The early Buddhist scriptures tend to be didactic and discursive, often familiar to us moderns in their reason and rationality. Yet even here defamiliarization is at work, not so much in the style as in the content.
The world is dynamic and changing; therein lies its freshness. But our ideas about it tend to grow static and calcified, even our ideas about the most important things: who we are, how things are, why the world is the way it is. Especially these, perhaps. Our accustomed way of seeing is just one way, yet as it hardens through habit, it tends to become our only way. To see the world anew is of a piece with wisdom.
In the various styles and forms of Buddhist teachings, different means are employed to undermine the certainty with which we hold our views. The early Buddhist scriptures tend to be didactic and discursive, often familiar to us moderns in their reason and rationality. Yet even here defamiliarization is at work, not so much in the style as in the content. In the sutta that is traditionally known as the Buddha’s second discourse (SN 22.59), for example, he deconstructs the five aggregates, referred to as form, feeling, perception, concepts, and consciousness, through the lens of the three marks of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self ).
“What do you think of this, O monks? Is form permanent or impermanent?”— “Impermanent, O Lord.”—“Now, that which is impermanent, is it unsatisfactory or satisfactory?”—“Unsatisfactory, O Lord.”—“Now, that which is impermanent, unsatisfactory, subject to change, is it proper to regard that as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self?’”—“Indeed, not that, O Lord.” (Trans. N. K. G. Mendis)
Through a somewhat Socratic approach the Buddha destabilizes our preconceptions about the nature of our experience. Form is neither permanent, satisfactory, nor endowed with self-existence, though we surely may behave as though our cars and iPhones were when they get stolen or don’t work properly. He also systematically exposes the faulty assumptions that underlie the ongoing sense of a fixed self.
“If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lend itself to disease. It would be possible [to say] . . . ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’ But precisely because consciousness is not self, consciousness lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say], ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’” (Trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The argument is presented in an ordinary—that is, reasonable—way, but the conclusion it leads to is anything but ordinary: namely anatta, or non-self, one of the most revolutionary insights of Buddhism, offered at a time when belief not just in self but even in an immortal self was embedded in the cultural context. In rational language the Buddha defamiliarizes the experience of self, freeing his listeners, and us, of basic assumptions about it and opening up a more liberative way of experiencing.
The early teachings deconstruct many habitual ways of being and seeing. We think we’re permanent, but we’re not. We think that by craving things we’ll find happiness, but we won’t. One after another the Buddha challenges our established views, our ways of constructing our version of the world, and takes them apart: you think it’s one way but it’s not; you want an answer, but the problem is your very wanting of an answer, so I’m not giving it to you. To be sure, there is shock in these teachings, but it’s a salutary shock. Whatever view we may be grasping onto, or after, we must be dissuaded from it.
Part 3 of The Unfamiliar Familiar will be published on April 5.
By Henry Shukman, originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2014