The Dhammapada, verses three & four: “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me…”

The second pair of verses in this chapter have only one story associated with them: the story of Tissa, the stubborn monk.

3. Akkocchi maṁ avadhi maṁ

Ajini maṁ ahāsi me

Ye taṁ upanayhanti

Veraṁ tesaṁ na sammati.

‘”He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” in those who harbor such thoughts hatred is not appeased.”

4. Akkocchi maṁ avadhi maṁ

Ajini maṁ ahāsi me

Ye taṁ na upanayhanti

Veraṁ tesū pasammati.

‘”He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,” in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred is appeased.’

Like the first two verses, these are pretty much self-explanatory. I can definitely say that holding on to negative feelings like anger has never helped me to move on from whatever made me feel that way in the first place. Since I’m a person who hates conflict, getting closure on things that frustrate me has always been difficult. When I was young, I tried to work out negative emotions by complaining to friends and family — what most people call “venting” — but looking back, it rarely helped me actually resolve anything. After a while, what I ended up with was a.) a lot of people who were sick of my whining, and b.) a ton of resentment, bitterness, and toxic feelings way deep down.

A long time ago, I read about a very interesting study on this exact topic. In order to find out what the effects were of different ways of coping with anger, a group of volunteers was subjected to something that made them angry (I don’t remember if the scientists just used insults, or had something more elaborate in place.) After that, they were divided into two groups. Group A was told to sit quietly and try to relax for something like ten minutes. The people in group B, on the other hand, were each given pillows and told to vent their anger by punching or beating on them.

Both groups were then asked to complete a test which consisted of word puzzles. Each word had letters omitted, like this: D _ _ D. When the volunteers filled in the blanks, the group who had sat quietly wrote, for example, “DEED.”, while the group who “vented” their anger wrote “DEAD.” It went on like this: group A’s “MOTHER” for group B’s “MURDER.” “KILT” vs. “KILL.” “SCAB” vs. “STAB.” So the results of the study suggested that venting or blowing off steam doesn’t get rid of anger, it only reinforces it. The same probably goes for all negative emotions. I love it when the Dhamma is borne out by science.

This idea is illustrated in a funny way by the story of Tissa:

‘The Venerable Tissa, proud of being a cousin of the Buddha, did not pay due respect to the senior monks. When they resented his improper conduct, he took offense and, threatening them, went up to the Buddha and made a complaint. The Buddha, who understood the [situation,] advised him to apologize, but the Venerable Tissa was obstinate. The Buddha then related a story to show that Tissa had done likewise in a previous birth. Later, the Venerable Tissa was compelled to seek pardon from the senior monks.”

There are some details missing that I’d like to add here, just for context:

1. Tissa waited to become a monk until he was very old.

2. The “senior monks” in question were probably actually younger than Tissa. Seniority among monks is determined by how long you’ve been a monk, not by how old you are. That might explain why Tissa was so offended by their criticism.

3. Tissa’s reaction was so extreme that when he went to complain to the Buddha, He saw Tissa and said, “Tissa, how is it that you come to me sad and sorrowful, with tears in your eyes, weeping?” We’re talking about an elderly man throwing a tantrum like a small child.

Even though the Buddha Himself told Tissa twice to apologize, Tissa’s only response was, “But they abused me, Reverend Sir. I will not ask their pardon.” I can almost see him making a pouty little face and harumphing to himself, his cheeks all red from bawling his eyes out.

Tissa is an extreme example, but to some extent this is what we all do. Whenever we have an argument with someone, there’s always a small part of us that doesn’t want to admit we’re wrong. We try to justify it to ourselves by nurturing the very thoughts that the Buddha tells us to abandon. We need to learn to let go, not only for the sake of making peace with others, but because hatred is a poison, and it will eat away at you.


The Dhammapada, verse two: “Mind is the forerunner of (all good) states…”

This second verse makes pair with the first. In fact, all the verses in the first section of the Dhammapada are paired, which is where the section gets its name from — the Yamaka Vagga, or Pair Chapter.

Manopubbaṅgama dhammā

Manoseṭṭhā manomayā

Manasā ce pasannena

Bhāsati vā karoti vā

Tato naṁ sukhamanveti

chāyā’va anapāyini.

“Mind is the forerunner of (all good) states. Mind is chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with pure mind, because of that, happiness follows one, even as one’s shadow that never leaves.”

Just as an impure mind precedes all bad behavior, a pure mind precedes all good behavior, which leads to happiness. Even from a materialistic point of view, this is obviously true; as my voice teacher said once, “I try to do the right thing so that I like the person I see in the mirror.” Goodness is definitely its own reward, and there’s nothing better than the contentment that comes from knowing you’ve done the right thing. 

I like the simile of the shadow. Unlike the heavy cart pulled by the ox, your shadow is never a burden. It’s weightless, and it’s with you all the time. In the same way, the good that you’ve done is always with you without weighing you down. 

Just like negative thoughts have a negative effect on the world around you, positive thoughts can be a powerful force for positive change. I think my girlfriend’s story (which I shared in the previous post) illustrates this nicely, but there are plenty of other examples, like the fact that placebos work on patients who believe they’re being treated, the impact that a positive outlook has on the prognoses of the very ill, and even the endorphins released by the brain when we make ourselves smile.

Here’s Nārada Thera’s summary of the story associated with this verse:

“Maṭṭakuṇḍali, the only son of a stingy millionaire, was suffering from jaundice and was on the verge of death because his father would not consult a physician lest some part of his money should have to be spent. The Buddha, perceiving with His Divine Eye the sad plight of the dying boy, appeared before him. Seeing the Buddha, he was pleased, and dying with a pure heart, full of the faith in the Buddha, was born in a heavenly state.”

It’s because his mind was pure at the moment of his passing that Maṭṭakuṇḍali was reborn on a celestial plane, which reflects the essential meaning of the verse well. However, I’m more interested in what this story says about the importance and the purpose of devotion in Theravada Buddhism.

For me, the devotional aspect of traditional Buddhist practice was the most difficult part in the beginning. People prostrate themselves before images of the Buddha, pay homage to Him by reciting his numerous qualities and characteristics, and make offerings of flowers, candlelight, incense, and even food. Because of my American background, this all feels a lot like idol worship.

It still feels strange to even bow before my wall hanging of the Buddha, and I have to constantly remind myself that this is a gesture of respect, rather than one of worship. Now though, with the help of texts like this one, I think I’m finally starting to understand the real point of Buddhist devotion. The Buddha isn’t here anymore, so He doesn’t need worship or offerings. Devotion for us isn’t a means of serving a higher power; the practice of humility and the inspiration that comes from contemplating the One who pointed out the Way for us serve to purify the mind. Devotion isn’t about doing something that affects the world outside, but doing something that affects the world inside.


The Dhammapada, verse one: “Mind is the forerunner of (all evil) states…”

I spoke with Bhante Sumana, the abbott of my monstery, and asked him how I should begin my study of the Buddha’s teachings. He told me that the Dhammapada, a collection of verses attributed to the Buddha, would be a great place to start. This post is the first in a series I would like to do covering the entire Dhammapada from beginning to end. Each entry will begin with the verse in Pāḷi, followed by a translation by Nārada Thera. I’ll also include a summary of the traditional story that accompanies the verse, and be sure to discuss both.

Manopubbaṅgama dhammā,

Manoseṭṭhā, manomayā.

Manasā ce paduṭṭhenā

Bhāsata vā, karoti vā,

Tato naṃ dukkhamanveti

Cakkaṃva vahato padaṃ.

“Mind is the forerunner of (all evil) states. Mind is their chief; mind-made are they. If one speaks or acts with a wicked mind, because of that, suffering follows one, even as the wheel follows the hoof of the draught-ox.”

First, the surface meaning of the verse itself: All corrupt words and actions stem from a corrupt mind. Furthermore, all corrupt words and actions inevitably lead to suffering for (s)he who said or did them. That negative speech and behavior come from negative mental states is obvious enough; if I murder someone, I do it out of anger, hatred, or some other toxic emotion. Afterwards, I experience suffering — an arrest, a trial, a prison sentence, and the burden of living with what I did. But I think the significance of this verse extends beyond that: a bad attitude has an undeniably negative effect on the people and things around you. Someone I know recently told me an interesting story that illustrates this very well:

Junior year was a tough time for my girlfriend. Her mother and stepfather had decided to move to a new part of town, in a new school district, and she had to go with them. She was leaving a lot behind: close friends, beloved teachers, the chance to be first-chair clarinetist in band, and a thousand other things. When she started at her new school, she found the curriculum more demanding; suddenly, she wasn’t top of her class anymore, and for the first time, she had to work to keep up.

Her separation from her friends and from all these things which had come to define her was really difficult, as it would be for anybody. Understandably, she didn’t have a lot of positive things to say about the situation at the time, and she let people know it. For quite a while after moving, she would constantly complain to the new friends she had made that their school was an awful place. They listened patiently for a while, but after hearing the same thing every day for days on end, one friend had had enough.

“Look, I like you a lot. But I have sat here every day listening to you trash a place that love. Maybe if you stopped complaining for once and actually gave this school a chance, things would get better for you.”

My girlfriend’s response to this is something I will always be proud of:

“You know, you’re absolutely right.”

From that moment forward, she made a sincere attempt to see her situation in a more positive light. According to her, it worked. Bit by bit, things got easier. In the end, she says, she actually liked her school. By changing her mind-state, my girlfriend changed her environment. While she cultivated negative thoughts, negativity followed her like a wheel following the hoof of the draught-ox; when she started cultivating positive thoughts, that all changed. Psychology exploits this through self-affirmation, while New Age thought explains it via the Law of Attraction. You get what you give.

Here’s the story, also quoted from Nārada Thera:

“A middle-aged devout person, named Cakkhupāla, became and monk and was energetically leading a contemplative life. As a result of his strenuous endeavor he realized Arahantship (Enlightenment,) the final stage of Sainthood, but unfortunately went blind. One day as he was pacing up and down the ambulatory, he unintentionally killed many insects. Some visiting monks, noticing the blood-stained ambulatory, complained to the Buddha that he had committed the offense of killing. The Buddha explained that the monk had killed them unintentionally and that he was an Arahant.

The monks then wished to know the cause of his blindness.

The Buddha related that in a past birth, as a physician, that particular monk had given an ointment to a poor woman to restore her eyesight. She promised that, with her children, she would become his servant if her eyesight was restored. The physician’s remedy proved effective, but the woman, not willing to keep her promise, pretended that her eyes were getting worse. The cruel physician, yielding to a wicked thought, retaliated by giving her another ointment which blinded her eyes. In consequence of his past evil action the Arahant became blind.”

This reveals another layer of meaning to the verse. It refers not only to the immediate, mundane consequences of impure thought and action, but to the karmic consequences as well. Cakkhupāla had acted impulsively as the physician, and because that impulse was impure, he was karmically repaid in kind. So suffering not only follows you in the present life, but in future lives as well. Again, you get what you give.

I found an elaboration of the story that provides the following important details:

‘In the morning, some bhikkhus visiting the thera found the dead insects. They thought ill of the thera and reported the matter to the Buddha. The Buddha asked them whether they had seen the thera killing the insects. When they answered in the negative, the Buddha said, “Just as you had not seen him killing, so also he had not seen those living insects. Besides, as the thera had already attained arahatship he could have no intention of killing and so was quite innocent.”‘

Assuming that these details are consistent with the story as it was passed down, the verse gains an even richer significance. Besides what it says about karma and the importance of mind state, it makes an important point about Buddhism generally. Namely, the Buddha taught an ethics of intention, rather than a code of morality based on strict adherence to rules and customs. Even though killing is forbidden in Buddhism, it’s only intentional killing that’s considered morally wrong. Because Cakkhupāla crushed the insects unintentionally, his innocence was intact. Immorality is born in the mind first.

That’s a lot of meaning packed into six short lines of old poetry. I can already tell that this Dhammapada study is going to really pay off in terms of deepening my practice. Hopefully I can keep it up, and improve my presentation as I go!



The Kalama Sutta – Faith and doubt

The Pāḷi word of the day is saddhā, which means faith or conviction. In a Buddhist context, I’ve seen it described as “confidence.”

I read a book once — it was either What the Buddha Taught, by Ven. Walpola Rahula, or The Buddha & His Teachings, by Ven. Nārada Mahāthera — where it said that, where there is doubt, there can be no spiritual progress. This stuck with me because I have an unfortunate habit of doubting EVERYTHING — myself, my experiences, my motivations, my beliefs & practices — and I know firsthand what a hindrance it can be, not just to spiritual progress but to ANY kind of progress. It really does interfere with everything.

It’s funny how fragile the human psyche can be. At the time that I was reading that book, I was in the midst of a crisis of faith. An extremely toxic relationship with a sadly misinformed and insensitive person had completely shaken my confidence in the Buddha-Dhamma, and despite all of the positive experiences I had had with Buddhism — including the chance to participate in a beautiful and deeply moving ceremony at my vihara — I wasn’t able to get back on track for almost a year. I knew that meditation was good for me; I knew that going to the vihara would feel good, would give me a sense of comfort and make me feel less alone; but I was just too scared to recommit. “What if I’m wrong?” I thought, “And if I’m wrong, what’s going to happen to me?” What I was lacking was saddhā — confidence in the Buddha and His teachings.

But it’s funny how the universe will sometimes to give you what you need at exactly the right moment.

Maybe a week ago, I had plans to visit Bhante Sumana at the vihara with my friend Allen…only I was planning on canceling. My car’s muffler needed replacing, and I didn’t want to make the forty-minute drive over before having it taken care of; I was exhausted, and lacking the energy to do just about anything except sit in front of the TV; and besides all that, I was still a little gun-shy about even setting foot in the place. Fortunately for me, Allen is a VERY persistent person, as you can clearly see in the following texts

Me : “How would you get home by 4:00?”

Al: “We could be there for like 30 minutes. That’s not too bad.”

Me: “I’m going to wait on going over there until my car is fixed. That sound is getting worse.”

Al: “I could take you.”

All attempts at bailing having been thoroughly thwarted, I finally agreed to go…and it turned out to be the best thing I’d done in weeks.

When we got there, Bhante Sumana was clearly busy with some work around the vihara. All the same, he agreed to answer our questions after he finished what he was in the middle of, asking us to wait in the meditation hall in the meantime. I don’t know what I had expected, but the smell of incense in the air and the feel of the bamboo mats beneath my feet had a soothing effect on me. Out of respect I did the five-point prostration facing the image of the Buddha, picked a cushion out of the pile, and sat down.

It didn’t take long for Bhante Sumana to come and get us. We came out and sat on the couch across from him, and I sat quietly and listened while he answered some of Allen’s questions. Afterwards, Allen went to meditate while I talked to the bhante in private. I didn’t give him all the details of what I had recently gone through, but I told him how living in a Christian culture makes it difficult for me to stay the course. I wanted to know how he managed, as a Sri Lankan Buddhist transplant, to stand firm in such a different culture. This was his response:

‘Everything that I do, everything that I practice, is from my heart.When people say, “You have to believe this, you have to practice this,” I just listen, because I know what is good for me. You are very smart, you can see things clearly. If I take you outside and I point to the moon, and I say, ‘That is the moon,” you know that it is the moon. So if someone comes and says, “No no, that is the sun,” you will just listen, because you know that they are crazy!’

I was immediately reminded of a Pāḷi term used to describe the Buddha’s teachings: ehipassiko, which means, “come and see.” Buddhism is something that invites you, not to believe in it, but to know it through direct experience. I asked him if he thought I just needed to practice a little until I could see some part of the Dhamma for myself, to know it through experience. He said yes.

I was doing some reading on the life of the Buddha yesterday as a means of dipping my toes in the water, and I chanced upon a quotation from the Kalama Sutta, in which an ancient Indian community finds itself in a situation very similar to mine:

The Kalamas who were inhabitants of Kesaputta sitting on one side said to the Blessed One: “There are some monks and brahmans, venerable sir, who visit Kesaputta. They expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Some other monks and brahmans too, venerable sir, come to Kesaputta. They also expound and explain only their own doctrines; the doctrines of others they despise, revile, and pull to pieces. Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks and brahmans spoke the truth and which falsehood?”

This is exactly how I was feeling. Every day you hear preachers from all kinds of faiths and denominations extolling the virtues of their own religions and disparaging others. None of them agree, and all of them claim to be exclusively correct. When the stakes are so high, what is a sincere, spiritually open person to do? It’s enough to paralyze you. I know it paralyzed me. The Buddha understood their confusion, and gave them this simple answer:

Come Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.” Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.

It really is that simple. Religion isn’t about being right or wrong; it’s about being sincere. It’s about following whatever path allows you to be a better person. To borrow a Christian phrase that I particularly like — it’s about walking in love. You’ll know a tree by it’s fruit, right? And when the fruit is this wonderful, how can I resist?


The Adittapariyaya Sutta – The overwhelming world we live in

I was trying to think about what Pāḷi word to introduce today, and I realized I’ve neglected a really basic term: bhikkhu, which means “monk.”

The Adittapariyaya Sutta is the last of the three recorded discourses that the Buddha supposedly gave right after his Enlightenment, and it begins with what has to be one of the starkest opening lines in the history of public speaking:

Bhikkhus, all is burning.

This is the first appearance of a  fire motif that recurs throughout the whole body of Theravada Buddhist scriptures. He elaborates on this theme in the passage that follows:

And what is the all that is burning?

“The eye is burning, forms are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning…whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact…is burning.

He then says the same thing about the ear, and sounds; of the nose, and smells; of the tongue, and tastes; of the body, and tactile sensations; and finally of the mind itself, and of ideas. All these together are referred to in Buddhist parlance as “the six sense bases,” the sense organs that we use to receive and process information (in those days the mind was considered a sense organ, too.) And they’re all burning “… with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.

This would probably be a good time to mention that the Adittapariyaya Sutta is known to most English speakers by another name: “The Fire Sermon.” Yeah, I’ll bet you totally didn’t see that one coming.

Of course, the Buddha is never just a bearer of bad news. As always, he provides a solution to the problem: knowledge. Once you realize what all this sensory stuff really is — just fuel for the fire — it loses its charm, you let it go, and  then…enlightenment!

There’s really a lot to say about this discourse. As the last in the “trilogy” of early suttas, it reflects and compliments both the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta in really interesting ways. I could take this as an opportunity to wax poetic on the aggregates, the Four Noble Truths, dependent co-arising…but instead, I’m just gonna talk about fire.

Every day, from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep (if we fall asleep,) our brains and our bodies are dealing with stimulus. A LOT of stimulus. Even without an actual job, I still spend the majority of my weekday out of the house, driving to and from lessons and doctor’s appointments. When I AM at home, I’m usually doing language exchanges via Skype or practicing music. Other folks are at school or work from nine to five, and all of us, regardless of occupation, need time to eat and sleep, and time to socialize and maintain relationships. With modern technology, even our free time isn’t free; we’re slaves to our phones and our e-mail inboxes. When we do “relax,” we rarely do something restful — instead, we force our brains to process even more data while we surf the net, or bombard them with the chatter of radios and the harsh artificial light of television sets. Sometimes, it really feels like our senses are on fire.

Interestingly enough, the term for the cumulative effect of this constant over-stimulation is “burnout.” When this happens, some people cope with it by just continuing to do whatever it is they’ve always done, hoping that they can power through it. Some people do impulsive things in an attempt to comfort themselves — they start going out every night, they buy a fancy new car, whatever they think might sooth the senses, and give them some pleasure. What they don’t realize is that their senses are the problem. When they see that most of the fuel in the fireplace has been burned up, their first response is to toss on some more kindling and fan the flames. You don’t have to do that, though; in fact, it might actually cause you long-term harm. Buddhism taught me that you can make a totally different choice: you can disengage, even if it’s only for a while.

I know a lot of people who are convinced that they need stimulation and excitement, even a certain level of stress or anxiety, to function. A lot of them are actually uncomfortable with, or outright afraid of, silence. I know; I was one of those kids. They feel safer with what they’ve always done, and their excuse for not giving up all the distractions goes something like, “Yeah, maybe I should do that, but I just can’t do [x] unless I have music playing/the TV on. I need to be multitasking. It helps me avoid such-and-such a problem. If I had to sit totally still or in total quiet, I would go CRAZY.” What they don’t realize is that what they’re doing is ALREADY CRAZY. They’re unwilling to try a little simplicity because they’re used to being in a sensory war zone all the time, and change is scary. They simply don’t know how to be any other way. And I get that. I used to think that I was just made that way, too…until I found out that I’m not.

Throughout my life, there have always been days when I wake up and it seems like every single noise or sensation is splitting my skull open. My concentration is so weak that my decision-making capability almost completely shuts down. I have no interest in interacting with other people. People might tell me I need to relax by watching some TV, playing a game, seeing a movie, listening to music…but somewhere deep down, I know that it won’t help. I used to make myself do something “fun,” thinking that I just needed to loosen up, or distract myself…but no matter how much fun I had, I always woke up the next day feeling just as strung-out as before. Not long ago, while I was going through one of these times, I decided to take a different tack: when I took a day off, I literally took a day “off.” I didn’t have the phone on, so I couldn’t even receive calls or text messages; I hardly used the computer, and when I did, I stayed off of social networks like Facebook; I allowed myself to do things in quiet, without music or TV on in the background; and I meditated. And it felt REALLY GOOD, so I did it again.

When I give myself these days off the grid, I’m not bored to tears; instead, the quiet allows me to find a kind of tranquility that gets drowned out when I fling my sense-doors wide open. Instead of feeling exhausted at the end of the day, I’m full of energy, because I haven’t worn myself out constantly coping with sensory assault. I no longer feel like I need to spend the night recovering from what happened in the afternoon and morning. Unfortunately, I haven’t given myself as much of this kind of time lately — my schedule has gotten intense, and it’ll stay that way for about five more weeks  — and I can feel the difference. But even though I may not have many free days to give myself a full retreat, this experience has still changed the way I do certain things even on normal days. I’ve given up things like having the radio blasting while I shower or trying to sleep with the TV on. More and more often while working on the computer, I’m doing it without having something playing in the background. I’ve also adopted what I think is a really important personal policy: I do not answer the phone between the hours of 9 and 5, except for emergencies. They’re small changes, and they don’t benefit me nearly as a whole day of quiet and reflection would, but I can honestly say that my life is a little calmer and a little happier because of them.

For a long time I felt like there was something wrong with me, that I was either a.) too fragile to handle the stress of the “real world;” or b.) totally unable to let loose and relieve that stress like regular people do. It turns out that the problem actually lies in the way we’ve set up our lives, and the tricks we’ve had to come up with to give us some temporary relief from all the huge mess we’ve made. Thank goodness that my practice has finally led me to a coping strategy that actually works: whenever I’m so fed up with the noise of the world that I just want to flip the board over and quit the game altogether, all I have to do is take refuge in a little silence — it’s maybe the only place where the heart really has time to heal.


The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta — Thoughts on, and experiences with, “not-self”

The Pali word of the day is atta, which I’ve seen translated as “self,” “soul,” or “ego.”

I did it again. I started working on this entry with a grand scheme in mind: I  would lay out a concise explanation of all the sutta’s important concepts, with everything broken down and organized in a way that elegantly supported my personal interpretation. After about three full drafts, not to mention numerous false starts, I realized I was on a wild goose chase…so instead of a clever commentary on one of the most important texts in Buddhism, you’re getting another pageful of feelings. You’re welcome.

Tradition states that the second discourse the Buddha gave was the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta (The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic) The subject was atta, which scholars often translate as “self,” “soul,” or “ego” — and in his opinion, we don’t have one. Instead, he says everything is characterized by anatta — “not-self,” “no-soul,” or “egolessness.”

…wait, what? No-soul?

I know, that was my reaction too. I thought, “If there’s no soul, how does rebirth work? After an enlightened person dies, what happens to them? Is the goal of Buddhism to just disappear?” It turns out that I wasn’t alone; people have been arguing about what this sutta means for over 2,500 years. Here’s what it says in a nutshell:

The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta breaks down the material world and human experience into five parts, called aggregates:

1. Form, which includes your body and any object you come in contact with.

2. Feeling, which is the sensation you get through contact with that object — either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

3. Perception, which is the act of recognizing or labeling the object.

4. “Fabrications”, which refers to how you react to the object — whether you like it, dislike it, or couldn’t care less about it.

5. Consciousness, which isn’t actually a separate thing. It can only exist if the other four aggregates are there.

None of these things, the Buddha says, are “self,” “soul,” or “ego.” Furthermore, what we call a person is just a composite of the five aggregates, which are constantly in flux…so that means that people don’t have “selves,” “souls,” or “egos” either. This totally threw me for a loop. Only after a week-long existential crisis and a ton of reading did I figure out that, at least for me, it boils down to a translation issue.

In the course of his explanation, the Buddha gives us his definition of atta, one which was probably widely-held in his time: atta simply refers to anything  that 1.) never changes, 2.) is under our complete control, and 3.) doesn’t lead to suffering. He’s not even talking about what we would call a “soul.” Once I understood this, I was able to read more deeply without fear. What I found was really inspiring.

As a person with a physical disability, what the Buddha had to say about form resonates with me:

“…form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

“…how do you conceive it: is form permanent or impermanent?” — “Impermanent, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent painful or pleasant?” — “Painful, venerable Sir.” — “Now is what is impermanent, what is painful since subject to change, fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this is I, this is my self'”? — “No, venerable sir.” 

A lot of people are desperate to stay young, strong, and in control of there bodies forever. They do whatever they can to ward off the effects of aging or illness, but aging and illness always come…and when they do, the person in question feels that they’re losing a part of who they are. They look in the mirror, and they see “someone else.”

I can relate to that, but only partially. For better or for worse, even in my teens I never had the sense that I was invincible; I knew that I was weaker than other people, and I never had the kind of control over my own body that other people took for granted anyway. There was a time that I was too young to know better, but after a while I started looking around at my friends and family, how they moved and the things they could do, and I felt there was something wrong with “me.”

But according to the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, my body is not my self. That means that what it is or isn’t, what it does or doesn’t do, inevitably effects me…but it doesn’t define who I am. After thinking about this, I started to wonder, “If bodily form is not the self, then what does that say about bodily pain?” I decided to do an experiment.

On Wednesday afternoon I was scheduled to receive Botox injections in my calves, my upper leg, and my hip. I had already done it twice before: the first time I was really young, and the pain was unbearable. The experience was so traumatizing that, when they proposed doing it again years later, I only agreed on the condition that I be anesthetized. I never wanted to feel that that way again. This time, however, I would go through it without anesthesia or sedatives. I wanted to be as aware and present as possible.

The thought that I held onto while I waited for the injections was “The body will feel pain, but you’ll be fine. Just observe.” Sure enough, once I let go of the idea that this uncomfortable thing was “happening to me,” I could cope. In five minutes the procedure was over — and the agony I remembered from childhood didn’t have any power over me anymore. I sat  up and marveled at the fact that, although the form hadn’t changed — same equipment, same process — the feeling had. I won’t lie, I laughed a little. When I reflected on my other Botox experiences, I realized that I had spent all those years running, not from the pain itself, but from an idea ABOUT the pain — a fabrication that came from my perception of the procedure as a child. In the intervening decade and a half, all of these things had changed. That afternoon at the hospital made me realize something important:

Anatta doesn’t mean that we’re nothing. It means that we can be anything.

If I had defined myself by that past experience, the sensation of pain that came with it, the way I understood what had happened to me, the way I felt about it afterwards — if I had been too attached to who “I” was back then, this new experience would have constituted an identity crisis. Instead, I recognized that my identity isn’t bound up with any of these five things, and that I’m not a slave to who I’ve been or what’s happened to me in the past.

From moment to moment, I have a choice. I have the power to decide who I want to be.


The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta — First impressions

 The Pāḷi word of the day is dhamma, which corresponds to the Sanskrit dharma, and basically means “the way things are.”

I thought a discussion of the Buddha’s first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion” in Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation,) would make an ideal first post for this blog. I was so excited to craft a thoughtful essay on the sutta, its context, and its meaning…but the harder I tried to tackle it with my intellect, the more artificial and disingenuous my writing got. I really wished that I had the ability to explain, intelligently and fluidly, how much this sutta means to me, the richness and the power of it. Then I remembered a quote from one of Access to Insight’s articles on how to read the suttas: “…it is the heart that is to be transformed by these teachings, not the intellect.” So I’m going to try something else: total sincerity.

I’ve spent a couple of days reading the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta in different translations, trying to get as familiar as possible with it. After all, it’s a written record of the Buddha’s very first teaching, the first expression of some of the most fundamental Buddhist ideas. I wanted it to become a part of me, to change me from the inside, and I thought that I could accomplish that by devouring the text. I do think it was a good thing to do, but no matter what, the words just didn’t jump off the page. It somehow didn’t feel real to me.

Tonight I gave it another shot, using the above-mentioned article as a guide. This time I wanted to keep the setting in mind. According to the sutta’s opening lines, the Buddha delivered this discourse to a group of five ascetics in the deer park at Isipatana, near Varanasi. I looked it up, and sure enough, Isipatana is a real place — it’s become a major destination for Buddhist pilgrims, and deer still live there in an area behind one of the monastery buildings. I found some photographs, and I tried to paint a picture in my head: the teacher seated in front of five attentive young men, surrounded by the same lush greenery and charming animals I saw in the pictures. I thought to myself, “These were real people, speaking to one another in a real place.”

I remembered that when I was a child I loved to read, but I loved being read to even more. My parents would act out the stories with their voices, and I was able to relax, listen, and let my imagination go to work. I wondered if listening to the sutta might give me a similar experience, so I found a recording of it on It was discouraging to find out that hearing the text spoken didn’t really affect me the way I’d hoped; it just sounded like words being read off of a page, rather than a real story. Finally, as per the ATI article’s recommendation, I decided to read it out loud myself. “This helps in several ways,” the article assured me. “It encourages you to read every single word of the sutta, it trains your mouth to use right speech, and it teaches your ears how to listen to Dhamma.” It sounded corny, but what did I have to lose?

It’s hard to explain what happened to me when I read the text aloud. I tried to read naturally, using the same inflections I would use in everyday speech. Suddenly, the sutta’s opening words — “I have heard that on one occasion…” — didn’t sound like a formulaic introduction anymore. It sounded like the “Once upon a time…” that began all of my favorite childhood fairy tales. The Buddha didn’t sound like a college professor presenting systematic arguments on a slide with bullet points; instead, what I heard was a thoughtful and methodical teacher trying to explain something profound and important in the gentlest and most accessible way he could. Somewhere around the line, “And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving,” I was starting to tear up. The Buddha’s style of teaching wasn’t motivated by an obsession with logic and organization, but by compassion for his audience.

Generally, whenever I used to reach the part where the Buddha describes how his understanding of the Four Noble Truths grew gradually, unfolding into what he describes as a “three-round, twelve permutation knowledge,” I found it hard to maintain focus. The division of the Four Truths into these three stages of knowledge always seemed so OCD to me. This time was different. Hearing my own voice, and imagining the voice of the Buddha, I read:

‘This is the noble truth of stress.’ Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended.’ Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before:’ This noble truth of stress has been comprehended.’

I immediately felt that I had misunderstood the structure of this passage, and the three similar ones following it. This is no anal-retentive diving and subdividing of ideas. This is the description of an experience familiar to anybody who’s passed sleepless nights wrestling with a difficult problem, whether it’s personal or theoretical: the recognition of the problem, and the desire to tackle it; the struggle to solve it; and finally, the elated feeling that comes with knowing you’ve finally figured it out.

With this still in mind, I reached the last part of this section of the sutta:

But as soon as this — my three-round, twelve-permutation knowledge & vision concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be — was truly pure, then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its deities, Maras & Brahmas, with its contemplatives & brahmans, its royalty & commonfolk. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.'”

The epiphany in the last line — Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is no further becoming – jumped out at me. The Buddha had realized that, after giving up everything he loved — his wife, his child, his family and friends — and struggling for six years to find a way to alleviate the suffering and unhappiness that lies at the root of all existence, he had actually done it. I can’t imagine the relief he must have felt, knowing that the sacrifices he had made weren’t for nothing, or the joy of knowing that the battle was won, and that he was finally free. What had previously seemed a dull moment in a dull exposition, the period at the end of a very, very long sentence, had suddenly bloomed into a beautiful moment of human triumph.

According to the sutta itself, hearing this teaching leads one of the ascetics, Kondañña, to attain the first stage of awakening; it goes on to describe the cosmic effects of this event, how the universe shakes and radiates a beautiful light as all the devas rejoice, but it doesn’t end there. It says that the Buddha exclaimed “So you really know, Kondañña? So you really know?”

Exclaimed? For some reason, the idea of the Buddha — the very model of tranquility and equanimity — exclaiming something seemed odd to me. Then I remembered a passage from another sutta, which described the Buddha’s encounter with the Ajivaka Upaka, whom he met while he was on his way to deliver the first discourse to the five ascetics. Upaka could tell there was something special about him. He wanted to know who the Buddha’s teacher was. The Buddha took this opportunity to tell Upaka who he really was — a Tathagata who had realized the goal without a teacher.

“‘From your claims, my friend, you must be an infinite conqueror.’

‘Conquerors are those like me who have reached fermentations’ end. I’ve conquered evil qualities, and so, Upaka, I’m a conqueror.’

“When this was said, Upaka said, ‘May it be so, my friend,’ and — shaking his head, taking a side-road — he left.

(Ariyapariyesana Sutta, or “The Noble Search”)

A phrase from the narration of the PBS documentary The Buddha sprung to my mind: “On his first attempt to teach, the Buddha had failed.”

What did the Buddha feel when Upaka walked away? Did he feel that, by not being able to give Upaka the gift of the Dhamma, and of happiness, he had failed him? I had previously read the phrase “So you really know, Kondañña? So you really know?” as though the Buddha were a kind of clinical observer, or being critical — “Do ya get it, Kondañña? You’re sure? You’re POSITIVE?” But when I read it tonight, I heard in my head a voice full of nervous excitement. It’s not a skeptical voice, or even the voice of a teacher. This is an anxious and hopeful voice, the voice of someone who yearns for a sincere “Yes”…and, after hearing it, utters a cry of joy.

There’s one other thing I think is curious about this scripture: at the very end of the sutta, we discover that this isn’t just the story of a sermon or lecture; it’s actually a kind of just-so story. It’s the story of how Kondañña got the name Añña Kondañña — “Kondañña-Who-Knows.”

So at the end of the night, the simple exercise of reading aloud had totally changed my relationship with this discourse. It’s not just a series of lists, or a long explanation of lofty concepts. It’s at once cosmic and human drama, a fable, and the story of living, breathing people. By the time I was done with my reading, I had been touched deeply by the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. It makes me want to have a better understanding of its contents. It makes me want to read other suttas, and explore the Buddha’s teachings further. More than anything else, it makes me want to be like Kondañña — it makes me want to be someone who knows.