Etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti is a verse that appears in many suttās. It summarizes the wrong views of an average person who has not comprehended the teachings of the Buddha.
October 7, 2023
Attā Does Not Mean “Soul” or “an Unchanging Self”
1. The absence of an “everlasting soul” or “an unchanging self” is built into the foundation of Buddha Dhamma. Thus, the translation of “attā” as “self” in the verse in question is a grave error.
- If there is such an entity as a “soul,” then attaining Parinibbāna (stopping rebirth) would not be possible. If there were to be an everlasting soul, it must exist forever. As we know, an Arahant is not reborn in this world after death. Thus, the absence of a “soul” (or an ātman in Hinduism) is built into Buddha Dhamma. There is no need to argue about whether such a “self” exists.
- But then the Buddha talked about “his” previous births. Is there a contradiction? No. Because the Buddha taught that there is a “lifestream” that evolves from life to life and that “lifestream” stops evolving at the death of an Arahant.
- The above issue confuses many. Once, a Deva asked the Buddha, “Why do Arahants say things like ‘I speak’ or ‘they speak to me’? Isn’t that a contradiction?” The Buddha explained that it is impossible to live among others without using such terminology. See “Arahanta Sutta (SN 1.25).”
- Even though the idea of an “unchanging/everlasting me” is a contradiction in Buddha Dhamma, it is perfectly fine to use “I,” “me,” or “myself” in the conventional/conversational way.
Critical Facts/Conventional Terminologies
2. First, let us sort out some facts/terminologies.
- The Pāli words for I, me, and mine are aham, mē, and mama. Even though there is no everlasting “I,” we cannot live in this world without using the words I, me, and mine. Even the Buddha used those words for himself within the conventional (vohāra) sense.
- However, there is no “everlasting ‘me'” like a soul in Christianity or an ātman in Hinduism.
- Instead, an everchanging “lifestream” evolves according to the Buddhist principle of causes and effects, i.e., Paṭicca Samuppāda. That ‘lifestream” experiences happiness and suffering, but suffering dominates over the long run. See “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream.”
- For example, a human may be reborn in the future as a Deva or an animal, depending on the causes/conditions at that time.
- That suffering ends only at the death of an Arahant.
The Conventional and Deeper Meanings of Attā
3. Even though an “unchanging/everlasting self” does not exist (as pointed out in #1 above), the Buddha talked about a “person” in a conventional way. The Pāli word for indicating “a person,” “myself,” etc., in a conventional way, is “attā” (with a long “a.”)
- The deeper meaning of “attā” (and also “atta” without the long “a”) is “beneficial,” “fruitful,” etc. The opposite of that is “anatta/anattā“ or “unfruitful.”
- Both usages are discussed in “Atta Hi Attano Natho.” A longer discussion in “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?”
- The deeper meaning comes into play in Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta), where anatta is related to anicca and dukkha. All three indicate undesirable characteristics of the world of 31 realms.
- Note: atta and attā are pronounced “aththa” and “aththā.” See Ref. 1.
4. Certain words can have “double meanings” in any language. A number of English words are spelled the same way and pronounced the same way but have different meanings depending on the context; see, for example, “Why Words Have Different Meanings in Different Contexts.”
- One needs to have a good understanding of both languages AND the context to be able to make translations correctly. Most translators of the Tipitaka into English have neither proficiency in Pāli (the language of the Tipitaka) nor a sufficient understanding of the deep foundational concepts of Buddha Dhamma.
- This has led to a severe problem. See “Word-for-Word Translation of the Tipiṭaka.”
The worldview of a Puthujjana– World Is of “Atta (Valuable) Nature”
5. Those who have not heard/comprehended the worldview of the Buddha (puthujjana) want to enjoy as much sensory pleasure as possible. They see sensory pleasures as valuable or fruitful. They are not aware of any other mechanism that can provide relief from suffering. When faced with distressful situations, they seek refuge in sensory pleasures.
- Thus, human society, in general, is built around that mindset. The goal of an average human (puthujjana) is to get a good job or create a business so that one can afford sensory pleasures to the maximum level possible.
- Similarly, business models are built around providing ways for people to enjoy sensory pleasures. Novel technologies are sought to provide new ways of enjoying sensory pleasures.
- This view that seeking sensory pleasures can bring lasting happiness is “sakkāya diṭṭhi.”
- That model seems to work, at least on the surface. That is why this mindset prevails over generation after generation for thousands of years. Only a Buddha can figure out why sensory pleasures do not provide lasting happiness, i.e., sakkāya diṭṭhi is a wrong view.
Drawbacks/Inconsistencies of the Conventional Worldview
6. If the above model is correct, those who have made millions/billions of dollars must be living without any suffering because they can afford any sensory experience they desire. But we know that is not true.
- First, we are all aware of the suicides by wealthy people. If sensory pleasures provide lasting happiness AND can overcome any suffering, those people had enough money to “buy happiness.” The problem there is that sensory pleasures cannot overcome some suffering (due to illnesses or mental depression).
- Second, our ability to experience sensory pleasures goes down as we age. The food will not taste the same, the response to smells will decrease, and the ability to enjoy sex will decrease. Our ability to see and hear will also decrease with age, and most importantly, brain functions will also deteriorate with old age. No amount of money or the inventions of “new ways of enjoying sensory pleasures” will be able to compensate for those inevitable decreases in bodily functions.
- When one is young, it may seem that any suffering can be overcome by seeking sensory pleasures. If a fire destroys one’s house, one can build another if one has enough money. If one gets into disputes with the spouse, one can get a divorce and marry another. Of course, not everyone would have enough money to do those things. Even those who can afford those things will not be able to enjoy the “new set of possessions” as they get old. If the food-tasting ability decreases, even the most delicious food will taste bland. Even if one is married to the most beautiful person, one cannot even engage in sex past a certain age.
Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Drawbacks of Craving Worldly Pleasures
6. In the three recent posts, “Anicca Nature- Chasing Worldly Pleasures Is Pointless,” “Aniccaṁ Vipariṇāmi Aññathābhāvi – A Critical Verse,” and “Dukkha – Previously Unknown Truth About Suffering” we discussed how the pursuit of worldly pleasures lead to eventual suffering, even though it may provide temporary happiness. Those posts discussed two aspects of nature (anicca and dukkha.) We now discuss the related third aspect of anatta nature, i.e., the unfruitfulness of pursuing worldly pleasures and how one becomes helpless and subjected to much suffering in the end.
- As pointed out in the above posts, an average person (puthujjana) knows only one method for becoming happy. That is to seek sensory pleasures available via the five physical senses: mind-pleasing sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and bodily contacts.
- Even when they encounter distressful or painful experiences, the only way they know of to overcome suffering (or compensate for it) is to seek more sensory pleasures.
- This reliance on sensory pleasures leads to the wrong view/perception that mind-pleasing sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and bodily contacts are available in the external world, and those can be relied on for delivering happiness.
- The Buddha called that wrong view sakkāya diṭṭhi (the wrong view that sensory pleasures can bring happiness and overcome suffering); he called that wrong perception saññā vipallāsa (distorted perception that sensory pleasures can bring happiness and overcome suffering.)
- One becomes a Sotapanna Anugāmi by getting rid of sakkāya diṭṭhi. The removal of saññā vipallāsa happens in stages and is complete only at the Arahant stage. Thus, let us first focus on sakkāya diṭṭhi.
Do Sensory Pleasures Provide Lasting Happiness?
7. Children “live in the moment” and thus enjoy building sandcastles. As adults, they realize that building sandcastles does not provide lasting happiness; therefore, they focus on acquiring worldly things (houses, cars, etc.) that can bring happiness on a long-term basis.
- Therefore, a puthujjana becomes joyful when acquiring assets like houses and cars or engaging in pleasure-generating activities like eating, watching movies, having sex, etc. However, they become distraught when such belongings are damaged or destroyed. Also, any “pleasure-generating activity” does not last long. For example, one can eat only so much of the best food on the planet; watching more than one movie at a time can cause headaches, and sexual activity does not last long.
- Therefore, a puthujjana is always looking for different types of sensual pleasures. However, no activity can provide long-lasting happiness. Many people eventually end up taking drugs since that is the easiest way to forget about other problems, and one can get “high” quickly. But then one needs to keep increasing the dose to get the “same pleasure outcome,” and in a short time, they get overdosed and even die. There is a sense of “unfulfillment/unsatisfactoriness,” and that is one aspect of the “anatta nature.”
- Therefore, even those adults (average humans or puthujjana who have not comprehended Buddha’s teachings) don’t see that their actions also do not provide lasting happiness.
- Another deeper aspect is that seeking sensory pleasures moves one further away from the “suffering-free pure mind” (pabhassara citta), and thus, such activities are of an “anicca nature.” The world with “mind-pleasing sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches” is of “anatta nature,” meaning one can never find long-lasting happiness. Nothing of “atta nature” (where one can be free of any suffering) exists in the world of 31 realms, even among the Deva or Brahma realms, let alone in the human world.
Etaṁ Mama, Esohamasmi, Eso Me Attā’ti
8. As we have discussed (see the posts in #6 above), sensory pleasures involve external rupa in the world and lead to the arising of a set of mental phenomena. The Buddha summarized the mental aspects into four categories: vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.
- A puthujjana seeks external rupa that can provide sukha vedanā via the physical body and somanassa vedanā to the mind.
- Any external rupa (providing mind-pleasing sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touches) is highly valued by a puthujjana. Of course, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa arising from such experiences are highly valued as well. Those five entities are the five aggregates or pañcakkhandha. Since we tend to crave them and try to keep them close to our minds (i.e., have upādāna for them), they become “pañca upādāna khandha” or “pañcupādānakkhandha.”
9. Therefore, It is natural to view such rupa and the accompanying vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa as one’s own. For example, one likes to own a luxury car and enjoys driving it or even thinking about that car.
- That is essentially the meaning of the verse, “etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti,” regarding any one of the “pañcupādānakkhandha.”
10. The Buddha explained that in the “Etaṁmama Sutta (SN 22.151)” among many other suttās. You can see the original Pāli version and the Sutta Central translation of the sutta in the link. In the following, I revised that translation to correct the errors.
“Bhikkhus, what causes (an average) person to regard something (a rupa) like this: ‘This is mine (etaṁ mama), I am lucky to have this (esohamasmi or eso aham asmi), this is for my benefit (eso me attā)’?”
- The next verse (@ marker 1.5) in the above link is incomplete. The full verse is: “rūpe kho, bhikkhave, sati, rūpaṁ upādāya, rūpaṁ abhinivissa ‘etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti samanupassati.”
“Upon experiencing a mind-pleasing rupa, the person would generate upādāna for it and start generating abhisaṅkhāra (abhinivissa) with the view: ‘This is mine, I am lucky to have this, this will be for my benefit.’”
- Then, the Buddha explains that any rupa (internal or external) is of an anicca nature, and generating abhisaṅkhāra with attachment to them will lead to suffering.
- That verse is repeated for vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.
The verses starting @ marker 1.18 state that someone who has comprehended Tilakkhana (or the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda) can see that such attachments lead to future suffering.
11. I hope this clarification makes the meaning of the verse “etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti” clear.
- In the next post, we will discuss another similar verse related to anatta and sakkāya diṭṭhi.
1. Those who are unaware of the unique “Tipiṭaka English” writing format adopted many years ago, see “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1.” The English version of the Tipiṭaka was written in this format in the early 1900s, and that is the version used today in most English websites, including Sutta Central. It is essential to understand how to pronounce Pāli words correctly. Also see “Pāli Glossary – (A-K).”