Anatta Lakkhana Sutta – The Not-Self Characteristic

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The following is an excerpt from my book Becoming Buddha. 

The Not-Self Characteristic and The Five Clinging-Aggregates – The Buddha’s Second Discourse

The Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta explains how a wrong view of self arises and how the interrelationship between this wrong view of self within an ever-changing environment results in ongoing suffering.

The Anatta Lakkhana Sutta 

Samyutta Nikaya 22.59 

On one occasion the Buddha was staying at Benares, in the Deer Park at Isipatana. There he addressed the group of five (now) Bhikkhus: 

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to suffering, and one could have it be any form desired, and stress free. Since form is not-self it leads to suffering and none can have it be any form desired and stress free

“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self, as perceptions are not-self. Fabrications are not-self. Consciousness is not-self. If these aggregates were self they would not lead to suffering and one could direct these aggregates as one wished. Since these are not-self they can only lead to suffering and no one can have these (aggregates) be as they wish. 

“Bhikkhus, how do you perceive this: is form permanent or impermanent?” The five replied ”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, is this fit to be regarded as: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self?’  

“No, venerable sir.” 

“Is feeling permanent or impermanent? Is perception permanent or impermanent? Are fabrications permanent or impermanent? Is consciousness permanent or impermanent?” 

“All are impermanent, venerable sir.” 

“Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, is this fit to be regarded as: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? 

“No, venerable sir.” 

“So, bhikkhus any kind of form whatever,

whether past, future or presently arisen,

whether gross or subtle,

whether in oneself or external,

whether inferior or superior,

whether far or near,

must, with right understanding how it actually is, be regarded as: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’ 

“And so it follows that any kind of feeling whatever,

any kind of perception, any kind of determination,

any kind of consciousness whatever,

whether past, future or presently arisen,

whether gross or subtle,

whether in oneself or external,

whether inferior or superior,

whether far or near

must, with right understanding how it actually is, be regarded as: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.’ 

“Bhikkhus, when a noble follower who has heard the truth sees in this way,

they find estrangement in form,

they find estrangement in feeling,

they find estrangement in perception,

they find estrangement in determinations,

they find estrangement in consciousness. 

“When they find estrangement, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, they are liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that they are liberated. They understand: ‘Birth is exhausted, the integrated life has been lived out, what can be done is done, of this there is no more beyond.” 

Now during this discourse the hearts and minds of the bhikkhus were liberated from craving, aversion, and deluded thinking. 

In most translations the phrase ‘integrated life’ is referred to as ‘holy life.’ The Buddha did not intend to start a new religion. He taught an Eightfold Path to be integrated in one’s life in order to Become Buddha.

End of Sutta 

As a result of whole-hearted engagement with the Eightfold Path disenchantment with the ego-self, with Anatta, with the Five Clinging-Aggregates is developed. From disenchantment with the Five Clinging-Aggregates comes the cessation of the compulsive need to continually establish an ego-personality. 

Once disenchantment is established the process of unbinding begins. The cessation of delusion, confusion, and continued unsatisfactoriness is now possible. 

The simplest way to describe the Buddha’s teaching on Not-self is this: anything that the ego-self clings to, whether objects, people, events, views, or ideas,  or craving through the pursuit of happiness through acquisition of objects, people, events, views, or ideas, will create confusion, disenchantment and lasting unhappiness. 

The futility of creating self-identity by clinging to impermanent objects, events, views, and ideas becomes apparent. Following this initial Right View the Right Intention is generated to recognize and abandon craving and clinging rooted in ignorance. 

Still another way to see this is by definition and association. The self is defined by attachments. Association is another word for attachments. Who is associated with and what is associated with defines the experience of “self.” This does not mean that there should be no associations. It does show the importance of being mindful of all associations and to not attempt to make what is impermanent permanent. 

Do associations support developing understanding within the framework of The Eightfold Path? Do associations confusion and suffering through validation of unskillful actions? 

The Eightfold Path provides a highly effective framework for guiding associations and focus for practice. As clinging to an ego-personality ceases, self-identification through associations also ceases. 

It is within Dhamma practice – when developing the Eightfold Path – that wise associations are most important. 

Once clinging is recognized and abandoned, one no longer clings to others. This brings the ability to be mindfully present in the world and with others with no expectations or insistence that life, or the people in our lives, including ourselves, be any different from what is occurring. 

All aspects of self are impermanent and any conditioned thought or thought construct that attempts to distract from this truth is also clinging, specifically clinging to views and ideas. Clinging to views and ideas maintains the distraction of stress and generates karma. 

Anatta, not-self, continually seeks to establish itself in impermanent objects, events, views, and ideas. This is the purpose of the phenomenal world and why the ego-self is so enamored with the world. As long as anatta continues this quest, confusion and suffering will prevail. As long as anatta continues this quest, karma will continue. 

Due to unquenched desire for existence, the ego-personality creates karma. Karma unfolds moment-by-moment as the distraction of stress and unhappiness. Though physical form will change according to impermanence, karma continues the experience of stress and unhappiness. 

This is an important example of impermanence as impermanence relates to anatta. Continuity is not permanence although continuity obscures impermanence and the not-self characteristic. Continuity is reoccurrence due to repeatedly recreating the conditions leading to an experience. Continued re-establishment of an ego-self obscures impermanence resulting in a wrong view of a permanently sustainable self. 

Reoccurring life situations and intellectual or emotional reactions are simply an impermanent, but repetitive, and discursive, product of discriminating consciousness, or conditioned mind. Conditioned thinking and conditioned mind is formed due to ignorance of impermanence, maintained by the distraction of stress, and given validity by an ego-personality. 

Continuity caused by clinging conditioned mind is ongoing Dukkha. 

Once the pain associated with clinging to impermanent objects, events, views, and ideas is recognized and abandoned further becoming rooted in ignorance comes to cessation

What is perceived as a permanent self is, in reality, in a constant process of becoming. Each moment holds the potential for future becoming. A mind rooted in ignorance can only become further ignorant. A mind framed by the Eightfold Path has the potential to become awakened, to Become Buddha.

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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