July 21, 2010

Rodney Smith on anatta: No-Self, Not-Self, or Non-Self?

Rodney Smith's new book Stepping Out of Self-Deception is going to be the subject of our upcoming Tricycle Community Book Club Discussion, starting Monday July 26th. The book is premised on the often difficult idea of anatta, variously anglicized as no-self, not-self, or non-self. From Chapter 1 (pp. 4-5):

The fundamental principle we must remember when traversing a spiritual path is that "we" do not "have" a mind. The mind has created the sense of you and me from the way it perceives reality. The truth is the mind holds "us" within it. "We" are not the possessor of a mind, and the mind is not something happening to us as if we were outside looking in. "We" are part of the mental processing of the mind. The thoughts of the mind and the sense-of-I are not two separate events. "We" exist only because the mind thinks us into creation.

A very important corollary to this truth has immense implications for our spiritual practice. As an experience is being received by the mind through the sense doors, the "I" reacts to the input and struggles with it. Since the sense-of-I is just thought, emotion, and mental phenomena, the effort to get control over experience is the "I" if the mind fighting against the interpretation it has given the data. Every act of volition, including all effort, control, avoidance, denial, and resistance, is an internal reaction against the meaning the mind has invested in the experience. If the mind sides with its reaction against its interpretation, it forces that experience outside itself, as something that is happening to it. The more the mind tries to restore balance through force of will, the more irreconcilable the rift between its reaction and the meaning it has applied—between "me" and the world outside. It thinks itself separate and divides itself from the worldly struggling internally with its own processes.

In a review of this book at Smiling Buddha Cabaret, NellaLou wrote of this explanation (speaking only of the first paragraph above, not the second): "I haven’t run across a statement that explains “I”, ego or the separation of self from experience that is more clearly stated than that."

Before publication of this book, Vince Horn interviewed Rodney Smith in a two-parter here and here.

And finally, here's Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu on the thorny issue of anatta and the Buddha's reluctance to address it:

One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when they learn about Buddhism is the teaching on anatta, often translated as no-self. This teaching is a stumbling block for two reasons. First, the idea of there being no self doesn't fit well with other Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of kamma and rebirth: If there's no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn't fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there's no self, what's the purpose of a spiritual life? Many books try to answer these questions, but if you look at the Pali canon — the earliest extant record of the Buddha's teachings — you won't find them addressed at all. In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside. To understand what his silence on this question says about the meaning of anatta, we first have to look at his teachings on how questions should be asked and answered, and how to interpret his answers.

The rest is here, courtesy of Access to Insight.

Join us Monday, July 26th and have your say on anatta and much more!

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Tricycle » Are we kidding our selves?'s picture

[...] Recent Tricycle articles that have focused on the idea of self/no-self are Andrew Olendzki’s “Self as Verb,” and the discussion of Rodney Smith’s Stepping Out of Self-Delusion. [...]

Justin Whitaker's picture

Looks like a wonderful selection. Anatta, like dukkha and anicca, are important but difficult aspects of reality to fully comprehend. Any work that makes them more accessible to contemporary readers is a gift indeed.

As a tiny nit-pick, I believe you mean 'translated' above, not 'anglicized'.

Happy reading, all.

Philip Ryan's picture

Toni Packer on no-self: "What about 'self-discipline' and 'self-control'? To ask, 'What is this "no-self" that has "self-control"?' is putting the wrong question, isn't it? It is making a new entity out of the concept of 'no-self.' But no-self is not a concept or an entity; it is a state of immediate, undivided awareness, presence. And in that presence the entire circuit of self-centeredness is illuminated. This is attention. Attention without self-center can illuminate self-centeredness. It sounds paradoxical, but only thought creates conundrums."

(from The Light of Discovery, page 10)

Adam's picture

tis better to work on ending suffering than dwelling on self/no self/not-self. Once suffering is eliminated and the cycle of samsara is left for good, we'll know for sure what "self" there is (if there is any).

Twitter Trackbacks for Tricycle » Rodney Smith on anatta: No's picture

[...] Tricycle » Rodney Smith on anatta: No-Self, Not-Self, or Non-Self? tricycle.com/blog/?p=2084 – view page – cached Rodney Smith’s new book Stepping Out of Self-Deception is going to be the subject of our upcoming Tricycle Community Book Club Discussion, starting Monday July 26th. The book is premised on the often difficult idea of anatta, variously anglicized as no-self, not-self, or non-self. From Chapter 1 (pp. 4-5): Tweets about this link [...]