Anyatta – no self

Ever noticed how similar Vedic philosophy can sound to the Buddha-dharma?

Partly because Gautama lived and thought within the Hindu tradition, and partly because Hinduism’s inclusive dynamic has plowed much of Buddha’s teaching back into its own modern expressions, much of what shows up in popular Yoga magazines and other current Vedic writing seems to be right in line with what we think of as the Dhamma, in the sense of the teachings of Buddha.

Recently however, reading an article in a recent issue of Yoga Journal, I came across a line that made it very clear where the two traditions diverge. In the article, “Help Wanted” by Phil Catalfo, which focuses on dealing with stress that comes from changes at work, there’s this sentence:

“This, of course, is the great yogic principle of impermanence: Jobs change, relationships change; in this life, everything changes except the Self, your pure consciousness.”

Of course, in the Buddha’s teachings, everything, especially ‘the Self’, is seen as impermanent. In Vedic teaching, atman – the soul or self – is a permanent entity that moves from life to life in the samsaric round, reincarnated over and over in different bodies until it accumulates enough good karma to break out of this round and move into nirvana.

Buddha specifically taught the principle of anyatta, or no-self, and said that in rebirth (a slightly different concept than reincarnation) nothing passes to the next life except the karma.

And this seemingly small detail makes a world of difference. I can’t speak for others, but I know quite clearly that for me, it’s that notion of ‘self’ that is the source of all the problems. My deeply conditioned belief in that self’s reality, my pathetic and desperate attempts to reify it, my attachment to that constructed self and its preferences, all combine to drive the most selfish, greedy, grasping aspects of my behavior.

However cleverly I manipulate the other aspects of my life, however “enlightened” or liberated my concepts regarding other things may be, however moral and well-intentioned my actions are, as long as I cling to that notion that there’s a ‘me’ in there who can benefit from all these wonderful things I’m doing, true liberation will elude me.

I may become very calm and happy, and appear very good and kind as I release all the dualities that plague us, but true liberation will not be possible until I am able to let go of the dualism of self and other.

I am deeply grateful to the Buddha Gautama for realizing that truth, and for all the students and teachers who passed it down to us today. Thus have I heard.

Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!

Ah, even the poet in lovely verse

sees the death in the external world.

With even a certain sad beauty,

he watches the flowers wither and fall.

But to see my own death

in each moment of my living

requires a deep hard looking,

a silent slow feeling,

a calm descending

through the quiet pool

in the delightful garden

deep down

into the wells of pain and fear

collected over the ages.

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