The truth about the afterlife, and our ego.

The teaching below may be hard to read on the first read. If you chew over it, you will grasp it. The Buddha’s ” Middle path ” is not as simple as people may think.

I see value in literature that stretches my intellect and challenges my understanding of spirituality. It’s not constantly about whether we fully agree, often for me, it’s about do I understand. Can I grasp what the author is trying to teach?

I recognize many like to read simple blogs and articles, often things that they relate to and interpret. I am persuaded that social media has shaped a world where people become intellectually lazy.

People only add like minded people, IE the people agree with them philosophically or culturally. Open minds are becoming a rarity. This impeachment stops learning and personal growth on some levels.

Egolessness (Anattaa)

by Nyanatiloka Mahathera

The most crucial point for most men seems to be the Buddha’s fundamental teaching of phenomenality, egolessness and impersonality of existence, in Pali anattaa. It is the middle way between two extremes, namely on the one hand the spiritualistic belief in an eternal ego-entity, or soul, outlasting death; on the other hand the materialistic belief in a temporary ego-entity becoming annihilated at death.

Therefore it is said: There are three teachers in the world. The first teacher teaches the existence of an eternal ego-entity outlasting death: that is the Eternalist, as for example the Christian. The second teacher teaches a temporary ego-entity which becomes annihilated at death: that is the annihilationist, or materialist. The third teacher teaches neither an eternal, nor a temporary ego-entity: this is the Buddha. The Buddha teaches that, what we call ego, self, soul, personality etc., are merely conventional terms not referring to any real independent entity. And he teaches that there is only to be found this psychophysical process of existence changing from moment to moment. Without understanding the egolessness of existence, it is not possible to gain a real understanding of the Buddha-word; and it is not possible without it to realize that goal of emancipation and deliverance of mind proclaimed by the Buddha. This doctrine of egolessness of existence forms the essence of the Buddha’s doctrine of emancipation. Thus with this doctrine of egolessness, or anattaa, stands or falls the entire Buddhist structure. Indeed, for anyone who wishes to engage in the study of the Buddhist scriptures, the best thing would be, from the very start, to get himself acquainted with the two methods, in which the Buddha taught the Dhamma to the world. The first method is the teaching in conventional language; the second method is the teaching in philosophically correct language. The first one relates to conventional truth, the second, to truth in the ultimate sense.

Thus, whenever the Buddha uses such terms as I, person, living being, etc., this is to be understood as conventional speech, hence not correct in the highest sense. It is just as speaking of the rising and setting of the sun, though we know thoroughly well that this does not correspond to reality. Thus the Buddha teaches that, in the ultimate sense, amongst all these psychophysical phenomena of existence there cannot be found any eternal or even temporary ego-entity, and hence that all existence of whatever kind is something impersonal, or anattaa.

In this connection I would like to emphasize the fact that this fundamental doctrine of egolessness and emptiness is not, as some misinformed Western Buddhists assert, only taught in the southern school of Buddhism, but that even in the so-called the Mahayana schools it forms a most essential part. Without this teaching of anattaa, or egolessness, there is no Buddhism; and without having realized the truth of egolessness no real progress is possible on the path to deliverance.

The Buddha is, in every respect, a teacher at the golden mean, ethically as well as philosophically. From the ethical standpoint, for example, the Buddha rejects two extremes: the way of sensual pleasures and the way of self-torture. From the philosophical standpoint he rejects eternity, as well as temporariness of an ego entity. Just so he rejects belief in an absolute identity and an absolute otherness of the various stages of the process of existence. He rejects the determinism, as well as the belief in chance. He rejects the belief in absolute existence and absolute non-existence; likewise in freedom of will, as well as in unfreedom of will.

All these things will become clear to one who understands the egolessness and conditioned nature of all phenomena of existence. On the understanding of these two truths depends the understanding of the entire doctrine of the Buddha. Hence the understanding and final penetration of the egolessness and conditionedness of all phenomena of existence are the necessary foundation to the realization of the noble eightfold path leading to deliverance from all vanity and misery, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right bodily action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration of mind. Only this golden middle path, based on these two kinds of right understanding, namely of “egolessness and conditionedness,” can alleviate and destroy these vain illusions of “self” and craving, which are the root-causes of all war and bloodshed in the world. But without these two kinds of understanding there is no realization of the holy and peaceful goal pointed out by the Buddha. There are however, to be found various would-be Buddhists in the West who are attached to an imaginary Great Self, and who uphold that the Buddha did in no way reject the view of an “eternal Atman,” or soul, behind and independent of the phenomena of existence, and who believe that the Mahayana texts teach such a doctrine. Such assertions, however, do not in the least prove correct, for neither do the Pali texts, nor the early Mahayana texts proclaim an eternal self. Any reader, who is unbiased in mind and free from prejudices, can never from a study of the Buddhist scriptures come to the conclusion that the Buddha ever taught any such ego-entity within or outside the corporeal, mental and spiritual phenomena of existence. Nowhere in the world can there be found such an entity, as was clearly pointed out by the Buddha.

Regarding the questions whether the Holy One will continue after death, or not continue etc., the Buddha says that all such questions are wrongly put. And why? Because what is called the “Holy One” is here only a conventional term and refers to no real entity while in reality there is only to be found a process of corporeal, mental, and spiritual phenomena. In another text, therefore the Buddhist asks a monk, whether he considered corporeality as the Holy One, or the feelings, or the perceptions, or the mental formations, or consciousness. Or whether he believed the Holy One to exist within these five groups of phenomena or outside thereof. Or whether all these phenomena heaped together were the Holy One. And denying all these questions, the Buddha further said that, even during lifetime, the Holy One could not be discovered in reality, and that therefore it would be wrong to ask whether the Holy One will continue or not continue after death, etc. Thus, no entities are existing in the world, but only ever-changing processes. The Buddha further says: Only because man does not understand corporeality, feeling and the other mental and spiritual phenomena being impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal (aniccaa, dukkha, and anattaa), and does not understand their conditioned origin, their extinction, and the path leading to their extinction, therefore he will think that the Holy One does continue, or does not continue after death etc. This, therefore, is the reason why the Buddha did not answer such questions.

According to Buddhism, the whole of existence is comprised in the five groups of phenomena mentioned above, or still more briefly expressed in the three groups: corporeality, consciousness, and the mental factors. And within these three groups are comprised the only and ultimate things given, though also these again are mere fleeting and evanescent phenomena, flashing up for a moment, in order to disappear immediately thereafter forever. Thus whenever in the Buddhist scriptures mention is made of I, self, living being, etc., even of the Buddha, these expressions accordingly are used merely as conventional terms, without referring to any real entities. Therefore the Buddha has said: “It is impossible, it cannot be that a man with real understanding should ever consider anything as a real entity.”

He who does not understand the egolessness of existence, and who still attached to ego-illusion, such a one cannot comprehend and understand the four Noble Truths of the Buddha in the true light.

These four truths are:

  1. the truth of the impermanency, unsatisfactoriness and impersonality of existence;
  2. the truth that repeated rebirth and misery are rooted in self-illusion and craving for existence;
  3. the truth that through the extinction of all self-illusion vanity, and craving, deliverance from all rebirth will be attained;
  4. the truth that the eightfold path, based on right understanding, is the path leading to this goal.

He who has not penetrated the ego-illusion and is still attached to self-vanity will believe that it is he himself that suffers, will believe that is he himself that performs the good and evil deeds leading to his rebirth, that it is he himself that will enter Nirvana, that is he himself that will bring the eightfold path to perfection.

Whoso, however, has fully penetrated the egolessness of existence, knows that, in the highest sense, there is no individual that suffers, that commits the kammic deeds, that enters Nirvana, and that brings the Eightfold Path to perfection.

In the Visuddhi Magga it is therefore said:

Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found.
The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there,
Nirvana is, but not the man that enters it.
The path is, but no traveller on it is seen.

Therefore, wherever the doctrine of the egolessness of all existence is rejected, there the Buddha’s word is rejected. But wherever, through penetration of the egolessness of all existence, the ego-vanity has reached ultimate extinction, there the goal of the Buddha’s teaching has been realized, namely: freedom from all vanity of I and Mine, and the highest peace of Nibbaana.

I thoroughly enjoy writing and find it relaxing. I live in Ocean Grove, Victoria, Australia.

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