By Johnathon Pendall
First off, I’d like to thank Strib for his great column on anatta.
Not-self, non-self, no-self, etc. is an incredibly vast subject. Strib touched on the impermanence aspect of anatta. Inspired, I’m now picking up the torch and running with it to other spots on the map.
Like Strib said, anatta isn’t just an idea. Most aspects of Buddhist wisdom come from spacious clarity. That’s one of the things that sets Buddhist philosophy apart from other schools. Instead of a concept leading to insight, which is the case for most philosophies, that process is reversed in Buddhism.
So before I start gabbing about anatta, I’d like to give a formal middle finger wagging to all the Western Buddhists who disparage Buddhist philosophy. What you call “philosophy” is actually Right View—one of the most important aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Alright, now that I’ve got that out of my system I can rant about lineage.
Lineage is familiar to most Buddhists. The teachings and practices have been passed down from teacher to student for generations. Yet, lineage is also much more than that; it is a fundamental facet of reality. We are lineage-beings.
Let’s play a game.
Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind. I’m going to write a word, and I want you to let yourself feel the meaning of the word. Let yourself respond to the word. Deep breath, clear mind. Deep breath, clear mind.
Happiness: If you didn’t feel anything, then rinse and repeat.
What we feel is not unique to us. What we feel isn’t owned by us; it is communal property.
The feeling you felt while reading that word (Happiness) is similar, if not identical, to what other readers felt. We’re all unique, but most human brains use the same template (Happiness). This is especially true for instinctual phenomena like emotions.
Let’s do it again. Take a few deep breaths and clear your mind. Deep breath, clear mind. Deep breath, clear mind…
Sorrow. Feel it, connect with it, roll around in it. Sorrow. You see, this is why compassion and wisdom are conjoined twins. Sorrow. All of us who felt happiness and sorrow just now are part of the same lineage; we’re a family. Each of us who’ve felt happiness or sorrow in our lives is part of a lineage. A lineage that includes all beings who’ve felt happiness and sorrow throughout space and time.
The memories and symbols behind my emotions may differ from yours, but the foundation is the same. Happiness is happiness, sorrow is sorrow. These feelings aren’t even strictly human.
Other animals, especially mammals, have feelings too. Happiness, sorrow, love, hate, longing, satisfaction, comfort, discomfort and most anything you can think of are shared by us all, even by non-humans.
If I stub my toe and feel the shooting pain, then I’m part the toe-stubbed lineage—a lineage stretching all the way back to the first stubbed toe. I could go back in time to the first toe-stubber and she or he would know exactly how I feel.
If someone I love dies and I’m overcome with grief, then I’m in the lineage of grief. I am a brother to all those who are grieving, and all those who have grieved throughout history. If I marvel at a sunset, then I’m part of the marvelous sunset lineage. If I have an orgasm, then I’m part of the orgasm lineage.
When I breathe my last breath, I will be part of the death lineage—a lineage as old as life itself.
Anatta’s catchphrase is, “Not me, not mine.” All that’s impermanent is, “Not me, not mine.” This extends to all degrees of anatta, including the universality of emotions. “This sorrow is not me nor mine. This is sorrow is known by many.” “This happiness is not me nor mine, this happiness is known by many.”
Thus we don’t own what we feel because it’s impermanent, and it’s common ground. Even these words I’m using aren’t mine. You also know and use these words, so they’re yours too. You and I are part of a language lineage. The ability to perceive things isn’t mine since you can also perceive things. That means we’re also part of a lineage of perception stretching all the way back to the first life form that perceived.
The eventualities of life: birth, decline, old age, death, not getting or losing what we enjoy, encountering what we don’t enjoy, and clinging/craving the skandhas are all ancient lineages that we take part in. All living beings are connected through these lineages, they are our common ground. They’re another reason why selflessness is said to be the true nature of the self.
I’ve never read what I’m trying to convey here in a Buddhist text, but it is definitely Buddhist to me.
In the rest of this series, I’ll touch on more traditional Buddhist dimensions of anatta such as interdependent arising, mind-only and Buddha-Nature.
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.”