Whether it is on our social media pages, in groups we attend or teach, or in casual conversation, we hear a few things quite often that seem to come from a place of misunderstanding. These things may be said with wholesome intentions, but transmitting our own misunderstanding can actually cause harm to others. Our intention with this post is simply to clarify a few points, recognizing that these are just our opinions, experience, and understanding of Theravada Buddhism.
There is No Self
This is hands-down the most commonly misunderstood statement we see floating around in the Buddhist world. Anatta is one of the three characteristics of all conditioned phenomena. It is an essential part of the Buddhist path, and is often understood as the idea that “there is no self.” Although this statement is not necessarily wrong, it definitely is not the simplest or most accurate way to understand what anatta is. The teaching of anatta is not denying that I am here writing this and you are here reading it.
Anatta may be better understood as “not-self.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the American monk and scholar, makes this distinction frequently in his talks. When we look at the actual teachings on not-self, we see that the Buddha was teaching his followers to not identify with any individual experience. Neither form, feeling, perception, determinations, nor consciousness is self (Anatta-Iakkhana Sutta). When we are experiencing sadness, the identification as a sad person leads us to more suffering. When we look deeply at experience, we can see that there really is no stable “us.” The cells in the body are constantly dying off and growing anew, the thoughts are changing, emotions change, sensations in the body change, and so on. The teaching here is to not identify or cling to experience (internal or external), and see it clearly as interdependent and fluid.
When we continue to hear that “there is no self,” we can get easily confused about the idea of anatta. It becomes harmful to repeat that there is no self; it leads to more difficulty in understanding the true teaching of anatta. The Buddha was once asked if there was a self or not, and the Buddha did not answer. The reason he gave for not answering was that he did not want to lead Vacchagotta in the wrong direction or confuse him (Ananda Sutta). To be clear, it is not believed that the Buddha ever actually said that there is no self. That is simply not a Buddhist teaching. He is believed to have taught that the five skandhas were not self.
You Must Clear the Mind of All Thoughts
Keep your ears open in Buddhist circles, and you are bound to hear this statement or some form of it. The problem here is simple: it’s both untrue and can create a sense that we are meditating incorrectly. The mind thinks, and simply trying to push down all thoughts is not any healthy form of meditation that we are familiar with. If you read nothing else further, know that it is okay if thoughts arise during meditation!
There are different kinds of Buddhist meditation. In concentration practice, we do work to bring the attention to a single point of focus (often the breath or metta phrases). When thoughts arise, we simply let them be, not diving into them. Eventually, as we continue to do this, the mind settles more easily and thoughts no longer grab so strongly at our awareness. Yes, in the jhanas (deep states of concentration), the mind is completely focused on one object. However, this does NOT mean that thoughts are not arising. Rather, the thoughts aren’t as seductive and we can let them be with much more ease. Furthermore, the mind settles into deep jhanas only after years of steady and devoted practice.
In mindfulness or insight meditation, thoughts are just part of the practice. In mindfulness meditation and open awareness practices, we are bringing the attention to whatever is arising in our experience. Sometimes thoughts arise; include them in your practice! Thoughts are not separate from meditation practice. They are a crucial part of it. Look at your thoughts and work with them. Telling somebody new to meditation that the mind must be completely silent often just leads to the newcomer feeling that they are a poor meditator.
We Should Have No Goals/All Desire is Bad
This one just came up recently both on our social media and in a group that we were attending. When we sit in meditation, should we have a goal or intention? Desire is one of the three poisons of Buddhism, so isn’t it bad? Of course we need a goal or intention in our practice! We need a reason to practice or sit. And no, not all desire is bad or harmful. There is unskillful desire and okay desire.
First we will take a look at goals and intentions. It is true that during meditation, it is unhelpful and harmful to be craving for something specific to be happening. When we become set on a meditation looking a certain way, we begin clinging and attaching. Instead of doing this, we should practice just sitting with experience as it is. However, we absolutely all have intentions and goals. Why do you sit? If you didn’t have the goal or intention of building compassion, cultivating wisdom, or encouraging a concentrated mind, you wouldn’t be sitting! In addition, we have an intention or goal during an actual formal meditation. If we are sitting in a concentration practice, the goal is to notice when the mind has wandered and to bring it back. We shouldn’t cling to a perfectly silent and concentrated mind, because that’s just not always our experience. However, we can still have a goal.
As for desire, the Buddha differentiated between chanda and tanha. Tanha is often translated as “thirst.” As a recovering alcoholic, I think of this as the thirst of an active alcoholic. Tanha is the craving, clinging, and desire for experience to be a certain way. It is the thought, “If I just had ______, I would be happy,” or “If ______ happened, I would be happy.” We rest our happiness on the future, hoping that things will be different than they are. As a result we are forever suffering, because we always are looking to the future. Chanda is a healthy desire. For example, I want to cultivate a more concentrated mind. I make an effort to sit in meditation and practice in a way that leads to the growth of the focused mind. This is chanda. If the desire becomes stronger and I begin to suffer over it, it turns into tanha. All desire is not bad. If it weren’t for desire, we wouldn’t even want to let go of desire itself!
If you are knowledgeable in the Buddhist teachings, I encourage you to pause before passing on knowledge. Consider that the Buddha held things within himself frequently in order to not confuse or give unhelpful information to his followers. Saying “there is no self,” “the mind must be clear of all thoughts,” or “all desire is bad” is often not helpful to a newcomer, and generally causes more harm than anything.