By Melissa Pilar
So much is misinterpreted about anatta by Easterners and Westerners alike.
The concept of “slaying” the mind may have its roots in Hinduism and Jainism, but Buddhists also adopted it—probably as a result of the hundreds of years between Siddhartha’s death and the first written teachings.
Siddhartha taught methods to work with the mind. He didn’t teach us to work against it or slay it.
Siddhartha’s approach was to slay attachment and aversion to the skandhas; the skandhas themselves are part of being human. These heaps are the fodder, the gold, with which we work.
- Material form or matter: noting the body itself
- Sensations: noting whether they are pleasant, neutral or unpleasant
- Perception: noting our labeling of our experience
- Mental formations: noting conditioning triggered by any concept or process
- Discrimination or discernment: noting the ever present, “Series of rapidly changing interconnected discrete acts of cognizance,” which is often called “consciousness” in the teachings. Yet that word has distinctions in the 21st century that are interesting to consider—I’ll talk about that subject in another article.
Teachings about non-self are often confused by even seasoned practitioners. It’s not that the self is an illusion. The self is non-inherent, ever-changing, only truly existing in each moment.
Right, I come at this from the Yogacara school of Buddhist thought. Even though some think that it espouses reality as an illusion, I would suggest considering that it’s non-inherent and leave it at that.
“Yogacara becomes much better known, not for its practices, but for its rich development in psychological and metaphysical theory.”
Much of Asian Buddhism is about religion, ritual, and belief—including the slaying of the mind—but not all of Buddhism is thus bound. Eastern teaching practices often intentionally make inscrutable what is really easy to grasp when we find the teachings that speak to us. For many of us, experiential rather than mediated methods are more useful.
It really is a minefield, with the pointing to the moon, “Shhh, don’t tell,” crap that permeates some western Zen practices. I much prefer the American Buddhist teachings that make the whole mess eventually much easier to grok with practice and study.
The closest Siddhartha got to limiting the imagination was to discuss cognitive proliferation, or papañca (a.k.a. monkey mind). His methodology was to help quiet the mind so that space opens up for insight to arise within. You will find quotes in which he warns his students not to use their imagination, but at that time he had thousands of untutored disciples following him from place to place; it’s a different world now.
And that brings me to the conceptualizing mind. What did Siddhartha do while sitting under that tree? He quieted his over-conceptualizing. Yet nowhere did he advise people to stop thinking.
On the contrary, he suggested ways to use the mind most efficiently to help people awaken to their true natures, free of conditioning. Much of our conceptual proliferation results from a of lack of focus, overthinking and falling into rumination of past and future events instead of being present.
Siddhartha’s methods were meant to be used analytically to understand the conditioned mind, to free oneself from the hooks and triggers that take us right into conditioned overthinking. Anatta teaches us to look at our conditioned reactions to everything we choose to see as it arises.
Our selves are precious gifts of ever-changing life itself; these bags of bones we drag around are the very life force represented by each of us.
Our challenge, when we accept it, is to use the very stuff of life—the six sense-bases–to penetrate and go beyond the worldly. When grace touches us, maybe we can witness the flash of the ineffable.
All we need do is look with open hearts at what arises; noting it, and moving along with the flow of, “things as is,” as the wise Suzuki-Roshi taught.
Melissa Pilar lives on the northern California coast four hours north of Berkeley. She has worked as a stained glass artisan, a French-trained chef, and a not-for-profit manager. In college at West Virginia University, she studied Theater, Mathematics, and Liberal Arts, and has taken graduate courses in Counseling Psychology and Public Administration. Melissa has studied and practiced the Dharma for over 40 years and has learned from many branches of Buddhism and has once again settled into the teachings of American and Secular Buddhist traditions as a lay practitioner. Her Dharma inspirations are of the Crazy Wisdom traditions: Chogyam Trungpa, Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Chuang Tzu. Her intent is to bridge Eastern practices and methods with Western psychology, philosophy and science in the world of our 21st century Dharma. Her passions include music (particularly loud rock and roll), photography, communication and process theory, swimming and canoeing, mountains, life-long learning, and traveling. Currently, she is training to be a volunteer crisis text line counselor and has dreams of once again opening a stained glass studio.
“I am going to try speaking some reckless words, and I want you to try to listen recklessly.” – Chuang Tzu
Editor: John Author
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