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The Buddha's Teachings On Not-Self

The Buddha's key teachings on not-self (anatta) are found in the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta. In it, he examines the five aggregates that constitute a person:

  1. Form (the body)
  2. Feeling
  3. Perception
  4. Mental formations
  5. Consciousness

For each aggregate, he argues that if it were truly part of the self, one should be able to control it. But since we can't control these aggregates (e.g. the body ages and gets sick despite our wishes), they must be not-self. He instructs monks to contemplate each aggregate and realize "This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self."

Section: 1, Chapter: 5

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

Vipassana Meditation - Seeing Reality Clearly

Vipassana meditation, also known as insight meditation, aims to give the meditator insight into the true nature of reality, defined in Buddhism as the "three marks of existence":

  1. Dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness)
  2. Anicca (impermanence)
  3. Anatta (not-self)

By observing the contents of the mind with clarity, the meditator comes to see the pervasiveness of these three marks. In particular, anatta, the realization that there is no fixed, permanent self, is considered crucial for liberation from suffering but is very difficult to grasp intellectually without meditation practice.

Section: 1, Chapter: 2

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

Emotions Assign "Essence" To Perceptions

The Buddhist idea of emptiness (shunyata) points to the way we implicitly assign "essences" to perceived objects, as if they had inherent characteristics independent of our minds. For example, we may experience a particular person as annoying, as if "annoying-ness" was an objective attribute of the person.

Cognitive science suggests these essences are actually constructed by the mind by unconscious affective judgments. These emotional valences then get projected onto the thing itself, so it seems to be inherently pleasant, unpleasant, desirable, repulsive, etc.

Mindfulness practice may lead to experiencing things as "empty" of essence by weakening this automatic affective labeling. As fleeting feelings of attraction and aversion get noticed as such and disentangled from perceptions, the world seems more neutral and fluid, less full of fixed, independent things to react to.

Section: 1, Chapter: 11

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

Tanha - The Thirst That Binds

A core teaching of early Buddhism is that the root of suffering is tanha, usually translated as "craving" or "thirst." This is the mind's basic restlessness and discontent, its compulsive grasping after pleasant experiences. The Buddha's formula of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada) traces how tanha arises:

  1. Our six senses (including mind) contact objects and experiences
  2. This contact gives rise to feeling tone - pleasant, unpleasant or neutral
  3. Based on feeling tone, tanha manifests as craving and aversion
  4. Craving and aversion condition clinging, grasping and becoming
  5. Grasping and becoming lead to suffering and dissatisfaction

The way to freedom, then, is to see clearly how tanha operates and learn to let go of it. When pleasant or unpleasant feelings arise, we can observe them without getting caught in reactivity. Over time, this weakens tanha's hold on the mind, leading towards nirvana - the "unbound," unconditioned state.

Section: 1, Chapter: 14

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

Emptiness And Connection

Some Buddhists object to descriptions of meditative insight as revealing that "all is one," arguing this contradicts the core doctrine of emptiness (shunyata). If there are no truly existing, independent things, how can they be one?

But the author suggests this distinction may be more semantic than substantive. Emptiness points to the thorough interdependence (pratitya-samutpada) of all phenomena - how everything arises in dependence on everything else, lacking "inherent existence." And this radical interconnectedness could also be described as a deep unity or oneness.

Experientially, those who describe "becoming one with everything" in meditation seem to be pointing to the same basic insight - a falling away of the usual sense of separation between self and world, revealing a more intimate, less differentiated field of experience. The same basic realization may just be expressed through different metaphysical frameworks and vocabularies.

Section: 1, Chapter: 13

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

The Matrix as a Metaphor For Buddhist Enlightenment

The movie The Matrix serves as an apt metaphor for the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. In the movie, the character Neo is given a choice - remain in his dream world (the Matrix) or take the red pill to "see how deep the rabbit hole goes" and wake up to reality, even if it is painful. Similarly, Buddhist meditation aims to pierce the veil of delusion and see the world as it really is, not as our minds distort it to be. Many Western Buddhists felt The Matrix captured their own transition from delusion to wisdom through meditation.

Section: 1, Chapter: 1

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

The Modular Mind - There Is No Single Self In Control

According to the modular model of the mind favored by modern evolutionary psychology, the mind is composed of many different sub-parts or "modules" that evolved to solve specific problems, like finding mates or avoiding predators.

However, there is no single "self" module that coordinates all the others - control of the mind is decentralized among them. Whichever modules are strongest in the moment direct our thoughts and behaviors. As author Robert Kurzban puts it, "we have every reason to believe that the brain is a confederation of modules, and that 'self' is not some all-powerful executive calling the shots."

This fits with the Buddhist idea of not-self - that the intuitive sense of being a singular, controlling self is actually an illusion. It arises because the module that "wins" and directs our present actions also weaves a plausible story to explain its actions to others. We then identify with and believe this story of self.

Section: 1, Chapter: 6

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

The Spectrum Of Not-Self

The author argues there is a spectrum of "not-self" experiences that can arise in meditation, gradually weakening our usual self-identification:

  1. Observing that you don't have as much control over your thoughts and reactions as you imagined. They seem to arise on their own, governed by habit and conditioning.
  2. Noticing thoughts and feelings as passing phenomena in awareness, without "buying into" them or taking them to be "you." Seeing them as "events" rather than "me" or "mine."
  3. Experiencing sensations without mentally labeling them, so perceptions become more vivid and intimate, less mediated by concepts of subject and object.
  4. Glimpsing how the sense of being a separate self is a mental construction, not an inherent reality. Resting in an open, expansive awareness prior to the self-other divide.
  5. Realizing all experience arises within and as awareness, so boundaries between "inside" and "outside," "self" and "world" are conceptual rather than absolute.

Section: 1, Chapter: 13

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

Enlightenment And The Scientific Worldview

While Buddhism and science are distinct traditions with different methods, the author argues they converge in presenting a model of reality at odds with our intuitive, everyday experience.

Science, for instance, tells us that tables and trees are mostly empty space - tiny particles held together by invisible forces, in constant motion and flux. Physics and neuroscience suggest that colors, sounds and other sensations don't exist "out there," but are constructions of the brain.

Similarly, Buddhist contemplatives report that on close examination, the seemingly solid, independent self dissolves into a flowing stream of sensations, thoughts and impressions, all "empty" of inherent existence. The world appears as a seamless, luminous display of interdependent appearances, like a rainbow or a mirage.

In both cases, penetrating beneath the surface of ordinary perception reveals a more subtle, fluid, insubstantial reality.

Section: 1, Chapter: 15

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

From Meditative Bliss To Everyday Enchantment

While intensely pleasurable meditative states known as jhanas can sometimes arise with concentration meditation, mindfulness meditation aims more for a clear seeing of reality that can permeate daily life off the cushion. This may involve:

  • Greater presence and sensory vividness. Colors seem brighter, sounds more vivid, food more flavorful. There is a childlike freshness to perceptions.
  • Reduced attachment and aversion. With a less self-referential perspective, there is less of a feeling of "what's in it for me" or "what does this mean about me" in response to experiences. Things can be appreciated for what they are.
  • More openness to both pleasant and unpleasant feeling tones without getting caught up in narrative thoughts about them. Difficult emotions pass through more fluidly.
  • Insights into the constructed, dreamlike nature of experience that create a sense of spaciousness and choice in how to respond.

While peak experiences on retreat may come and go, a more continuous "quiet joy" and intimacy with life can suffuse everyday experience with disciplined practice.

Section: 1, Chapter: 4

Book: Why Buddhism Is True

Author: Robert Wright

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