Study And Practice What A Buddha Taught
Dhamma Articles And Talks By Topic
Dependent Origination, Anatta, And The Myth Of Non-Duality
Above are recordings of two talks on Dependent Origination, Anatta, and The Myth Of Non-Duality from our Tuesday evening dhamma classes on April 12 & 19, 2016 and two talks on the same subject from our Saturday morning classes on April 16 & 23, 2016.
The Buddha “awakened” to the profound understanding that the common human problem of the underlying unsatisfactory nature of life is rooted in ignorance. In the ancient language of the Pali Canon this unsatisfactory experience is known as Dukka. The origination of Dukkha is explained in the Buddha’s teaching of Dependent Origination. Understanding Dependent Origination shows it is ignorance of The Four Noble Truths, through twelve observable causative links, all manner of confusion, delusion, and suffering, in a word Dukkha, arises.
Dependent Origination is the Buddha’s teaching on how personal phenomena arises within the environment of anicca, impermanence. The entirety of the Dhamma is to bring understanding of The Four Noble Truths. It is within the context of The Four Noble Truths that understanding of Dependent Origination develops. Understanding Dependent Origination brings awareness of the relationship between the five clinging-aggregates and the phenomenal world.
The five clinging aggregates are physical and mental factors that through individual intentional clinging a personality is formed that through ignorance is identified as a permanent, substantial, and sustainable self. Once formed, through confused and deluded thinking, the ego-self tenaciously insists on establishing its “self” in every object, event, view, and idea that occurs. This includes much of what is presented in later-developed “Buddhist” schools.
Modern Buddhist doctrine continues to evolve in contradiction to the Buddha’s original teachings to provide for the continuing establishment of “anatta” through misunderstanding or intentional misapplication of “dependent” to imply interdependence, interconnectedness, and inter-being. This has been done to allow for a non-dual doctrine that is rooted in the Veda’s and the later Upanishads, the doctrinal pre-cursors to modern Hinduism and modern Advaita. In this sense, modern Buddhism has more in common with modern Hinduism, Advaita, and most yoga-based philosophies than the direct teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali Canon. 
(This not to criticize or disparage any philosophy or religion. This is only for clarity as to what the Buddha actually taught and the significant differences between the Buddha’s Dhamma, other religions, and later-developed “Buddhist” doctrines.)
Dependent Origination directly explains the 12 causative links that determine the experiences of a self-referential ego-personality. In the Paticca-Samupadda-Vibhanga  Sutta the Buddha presents the 12 causative links of dependent Origination. Each of these 12 links are required, or “dependent” on the prior condition in order to give rise to a “self” that will experience dukkha. Rooted in ignorance (of The Four Noble Truths) it is through a continued confused and deluded “wrong view” that “anatta” continues to establish itself in every object, event, view, or idea that occurs. This known as continued “I-making,” or simply, conceit.
Dependent Origination States:
- From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.
- From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness.
- From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form.
- From name-and-form as a requisite condition comes the six sense-bases.
- From the six sense-bases as a requisite condition comes contact.
- From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling.
- From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.
- From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging and maintaining.
- From clinging and maintaining as a requisite condition comes becoming.
- From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth.
- From birth as a requisite condition comes aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair.
His very first teaching, then, was to present the truth of Dependent Origination as four noble truths for the first time in human history. He presented the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,  the sutta setting the (only) wheel of truth in motion.
This reference to “setting the wheel of truth in motion” relates to a true understanding of Kamma  (karma). Kamma means “action.” By setting this wheel of truth in motion the Buddha presented a way to alter the direction of lives rooted in actions born in ignorance by developing skillful actions that would lead to profound wisdom and lives of lasting peace and happiness.
Kamma is the present unfolding of past intentional acts moderated by current mindfulness. What this means is that by developing the Eightfold Path one can incline thoughts, words, and deeds towards skillful actions and achieve human awakening. The Buddha describes awakening as “released” or “unbound” as in achieving release or unbinding from craving for an ego-centric existence or clinging to objects, events, views, or ideas that would reinforce self-referential deluded views.
Upon hearing this first teaching, Kondanna, one of the five ascetics the Buddha had previously befriended, declared: “All conditioned things that are subject to arising are also subject to cessation.”
Kondanna had developed a profound understanding of impermanence, one of the Three Marks Of Existence  that describes the interplay between:
- Anicca: The impermanent phenomenal worldly environment
- Anatta: A self-referential ignorant view clinging to its environment
- And the confusion, delusion and suffering (dukkha) resulting from defining a self through clinging to impermanent objects, events, views, and ideas.
In his second discourse the Buddha then taught the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta,  the sutta on the Not-Self Characteristic. The confusion and deluded conclusions that are presented as doctrine in modern Buddhism are rooted in a misunderstanding, or outright dismissal, of Dependent Origination and these first two discourses.
The Buddha never taught that there is an inherent “true self” or “buddha nature” or “no self.” He never taught that “anatta” could be established and maintained through clinging to all phenomena or clinging to a non-dual, interdependent, interconnected doctrine or cosmic view.
Anatta means “not-self.” In using this word the Buddha teaches that what is commonly viewed as a self when seen through the Right View and profound wisdom developed through the Eightfold Path is clearly not a self that can be permanently established. Understanding anatta clearly shows that all phenomena is separate and discrete including “anatta.” If all things in the phenomenal world are impermanent and so uncertain as to occurrence or duration, there could be no permanent connection between impermanent objects, events, views, or ideas.
What is commonly and ignorantly viewed as a self is anatta, not a self that can be established in any non-dual doctrine. While this will pacify a self-referential ego-personality it can only develop further confusion, delusion, and suffering.
The Buddha taught an Eightfold Path that develops the understanding of the Three Marks of Existence and the interplay and distraction of impermanence, anatta, and dukkha.
In the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta he described that which is commonly used to describe a “self” as five “aggregates,” each inherently impermanent:
- Mental Fabrications
These five aggregates do not establish a self. The teaching on the Five Clinging Aggregates  only show the impermanent though ongoing process dependent on clinging to confused and deluded views that then results in an unsatisfactory life experience. When any of these discrete and impermanent aggregates are clung to in order to establish a self they become “clinging aggregates.”
The Buddha consistently described his teachings as “I teach suffering (dukkha) and the cessation of suffering. Nothing more.” When describing dukkha the Buddha teaches that “birth is suffering, sickness, is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering. Being separated from what is desired is suffering. Associating with the un-desired is suffering. In short, the five clinging aggregates are suffering.”
Even though by clinging these five disparate aggregates together to establish a self seems to provide an argument for a self, the argument cannot be sustained. The Buddha never answered the questions “is there a self” or “is there not a self,” he simply taught that what is commonly viewed as a self is not a self. The view that would establish a self is a wrong view.
As the question itself is rooted in ignorance (of The Four Noble Truths) when asked, the Buddha would often simply remain silent to indicate that the question itself did not deserve an answer. At other times the Buddha would answer “holding this question is the cause of your confusion, let the question go.”
In the Panha Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 4.42) the Buddha teaches that there are four skillful ways to answer questions:
- Questions that are suitable should be answered directly – yes, no, this, that
- Questions that are suitable should be answered with a descriptive or defining answer
- Questions that are suitable should be answered with another question
- Questions that are unsuitable to developing understanding should be put aside.
Further on in this sutta the Buddha calls those that understand how to answer questions as “one who has broken through to what is worthwhile, prudent and wise.” Many modern “Buddhists” claim that it is the essence of “Buddhist” practice, to question everything. As one engaged in the Buddha’s teachings mundane wisdom is accepting and contemplating answers, or lack thereof, that challenge clinging views rooted in ignorance. It is anatta that insist on answers to all questions and will only alter and accommodate “answers” that will allow for continuation of deluded self-referential views.
This is the result of thinking that has been “conditioned” by ignorance and dependent on ignorance of The Four Noble Truths. Modern psychology calls conditioned thinking “confirmation bias.” Conditioned thinking can only produce views that are biased towards confirming held conditioned views.
Common in modern Buddhism and in modern”new age” thought in general is the notion of non-duality or that the individual is a part of one grand cosmic entity attached (clinging) to each other and to all phenomena. This is simply an extreme view of establishing the five clinging aggregates in all phenomena and furthering the confusion, delusion, and suffering inherent in ignorance of The Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha taught to see phenomenal reality clearly and to see the discrete, separate, and impermanent nature of all things in the world. In describing an arahant, an awakened human being, he consistently used the words unbound or released as in unbound or released from all clinging views including the deluded view that individuals are in fact part of one giant clinging organism.
He taught an Eightfold Path that develops the concentration and refined mindfulness to recognize and abandon all confused and deluded views that would only continue confusion and delusion, and further human suffering.
When using the word anatta, the Buddha is not attempting to establish a true self or a cosmic self found in all things and connected to all living things. These are contradictory teachings of the later developed Buddhist schools and is rooted in a misunderstanding and misapplication of Dependent Origination.
The Buddha taught that what is commonly viewed as a “self” is the common cause for human confusion, delusion, and suffering, and is “anatta,” not-a-self worth establishing or defending. He taught that whatever is impermanent, including the insistence that a self can be established cosmically through inter-being, interconnectedness, or interdependence, is anatta, not-a-self.
It is a profoundly wrong view that insists on establishing a self in any impermanent environment or cosmic or higher realm. Again the Buddha taught that the belief in a permanent or sustainable self-referential “self” is rooted in confusion and delusion and can only lead to further suffering. (Self-referential views are any views that establish or instills a “self” in external objects, events, views, and ideas.)
Any conditioned view that establishes or maintains a permanent sustainable self is based in ignorance of The Four Noble Truths. This conditioned view of a self is anatta, not-a-self.
Any attempt to establish or maintain this confused view contradicts the Four Noble Truths and will only lead to more confusion, delusion, and suffering.
The Buddha’s Eightfold Path develops freedom from clinging including clinging to the view of the interdependence, interconnectedness, or the inter-being of all human beings. This path of wisdom, virtue, and profound concentration develops a life of lasting peace and happiness through abandoning all confused and deluded views clinging to the notion that a permanent “self” can somehow be established through commonly held beliefs or constantly repeated confused views.
Seeing these confused views clearly is the essence of useful insight and the essence of the Buddha’s Dhamma. There is no great mystery to be solved. Human life is not a koan to be endlessly contemplated. There is an Eightfold Path to be whole-heartedly engaged with that will bring lasting peace and happiness in this lifetime.
It’s what the Buddha taught.
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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 Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, 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 edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.