Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s book Skill in Questions alternates between Readings—texts from the Pali canon—and Discussion sections—in which the author, a monk in the Thai forest tradition, gives background material and analysis. Chapter 2 of Skill in Questions looks at the Buddha when he was a bodhisattva, or bodhisatta in Pali. (Though the Mahayana is sometimes referred to as the Bodhisattva Vehicle, Thanissaro Bhikkhu takes issue with this, arguing that the desire for enlightenemnt is in the Theravada as well. I’ll have to find the reference.)
Chapter 2 of Skill in Questions is called The Bodhisatta’s Quest and follows the historical Buddha, or bodhisattva, as he is called before his enlightenment, on his journey toward Buddhahood:
The Buddha’s own accounts of his actions as a bodhisatta, taken together, are
one of the earliest spiritual autobiographies in recorded history. Some writers—
citing the Buddha’s teaching on anatta, or not-self—have seen irony in this fact.
Why would a teacher whose central teaching denies the self, they have asked, be
so concerned with his own self-story?
This question derives from two misunderstandings. First, the anatta teaching
does not deny the existence of the self. It is a mode of perception, a strategy using
the label “not-self” to help abandon attachment to whatever is clung to as self, so
as to reach liberation. Second, the Buddha’s central teaching is not anatta. It’s
kamma, the principle of action. As we noted in the preceding chapter, the most
fruitful and appropriate viewpoint for a person aiming at liberation is to regard
experience in terms of skillful and unskillful actions, and their respective results.
The anatta teaching is meant to function in the context of questions shaped by
that viewpoint: When is the perception of self a skillful mental action and when
is it not? When is the perception of not-self a skillful mental action and when is it
From this perspective, it is altogether appropriate that the Buddha would
have pioneered the genre of spiritual autobiography, and for two reasons. First,
the content of these accounts shows how his actions, his kamma, led to his
understanding of action, and how that understanding then led to his awakening.
The basic pattern of the accounts is this: “First I did this, then I experienced these
results. In response to these results, I did that and experienced those results.” In
the course of these experiments with action, he had done something no one else
had done, and had learned something new about action that was of universal
import. His purpose in relating his autobiography wasn’t simply to elicit an
empathetic response from his listeners; he wanted to teach them lessons about
kamma that would apply to their own pursuit of true happiness as well. Thus the
story of his actions deserved to be shared.
Second, the Buddha’s act of relating this story shows one of the instances in
which a perception of self is skillful: By sharing his experiences of his actions and
their results, the Buddha encourages his listeners to develop both a desire for
awakening and a confidence that if the Buddha did it, they could do it too. AN
4:159 calls these attitudes the craving needed to abandon craving, and the conceit
needed to abandon conceit. This is thus an area where the perception of self is
skillful both in the act of relating the accounts and in the act of listening and
responding to them.