By John Author
Welcome, friends and lovers, to the final entry in the Anatta Series. This article desperately tries to tie the whole room together.
Anatta, emptiness, or dependent arising is the central teaching in Buddhism. It’s outrageously difficult to transmit to the secular mind—the “So what?” mind of gain and loss, right angles, and practicality. It’s so challenging that I seldom see it talked about in secular circles. Sometimes I fear that it’s an endangered teaching, on the verge of going the way of karma, rebirth, and samsara.
Unlike those teachings, anatta is integral to Buddhism.
Without it, there’s really no Buddhism at all. So this column, this series, isn’t just the ramblings of a Buddhist lunatic, but of a passionate student fighting to keep the most precious teaching alive and well in a society that doesn’t have time for it. Alright, now that the preamble’s out of the way, let’s give this a try.
BuddhaSutra.com has 516 suttas and sutras available. Five hundred and sixteen! That’s not counting the texts that haven’t been translated into English yet, the incalculable commentaries, and the stand alone books written by Buddhist authors. I could probably spend every second of my life reading Buddhist literature without nearing its end.
This mind-boggling amount of information gives me pause when I’m asked, “Where do I start?” Unlike some radical “Burn your books” Buddhists, I think that study is just as vital as meditation. By study, I mean the actual suttas and sutras, not just modern works.
It’s vital because when we talk about the Buddha, we’re actually talking about these scriptures. It’s been 2500 years since Siddhartha died so, for us, he lives in these pages. I also feel that, if studied in the right frame of mind, these books can “sub in” for a flesh and blood teacher.
All that said, the scriptures are just information.
They are teachings that point to other teachings—the teachings found in day-to-day life. In actuality, everything teaches the Buddhadharma because everything is shaped by the same natural laws; everything is a sutra.
There’s the Bad Day at Work Sutra, the Moss Growing on a Rock Sutra, the Bouncy Ball Sutra—the Lunar Sutra. So when someone asks, “Where do I begin?” I think of the moon.
The moon is a real life example of everything found in the scriptures.
Throughout billions of lives and incalculable thoughts and feelings, the moon has sat in the sky flowing through its phases without a thought. Those who’ve seen it are all part of a moon viewer lineage that’s millions of years old. The ancient Chinese considered it a symbol of enlightenment and equanimity, of wisdom and dignity.
Like everything else, the moon is shaped by anatta—dependent arising. Wisdom is having insight into the Dharma, the natural laws that mold each particle of dust, each person, each galaxy. These laws are us, and they transcend us (note, the Dharma is pretty much the Buddhist equivalent to the Tao).
The moon teaches impermanence as it treks across the sky; it teaches balance as its near and far sides alternate between full and new. It teaches interdependence—influencing the earth and shielding it from space junk. It is also influenced by the earth and, without our little planet, it might’ve wandered away—crashing into Mars or being decimated by the asteroid belt.
If there were no earth, there would be no moon. If there were no moon, there would be no earth.
This orbiting mineral ball, my eyes, and mind are nodes or links that come together to form a circuit, a chain of dependent arising. This chain makes up what we call “the moon.” If any of these links disappear, the moon disappears. No minerals? No moon. No eyes? No moon. No mind? No moon.
There’s no moon apart from the pieces, the moon is an experience of these pieces coming together in a beautiful, moment by moment, dance of dependent arising.
Those are just a few of the links that come together and become the moon—really there are thousands and thousands of links stretching across time and space. Those links also depend on other links and other causes and conditions.
That’s the gist of anatta: everything is made up of links in a chain, and each chain is a link in another chain. By this law, each thing is dependent on and reflected in everything else. There’s no objective, absolute moon apart from these interdependent links. This is the Dharma. This is what we’re supposed to experience and pay attention to through mindfulness and meditation.
Everything I am, and everything I make you out to be, is a cookie cutter still frame of a boundless process.
For this process, there’s no birth and no death, no coming or going, no sickness or old age, no suffering thus no need to end suffering. Each moment is brand new. So anatta doesn’t mean that there’s no self, it means that the self is an expression of this process—the same way that moon is an expression of impermanence, balance, and interdependence.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”