The doctrine of ‘non-self’ and the Buddha’s teachers

Article published in February 2013 edition of Shabda, the journal of the Triratna Buddhist Order.

There has always been a rather confusing fact in the traditional story of the Buddha, which is that he learned the eight dhyanas from Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra but then, upon remembering the rose apple tree experience, he spoke as if he was discovering the first dhyana for the first time. How could this be the case?

In a recent book by the Sanskrit scholar Alexander Wynne called The Origin of Buddhist Meditation we get a possible answer to this conundrum, an answer which ties in nicely with the Buddhist doctrine of ‘non-self.’ Wynne proposes that Gautama did not in fact learn the first four dhyanas – the rupa dhyanas – from Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputra but instead he learned from them a form of Vedic meditation – which he calls Brahminical yoga – akin to the formless or arupa dhyanas. One reason he gives is that the arupa dhyanas seem to be cosmological in origin, whereas the rupa dhyanas seem to be more personal and experiential in nature. He thinks then that the arupa dhyanas are Brahminical in origin but that the rupa dhyanas are Buddhist in origin. That Gautama evolved for himself the rupa dhyanas as a natural process arising out of his understanding of the rose apple tree experience.

To explain how Brahminical yoga works is as follows. At the root of the Vedic religion is the belief in atman, the fixed self or soul that does not change and Brahman, the equivalent ever-present essence in the universe. Wynne explains that Vedic cosmology puts forward the belief was that in the beginning there was just a pure unchanging being or sat. Sat then ‘thought’ to itself: “may I be many; may I grow forth,” and so from sat there then arose fire; and after fire, in the same way; from fire, water; and, in the same way, from water, earth and so on. According to Wynne the aim of Brahminical meditation is to ‘reverse the flow’ of Vedic cosmology in order to realize one’s pure being. One does this by identifying oneself in meditation with the earth element and then dissolving that element, by then identifying oneself with the water element and then dissolving that element, and so on, until one experiences oneself as pure unchanging being – atman – within a pure unchanging cosmos or Brahman: or, as a pure soul in union with God. This would explain why Gautama rejected what he learned from his early teachers. What they taught was based on a wrong view – the Brahminical view – and it being wrong, it did not lead ‘to dispassion, to release, to Nirvana.’

In some way the four arupa dhyanas – if Wynne is correct and they are Brahminical in origin – then somehow came to be interpolated into the Buddhist scriptures at a later date. Perhaps similar to the way that Brahminical gods appear in Buddhist scriptures: they are there to contextualize the previous cosmology within a Buddhist context. The positioning of the arupa dhyanas between the rupa dhyanas and Enlightenment was perhaps meant to show the inadequacy of Brahminical meditation to the task of achieving Nirvana, in the same way that vision of the Brahminical gods was inadequate in comparison to the Buddha’s. Having said that, many of the well known longer texts that describe the path from the rose-apple experience to Nirvana (for example the Mahasaccaka Sutta, the Dvedavittaka Sutta, the Bheraberava Sutta, and the Samanaphala Sutta) omit to mention the arupa dhyanas. The Ariyapariyesana Sutta, on the other hand – and it is supposed to be one of the earlier texts – does mention them. So perhaps the compilers of the earlier scriptures saw more need to contextualize the Brahminical view, whereas later a purer Buddhist exposition was opted for.

Wynne states that there seems to be no pre-Buddhist precursor to the six element practice, which invites the question that the six element practice is in fact the Buddha’s response to Wynne’s Brahminical meditation, in that it leads inexorably in another direction to realizing atman, leading as it does to the (opposite) realization of ‘non-self’ or anatman.

So in this view Gautama basically ‘invented’ the first four dhyanas from scratch. This is quite a reasonable notion to hold, given that their development was based on a new view about the role of pleasure in spiritual development. Gautama realized that not all pleasure was something to fear. Pleasure that arose ‘in seclusion from sensuality unskilful mental states’ and which therefore was based on a skilful source was in fact to be cultivated. Such pleasure he called spiritual feeling and he connected it with the dhyanas. After all, if the rupa dhyanas had existed prior to Gautama, by definition (as he ties the first dhyana in with freedom from unskilful mental states) the notion of skilfulness would have had to have pre-existed him as well, but skilfulness is a Buddhist notion. So we have to conclude that hand-in-hand with his invention of the rupa dhyanas came his invention of the notion of skilfulness: in fact they are two sides of the same coin. What the dhyanas are a seclusion from is not ‘the world’ but unskilfulness! The dhyanas represent a barrier being created, this side of which is skilfulness and the other side of which is unskilfulness.

The happiness experienced in the dhyanas then is self generated because it is created by our being skilful. Example of ‘skilful’ happiness are the pleasure of knowing you have few needs, or, the delight in seeing someone do well. And this rapture and happiness (in the dhyanas) is the beginning of the solution to the problem of old age, sickness and death. It is basically what transforms into the bliss of Nirvana once that skilfulness has been fortified by further conditions, such as the condition of insight. But that all requires further unpacking.

Author: Mahabodhi

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