This post is the first in a series of twelve on dependent arising (the translation of paticca samuppada that I prefer over dependent origination, or co-dependent arising, or interdependent origination or any of the other variations). I plan to take each link in the classic chain of twelve and explain — in the plainest language I can — what it means to us here and now in our practice.


As some of you may know, dependent arising has been my pet project for about half a decade, now, and I have developed a hypothesis about its structure that I am reasonably sure is correct, not only because it makes sense in the context of the times, but because it is consistent with what the Buddha taught all through the canon, and, in fact, makes much of what has been obscure make sense. But I’m not going to talk about any of that. If you want to know about the supporting structure, I hope you’ll subscribe to the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies — a new, wide-ranging, open-minded publication that was started recently by Professor Richard Gombrich — and get your very own copy of the paper “Burning Yourself”. Understanding the context provided by the paper should make a big difference to sutta-readers’ insights into what’s being said all throughout the canon, since dependent arising is the big lesson that ties the teachings on the dharma together. Subscribing will also have the effect of supporting Prof. Gombrich’s work, which opens up Buddhism to wider discussion than in the past, so a subscription is a doubly-good “safe bet”.


I’m going to start each post with Sariputta’s run-down of what the link in the chain is about, and I’ll often make reference to the step before, and the one that follows, but I am going to try to keep it simple and practical. The sutta I will use is MN 9 (pts M i 46-55 as translated by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi). It is Sariputta’s answer to the question “What is right view?” To summarize, he says that right view is understanding what is wholesome (and unwholesome), understanding nutriment, and the four noble truths, and each of twelve steps of dependent origination, and the taints. The talk about wholesomeness is not difficult to understand (it is general morality); nutriment we have covered in previous posts (here and here); and the four noble truths should be familiar to just about everyone (if not, they are the focus of the last half of this post). We can talk about the taints at the end of the series if anyone is still with me at that point.

Before we start on the first link, I will finally add my answer to the earlier Pop Quiz about Dependent Origination and just say this about what dependent arising is: it describes the arising of the parts of our sense-of-self that cause problems. Using Pali terms, I would say it describes how anatta arises, causing dukkha.

Regarding my use (and abuse) of the term “anatta“, there are some Pali terms I use in preference to any English translation. Among these are dukkha and sankhara — covered in the next post — terms I find necessary to use because there is no good corresponding word for them in English. Anatta I am loosely translating as “sense-of-self” though it’s more specific than that. The Buddha didn’t overtly use the term anatta the way I use it — he seems to have meant it to be read, primarily, as a denial that there is a lasting self (that’s what anatta means — not-self) and was very careful not to give it any sense of concreteness. However, the overall “shape” of dependent arising indicates to me that describing the end product of the process as “anatta” in our time is not in conflict with what the Buddha was trying to convey. Therefore, I break with both the original use, and with convention by using it as a label for a concept that can be generally described as “that which we mistake for a lasting self” (but it is still more complex than even that).

Dependent arising also, in a way, describes impermanence, because at the base of it all, the Buddha is really showing us what happens so that we can see both that what arises is impermanent, and how to keep it from happening in the first place (therefore proving its impermanence when we put a stop to it). But the main thing it is describing is just our fluid sense-of-self, its origin, and by extension, how we can end the process. The reason it details all this is because the end-product of that sense of self is dukkha. So we could say that paticca samuppada describes all three of “the three marks of existence”: not-self (anatta), dukkha (aka “suffering”), and impermanence (anicca).

One important key to keep in mind when considering dependent arising is that each link in the chain represents something active, rather than static. A possible exception would be ignorance, depending on how you look at it. All of these describe things going on in a process.


The first step in the link is ignorance, and here is Sariputta’s description of it:

Not knowing about suffering, not knowing about the origin of suffering, not knowing about the cessation of suffering, not knowing about the way leading to the cessation of suffering — this is called ignorance.

Basically, the ignorance we’re talking about is ignorance of what is meant by dukkha (suffering). It is not ignorance that there is dukkha — we all experience it — and not ignorance of there being a term for it, but more like a misidentification of what it is/what the problem is. The question then gets framed in terms of “the four noble truths”: What is dukkha, where does it come from, can it be stopped, and how would that work?

Translated into plain English — and given that what’s being described is the arising of our sense-of-self — what we are ignorant of is:

(1) That it is that “sense of self” (anatta) that causes the problem of dukkha — and by extension, it is only problems generated by that sense of self that are the definition of dukkha. This means that dukkha is not physical pain, or our own death, or aging, or sadness for the problems of the world, or even the keen pain we may feel at the loss of a loved-one — unless we have added unnecessary layers onto those things, grounded in a sense of self: the “why me”s and “I’ll never survive without you” and “it was all my fault” or even blaming others for what we feel.

(2) We are ignorant not only of what that dukkha is, but where it is coming from — which is from that sense-of-self, and from our own ignorance about that sense of self.

(3) We are not only unaware that dukkha has its source in the sense of self, but that something can be done about it. As long as we remain unaware of what’s happening, we have no power to fix it.

(4) Once we become aware of all of the above, we can end our ignorance of the process by learning to see it through the tools provided in the path of practice the Buddha laid out.

The four items listed above are the four noble truths reworded to show that dependent arising is the answer to he questions those truths pose. It is actually “the cure” for dukkha; it is one of the tools. It tells us what dukkha is, how it originates, and shows us that the process can be interrupted, and gives us the structured insights that allow us to do that. Ignorance, then, is “the first cause” of our problems and understanding that is the first step in the cure for ignorance.



Go To: Table of Contents for A Secular Understanding of Dependent Arising

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  1. Dana Nourie on May 21, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Crystal clear so far, Linda. I’m right there with you thus far . . . I like your “loose translation” of anatta as “sense of self” since that seems to be what it is as much as “not self.”

    Thanks for the link to MN9 as well. Been awhile since I read it. I do have questions about it, but will wait to read your articles in this series first, as I suspect you are going to answer some of my q’s:-)

    Really dig this so far . . .

  2. Candol on May 22, 2012 at 12:00 am

    I find sense of self a useful translation also. I wonder why it wasn’t done before. Ah that’s right because of the matter of denying the existence of a soul. But for us, modern day types, its a very good translation because we all know what it means right off the bat, unlike not-self. But i guess if you are writing an article using the words sense of self for anatta, it would be i think always requisite to use the word anatta at the ready for translation and linkage with other pali texts or “not-self” to avoid confusion.

    On that score, i wonder why we don’t just stick with anatta as we do (or try to for dukkha. Given the confusion that sometimes occurs, it would be better to keep the pali term. However for a ready explanation of anatta for secular buddhists i like sense of self.

    With regard to the MN 9, reading it so soon after reading DN 15, i wonder if you’ve developed your ideas bearing in mind all the texts on this topic, or just stick to this one. Is this one supposed to be the definitive one? why did you choose it?

    One more point, i had a little look about and i think a better translation for ahara would just be food ie as metaphor. see this sutta. I had googled ahaara and this came up. as a link.

  3. Linda on May 22, 2012 at 8:52 am

    Thanks, Dana and Candol. The somewhat longer phrase I prefer to use to define “anatta” is “the false sense that we have a lasting self” and I would like to have just used anatta outright in that way, but when I wrote my paper, Professor Gombrich had a problem with it. In his understanding — and in the understanding of many people who have worked hard at figuring out how the Buddha used the term — anatta isn’t a thing but is a denial of a thing (“there is no eternal, changeless, separate self to be found”), so when I used anatta in a sentence as a thing, what I was saying became nonsensical to those people. My paper was originally titled, “Burning Yourself: Paṭicca Samuppāda as a Description of the Arising of Anatta Modeled on Vedic Rituals” and I used the word anatta in that way throughout, but after much discussion in which I tried to persuade him of my reasoning, he ended up persuading me that, for this paper anyway, it would be better without giving anatta that concreteness.

    As for why the Buddha didn’t use it the way I do, I have only the theory that he was being very very careful not to give any sense of something that exists in some permanent sense. Perhaps he tried using it that way early on and found that in his society, speaking of it that way was a hindrance to people’s understanding of what he was saying. In the society of the day, the language the Brahmins used was understood as, not a description of reality, but reality itself; their language was given to them by the gods at creation — when Prajapati divided himself up into individuals he split himself into *name* and *form* and both were the reality of the universe. So my pet theory is that people understood that anything you could name was *real* in the sense that it was *eternal* and they just could not wrap their heads around the idea that one could make something that was *real* go away by a simple change in behavior. Especially in the case of something as real as “me” (self, who I am, what I am in my most essential core). What is clear from all the texts is that the Buddha was very careful to avoid naming this thing, though he gets very close to it with his references to “a being”.

    But you are right, Candol — both “not self” and “anatta” need to get used often in alteration with “false sense of self” (or variants on the long phrase) to keep a point of reference for those who work with the Pali or have come to know “anatta” as “not self”.

    To answer the question about whether my theory just fits MN 9 or more than that, the theory fits everything in the canon that I have encountered. The paper includes, for example, a bit of DN 15 ( ) that falls under “Contact” explaining “name and form” in obscure language that I haven’t seen anyone make a sensible explanation for; yet this view of DA explains it. It also can explain out-of-sequence sequences that I’ve come across. Of course, I haven’t read the entire canon (and a lot of what I read, I read before understanding DA this way) so I can’t swear it explains everything, but I am confident enough of its correctness that I bet it explains the vast majority of confusions. This is why I want the thesis out there — so people can bring up bits they find and ask “How does it explain *this*!?!” so we can see if it does. The greater the number of confusing bits it explains, the more likely it is to be correct. If, on the other hand, it can’t explain more problems than the traditional explanations, then they are probably right and I’ve made a mistake.

    Re: “ahara” “nutriment” as a translation of “ahara” is one I picked up from one of the translators; it’s not original to me; I’m just using what others use as a referent. I will have to pay more attention to it but I have the feeling it gets used in metaphors about things growing up in fields (but I may be confusing that with upadana, which has a fuel/nutriment sort of meaning). Ahara surely could always be translated as food and might be intended that way, but “nutriment” lets the mind loosen its grip on what’s being said in a way that “food” doesn’t. The problem I’m thinking about is a little like the way reading “birth, sickness, aging and death” makes us so certain that the Buddha is intending literal meanings through-and-through — it’s hard to let go of the certainty that’s all that’s being said when hearing those words. On the other hand, when the Buddha makes a bland statement like “All beings must eat food” the bald blandness should make us *more* certain, I think, that he’s trying to make a metaphorical point in addition to the obvious one.

    • Linda on May 22, 2012 at 10:55 am

      I forgot to say to Candol, re MN 9, that I chose it for two reasons. One is because it gives the most detail on each of the 12 links (as well as things that relate to the 12) but more important was because the literal-sounding definitions of “birth” and “aging-and-death” at links #11 and #12 are the most challenging to refute as meaning only the literal.

  4. warren on May 22, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Self, permanence, fixed reality – these notions all sort of are interdependent in and of themselves, aren’t they? 😉

    • Linda on May 22, 2012 at 10:53 am

      Yes, just as dukkha, impermanence and anatta are all interdependent in and of themselves. In one sense, they are all one and the same, or maybe it’s “three faces of the same beast”.

  5. Kerberus_of_styx on May 22, 2012 at 9:40 am

    The Buddha used the structured version of dependent origination as a tool to teach that there are consequences for our actions, not as a literal description of reality. He was arguing against the acausalists of his time who tried to say that there is no causality at all which if taken literally could be interpreted to mean that there is no moral causality; the Buddha wanted to make clear that there is moral causality but that it cannot be concretely defined as a series of links; such a concrete definition leads to the metaphysical conundrums of the schools that he was hoping to overcome in his teachings. All that we need to know is that there are consequences for our behavior — beyond that it’s all a big mystery.

    • Linda on May 22, 2012 at 10:52 am

      And yet, Kerberus, he doesn’t mention morality anywhere in DA that I can see. Consequences for our behavior, yes, but morality? I’m not seeing it in there.

      • Kerberus_of_styx on May 22, 2012 at 1:16 pm

        Consequences for human actions are moral; I don’t think the two can be separated from one another. The Buddha advocated vegetarianism in order to avoid harming animals for food — isn’t that a moral decision?

      • Linda on May 22, 2012 at 7:40 pm

        Sure, but I’m not saying that nowhere in the suttas does the Buddha talk about morality. He talks about it all the time, especially when talking about karma and rebirth. I am saying that when he is teaching on the subject of dependent arising, he does not talk about moral consequences. He says there are consequences, but he doesn’t say the consequences happened because of a moral failing. He just says “consequences happen”.

        • Kerberus_of_styx on May 23, 2012 at 8:35 am

          Yes, that’s right — the Buddha was skeptical about the law of karma as a causal link to specific results or consequences in one’s life but he was deeply moral nonetheless. It seems to me that ahimsa is a moral concept — not sure what the Pali term for ahimsa is or if it is used in the Pali canon.

        • Linda on May 24, 2012 at 9:58 am

          Yes, ahimsa is used in the Pali canon.

          I was thinking about this yesterday — about why morality doesn’t get described in dependent arising — and I understand it (primarily from seeing it in practice) this way: when we get that out-of-control “self” out of the way, our natural tendency towards compassion and kindness is able to come through unhindered.

          The karmic view of the way the world works is that there is some mechanism that causes the things we do to have matching consequences — good behavior gets good consequences, bad behavior gets bad consequences — and it looks at this and says, “Therefore, if I want to have good things happen to me, I must do good things.” Which seems to be (more or less) true, but it puts “me” before “doing good things”. It’s morality, as I like to say, applied from the outside-in. We do these things for selfish reasons.

          The sankharic way of looking at the world says, “Self is the problem — get rid of it”. There is no question of “doing the right thing” anymore. When self is out of the way, we just do, and the things we do, not having selfish motivations, are things that are good for us all. *Why* is this so? Any answer to that question I could make would be speculative. But what’s important is that observation shows that this *is* the way things work. Just as — somehow — it does turn out that “what goes around comes around” (so what people observe to be karmic effects is an actual effect) it is also true that when we stop being selfish, the resulting behavior is what people perceive as “morally correct behavior” — it just doesn’t require stopping and thinking about the morality to have the behavior happen anymore. It comes from the inside and moves out of us.

          I believe the Buddha *saw* this — as any of us can see it if we watch human behavior — and that’s why DA doesn’t talk about morality — because it is “good behavior” made with rules, whereas DA fosters good behavior naturally.

          • Kerberus_of_styx on May 24, 2012 at 12:15 pm

            Thanks Linda — that’s a great explanation and I think it’s very accurate. If there’s no self to defend there should be no reason to act from the mental afflictions in such as way as to jump from the frying pan to the fire.

            Thanks for taking the time to respond to our questions.

  6. Aidan McKeown on May 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Linda – I’m frequently (read ‘always’) daunted by discussions of the suttas etc, but this to me borders on the crystal clear. And not only does it make sense intellectually, but I can also see how it links to practice. I’ll do my best to stick with you to the end of the series!
    Many thanks

    • Linda on May 22, 2012 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks, Aidan. Let’s see if I can maintain that level of clarity all the way through. I’m sure going to try.

  7. Mark Knickelbine on May 22, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    Is this novel translation of anatta really necessary? After all, anicca doesn’t need to be translated as “false sense of permanence,” nor does dukkha need to be translated as “false sense of satisfactoriness.” If something does not have a permanent inherent self, then if you believe it does, your belief is illusory. The basic statement of the Three Marks is “things aren’t like you think they are,” not “all things are made up of false appearances.”

    And this goes to the meaning of dukkha. Again, your implication is that in the First Sermon, when Gotama says, “birth, sickness, aging, death, and the five agregates are dukkha,” what he really meant was something like, ” Dukkha is what happens when we get upset about birth, sickness, aging and death, and when we expect the five agregates to produce something other than craving.” You will need to explain why he could not have said this plainly, or why he chose not to. In any event your definition of both terms renders the existential suffering of humankind our fault. If we just got our act together, banished our false sense of self and stopped worrying about suffering, we’d be ok. But iIf that’s so, where do these falsehoods come from? Why doesn’t everyone abandon them as soon as we hear the truth? Why is practice necessary? When the sage is taming the self as the fletcher shapes the arrow, what is she taming? Reading the Three Marks, not as delusions of the human mind but as characteristics of the world we experience, and reading dukkha as being the nature of human existence, puts us back where we intuitively sense that we are — in a world we didn’t make and can’t control, trying to make the best of a life that cannot ever satisfy us, and in which the fact that we continually suffer is not our fault. The project of awakening is not transcending to the ideal state we could achieve if we only dropped our delusions, but accepting and embracing life as it is.

    • Candol on May 22, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      Mark since atta referred to an eternal self, a soul, it makes sense the buddha used anatta to refute its existence.

      The problem for us modern people i think comes down to the use of the word self instead of soul. I mean think of soul as a purely religious term although i know that people use it to emphasise a depth of ones being that self doesn’t really convey. So i would say the problems with anatta comes down to our modern understanding of self and soul and the inadequacy of these words in modern times.

      I think in the buddhas day atta and anatta must have been just a lot more easy to understand because the continuity with you are during life and in death was the same. So that when we come to anatta being translated as not self its not obvious what is meant. But to add to the confusion some people have used the terms no self or non-self.

      not sense of self is about the clearest explication you can get of not self or anatta for a modern reader – one who already doesn’t believe in a soul. But if you do believe in an eternal soul, ie if you were a christian then not sense of self would not do because it doesn’t allude to anything after death. And nor does the word ego or egoless.

      The thing is, self and soul are not interchangeable and that’s part of the problem.

      Whereas anicca is easy. There is no ambiguity in the term impermanence as one finds with not-self, nor any insufficiency as one finds with dukkha. Anicca is a straightforward word to translate and one would only wonder why you think it necessarily follows that it should be as difficult as the other two – which are difficult in differnt ways it must be said.

      It seems that ego is a useful word.

    • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 9:39 am

      To Mark and Candol, The word anatta obviously requires translation so we have to define it somehow, and as Candol points out “not self” is not going to do the job. When anatta is used as a denial, what it is a denial of is a permanent, changeless, separate self — a concept I don’t find was in my vocabulary to start with, so denying it is not of particular use to me except to see that this is why the Buddha said certain things. In other words, understanding the original context is useful in understanding the specific meanings of the Buddha’s pronouncements.

      But I never conceived that I had a permanent, changeless, separate self, so denying that there is one isn’t going to show me anything new.

      When I say “false sense of self” that’s actually shorthand for the longer, more precise, “false sense that we have a lasting self” (which gets tedious in repetition). In my life, what I have tended to cling to is that there is a “me” that is identifiable, who was there when I was little and is still here now, has changed some, and is built out of things like the shape of my body (so it’s not “separate”) and that I sure would like to have last beyond my death (though I don’t see anything to indicate that it will). There *is* a sense of self, and it is real (not false) like any sensation is real — that we create it doesn’t make it “false”. To me the thing that is false is the sense that there is something *continuous*, and when we have not examined the situation thoroughly, most humans tend to assume that central core will last beyond death. That is what I’m trying to get at. So the “lasting” part of my definition is actually crucial, even if I drop it out sometimes for convenience.

    • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 10:59 am

      I believe that a lot of the problem we have with understanding what’s being said is that we are absolutely convinced that the way people spoke in the Buddha’s day is almost exactly the way we speak, only they had a different language. It does not enter our minds that there could be underlying assumptions about how to discuss things that are different from our assumptions. The way we speak in the modern world is the only way people speak, as far as we know. How could it be any different? (Shaka, when the walls fell, that’s how.)

      This is why (“ahem,” in Candol’s direction) my discussion of “food” is such an important one. I am suggesting that in a great many of the suttas, the Buddha is not talking about *things* as literally as we see them, but he is talking about *things-as-food* because that was the way people spoke then. Concern with food and its relationship to what is real ran all through the wisdom lore of the Vedic people. We don’t do this so we misunderstand what is being said.

      Do you take this literally:

      “When, friends, a noble disciple understands
      nutriment, the origin of nutriment, the
      cessation of nutriment, and the way leading
      to the cessation of nutriment, in that way he
      is one of right view… and has arrived at this
      true Dhamma. ”

      Is understanding literal food the key to the dhamma? If he didn’t mean literal food, why didn’t he just *say* so? Is it really the key to the dhamma that we have to understand the four foods? “They are physical food as nutriment, gross or subtle; contact as the second; mental volition as the third; and consciousness as the fourth…”? So the key to the dhamma is understanding that what a human needs is literal food, contact, a mind that can choose, and consciousness? That’s it?

      You said, “In any event your definition of both terms renders the existential suffering of humankind our fault. If we just got our act together, banished our false sense of self and stopped worrying about suffering, we’d be ok. But if that’s so, where do these falsehoods come from? Why doesn’t everyone abandon them as soon as we hear the truth? Why is practice necessary? When the sage is taming the self as the fletcher shapes the arrow, what is she taming?”

      No, it doesn’t render it as “our fault” — sankhara answers this, as well as what needs to be tamed, and why practice is necessary (not that I specifically address these in the next post, but maybe we can talk about it in sankhara’s comments). The whole of DA explains where the falsehoods come from. When you see the shape of the whole argument the Buddha is making here, all these questions get answered.

      “Reading the Three Marks, not as delusions of the human mind but as characteristics of the world we experience, and reading dukkha as being the nature of human existence, puts us back where we intuitively sense that we are — in a world we didn’t make and can’t control, trying to make the best of a life that cannot ever satisfy us, and in which the fact that we continually suffer is not our fault. The project of awakening is not transcending to the ideal state we could achieve if we only dropped our delusions, but accepting and embracing life as it is.”

      I still maintain that we end up in the same place as far as practice and experience go, Mark. Your understanding of the Buddha’s teaching ends up in the same place my understanding ends up, but we take different paths to get there. Your approach requires that he was talking about things literally and this includes rebirth, and I am not quite sure if you’re saying that he says what you conclude or whether you see your conclusion as an improvement on what he was saying. But the structure of DA tells me he saw this all along: that it is not that all of life is suffering and all of feeling is to be avoided, but that we actually *should* feel even the things that hurt. Only the part described in DA is suffering that we can end, and only that particular feeling is to be put an end to, so that we end up accepting and embracing life as it is without adding unnecessary nonsense to it (aka “dropping our delusions” as you say above).

  8. Candol on May 22, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    Back to the word ahara and food. Yesterday i was looking up the meanings of the word food in hindi and looking at some other indian languages too. I know the hindi word for food when you are asking for food is khaana or khana but i see the ahara word for food is more general and nutriment was one version. I always felt that khana was more of a meal and meant you wanted to eat but ahara as food seems to be a good general term even in hindi. But just now i am looking at the pali dictionary in the link below and see all the version of the word food and ahara, it seems to me so much more clear that food is the best word for ahara. I mean food is the most general word and also is the best metaphorical word as well. i don’t think nutriment can be said to do anything with growing food in the fields.

    I don’t think nutriment loosens the mind. I think its just a bit archaic or specialised. I find food much more useful as a way of saying feeding a process.

    • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 11:08 am

      You can see from the quote in the comment just above, and the snippet of a quote I put in my comments to Mark in the next paragraph after the quote, why it is that translators translate “ahara” as “nutriment” — because three of the four items described as ahara aren’t food — they are contact, mental volition, and consciousness.

  9. Candol on May 22, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    I mean, i should say see how its a root term and a general term.

    foodless nihahara
    course food and numerous other options also includes the root.

    And when i look up nutriment it gives two words in pali ahara is one. I mean nutriment is food is it not.

    There doens’t seem to be anything like ahara for growing or raising crops.

  10. warren on May 22, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    It might be germane to wait to criticize until we’re through the entire piece. It’s just possible that Linda has specific reasons for choosing the language she has, and those reasons will become clearer as the posts progress.

  11. Candol on May 23, 2012 at 6:37 am

    We’ve already discussed it warren. So its not germane to wait.

    I also remembered one other thing … Is it more correct to talk about a false sense of self or is it better just to say a sense of self since a false sense of self would be oxymoronic wouldn’t it. Do you know what i mean? I mean if a sense of self is false, it implies there is a true sense of self. Well, is there? I had thought that it was the sense of self that was wrong. Can you clarify LInda? If there is no true sense of self we don’t need to talk about a false sense of self. Its jsut that a sense of self is false. I mean atta is not a sense of self, its a soul/self or ego. Its not a sense of self per se. It is something but a sense of self is something we feel that we have, but apparently we don’t have it at all which is anatta.

    Sorry for the head spin. I just though if i said the same thing in a few different ways, it would be clear what i am getting at.

    • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 9:47 am

      It’s the false sense that there is a *lasting* self. Or I guess a *changeless* self. Or maybe even (if people tend to conceive it that way nowadays) a *separate* self. But for me, at least, it’s the *lasting* part with a hint of *changeless* that is the problem. What’s being argued against with anatta is that there is something entrenched — we are not entrenched, we are flux; we are made to be capable of change though it’s difficult to get past the sankhara (coming soon to a blog near you!).

      I’d be interested to hear about how others have found they have had false conceptions about the self that practice has turned up. Which elements of “eternal, changeless, separate” have you found to be an issue? Are there other problems outside of those that you discovered that were mistaken?

  12. Mark Knickelbine on May 23, 2012 at 7:58 am

    I find the phrase “false sense of self” problematic. As Candol points out, if there are no permanent, fixed selves, then any idea that there is is false, so the phrase is redundant on that level. But Gotama doesn’t say, there is no self. He says, all conditioned things are not self. He also uses the term self unproblematically:

    Evil is done by oneself
    by oneself is one defiled.
    Evil is left undone by oneself

    by oneself is one cleansed.
    Purity & impurity are one’s own doing.
    No one purifies another.
    No other purifies one.
    Dhp 165

    It’s not that the self doesn’t exist — it just isn’t what we think it is: permanent, fixed, findable, discrete. As a result, we can change the self, by cultivating wholesome mind states and recognizing the foolishness of craving. By observing that what I perceive as a fixed self is anatta, I can hold it more loosely and not be so crazy about it; but my self doesn’t go away.

    Remember that in the formless jhanas, one’s sense of self is obliterated; Gotama is said to have experienced these states before his awakening, and rejected them as leading to liberation. John Peacock says if you want to see someone without a sense of self, look at someone in the advanced stages of dementia who no longer can maintain the narratives that tell them who they are.

    Perhaps I will have to wait for later posts but I do not understand how translating anatta as “false sense of self” helps us understand dependent origination.

    • Kerberus_of_styx on May 23, 2012 at 8:38 am

      The Buddha was asked if the self existed and he said, “I can’t say that it does and I can’t say that it doesn’t.” Both are true — the personal self in the form of the experience of the skandhas/aggregates certainly exists, but only inter-dependently upon other phenomena.

    • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 10:14 am

      Mark, I believe this tells me I can’t shortcut and say “sense of self” or “false sense of self” for “false sense of a lasting self”. I’m going to have to define “anatta” = “false sense of a lasting self” and use the one or the other and not any of the middling abbreviations. Because you are right, Mark, we have a sense of self and that’s not false. It’s the assumptions we make about it that is the issue, and I think of the assumptions we make about it “lasting” is the most significant because it implies the sense of changelessness.

      Would you agree with that?

      Kerberus: I’d agree with that. There is something there — the process that gets created in dependent arising is there — it’s just not as concrete as people thought it was in the day.

      This speaks to Mark’s point (far above), “You will need to explain why he could not have said this plainly, or why he chose not to.” I think that the original concept of “name and form” explains why he chose not to, though this is just a pet theory and nothing I’ve spent any time trying to find evidence for. The Brahmins are known to have believed that their language did not represent reality, it *was* reality, and this is reflected in the term “name-and-form” (namarupa). What has form has an intrinsic meaning (aka “name”) and when you name something, it has an inherent form. As soon as you name something, it has to be real. If the Buddha said “The problem is that this thing that arises, which I call ‘anatta’, isn’t as real as you think it is,” people would find that because he gave it a name it *was* as real as they thought it was, because if you can name it, it has form — ipso facto and tah dah! So he does this fancy dance all throughout the suttas of avoiding naming that which arises.

      • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 10:15 am

        So, Mark, when you’re reading that paper, where I had to take out “anatta” and stick in variations on the theme, please read every damned one of ’em as “false sense that there is a lasting self”. Thanks!

    • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 10:18 am

      Mark, have you read Steven Collins’ book, “Selfless Persons”? He says that the word self (as in “oneself”) gets used in a mundane and conventional way because it was part of the common speech to do so — and that “self” has nothing to do with the self that’s being denied. We want to not confuse or conflate the two.

    • Linda on May 27, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      Mark said: “If something does not have a permanent inherent self, then if you believe it does, your belief is illusory.”


      “I find the phrase “false sense of self” problematic. As Candol points out, if there are no permanent, fixed selves, then any idea that there is is false, so the phrase is redundant on that level.”

      I keep thinking about this. I think what’s going on here is that I am trying to find language that conveys the point to someone new to Buddhism, in phrases that can be understood without understanding the rest first — as starting points. I think that when presenting Buddhism, there are so many concepts that are counterintuitive to our usual way of looking at things, that it takes presenting ideas in several different ways, any one of which may be the first “aha!” that someone catches on to, the first concept that forms a base so more can be built onto it. Because the concept we are pointing to — while going beyond language and pointing to something about humans that can be described from many different angles in many different ways — is one that is most famously associated with Buddhism’s original thinker, reference does also need to be made to the language used in the earliest presentation of the ideas we have (because, like it or not, “Buddhism” is, at the moment, the strongest carrier of the meme).

      So I am trying to show that “anatta” can mean not-self in a way that is consistent with both the Buddha’s original message, and in a way that is consistent with modern understanding of what is going on: “Watch the sense doors; see what arises; that which arises is anatta”. “That which arises is not self” can mean something like “what you see arising is dukkha — it is nothing to do with self at all” — which is probably the way the Buddha was using it. But it can also mean “That which arises is the thing I am calling ‘not self’ — it is *something* arising, but what it is, is not the self, so I will call the thing that we see arising ‘not-self’ because it is not self (as defined by the Buddha, anyway).”

      As for describing it as a “false sense of self” or short-handing it even further to “sense of self” or even sometimes (shockingly) to “self” — I find I am doing what the Buddha did with many of his terms: I define what I am saying at some greater length, and when I use shorthand, I am expecting those who understood what I said at length to understand that I mean the same thing when I am saying it in brief. I first defined “anatta” above as “that which we mistake for a lasting self” (with the caveat that it’s even more specific than that) and so when I say “sense of self” or “mistaken sense of self” I’m referring back to that. That this seems to have the effect of introducing confusion explains some of the trouble we have with reading the Buddha’s words.

      I don’t see that anyone new to the idea of anatta would understand what it was that the Buddha was denying, when he denies “self” unless I explain it in some detail, and one way I feel is accurate of describing “what arises” is that it is the false sense that we have a lasting self — it’s not a negation, it is something that really happens — we have an actual experience — we sense it — we are aware of a sense that we have a self. The part of it that is false is that it is a lasting self (and one that needs defending).

  13. warren on May 23, 2012 at 8:07 am

    ‘We’ve already discussed it warren. So its not germane to wait.’

    Nonsense. All you have to do is wait for the next installment. What you and others are doing here is equivalent to trying to guess the plot of a movie while the credits are still rolling. At least let it get as far as the opening scene…

    • Linda on May 23, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Thanks, Warren, for being willing to calm things down if the debate is a problem, but I’m fine with it, in fact I’m better than fine with it. Off in the forums I pointed out to Candol that the traditions have had 2,500 years and many bright minds working on the problem of how best to convey their vision of what the Buddha was trying to tell us. I have only been working on dependent arising about five years, had a good understanding of it for maybe two of those, and have only been practicing talking about it (mostly to myself) for about a year. I have a lot of catching up to do in terms of finding the best ways to express what I’m saying, and so I’m really interested in, say, Mark’s objections, or Candol’s wondering if Mark might be right about “sense of self” being redundant.

      I’m doing this series of blog posts and the discussions on the forum in part because it’s good practice for me in trying to explain what I see in language people will get.

      • warren on May 23, 2012 at 10:07 am

        It’s not the discussion that troubles me; heck, I love a good debate. It’s just the gun-jumping aspect of it. It seems premature.

        • Candol on May 24, 2012 at 12:40 am

          Warren linda and have i have already been engaged in discussion on this topic before this thread started. If i wait until the whole series of articles are published, i will be too overwhelmed to ask any questions or clarify anything.

          What seems premature to you does not seem premature to me. But i can see now from linda’s replies that nothing is getting any clearer afterall. So i think i’ve giving up.

  14. Dana Nourie on May 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    From my practice I see the selfing process as two-fold. There is the observation practice of not self, where we look at each of the aggregates and ask, is this self? In other words, am I identifying with this object as a self. For instance, we see models and athletes identify so strongly with their bodies as being who they are that they have great difficulties and suffering when the body changes. There can also be strong identification with opinions, thoughts, and intellect. But we all know if we watch those for any amount of time, that thoughts are fleeting, ideas and opinions change, so those are not self by any means. In other words, it’s how we come to identify with the aggregates as though they are who we are. We mistake the aggregates for self by identifying through them when they are not self. So, here I think the not self language is useful.

    But there is another selfing process that goes on. This is the feeling of self, the this is mine, *I* am angry, the me who watches me meditate, the me that arises in response to others, the doer and the observer. I get what Mark is saying that the Buddha was trying to avoid referring to these as a thing. However, no matter the nature of this selfing, it does happen, we do experience something, which is why I call it an illusory self as neurscientist do. Although the experience may be incorrectly interpreted as a self living in the body, or a powerful sense of me, this false sense of self IS experienced. So here not self is still accurate but seems off the mark in that wording.

    I can point to many things and say, that is not self, and remind myself so I don’t identify through it as though it were a self. But I also see this selfing process that arises in response to other things. I know those are not self either, but they are an experience, some of which is necessary evolutionary-wise or we might not bother to feed ourselves.

  15. Linda on May 23, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    Really well put, Dana.

  16. Ted Meissner on May 27, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Really wonderful article, Linda, and discussion from everyone here. Thank you for writing and commenting, you’ve all provided food for thought and ongoing investigation.

    One thing we may want to discuss in a different thread is the idea of selfing, the crystallization of a notion about something that may not be an accurate accounting of a given *process*, is how it relates to not just our sense of self — it can also apply to other things that are not things at all.

    Of course, I have meme on the brain right now 🙂

    • Linda on May 27, 2012 at 11:45 am

      Like the way businesses self? Governments? Churches? Movements? Just about any social structure? It’s a way of passing on memes, isn’t it.

  17. […] A Secular Understanding of Dependent Origination: part 1 […]

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    […] suffering by adding a layer to our experience through taking things personally, which can also be explained by suggesting that we are holding onto “the false sense that we have a lasting […]

  20. Nick on June 13, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    DO is specifically about the arising of suffering. although it does explain how the notion of ‘self’ is formed in the human mind, this is not its purpose. DO is an explanation of conditionality. Where as the three characteristics are a different matter & explain the inherent characteristics of conditioned phenomena. in other words, DO & the three characteristics are not really related. although impermanence & anatta can be seen in DO, again, this is not the purpose of DO. DO simply explains, because of ignorance about the nature of grasping (1st Noble Truth) and the consequence of craving (2nd Noble Truth), the human mind grasps at impermanent phenomena & takes (appropriates) them as “I”, “me” and “mine”. the self-identity formed is ‘birth’ or ‘jati’. when impermanence inevitably affects these impermanent phenomena, the impermanence, i.e., aging-&-death of these appropriated phenomena results in suffering. the self-identity also dies, which is suffering. DO is simply explained at the end MN 28. The 3 characteristics represent wisdom. They are the remedy to ignorance. ‘Dukkha’ in the 3Cs does not refer to “suffering”. It refers to “unsatisfactoriness” or the inability of conditioned things to bring lasting happiness. Instead of thinking of dukkha here to meaning “suffering”, it can be thought of as “not-happiness” or “asukha”. Thus, impermanent things, being impermanent, have the quality of unsatisfactoriness due to their impermanence. Due to their impermanence, they are unreliable. This is the meaning of “dukkha”. Thus the characteristic of dukkha dwells within a conditioned thing, eg, a rock, rather than in the human mind, because the rock itself does not have any qualities within it than can bring lasting happiness. Similarly, cocaine has the characteristic of dukkha because the cocaine itself cannot bring the human mind any lasting happiness, just as salt cannot bring sweetness to tea. As for anatta, it means ‘not-self’. Anatta is used to make the human mind immuned from the psychological suffering brought about by DO. in other words, when there is insight into ‘not-self’, the mind no longer grasps at phenonema and DO ceases to occur. at SN 12.3, DO is described as the “wrong way”. DO describes the origination of psyhcological disease. there is nothing ‘holy’ about DO. it simply shows us the mistakes we are making that result in suffering & mental anguish.

    • Kerberus_of_styx on June 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm

      I don’t see how you can interpret dependent origination as the wrong way since it illuminates how things actually exist to the mind; by seeing dependent origination clearly there is the possibility of understanding how the ego or self exists — as something that is thought to be self-existing or independent but which is actually created by identity with the aggregates and through grasping thereof.

      I also don’t see the difference between unsatisfactoriness and suffering — they are synonyms.

      Holiness is a matter of opinion — depends how much value one places upon truth.

    • Linda on June 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Kos: Here’s what the sutta says (in abbreviated form):

      SN 12.3: “I will teach you the wrong way and the right way… And what is the wrong way? With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness… Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering…” (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation in the Wisdom Pubs “Connected Discourses” p 536)

      “The right way” is stated as “With the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations…”

      It’s not that “DO is the wrong way” — it’s that stating it the first way is the wrong way to be, the wrong way to go; it’s what we normally do without thinking, and that’s the wrong way to behave. The right way is cessation, so obviously that’s the right way to go.

  21. David S on July 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    I think the basis of Buddhist no-self comes out of deep meditative experiences where the sense of self drops out. What to make of this? In Buddhism it seems like these meditative states are taken as more “true” and favorable than daily living, as if the experiences are of another realm that is more desirable, and these experiences are brought back to reflect another way of living daily. But a sense of self is inherent to daily living by how are perceptions are formed. I don’t see any of this being changable. It is how we function and move in the world. We can understand it intellectually that we are temporarily here and yet we will still operate from a point of view minute to minute. So many Buddhist “problems” are not problems for me. Where these beliefs come from I find very interesting and what they mean is fascinating to intellectualize but on average this endless regard to the self being an illusion is simply a one sided argument. The self exists as much as any perception exists. What more do we have?

  22. David S on July 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    I think the basis of Buddhist no-self comes out of deep meditative experiences where the sense of self drops out. What to make of this? In Buddhism it seems like these meditative states are taken as more “true” and favorable than daily living, as if the experiences are of another realm that is more desirable, and these experiences are brought back to reflect another way of living daily. But a sense of self is inherent to daily living by how are perceptions are formed. I don’t see any of this being changeable. It is how we function and move in the world. We can understand it intellectually that we are temporarily here and yet we will still operate from a point of view minute to minute. So many Buddhist “problems” are not problems for me. Where these beliefs come from I find very interesting and what they mean is fascinating to intellectualize but on average this endless regard to the self being an illusion is simply a one sided argument. The self exists as much as any perception exists. What more do we have?

    • Dana Nourie on July 28, 2012 at 10:52 pm

      David, did you by chance read my article call If Not Self, then what?

      Our brains do indeed create a sense of self that is necessary, or we wouldn’t bother taking care of ourselves. Yes, that is necessary. But there is also a selfing process that develops which is purely psychological and changes throughout our lives, depending on influences and how we react to the world.

      The Buddha never said there isn’t a self. What he was pointing was the many impermanent and changing things we *identify through* as self, like the body is in change, gets sick, ages, etc. So, if we come to identify too closely with the body, as many models or sport athletes do, then much suffering arises as things go wrong. Buddha also pointed out that thoughts are not self. He’s isn’t saying your brain is not producing thoughts. The problem arises when we come to closely identify with our thoughts. And so it goes identifying what is not self.

      The psychological process of selfing is also necessary and unavoidable, but it’s how we identify with the way we think of ourselves. If we come to see and understand all of this as dynamic processes that are ever changing, then we don’t lock ourselves into an image that is not going to hold up.

      There is a lot more to it, but I think the teaching of not-self is one of the most misunderstood teachings, which is unfortunate as it’s one of the most testable and valuable, IMHO.

    • Linda on July 29, 2012 at 3:46 am

      “Anatta” doesn’t mean “no self” but means “not-self” (“an” = not, “atta” = self) and the questions the Buddha asks are simply to have us try to look for what we think of as that separate self and see if we can find it. His questions are framed in the concerns and beliefs of his time, in which “atta” was thought to be separate from the body, eternal (survives death), and changeless. There were many popular theories about what this “self” was. “It is the body” said some. The Buddha asks, “Is the body permanent or impermanent?” When the answer comes back, he asks -“Is impermanence a source of happiness or unhappiness?”- It’s clearly the thing that causes most unhappiness in the world — death, loss of love, loss of power, loss of wealth, all these make us unhappy — so when the answer to that question comes back, he asks, -“Is something that is impermanent, that causes unhappiness — is that your self?”-

      “Lather, rinse, repeat” (as they say) with the question: Are our feelings the self? our perceptions? our rituals and habits? (*warning*: that was an inaccurate translation of “sankhara”) How about our consciousness? In MN 1 he gives a comprehensive list of things people thought of as the self — well beyond this classic 5 — and denies that any of them are the self, either, effectively saying, “Any way you might conceive of the self as eternal, separate, and changeless — if you’ll look at it, you’ll find you’re mistaken. He doesn’t say there is no such self, he’s only pointing out that if there is such a thing, we can’t see it, and that what we mistake for self is not eternal, not separate, not changeless.

      Hopefully, as you read the series, you’ll get a sense of what he is describing as “anatta” (that which we mistake for the eternal changeless self) and why it is a problem, and see that he isn’t suggesting we do away with all sense that we have a self, only that we recognize what it is we’re looking at, so that we can more accurately work with it.

    • David S on July 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      Yes, both of your comments Dana and Linda are very well said. In reading your thoughts they add more nuance to the discussion and I do understand it as you do. I just have had trouble with the use of language and the intentions behind it from all the writing and teachers I’ve heard speak of this. As an atheist, born and raised, these issues of the self being impermanent and conditional aren’t troubling nor difficult. I just get tired of all the talk when it seems so obvious to begin with. I only wish when all this talk comes up it was presented with more context and not in such all encompassing statements, and with no regard to the self that exists (contingent as it may be). I take these general Buddhist commentary’s intention to be trying to relativize all experience.

      Why is this the direction?

      Because it helps to know that understanding itself is relative to one’s thoughts, and how we have an opportunity to choose the reactions we have which can be moved towards those that create unity between people and with oneself, etc… It opens the possibility of understanding others. The mind can let go of the cycles of thoughts generating feelings, then generating reactions, which generate thoughts without understanding the cycle. And in meditation relativity can loosen the grip of discourse and settle the mind so it can become concentrated on its object of meditation.

      I love that you are both really being explicit in your understanding what Buddhism is teaching us.

  23. Robert Schenck on September 14, 2013 at 6:20 am

    I really like the clear, understandable, common sense language of this explanation.

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