Anatta and Dukkha – True Meanings

What really matters in the end is one comprehends, not words. The way different people interpret “no-self” could be different, even though the concept of a “self” is very clear.

  • If anatta means “no-self”, then there is nothing that can distinguish person A from person B. So, if A takes something belongs to B, he can say, “there is no “me” and there is no “you”; what is wrong in me using “your” stuff?”. If B believes in “no-self” can he argue with A?
  • Similarly, there are many other contradictions: If there is “no-self”, (i) who attains Nibbana?, (ii) who does moral or immoral acts?, etc.
  • Instead one needs to comprehend that “one is really helpless in this rebirth process” or “one is not in control over the long run”; that is the concept of anatta, as we discuss below.

1. Let us look at the two words the Buddha used: “äthma” and “anäthma”. In the Brahmajala sutta, the Buddha definitely said both those are not correct. The best translation of those two terms to present day, I believe, are “soul” and “no-soul”:

  • “Soul” in the sense of an unchanging entity; for example, most religions believe one’s soul goes to hell or heaven and then that “soul” is forever in that state.
  • “No-soul” in the sense interpreted by a materialist, i.e., “a person” is just the body (with thoughts arising from the material brain), and when one dies that is end of story; nothing survives physical death.
  • Those were the two extremes rejected by the Buddha as “athma” and “anathma”.

2. The real confusion arose when the Pali word “anatta” was translated to Sanskrit as “anathma”. Subsequently, the Sanskrit word “anathma” was translated to English as “no-self”. This was done at the same time when “athma” was translated as “soul”.

3. The real question is when one says, “there is “no-self””, does one imply that there is no “soul”, i.e., no “athma”? There are two possibilities. Let us look at them carefully:

  • If one means by “no-self”  that when one dies that is the end of story, i.e., there is no rebirth process, then this is same as “no-soul”.
  • Or, it is possible that some people may have the idea of a “changing personality” rather than the above materialistic view of nothing surviving the death, i.e., one believes that a human can be reborn an animal. Then one has the right concept of “no-self” or what I call a “ever-changing personality”.
  • One needs to contemplate on this and clearly distinguish between the two possible interpretations.

4. But I have seen many people just use the phrase “no-self” in the wrong way.

  • Some say, ‘The Buddha told us that there is “no-self”. So, what is the point of going through learning Dhamma etc., because there is no “me”.
  • Others say, “Even if I die and get reborn as an animal, it will be not “me”, because there is “no-self”.
  • They are both wrong by talking about a “no-soul”. What I ask them is, “If there is no “me”, would it be OK if someone hits you hard with a stick or worse?”. Then of course they realize that there is a “me”. That is the “me” who learns Dhamma or who could be reborn an animal.

5. We can take a simple simile to get an idea of these two extremes of “soul” and “no-soul”. We have all seen shapes and colors created by water fountains. Here I have trimmed a video for just 10 seconds to show a couple of such shapes.

  • We all know those structures created by water are not real. But we cannot say it did not exist.
  • In the same way, since we cannot say that a person does not exist. However, there is nothing that exists permanently, it is just transitory. Thus both “self” and “no-self” are wrong perceptions.
  • Just like we can create different shapes and figures using that water fountain, we all go through various lifeforms in the rebirth process.
  • However, the suffering (or the intermittent happiness) is real.

6. This is a  deep concept. We cannot deny that we have the inner perception (sanna) of a “me” (unless one is an Arahant). That is also THE reason that we go through this rebirth process. But that sanna CANNOT be gotten rid by forcing the mind to accept that there is no “me”. THAT DOES NOT WORK. When one starts learning the true nature of the world by understanding the real meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, the mind gradually realizes that there is no real “me”, but just an ever-changing “lifestream”.

  • Thus one could meditate for thousand years muttering to oneself, “it is anäthma” or “there is no-self”, or anything equivalent with the meaning “there is no “me””, and would not get anywhere close to the Sotapanna stage or even any niramisa sukha, because deep inside one does not really believe in that.
  • Instead one needs to comprehend that “there is nothing fruitful to be had in this world in the long run”, or “one is really helpless in this rebirth process”; that is the concept of anatta.
  • Another word for anatta is “anätha” (this is the Sinhala word), which means “utterly helpless”. That is the status of a human being who is unaware of the perils of the rebirth process. The opposite is “nätha“, which is actually also used in Pali to refer to the Buddha (as in one becomes “nätha” when one embraces the message of the Buddha).

7. In other words, “there is a ‘me’ as long as one craves for things in this world”. Denying that perception is not the solution. One craves for things in this world because one believes there is happiness to be had by seeking “things” in this world. That tendency to seek things will not reduce until one understands that it is fruitless to strive for such things in the long term; even though one may not know it, one is truly helpless. And that is a real meaning of anatta.

  • But that cannot be grasped just by reading about it. One needs to contemplate (meditate) using real examples from one’s life. One will know that one is starting to get the concept when one starts realizing that one’s cravings for things in this world is gradually waning.

Why Dukkha is not Merely Suffering?

1. There is confusion about what the Buddha said about suffering because most cannot distinguish between dukha and dukkha. But the Pali word for suffering is dukha. Dukkha (dukha+khya) means there is hidden suffering AND that suffering can be eliminated (khya is removal; see, “What is San? – Meaning of Sansara (or Samsara)“.

  • And dukkha sacca (the first Noble Truth) is the knowledge on seeing that those things we value as “sense pleasures” are in fact the CAUSE of this “hidden suffering”.

2. Dukha is a vedana (feeling). Anyone, and even animals feel dukha. No one has to convince anyone there is dukha in this world. If anyone can attain Nibbana by realizing dukha in this world, then animals would attain Nibbana first, because they know dukha very well.

  • However, dukkha (or the dukkha sacca) is the First Noble Truth. It says there is “hidden suffering” behind all this apparent happiness or the illusion of a future happiness that can be achieved by “working hard”.
  • Dukkha Sacca is comprehended not by contemplating on suffering, but contemplating on the causes for suffering, i.e., the immoral things we tend to do because of the lack of understanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta.
  • In order to comprehend dukkha, one needs to understand the wider world view of the Buddha and see that most suffering will be in future rebirths unless one attains at least the Sotapanna stage of Nibbana.
  • That is why it takes a lot of time and effort to gain wisdom (panna) and truly start on the Path. Since our senses cannot sense other realms, including the suffering-filled lowest 4 realms (except the animal realm), it is not a trivial matter to understand and truly believe the message of the Buddha.

3. This wrong conception has also led to the popularity of “breath meditation” (the incorrect anapana meditation) as a way to remove “suffering”.

  • It is true that one could get “temporary relief” and even jhanic experiences using the breath meditation. But that does not solve the problem of “long-term sansaric suffering” emphasized by the Buddha.
  • When one cultivates the true “anapana meditation” (see, “What is Anapana?“), one can achieve temporary relief AND work towards “long-term happiness” of Nibbana.

4. Most people have the perception that Buddha Dhamma is pessimistic, because it emphasizes suffering. Actually, it is quite the opposite.

  • The Buddha was just the messenger of the bad news. He DISCOVERED the true nature of this world: No matter where we are reborn within the 31 realms, we will not find happiness and in the LONG RUN, suffering prevails; see, “The Four Stages in Attaining Nibbana“.
  • A world which is based on constant change, or more correctly constant disorder, (impermanence) is inherently incapable of providing stability (thus anicca is not impermanence, but anicca arises out of impermanence); see, “The Second Law of Thermodynamics is Part of Anicca!“.
  • Yet, we have the PERCEPTION that we can somehow “beat the system” and find happiness. That is the wrong perception of nicca.  Once we truly realize dukkha, we will see that anything in this world has the anicca nature; nothing in this world can provide long-lasting happiness in the long term.

5. The Buddha not only discovered that “this world” cannot provide us with stable and lasting happiness. He also found the way to get out of this inherently unstable, and thus unsatisfactory nature of existence. This is the Noble Eightfold Path.

6. Thus it is important to realize that dukkha has embedded in it the only optimistic message anyone can deliver: That we can overcome this inevitable suffering.

  • When one truly realizes the true nature of “this world”, one voluntarily gives up struggling in vain to achieve the impossible, and that automatically leads to a state of happiness in one’s mind even before the Sotapanna stage.
  • This particular happiness, niramisa sukha, is different from the sense pleasures and one can experience it more and more as one follows the Path, and culminates in Arahantship or unconditioned happiness; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“. One can experience this niramisa sukha all the way up to its peak at Nibbana during this very life.

7. Another important thing to realize is that there are only two ways that anyone’s destiny works out:

  • One waits until one gets really old to EXPERIENCE the suffering even in this life itself. It does not matter how much money one has: One will NOT be able to enjoy the sensual pleasures as one used to in the younger ages: all sense faculties degrade including culinary pleasures, visual, auditory, sex, etc. And if one gets a major illness it will be worse. The absolutely worse thing is that by that time it will be too late, because even the mind starts to degrade (it is actually the brain that degrades), and one will not be able to make any spiritual progress.
  • The other and the ONLY reasonable option is to develop insight NOW. The Buddha had revealed the true nature of ‘this world” of 31 realms. At least one should examine the big picture laid out by the Buddha to see whether that picture makes sense, and if it does to work towards getting out of “this world”.
  • People  commit suicide thinking that it will end the suffering. It does not. The only way to stop suffering is to stop rebirth. There is nowhere to be found in the 31 realms that will end the suffering. One may find relatively long periods of happiness in the higher realms, but in the sansaric time scale that will only be a blip; see, “Sansaric Time Scale” and “Infinity – How Big Is It?“.
  • And one can test the path prescribed by the Buddha. As one experiences the niramisa sukha by removing greed, hate, and ignorance, one can start feeling the “cooling down”, the early stages of Nibbana; see, “How to Taste Nibbana“. This will accentuate one’s liking of Dhamma (chanda), enhance one’s determination (citta) and effort (viriya) to seek insight (vimansa); see, “Four Bases of Mental Power (Satara Iddhipada)“.

Next, “Anicca – Repeated Arising/Destruction“, ………..

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