The following discourse is based
on a collection of lectures on the Anatta doctrine given by
Sayadaw U Silananda. Anatta is a Pali word consisting of a
negative prefix, ‘an’ meaning not, plus atta, soul, and is most
literally translated as no-soul. The word atta, however has a wide
range of meanings, and some of those meanings cross over into the
fields of psychology philosophy and everyday terminology as, for
example, when atta can mean self, being, ego, and personality.
Therefore, in this preface, we
will examine and elucidate the wide range of meanings which atta
can signify in order to determine exactly what the Buddha denied
when He proclaimed that He teaches anatta, that is, when He denied
the existence of atta. We will examine both Buddhist and
non-Buddhist definitions of the term soul, and we will also
examine modern definitions of terms such as ego and self.
Most writers in the field of
religion, when writing about soul or anatta specifically use the
terms self, ego, being and soul interchangeably, while
psychologists define those terms as totally different entities. If
we define atta as including the terms self ego, personality, and
being, we may make the mistake of claiming that Buddha denied the
phenomena of individual differences, individual personalities,
individual kamma and other features of individuality in people.
But if we say that Buddha denied
only the theological entity of a soul, while leaving intact a
psychological entity such as an ego or self, then we are also
mistaken. The resolution of this dilemma lies in the fact that we
must deal with two levels of reality simultaneously, the ultimate
level and the conventional level.
In the absolute sense, the anatta
doctrine denies any and all psychological entities or agents
inside the person. In the absolute sense, all phenomena, including
what is called a person, are composed of elements, forces, and a
stream of successive states.
The Buddha organised these
phenomena into conceptual groups, known as khandhas (aggregates),
and they are: (1) material processes, also known as bodily form,
corporeality or matter; (2) feeling; (3) perception; (4) mental
formations; and (S) consciousness. Most important ý when all
mental and physical phenomena are analysed into those elements, no
residual entity, such as a soul, self, or ego, can be found. In
short, there are actions executed by these groups, but no actor
The workings of these groups of forces and elements appear to us
as an ego or personality but in reality the ego or self or agent
of the actions has only an illusory existence.
However on the conventional level,
the workings of these forces, elements, and states are organised
by causal laws, and, although they in no way constitute any
extra-phenomenal self or soul, they do produce a human individual,
a person - if we want to call a certain combination of material
and mental processes a person.
This complex combination of
material and mental processes is dependent entirely on previous
processes, especially the continuity of kamma which is the process
of ethical volitions and the results of those volitions. Thus
individual differences are accounted for even though the self or
ego or personality is, in the ultimate sense, denied.
An individual may be an angry,
hot-tempered person, for example, because in the past he or she
has performed actions which leave conditions for traits, which are
kamma results, to arise in the present. But this happens because
kamma leaves a potential for those traits of anger and ill will to
arise, not because any kind of self of the person is continuing.
Actually the human individual does not remain the same for two
conseclusive moments; everything is a succession of forces and
elements, and there is nothing substantial.
Therefore, on the conventional
level, we may say that individual differences have an illusory
existence. Common everyday conceptions, such as ego, self, and
personality seem to be very real, obvious, and well-defined by
psychologists and laymen alike, but they are, on the absolute
level and in the eyes of those who have achieved enlightenment,
Another way to approach Buddhist
psychology is to examine the very complex and technical
psychological system known as Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma is, in
the words of Narada Maha Thera, “a psychology without a psyche.
Abhidhamma teaches that ultimate reality consists of four
One, Nibbana (in Sanskrit,
Nirvana) is unconditioned, and the other three, citta, cetasika,
and rupa - consciousness, mental factors, and matter respectively
- are conditioned. These elementary constituents, called dhammas,
alone possess ultimate reality. The familiar world of objects and
persons, and the interior world of ego and self are only
conceptual constructs created by the mind out of the elemental
Abhidhamma thus restricts itself
to terms that are valid from the standpoint of ultimate realities:
it describes reality in terms of ultimate truth. Thus it describes
dhammas, their characteristics, their functions, and their
relations. All conceptual entities such as self or being or
person, are resolved into their ultimates, into bare mental and
material phenomena, which are impermanent, conditioned,
dependently arisen, and empty of any abiding self or substance.
Consciousness, for example, which
seems like one continual flow, is described as a succession of
discrete evanescent mental events, the cittas, and a complex set
of mental factors, the cetasikas, which perform more specialised
tasks in the act of consciousness. There is no self, soul, or any
kind of agent inside a person involved in this process.
Now let us examine some of the
terms related to atta that we find in various sources. The
definition of Soul, Spirit given in the Abingdon Dictionary of
Living Religions is as follows: “That which gives life to any
animate thing; or the inner essential, or noncorporeal part or
dimension of any animate thing; or a noncorporeal but animate
substance or entity; or a noncorporeal but individuated personal
Another definition of soul comes
from Richard Kennedy in The lnternational Dictionary of Religion:
“Many religions teach that man is composed of a physical body,
which does not survive death, and an eternal, invisible core which
is the true self or soul.
Donald Watson, in A Dictionary of
Mind and Spirit, writes, in the entry Sou/: “It goes by many
names: jiva (Jain), Atman (Hindu), Monad, Ego, Self, Higher Self,
Overself, elusive self, psyche, or even Mind.” In these
non-Buddhist definitions of soul, we see many terms inter-changed,
such as core, ego, and essence. Sayadaw U Silananda will elaborate
on these meanings in his lectures.
Two Buddhist definitions of atta
are here given. The first is from Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist
Dictionary. “... anything that in the ultimate sense could be
regarded as a self existing, real ego-entity soul or any other
abiding substance. “ In The Truth of Anatta, Dc G.P Malalasekera
states that atta is “self, as a subtle metaphysical entity soul.”’
These definitions also cover a wide range of meanings of the term
atta and of the usual translations of atra as soul and self.
The above definitions of atta,
soul, sometimes cross over into the realm of psychology when the
authors define soul as self, ego, psyche or mind. Did the Buddha
deny that such conceptions as ego and self are real when He
proclaimed the anatta doctrine? Once again, the answer depends on
whether we are speaking of absolute or conventional reality. But
first we will examine some definitions from psychology to see what
was actually denied both implicitly and explicitly by the anatta
According to the Dictionary of
Psychology self is: “(1) the individual as a conscious being. (2)
the ego or I. (3) the personality or organisation of traits.” The
definition of ego is “the self, particularly the individual’s
conception of himself.” Personality is defined as “the dynamic
organisation within the individual of those psycho physical
systems that determine his characteristic behaviour and thought."
Another definition of personality
is “that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a
given situation.”” These psychological terms correspond to some of
the terms used in Buddhism to deal with the conventional life of
sentient beings. They have a useful purpose as labels, but in the
ultimate sense, these labels are, as we shall see, mere
designations which have only an illusory reality,
In Pali, we have the terms satta,
puggala, jiva and atta to describe the conventional psychology of
beings. Satta, according to Nyanatiloka, means “living being."
Puggala means “individual, person, as well as the synonyms:
personality individuality being (satta), self (atta). Tiva is
“life, vital princi-ple, individual soul.”
Some uses of atta also fall within
the realm of psychology Atta can mean, according to Dr.
Malalasekera, “one’s self or one’s own, e.g. attahitaya patipanno
no parahitaya (acting in one’s own interest, not in the interest
of others) or attana va akatam sadhu (what is done by one’s own
self is good).”
Atta can also mean “one’s own
person, the personality including body and mind, e.g. in atrabhava
(life), attapatilabha (birth in some form of life).”
Pali has some terms which
correspond to the psychological notions of traits. For example,
the concept of nature or character is called carita. Using this
term, we can speak of different types of persons. For example. we
may describe a person as raga-carita (greedy-natured), dosa-carica
(hateful-natured), moha-carita (dull-natured), saddha-carita
(faithful-natured), buddhi-carita (intelligent-natured), and
vitakka-carita (ruminating-natured) - six types altogether
Different people are at different stages of development, according
to their kamma. Buddhism does not deny that such conceptions of
individuality have validity but they have validity only in the
Dr Malalasekera writes: “Buddhism
has no objection to the use of the words atta, or satta, or
puggala to indicate the individual as a whole, or to distinguish
one person from another where such distinction is necessary,
especially as regards such things as memory and kamma which are
private and personal and where it is necessary to recognise the
existence of separate lines of continuity (santana).
But, even so, these terms should
be treated only as labels, binding-conceptions and conventions in
language, assisting economy in thought and word and nothing more.
Even the Buddha uses them sometimes: ‘These are worldly usages
worldly terms of communication, worldly descriptions, by which a
Tathagata communicates without misapprehending them".
Nyanatiloka adds to this idea when
writing about the term satta: “This term, just like atta, puggala,
jiva and all other terms denoting ‘ego-entity,’ is to be
considered as a merely conventional term (vohara-vacana), not
possessing any reality value.
All of the various conceptions of
psychology and religion regarding a self or soul of any kind were
indeed denied existence in the ultimate sense by the Buddha. But
we may use terms such as self and ego to describe a particular
arrangement of the five khandhas (aggregates) which give the
illusory appearance of an individual. As Sister Vajira, an Arahant
at the time of the Buddha, said:
constituent parts are there,
The designation ‘cart’ is used;
Just so, where the five groups exist,
Of ‘living being’ do we speak.
In conclusion, the Sayadaw U
Silananda has given us lectures on the anatta doctrine in which he
uses terms such as soul and self interchangeably. This is because
the doctrine of anatta was taught by the Buddha from the point of
view of the Fully Enlightened One, a view which saw that all
things are anatta. It is with this wisdom that the lectures are
Impermanence, Suffering and No-Soul
doctrine of anatta is very important to Buddhists. No
realisation of Truth can occur without the knowledge of the
anatta (no-soul) nature of things. To realise Truth, one must
practice meditation, and during meditation, the knowledge of
anatta must arise. One needs the knowledge of anicca, dukkha,
and anatta, that is, the knowledge of impermanence, of
suffering, and of the no-soul nature of things. Until one
experiences these characteristics in meditation, not just
intellectually, but directly, one cannot make progress.
Vipassana (Insight) meditation deals directly with these
characteristics run through all stages of vipassana. I will
discuss Vipassana later, but first we must explain what
conceals the three characteristics from perception during
Impermanence is concealed by continuity If one looks at a
candle flame, one may think that it is the same flame from
moment to moment. Actually, the flame is constantly
disappearing and arising again every second. We have the
illusion of one flame because of the idea and appearance of
nature of suffering is concealed by changing into different
postures. When we are sitting and feel some pain, we change
posture and the pain goes away. Actually we are changing
postures constantly at every moment of our lives, but this is
not apparent to us. The moment a tiny unpleasant sensation is
felt, we change postures. The characteristic of no-soul is
concealed by the perception that things are compact and solid.
We look at things and at ourselves as solid, compact things.
Until we can break through the false perception that we are
compact, we will not see the no-soul nature of things.
why there are meditational practices in which the four
elements, earth, water, fire, and air are contemplated.
Actually the primary Qualities of those elements are
contemplated: earth is characterised by hardness or softness,
water by fluidity or cohesion, fire by heat, and air by
extending or supporting. If we can have the insight into
phenomena as being composed of elements and their
characteristics, then the idea of compactness will be
that we are substantial, but if we have insight into our real
nature, the nature of being composed of nama and rupa, or more
precisely of elements and forces mutually dependent and
interacting with each other then the idea of a coherent,
abiding, substantial self is weakened, and nothing we can call
a self is found.
anatta doctrine is of primary importance to a Buddhist. In
fact, anatta can only be understood when there is a Buddha or
a Buddha’s teaching in the world. No one but a Buddha can
penetrate into the anatta nature of things because only
through Vipassana meditation, discovered by Buddha, can
insight into anatta be realised. Even though great and
profound thinkers are around, they still cannot penetrate into
anatta, and other kinds of meditation, such as Samatha (Tranquillity),
may give you psychic powers or higher states of consciousness,
but they cannot lead you to the insight into anatta.
mentioned earlier, the belief in a soul was described by the
Buddha as a major cause of suffering. The belief in atta of
any kind, whether belief in a personal ego or in a spiritual
self, is the cause of all dukkhas in this rounds of rebirth;
the belief in atta is the root of greed, hatred, and delusion.
Atheists may not believe in a spiritual soul, but they serve
the desires of their personal ego and thus may commit deeds of
greed, hatred, and delusion. The idea of atta is very hard to
conquer but still we must try because realization of anatta is
the way to deliverance, while the persistence of the idea of
atta is a major cause of misery.
cannot over-emphasize the importance of anatta, as Nyanatiloka
“Whosoever has not penetrated this impersonality of all
existence, and does not comprehend that in reality there
exists only this continually self consuming process of arising
and passing bodily and mental phenomena, and that there is no
separate ego-entity within or without this process, he will
not be able to understand Buddhism, i.e., the teaching of the
Four Noble Truths... in the right light.
think that it is his ego, his personality, that experiences
suffering, his personality that performs good and evil actions
and will be reborn according to these actions, his personality
that will enter Nibbana, his personality that walks on the
words of Nyanatiloka bring up a very important point often
asked about Nibbana: In the absence of a soul, who or what is
it that enters Nibbana? This is a diffcult subject. From what
has been said so far in this lecture, we can certainly say
that there is no atta or self which realises Nibbana What
realizes Nibbana is insight-wisdom, Vipassana-panna. It is not
the property of a personal or universal self, but is rather a
power developed ‘ through meditative penetration of phenomena.
another even more difficult Question is: What happens to a
Tathăgata (here in the sense of one who has realised Nibbăna)
after deathl Once again, Buddha gave his answer without
recourse to any kind of spiritual entity such as atta. Buddha
essentially replied that no words could possibly describe what
happens to a Tathagata after death: “A Tathăgata released from
what is called body etc., is profound, immeasurable, hard to
fathom, like the great ocean.
not fit the case to say that he is reborn or not reborn, or
reborn and not reborn, or neither reborn nor not reborn.” Then
He goes on to say, after being Questioned further: “Profound
is this doctrine, hard to see, hard to comprehend, calm,
excellent, beyond the sphere of reasoning, subtle,
intelligible only to the wise.
Nibbana, the Absolute Noble Truth, the extinction of all
continuity and becoming, the “Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated,
Unformed”. Reality is affirmed without reference to atta.
Likewise, the Arahant who realises Nibbana does so by means of
a flash of insight which destroys forever all illusions of the
existence of atta. I will conclude with some well-written
words from Nyanatiloka:
One cannot too
often and too emphatically stress the fact that not only for
the actual realisation of the goal of Nibbana, but also for a
theoretical understanding of it, it is an indispensable
preliminary condition to grasp fully the truth of anatta, the
egolessness and insubstantiality of all forms of existence.
Without such an understanding, one will necessarily
misconceive Nibbana - according to one’s either materialistic
or metaphysical leanings - either as annihilation of an ego,
or an eternal state of existence into which an ego or self
enters or with which it merges. Hence it is said:
Direct Experience of Anatta
The anatta doctrine is extremely difficult to
comprehend. One can speculate or ponder about it - that is one
kind of knowledge, acquired by listening to a lecture or by
reading. One may also ponder over it more deeply in
contemplation. But one can only really penetrate into it
during vipassana meditation.
yogis practice, they keep themselves aware of everything. When
they see something, there are two things: the mind which sees
and the object seen, apart from these, there is nothing. More
specifically, seeing is a process which depends on four
things: the eye, the visible object, light, and attention to
the object. If one of these conditions is lacking, no seeing
occurs. If one does not have eyes, no atta can make one see.
Only when all conditions are met does seeing consciousness
arise. No agent like atta is a part of this.
Likewise, when yogis note themselves thinking during
meditation, they note “thinking, thinking, thinking,” and they
find only thinking and the mind which notes it - they do not
find a self or ego or atta. They do not find that “I am
thinking,” unless they add this idea as an afterthought. They
really only find that thinking is occurring. In this process,
yogis can see the impermanence of mind and thought: one
thought comes, then goes; another thought comes and goes, and
this goes on and on.
thought comes every moment, arising and disappearing. They
directly see the impermanence of thought. They can also notice
the impermanence of material things, such as physical pain, by
noting the arising and disappearing of the pain in the body.
They can see that all things are oppressed by rise and fall,
by arising and disappearing. This oppression of phenomena by
arising and disappearing is the characteristic of dukkha
Unwisely, we desire for things to be permanent, yet we realise
that we have no power to make impermanent things permanent; we
realise that we have no control or authority over things. No
inner core, no atta, can be found in any observed phenomena.
Yogis can discover this anatta nature of things in Vipassana
meditation, because gradually they bring awareness and
concentration to a high degree and then they have penetrative
knowledge into the true nature of mind and body.
Analysis of the Discourse on the
Characteristic of No-Soul
now study in more detail the Sutra which teaches the doctrine
of anatta, known as the Anattalakkhana Sutta, “The Discourse
on the Characteristic of No-Soul.” This was the second sermon
of the Buddha.
end of the first sermon, the Venerable Kondanna became a
Sotapanna (a person at the first stage of enlightenment) and
then, according to the Commentaries, for example, the
Commentary on Vinaya, the other four disciples became
Sotapannas, one on each of the four following days. On the
first day after the full-moon day in July, the monk Vappa
became a Sotapanna; on the second day, Bhaddiya; on the third
day, Mahanama; and on the fourth day, Assaji. After they
became Sotapannas, they all asked Buddha for ordination.
Buddha ordained each of them by calling to them, “Come monks.”
On the fifth day after the full-moon day, the Buddha assembled
them and preached to them this discourse on no-soul.
discourse’ is even shorter than the first sermon on the Four
Noble Truths. It was delivered at the Deer Park at Benares.
Buddha called the disciples by saying, “Monks,” and they
replied, “Venerable Sir” and then the Buddha started.
divide the Sutta into five parts. In the first part, Buddha
says that the five ag,regates are not atta, not self or soul.
In the second section, Buddha asks the monks if the five
aggregates are permanent or impermanent, pleasurable or
painful, and then He arrives at the conclusion that the nature
of the five aggregates is anatta. In the third section, Buddha
teaches that the five aggregates should not be taken as a soul
or self or as belonging to one-self. In the fourth section,
Buddha explains briefly the progress of Vipassana meditation.
section records that all five monks had attained the stage of
Arahant. By the end of the Sutta, all five monks became
Arahants which is the highest stage of enlightenment.
says, “Bhikkhus, form is anatta, (form is not soul or self.
Were form soul, then this form would not lead to affliction,
and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my
form be not thus.’ And since form is not soul, so it leads to
affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be
thus; let my form be not thus.”’ Here the Pali word rupa is
translated as form. The word forms here used in the sense of
material properties or just matter.
reader may recall that the first of the five aggregates is
form or corporeality But form cannot be atta because it is
subject to affliction. Atta (self or soul) must have the
meaning which we discussed earlier: that of vasavattana,
something which has the power and autonomy to change the
nature of things. No one likes pain and affliction in the
body, but it cannot be changed. If form were atta, people
could abolish pain, disease, and ugliness by merely wishing.
But there is no core or director or soul inside or outside of
people which has the power to accomplish such actions.
considered the second aggregate and says: “Feeling is not
soul. Were feeling soul, then this feeling would not lead to
affliction, and one could have it of feeling: ‘Let my feeling
be thus; let my feeling be not thus.”’ Then Buddha takes the
third, fourth, and fifth aggregates:
“Perception is not soul... Mental formations are not soul....
Consciousness is not soul. Were consciousness soul, then this
consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have
it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus; let my
consciousness be not thus.”’ Consciousness cannot be atta
because it is not under our control. Consciousness is
unavoidably subject to afflictions - to sorrow, depression,
and frustration. We cannot avoid being conscious of ugly
sights, sounds, and sensations in the world, although we would
like to arrange coming into contact with pleasant sensual
Likewise, in meditation, we would like to be conscious only of
the meditation object, and we would like to achieve stillness
of mind and concentration, but this is not easy, and we cannot
will it. If consciousness were atta, we could will our
consciousness to be still and concentrated, and then we could
proceed to the higher states of mind - perhaps it would only
take one day to advance to the higher stages of meditation!
all cases, consciousness arises completely determined by
circumstances and conditions, conditions which are not under
our control. Therefore, consciousness cannot be atta. In the
second section of the Sutta, Buddha asks the monks some
Questions, which they answer. Buddha says: “Bhikkhus, how do
you conceive it: Is form permanent or impermanent!” Since they
were already sotapannas, they had already seen that the five
aggregates are impermanent, suffering, and no-soul, so they
answered, “Impermanent, Venerable Sir.” Now Buddha asks, “Is
what is impermanent, painful, and subject to change fit to be
mine. This is I. This is my soul?”’ They answered, “No,
Venerable Sir” Form is impermanent because it disappears. It
comes into being and then vanishes. It has a beginning and an
end. The monks had already realised by means of Vipassana
knowledge that form is impermanent. They had already seen the
three marks of impermanence, which are the three phases of
existence: arising, continuation, and dissolution.
way to state this process is to call it non-existence after
having been in existence, in Pali - hutva abhavato. Buddha
then proceeds to explain that whatever is impermanent is also
painful. The mark of pain (dukkha) is constant oppression by
rise and fall, by arising and dissolution. This can be seen
during meditation, when yogis take thoughts as objects and
look at them closely. They see that the moment a thought is
observed as an object, it disappears, and another thought
takes its place.
meditators observe very closely with concentration, they see
all objects in the mind arising and disappearing constantly,
and this is seen as a kind of oppression by arising and
disappearing. Phenomena are called oppressed by rise and fall
because nothing is ever at peace; everything is menaced by an
endless flux. In this sense, whatever is impermanent is
means more than just painful. Dukkha also comes from our
desire for permanence. Dukkha means diffěcult to bear mentally
and physically, and thus we call the impermanence of all
phe-nomena dukkha (suffering).
third part of Buddha’s Questioning, He asks, “Is that which is
impermanent and painful fit to be called ‘mine, I, my self or
soul?”” Buddha is here leading the monks to the discovery of
anatta. Is something that is disappearing fit to be called
atta? No. From anicca (impermanence) to dukkha (suffering, and
finally to anatta (no-soul) the monks are led.
review again the processes which hide impermanence, suffering,
and no-soul. We, as unenlightened people, fail to see
impermanence because we do not see the arising and
disappearing of things. We are tricked by continuity, which
hides the nature of impermanence. We look at things or at
consciousness and see them as continuous.
to see impermanence, we must observe closely the arising and
disappearing of phenomena. We must penetrate, by means of
concentration and insight developed in meditation, through the
impression of continuity which acts as a cover of
impermanence. Let us think of a ring of fire. Someone has a
torch and twirls it to create an impression of a circle of
fire. But we know that there is really no ring of fire; it is
just the impressions of individual positions of the fire at
different places and at different times. But our mind takes
the impressions as something continuous; rather, our mind
connects the impressions and we deceive ourselves.
could take a moving picture of the process and watch it at a
slow speed, we would see the individual parts of the sequence
of the apparent ring of fire. We would only see light at
different places and not a circle. If we cannot pinpoint the
components of things in order to see them arising and
disappearing, we will continue to see things as whole
note here that impermanence in this context means momentary
impermanence. If we drop a cup which breaks, we say that it is
impermanent. Or if a person dies, we say that the person is
impermanent. These examples of impermanence are easy to see.
we use that term in the context of Vipassana meditation, we
mean the constant arising and disappearing of phenomena, and
this can only be observed during Vipassana meditation.
Similarly by dukkha, we do not mean ordinary pain or illness.
We mean the constant oppression by arising and disappearing,
and this can also be seen only in Vipassana meditation, even
in phenomena we call pleasurable.
recall that dukkha is concealed by postures; more
specifically, there is always dukkha in the body but we
conceal that pain by changing postures. That is why we
instruct meditators to sit very still while they are
meditating. If yogis avoid changing postures often, they will
achieve mindfulness and concentration, and they will observe
the nature of dukkha directly. Anatta, the no-soul nature of
all things, is concealed by compactness. We usually see things
as solid and compact. We have to train our minds through
Vipassana meditation to look at and analyse that compactness
a scientist uses a microscope to look at things in a
laboratory so yogis must use concentration in Vipassana
meditation to penetrate into the unsubstantial, anatta nature
of things. We must try to see through the apparently solid
mass of mental and physical phenomena.
Regarding material things, we try to anaýze and observe them
as earth, water fire, air and other material properties.
Regarding mental phenomena, we try to see that, for example,
one phenomena is contact, another feeling, and another
perception, although these may have been experienced very
rapidý as oný one mental event. Both mental and physical
phenomena are composed of oný elements and forces, and thus
have the nature of being anatta (unsubstantial). That is why
we must try to observe everything very slowly in meditation in
order to see that phenomena are not held together with a core,
example, all mental states and material properties have their
own functions. Contact has one function, feeling another, and
perception still another. If we see these mental phenomena as
one connected whole, we fail to see them as parts with
specific functions, and we fail to see them as void of a
central core, atta.
mental states actually have different ways of taking objects
and responding to them. Lobha (attachment) has one kind of
response; dosa (hatred) another. We must see the individual
differences of these mental states. We need to analyse and
observe deeply to see that mind and matter have individual
functions and responses. On superficial observation and
analysis, everything seems to be compact, whole, and
substantial. All of us think that a book is very solid, but if
we could look at this book under a microscope, it would appear
full of holes, with empty spaces, like a sieve.
Vipassana is like using a microscope to see that all things
are only elements and forces which are not unified by any kind
of core, by any kind of atta. In the third section of the
Sutta, Buddha states that: ‘Any kind of form, whether past,
future, or presently arisen; whether in oneself or external;
whether inferior or superior; whether far or near; must with
right understanding be regarded thus:
not mine; this is not I; this is not my self or soul.”’ There
can be different kinds of form, different kinds of matter, but
none of them can be regarded as atta or as having atta. The
same is true for feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and
Buddha explains to the monks the progress made by a meditator:
noble follower who has heard the truth sees thus, he finds
estrangement in form, finds estrangement in feeling, finds
estrangement in perceptions... in mental formations... in
consciousness.” This means that the meditator becomes weary of
form, dispassionate about matter. The meditator realises that
the aggregates are impermanent, suffering, and no-soul.
finds estrangement, passion fades out.” Buddha is here
describing stages of Vipassana meditation in a very brief form
with many stages left, out. The disciple wants to be free from
the five aggregates, so this person makes more effort. The
meditator then arrives at equanimity about formations. When
Buddha uses the phrase “finds estrangement,” He is referring
to all of the stages of Vipassana up to the very highest
stage. After finding estrangement, passion fades out in one
moment, the moment of enlightenment. That is the moment known
as Path consciousness when some defilement of the mind are
continues, “With the fading of passion, he is liberated.” This
means that the meditator has reached the two or three moments
after Path consciousness known as Fruition consciousness.
liberated. there is knowledge that he is liberated.” Here the
meditator reflects on the Path, on Fruition, on Nibbăna, on
defilements destroyed, and on defilements that are remaining.
understands: ‘Birth is exhausted. The holy life has been lived
out. What need to be done is done. Of this there is no more
beyond.”’ Like Buddha when He became enlightened, the
meditator says similar words. The discourse ends: “This is
what the Blessed One said. The Bhikkhus were glad, and they
approved His words. Now during this utterance, the hearts of
the Bhikkhus of the group of five were liberated from taints,
through clinging no more.” This means that they had become
Arahants. By under-standing the doctrine of anatta, they were
now free of all fetters, defilements, and impurities. They had
reached the highest state of enlightenment. They had realised
Nibbana and were free from all rebirth.
anatta doctrine is one of the most important teachings of
Buddhism. It is the most distinctive feature of Buddhism, for
as many scholars have recognised, it makes Buddhism different
from all other religions. Scholars write that all other
religions accept the existence of some kind of spiritual,
metaphysical, or psychological entity or agent or being inside
and, in some cases, simultaneously outside of sentient beings.
That is, most religions accept the existence of a soul or
Watson writes: “Of the world’s major religions, only Buddhism
denies or is agnostic about the existence of a soul."
scholar Richard Kennedy writes: “According to Christianity,
Islam, and Judaism, each soul will be judged at the end of the
world.... It is the soul which will determine whether the
individual is punished by hell or rewarded by eternal life in
heaven.... Buddhism teaches that there is no such thing as a
soul or true, permanent self.”
Encyclopedia Americana writes: “In Buddhism there is no
perduring or surviving self such as the atman. Meditation
leads to the awareness that the idea of self, or atman, is
Dictionary of Comparative Religion, the teaching of the
existence of the soul is traced through every major religion
throughout history: primitive animistic, Egyptian,
Mesopotamian, Hebrew, Greek religion in Homeric, Orphic,
Pythagorean, and Platonic versions; Hindu, Zoroastrian,
Chinese, Muslim, Japanese, and Christian. But, as the writers
state, “Buddhism, in its classic form, rejected the Hindu
concept of atman as the essential, immortal self....”
can see, Buddhism is the only major religion that denies the
existence of a metaphysical entity which is usually called a
self or soul.
is divided into two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana,
which have, in some cases, major differences. But both schools
adhere to the anatta doctrine. H. von Glasenapp writes: “The
negation of an imperishable Atman is the common characteristic
of all dogmatic systems of the Lesser as well as the Great
Vehicle (meaning here Theravada and Mahayana, respectively],
and, there is, therefore, no reason to assume that Buddhist
tradition which is in complete agreement on this point has
deviated from the Buddha’s original teaching.”
the anatta doctrine is so important, so distinctive, and
supposedly so universally accepted by Buddhists, it is still
the most misunderstood, the most misinterpreted, and the most
distorted of all the teachings of the Buddha.
scholars who have written on Buddhism had a great respect for
the Buddha, liked His teachings, revered Him, and honoured
Him, but they could not imagine that such a profound thinker
had actually denied the existence of a soul. Consequently
they have tried to find apparent loopholes in the teachings
through which they have tried to insert the affirmation of
atta by the Buddha.
example, two modern scholars, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and I B.
Horner in their book, The Living Thoughts of Gotama the
Buddha, have devoted much of the book to the idea that Buddha
taught a doctrine of two selves, the great Self, spelled with
an upper case ‘S’ to signify the spiritual self or soul, and a
small self, the personal ego, spelled with a lower case ‘s’.
claim that Buddha denied only this personal self or ego when
He spoke of anatta. These scholars base their ideas on
mistranslation of Pali terms, and later in these lectures I
will devote considerable time to analysing the Pali passages
which they have mistranslated.
scholar John Blofeld, also claims that Buddha was really
teaching a doctrine of two selves, one true Self or Soul, and
one false personal self or ego. Notice in the following quote
how he must clarify that the Zen doctrine of Self or One Mind
is not in the reality the Atman of the Hindu Brahmins:-
doctrine of Atman has always been the centre of Buddhist
controversy. There is no doubt that Gautama Buddha made it one
of the central points of his teaching, but the interpretations
of it are various. The Theravadins interpret it not only as
“no self,” but also as “no Self,” thereby denying man both an
ego and all participation in something of the nature of
Universal Spirit or the One Mind. The Mahayanists accept the
interpretation of “egolessness,” holding that the real “Self”
is none other than that indescribable “non-entity,” the One
Mind; something far less of an “entity” than the Ătman of the
“Universal Spirit,” “One Mind,” and “Self” which Blofeld finds
within the anatta doctrine are really an Atman, an atta, of a
finer substance, “less of an entity “ as he says, but
nevertheless an Atman. These ideas of atta are therefore in
conflict with the anatta doctrine of the Buddha. As mentioned
before, most Mahayanists accept the doctrine of anatta, but
later schools of Mahayana, such as the Chinese Zen of which
Blofeld writes, may have drifted into a soul-like theory.
controversy over the anatta doctrine seems to be based on a
deep fear of the denial of the existence of a soul. People are
often very attached to their lives, so they like to believe
that there exists something everlasting, eternal, and
permanent inside them. When someone comes along and tells them
that there is nothing permanent in them, nothing by which they
will continue eternally such as a soul, they may become
frightened. They wonder what will become of them in the future
- they have the fear of extinction.
understood this, as we can see in the story of Vacchagotta,
who, like many other people, was frightened and confused by
the anatta doctrine. Vacchagotta was an ascetic who once went
to the Buddha to discuss some important matters. He asked the
Buddha, “Is there atta?” Buddha remained silent. Vacchagotta
then asked, “Is there no atta” But Buddha again remained
silent. After Vacchagotta went away Buddha explained to
Ananda why he had remained silent.
explained that He knew that Vacchagotta was very confused in
his thinking about atta, and that if He were to respond that
there does exist atta, then He would be expounding the
eternalist view the eternal soul theory with which He did not
agree. But if He were to say that atta did not exist, then
Vacchagotta might think that He was expounding the
annihilationist view, the view that a person is nothing but a
psychophysical organism which will be completely annihilated
this latter view denies kamma, rebirth, and dependent
origination, Buddha did not agree with this. Buddha teaches,
in fact, that people are reborn with patisandhi, “relinking
consciousness,” a rebirth consciousness which does not
transmigrate from the previous existence, but which comes into
existence by means of conditions included in the previous
existences, conditions such as kamma.
reborn person is not the same as the one who has died, nor is
the reborn person entirely different from the one who has
died. Most importantly no metaphysical entity no soul, and no
kind of spiritual self continues from one existence to another
in Buddha’s teaching.
teaching was too difficult for Vacchagotta, and Buddha wanted
to wait for a time when Vacchagotta would mature in intellect.
Buddha was not a computer who gave automatic answers to every
Question. He taught according to the circumstances and
temperaments of the people, for their benefit.
happened, Vacchagotta advanced spiritually through Vipassana
meditation, which allowed him to realize the suffering,
impermanent, and no-soul nature of all things, and he later
became an Arahant. Unfortunately, this story is used by some
scholars to try to prove that Buddha did not really deny the
existence of atta.
now examine the ideas contained in the term atta, Before
Buddha appeared in this world, Brahmanism, which was later to
be called Hinduism, prevailed in India. Brăhmanism teaches the
doctrine of the existence of atta (in Sanskrit, atman), which
is usually translated as soul or self. When Buddha appeared,
He claimed that there is no atman. This doctrine was so
important that Buddha proclaimed it only five days after His
first sermon, the sermon on the Four Noble Truths.
disciples who heard that first sermon became “streamwinners” (Sotapannas)
persons who have attained the first stage of enlightenment.
Five days later, Buddha assembled the five disciples and
taught them the anatta doctrine. By the end of that Sutta, all
five became Arahants, persons who have attained the highest
stage of enlightenment.
this atta which the Buddha negated? The word anatta is a
combination of two words: an (< na) and atta. An means not or
no, and atta is usually translated as soul or self(sometimes
with upper case ‘S’ to signify a spiritual entity). But atta
has a wide range of meanings, which we will now examine. These
terms are discussed in two famous books of Hindu scripture,
the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Many views of atta are
found in the Buddhist Brahmajala Sutta, which I will discuss
the inner core of anything. The inner core of a tree is the
hardest part and thus the core of something can imply
permanency The core may also imply the best part of something,
the part which is the essence, the part which is pure, real,
beautiful, and enduring. The idea of atta as the core of
things is found in the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka
implication of atta is that of authority Authority is the
ability to make others follow orders. If anything is to be
called atta, it must have the power to exercise authority over
the nature of things, as stated in the Kena Upanishad. In
addition, atta is not subject to any other authority: it is
the highest authority (sayamvasi) one who is his own master.
It is like a lord or owner (sami). Atta is the lord of
ourselves. It is distinct from ourselves and abides in
the dweller (nivasi) which is not part of the five aggregates.
Atta is also the agent of action, a doer (karaka) and it is
atta which actually does everything, good or bad. Atta is that
by which we act, that by which we enjoy or suffer In ignorance
we identify ourselves with the body and ego, forgetting that
we are really atta.
do something, it is really at the command of atta, but we
ignorantly believe that we as individuals actually control our
lives. Atta is thus a director and an experiencer.”
meaning of atta is that of soul, a spiritual entity inside of
all people. The soul, called atman in Hindu scriptures, is the
individual self, and it is identical with the Universal Self,
the Supreme Being, called Brahman. Atman resides in everyone
and in every living being. Like Brahman, atman is eternal.
When the body dies, atman moves to another body and makes that
body its new home.
way it moves from one body to another discarding the worn-out
body and taking a new one. Liberation is, according to
Hinduism, the realisation that atman is identical with the
Universal Atman or Brahman, or that the individual atman is
part of Brahman’.
eternal - no one can kill or wound atman. In the Bhagavad Gita,
Krishna, one incarnation of the god Vishnu, has this in mind
when he instructs the great warrior Arjuna, to go into battle.
Arjuna was at first reluctant to go into battle in order to
fight against his own cousins, but Krishna tells him that no
weapon can cut atman, no fire can burn atman. Even if you kill
someone, you kill only the body:
man thinks he slays, and if another thinks he is slain,
neither knows the way of truth, The Eternal in man cannot
kill; the Eternal in man cannot die. He is never born, and he
never dies. He is in Eternity: he is forever more.”
then urges Arjuna to do his honourable duty as a member of the
warrior caste and go into battle, which Arjuna does. Buddha
denied the atman theory According to Buddha, there is nothing
we can call an inner core which is eternal and blissful. There
is also nothing we can call upon to exercise authority over
the nature of things. In Buddhism, there is no doer apart from
doing, and no experiencer apart from the experiencing. There
is nothing or no one which is omnipotent because everything is
at the mercy of the constant creation and dissolution of
taught that there are only five aggregates (khandhas):
Corporeality (material process, or form)
4 metal formations; and
specifically we may say that there are only two groups of
phenomena in this existence: mind and matter, nama and rupa.
Apart from mind and matter there exists nothing whatsoever
that we can call atta. The only thing that exists outside of
the realm of nama and rupa is the unconditioned (asankhata)
Nibbana, Absolute Truth, but. as I will discuss later in these
lectures, even Nibbana is anatta.
taught that, for us, there are only the five aggregates. We
are a compound of five aggregates, and after we analyse and
observe them one by one with the deep insight of meditation,
we will realise that there remains nothing: no soul, no self,
apart from the aggregates. The combination of the five
aggregates is what we call a person, a being, a man, or a
nothing apart from the five aggregates - corporeality
feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness -
which are interacting and dependent upon each other. No
director, no doer no experiencer, and no essence can be found.
Atta is merely an idea which has no corresponding reality
sutras, we find a story of a very famous ascetic-scholar named
Saccaka. One day he heard that Buddha taught the anatta
doctrine. Since he was a very sharp debater he decided that he
would go to the Buddha and convince Him that the anatta
doctrine was wrong. He was very confident; he claimed that if
he were to debate with a stone pillar, that pillar would sweat
from fear. He claimed that, just as a strong man takes a goat
and flings it around his shoulders, so he would take hold of
Gotama and fling Him around in debate.
and his followers went to the Buddha and there exchanged
greetings. He asked Buddha to explain the doctrines He taught.
Buddha replied that He taught anatta. Saccaka countered, “No.
There is atta. The five aggregates are atta.” Buddha replied,
“Do you really think that rupa (corporeality) is atta?” As it
happened, Saccaka was very ugly, and if he said that
corporeality was atta, then Buddha could counter, “Then why
don't you make yourself more handsome!”
Saccaka was forced to say that rupa is not atta. Here we can
see Buddha striking down several characteristics that are
attributed to the atta. If Saccaka had an atta, he could call
upon it to exercise authority and power in order to change his
appearance. After all, atta is identical to Brahman, the
supreme ruler the infinite, omnipotent creator and source of
all things, as explained in the Bhagavad Gita.
according to Buddha, there exist only the five aggregates, the
five khandhas, and these are not atta because they are subject
to the laws of impermanence, suffering, and no-soul. Rupa
(material form) is not atta; it is not master and ruler of
itself, and it is subject to affliction. The other khandhas -
feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness -
are also subject to the same laws. Saccaka was therefore
it may be easy to understand that rúpa (material form) is not
atta, some people may find it difficult to understand why the
other khandhas - feeling, perception, mental formations, and
consciousness - which we may summarise as simply nama (mind)
do not constitute an entity which can be called atta. After
all, many people believe that mind and soul are identical or
interrelated, and they define mind and/or soul as that part of
a person which gives life and consciousness to the physical
body and they further believe that, as such, it is the
spiritual and psychological centre of the person.
according to the Buddha, nama is not atta for the same reasons
that rupa is not atta: nama is equally subject to the laws of
impermanence, suffering, and no-soul, as we shall study
further when we analyse the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta in depth.
Buddha treats nama and rupa equally, and they are mutually
dependent upon each other:
a wooden puppet, though unsubstantial, lifeless, and inactive,
may by means of pulling strings be made to move about, stand
up, and appear full of life and activity; just so are mind and
body, as such, something empty, lifeless and inactive; but by
means of their mutual working together, this mental and bodily
combination may move about, stand up, and appear full of life
Furthermore, we must remember that nama-rupa or khandhas are
merely abstract classifications made by the Buddha, and, as
such, they have no real existence as groups. That is, there is
never the functioning of an entire entity or group known as
corporeality or feeling or perception or mental formations or
consciousness, but only the functioning of individual
representatives of these groups.
example, with one unit of consciousness, only one single kind
of feeling can be associated. Two different units of
perception cannot arise at the same moment, and only one kind
of consciousness, for example seeing consciousness, can arise
at one time. A smaller or larger number of mental formations
can arise with every state of consciousness.
groups never arise as a totality; only constituents or bits
from a certain group can arise depending on conditions. There
are no integrally functioning groups that can be called a self
or a mind. Moreover the single constituents of these apparent
groups are all equally subject to the laws of impermanence,
suffering, and no-soul.
way to study the Question of why nama is not atta is simply to
go back to the definition of khandhas given by the Buddha in
Samyutta Nikaya XX, 56. Here we will see that the four
khandhas, which can be classified simply as nama (mind) are in
no way to be understood as an abiding mind substance or as
anything that can be called atta. Rather, the khandhas are
completely interdependent, and the constituents of each group
condition the arising of the others. There is no self
existing, abiding entity in any part of the following
definition, but only constituents which mutually condition
each other and arise only when they interact:
monks, is the corporeality-group?
The four primary elements and corporeality
monks, is the feeling-group?
There are six classes of feeling: due to
visual impression, to sound impression, to odour impression,
to taste impression, to bodily impression, and to mind
monks, is the perception-group?
There are six classes of perception:
perception of visual objects, of sounds, of odours. of tastes,
of bodily impressions, and of mental impressions....
monks, is the group of mental formations?
There are six classes of volitional states:
with regard to visual objects, to sounds, to odours, to
tastes, to bodily impressions, and to mind objects....
monks, is the consciousness-group?
There are six classes of consciousness:
eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness. nose-consciousness,
tongue-consciousness. body-consciousness, and
the above definitions, it is easy to see that nothing which
can be called atta can be found in the workings of rupa or
nama. Still another way in which the nature of nama and rupa
is analysed is to be found in the Abhidhamma, which is highly
recommended for anyone who wants to understand Buddhism
the most comprehensive and analytical study of all phenomena
given by the Buddha. Here Buddha analyses nama and rupa into
three groups of absolute realities, which are 89 types of
consciousness (cittas), 52 mental factors (cetasikas), and 28
material properties (rupa). Here too, there is no abiding mind
substance or atta, but only the interdependent workings of the
constituents of these groups.
We will now discuss some of the attempts to
place a doctrine of atta into Buddhism. Some scholars have
tried to, in the words of Dr. Walpola Rahula, “smuggle” the
idea of atta into the teachings of the Buddha.”
now see how two scholars, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and I. B.
Horner, already discussed briefly have mistranslated certain
Pali terms to demonstrate that Buddha affirmed the existence
of atta. They argue that Buddha did indeed claim that the five
aggregates are not atta, but that He never directly denied the
existence of atta. The five aggregates are not atta, but there
is something apart from the five aggregates that we can call
atta, self or soul, these scholars claim.”’ Whenever
Coomaraswamy and Horner see the word atta, they try to imagine
that it means eternal self or soul.
the passages they point to is found in Dhammapada (verse I60):
“Atta hi attano natho.” They translate is as “Self is the lord
of self.” They say that it means that the big Self is the lord
of the little self. Actually, it means, “One is one’s own lord
or refuge,” or, “One is one’s own support.” The second line of
the verse reads, “Ko hi natho paro siya,?” or “Who else can be
the lord or refuge?” In Pali, the word atta can mean self,
soul, or eternal self, in the Hindu sense, or it can simply be
a part of a reflexive pronoun like himself, yourself, or
myself. Thus when Buddha says “Atta hi attano natho, ko hi
natho paro siya?” mean “One is one’s own lord or refuge; who
else can be the lord or refuge”, it is clear that atta means
oneself, not soul.
urges people to rely on themselves, on their own effort, and
not to rely on others in their spiritual practice. Another
passage which is misinterpreted in the book by Coomaraswamy
and Horner is from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta’: “Attadipa
viharatha anannasarana.” The meaning is, “Dwell having
yourself as an island, having yourself as a refuge and not
anyone else as a refuge.” Here also they interpret atta to
mean soul or eternal self.
claim that Buddha was instructing us to make the soul our
island or refuge. But in the next line, Buddha says,
“Dhammadipa viharatha dhammasarana anannasarana,” which means,
“Dwell having the Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings) as an island,
having the Dhamma as a refuge, nothing else as a refuge.”
Buddha is instructing his followers to rely on their own
effort and on the teachings, especially as He was soon to be
gone from this earth.
of atta as soul is completely foreign to this passage.
Moreover Buddha went on to say, “How is the monk to dwell
making himself an island?” He then went on to describe the
practice of the four foundations of mindfulness. The Buddha
really meant that one should make Satipatthana meditation
(contemplation of the body, feelings, mind, and dhamma
objects) one’s refuge.
no mention of soul whatsoever Another passage Coomaraswamy and
Horner point to is the story in which Buddha spoke to some
princes. There were thirty princes who were cousins of King
Pasenadi of Kosala. Twenty-nine of them had wives, but one did
they went to a park to amuse themselves, and they hired a
woman for the unwed prince. When they were drunk and having
fun, the hired woman took all of the valuables and ran away
with them. They looked for her and met the Buddha. They asked
Buddha if He had seen her and He said,
you think, young men! Which is better for you? To search after
the woman or to search after yourselves (attanam gaveseyyatha)?”
They replied that it would be better to search after
themselves, and so Buddha told them to sit down and listen to
a Dhamma talk.
Coomaraswamy and Horner interpret the word atta in that
passage to mean higher self or soul, and they want it to mean
that Buddha told the princes to search after atta. But Buddha
is telling the princes to turn away from chasing after worldly
pleasures and to practice the self-discipline of the Noble
Path. In that Dhamma talk, Buddha spoke about giving (dana),
moral conduct (sila), the celestial world (sagga), the peril,
vanity and depravity of ‘sense pleasures (kamanam adinavam,
etc.), and the advantages of renunciation (nekkhamme anisamsam).
There is no mention whatsoever of searching :.,’ for a soul,
passage mistranslated by Coomaraswamy and Horner is one found
: in Visuddhimagga: “buddhatta ... Buddho.” They translate it
as, “Buddha is awakened Self.” But the correct translation of
the Pali is, “He is the Buddha because he knows or he has
known.” The word buddhatta is not a compound so of buddha and
atta, but one word, buddha, with the suffix - tta combined
with the ablative case termination, a, which means `because
of'. The word buddhatta therefore means ‘because of the state
ofbeing one who knows’.
be better to say that one does not believe in the anatra
doctrine and that Buddha was wrong about it than to try to say
that Buddha taught a religion with atta in it. It is not
accurate to say that Buddha did not deny atta. In fact, there
are many places in the Pali canon where atta is denied by
Buddha. For example, Buddha once said, “I do not see a soul
theory which, if accepted, does not lead to the arising of
grief, lamentation, suffering, distress, and tribulations.”
Buddha also said, “Since neither self nor anything pertaining
to self can truly be found, is not the speculative view that
the universe is atta wholly and completely foolish?”
teaches that belief in atta is a wrong view (ditthi or
miccha-ditthi) which will lead to misery. Wrong views must be
rejected because they are a source of wrong and evil
aspirations and conduct.
Majjhima Nikaya, Buddha describes the belief in atta as an
idea which leads to selfishness and pride: “The Perfect One is
free from any theory (ditthigata), for the Perfect One has
seen what corporeality is, and how it arises and passes away.
He has seen what feeling... perception... mental formations.…
consciousness are, and how they arise and pass away. Therefore
I say that the Perfect One has won complete deliverance
through the extinction, fading away disappearance, rejection
and casting out of all imaginings and conjectures, of all
inclinations to the vainglory of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.”
famous Brahmajala Sutta which is recommended for those who
want to study an explanation of wrong views, Buddha describes
and classifies all conceivable wrong views and speculations
about reality. One of those wrong views is the belief that
there exists an eternal self. Buddha says of this view:
“Therein, bhikkhus, when those recluses and brahmins who are
eternalists proclaim on four grounds the self and the world to
be eternal - that is only the agitation and vacillation of
those who do not know and do not see; that is only the
agitation and vacillation of those who are immersed in
Coomaraswamy and Horner argue that Buddha’s denial of atta
refers only to the phenomenal self, and that His denial is
really an affirmation of what they call the Great Self (mah’atta)
. They argue that Buddha stated that the five aggregates are
not atta, but that He never categorically stated that there is
no atta, or Self.
claim that Buddha was only directing us not to see the real
Self in the personal ego - a view identical to the Hindu view.
They reason that Buddha’s denial of certain things being atta
indicates that He affirmed a true atta of a different nature.
When Buddha said, “This is not atta,” these scholars insert
the following argument: “But a moment’s consideration of the
logic of the words will show that they assume the reality of a
Self that is not any one or all of the ‘things’ that are
denied of it.”
us say, for the sake of argument, that I have five animal
horns here. If I say “None of these horns is the horn of a
rabbit,” does it mean that there exists somewhere else or in
another form such a thing as a horn of a rabbit?
horn of a rabbit is just a designation, an abstraction,
without any corresponding reality. Similarly Buddha often
said, “This is not atta. That is not atta. Nothing here is
atta.” Does that indicate that Buddha means that there exists
somewhere something that can be called atta? No.
conclude this section by explaining a very important statement
found in Patisambhidamagga and in Majjhima Nikaya: “Sabbe
sankhara anicca; sabbe sankhara dukkha (not in M.N.); sabbe
dhamma anatta.” The first sentence means, "AII conditioned
things are impermanent.” The second means, ‘All conditioned
things are suffering.”
third sentence, however is different. Here, Buddha does not
use the word sarckhara, but He uses dhamma instead. Dhamma
here means all things without exception. So the third sentence
means, ‘AII things, conditioned or unconditioned, are anatta,
are void of self and soul.” This means that even Nibbana,
which is asankhara, unconditioned, is not atta or is void of
atta. This statement unequivocally denies atta of any kind,
even in ultimate Truth and Enlightenment, even in Nibbana.
When you feel pain, you think that it is more permanent than
thought. It is not permanent, but it does seem to be
Yes, it seems to be continuous and to last for
a long time, but actually the pain arises and disappears at
every moment. Because we cannot see it arising every moment,
we think that it is one solid thing. But when you practice
meditation and keep noticing the pain, you will get
concentration, and then you will come to see that there are
gaps in that pain.
applies to sound, for example. If you note sound in your mind
as it occurs, you will get concentration, and you will come to
experience gaps in that sound: there is not really one
once told me about this level of concentration, which he
achieved while he was meditating. Music was playing very
loudly the whole night, so he could do nothing except
concentrate on the sound by noting “hearing, hearing,
hearing.” He then achieved concentration and experienced the
music in small bits; in other words, he was able to detect
gaps in what seemed to be one continuous sound. The elements
of the music actually arise and disappear every moment;
nothing is ever the same for even two tiny milliseconds.
INWARD PATH PUBLISHER
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AN INWARD JOURNEY BOOK