Not-Self and the Three Seals
When Buddha realized enlightenment at the age of 35, he understood that all of existence in Samsara (the continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth) is characterized by what is known as the Ti-lakkhana, or Dharma Seals. They are:
1. Anicca (annitya) — Everything is in constant flux. All conditioned things have the nature of arising and passing away, thus constantly coming into being and ceasing to be. This is the mark of change, or the impermanence of all conditioned things – including us.
2. Dukkha (duhkha) — The mark of suffering, stress, or lack of peace. Since all conditioned things are impermanent (anicca), they are also imperfect and unsatisfactory. There are three categories of dukkha:
a. Dukkha-dukkhata — This is also called “ordinary dukkha”; that is, physical pain, mental anguish, etc.
b. Viparinama-dukkhata — This is the dukkha of impermanence, alteration, etc.
c. Sankhara-dukkhata — This is the dukkha of compounding, conditioning, formation, etc.
3. Anatta (anatman) — What is usually considered a “self”, “soul”, “I” or “mine” is simply a byproduct of the five skandhas (aggregates). These are:
a. Form/matter (rupa)
This is anything physical, both external (e.g. the physical world) and internal (e.g. sense organs).
b. Sensation/feeling (vedana)
Sensing an object as either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral.
c. Perception/conception/discrimination/cognition/sensibility (Pali: sanna; Skt: samjna
This is the recognition of an object through the five senses (i.e. seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling) such as the color of the sky or the sound of a bird singing.
d. Mental formations/impulse/will/volition (Pali: sankhara; Skt: samskara)
This includes all types (both virtuous and not virtuous) of mental activity, habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions, prejudices, compulsions, and decisions which are triggered by an object.
e. Consciousness/discernment (Pali: vinnana; Skt: vijnana)
This is cognizance, or that which discerns.
When explaining the not-self characteristic (SN 22.59), the Buddha related that the five skandhas are not self. All things perceived by the five aggregates (or even just one of them) are actually unfit for identification with a “self”/”ego” or “soul” (atta) since they are impermanent (anicca) – and because there is anicca there is dukkha. The mark of not-self (anatta) states that one should regard the five skandhas with right discernment as, “This is not mine, this is not my self, this is not what I am.” Realizing this one grows weary and disenchanted with the five skandhas, and passion dissipates. When this happens, one is released by understanding that, “Birth is exhausted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing more of this becoming.”
Now, why is “anatta” translated here as “not-self” instead of “no-self”? When the Buddha was asked directly (SN 44.10) if there was a self or if there was no self – he remained silent. He later explained to Ananda that either position would be conforming with either extreme of eternalism or nihilism. In the Sabbasava Sutta, Buddha explains that to either affirm or deny a self is a “thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views” which further binds one to further suffering and stress:
“This is how he attends inappropriately: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?’
“As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self… or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress.
“The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — who has regard for noble ones, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma; who has regard for men of integrity, is well-versed & disciplined in their Dhamma — discerns what ideas are fit for attention and what ideas are unfit for attention. This being so, he does not attend to ideas unfit for attention and attends [instead] to ideas fit for attention.
In his article No-self or Not-self?, Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains that, “In this sense, the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering by letting go of its cause, leading to the highest, undying happiness. At that point, questions of self, no-self, and not-self fall aside. Once there’s the experience of such total freedom, where would there be any concern about what’s experiencing it, or whether or not it’s a self?”