To begin with, please forgive me for such a lengthy reply. It is simply my hope that my attempt at thoroughness will be helpful.
One thing that still troubles me about the accepted "orthodox" view concerning the Buddha’s doctrine of anatta
is that the Buddha only said that the five khandhas
should be observed as anatta
. When he referred to the "the all
," "the world
" and "the cosmos
," he was referring to the five khandhas
or the six sense spheres. While this seems to cover everything, we must differentiate between our presumptions and our actual experience. For most of us, as unenlightened beings, we do not know the answer for sure. We must follow the Buddha’s path to see the truth for ourselves. The Buddha never said that there is nothing beyond the experience of the five khandhas
, he simply said that one would not be able to explain such a thing because it lies beyond range. That does not equate saying that there is nothing there. As for the inclusion of nibbana
in the term "sabba
" (the all), Thanissaro notes
The Commentary's treatment of this discourse is very peculiar. To begin with, it delineates three other "All's" in addition to the one defined here, one of them supposedly larger in scope than the one defined here: the Allness of the Buddha's omniscience (literally, All-knowingness). This, despite the fact that the discourse says that the description of such an all lies beyond the range of explanation.
Secondly, the Commentary includes nibbana (unbinding) within the scope of the All described here — as a dhamma, or object of the intellect — even though there are many other discourses in the Canon specifically stating that nibbana lies beyond the range of the six senses and their objects. Sn 5.6, for instance, indicates that a person who has attained nibbana has gone beyond all phenomena (sabbe dhamma), and therefore cannot be described. MN 49 discusses a "consciousness without feature" (vinnanam anidassanam) that does not partake of the "Allness of the All." Furthermore, the following discourse (SN 35.24) says that the "All" is to be abandoned. At no point does the Canon say that nibbana is to be abandoned. Nibbana follows on cessation (nirodha), which is to be realized. Once nibbana is realized, there are no further tasks to be done.
Thus it seems more this discourse's discussion of "All" is meant to limit the use of the word "all" throughout the Buddha's teachings to the six sense spheres and their objects. As the following discourse shows, this would also include the consciousness, contact, and feelings connected with the sense spheres and their objects. Nibbana would lie outside of the word, "all." This would fit in with another point made several times in the Canon: that dispassion is the highest of all dhammas (Iti 90), while the arahant has gone beyond even dispassion (Sn 4.6; Sn 4.10).
This raises the question, if the word "all" does not include nibbana, does that mean that one may infer from the statement, "all phenomena are not-self" that nibbana is self? The answer is no. As AN 4.174 states, to even ask if there is anything remaining or not remaining (or both, or neither) after the cessation of the six sense spheres is to differentiate what is by nature undifferentiated (or to complicate the uncomplicated — see the Introduction to MN 18). The range of differentiation goes only as far as the "All." Perceptions of self or not-self, which would count as differentiation, would not apply beyond the "All." When the cessation of the "All" is experienced, all differentiation is allayed.
When I read the discourses of the Buddha, whether they are translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Bhikkhu Bodhi, etc., I get the picture that the Buddha did not teach a doctrine of self at all.* One reason is that in MN 2
, both the views of "I have a self" and "I have no self" are considered to be "inappropriate attention." To have any position or view of self is "a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views." One who is bound by any such view concerning a self is not freed from suffering and stress. So, in this way, we can see how observing the not-self characteristic of the five khandhas
, the all, the world, etc. leads one to dispassion, to relinquishment, to being unfettered, to release. This appears to me to be an active process that is done by the meditator. It is an observation, a contemplation and a realization, i.e., it is a teaching that one utilizes.
[* I do not advocate a theory of self, only the idea that these very questions are considered a hindrance to the actual practice.]
Another reason I say this is found in MN 63
. In this exchange, Malunkaputta demands that the Buddha answer ten questions concerning positions that are "undeclared, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One" — whether the cosmos is eternal or not eternal; whether the cosmos is finite or infinite; whether the soul and the body are the same or the soul is one thing and the body another; whether after death a Tathagata exists or does not exist, both exists and does not exist or neither exists nor does not exist — or else he will leave the Sangha. The Buddha responds by asking Malunkyaputta: "Did I ever say to you, 'Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that 'The cosmos is eternal,' or 'The cosmos is not eternal,' or 'The cosmos is finite,' or 'The cosmos is infinite,' or 'The soul & the body are the same,' or 'The soul is one thing and the body another,' or 'After death a Tathagata exists,' or 'After death a Tathagata does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist'?" Malunkaputta, of course, answers no. The Buddha further explains:
"Malunkyaputta, if anyone were to say, 'I won't live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not declare to me that "The cosmos is eternal,"... or that "After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,"' the man would die and those things would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata."
It is clear to me that the teachings on anatta
, when looked at closely, are not merely assertions that we have no self. Far from it. They become something much more—a method for deconstructing our false perceptions about reality, as well as an important tool in removing the vast net of clinging that holds beings fast to the cycle of birth, ageing and death. It seems to me that if the Buddha wanted to teach a doctrine of self, he would have taught that we have a self, or that we do not have a self, or that we have a self that is impermanent, or that we have a self that is permanent and finite, or that we have a self and it is permanent an infinite, or that we have a self separate from the body, or that we have a self that is the same as the body, etc. Instead, the Buddha taught his followers ways in which they could use what they had available to them (the five khandhas
) to realize what was beyond them (nibbana
). However, the question will inevitable arise, "What is beyond them?" But, in AN 4.174
, Sariputta warned that asking what remains after the remainderless stopping and fading of the six contact-media complicates non-complication.
When Thanissaro says that anatta
should be used a strategy, it is because that beyond being studied, these teachings are meant to be put into practice as well. Without the compliments of observing the precepts, meditation and direct insight into phenomena, nobody's understanding of what the Buddha taught will ever be complete. It should be remembered that the Buddha said his teachings were not to be used simply to argue with other contemplatives, they are meant to be skillfully put into practice. To focus on only one side of the practice is to destroy this carefully constructed balance designed by the Buddha.
To me, what the Buddha seems to be teaching in regard to anatta
is that anywhere whatsoever one may look for a permanent and ever-lasting self, one will simply find oneself grasping at unsatisfactoriness and inconstancy out of ignorance [of the Four Noble Truths]. The conditioned world is ruled by conditionality and not by a hidden self. The Buddha went on to explain that not only was the body not-self, but the mind was not-self as well. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are not-self because they are unsatisfactory and inconstant. But, the Buddha did not stop there. He explained that if anyone were to say:
"'Repudiating this All [referring to the five aggregates], I will describe another,' if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range" (SN 35.23).
So, while the question remains open if there is actually "something" there or not, to even speculate as to the answer is clearly going against the Buddha's teachings. Everything that we
can possibly experience in this body and mind of ours is unsatisfactory and inconstant; therefore, everything that we
can possibly experience in this body and mind is also said to be not-self. However, looking beyond this body and mind for an eternal essence that can be viewed or grasped onto as a self is impossible. As the Buddha said, such a thing lies beyond range. A search in that direction only leads one to grief.
When people try to use nibbana
as an example of what lies beyond range but can be experienced at some point, they also forget to include the various teachings concerning that attainment. For one, to even experience nibbana
, all forms of self-view must be abandoned. There is no longer any thoughts of "I," "me" or "mine." Intellectually trying to uncover a self in that experience is essentially trying to complicate the uncomplicated. As the Venerable Sariputta explained when he was asked if there was anything remaining or not remaining (or both, or neither) after the cessation of the six sense spheres:
"The statement, 'With the remainderless stopping & fading of the six contact-media [vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, & intellection] is it the case that there is anything else?' complicates non-complication. The statement, '... is it the case that there is not anything else ... is it the case that there both is & is not anything else ... is it the case that there neither is nor is not anything else?' complicates non-complication. However far the six contact-media go, that is how far complication goes. However far complication goes, that is how far the six contact media go. With the remainderless fading & stopping of the six contact-media, there comes to be the stopping, the allaying of complication" (AN 4.174).
I do not enjoy delving too deeply into this particular topic because it is ultimately unskillful, and considered by the Buddha himself to be inappropriate attention. Our focus is taken off of the immediate practice, and instead becomes lost within speculative thoughts about the various views of self. It is a trap that the noble disciple must learn to avoid, for it only leads one to more suffering, more becoming, more craving and it does not lead one to the abandoning of ignorance, abandoning of craving, nibbana
. As the Buddha cautioned his followers in regards to these kinds of inappropriate attention thus:
"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'
"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self... or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self... or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress" (MN 2).
That is why words tend to fail when it comes to the overall meaning of "anatta
." The Dhamma is not merely a collection of words, it is something to be experienced. What I believe sincere practitioners of the Dhamma should try to do is to keep everything that the Buddha taught in context. The Buddha did not teach anatta
as a doctrine of self, he taught anatta
as part of his overall strategy to overcome suffering. There are those who will automatically disagree with this statement, but if we put the Buddha's entire forty-five years of teaching into context, we will see that it revolves solely around one goal:
"Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress" (SN 22.86).
If we start from here and then ask what part does anatta
play in achieving this goal, we can unveil its important and vital role.
"There are these three forms of stressfulness, my friend: the stressfulness of pain, the stressfulness of fabrication, the stressfulness of change. These are the three forms of stressfulness" (SN 38.14).
One of the main points to be understood in the realization of the First Noble Truth is that the three characteristics of existence are present in all conditioned things. The Buddha teaches that whatever is inconstant (anicca
), that is, whatever is subject to change and conditionality, is stressful (dukkha
). To hold onto anything that is inconstant, subject to change, break-up and dissolution is a cause for suffering. Why, then, would you want cling to something that is impermanent, and by it's very nature stressful, as a self? When looked upon in this way, we can see how observing, contemplating and realizing anatta
is part of this strategy to end suffering.
"And what Ananda is contemplation of anatta? Herein, Ananda, a monk having gone to the forest or to the foot of a tree or to a lonely place contemplates thus: 'The eye is not the self; visible objects are not the self; the ear is not the self; sounds are not the self; the nose is not the self; smells are not the self; the tongue is not the self; tastes are not the self; the body is not the self; bodily contacts (tangible objects) are not the self; the mind is not the self; mental objects are not the self.' Thus he dwells contemplating not self in these internal and external bases. This, Ananda, is called contemplation of anatta" (AN 10.60).
I think that in addition to all of this, listening to The Three Characteristics
and Five Aggregates
by Thanissaro Bhikkhu might help to shed some more light onto why the Venerable Thanissaro teaches anatta
in this way. Furthermore, I feel that one thing which should always be kept in mind is that the purpose of the Buddha's path is not to clone someone else's insights but to develop our own. The point I believe Thanissaro Bhikkhu is trying to convey with his "Not-self Strategy" is that one should not only study the teachings but put them into practice as well. It is only then that one is able to know, through their own experience, these same insights.
"The Lord Buddha taught that his Dhamma, when placed in the heart of an ordinary run-of-the-mill person, is bound to be thoroughly corrupted, but if placed in the heart of a Noble One, it is bound to be genuinely pure & authentic, something that at the same time can be neither effaced nor obscured.
So as long as we are devoting ourselves merely to the theoretical study of the Dhamma, it can't serve us well. Only when we have trained our hearts to eliminate their 'chameleons' — their defilements — will it benefit us in full measure. And only then will the true Dhamma be kept pure, free from distortions & deviations from its original principles" (Phra Ajaan Mun Bhuuridatto).
I hope that I have not misrepresented the Venerable Thanissaro or the Dhamma as expounded by the Blessed One in any way.