Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Thank you everyone for your ongoing support.

Note to a Friend

May 18, 2012

Hey, Friend!

I see you are going to do several sessions on “anatta.”  I agree wholeheartedly that anatta has been misinterpreted and those misinterpretations have led to controversy.  But I think the concept of anatta is really very simple and when approached rationally is very easy to understand.  First, one needs to put the “anatta” doctrine in its historical context:  the Brahmanism of 5th & 6th century BCE.  “Atman” {Sanskrit; “atta” Pali} is a very well defined and explained doctrine.  The supreme “isness” (modern writers like the term “Ultimate Reality”) is Brahman.   Atman is the essence of all living things, and it is in fact a perturbation of Brahman.  Thus it is perfect, transcendental/metaphysical, unchanging and eternal.  It is, from the Brahmanists' view, this Atman that transmigrates and reincarnates.  It is this Atman, again from the Brahmanists' view, that is the spark of life, the animating substrate underlying all living things.  This view is carried on through the development of the Upanishads, and the Advaita Vedanta literature.  As the various forms of what today we call “Hinduism” have developed and emerged, it is the “freeing” or “release” of Atman from the delusions of samsara that is the ultimate goal of practice.  It is the realization of the one-ness of Brahman and Atman that results in moksha – the release from samsara:  The realization of “tat tvam asi” - “thus thou art” - that one is in fact “god.”

In contrast, the earliest “Buddhist” documents on this subject place atman in the context of objectively verifiable reality, and find it exists only as a concept, not as an “entity.”  There is nothing to be found in a human being that is perfect, transcendental/metaphysical, unchanging, and eternal.  Thus, the doctrine of “anatta” or “no Atman.”  In fact, according to this early doctrine, there is nothing anywhere – animal, mineral or vegetable – that is perfect, transcendental/metaphysical, unchanging and eternal.  This is expressed in the doctrine of “anicca” often translated as “impermanence” but better understood as “transitoriness.”  All things are changing and all things are transitory.  Again, this is stated in the context of objectively verifiable reality. 

The belief that there is an atman, and that there is some aspect or component of reality which is perfect, transcendental/metaphysical, unchanging and eternal is a delusion.  And it is the attachment to such delusional beliefs as Atman and some aspect of reality which is perfect, transcendental/metaphysical, unchanging and eternal that is a source of dukkha – unsatisfactoriness, or suffering. 

What is controversial about that?  Ah, what is controversial is that most people believe in Atman, or something very nearly like it, and some “isness,” be that Brahman, Cosmic Consciousness or God, which is perfect, transcendental/metaphysical, etc., and they are very committed and attached to their beliefs, and very reluctant to let go of that particular delusion.  But they want to be good Buddhists so they try to find ways to “rescue” the atman and Brahman by redefining what atman and Brahman mean, or attributing to the Buddha other teachings which seem to support their attachment to their delusions.  And they write their thoughts down for others to read.  Others, not so well informed, and clinging to their delusions expand and propagate delusional doctrines.

And really, it is quite simple.  There is no atman.  Period.

But that creates problems for reincarnationists and rebirthers.  If there is not Atman, then what is reborn?  This is an issue which parallels the problem of theodicy in Christianity and Judaism.  And the ways in which people try to justify their closely held beliefs about rebirth and reincarnation do get controversial. 

A major source of controversy is the mistaken notion that anatta – no Atman – often referred to as “no soul” means that there is really no person at all, no “self” which can be identified.  This is, of course absurd.  Certainly it is possible for an imminent, constantly changing, imperfect “self” to exist without postulating a transcendental/metaphysical, unchanging, perfect “soul.”  In fact, the earliest writings suggest that the historical Buddha asserted that the self DOES exist as the five everchanging “khanda” (Sanskrit: Skhanda) or bundles.  So:  a self exists, a soul does not.  What is so controversial about that? 

But several “schools” of Buddhism have adopted this “no atman = no soul = no self” position as central in their doctrine.  And then they have had to abandon the “three characteristics of existence” - anatta, anicca and dukkha – or have had to “redefine” the term anatta to mean something the historical Buddha never meant, or they come up with a different term, such as “puggala” or “karmic residue” for what “exists.” 

Most “modern” buddhists have been influenced by the the teachings of Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way and Treatise on the Twelve Gates, and Aryadeva's One-Hundred-Verse Treatise. Kumarajiva translated these three treatises into Chinese in the early fifth century. Their doctrines were successively transmitted by Tao-sheng, T'an-chi, Senglang, Seng-ch'yan, and Falang, and finally systematized by Chi-tsang (549-623), who is often regarded as the first patriarch of the Chinese Three Treatises, or Sanlun, school.

The doctrines of the Three Treatises school were transmitted to Japan by three persons during the seventh and early eighth centuries: First, by the Korean priest Hyekwan, known in Japan as Ekan, who went to Japan in 625. He was a disciple of Chi-tsang. Second, by the Chinese priest Chih-tsang, known in Japan as Chizo, who also went to Japan in the seventh century. He studied the Three Treatises doctrines under Ekan at Gango-ji temple in Nara and returned to China to further his study under Chi-tsang. On his return to Japan, he taught the Three Treatises doctrines at Horyu-ji temple. Third, by Chizo's disciple Doji, who went to China in 702 and returned to Japan in 718 with the Three Treatises doctrines. He lived at Daian-ji temple in Nara. Actually, a priest named Kwalljk (known in Japan as Kanroku) of the Korean state of Paekche had brought the Three Treatises teachings to Japan in 602, but Ekan established the theoretical foundation of the school. For this reason, Ekan is regarded as the first to formally introduce the Three Treatises doctrine to Japan. The lineage of Chizo's disciples, carried on by Chikoand Raiko, was called the Gango-ji branch of the Three Treatises school, and that of Doji, the Daian-ji branch.

The Three Treatises doctrine holds that, because all phenomena appear and disappear solely by virtue of their relationship with other phenomena (dependent origination), they have no existence of their own, or self-nature, and are without substance. The school upholds Nagarjuna's "middle path of the eight negations" (non-birth, non-extinction, non-cessation, non-permanence, non-uniformity, non-diversity, non-coming, and non-going), and sees refutation of dualistic or one-sided views in itself as revealing the truth of the Middle Way.

And then some of those schools have equated the “mystical experience” with the doctrine of “no soul / no self.”  What William James, in “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and Sigmund Freud, in “Civilization and It's Discontents” (or maybe it was “The Future of An Illusion”) and Richard Bucke in his work “Cosmic Consciousness,” and so many others since were referring to.  Well, we've come a long way since the late 19th and early 20th centuries (although many “believers” have not), and research has shown us that this “mystical” or “oceanic” experience, or the experience of “cosmic consciousness” is really an alteration in brain function which leads to altered perceptions, which often leads to a dissociative state in which the sense of “self” as a separate, unique entity in a world of entities disappears.  This altered brain function can be induced through any number of practices, such as sleep deprivation, starvation, meditation and use of some psychoactive drugs. 

There has developed within the Buddhist traditions a concept of four “jhanic” states (the four jhanas), and it has been controversial whether these jhanas are necessary or even desirable.  And Zen has defined Enlightenment as the attainment of that altered state of perceptual “one-ness.”

But we need to stay connected with reality and not fall into the delusion that external, objectively verifiable reality is altered when our perception of that reality – our psychological reality – is altered. 

We need also to remember that the “problem” is dukkha, stemming from “avijja' (non-wisdom) and tanha (emotionally clinging to a desire for a reality that isn't).  And the “solution” (wisdom and seeing reality as it is, not as we would wish it to be) comes from practicing the Noble Eightfold Path. 



Bhante Dhammapala