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The Buddha Sutta – The Self-Governing Principle of Awakening
In the Buddha Sutta the Buddha describes the difference between himself and those that awaken following his Eightfold Path: “The Tathagata (the Buddha) the rightly self-awakened one is the one who teaches the path previously unknown. His disciples follow the path and afterwards become awakened from the path. This is the difference, this the distinction, between one rightly self-awakened and a monk discernment-released.”
The Buddha became the Buddha by “rightly self-awakening.” Upon his awakening he taught others the Eightfold Path so that they too could rightly self-awaken. The Buddha taught in a very direct way that the entity that is commonly believed to be a self is not a self but merely a combination of physical and mental factors that “cling” together and create the deluded belief of a self. This belief is founded in ignorance and is best understood as the ego-self or ego-personality.
It is the impermanent and insubstantial ego-personality that the Buddha taught was not a self, but is “anatta,” not-self. There is a great misunderstanding of self and what “anatta,” not-self, means. Most modern schools of Buddhism take an extreme nihilistic view of self due to this misunderstanding. This misunderstanding develops from ignoring and mis-applying Dependent Origination and diminishing the importance of the foundational teachings of The Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha “awakened” to a profound understanding of the nature of Dukkha. Dukkha is the Pali word used to describe the common human experience of stress. This includes dis-satisfaction, disappointment, disenchantment, ignorance, delusion, confusion, and all manner of physical and emotional pain.
In short the Buddha awakened to an understanding of how suffering and confusion is rooted in ignorance. Ignorance is not merely a lack of Right Understanding. An aspect of ignorance is a conditioned reaction of the ego-self to avoid anything that would challenge the ego’s hardened view of itself and the world. This aversion to develop realistic views is clinging to an ego-personality. The need to ignore what is apparent is an active form of ignorance and is often engaged with to avoid the Buddha’s teachings that directly challenge the ego.
The Buddha realized that from ignorance, through 12 causative and observable links, Dukkha arises. Dependent Origination shows in a very specific way that the ongoing and distracting condition of stress and confusion has as its initial cause ignorance. This is why the Buddha consistently describes his teachings as: “Understanding stress and developing the cessation of stress. Nothing more.”
The 12 observable causative links of Dependent Origination:
- Ignorance (causes)
- Mental Fabrications (causes)
- Discriminating Consciousness (causes)
- Identification as an Ego-personality (causes)
- Interpreting events through the physical senses impacted by consciousness (causes)
- Establishing clinging through contact with worldly events (causes)
- Physical and emotional reactions – feelings (causes)
- Craving for continued sensual fulfillment (causes)
- Maintaining additional clinging (causes)
- Continuing establishment of an ego-personality (causes)
- Phenomenal Involvement* – Attached to worldly events (causes)
- All manner of physical and emotional suffering** – Dukkha
This process of causes and conditions occurs within the environment of anicca. Anicca means impermanence. All things arising in the world are impermanent including the ego-self, or ego-personality. Confusion and stress develops by defining an ego-self as permanent and attempting to maintain the ego-self through attachment to impermanent objects, views and ideas due to ignorance.
This not to simplify this profound teaching. When the Buddha’s cousin Ananda claimed to have a complete understanding of Dependent Origination the Buddha cautioned Ananda that this teaching was the key to awakening and was very deep and subtle and “difficult to grasp. Those that understand Dependent Origination understand the Dhamma.” The subtlety and difficulties in fully comprehending Dependent Origination has contributed to its misunderstanding and misapplication with many modern Buddhist schools and teachers.
When any of the Buddha’s teachings are taken out of the context of The Four Noble Truths confusion and further suffering will always ensue. The Buddha presented The Four Noble Truths as his first teaching. All the teachings to follow support understanding of his first teaching and are to be developed within the context of his first teaching. In this way a preliminary understanding of The Four Noble Truths is required for developing awakening as a human being.
The Buddha’s path to awakening is an Eightfold Path that incorporates developing virtuous behavior and gentle but profound concentration resulting in heightened wisdom. It is the wisdom gained through The Eightfold Path that ends ignorance and ends delusion and suffering.
The Buddha characterized the ignorant view of what is commonly viewed as a “self” as “anatta or “not-self.” He described the three linked characteristics of delusion and suffering as anicca, anatta, and dukkha. There is nothing mystical or magical in this practical observation from an awakened mind. The Buddha is simply describing the environment that is necessary for the establishment of an ego-self that is subject to delusion and suffering.
Many of the later-developed “Buddhist” schools rely on ignorance of Dependent Origination and dismissal of The Four Noble Truths to allow for a doctrine of “no-self” and an environment of “emptiness” which contradicts Dependent Origination and the process of not-self within anicca. Ignoring the Buddha’s direct teachings also allows for the magical and mystical applications common to later schools while continuing to apply the “Buddhist” label to doctrines entirely antagonistic to the Four Noble Truths. Many who would develop understanding of the Buddha’s teachings are further confused by this initial ignorance, or reject the Buddhist teachings as nihilistic.
The Buddha never teaches “no-self” or “emptiness” as often presented in modern Buddhism. An understanding of Dependent Origination and The Four Noble Truths also develops an understanding of the “self” as an ongoing process. The ongoing process of delusion and suffering is rooted in ignorance. Further ignorance, no matter the label, will result in continuing the process of suffering. The process of awakening, as the Buddha teaches awakening, is founded in The Four Noble Truths and developing wisdom through the Eightfold Path.
All of the thousands of sutta’s in the Pali Canon support developing understanding of Dependent Origination and The Four Noble Truths. In the Adhipateyya Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.40) the Buddha, rather than teach a doctrine of no-self affirms a “self” that governs the awakening process through a Right View of anicca, the self, and the path leading to the cessation of Dukkha:
“There are three governing principles of awakening. The self, the cosmos, and the Dhamma are the governing principles of awakening. The self is a governing principle of the Dhamma. And how is the self, the cosmos, and the Dhamma the governing principles of awakening? (The cosmos in this sense is the environment of anicca.)
“A meditator having found solitude sitting at a root of a tree or an empty hut is mindful of not renouncing the world’s enchantments for robes, or alms, or shelter, for mystical states. He reflects thusly: I have gone forth to bring to cessation the entire mass of suffering of sickness, aging, death, of sorrow, lamentation, pain and despair.
“With my self as the governing principle within the governing principle of the cosmos (anicca) I have developed understanding (of Dukkha) through the governing principle of The Eightfold Path. My persistence will continue and not lax. I will remain mindful and clear, my body calm and my mind non-distracted, resting in equanimity. I will abandon clinging to impermanent objects, ideas and views and develop understanding governed by the Eightfold Path.
“Within the cosmos are those with psychic powers, those clairvoyant, who can read the mind of others and can see vast distances who can recognize conceit and continued I-making and the further establishment of the ego-self. My persistence will continue and not lax. I will remain mindful and clear, my body calm and my mind non-distracted, resting in equanimity. I will abandon conceit and clinging to impermanent objects, ideas and views and develop understanding governed by the Eightfold Path.
“The Dhamma is clearly taught by the Buddha to be developed here and now. This Dhamma is timeless in nature (persists in anicca) and is for all who would develop understanding. I would be foolish to dismiss this Dhamma (in favor of another dhamma). My persistence will continue and not lax. I will remain mindful and clear, my body calm and my mind non-distracted, resting in equanimity. I will abandon conceit and clinging to impermanent objects, ideas and views and develop understanding governed by the Eightfold Path.”
Here the Buddha is teaching that there is a self that is not prone to confusion and suffering originating in ignorance and formed by clinging. This is an awakened self that is in constant process of mindful awareness with no compulsion to establish identity through attachment to what is occurring, or through contacting the six senses.
Insisting on a definition of self that can be understood from the point of view of an ego-personality will always generate additional confusion. Negating an awakened self or projecting an awakened self into an environment of “emptiness” arises from the need to define a self from the point of view of the ego-self. Founded in ignorance there can be no wisdom. Attempting to define a self to fit an ignorant view will only develop further ignorance and an ongoing misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teachings. Ignorance does not develop into wisdom. Ignorant views are to be abandoned, not adapted to cultural or individual influences. Wisdom replaces ignorance.
The Buddha was a human being who through his own efforts awakened. Ignoring the significance of the Buddha’s awakening begins the delusion of a “no-self” that somehow becomes well-established in an environment of emptiness. The Buddha did not awaken and suddenly find a non-referential self in an empty environment.
The Buddha awakened to a profound understanding of Dukkha originating in ignorance. He lived as an awakened human being for 45 years. He lived 45 years teaching others his Dhamma who would also awaken and live awakened human lives free of the delusion of an ego-self.
Awakening does not annihilate anything worth preserving and does not establish an ego-self in some imaginary realm of emptiness. Awakening does not transform the ego-self into Buddhahood or Buddha-nature. Awakening does not establish the ego-self in an imaginary Buddhist heaven of everlasting bliss.
Awakening brings lasting peace and happiness to human life, free of the confusion and suffering of identifying as an ego-personality.
All views arising from an ego-self are rooted in ignorance and are not-self and are to be abandoned. This is all that is to be abandoned. This is the meaning of abandoning wrong view and entering into Right View.
The Adhipateyya Sutta concludes with the following verse:
“There is no hiding in the cosmos
for those of hurtful or foolish deeds
Your own self knows
whether you are wise or ignorant
You know the truth
Those awakened see the fool
who misunderstands the cosmos
Conduct your self with mindfulness,
Governed by the cosmos
resting in samadhi (non-distraction)
Governed by the Dhamma
in thought, word, and deed
The wise one perseveres
and never falls back
Through continued Right Effort
delusion and suffering ends
in the knower of the Cosmos
Wise and non-discriminating
with all phenomenal things.”
The Buddha did not teach a nihilistic doctrine. The Buddha taught understanding and wisdom. He taught that the hardened belief that the ego-self is substantial and worth defending is founded in ignorance, in wrong view. He taught that the environment that the ego-self defines itself in is impermanent and ever-changing. By attaching the ego-self to impermanent objects, ideas and views, the confusion and suffering of Dukkha ensues.
Establishing the ego-self in any realm continues delusion and suffering. Understanding anatta, that the ego-self is not a self worth defending, brings the cessation of clinging and the cessation of dukkha. When perception arises from Right View the three linked characteristics of anicca, anatta, and dukkha become the governing principles of an awakened self developing understanding of stress within the cosmos.
This is the true meaning of insight, or clearly seeing. Through the practice of Right Meditation, Jhana meditation, developed within the framework of The Eightfold Path, a calm mind ensues and clear insight into impermanence, the ego-self, and stress arises.
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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.