Below is the full, edited transcript of Bhante G’s Dhamma talk on the Anattalakkhana Sutta (Discourse on Not-Self), at Bhavana Society’s May, 2022 Monastic Retreat. An excerpt of this talk was published in our July 2022 virtual newsletter, The Bhāvanā, which you can find here. May Bhante’s deep wisdom contribute to your awakening in this very life. With Metta, Bhavana’s lay residents.
This sutra is a complete discourse on mindfulness meditation because it explains anicca, dukkha, and anatta, in detail. In a single discourse, you can see anicca, dukkha, and anatta, the goals of mindfulness meditation. You can similarly find these truths in the Satipatthana Sutta, however, in less detail. Therefore, this is a very important discourse, at the end of which, all five ascetics attained full enlightenment.
Material form, Buddha said, is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self; that is, anicca, dukkha, and anatta. This sutta also contains a detailed explanation of these three characteristics of existence, He says that form is in the nature of altering, in the nature of destruction, in the nature of dissolution and fading away. It is subject to ceasing, conditioned, and dependently arisen. Itt is not mine, it is not I, I am not it, and it is not myself.
So, in these 11 ways this must be seen. And this accords with all the senses: the six internal bases of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The external bases of form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thoughts. And he six kinds of sense consciousness, contact, feeling, and desires associated with the six sense organs. So, you can see here that this is a complete discourse on the practice of mindfulness meditation.
In the Samyutta Nikaya, there is a very famous stanza which many of you may know by heart. Let me read it now to put things in proper perspective. It fits quite well with this discourse: ‘Material form is like foam. Feelings are akin to bubbles. Perception is like a mirage.
We are quite familiar with mirages. In the summer, when you drive down the road, you see water in the distance. A deer is bewildered, confused by this. In his case, he runs toward the water to drink it. When he arrives, thirsty, seeking a drink, the water is not there, but seems to be further on. When he looks back, he sees that the water is somehow behind him. He is trapped in an optical illusion. So, he runs back and forth, eventually dying from thirst and exhaustion. This is an example of how perception is like a mirage. This has a very deep meaning for each and every one of us to contemplate. Think of it very seriously, carefully, and mindfully, to understand how perception becomes like a mirage.
Then there are formations, volitions, or sankharas, which are described as being empty like a plantain trunk. If you cut across the plantain trunk looking for hard wood, you will never find it. You will only find peels, layers, and layers of peels. I’d like to offer another simile to describe this, and that is, an ‘onion,’ which is spelled, ‘on’ and ‘on’ and with an ‘i’ in the middle. How is this significant? Because it goes on and on because of an ‘i’. Mental formations, sankhara, are like an onion We go on and on in samsara due to this sankhara backpack. The bigger the backpack, the longer the journey. If we use up the backpack quickly, we can shorten the journey. Sankharas are like that. Though they appear to be something tangible, solid, perceptible, we cannot perceive them. Although we have all kinds of sankharas, we cannot see, touch, hear, or smell any of them.
Consciousness is even worse. It is just illusion—maya. When you see magicians, they can make you believe certain things which you don’t think exist. That is the nature of a magician. We are always amazed to see their magic and we pay lots of money, time, and energy for the opportunity. But eventually, we realize there is nothing there.
Buddha asked the five ascetics a series of significant questions. He asked, “What do you think, monks, is form permanent or impermanent? “It is impermanent, venerable sir,” they responded He went on. “Is that which is impermanent satisfactory or unsatisfactory? They replied: “Unsatisfactory, venerable sir.” Then, Buddha asked: “Is it correct to consider that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and of the nature to change as, this is mine, this I am, this is myself?” Their response: “No, venerable sir.”
Or, in other words, “Understanding that this is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and altering, or changing all the time, is it correct to consider that it is mine? What do you call that? Tanha, craving.
And this ‘I am,’ is mana (conceit). This points to the one letter word that we most use. That would be: ‘I.’ I think. I go. I do. I, I, I …. That is because of our mana. Related to that — and a thought that we cannot get rid of very easily — is the notion of self. It is so difficult to get rid of this notion that even when one attains the anagami (non-returner) stage of enlightenment, the notion of self is still there.
This is what happened to Venerable Khemaka, as detailed in the Khemaka Sutta. Ven. Khemaka was sick and a group of elderly monks sent another monk named Dāsaka to check on his health. Dāsaka returned and reported to the monks that Ven. Khemaka said he was very sick. Then they sent him back again to ask whether he was attached to his form, feeling, and so forth. The reply was no. So Dāsaka went again and again and finally, Ven. Khemaka said: “Get me that walking stick. I don’t like you having to go back and forth.” So out of compassion, he used the walking stick to make his way to these monks.
When he arrived, they asked him the same questions. Ven. Khemaka said: “enerable sirs, I’m not attached to my form, feeling, perception, volitions, or consciousness, though I still have something called ‘I am.’ Then he began to explain how he felt. Giving one example, he asked: “Is the fragrance of the lotus flower in its petals, leaves, pollen, or stalk?” The fragrance is all over, was his response. So you cannot pinpoint its source. “Similarly, I feel that I am.” That is what is called asmi mana — I am.
Then, he gave them another example. Suppose you have a cloth. You send it to the laundry man and he washes it using various kinds of detergents. When he returns the cloth, you still smell detergent. So, then, to remove the smell of detergent, you put the cloth in a perfume chamber. Then the smell of detergent would be gone.
While he was explaining this, he and those monks who were listening to him attained enlightenment. Both audience and the speaker attained enlightenment at the same time. This is the only incident that I’ve come across where both listeners and the teacher attained full enlightenment simultaneously. And so what is this perfume chamber? This perfume chamber is impermanence. That is the last stroke in destroying the notion of ‘I am,’ of asmi mana.
So, while the Buddha was delivering this sermon, those five monks who were listening so attentively gradually attained the stream entry, once-returner, never-returner, and full arahantship stages of enlightenment, all while listening to the same sermon.
So, all these are in the Dhammacakkappavattan Sutta. And then the detailed explanation is in the Anattalakkhanasutta. So they attained full enlightenment. And how did it happen?
The Buddha explained all the five aggregates — form, feeling, perception, thought, consciousness —in the same question and-answer format. Then, at the end, Buddha said: “Therefore, bhikkhus, in whatever way material form manifests whether past, future, present, internal, external, gross, subtle, low or high, far or near, all forms are not mine, I am not them, nor are they myself. Thus, it should be correctly seen with wisdom.”
Previously, these monks had an intellectual understanding of the five aggregates, of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, selflessness. They saw these teachings logically, analytically But the Buddha , went step by step, critically, analytically asking questions.
Then, later on, all of them realized these teachings with wisdom. What we understand with the wisdom eye is much deeper and subtler, leading to the final state of attaining liberation.
For instance, we all know impermanence, because we are impermanent. Wee were not born as we now are, we all know that. And we are the way we are now because we changed. That’s impermanence. We know that. Yet that understanding is not enough for us to attain liberation. If that were enough, everybody would already be enlightened. You’re not enlightened, though, and why is that? Although we know impermanence, practically, we have not developed our wisdom. That comes when we develop our wisdom through special training. And what is this special training?
Mindfulness. This is given in detail, in many suttas.
We must see impermanence in its subtlest form. This is anicca sañña sutta, the perception of impermanence. This perception is not a perception that can be deluded, like in a mirage; not that kind of perception. Aniccasanna is not distorted perception, but real perception. It is just like seeing an object in very bright light as opposed to in the shadows or in darkness. With this bright light, you can see any object in this room.
Buddha gave 10 similes in that sutta, only one of which I’ll mention now. That is, in the Fall, after all the trees have dropped their leaves and the sky is free from clouds and the sun rises, anyone who has eyesight can see any object on which the sunlight falls. That means objects are very clear. We can see clearly. We aren’t mistaking a rope for a snake, as we might in the dark, but can see the rope as a rope, and a snake as a snake because the sunlight is so bright. Similarly, when we develop anicca sañña, or real perception of impermanence, we see everything as impermanent without any exception. This is how we see with wisdom.
That is why this morning I said that when one sees the rising and falling of all khandhas (aggregates) with wisdom, at that moment, that individual experiences joy and peace, which is equivalent to deathlessness. We must remember the Dhammapada stanza stating that whenever one sees rising and falling with wisdom, at that moment, that person experiences no permanent, static, fixed objects.
I mentioned earlier these groups of six sense bases — internal, external, and so on—and that they are all in a state of flux. They are changing, moving, appearing, disappearing, all of the time. Seeing this appearing and disappearing is one thing, one level of impermanence. The other level of impermanence is ceasing, not to arise again. So long as we exist in samsara, we experience rising and falling. But when we realize the Dhamma, according to the Anattalakkhana Sutta, then as Buddha says:
“Perceiving thus, bhikkhus, the learned and noble disciple becomes disenchanted with form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And that disciple, through this disenchantment, becomes dispassionate. And through the absence of passion, that person becomes free. And once the person becomes free, at that very moment, that person knows, ‘I am free.’ That person becomes aware of that freedom, aware that rebirth is exhausted, that the holy life (the Noble Eightfold Path) has been lived, that done is what had to be done, and that there is nothing more to do.”
That is how the Buddha ended this discourse. Delighted, the group of five ascetics rejoiced in what the Sublime One had said. While this exposition was being delivered, without attachment, the group of five bhikkhus became free from defilements. And then there were six arahants (liberated beings) in the world.
So, what happened? Were they dead? No, they liberated their five aggregates from the five aggregates of clinging. This is the important thing. They liberated their five aggregates. The five aggregates were trapped in clinging, and they liberated them from that clinging. Then, they simply had aggregates, but without the clinging. And free from clinging, they could enjoy the bliss of emancipation. They were liberated from all shades of dukkha (suffering).
In the Alavaka Sutta, Alavaka asks the Buddha: “What wealth here is best for man? What well practiced brings happiness? What is the sweetest of all the sweets? What kind of life lived is the best?” The Buddha’s answer was: “Faith is the wealth here best for man; Dhamma well practiced brings happiness; Truth, indeed, is the sweetest of all sweets; and a life lived with wisdom they say is the best life.”
What is the sweetest of all the sweets? Truth. This is not normally what people think. They say, “Truth is bitter.” Why? Because we have garbage in the mind, and so long as there is garbage in the mind, the truth is bitter. When these monks were totally liberated from all defilements, then they enjoyed the bliss of emancipation, and tasted the sweetest taste of truth.
And therefore, in this discourse, we learn a lot of things. I think the number of things I mentioned are very few, and I invite you to read the discourse again with more detail, so that you might arrive at deeper meanings than we have discussed here today.