Wednesday, June 06, 2018

The Teachings at Wat Paknam (Attā and Anattā: Part Three)

[Updated on 23 June 2019: fixed some typos and inserted a few missing diacritics]

Continuing with the theme of attā and anattā raised by Horner, having indicated some of the scholarly response (or lack of), I turn now to some views from Thailand.

My own Buddhist background comes mainly through my mother, the late Fuengsin Trafford, who belonged to the Dhammakaya tradition; she used to practise meditation at Wat Paknam Bhasicharoen in Thonburi, Thailand. It was she who introduced me to the teachings of Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni (Sodh Candasaro), or simply Luang Phor Sodh, as he was popularly known, who was its Abbot from 1916 until his passing in 1959. (Luang Phor means something like ‘respected father’; he is also popularly referred to as Luang Pu —‘respected grandfather’.)

Luang Phor Sodh delivered many sermons, some of which, mainly the later ones, were recorded, and quite a few of these have been translated from Thai into English. Most of my reading has ben from two volumes published by the 60th Dhammachai Education Foundation, part of Wat Phra Dhammakaya. The title is ’Visudhivācā: Translation of Morradok Dhamma’, where Morradok is a Thai word that means something like 'legacy' or 'inheritance' (but the book link above is incorrect — Volume II can be read online / downloaded at Unfortunately, Volume I, from which I will quote, is out of print and I can’t find any copy online.

I shall focus on one particular sermon by Luang Phor entitled 'Self as Refuge', which he gave on 13th September B.E. 2496 (1953), so it is contemporaneous with Horner’s article. It also includes several of the passages that Horner cites. Further, in Luang Phor’s main treatment of the topic of attā, we may discern a pattern of teaching that mirrors Horner’s gradual approach, i.e. Luang Phor starts by reviewing what is compounded and mundane before moving onto the supramundane. In both cases he asserts there is attā, respectively conventional and transcendent. However, whereas Horner relies on study of the texts, the main basis of Luang Phor’s teachings is his meditation experience — which has been verified by many of his disciples and their disciples (of which my mother was one).

As a warm-up Luang Phor recounts the episode where, shortly after his Enlightenment, the Buddha encounters a group of princes, searching for a woman who is suspected of having made off with some precious jewellery. The Buddha addresses them, recorded in Pali as:

“taṃ kiṃ maññatha vo, kumārā, katamaṃ nu kho tumhākaṃ varaṃ — yaṃ vā tumhe itthiṃ gaveseyyātha, yaṃ vā attānaṃ gaveseyyāthā”ti? “etadeva, bhante, amhākaṃ varaṃ yaṃ mayaṃ attānaṃ gaveseyyāmā”ti. “tena hi vo, kumārā, nisīdatha, dhammaṃ vo desessāmī”ti.
(Vin. Mahāvagga i.23, i.e. 1. mahākhandhako, 11. bhaddavaggiyavatthu])

Horner translates (p.32):
“What do you think of this, young men? Which is better for you, that you should seek for a woman or that you should seek for the self?”
“Truly this were better for us. Lord, that we should seek for the self."
"Well then, young men, you sit down, I will teach you dhamma."

The account relates that the princes were given gradual instruction on sense restraint and magga (the meditative path of liberation) so that in due course:

“having seen dhamma, attained dhamma, known dhamma, plunged into dhamma, having crossed over doubt, having put away uncertainty, having attained without another's help to full confidence in the teacher's instruction,’ spoke thus to the Lord: May I, Lord, receive the going forth in the Lord's presence, may I receive ordination?'

(It’s the same formula as used for Venerable Aññata Kondañña, one of the Pañcavaggiyā (Five Ascetics), p.18).

Luang Phor proceeds to give his main teaching to connect attā and dhamma based on the following passage from the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta (DN 16), which is also quoted by Horner

attadīpā attasaranā anaññāsaranā
dhammadīpā dhammaasaranā anaññāsaranā
[D. ii. 100, DN etc.]

Luang Phor explains this word by word:

attadīpā means having the self as an island.
attasaranā means having the self as a refuge.
anaññāsaranā means having nothing else as a refuge.
dhammadīpā means having Dhamma as an island.
dhammaasaranā means having Dhamma as a refuge.
anaññāsaranā means having nothing else as a refuge.

So the Abbot’s repeated translation as ‘self’ adds cumulative weight; it is more than a mere conventional reference to oneself or ourselves. He then goes on to elaborate on what this ‘self’ means by reference to successive stages in Dhammakaya meditation.

Each stage makes reference to a body and that body is to be regarded as ‘self’. There is a succession of bodies, so there are various levels of ‘self’. Each ‘self’ is what one works with in practice, what is to be thoroughly known; when bringing the mind to a standstill, it dissolves, allowing the next body to arise at its centre. (This bringing to a standstill is what the Buddha meant when declaring he had stopped to Angulimāla).

The succession starts with manussakāya (the human physical body). That’s self. It dissolves and then so too is panīta-manussakāya (the refined human body, ‘astral’ or ‘dreaming’ body), this is self. The process repeats for increasingly refined bodies, hence: dibbakāya (celestial body), panīta-dibbakāya (refined celestial body), rūpabrahmakāya (form Brahma body), panīta-rūpabrahmakāya (refined form Brahma body), arūpabrahmakāya (formless Brahma body), panīta-arūpabrahmakāya (refined formless Brahma body).

There are eight of these bodies. Luang Phor explains:

These are all 'selves’, bodies within bhavaloka (the three planes of becoming)... The various selves of the three planes of becoming are conventional; they are not real, and will remain only for a certain period of time. Such bodies are transient.

There are more bodies beyond those planes and Luang Phor proceeds to enumerate them, but I will change the order by bringing forward what he says about conventional Dhamma and relate this to self. Likewise there are various levels of Dhamma:

Dhamma is a dwelling-place for the self; the self could not exist without Dhamma. The human body, the refined human body, the dibbakāya, the refined dibbakāya, the rūpabrahmakāya, the refined rūpabrahmakāya, the arūpabrahmakāya; the refined arūpabrahmakāya; all possess Dhamma. Without Dhamma, such could not survive.

Luang Phor teaches that each body (self) has Dhamma, where the Dhamma is located at the centre of the respective body and that it is a sphere, hence Dhamma-sphere. However, for these 8 bodies, these Dhamma-spheres are conventional; Luang Phor quotes the Buddha: “The Great Lord said: Sabbe dhammā anattā ti; ‘all dhammas are not-self’.” To clarify he states: “Self is not Dhamma — self is self — Dhamma is Dhamma”, but the Dhamma-sphere is what makes self possible.

I suspect that all these stages would have already been attained before the Buddha’s Enlightenment and the beginning of his dispensation. The Brahmajāla Sutta, which describes a long list of false views includes the belief held by eternalists that loka (the world, be it form-filled or formless) and the highest self are the same. This erroneous view could be reached by those who had surveyed through considerable efforts in meditation cycles of universes over many aeons, including numerous past lives, but without seeing beyond the three planes.

Given the Buddha’s refutation of a permanent self in all that, it’s perhaps not so surprising that many scholarly interpretations will stop at ‘all dhammas are not-self’ and conclude that this includes nibbāna, but this would contradict the Buddha’s utterance in the Udana 8.3 and bind us all to the lower shore.

Descriptions of the path to liberation typically involve purification with the abandonment of the kilesas (the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion) and proceed to the destruction of the asavas (deep-seated taints). Today there are many explanations about the process but references to magga (path or way), specifically the Middle Way are often vague or not made explicit. Yet, it could only be from outside the three planes of becoming that the appropriate insight could be gained.

In contrast, Luang Phor gives these terms explicit meanings and proceeds to show how the mode of practice through the centre of the body continues to apply. This is the vehicle for the Middle Way, a process of body within body, performed repeatedly (an approach I’ve tried to express by using the image of microscopes).

But are there canonical references for this? Yes, in the Mahāsatipatṭhāna Sutta (The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha uses the phrase kāye kāyānupassī viharati (dwells contemplating body in body), and similarly for vedanā, citta and dhamma. This is explained by Luang Phor in another sermon dedicated to that sutta, also translated into English in Visudhivācā Volume I. Further, in the Samaññaphala Sutta (on the Fruits of the Contemplative Life) the Buddha describes the relationships of ‘body in body’ through imagery: like a reed being pulled from a sheath or a sword from its scabbard. Without understanding the mode, kāye kāyānupassī has been mistranslated, often with reference to external bodies and even as ‘contemplating the body in and of itself’. No, it means ‘body in body’ (two bodies, one inside the other).

Continuing with the sermon on attā, Luang Phor goes on to introduce 10 further kāyas, all transcendent, by this mode. The first of these is the entry point to the ariyan states, the dhammakāya-gotrabhū. Gotrabhū means ‘transition of lineage’. It’s referenced in AN 9:10 (the sutta on those worthy of offerings), but Gotrabhū is often weakly translated as “member of the spiritual clan or family”. Luang Phor is indicating that it’s specifically the Ariyan family, the stage of entry or threshold, as defined by Nyanatiloka in his Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines.

There follows the refined dhammakāya-gotrabhū, the dhammakāya-sotapanna, the refined dhammakāya-sotapanna, the dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi, the refined dhammakāya-sakadāgāmi, the dhammakāya-anāgāmi, the refined dhammakāya-anāgāmi, the dhammakāya-arahatta, the refined dhammakāya-arahatta, making 10 transcendent bodies in all, each of which possess spheres of Dhamma successively larger in dimension in which the respective bodies (selves) dwell. Thus there are pairings throughout — the body, which is perceived, and the Dhamma on which that is based, without which it cannot exist. Both are of two kinds: the conditioned and unconditioned, 8 and 10 in number respectively.

After describing the qualities of each stage from the point of view of a practitioner Luang Phor revisits the Pali phrase attadīpā attasaranā anaññāsaranā, explaining first how self is an island:

How is it that the body or 'self’ is an island, and how is it our own refuge? To start with, picture a vessel that has been attacked by a storm and wrecked in the ocean. The passengers are forced to swim to reach the shore. They surely need something to rest on, such as an island. What if, whilst swimming, they suddenly see in the distance an island? You can imagine how pleased they would be. That island is their refuge; they now have a place upon which to rest, to take a break from swimming, which is very tiring. Once they find they have an island they can reach, they are no longer tired; their difficulties and hardship are alleviated...

Then explaining how self is a refuge:

What does it mean to say body is a refuge? How come you have your self as a refuge? What happens when you see the island? The answer is that you are happy because you can stay on that island, you can rest on that island. Since you have nowhere else to go, you take that island as your refuge.

Luang Phor goes on to provide a further explanation based on practical reality:

At present, we human beings take our own bodies as the place in which we live. If we do not depend on the human body as an island, then why don’t you let go of it? When a human has no material-form that could be called a body, the refined body is unable to exist. Others would not be able to see you, which would mean that you were dead. This supports my explanation that the human body is truly an island.

There is further elaboration in the sermon, but I think that’s enough for this post.

In summary, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam's teachings on attā and anattā are emphatic and nuanced; whereas many scholars make reference to just one (physical) body with which to work with, Luang Phor indicates that there's a notion of 'body' at each level and that is to be regarded as 'self'. Each such 'self' is to be paired with Dhamma, which for the mundane levels (corresponding with the first 8 kāyas up to the formless Brahmakayas), are actually anattā, but for the 10 supramundane kāyas they are attā.

There were many skeptics in his day, but Luang Phor never wavered in his conviction and he eventually convinced many of his detractors once they practiced themselves or sometimes when they faced difficulties that they could not resolve, but Luang Phor could.

I’ll just finish by relating an episode from my first stay in Thailand, during which I had my fourth birthday. I don’t remember very much apart from a dream in which I was on board a ship, out at sea. There was a storm and I fell overboard and was washed up on shore. As I walked along the shore a hole appeared and I fell into it. Maintaining my awareness I observed it getting larger, but I don’t recall being afraid. And then it morphed into my room and I was awake.


I have been unable to locate the original Thai transcription of Luang Phor’s talk, though I have found an extract from a Thai collection of Luang Phor's sermons (Vol. 1), page 33, which corresponds to page 40 of Visudhivāca I. It has its own title of กายในภพ-กายนอกภพ ('Body in the world — body outside the world'). It contrasts the conventional with the supramundane. I include a portion below along with my own translation, which I carried out partly to confirm the English in Visudhivāca I (it seems fine, likely better than mine).

เพราะฉะนั้นจะต้องเรียนให้รู้จักกายของตัวเสียก่อน ว่ากายมนุษย์นี่ แหละเป็นตัวโดยสมมุติ ๘ กายที่อยู่ในภพนั่นแหละเรียกว่า อตตสมมุติ เรียก ว่าตัวโดยสมมุติทั้งสิ้น
So we must study and get to know initially the self of the world. About this human body (manussakaya) it has a conventional self. There are 8 sammuti [conventional] bodies in the world [bhavaloka]. These [bodies] are called attāsammuti, that is they are all called conventional self.

ส่วนธรรมล่ะ คือธรรมที่ทำให้เป็นกายมนุษย์น่ะ ก็เรียกว่าธรรมสมมุติ เหมือนกัน สมมุติชั่วคราวหนึ่ง ไมใช่ตัวที่พระองค์ทรงรับสั่งว่า “สพุเพ ธมมา อนตฺตาติ” ธรรมทั้งสิ้นไม่ใช่ตัว ตัวทั้งสิ้นไม,ใช่ธรรม ตัวก็เป็นตัวซิ ธรรมก็เป็น ธรรมซิ คนละนัย
As for Dhamma it is Dhamma that causes the human body. So it is called sammuti dhamma as well — being sammuti it is temporary; it’s not a permanent dwelling place for self. Of this it is said “Sabbe dhammā anattā ti”. None of these dhammas are self. Self is not this Dhamma. For self is self and Dhamma is Dhamma — they are different from one another.

มีตัวกับธรรม ๒ อย่างนี้เท่านั้น กายมนุษย์ก็มืตัว กายมนุษย์ก็มืธรรมที่ ทำให้เป็นตัว ตลอดทุกกาย ทั้ง ๑๘ กาย มีตัวกับมีธรรมที่ทำ'ให้เป็นตัว แต่ว่า ตัวทั้งหลายเหล่านั้น ทั้ง ๘ กายในภพ เป็นอนิจจํ ทุกขํ อนตฺตา หมดไม่เหลือ เลย ทั้ง ๑๐ กายนอกภพ เป็น นิจฺจํ สุขํ อตฺตา หมดไม่เหลือเลย ตรงกันข้าม อย่างนี้เป็น นิจฺจํ สุขํ อตฺตา เป็นของที่เที่ยงของจริงหมด แด,ว่าในภพแล้วเป็น ของไม่เที่ยงไม,จริงหมด
There is self and Dhamma. Merely these two things: there is human body and there is self. The human body has also dhamma which makes it have self. Each and every body, all 18 bodies, have self and dhamma, which makes it [possible to] have self. But the self across all 8 groups in the world are aniccam, dukkham and anattā, all of them. On the other hand all ten bodies outside the world are completely niccam, sukham, attā. They are all the same in this way niccam, sukham, attā; they are completely certain and true, but regarding those [bodies] in the world they are transient, not real at all.

Contextualising attā (Attā and Anattā: Part Two)

Having introduced Horner's essay on Attā and Anattā and related some of the (more) open questions around the meanings of attā, we now consider the third and final part, where Horner presents various passages containing ‘attā’ (or more, exactly, “the logical opposite of an-attā”, which she regards as “too much overlooked”.

For example, from S. i. 140. [SN 6.2.2] Gārava Sutta (Respect):

Tasmā hi attakāmena,
Saddhammo garukātabbo

Horner translates as (my italics):

So he to whom the self is dear,
Who longs for the great self,
Should homage to true dhamma pay.

Yet Bhikkhu Bodhi translates this as (again, my italics):

Therefore one desiring his own good,
Aspiring for spiritual greatness,
Should deeply revere the true Dhamma.

and Bhikkhu Sujato renders it:

Therefore someone who loves themselves,
aspiring to transcendence,
should respect the true teaching.

There is considerable variation in these, but the second and third translations both avoid using the word ‘Self’, though Ven. Sujato does assign to mahattama transcendence, which is not the conventional. My knowledge of Pali is not sufficient to be clear on this, but the key to the translation of the second line is how one deals with 'mahattam' (or 'mahatta[m]') - the PTS dictionary translates 'mahattam' as 'greatness' (from the Sanskrit mahattva). So technically Horner's translation of this line looks erroneous, though they may well share linguistic roots. However, I think the key point is that the second line reinforces the first one, so the sense is actually correct.

More generally, I notice that other modern translations of some of these passages replace references to 'self' by something vaguer, with conventional meaning, or otherwise gloss over the words. Whilst in some cases this may be closer to the intended meaning, it seems to me that more often it’s rooted in a particular limited view of self, entailing some aversion to writing ‘self’ without qualification. Sometimes there’s even an insistence in the footnotes that any reference to attā can’t be metaphysical, as is the case for the following famous passage that Horner includes in her list:

tasmā attadīpā attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā

Horner translates this as:

Wherefore fare along with self as island, with self as refuge, and no other, with dhamma as island, with dhamma as refuge, and no other. (D. ii. 100, etc.)

But in a footnote Walshe is adamant it can’t be other than a reflexive pronoun.

Yet Horner was not convinced by the conclusions of Walshe and those with similar views and I believe that by reprinting the essay in the ‘70s she purposely wished to re-express her view:

As the idea of brahma in the Pali canon has been overlooked—in spite of the ever recurring brahmacariya, the Walk to or with Brahma, the Sublime—so has that of attā. Both were of the utmost significance in the Upanishads. Both have a significance, even if we have not yet assessed it, in the Pali canon.

Substantially, she proposed a philological basis to glean the meanings, but she indicates it would require far-reaching studies across the Vinaya and Nikayas and furthermore a proper understanding of Indian cultures and beliefs at that time.

She starts us off with a selection of quotes around the use of “brahma” and “dhamma”, suggestive of affinities with. They include:

He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.

And a teaching to Vasettha where the Buddha referred to himself using the terms dhammakāya, brahmakāya, dhammabhūta, and brahmabhūta. The passage is from D. iii. 84 [DN 27] Aggañña Sutta, and is as follows:

He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted, established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or mara or Brahma or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma.” Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: “The Body of Dhamma” [dhammakāya], that is, “The Body of Brahma” [brahmakāya], or “Become Dhamma” [dhammabhūta], that is, “Become Brahma” [brahmabhūta].

Academic Response

So what has been the response to Horner’s paper? When I search online I can find few citations; in fact, it seems to be little known, not even listed in Google Scholar.

Even so there have been a few scholars who have delved into the subject matter. Among them was Joaquín Pérez-Remón, who made a bold attempt to explore at length in his thesis, Self and Non-self in Early Buddhism (De Gruyter), which is partially accessible via Google Books.

A general sense of his position is expressed in his reflection about the Buddha:

Is it not far better to say that what he affirmed and what he denied were not one and the same thing? When he affirmed the existence of attā against the materialists, he affirmed the reality of something objectively true. When he denied the attā against the eternalists, he did not deny the true attā, but the attā of the eternalists that is wrongly identified with the khandhas.
(from Pérez-Remón's concluding section, page 302)

I find this a fair assessment, but his work was considered controversial; reviews found aspects useful, but seem to be critical — it seems that whatever the philological analysis, if it came to conclusions that challenged prevailing views it would not be regarded favourably and might just be dismissed as intellectual speculation (see e.g Vijitha Rajapakse’s review for the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies).

The book is a reworking of the author's doctoral thesis at the University of Bombay under the title: 'The Anattavada in the Suttapitaka' (page v). At 1810 pages it seems that the institution had a very liberal attitude to limits, but I feel sorry for the examiners! The considerable length may explain why the author has seemingly inverted the presentation by devoting the first half of the book to numerous references containing attā: part one (of only two) is entitled ‘The Existential Self’ before treating — in part two, ‘The Metaphysical Self’ — attā and anattā more together. However, with Horner starting mainly with anattā, I find the ordering odd; I think a more balanced approach to treat them alongside each other all along, a more natural process to show how there might be complementarity instead of apparent contradictions or inconsistencies.

It would have been interesting for Pérez-Remón to have disseminated his ideas more widely and continued with his research, but he passed away only a few years after its publication [In memoriam]. However, it looks like Arthur Wells took up the baton with his Master’s thesis: The Early Buddhist Affirmation of Self (Atman) in the Logic, Parables and Imagery of the Pali Nikāyas.

I was only made aware of his work very recently; it seems not so widely circulated. At least it has been considered and cited in the academic literature and it does get occasionally mentioned in online discussions. I wonder why Pérez-Remón went to such great lengths in his research. It may be due to his own religious convictions; he was a Jesuit who explored interreligous dialogue, especially mysticism - among his other publications is Misticismo Oriental y Misticismo Cristiano, Caso Típico: Teresa de Jesús. Having studied some of the imagery of St. Teresa of Avila, I add this to my reading list. Other Buddhist scholars have also been interested in this mystic; Lance Cousins wrote a paper about her, suggesting parallels with the path of purification as expressed by Buddhagosa.

More recently, Chanida Jantrasrisalai’s PhD thesis has examined in depth the meaning of language in the Indian context — around terms such as Brahmacariya, Brahmakāya and Dhammakāya. It’s entitled, Early Buddhist dhammakāya: Its philosophical and soteriological significance and available to download from the University of Sydney. It's the Dhammakāya tradition that I wish to explore next.

Attā and Anattā (Part One)

The title of this post is copied from an essay written by the Pali scholar, Isaline Blew Hornerattā means ‘self’; an- means ‘not, without’; hence anattā means ‘not self’ or ‘without self’. I. B. Horner had been working on this topic for quite a while with some earlier drafts (IH A/12) dating to Nov 1948 and the publication of a similar paper in French, 'Attā et Anattā dans les Textes du Canon Pali’ in La pensée Bouddhique, Bulletin des Amis du Bouddhisme, Jan. 1949. pp. 6-13. But it seems it wasn’t until 1952 that it appeared in English, in The Golden Lotus (Philadelphia) and The Middle Way (the journal of the Buddhist Society in London). About 20 years later it was reprinted for Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Winter 1973).

It’s quite an unusual essay: whilst Horner presents some philological analysis, as befits her professional background, her main point is that there’s a major gap in terms of research, though she doesn’t really reveal her intentions until the second half of the paper. Her argument, or plea, is that passages mentioning attā have been relatively neglected and should be given closer attention. She appears to be demonstrating this in the title by placing attā alongside anattā, from which we may infer that these two terms should be studied in tandem. However, being a major undertaking, it is beyond the scope of such an article to provide the detailed analysis, so she cites a number of passages where attā could be usefully explored further, an open invitation to the community.

Horner felt strongly that this was needed: she included a similar call in her introduction to her Pali Text Society translation of the Mahavagga in the Khandhaka, the second book of the Vinaya, the book of monastic discipline, where she writes (in 1951), "Various passages in the Pali canon, including the Attavagga of the Dhammapada, should not be ignored in estimating the position of attā as a philosophical concept in Early Buddhism." (p. xxiv)

I was quite struck by the article, hence this post. After summarising her approach and selective quotes, I indicate how it has been received and responded to, and then offer some response from my own tradition in light of the teachings of the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam, and re-discoverer of the Dhammakaya tradition. The aim is to show how the teachings can be harmonised, setting these concepts in the framework of a path of practice. Originally intended to be a single post, I’ve split it into three owing to its length, but they should ideally be all read together. If there’s sufficient interest and time, I may tidy up my writing and put together a more formal article.

References are made to the Pali canon in the conventional way, i.e. first to the Pali Text Society edition of the Pali original, using the PTS abbreviations, i.e. a Roman numeral for a book number and then the Arabic numeral; then the Arabic number and section for the translation, as used by popular websites such as Access to Insight. For example: S iii 119 [SN 22.87].

Towards a More Nuanced View of attā

Horner opens by expressing the problem:

It is becoming more and more general to think and to say that Buddhism teaches not-self, anattā...

[It’s certainly a general view today.]

However, based on her extensive readings of the Pali canon (which probably only a handful of scholars could match), she perceives this all-encompassing view as invalid. Choosing her words carefully, she observes:

But Early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Vinaya and the Suttapitaka, does not exactly teach not-self, except in so far as it says that certain definite things are not-self; therefore put them away, they are not yours (S. iii. 33-34; M. i. 140-141).

She was well aware that her position could (and would) be seen as controversial, so she makes her case gradually, in three parts. Initially, she cites a number of passages relating to anattā, how they are variously framed. She provide explanations that few scholars would disagree with — the five khandhas (aggregates) of grasping, namely rūpa (form), vedanā (feeling), sañña (perception), saṅkhāra (mental formations) and viññāna (consciousness), are of the nature to be impermanent and thus not-self. She goes on to describe how an ordinary worldling is bound by this grasping through the senses, giving rise to a wrong view about oneself. Such false views are to be got rid of. So far, so good.

In addition to establishing the common ground, for the next step Horner intimates in various ways how the meaning of attā is not so clear-cut. And in fact one of her first quotes, from the Vinaya, specifies a condition for attā:

Had they been self: rupam (etc.) c'idam attā abhavissa (Vin. i. 13), there would have been power of disposal over them: Let my body be such, let it not be such. But as they are not self, one cannot alter them.

This could be argued as hypothetical as it doesn’t say whether there really are such attā. However, Horner follows up with a statement by the Buddha that is more direct:

"What is not self, that is not my self" (yad anattā . . . na meso attā) (S. iii. 45, iv. 2) [Anicca Sutta].

This is a strong statement that seems to posit attā: besides the fact that it’s contained in the attādīpa Vagga (‘Self as Island’ section) of the Samyutta Nikaya, the context of eradicating the asavas (taints) across each of the khandhas to obtain final release points to the non-conventional.

To further indicate that there may be more subtle meanings to attā Horner relates the Buddha’s encounter with a wandering recluse called Vacchagotta, to whom the Buddha remains silent when asked in turn: “Is there Self?” and then "What then, is there not self?"(S. iv. 400-401).

Evidently there was no definitive statement that the Buddha could make in this instance. When questioned by his disciples the Buddha made reference to false doctrines that were prevalent at the time (and there were a vast array, including eternalism, as described in the Brahmajāla Sutta). Giving an answer depended not only on the context of the question and what the Buddha knew as true, but also on the questioner's state of mind and frames of reference, which in this case could not support right understanding. Nevertheless, the questioner was asking about ultimate truth and in this context the Buddha would not make a general denial about attā. I think it is this matter of context operating at various levels is what Horner wishes to draw to our attention, though I do not agree with her parenthetical comment about all things (dhammas) being not-self include nibbāna.

Here I would insert a quote attributed to the Buddha from Udana 8.3, which, although not using the term attā, is an affirmation of what likes beyond the khandhas, pointing to a higher sense that may be related:
There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

When I was 15 years old the head master at my school required every pupil to write about their spiritual beliefs. Even though I had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, I wrote about ‘God’ in terms of energy and superconsciousness. By the time I had reached my early 20s I had reflected intellectually on the recursive dissolution matter into smaller and smaller parts, finding it inherently formless and devoid of self. At the same time I also intuited superconsciousness with effects in the world of form, but, confining my view of such agency to experience I queried the anthropomorphism, and could not perceive anything beyond a kind of supramundane awareness.

Then, as though reading my mental state, my mother casually remarked, “Apparently there is a realm of Buddhas.” My mother practised a lot of meditation, it was not a statement I could ignore. Very soon my view changed radically as I ceased being annihilationist (from the Latin ad + nihil. literally: to/towards nothing). I’ll try to intimate this in the next two parts.

[Next: Part Two]