, “This body is like a puppet made of muscle and ligaments, covered by skin – but who is it that is making this puppet move? Who is pulling the strings? Who is the puppet master?” That’s a Zen meditation question for you all to contemplate!
The Myth of No Self in Buddhism
If you follow what popular Buddhism says these days, you’ll think, “There’s no self doing anything – there’s nobody here moving anything – it just moves by itself based on previous causes” – so like dominoes falling one after the other. In other words, all we are, is the product of past causes (which is wrong view – because if that was true, then we wouldn’t be able to change anything with our intentions – remember right intention is part of the Noble Eightfold Path).
The no self doer idea also doesn’t cut it secondly because you are not just stimulus-response like an inanimate system. You’re just not dominoes that can only fall in 1 way when the previous domino hits you. You have the ability to choose your responses to be whatever you want in the space between stimulus and response.
Thirdly, the Buddha himself flat outright said that “there is no self doing things” is wrong view in the Attakari Sutta when someone came to him and said, “There is no self doer, no other doer”. Now did the Buddha say, “Yes, there is no self that does things!”? No, he did not!
In fact, the Buddha replied, “I have never heard of such an idea, such a teaching!”
Because, “How can you, moving forward by yourself, moving backward by yourself say that there is no self doer, no other doer?”
Who is the Host? The Master of the House/Inn?
Who is the puppet master? Or who is it that is moving this body? Is the same question as posed in the Shurangama Sutra – see my posts on the host vs guests of an inn. The visitors are guests, but who is the Master of the Inn? Your body is the inn.
You need to ask yourself this question and then try to find the answer inside yourself.