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Anatta Made Simple

by Locana

Anatta Made Simple

By Locana
Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM770 Talk given at an A-Level conference in 2001.
So, anatta. Well of course, this word means “no self” and one of the fascinating
things when you’re studying religion of course is that you suddenly find you’re
learning about geography, about history, different cultures; it includes all these things.
And of course the great thing is you start becoming expert in all these different
languages don’t you?
And if you do Islam you suddenly start picking up some Arabic; and Judaism you
start learning Hebrew words. Well in Buddhism you really get two for the price of
one because you have Pali and Sanskrit, these two ancient Indian languages. So you
could probably all tell me what the word self is in Pali. Anybody? [QUESTION TO
AUDIENCE] Atta, yes. So no self, or not self or non-self, this is anatta.
So, I know I can speak Pali to you now fluently and say anatta and you’ll all know
we’re talking about no self. So that’s the first word on the title. And the second is
“made simple.” What I thought when I got the talk, “Oh this is a great subject, you
know, we’ll make it simple, you’ll all go away feeling, yes, I understand a bit of the
Dharma, I understand about anatta.” And of course, as I start writing it I realize this is
a complete joke. There’s no way I can make anatta simple. I mean, if I really
understood it, I’d be enlightened. And if in the next hour I make you completely
understand it, you’ll all be enlightened!
So, really, what hope do we have? Well, maybe we have a lot of hope but it’s going to
be a tough one. So we’re going to do what we can with the subject. In fact, we know
how important it is as a subject to the Buddha because he gave his first sermon on the
Four Noble Truths, which I’m sure you’ve all heard of, and his very second sermon to
these five monks was on anatta, was on no-self. And what happened? He gave his
sermon – I wish he was doing the talk rather than me really – because at the end of it
the five followers they all became enlightened. So, that’s how crucial it is as a subject
within Buddhism. But simple? Well, let’s see what we can do.
So, the handout I’ve got here is reproduced so you can just see what I’ve chosen to do
in giving this talk on anatta, on no-self, I’m going to try to make four simple points
about anatta. So there you go, you can see from the very first one that we’re going to
turn first of all to the first thing that we can know about anatta – but actually, I forgot
to say, on the back of your handout we’ve got your text, the questions of King
Milinda1.
King Milinda, by the way, is a Greek king. Now what’s a Greek king doing in India?
Well, the Greeks actually invaded India. Alexander the Great invaded India. And it’s
a fascinating fact this but if he had managed to get a little bit further east, if he’d
managed to cross the River Indus, he might have met a very, very old person who
would have remembered the Buddha. So, just imagine if that had happened and he’d
talked to that person and got lots of ideas about Buddhism, come back to Greece,
come back to the West and those ideas would have become part of Greek culture. Just
imagine the difference that would be for us now – we’d have much more of an idea of
Buddhism. It’s quite a fascinating idea isn’t it?
Well, 300 years later, this thing happened actually. There was a Greek king called
King Milinda and he met a Buddhist monk. Now, King Milinda is quite a character
actually: I think if he were living now he’d be a sort of chat show host and he’d be
firing questions at his interviewees. He had a very fiery, a very inquisitive nature and
he’d ask really sharp questions. He was always putting the monks who lived close by,
was harassing them - the introduction to the text says he harassed them with
questions. They were quite scared of him really. So what they did is they sent a
message to a monk who lived in the heartland of Buddhism called Nagasena and they
said “Please come and help us, he’s always on at us with all these questions about
Buddhism. Come and help us with this king who loves debating so much.”
The King, by the way - at the end of your text you’re probably reading the conclusion
- it says that before he talked to Nagasena he was a very fiery man; he had a sharp
tongue; they say it’s like the tongue of a snake, of a cobra, before its fangs have been
drawn. So he had a tongue a bit like a snake, it was that sharp. And Nagasena – you’re
going to learn a bit of Sanskrit now – his name means “conqueror of snakes.” Now
it’s probably just a coincidence but it might help you remember the name Nagasena.
And in fact, we’ve got a Naga in the room – Nagapriya here is going to be talking to
us later about the Sangha. So, just a little bit more about Nagasena. So, as we go
through the talk I’ll be referring, and asking you to refer, to this text little bit by little
bit and we’ll see if we can understand more of what it’s saying.
So, let’s turn now to anatta itself and the very first point, the first simple point as I’m
trying to make it, the first thing that we can think about anatta. Well, as I put on the
handout, it’s one of the three things we can really know. Now, it’s always interesting
in Buddhism that when you’re talking about any subject there tends to be a little list:
you’ve got the Four Noble Truths or, we heard earlier, we’re talking in the sequence
of The Three Jewels. And when you’re writing your A-Level essays, or any essays in
the future, it’s always a really good thing if you can draw the subject into one of these
doctrinal formulae. So, if you’re talking about The Noble Eightfold Path, well, tell
your examiner that you know it is part of the Four Noble Truths.
So, in the same way, when we’re talking about anatta let’s start off by saying “How
does the Buddhist tradition see this?” Well, it’s one of the three things we can really
know about life. And these are called – does anybody know actually? [QUESTION
TO AUDIENCE] – I think I heard a whisper. The Three Marks or the Three
Characteristics of Existence, that’s good. Well, you might think life is quite
complicated, eh? There’s a lot of – the universe is vast – we are all very complex
creatures; there’s only three things we can really know. Well you might think that’s
surprising or you might be relieved, I don’t know. But here they are: -
• Impermanence is the first,
• Dukkha, and
• No self
Well, I wish in a way we had time just to stop and think for a moment; I wish I could
get you talking among yourselves, forgetting about Buddhism and thinking “What are
the three things I could really know about life?” Because I bet if I just got you to – if
we brainstormed it, if I had a whiteboard here and we could write them up – I think
you’d come up with these three things in a way. Because what is it you’d say? Well,
some of you might say – I usually ask this question – and people say, “Well I know
I’m going to die.” That’s a thing that – is that what you’d like to say? [QUESTION
TO AUDIENCE MEMBER]. Not really [ANSWER FROM AUDIENCE]. Well, it’s
a very common answer.
Well we know, if there’s one thing we know, we know we’re going to die. So, we
know we’re going to change, we know we’re going to grow older, we know we’re
going to do our A-Levels and survive it and carry on. So, we know perhaps also,
external things: we know the sun is going to set; we know it’s going to rise. All of
these things, of course, we can just boil down and come up with the word
impermanence. That’s the first thing we can really know.
Now the second thing is that life isn’t always happy. And of course you get this word
dukkha. It’s a very hard one to translate and very often you’ll see it translated as
suffering. So you might think “Well that’s a bit of a gloomy way to start – we all
know we’re going to suffer,” but actually of course it is something we all really know,
that we’re not always happy. It’s something we can just say, “Well everybody knows
that.” So it’s again something that we really know about life. And of course
Buddhism doesn’t leave it there, it doesn’t say, “Well we all suffer and that’s it.” It
says, well we can translate it a bit differently, we can say, “Things are just not quite
right. Things can be unsatisfactory.” And of course it breaks it down even further and
it says, “Well, we suffer. We suffer because - just ordinary pain; we might fall over;
we might get earache,” anything like that and that’s just – we might cut ourselves
with a knife – that’s just ordinary pain. We all know that’s going to happen. It’s
already happened to us many times.
Of course we might feel actually very jolly, quite happy, but the other thing we know
is that’s not going to last. Even a wonderful day like this, a wonderful opportunity at
an A-Level conference, well it’s going to come ...

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