By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
The waif, barefoot in her long, flannel nightgown, padded plaintively to where her grandfather sat, in front of the fireplace, reading by the light of a single small lamp. His old black dog was in the room too, but she couldn’t see him, just smell him. Only 15 years old, she precociously examined her world through the lens of someone who was raised Buddhist by a grumpy old man.
She crawled into his lap and snuggled her face into his thick sweater, which smelled like stale marijuana smoke for as long as she could remember. He put down his book and wrapped his big, strong arms around her, and pulled him close to her.
“Grandpa,” she mumbled into the rough wool, “what’s no-self?”
He chuckled and kissed her fondly on the top of her head. “It only means that you’re a worthless piece of shit, sweetheart.”
Now here’s a puzzler: what do the Buddhists mean by “no-self?”
It’s life’s most important lesson of all, that’s what.
Out of all the world’s religions and belief systems, Buddhism is unique in one extremely important aspect: it believes that human beings, in spite of all their desperate hopes and dreams to the contrary, have no permanent “self” or “soul” that will persist past death. The Buddha never said that there is no such thing as a self, or identity. It’s just that it changes and is impermanent.
And when you die, it dies.
Notice that I didn’t say that there is no afterlife. Whatever happens at the end of life, I refuse to speculate about. I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re all going to be dealt the same hand from the same deck. People who say they know are only cowards. Your doubts and fears are no different from anyone else’s.
It is the height of arrogance and solipsism to believe that the world cannot go on without you.
That being said, just touching the hem of anatta (the Pali word for “no-self,” “not-self,” “no-soul,” or however you want to translate it) is liberation in a very real sense. It isn’t just a philosophical concept, a stand to take with regard to how you imagine the universe works. No-self is directly applicable to life in the 21st Century—perhaps especially in the 21st Century.
You won’t find this translation of anatta into karma (action) anywhere else, because most people who chased the butterfly and write about Buddhism have never done an honest year’s work in their lives, much less on behalf of humanity—especially monks, but also dipshits in Birkenstocks down at the Shambala Center.
But I have. Every Marine knows what anatta is, even if they’ve never heard the word.
Once you dispense with the delusion that you are not the center of the universe (not even your own universe) where do you go? Up the middle, of course.
Buddhism is the “middle way” between religiosity and nihilism. Nothing about the world changes when the light bulb goes on over your head, that is, that you’re nothing but an insignificant speck of dust; through understanding this concept, you are paradoxically empowered to be an instrument of positive change in the world.
Here’s a baby step toward digging anatta: who were you before your first child was born, and who were you after? You changed, didn’t you? You changed a lot. This illustrates the impermanence of your ego, your identity, the way you relate to the world and especially to the new child in your life. Those changes are permanent—until the little bastards go to college and you have your life back.
Your paradigm shift as a result of becoming a parent is away from your personal needs and toward those of someone small and helpless.
Ideally, a baby knits a couple into a family. “I” becomes “we.” See? You already know what no-self means.
Suppression of the ego means humility, while at the same time shifts the emphasis of your life away from yourself. It’s gotta go somewhere, and, again ideally, you have a place or places where your life’s energies can better be invested: toward family, community and even toward the greater good, globally.
Again, a smallish example: a no-self self would consider doing a year of service before or after college. Looks good on the resume, plus you’ve actually, really done something to contribute to world peace—-something the Buddhists blab about a lot, and don’t really do anything about.
Anatta means putting yourself in perspective, and by doing so, you realize that the roles you play in your family, workplace, and community are more important than you are.
You begin to appreciate the interconnectedness of all things.
Without a soul to fret over, or karma to build up, you could choose to live a hopeless, selfish, dissipated life, and think only of yourself. And by choosing that route, you will never find satisfaction.
The world is full of people like this. America is especially full of people like this. You can easily spot them—they whine and complain a lot. Hey, America, NOBODY CARES about your personal problems.
Or you can choose to be no-self and live a life motivated by the good you can do in the world. If you want a happy self, that’s the route to take, and it’s easier when you realize that you aren’t any more important than anybody else.
And if it turns out that you do have a soul, then anatta and compassion has done it a whole lot of good.
Anatta is how you kill your own desires, cravings and attachments, which leads to minimal suffering in your life, even if you have a good excuse to suffer. You’re not so important. Are you in pain? The only people who are really interested in your pain are you and the pharmaceutical companies. When you meditate, you meditate for strength.
Translate “I have pain” into “there is pain.”
When it is time for you to die, anatta gives you a fearless death, because the last decision you’ll ever make is that clinging to life is futile.
Why did I say that every Marine knows the meaning of anatta?
Because anatta is drilled into them from the moment they step off the bus at Parris Island or MCRD, San Diego. They’re stripped naked, and their hair is cut off, all the while their saviors yell into their ears that they’re worthless pieces of shit. And then they turn them into the world’s best warriors—but they never forget that they are worthless pieces of shit.
They are not like the guys on either side of them who become their buddies. Their buddies’ lives are the most valuable things in their purview. Their survival depends on their buddy’s survival. Unfortunately, not everybody survives.
The Marine ethos, shared by Buddhists who truly understand anatta, and every mother who ever spat a brat out of her uterus, and lots of brave other-directed people, is that the ultimate act of love would be to lay down their lives for another.
Hell, even Jesus said that.
Luckily, most of them don’t have to. But can you see how liberating it is to develop the kind of mindset that sees self-sacrifice as the source of their abiding happiness?
It takes a shrunken ego to do that.
One last word about the no-self thing: when you don’t take yourself so seriously, you’re not so easy to have your feelings hurt. Also, you laugh more.
Editor: Dana Gornall