In this excerpt, Alan Watts describes more in detail two terms that are of basic importance to a clear understanding of the Buddhist view of existence: the precepts of “impermanence” (anitya) and “no-Self” (anatman), that some of you may be familiar with.
“The anitya doctrine is, again, not quite the simple assertion that the world is impermanent, but rather that the more one grasps at the world, the more it changes. Reality in itself is neither permanent nor impermanent; it cannot be categorized. But when one tries to hold on to it, change is everywhere apparent, since, like one’s own shadow, the faster one pursues it, the faster it flees.
In the same way, the anatman doctrine is not quite the bald assertion that there is no real Self (atman) at the basis of our consciousness. The point is rather that there is no Self, or basic reality, which may be grasped, either by direct experience or by concepts. Apparently the Buddha felt that the doctrine of the atman in the Upanishads lent itself too easily to a fatal misinterpretation.
It became an object of belief, a desideratum, a goal to be reached, something to which the mind could cling as its one final abode of safety in the flux of life. The Buddha’s view was that a Self so grasped was no longer the true Self, but only one more of the innumerable forms of maya. Thus anatman might be expressed in the form, “The true Self is non-Self,” since any attempt to conceive the Self, believe in the Self, or seek for the Self immediately thrusts it away.
T h e Upanishads distinguish between atman, the true, supra-individual Self, and the jivatman or individual soul, and the Buddha’s anatman doctrine agrees with them in denying the reality of the latter. It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences.
For the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch. We can, for example, imagine the path of a bird through the sky as a distinct line which it has taken. But this line is as abstract as a line of latitude. In concrete reality, the bird left no line, and, similarly, the past from which our ego is abstracted has entirely disappeared. Thus any attempt to cling to the ego or to make it an effective source of action is doomed to frustration.
The Second Noble Truth relates to the cause of frustration, which is said to be trishna, clinging or grasping, based on avidya, which is ignorance or unconsciousness. Now avidya is the formal opposite of awakening. It is the state of the mind when hypnotized or spellbound by maya, so that it mistakes the abstract world of things and events for the concrete world of reality. At a still deeper level it is lack of self-knowledge, lack of the realization that all grasping turns out to be the futile effort to grasp oneself, or rather, to make life catch hold of itself. For to one who has self-knowledge, there is no duality between himself and the external world. Avidya is “ignoring” the fact that subject and object are relational, like the two sides of a coin, so that when one pursues, the other retreats.”
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 47,48
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