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Mahasi Sayadaw's Commentary on the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta

I’d like to share an excerpt from Mahasi Sayadaw’s commentary on the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta in the hopes that it may clarify the Buddhist position of “not self”. Really, one cannot say in truth that one follows the Buddha or believes in Lord Buddha’s path unless one acknowledges and accepts the characteristic insights that everything is:

  1. impermanent (always changing)
  2. stressful (commonly translated as suffering)
  3. not self (insubstantial)

The excerpt shared below contains some interesting philosophy from the Buddha’s historical time and place.  A comparison of views of self is given which is important in Buddhism, because until one gets the proper insight on view, one cannot become a stream winner, which is the first path and fruit gained,  insuring that one will never take less than a human birth and that one will realize Nibanna in 7 births or less.

I haven’t undertaken a formal study of Buddhist scripture.  Recently, however, I began reciting this sutta out loud, saying the English translation I have in one of my prayer books.  After reciting this a few times, I felt compelled to dig a little more and I found this commentary online: 

A Discourse on the Anttalakkhaṇa Sutta
by The Venerable Mahāsi Sayādaw

This Mahasi is the one from Burma who was instrumental in making vipassana meditation readily available to lay people and Westerners.

Following is an excerpt found on pp. 32-34 of the PDF.
The highlights are mine.   Also, the upload of the entire commentary is attached to this discussion.

____________________________

Mahasi Sayadaw wrote:

The Commentary says that it is very hard to abandon the eternalistic view that “Self, the living entity is indestructible, and remains stable eternally.” Therefore, even those who profess to have embraced Buddhism find it difficult to accept that there is no self, no living entity, there is only a continuous process of mental and physical phenomena. For Arahants, having completely eradicated clinging, there is no fresh arising of mind and matter in a new existence after their parinibbāna. The continuous process of mind and matter comes to a complete cessation. Eternalists would like to believe that after their parinibbāna, the Arahants continue to exist in special forms. The  Commentary has this to say on the subject:

“The eternalists know that there is a present life and an after-life. They know there are pleasant and unpleasant effects of wholesome and  unwholesome deeds. They engage themselves in meritorious actions. They recoil from doing evil deeds. However, they relish and take delight in pleasures, which could give rise to fresh existences. Even when they get to the presence of the Blessed One or his disciples, they find it hard to abandon their belief immediately. So it may be said of the eternalist belief that although its faults are not grave, it is hard to discard.”

On the other hand, annihilationists do not know that there is passage to the human world from other existences and there is an after-life. They do not know there are pleasant and unpleasant effects of wholesome and unwholesome deeds. They do not engage in meritorious actions, and have no fear of unwholesome deeds. They do not relish and take delight in wholesome deeds, which could give rise to fresh existences, because they do not believe in an after-life. However, when they get to the presence of the Blessed One or his disciples they can abandon their belief immediately. Thus with regard to the annihilationists belief, it may be said, that its faults are grave but it is easy to be discarded.

The wanderer Dīghanakha could not grasp the motive behind the Blessed One‘s statement. He assumed that the Blessed One was commending him for his view that there is nothing after death. Hence his remark, “The Venerable Gotama praises my view; the Venerable Gotama commends my view.” To enable him to abandon his view the Blessed One continued to give a critical review of three beliefs current in those days, namely:

  • the eternalist view which holds: “All is acceptable to me;”
  • the annihilationist view which holds: “Nothing is acceptable to me;”
  • and a form of eternalist view which holds: “Some are acceptable to me, and some are not.”

To summarise what the Blessed One said: he explained that when one holds fast to any one of the above views, there is a likelihood of conflict with those holding both the other views. When there is a clash of views, there will be disputes, which would lead to quarrels. When there are quarrels, there is harm. Therefore the Blessed One urged that all the three beliefs should be discarded.

Here it may be asked whether the Buddhist view that: “Fresh becoming arises in new existences as conditioned by one’s kamma,” is not the same as the eternalist view. The answer is no, it is not the same. By saying “Fresh becoming arises in new existences as conditioned by one’s kamma,” the Buddhist view does not mean the transfer of a self or a living entity from one existence to another. It means only the arising of new mind and matter in the new existence depending on one’s previous kamma, whereas the eternalist believe that it is the self or the living entity of the present life that migrates to a new existence. The two views are quite different from each other.

Again, the question may arise whether the Buddhist teaching of the  cessation of mind and matter after the parinibbāna of Arahants and the  non-arising in a new existence is not the same as the annihilationist view, which holds that nothing remains after death. Here, too, there is no similarity between the two views, because according to the annihilationists, there exists before death a living entity that disappears after death. No special effort is needed to make it disappear — it makes its own exit. In addition, although materialists think that there is no self in their view, they believe that nothing remains after death. Pleasant or unpleasant sensations are experienced only before death. This clinging to the notion of suffering or enjoyment before death is clinging to self. In Buddhist teaching, the Arahant before parinibbāna has no self, but only a continuous process of mind and matter. Suffering and enjoying  sensations is the nature of feeling, which is manifesting itself  recurrently. After parinibbāna, the continuous process of mind and matter ceases in an Arahant. However, this cessation does not come about on its own. It is by virtue of the Noble Path, by means of which the defilements and kamma that are responsible for the arising of mind and matter are eradicated. When the cause of their becoming — defilements and kamma — disappears, no new mind and matter arise again. Thus there is a world of difference between cessation after parinibbāna described in Buddhist teachings and the cessation envisaged by the annihilationists.

A further question may be asked: “Just as the eternalists hold disputes over their beliefs with the annihilationists, is there not the possibility of disputes between those who believe in not-self and those who hold on to the notion of self? Teaching or talking about right-view does not amount to engaging in disputes. It should be regarded as promotion of the knowledge of the truth for the benefit and welfare of humanity. The teaching, “There is only a continuity of process in the phenomenon of change from the old to the new mind and matter; there is no self that lasts eternally,” is the doctrine of not-self, otherwise known as right-view. Explaining right-view is not engaging in controversy, not engaging in polemics. It is just imparting the knowledge of truth to the uninstructed. Thus for those who hold the right-view of not-self, there is no likelihood of involvement in  disputes or controversies.

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And the commentary continues.  I will keep reading it slowly as it is not easily comprehended by me even though I have been practicing.  

 

 

 

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  • The English translation of the Not Self Sutta which I recite is:

    Anatta-lakkhanna Sutta

    The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic

    I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying at Varanasi in the Game Refuge at Isipatana. There he addressed the group of five monks:

    “Form, monks, is not-self. If form were self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease, and it would be possible (to say) with regard to form, ‘Let my form be thus. Let my form not be thus.

    But precisely because form is not-self, form lends itself to dis-ease, and it is not possible (to say) with regard to form, ‘Let my form be thus. Let my form not be thus.

    Feeling is not-self. If feeling were self, this feeling would not lend itself to dis-ease, and it would be possible (to say) with regard to feeling, ‘Let my feeling be thus. Let my feeling not be thus.

    But precisely because feeling is not-self, feeling lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to feeling, ‘Let my feeling be thus. Let my feeling not be thus.’

    Perception is not-self. If perception were self, this perception would not lend itself to dis-ease, and it would be possible (to say) with regard to perception, ‘Let my perception be thus. Let my perception not be thus.’

    But precisely because perception is not-self, perception lends itself to disease. And it is not possible (to say) with regard to perception, ‘Let my perception be thus. Let my perception not be thus.’

    Fabrications are not-self. If fabrications were self, these fabrications would not lend themselves to dis-ease, and it would be possible (to say) with regard to fabrication, ‘Let my fabrications be thus. Let my fabrications not be thus.’

    But precisely because fabrications are not-self, fabrications lend themselves to dis-ease, and it is not possible (to say) with regard to fabrications, ‘Let my fabrications be thus. Let my fabrications not be thus.’

    Consciousness is not-self. If consciousness were self, this consciousness would not lend itself to dis-ease, and it would be possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’

    But precisely because consciousness is not-self, consciousness lends itself to dis-ease, and it is not possible (to say) with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’

    How do you construe this, monks—Is form constant or inconstant?”

    “Inconstant, lord.”

    “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

    “Stressful, lord.”

    “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

    “No, lord.”

    “How do you construe this, monks—Is feeling constant or inconstant?”

    “Inconstant, lord.”

    “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?

    “Stressful, lord.”

    “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

    “No, lord.”

    “How do you construe this, monks—Is perception constant or inconstant?” “Inconstant, lord.” “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

    “Stressful, lord.”

    “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

    “No, lord.”

    “How do you construe this, monks—Are fabrications constant or inconstant?”

    “Inconstant, lord.”

    “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”  

    “Stressful, lord.”

    “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

     “No, lord.”

    “How do you construe this, monks—Is consciousness constant or inconstant?”

    “Inconstant, lord.”

    “And is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?”

    “Stressful, lord.”

    “And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?”

     “No, lord.”

    To be continued in next post.......

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    • “Thus, monks, any form whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form—is to be seen as it has come to be with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

      Any feeling whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every feeling—is to be seen as it has come to be with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

      Any perception whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every perception—is to be seen as it has come to be with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

      Any fabrications whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: all fabrications are to be seen as they have come to be with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

      Any consciousness whatsoever—past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every consciousness—is to be seen as has come to be with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.’

      Seeing thus, the instructed noble disciple grows disenchanted with form, disenchanted with feeling, disenchanted with perception, disenchanted with fabrications, & disenchanted with consciousness.

      Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is released.

      With release, there is the knowledge, ‘Released.’ He discerns that, ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’” monks, through lack of clinging, were released from mental effluents.

      _________________________________

      From: A Chanting Guide, Pali Passages with English Translations,
      The Dhammayut Order, United States of America

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      • This is interesting!

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