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

EDIT: I should have provided the link to the translation I’m using so that people can read the source material. Here it is: I should also define dhamma , since I left it untranslated: The Pali word dhamma 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.