The Ultimate Answer to the Meaning of Life in Less Than a Thousand Words So You Can Get on to Something Else

friesinleuvenThe folks in my LA group have been bugging me to mention our three-day Zen and Yoga retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center which is happening December 3-5, 2014. You can still sign up for the discount price. Go here for all the details.

It will be an amazing time up in the mountains, with three (3!!) teachers. I’ll be there, my friend Nina Snow will be instructing yoga, and my friend and fellow Nishijima Roshi dharma heir Kevin Bortolin will also do a lecture and maybe even some dokusan. You won’t get any better. All you folks who write me going “please be my teacher” take note. This is where it’s happening.

Also, Pirooz has asked me to remind you that the Indie Go Go campaign for Zombie Bounty Hunter M.D. is nearing completion and still we’re not fully funded. This is a far better film than a lot of the ones that get a bazillion dollars to warp people’s minds.

The tour of Europe has been going swimmingly (means “going well”). I’m now in the Netherlands. You know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of Ketchup? WAR SAUCE! A delightful mix of mayonnaise, Thai peanut sauce and raw onions. You will never have a date again as long as you live, but you will not care!

I got the following question via Facebook a couple days ago:

“I was wondering if you might offer some clarification on the subject of Anatta (non-self). Im having a hard time wrapping my mind around it but that is probably part of my problem. My understanding as the Buddha taught there is no self but in my experience there is a witnesser of thoughts. Consciousness. My understanding is it is just one of the aggregates of our physical manifestation in the causal realm of being in the material universe. But what happens to this consciousness after it ceases to be in the physical realm? Does it just blink out? I think what the Buddha was pointing at in his teaching was to avoid conceptualizing self to avoid attachments because in reality there is no self. But there are so many accounts of people remembering past lives and such. As I am not fixed in the idea of reincarnation it seems to me with Karma, Samasara and modern day physics would explain this energy (which we all are) must become something else. I dont know. Could you help explain it as you see it?”

I answered thusly:

This is not something I can answer in a Facebook chat — if ever. Basically, there is something. But concepts like “self” and “consciousness” are not adequate to describe it. These concepts create confusion because they do not fit the thing they name. Just like the name “dog” does not describe everything about a dog or every dog.

Now I’ll expand on that a little.

People ask me these sorts of questions all the time, often in the most impossible settings they can manage to find – Facebook chats, Twitter (as if I can contain in 140 characters what thousands of people over thousands of years couldn’t fit into a million words, they really must think I’m special!), right after I give a talk when people are waiting in line for books to be signed…

Buddhism does not insist that the real something which we experience and give names like “self,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “soul,” “atman,” etc., etc. does not exist. That would be stupid. And a philosophy based on stupid does not last for 2500 years.

If your question is, “What happens after we die?” You will find no shortage of answers. Try Google! It’s amazing!

But what sort of person tries to add to that pile of speculation and why? I ask you to consider that for a moment. Buddha did, and that was a long time before Google.

Do any of these people actually know the answer? And if just one of them did and could adequately explain and/or prove their answer, wouldn’t we all simply agree on it? And wouldn’t this have happened a few thousand years ago?

I know plenty of folks claim exactly that has already happened. But I see no reason to believe them.

The only reason anyone tries to answer this question is either a) because they want to control and dominate you or b) they want you to accept what they believe about it because that helps them believe it too. Usually it’s a shifting combination of both reasons.

Buddha understood this. It is one of his great contributions to humanity. Others have understood this too. But he went beyond merely this to devising a way in which others could engage in their own research into the question for themselves.

There really is only one answer and that is: YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK FOR YOURSELF.

Nobody really likes this answer. I don’t like it either. I’d be happier if the answer could just be handed over from someone more learned than me. But it can’t. It absolutely cannot. Not 5,000 years ago. Not from a man riding a flaming pie. Not from the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Not from me. Not from Buddha. Not now. Not ever.

YOU are the only one who can answer the question and you have to do it yourself. I can give you advice on how to go about the research. But unless you are willing to do the work yourself, no one – and I mean no one at all  – can give you any kind of answer that will ever satisfy you.

That being said, if you want research advice and quality entertainment, I can be seen at the following locations (don’t forget I still need some donations in order to get to the events for Logan’s funeral. Thanks to all who have contributed so far!):

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Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands

Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands  at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00  (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)

Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1,  Utrecht)

Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU

Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 9: Noon — 5pm  Manchester, UK

Dec. 5-7 Three-Day Zazen and Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy (near Los Angeles, CA)



Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland- Movie screening

Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18 8:00am — 6:00pm Retreat in Bonn, Germany

Oct. 19 4:00pm 3 Schätze Shop Bonn, Germany

Oct 20 Lecture in Hamburg, Germany

Oct 24: Lecture/Movie screening in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab

34 Responses

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  1. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon October 27, 2014 at 4:50 am |

    Another typical blog post that demonstrates why Brad Warner is neither qualified nor capable of being a teacher of Zen Buddhism. His answer to the question about non-self is incomplete, insufficient, and misleading because of what it omits. I would estimate his accuracy to be less than 30%.
    “Buddhism does not insist that the real something which we experience and give names like ‘self,’ ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘soul,’ ‘atman,’ etc., etc. does not exist.”
    That is true as far as it goes, but Buddhism also “does not insist that… ‘self,’ ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘soul,’ ‘atman,’ etc.,” DOES exist. Buddhism emphatically denies that ‘self,’ ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ ‘soul,’ ‘atman,’ etc.,” is “the real something” or that what “we experience” is necessarily “the real something.”
    Non-self cannot be meaningfully explained without also including dependent origination, impermanence, and illusion/delusion.

    In contrast, Claire Gesshin Greenwood said on her blog that she makes no claims to be an expert or teacher of Zen Buddhism but every post she has written so far shows evidence that she is, or at least is more qualified and capable than Brad Warner.

    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon October 27, 2014 at 7:39 am |

      Addendum (less than 140 characters):
      Non self = lacking an inherent, enduring essence = emptiness

  2. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 27, 2014 at 4:52 am |

    On Annata, I’d like to recommend a book I read a few years ago by Rodney Smith titled, Stepping Out Of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, but that would mean I can’t also recommend and link you to his new one, which is as good & maybe even better titled, Awakening:

  3. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer October 27, 2014 at 8:53 am |

    “His answer to the question about non-self is incomplete, insufficient, and misleading because of what it omits. I would estimate his accuracy to be less than 30%.”

    That’s the most amusing statement I’ve read so far today. There is hope for Monday…


    1. The Grand Canyon
      The Grand Canyon October 27, 2014 at 4:47 pm |

      (~60% incomplete) – (>10% incorrect) = (<30% accurate)

      Yup. The math checks out.

  4. sri_barence
    sri_barence October 27, 2014 at 10:09 am |

    I like Brad’s answer, mostly because it is longer than his usual “How the fuck should I know?” And I liked Grand Canyon’s post, because the link to Gesshin’s blog, by coincidence, leads to her latest blog which is chock full of “how the fuck should I know?” This “don’t know” is for all people.

    Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “If you sincerely asked ‘What Am I?’ all your thinking will come to a blind end, don’t know will appear.” At this time, you can understand your true nature, which is beyond all conceptual ideas about self or no-self.

    But I also like Brad’s response, because he reminds of a critical truth about this practice. No-one else can do it for you. So get to work!

  5. The Idiot
    The Idiot October 27, 2014 at 11:32 am |

    I The I love don’t Just Love Don’t Just Just Love Love Just Don’t Just Just Love Don’t Love Don’t 🎨

    1. Fred
      Fred October 27, 2014 at 7:02 pm |


  6. The Idiot
    The Idiot October 27, 2014 at 11:36 am |

    Not The I Not The I The Not I The The I I Not I The I Not I I The Not I The Not Not 💩

    1. Fred
      Fred October 27, 2014 at 7:08 pm |

      Not the I Not the Not Not Bubba
      Knot the eye Knot the Knot Knot Bubba

      1. Fred
        Fred October 27, 2014 at 7:11 pm |

        The empty hand grasps the not not hoe
        Walking along, Bubba rides the ox
        The ox crosses the wooden bridge
        The Bubba is flowing, the water is still

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 27, 2014 at 5:04 pm |

    Brad’s duck and cover is pretty good, you gotta admit. Right up there with the pros, which I guess he is, in spite of all disclaimers.

    I will agree with the Canyon, in that Gautama’s terminology makes no sense apart from the teachings regarding suffering. I used to have a hard time with the declension of conditional genesis, until I discovered the description at SN II 65 (Pali Text Society vol. II pg 45). Some years ago I wrote this:

    “In the version of the declension of ill that is most-often repeated, Gautama cited something called ‘the activities’ as the precursor of consciousness (SN II 77, PTS II pg 53). The activities, he said, were ‘those of deed, speech, and mind’ (SN II 3, PTS II pg 4), and consciousness depended on the activities just as the ‘station of consciousness’ depended on ‘that which we will…, and that which we intend to do and that wherewithal we are occupied” (SN II 65, PTS II pg 45). …If the most-often repeated version of the declension of ill is the same in substance as the version involving the station of consciousness, then by the ‘activities’ is meant the willful, volitive, or preoccupied activities of deed, speech, or mind; likewise, if the two versions of the declension of ill are synonymous, ‘consciousness’ in the most-often repeated version refers to the ‘station’ of consciousness.”

    Gautama himself says that the ignorance he refers to in the declension of ill is ignorance of “ill, its rise, its cessation, and concerning the way going to the cessation of ill” (SN II 3, PTS II pg 4). Also translated as “suffering”.

    Head-tripping will get you somewhere, but maybe of more immediate application is the latest science: “Neuroscientists Olaf Blanke and Christine Mohr hypothesized that the tactile/proprioceptive/kinesthetic and vestibular senses in combination with the ocular sense are principally responsible for what is regarded as the experience of self. Particularly important to their conclusion was the observation that persons who experience themselves as being simultaneously in two places at once (a particular kind of out-of-body experience) appear to have a dysfunction in one or another of these senses.” that’s from Fuxi’s Poem

    Ok, yes: “everything changes, work out your own salvation” has been good advice for 2500 years– good artists borrow, great artists steal, we know that. I’m not on the front lines, busting my knees so people can find the inspiration to keep on working it out. I try to keep to what is helpful to me, yet I think what draws us together on this site is the notion that real and helpful words can be spoken, whether or not we take from them the meaning that is commonly assigned.

    1. Fred
      Fred October 27, 2014 at 7:19 pm |

      Towering up like a mile high wall
      Not not clinging no where
      The trance was flowing
      The self was still

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 27, 2014 at 8:46 pm |

    Fred, you have driven me to pick up the Blue Cliff Record, which I had forgotten, and read the next case:

    ‘A monk asked Chao Chou, “For a long time I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Chao Chou, but now that I’ve come here I just see a simple log bridge (a bridge of one log).”

    Chao said, ‘You just see the log bridge, you don’t see the stone bridge.’

    The monk said, ‘What is the stone bridge?’

    Chao said, ‘It lets asses cross, it lets horses cross.’

    (case 52, trans. Cleary & Cleary)

    In Yuanwu’s commentary on the verse, I find this:

    “Others may tower up like a ten-mile-high walls to display the extraordinary spiritual effects of the Buddha Dharma– but thought they’re solitary and dangerous, lofty and steep, this is not as good as not setting up the solitary and dangerous, and simply acting ordinary, naturally turning smoothly.”

    Like you, Fred, I’m fond of that feeling of towering up like a wall miles-high, of that stillness in the relinquishment of activity that nevertheless acts. I don’t think the slam here is on that, but rather it’s about teachers who feel compelled to express some sense of the mystery in words, when they are confronted as Chao Chou was with skepticism about the level of their attainment. Chao Chou seems to me to be making fun of himself, for his ability to help even those who don’t know and don’t care who he is.

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles October 28, 2014 at 4:49 am |
  9. Andy
    Andy October 28, 2014 at 4:04 am |

    Found that post 100% useless, I think.


    As a side dish, I’m progressing on my shift towards eating less meat and have now started cutting down on fish, which is taking me into vegan territory.

    I wondered if you or anyone else who is Buddhist & vegan take any supplements, which ones, and if not, what foods would you take for vitamin b12, D, omega 3 (epa & dha) & Iodine (if at all)?

    (Looks like Gudo Nishijima’s habit of eating raw garlic was a good choice – wonder where he got that from?)

    Also, looks like meditation decreases cellular aging:

    1. Fred
      Fred October 28, 2014 at 6:59 am |

      I take those things in pill form Andy. They are cheap, and you know what you are

      1. Fred
        Fred October 28, 2014 at 7:07 am |

        500 mcg of B12 = 6 cents
        1000 mg of Omega 3 = 10 cents?
        1000 I.U. of D = 10 cents?

        1. Fred
          Fred October 28, 2014 at 7:12 am |

          There is iodine in kelp, but too much causes problems. I don’t mess
          around with it.

  10. UnSan
    UnSan October 28, 2014 at 4:32 am |

    for omega 3 -> linseed oil

  11. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 28, 2014 at 4:52 am |

    Google, Andy, Google!!

    The big thing I understood and I bet you do too, when I moved away from meat many years ago now was the need to replace Iron. Before I realized this I had a couple months of dragging my ass around wondering why I was so tired.

    1. Andy
      Andy October 28, 2014 at 7:03 am |

      Yeah, Beans, pulses & greens for the Iron, Mumbles. Googled my head off for a few months and have found some great resources, but the voices hanging around them regarding supplements often go off on contrasting tangents, so I thought I’d throw out the questions here, as I might get some more rounded, lived-in views/experiences.

      Thanks UnSan, I get Omega 3 ALA from milled flax/linseed and nuts. From what I’ve gathered it’s important to have the Omega 3 DHA & EPA, (which I’d been getting from the fish) enough of which isn’t converted from ALA intake.

  12. Fred
    Fred October 28, 2014 at 7:45 am |

    “I don’t think the slam here is on that, but rather it’s about teachers who feel compelled to express some sense of the mystery in words, when they are confronted as Chao Chou was with skepticism about the level of their attainment.”

    The level of attainment is of no concern to anyone, other than the illusion of self
    in its attempts to reaffirm its position in an hierarchy.

    The mystery in words is the unsupported knowing pointing to no particular thing

  13. sri_barence
    sri_barence October 28, 2014 at 8:23 am |

    That “Stone Log, Wooden Log” kong-an feels (to me) to be similar in tone to this one. (copied from

    One day, when a monk came to visit VoVu, VoVu asked him if he had visited there before. When the visitor said no, VoVu told him to,”Just have some tea!” Then, some days later, another monk came visiting, and VoVu asked if he had been there before. When the visitor said yes, VoVu told him to,”Just have some tea”.

    VoVu’s attendant, who had looked on in both occasions, asked VoVu why he told both monks to have some tea when one said yes and the other no. VoVu then called the attendant and when the attendant answered the call, VoVu told him to,”Just have some tea”.

  14. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon October 28, 2014 at 10:58 am |

    Sam Harris interviews Joseph Goldstein.

    1. Fred
      Fred October 28, 2014 at 6:12 pm |


  15. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara October 29, 2014 at 10:19 am |

    DOUBLE FAIL!!!!!!!

    fail #1) The Buddhist teacher’s explanation of anatman: “you just gotta work it out for yourself”.

    fail #2) Comments on the Buddhist teacher’s blog’s in response to the Buddhist teacher’s failed explanation of anatman: “let’s ignore the elephant in the room, and talk about vitamin supplements”.

    I like you, Warner, I really do. Your book got me into Zen. You seem honest and real… when many western zen teachers come across as pompous, sexless, conformist, petit-bourgeois crypto-puritans to me. I spent years looking for a true meaning of buddhism, sitting my buttocks off, and staying up all night reading wacky mahayana sutras: too long; read them anyway. In the end, the people in your ‘lineage’ made the most sense to me, and were the most vital expression of the Basics that I could find… early ch’an> Dogen>… > up to Sawaki > Nishijima. So you have my respect, in general. But FFS! Spin the freakin dharma wheel, or get off the bridge of the USS Liberation, Cap’n!

    No-self is a/the linchpin of Buddhist and Zen theory. OK, somebody can practice-realize zazen beautifully for a couple of kalpas without knowing any of the theory at all, but why would they want to start?

    The whole “meditation is utterly pointless and useless” rap works for people who were brought up embedded in a long-time-Buddhist, East Asian culture – it can snap people out of over-intellectualising or over-mythologising the practice. But for Western beginners who are just finding an interest in Buddhism (like the person who asked the question on facebook, maybe?) some sort of grounding in concepts will at least give them a reason to suffer sore-legged wall gazing at the start. If you don’t want to give a trite answer for fear of short circuiting their exertions, then at least mention that there is plenty of info available, and let them do some research.

    If we dismiss its philosophical core, there’s a danger of Zen being just another commoditized ego-salving tool for hipsters – like yoga (sadly) often is: The kind of thing you do to de-stress between shifts of operating death-drones from a bunker.

    There are thousands of ways of explaining anatta, which you might have pointed to: here’s one explanation that appeals to me (disclaimer: I’m not an ordained buddhist, I don’t have a zen teacher’s license thing, I’m a non-vegan, and I fuck humans – so YMMV):

    1) Having a ‘self’ is suffering (this is the “1st noble truth”).

    2) Point 1) is fairly obvious, and easy-ish to explain. Western thinkers like JP Sartre talk about existential angst, it’s the same sort of idea. Basically, while you are ‘somebody’ you have something to gain or lose, so you suffer envy/greed/anxiety/fear/loneliness and so on. This applies no matter where or who you are: you could be Almighty God today, and then a worm tomorrow. This is the basic feature of ‘being’, or ‘isness’, or ‘existence’, or however you call it: it changes (“law of impermanence”). As Brad says, “there is something”, but this something might change randomly, and whoever the ‘self’ is, the ‘self’ can’t control that change. Selfing is Insecurity!

    3) Taking it to extremes, point 2) applies even if the ‘self’ that I identify with is the whole universe. [I’ve heard some pseudo-buddhists say that being one with all of pratitya-samutpada is the point of practice. Balls! The whole universe could disappear, forever two seconds from now (in theory) … so there’s still something to suffer/worry about if you have some emotional investment in the continuation of the cosmos.]

    4) We don’t suffer from whatever doesn’t affect the ‘self’. I know there are millions of people with toothache right now, that makes me feel a tiny bit ‘suffery’: I’d suffer a lot more if it was me with toothache. (This is again simple, obvious common sense.)

    5) (Obviously, again) this ‘self’ equals any part of the universe that I have an interest in controlling, not just my human body or my ego-mind. For example, my daughter’s toothache causes me suffering more than a stranger’s toothache: so ‘my’ daughter is somehow associated with my sense of ‘self’.

    6) HERE’S WHAT SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA NOTICED … Everything that there is, is JUST the way it is, and can be no other way (right now). This is called “suchness”. When this is fully accepted, there can be NO self … ultimately nothing can be controlled, so you stop trying to control. When Buddha accepted this, he stopped feeling like a lonely separate entity, he stopped suffering. And of course, nothing can be changed, so there is no attachment to changing things, or keeping them as they are.

    7) At the point of this realisation, Buddha saw that in actual lived experience there is no distinction of subject and object, self and other, or whatever.

    8) Worth pointing out that no-self is not the same as death, or not perceiving anything, or blissing out: Buddha’s biological and mental functions were all intact, if he stubbed his toe it hurt.

    9) What DOGEN ZENJI later pointed out so well, is that when somebody can just accept everything that’s going on in a particular moment, he is perceiving the self-lessness of reality in that moment: she’s a Buddha for that moment.

    10) We JUST SIT with existence, because it’s JUST SO. Just sitting (zazen/shikantaza) is the only dignified response to the strange predicament called existence.

    11) That’s all. It makes sense to me hope it helps somebody. More than 1000 words… dang!!!!

    1. Fred
      Fred October 29, 2014 at 1:24 pm |

      The elephant in the room wasn’t ignored. To say that it was, itself is a fail.

      1. Shinchan Ohara
        Shinchan Ohara October 29, 2014 at 3:58 pm |

        Failure is stupendous

  16. Andy
    Andy October 30, 2014 at 2:09 am |

    Found Shinchin’s post 100% self-satirical, I think.


    Getting on to something else: Apparently there are some stiffcore vegans who didn’t like the idea of Vit. B12 in supplement form, and so, understanding that it was produced by bacteria in animal guts, consumed it through a nice juicy tea strained from their own poo.

  17. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara October 30, 2014 at 4:13 pm |

    Position is indefensible

    (Decocted, not strained)

  18. Conrad
    Conrad November 1, 2014 at 1:31 pm |

    I’ve always seen the doctrine of anatta as an inevitable part of the doctrine of dependent origination.

    In other words, the illusion of self arises quite naturally as a result of the process
    in consciousness that is dependent origination, in which from ignorance springs all sorts of assumptions and experiences, from duality to personal consciousness, from tanha to dukkha. That chain of dependent origination is actually a loop that keeps cycling back upon itself, over and over, building up an entire structure of illusions that are held in place one atop the other, by all the various links in the chain.

    The Buddha’s teaching, the Noble Eightfold Path, is a practical way to disrupt this chain, targeting the weak points until it breaks, and all the illusions it supports then fall away. Part of that way is to attack each link in the chain, including the link that assumes we are an independent personal self or soul located somehow at the center of experience, rather than merely a by-product of all these other illusions. But it doesn’t only attack at this point, it also attacks, even primarily, at the link of tanha and dukkha, which are much more viscerally experienced elements of the chain of dependent origination.

    The sense of self emerges from the chain of dependent origination the way an emergent phenomena appears in nature, except that it emerges from the various qualities and elements of consciousness. A hurricane emerges from certain dependent conditions of atmospheric and ocean climate, growing and building a structure out of these that seems to be an independent, living phenomena. It too has a center, oddly called an “eye”, and we as body-minds also emerge with a seeming center, that we call “I”. Both are actually just empty spaces surrounded by a lot of wild activity. It is the activity around the “I” that gives birth to the illusion that such an “I” is at the center of our bodily selves. If you look for something there, you don’t find anything, just as if you look for the eye of a hurricane, you don’t find anything directing or controlling the hurricane. It too is just calm and still.

  19. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara November 4, 2014 at 8:01 am |

    Nice nice Conrad!

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