Buddhism is famous for its so-called ‘non-self’ (anatta) doctrine; ‘Emptiness’ – you read it everywhere. So, who’s ‘experiencing’ are we exploring? Who gets awakened? Let me say that this writer assumes you are a person, and that all this talk about growth, development, death, sickness, old age and awakening pertains to you as an individual. Enlightenment is a change in a person. I’ve translated the following ‘sutta’ to demonstrate that the Nikāya Buddha was clear about this.
The Burden (Samyutta Nikāya 22.22; PTS: S iii.25)
Translated by Christopher J. Ash
In Sāvatthi, the Flourishing One said: “Listen, Practitioners. I will point out the burden, the one who bears the burden, the taking up of the burden, and the laying down of the burden.” They were attentive.
“And, what, Practitioners, is the burden? It has to be said: the five sentient processes as clung-to. Which five? Form-process clung to, feeling-tone-process clung to, perception-process clung to, intentionality-process clung to, consciousness-process clung to. Just this, Practitioners, is called the burden.
“And who carries the burden? The person, it has to be said – the venerable one of such-and-such a name, and such-and-such a community. Practitioners, the person is called the carrier of the burden.
“And, what is: ‘taking up the burden’? Thirst, bringing renewed existence – accompanied by pleasure and lust; seeking pleasure all over the place. That is: thirst for sense pleasure, thirst for existence, and thirst for non-existence. This, Practitioners, is called ‘taking up the burden.’
“And, what is: ‘laying down the burden’? The complete fading away and cessation of that very thirst – giving it up, forsaking it – being free and unattached. This, Practitioners, is called ‘laying down the burden.’”
This is what the Flourishing One said. And, having spoken, the Well-Faring One further said:
“A burden, indeed, are the five sentient processes,
And, the burden-bearer is the person.
Taking up the burden in the world is stressful;
Laying the burden down is well-being.
Having laid this grave burden aside,
without having taken up any other –
Having pulled out craving at the root –
One is free from thirst, fully quenched.”
Later, I’ll have to explore how ‘the processes themselves’ could be thought of as a burden. It would seem obvious to us in a science-based culture that nature has given rise to these forms of knowing – the sensory dimensions – and to reject them cannot be sensible. So, instead we’ll look at the text as presenting something which contemplative experience can elucidate: that the senses don’t present reality.
Mindfulness with clear comprehension – that is, the way of contemplation – reveals that there is in present reality a way in which the noun phrase ‘senses’ doesn’t apply. To know this is to find a state of knowledge that is highly unusual; a valid state of absence of such a distinction, which will nevertheless not negate ordinary usage of the phrase. You would be forgiven if you responded with an “Huh?”
‘It is a state without ordinary perception and without disordered perception and without no perception and without any annihilation of perception. It is perception, consciousness, that is the source of all the basic obstacles.’
– Saddhatissa, H.. The Sutta-Nipata: A New Translation from the Pali Canon (p. 102). Taylor and Francis.
The teaching of the deathless makes sense only after we have seen that perception is not the primary fact of human experiencing; that perception is dependently arisen, and so derives from a deeper dimension.
But, for now, consider that it’s possible that there is a way in which mis-perceiving their nature is the condition for the burden. Suffering’s cause doesn’t just reside in the process of clinging alone, but in clinging as a significantly energetic point in a nexus of conditions. Why would we cling anyway, unless there was something we’ve projected into these processes? Have we seen them correctly, independently of our thirst and associated constructing tendencies?
And, for now, my point is that words like ‘a person,’ or ‘an individual,’ and so on, are a valid ways of speaking about our experiencing, referring to we who have been born and will die, and who are clarifying our place in things. ‘Non-self’ is a strategy for releasing us from clinging to experiences, releasing us into a greater comprehension; and is not meant to deny what you rightly know. We’ll come to all this later, when we unpack the Kalakārāma Sutta.