SAY "NO!" WITH ATAMMAYATA

For our health and sanity, for peace and ecological survival, for liberation, we must say "No!" to the myriad forms of egoism and selfishness, of greed, anger, and delusion, which generate and proliferate consumerism, environmental degradation, poverty, racism, sexism, immorality, and social injustice. But we donít know how to say it. We say "no" with schemes, with anger, with regrets, with guilt. Or we are afraid to say it. We havenít found a way to say "No!" and be free. So, the world ó along with our minds ó remains a mess.

All religious teachings empower us to say "No!" to what is dangerous, evil, and stupid. Buddha-Dhamma especially shows us how to say "No!" to dukkha and its causes. Not passive acceptance, not denial, not apathy, not intellectual obfuscation, but wise and aware refusal to harm others, oneself, and the world is the Middle Way.

There is one term in Buddha-Dhamma that says "No!" best of all: atammayata. Most simply, atammayata means "I ainít gonna mess with you no more." In the Thai language, these can be fighting words. If necessary, we can find more polite renditions, but the vigor of "I ainít gonna mess with you no more" must be retained. "This is it! Iíve had enough of your games and I ainít gonna take any more _______!"

Literally, atammayata may be translated as "the state of not being made up by, or made up from, that (thing or condition)." The central element maya means "fabrication, making into, concocting," which implies dependence, which means slavery. A mind that relies upon things ó outer authorities, consumer goods, power, sex, drugs, beliefs, theories, ignorance ó is fabricated by or concocted by those things. Essentially, they turn us into slaves. This slavery can be "positive-good" or it may be "negative-bad." The difference is subjective, that is, our own choice. Either way, by relying on things with attachment, we become their slaves. That condition is called "tammayata" (messing around, being messed with).

When we are freed from such slavery, when we feel no compulsion to rely upon and attach to things, when we donít judge them, donít even think of them, as "positive" and "negative", we have atammayata. We can translate this as "invulnerability, imperturbability, unconcoctability, unmanipulability," all of which are rather clumsy. The more down-to-earth "I ainít gonna mess with no more" is more practical. It is just what most of us need. Further, it contains the most profound message in Buddha-Dhamma, in all religion for that matter.

The story of the historical Buddhaís life contains many examples of atammayata in practice. For example, the young Samana Gotama, stayed with the meditation masters Alara Kalamagotara and Uddaka Ramaputta until mastering their teachings. When each, in turn, invited him to be a co-teacher, the young Samana Gotama asked if there wasnít anything more to his teaching. When each said there was not, Gotama politely replied that this was not the end of dukkha he was searching for and walked away. To walk away from the foremost meditative bliss of his time, of all time, as well as the fame and spoils of big-time guru-dom, required atammayata.

Later, after practicing all the austerities and ascetic practices popular in those days, after taking such self-mortification further than anyone ever had, he realized it was all useless and dropped it all at once. Only atammayata can do that. Finally, sitting under the Bodhi tree during the night of the great awakening, Gotama refused to be tempted by Mara and his three sexy daughters. Once again, atammayata said "No!" And then, observing the dependent arising of dukkha and the quenching of that chain reaction, Gotama said the ultimate "No!" He shook off all egoism, all illusion of self, all ignorance, and with it all dukkha. That remains the ultimate atammayata. Which opens the heart wide to Nibbana.

In the great teachers of other traditions, we can find atammayata, also. The Jewish patriarch Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac at Godís command. Christ displayed one level of atammayata when he threw the moneychangers out of the temple and another level on the cross that represents the supreme crucifixion, the killing of the "I." In Islam, "jihad" represents atammayata towards injustice and social immorality, while the Mulla Nasrudin stories are the atammayata of humor. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna accepts his duty to go to war although kinsmen and many familiar faces were on the other side. With atammayata toward emotional attachments, he pursues his yoga.

Although atammayata is required at the spiritual heights, it is also found in children. For example, many of us once sucked our thumbs. Then one day we looked at the red, swollen, shriveled thing we had been sticking in our mouths and lost all desire to suck on it again. The feeling that took the thumb out of our mouths for good is atammayata. (However, if the feeling didnít go deep enough, we eventually replaced the thumb with other things, like cigarettes.) All of us can remember times when we have seen something clearly for once and for all, thus ending a stupid involvement with that thing. Perhaps involvement continued ó who cut off their thumbs? ó but without the old stupidity and attachment. All bad habits can be dropped with atammayata.

Now, I would like to share a few ways in which we can use atammayata to make a better world and better lives for ourselves and our friends. There are many things to which we must learn to say "No!" Everything stupid, degrading, destructive, and obsessive must be chased away with atammayata. In the end, we should be left with only the healthy, the worthy, the just, the necessary, the peaceful, and the truly human (as well as divine).

First, letís look at a few external situations, like sexism. This is an all pervasive difficulty. Take a powerful instinct (sex), confuse it with political, economic, religious, cultural, and power issues, then you will have something which biases everything we do. With all the instances of sexism which touch our lives ó whether perpetrated by or against us ó we must look hard at that sexism and see the assumptions and habits on which it is based. See the desires and fears that support it. Note the murky feelings involved. Most of all, see how it belittles each of us, reducing everyone to a beastly least common denominator. Look hard at all of that until seeing the ugliness, the crudity, and the stupidity of it. Refuse to take part in it. Remove it from oneís sexuality. Refuse to be trapped and used by not only your own prejudices but also those of others. See the lust, fear, loneliness, and guilt that sexism pulls onto our heads and say "No!"

The world economic structure is kept going by consumerism. Few of us examine this morass, so few us are truly free of it. All of us have a few favorite consumer goods; we still like to make ourselves happy by buying a new toy. We all get excitement from buying, owning, and using things. Thus, we are suckers for TV hard sell. Thus, we buy into the entire net of consumer economics and politics. (It has become a global way of life, although eighty percent of humanity canít afford to buy in.) Next time your eyes fall on an ad in your favorite magazine, are caught by a billboard or storefront display, are drawn in by a TV commercial, or are ready to type in your credit card number on some website ó say "No!" Look at it until you realize how stupid the whole mess is making us. Say "No!" to stupidity. Say "No!" to entrapment. "I ainít gonna mess with you no more." Just buy the things you need and only because you genuinely need them. Use them responsibly. Demand appropriate products with appropriate quality. Donít mess with consumer junk no more! Give them the "Atammayata Seal of Disapproval."

Most of us live within minutes of some environmental tragedy, merely a blink of the eye if we live in a city or suburb. The forests around the monastery I am writing from are disappearing fast. A nearby dam ruins one river and a planned dam threatens another. The local market town is full of noise and the streets are full of plastic. The children eat junk food and toss the foil wrappers into the gutter. Men toss their whiskey bottles. Pesticides are used indiscriminately. You know what is going on around you. Say "No!" to dirty air, dirty water, dirty food, dirty money, dirty minds.

These three examples should be enough for you to get the principle. If you understand how to use atammayata in dealing with such situations, you will apply it to the issues on which you are working. Say "No!" to child abuse, malnutrition, deforestation, schooling, prostitution, political corruption, medical dishonesty, torture, media disinformation, war, crime, technological over-indulgence, violence ...

Now, some internal situations. To apply atammayata to social situation is just a start, merely a holding action. The roots of the problems are deeper, that is, within the hearts of people. As "engaged Buddhists" we must also work on the spiritual level. Our engagement is that we turn outer activism into spiritual non-activism. We use the work for others as an opportunity to say "No!" to our own egos, attachments, and ignorance.

For example, we are often motivated ó to some degree ó by outrage and anger. We see things going on in this world which we strongly feel are "wrong." We condemn these things as "wrong" and they donít make us feel very happy. But our minds are still sloppy and we canít distinguish the "wrongness" of certain actions from the "person" who does them. We easily slip into judging other people, the so-called perpetrators, as being "wrong." We attach to that "wrongness" more strongly, which becomes anger, outrage, hatred, wrath. We have become violent. Perhaps are demeanor is calm but our heart is violent.

The spiritual activist must find the means to say "No!" to the inner violence. We examine the process through which they are spawned, saying "No!" to each level of the concocting. We look bravely into our own anger and hatred as well as the fear and exhilaration that can accompany them, seeing the burning pain as they singe our minds. We see the ugliness of debasing human life ó our own and the otherís ó to such a pathetic state. We see the hopelessness of building a peaceful world through such violent thoughts. So, we say "No!" to them. Going deeper, we see that the "person" is not what our judging makes him out to be. She is a breathing being who also seeks happiness and a good life, just as we do. He is influenced by corrupt forces in society. We say "no!" to the limited vision of the human being that judges him as "wrong" and "evil." We say "no!" to our lack of compassion. We say "no!" to our blindness.

Then we can face up to the "wrong" itself. Where, really, is the "wrongness." Can we put a finger on it? Does it stay still long enough for us to bring it to court? When we look with Dhamma eyes, which we call vipassana, we see that the "wrong" is impermanent, unsatisfying, and not-self. It is void of any self that can be wrong. The wrongness itself is void. It is a word, a thought, a belief of our culture and experience that the mind projects onto reality. May we have the insight to say "no!" even to "wrongness."? If we can take atammayata this far, our vision of the world becomes peaceful, no longer marred by our judgments and negative thoughts. Then we can peacefully respond to suffering and its causes, seeing them clearly as they are.

There isnít enough space to examine the other harmful emotions: fear, worry, greed for power, competition, lust, boredom, guilt, envy, excitement, etc. Each must be investigated from its most crude level to its deepest roots until we can say "no!" to every level and manifestation of defilement. Then our engagement will be fully Buddhist, that is, Dhammic.

To be truly Buddhist or Dhammic, our engagement and activism must go one last step. At the same time, that atammayata is clearing up social and emotional problems, it can free us from the deepest dilemma of all ó our selves. This "I" which is an "engaged Buddhist," where is it? Can you show it to me? Can you keep it from making mistakes, from being hurt, careless, afraid, wrong, stupid, sick, sorry, burned out, dead? Where is this "Me" that we assume lurks beneath all our activism and living? Look closely, look deeply: please. Can you find it? Can you provide any genuine proof that such a thing really exists? You canít? Then why not follow the Buddhaís example and say "no!" to ego, to self, to "I," to "mine."

Now there is some fresh air in the room, some peace. Enjoy the life of Atammayo ("one who is unconcocted") ó the human life that is most peaceful and useful. Now we can understand others, even our "enemies," and have compassion for their fears, worries, and problems. Now we can smile at everyone and really work for peace. Atammayata gives the "non-engaged Buddhist" this freedom to do whatever must be done and not-done. Discover atammayata through saying "No!"

Santikaro Bhikkhu
Suan Atammayatarama
20 October 91

Originally written for Seeds of Peace,
then the journal of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

Atammayata is "unconcoctability," a state of mind independent of the objects and conditions of experience. Fully conscious and aware, this mind is not affected by the defilements of greed, anger, and delusion. Thus, the concept is close in meaning to the adjective visankhara, which describes the unconditioned state of Nibbana. Clearly, atammayata is something Buddhists should be aware of.

There are many levels to atammayata. We can investigate them from lower to higher levels in both our social life and our spiritual life. As life is just one anyway, why not free it all, in all its aspects, from everything that obscures our peaceful, luminous original minds.

ATAMMAYATA: The Rebirth of a Lost Word


Posted 01 Feb 2003 © by Sravasti Abbey at Liberation Park