MEDITATING ON NON-SELF:
A Dhamma Talk Edited for Bodhi Leaves
Bodhi Leaves No. B. 95
BUDDHIST PUBLICATION SOCIETY
KANDY SRI LANKA
Copyright 1984 Buddhist Publication Society
First BPS edition 1983
Second BPS edition 1984
DharmaNet Edition 1994
This electronic edition is offered for free distribution
via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher.
Transcribed for DharmaNet by Pat Lapensee
P.O. Box 4951, Berkeley CA 94704-4951
* * * * * * * *
Sister Khema was born in Germany, educated in Scotland and China, and
later became a United States citizen. She now lives at Wat Buddha Dhamma
Forest Monastery near Sydney Australia, which was established in 1978 on
land purchased and donated by her. In 1979 she ordained as a Nun in Sri
Lanka, and in 1982 she established the International Buddhist Women's
Centre near Colombo. She spends most of her time teaching meditation
course in different parts of the world. Rains Retreat is spent in Sri
MEDITATING ON NON-SELF
In Buddhism we use the words "self" and "no-self," and so it is
important to understand just what this "no-self," //anatta//, is all
about, even if it is first just an idea, because the essence of the
Buddha's teaching hinges on this concept. And in this teaching Buddhism
is unique. No one, no other spiritual teacher, has formulated no-self in
just this way. And because it has been formulated by him in this way,
there is also the possibility of speaking about it. Much has been
written about no-self, but in order to know it, one has to experience
it. And that is what the teaching aims at, the experience of no-self.
Yet in order to experience no-self, one has first to fully know self.
Actually know it. But unless we do know what this self is, this self
called "me," it is impossible to know what is meant by "there is no self
there." In order to give something away, we have to first fully gave it
We are constantly trying to reaffirm self. Which already shows that
this "self" is a very fragile and rather wispy sort of affair, because
if it weren't why would we constantly have to reaffirm it? Why are we
constantly afraid of the "self" being threatened of its being insecure,
of its not getting what it needs for survival? If it were such a solid
entity as we believe it to be, we would not feel threatened so often.
We affirm "self" again and again through identification. We identify
with a certain name, an age, a sex, an ability, an occupation. "I am a
lawyer, I am a doctor. I am an accountant, I am a student." And we
identify with the people we are attached to. "I am a husband, I am a
wife, I am a mother, I am a daughter, I am a son.". Now, in the manner
of speech, we have to use "self" in that way -- but it isn't only in
speech. We really think that that "self" is who we are. We really
believe it. There is no doubt in our mind that that "self" is who we
are. When any of these factors is threatened, if being a wife is
threatened, if being a mother is threatened, if being a lawyer is
threatened, if being a teacher is threatened -- or if we lose the people
who enable us to retain that "self" -- what a tragedy!
The self-identification becomes insecure, and "me" finds it hard to
say "look at me," "this is me." Praise and blame are included. Praise
reaffirms "me." Blame threatens "me." So we like the praise and we
dislike the blame. The ego is threatened. Fame and infamy -- same thing.
Loss and gain. If we gain, the ego gets bigger; if we lose, it gets a
bit smaller. So we are constantly in a quandary, and in constant fear.
The ego might lose a little bit of its grandeur. It might be made a bit
smaller by someone. And it happens to all of us. Somebody is undoubtedly
going to blame us for something eventually. Even the Buddha was blamed.
Now the blame that is levied at us is not the problem. The problem is
our reaction. The problem is that we feel smaller. The ego has a hard
time reasserting itself. So what we usually do is we blame back, making
the other's ego a bit smaller too.
Identification with whatever it is that we do and whatever it is that
we have, be it possessions or people, is, so we believe, needed for our
survival. "Self" survival. If we don't identify with this or that, we
feel as if we are in limbo. This is the reason why it is difficult to
stop thinking in meditation. Because without thinking there would be no
identification. If I don't think, what do I identify with? It is
difficult to come to a stage in meditation in which there is actually
nothing to identify with any more.
Happiness, too, may be an identification. "I am happy." "I am
unhappy." Because we are so keen on survival, we have got to keep on
identifying. When this identification becomes a matter of the life or
death of the ego, which it usually is, then the fear of loss becomes so
great that we can be in a constant state of fear. Constantly afraid to
lose either the possessions that make us what we are, or the people that
make us what we are. If we have no children, or if they all die, we are
no longer a mother. So fear is paramount. The same goes for all other
identifications. Not a very peaceful state of living and what is it due
to? Only one thing: ego, the craving to be.
This identification results, of course, in craving for possessing.
And this possessing results in attachment. What we have, what we
identify with, we are attached to. That attachment, that clinging, makes
it extremely difficult to have a free and open viewpoint. This kind of
clinging, whatever it may be that we cling to -- it may not be clinging
to motor cars and houses, it may not even be clinging to people -- but
we certainly cling to views and opinions. We cling to our world view. We
cling to the view of how we are going to be happy. Maybe we cling to a
view of who created this universe. Whatever it is we cling to, even how
the government should run the country, all of that makes it extremely
difficult to see things as they really are. To be open-minded. And it is
only an open mind which can take in new ideas and understanding.
Lord Buddha compared listeners to four different kinds of clay
vessels. The first clay vessel is one that has holes at the bottom. If
you pour water into it, it runs right out. In other words, whatever you
teach that person is useless. The second clay vessel he compared to one
that had cracks in it. If you pour water into it, the water seeps out.
These people cannot remember. Cannot put two and two together. Cracks in
the understanding. The third listener he compared to a vessel that was
completely full. Water cannot be poured in for it's full to the brim.
Such a person, so full of views he can't learn anything new! But
hopefully, we are the fourth kind. The empty vessels without any holes
or cracks. Completely empty.
I dare say we are not. But may be empty enough to take in enough. To
be empty like that, of views and opinions, means a lack of clinging.
Even a lack of clinging to what we think is reality. Whatever we think
reality is, it surely is not, because if it were, we would never be
unhappy for a single moment. We would never feel a lack of anything. We
would never feel a lack of companionship, of ownership. We would never
feel frustrated, bored. If we ever do, whatever we think is real, is
not. What is truly reality is completely fulfilling. If we aren't
completely fulfilled, we aren't seeing complete reality. So, any view
that we may have is either wrong or it is partial.
Because it is wrong or partial, and bounded by the ego, we must look
at it with suspicion. Anything we cling to keeps us bound to it. If I
cling to a table-leg, I can't possibly get out the door. There is no way
I can move. I am stuck. Not until I let go will I have the opportunity
to get out. Any identification, any possession that is clung to, is what
stops us from reaching transcendental reality. Now we can easily see
this clinging when we cling to things and people, but we cannot easily
see why the five //khandhas// are called the five clung-to aggregates.
That is their name, and they are, in fact, what we cling to most. That
is an entire clinging. We don't even stop to consider when we look at
our body, and when we look at our mind, or when we look at feeling,
perception, mental formations, and consciousness -- //vedana//,
//sanna//, //sankhara//, and //vinnana//. We look at this mind-and-body,
//nama-rupa//, and we don't even doubt the fact that this is //my//
feeling, //my// perception, //my// memory, //my// thoughts, and //my//
awareness of //my// consciousness. And no one starts doubting until they
start seeing. And for that seeing we need a fair bit of empty space
apart from views and opinions.
Clinging is the greatest possessiveness and attachment we have. As
long as we cling we cannot see reality. We cannot see reality because
clinging is in the way. Clinging colors whatever we believe to be true.
Now it is not possible to say "all right, I'll stop clinging". We can't
do that. The process of taking the "me" apart, of not believing any more
that this is one whole, is a gradual one. But if meditation has any
benefit and success, it must show that first of all there is mind and
there is body. There isn't one single thing acting in accord all the
time. There is mind which is thinking and making the body act. Now that
is the first step in knowing oneself a little clearer. And then we can
note "this is a feeling" and "I am giving this feeling a name" which
means memory and perception. "This is the thought that I am having about
this feeling. The feeling has come about because the mind-consciousness
has connected with the feeling that has arisen."
Take the four parts of the //khandhas// that belong to the mind
apart. When we do that while it is happening -- not now when we are
thinking about at-but while it is happening, then we get a inkling that
this isn't really //me//, that these are phenomena that are arising,
which stay a moment, and then cease. How long does mind-consciousness
stay on one object? And how long do thoughts last? And have we really
The clinging, the clung-to, are what make the ego arise. Because of
clinging the notion of "me" arises and then there is me, and //me//
having all the problems. Without //me// would there be problems? If
there weren't anyone sitting inside me -- as we think there is -- who is
called I or me or John, Claire, then who is having the problem? The
//khandhas// do not have any problems. The //khandhas// are just
processes. They are phenomena, and that is all. They are just going on
and on and on. But because I am grasping at them, and trying to hold on
to them, and saying: "it's //me//, it's //me// feeling, it's //me//
wanting,." then problems arise.
If we really want to get rid of suffering, completely and totally,
then clinging has to go. The spiritual path is never one of achievement;
it is always one of letting go. The more we let go, the more there is
empty and open space for us to see reality. Because what we let go of is
no longer there, there is the possibility of just moving without
clinging to the results of the movement. As long as we cling to the
results of what we do, as long as we cling to the results of what we
think, we are bound, we are hemmed in.
Now there is a third thing that we do: we are interested in becoming
something or somebody. Interested in becoming an excellent meditator.
Interested in becoming a graduate. Interested in becoming something
which we are not. And becoming something stops us from being. When we
are stopped from being, we cannot pay attention to what there really is.
All this becoming business is, of course, in the future. Since whatever
there is in the future is conjecture, it is a dream world we live in.
The only reality we can be sure of is this particular moment right now;
and this particular moment as you must be able to be aware of -- has
already passed and this one has passed and the next one has also passed.
See how they are all passing! That is the impermanence of it all. Each
moment passes, but we cling, trying to hold on to them. Trying to make
them a reality. Trying to make them a security. Trying to make them be
something which they are not. See how they are all passing. We cannot
even say it as quickly as they are doing it.
There is nothing that is secure. Nothing to hold on to, nothing that
is stable. The whole universe is constantly falling apart and coming
back together. And that includes the mind and the body which we call
"I." You may believe it or not, it makes no difference. In order to know
it, you must experience it; when you experience it, it's perfectly
clear. What one experiences is totally clear. No one can say it is not.
They may try, but their objections make no sense because you have
experienced it. It's the same thing as biting into the mango to know its
To experience it, one needs meditation. An ordinary mind can only
know ordinary concepts and ideas. If one wants to understand and
experience extraordinary experiences and ideas, one has to have an
extraordinary mind. An extraordinary mind comes about through
concentration. Most meditators have experienced some stage that is
different then the one they are use to. So it is not ordinary any more.
But we have to fortify that far more than just the beginning stage. To
the point where the mind is truly extraordinary. Extraordinary in the
sense that it can direct itself to where it wants to go. Extraordinary
in the sense that it no longer gets perturbed by everyday events. And
when the mind can concentrate, then it experiences states which it has
never known before. To realize that your universe constantly falls apart
and comes back together again is a meditative experience. It takes
practice, perseverance and patience. And when the mind is unperturbed
and still, equanimity, evenmindedness, peacefulness arise.
At that time the mind understands the idea of impermanence to such an
extent that it sees itself as totally impermanent. And when one sees
one's own mind as being totally impermanent, there is a shift in one's
viewpoint. That shift I like to compare with a kaleidoscope that
children play with. A slight touch and you get a different picture. The
whole thing looks quite different with just a slight shift.
Non-self is experienced through the aspect of impermanence, through
the aspect of unsatisfactoriness, and through the aspect of emptiness.
Empty of what? The word "emptiness" is so often misunderstood because
when one only thinks of it as a concept, one says "what do you mean by
empty?" Everything is there: there are the people, and there are their
insides, guts and their bones and blood and everything is full of stuff
-- and the mind is not empty either. It's got ideas, thoughts and
feelings. And even when it doesn't have those, what do you mean by
emptiness? The only thing that is empty is the emptiness of an entity.
There is no specific entity in anything. That is emptiness. That is
the nothingness. That nothingness is also experienced in meditation. It
is empty, it is devoid of a specific person, devoid of a specific thing,
devoid of anything which makes it permanent, devoid of anything which
even makes it important. The whole thing is in flux. So the emptiness is
that. And the emptiness is to be seen everywhere; to be seen in oneself.
And that is what is called //anatta//, non-self. Empty of an entity.
There is nobody there. It is all imagination. At first that feels very
That person that I've been regarding with so much concern, that
person trying to do this or that, that person who will be my security,
will be my insurance for a happy life -- once I find that person -- that
person does not really exist. What a frightening and insecure idea that
is! What a feeling of fear arises! But as a matter of fact, it's just
the reverse. If one accepts and bears that fright and goes through it,
one comes to complete and utter relief and release.
I'll give you a simile: Imagine you own a very valuable jewel which
is so valuable that you place your trust in it so that should you fall
upon hard times, it will look after you. It's so valuable that you can
have it as your security. You don't trust anybody. So you have a safe
inside your house and that is where you put your jewel. Now you have
been working hard for a number of years and you think you deserve a
holiday. So now, what to do with the jewel? Obviously you cannot take it
with you on your seaside holiday. So you buy new locks for the doors to
your house and you bar your windows and you alert your neighbors. You
tell them about the proposed holiday and ask them to look after you
house -- and the safe in it. And they say they will, of course. You
should be quite at ease and so you go off on your holiday.
You go to the beach, and it's wonderful. Marvelous. The palm trees
are swaying in the wind, and the spot you've chosen on the beach is nice
and clean. The waves are warm and it's all lovely. The first day you
really enjoy yourself. But on the second day you begin to wonder; the
neighbors are very nice people, but they do go and visit their children.
They are not always at home, and lately there has been a rash of
burglaries in the neighborhood. And on the third day you've convinced
yourself that something dreadful is going to happen, and you go back
home. You walk in and open the safe. Everything is all right. You go
over to the neighbors and they ask, "Why did you comeback? We were
looking after your place. You didn't have to come back. Everything is
The next year, the same thing. Again you tell the neighbors, "Now
this time I am really going to stay away for a month. I need this
holiday as I've been working hard." So they say, "Absolutely no need to
worry, just take off. Go to the beach." So once more you bar the
windows, lock the doors, get everything shipshape, and take off for the
beach. Again, it's wonderful, beautiful. This time you last for five
days. On the fifth day you are convinced that something dreadful must
have happened. And you go home. You go home, and by golly, it has. The
jewel is gone. You are in a state of complete collapse. Total
desperation. Depressed. So you go to the neighbors, but they have no
idea what has happened. they've been around all the time. Then you sit
and consider the matter and you realize that since the jewel is gone,
you might as well go back to the beach and enjoy yourself!
That jewel is //self//. Once it is gone, all the burden of looking
after it, all the fears about it, all the barring of doors and windows
and heart and mind is no longer necessary. You can just go and enjoy
yourself while you're still in this body. After proper investigation,
the frightening aspect of losing this thing that seemed so precious
turns out to be the only relief and release from worry that there is.
There are three doors to liberation: the signless, the desireless,
and emptiness. If we understand impermanence, //anicca//, fully, it is
called the signless liberation. If we understand suffering, //dukkha//,
fully, it is the desireless liberation. If we understand no-self,
//anatta//, fully, then it is the emptiness liberation. Which means we
can go through any of these three doors. And to be liberated means never
to have to experience an unhappy moment again. It also means something
else: it means we are no longer creating kamma. A person who has been
completely liberated still acts, still thinks, still speaks and still
looks to all intents and purposes like anybody else, but that person has
lost the idea that //I am// thinking, //I am// speaking, //I am//
acting. Kamma is no longer being made because there is just the thought,
just the speech, just the action. There is the experience but no
experiencer. And because no kamma is being made any longer, there is no
rebirth. That is full enlightenment.
In this tradition, three stages of enlightenment have been classified
before one comes to the fourth stage, full enlightenment. The first
stage, the one we can concern ourselves with -- at least theoretically
-- is called //sotapanna//. Stream-enterer. It means a person who has
seen Nibbana once and has thereby entered the stream. That person cannot
be deterred from the Path any more. If the insight is strong, there may
be only one more life-time. If the insight is weak, it can be seven more
life-times. Having seen Nibbana for oneself once, one loses some of the
difficulties one had before. The most drastic hindrance that one loses
is the idea that this person we call "I" is a separate entity. The wrong
view of self is lost. But that doesn't mean that a //sotapanna// is
constantly aware of no-self. The wrong view is lost. But the right view
has to be reinforced again and again and experienced again and again
through that reinforcement.
Such a person no longer has any great interest, and certainly no
belief, in rites and rituals. They may still be performed because they
are traditional or that are customary, but such a person no longer
believes they can bring about any kind of liberation (if they ever
believed that before). And then a very interesting thing is lost:
skeptical doubt. Skeptical doubt is lost because one has seen for
oneself that what the Buddha taught was actually so. Until that time
skeptical doubt will have to arise again and again because one can
easily think: "Well, maybe. Maybe it's so, but how can I be sure?" One
can only be sure through one's own experience. Then, of course, there is
no skeptical doubt left because one has seen exactly that which has been
described, and having seen it, one's own heart and mind gives an
understanding which makes it possible to see everything else.
Dhamma must have as its base the understanding that there is no
special entity. There is continuity, but there is no special entity. And
that continuity is what makes it so difficult for us to see that there
really isn't anybody inside the body making things happen. Things are
happening anyway. So the first instance of having seen a glimpse of
freedom, called stream-entry, makes changes within us. It certainly does
not uproot greed and hate -- in fact, they are not even mentioned. But
through the greater understanding such a person has, the greed and the
hate lessen. They are not as strong anymore, and they do not manifest in
gross ways, but do remain in subtle ways.
The next stages are the once-returner, then the non-returner, then
the arahat. Once-returner, one more life in the five-sense world.
Non-returner, no human life necessary, and arahat, fully enlightened.
Sensual desire and hate only go with non-returners, and complete conceit
of self, only with arahat.
So we can be quite accepting of the fact that since we are not
arahats, we still have greed and hate. It isn't a matter of blaming
oneself for having them: it's a matter of understanding where these come
from. They come from the delusion of //me//. I want to protect this
jewel which is //me//. That is how they arise. But with the continued
practice of meditation, the mind can become clearer and clearer. It
finally understands. And when it does understand, it can see
transcendental reality. Even if seen for one thought-moment, the
experience is of great impact and makes a marked change in our lives.
CHANGES MADE DURING TRANSCRIPTION
In preparing this electronic edition for DharmaNet, some minor
changes and corrections were made to the original text. These include
changing the spellings of certain words from British to American
English and adapting punctuation and style to conform more closely
with the Chicago Manual of Style (13th edition) guidelines.
In order to make this text readable by as wide an audience as
possible, we have removed all hardware- and software-dependent special
characters and formatting. Text appearing in italics in the original
book is represented here by //double slashes//. Pali and Sanskrit
diacritic marks have been removed.
In addition, the following changes were made:
p. 13 line 3: If one want's ----> if one wants
p. 20, line 3: Streamenterer ----> Stream-enterer
p. 21, line 4: thing is lost. Sceptical doubt. ----> thing is
lost: skeptical doubt
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TITLE OF WORK: Meditating on Non-self (Bodhi Leaves No. B. 95)
AUTHOR: Sister Khema
AUTHOR'S ADDRESS: Buddha-Haus
D-87466 OY Mittelberg 3
PUBLISHER'S ADDRESS: Buddhist Publication Society
P.O. Box 61
54, Sangharaja Mawatha
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DATE OF PUBLICATION: 1984
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