The First Sutra
The Majjhima Nikaya is an important collection of Buddha’s teachings. The very first sutta in that collection is, therefore, of some special importance. However one rarely hears it mentioned. This may be in part because it is highly repetitive and because the point it makes is a very simple one. However, both these facts tell us that this point was fundamental. Buddha wants to push the point home because everything else depends upon it.
The sutra is called Mulapariyaya. Mula refers to something being basic or fundamental and pariyaya means going on and on, repetition. You can almost hear it in the word - ya-ya-ya. This is the sutra that exposes our basic ya-ya-ya, and it is at the beginning because it is the root of all the rest.
I notice that in the Ñanamoli & Bodhi translation, which is the most commonly used one now in English, it says in the introductory summary that this sutra is too difficult for a beginner to understand and, therefore, to not pay too much attention initially but come back to it later. I think this is not correct. You can make it complicated if you want to, but doing so avoids the main argument.
A Cup of Tea
The basic purpose of the sutra is to make clear the difference between an enlightened person and a worldling. This, after all, is what Buddha's teaching was about. The Buddha tells us that the enlightened person and the worldling may both experience the elements, earth, air, fire and water as what they are. This now sounds esoteric, but what he is saying is that both experience life in the material world. A cup is a cup (earth). The tea in it is tea (water). The steam above it is steam (air). The cup is hot (fire) to both of them. The elements are just all in a cup of tea. Enlightenment does not mean that one no longer can enjoy a cup of tea, nor does it mean that one sees the tea in a specially different way. Buddha says that both “see earth as earth as it is.”
Enlightenment does not mean that
one no longer can enjoy a cup of tea
Now, this is a first very simple point. I don’t know how many times I have read in spiritual books or heard in talks by spiritual people, that the enlightened person sees things as they are whereas the worldling does not. Not so, says the Buddha. Both see the same earth and see it as it is.
The Main Point: Self
What then is the difference? The difference is that the worldling then goes on to think, “I like tea, this tea is mine, I am a tea drinker” or he or she goes on to think, “Tea is not to my taste,” or “Where is my tea?” or “I’m not a tea drinker,” or things of this kind and when he thinks these kinds of things they are of importance to him or her. They are important because to the worldling the self is more important than the tea.
Both experience earth as earth, tea as tea and so on, but to the worldling what matters is his own relationship to it and what it says about himself, whereas, for the enlightened person, these thoughts do not occur, or if something like them occurs it is in a purely objective sense. In other words he is able to investigate the taste of tea without becoming self-invested in the matter.
This is the basic teaching of non-self. It is not that non-self is a mental state. Non-self means other. The enlightened person is focussed on the other, whether the other is a person, a cup of tea, the earth element, whatever.