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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
85 spring 2 01 1 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Translation “There is the case where an uninstructed, run- of-the-mill person... doesn’t discern which ideas are fit for attention, or which ideas are unfit for attention. This being so, he doesn’t attend to ideas fit for attention, and attends [instead] to ideas unfit for attention... 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 Commentary The Pali for the italicized views in the translation literally is “Self is of me,” and “Self isn’t of me.” To say, “x is of me” is the Pali idiom for saying, “I have x.” Thus: I have a self, and, I have no self. These are the answers to the questions, “Am I? Am I not? What am I?” The Buddha is recom- mending not answering these questions at all. However, the Pali commentators don’t take the Buddha at his word here. They assume that the not-self teaching is his analytical answer to these questions; that once you analyze what kind of self or existence you’re talking about, you can and should answer the questions. Analytical answers of this sort exist in all Buddhist tradi- tions: I have no permanent / separate / finite self, but I do have a conditioned / interconnected / infinite self. Or: The self exists in a conventional sense, but not in an ultimate sense. Throughout history, though, these analyti- cal answers have entangled people in the mental contortions the Buddha foresaw. A more fruitful approach is to pay attention to what questions he actually was trying to answer with the not- self teaching. I’ve learned from compiling Skill in Questions that he treated issues of skillful and unskillful karma as his most categorical teach- ing. It is the true framework for issues of self and not-self. This reverses the way in which issues of karma and not-self are usually treated. Ordinarily, not- self is taken as the frame, and karma as the puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit into the frame: If there’s no self, then who does the karma? How are the results of karma transmitted through time? But if you take issues of skillful and unskillful karma as the frame, the questions become: When is it a skillful action to use a perception of self? When is it more skillful to use a perception of not-self? When do you drop perceptions entirely? These are questions you can explore in prac- tice. Instead of entangling you, they set you free. Parting Words There’s a sad tendency to dismiss the Pali Canon as a “primitive” form of the dhamma. But when you pay attention to the canonical Buddha’s skill in responding to questions, it’s hard not to con- clude that he was the subtlest and most compas- sionate strategist the world has ever seen. ‘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 endure as long as eternity.’ This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a con- tortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the unin- structed 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 stress.” — Majjhima Nik-aya 2