Anatta – Not Self Rather Than No Self
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Below are the transcripts of a talk in which I clarify a common misunderstanding often discussed in Buddhist circles. In my talk, I present this material over about 10 minutes but you can read the transcripts much faster than that. I expand on all these points in my book and essays, and I will continue to do so with future talks. Perhaps this talk will inspire you to attend our online meetings.
Today we are going to talk about the word “anatta,” which in my opinion is best translated as “not self,” rather than “no self,” which is fairly common. This is a very Buddhist topic and my mentor, Timothy Conway, is an expert on Buddhism so I learned this translation from him.
I think a good place to start our exploration of this subject is to consider the context in which the word “anatta” was originally used. This takes us back two and a half thousand years to texts in which we find Buddha contemplating the five skandhas – the five components of the person or personality.
For the purpose of today’s talk, we don’t even need to go into the details of what those components actually are. All we really need to do is to notice that Buddha is going through the process of disidentification. He considers each component and then, this is basically what he says: “This is not me. This is not who I am. This is not my self.”
I think it can be helpful to add the word “fundamental.” This is not my fundamental self. And this brings up a good question. What is your fundamental self? What is your true identity?
Well, as you may know from my other talks, I offer the idea that you exist fundamentally as pure awareness. This awareness has two capacities: the capacity to perceive and the capacity to create what it perceives. This is why Timothy Conway and I refer to this awareness as Source-Awareness. This is what you are fundamentally. This is all you are fundamentally. And yet, there’s more.
Through the miracle of creation, this formless Source-Awareness paradoxically arises as the form we see all around us. And yet, none of that is fundamentally who you truly are. None of that is essential to what you are as Source-Awareness.
To help us understand this point a little better, let’s briefly consider the metaphor of the actor and the character. This will be very quick. When the actor comes forward as the character, they are one. That’s an important point. And yet, the character is not fundamentally who the actor really is. The character is not essential to the actor since the actor can drop the role of the character at any time. The actor arising as the character is very much like God arising as creation so I hope you enjoy pondering this metaphor.
Now, let’s get back to the process of disidentification. This process is not really complete until you clearly recognize that you exist fundamentally as pure awareness. Then this wisdom deepens and you also recognize that this One Source-Awareness arises as everyone. This is the process of reidentification.
So first, you disidentify from the person. Then you clearly identify as Source-Awareness. And then you reidentify in a profound and yet non-fundamental way as everyone, including the person you appear to be. This reidentification is the source of the deepest inspiration for kindness and compassion. This is why every time the subject of disidentification came up in satsang with Timothy, he always made sure to also talk about this process of reidentification. This is what opens up the loving heart of enlightenment, so you see why it is so important.
Now, let’s get back to the word “anatta.” And this time, let’s translate it as “no self,” as in “no self whatsoever.” And let’s also completely remove the word “anatta” from the context of this process of disidentification. So now we will have statements made in general and they’ll sound something like this: “There is no self … whatsoever.” But that’s basically saying that you have no identity. And that’s the same as saying you do not exist. But you know you exist. This is self-evident. The question is, “What is it that you exist as?”
As you can see, I offer the idea that you exist fundamentally as pure Awareness. This Awareness is the open capacity for experience that you intuitively know yourself to be. Now, I also offer the idea that you exist in a non-fundamental way as all of creation – as everything that can be experienced. So this idea that you do not exist is merely a misunderstanding that comes about through the mistranslation of this word “anatta.”
Another expression that comes about through this same mistranslation goes something like this: “There are no persons.” Or, “The person does not exist.” Well, just because the person does not exist as your true, fundamental self does not mean that the person does not exist. When we look around, we see many persons, so clearly they exist. I think that the true teaching is that the person exists as the character, but the person does not exist in a fundamental way as the actor. The person is not who you are fundamentally, that’s all.
Now the last expression that I’ll touch on today goes like this: “There is no one here.” Ah, but surely someone is here! God is here! God is the One who is arising as everyone. I love that word “everyone.” Sometimes I spell it with a capital “O” in the middle to help people see that God is in everyOne.
When we celebrate God arising as everyOne and everything, and also celebrate this formless Source-Awareness, we celebrate the totality of Reality. This is what the Hindu tradition so wisely points to with the following two phrases. The first, “Nirguna Brahman,” which means “Reality without qualities” – Source-Awareness, completely formless, completely imperceptible. And the second phrase, “Saguna Brahman,” which means “Reality with qualities” – all of creation, and yet, still the same Reality. God and creation are One Reality, not two. This is why we use the word “nondual.” This is the deepest core idea pointed to by our ancient nondual wisdom.
So now you see why it is so important to contemplate the word “anatta” within its original context of this process of disidentification and to correctly translate it as “not self,” rather than “no self.”
Well, that’ll wrap it up for today. I hope you found this helpful.
In truth, I honor your divine nature.
The End - Thanks for reading!
If you enjoyed these transcripts, then you might like my book:
Living the Paradox of Enlightenment.
Here’s more of my work:
• My main website is here.
• All my spiritual essays are here.
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Written January 2017. Copyright 2017 Thomas Razzeto - All rights reserved.