Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?

March 17, 2017; revised November 4, 2017

We can see how the word “anatta” got mistranslated as “no-self” by carefully examining the different usages of the word “atta.”

  • There is “atta,” which is different from “attā” (with a “long a” at the end). Anatta is the opposite of  “atta,” not of “attā.”
  • The Sanskrit word anātma has been misinterpreted as anatta. That Sanskrit word anātma does mean “no-soul,” but the Buddha NEVER used it. Similarly, anitya (meaning “impermanence”) is a Sanskrit word, but that is not what is meant by the Pali word anicca. 
  • We will discuss these in detail below.

1. In the previous post, “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi is Personality (Me) View?“, we discussed how the term sakkāya diṭṭhi gets incorrectly translated when the word  “atta” in a key verse in the Culavedalla Sutta is misinterpreted. Atta has two meanings:

  • one meaning is mundane: “I” or “myself” as in the first verse of “attā hi attanō nātho” (“only I can be of salvation to myself”), and that is the meaning implied in the above verse.
  • The other (more in-depth) meaning of “atta” is “in control” or “has an essence,” and the opposite of that (“na” + “atta“) is the anatta in Tilakkhana: “one is helpless in this rebirth process.”
  • Those two meanings are explained in “Atta Hi Attano Natho” and in detail in “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.

2. Comprehension of a concept is very different from memorization of the definition of a word. All one needs to do is understand what is MEANT by a term; that is saññā; see, “Sanna – What It Really Means.”

  • Atta/anatta are key Pāli words concerning the Tilakkhana, so it is essential to get the correct saññā or the idea. In future posts, we will discuss several other critical usages of atta/anatta.
A. Atta as “a Person” versus “Essence” or “Truth”

3. Many of the misconceptions about “self” and “no-self” can be understood by taking a systematic look at how the Pāli word “atta” is used in the conventional sense and in the more profound sense (to give different meanings in different places ).

  • “attā” (pronounced with a “long a at the end”) is used to denote a person: There is no word for the negation of that attā.
  • In Sinhala, it is written as “අත්තා.” That is how it appears in the Pāli Tipiṭaka that is written in Sinhala.
  • Even though attā has this meaning as a “person,” anatta is never used as the opposite of that attā.
  • Pronunciation: 

4. The word “atta” (pronounced with a “short a at the end”) is “the essence” or “the truth that is timeless.” The negation is “anatta.”

  • In Sinhala, they are written as “අත්ථ” and “අනත්ථ.” That is how they appear in the Pāli Tipiṭaka that is written in Sinhala.
  • Pronunciation of the two words:
  • There is a third meaning too (mainly when it is written as “attha,” with an emphasis at the end), which is closely related to the second meaning above:
  • The Sinhala word for attha is “artha,” which means “truth” or “that which makes sense.” The opposite in Sinhala is “anartha,” which emphasizes that “anartha” is not worth doing.
  • In Sinhala, they are written as “අර්ථ” and “අනර්ථ.”
  • Pronunciation of the two words:

I hope you can catch the differences in pronunciations.

  • Anatta is the negation of the latter two meanings: “na” + atta” (which rhymes as “anatta”): there is no substance/ does not hold any ultimate truth. 

5. One who is engaged in things that are “anatta” or  “anartha” will become “anātha” (helpless), the opposite of “nātha.” As was mentioned in the post “Atta Hi Attano Natho,” “nātha” is another word for Nibbāna.

  • One who is trying to find refuge in this world will become truly helpless in the long run. On the other hand, the only refuge (“nātha“) is Nibbāna, i.e., overcoming the rebirth process.
  • Therefore, atta/anatta in Pāli can be translated to Sinhala as artha/anartha, and both usages convey the more profound meaning that represents the following ideas: “essence/no essence,” “truth/false,” “useful/useless,” etc.

6. On the other hand, the word attā” (pronounced with a “long a at the end”) is used as “me” only in the conventional sense. To communicate with others, we have to say things like, “one needs to defend oneself.” Here “one” exists only in the conventional sense.

  • There is no single Pāli word to express the negation of that, i.e., “not attā; If there were to be such a word, that would be “non-person.” It just cannot be used that way.
  • As we see below in #11 and #12, other words to denote “me” or “self” are “mama,” “asmi,” or “mē.”

7. Therefore, the critical mistake was made by trying to translate anatta STRICTLY as the opposite of  “attā” with the conventional meaning of “a person” or “self.”

  • The word anatta was ALWAYS used with the deep meaning of “no truth or no essence.” Anatta is a fact indicating there is no essence or truth to be had in this world of 31 realms.
  •  attā ( in the conventional sense) is used to indicate “a person.” There is no single Pāli word to give the opposite meaning to that.

8. Concerning anatta in Tilakkhana, “atta” can also be described as “ultimate truth” (“sathya” in Sinhala and Sanskrit). That truth is anicca nature: “this world cannot bring happiness anywhere in the 31 realms”.

  • Therefore, this whole world is of anatta nature, having no “essence” and lacking anything worth pursuing. Therefore, if one tries to do that impossible task, one will only get exhausted, i.e., subjected to suffering.
  • Anyone who is struggling to achieve this impossible task is truly helpless.
  • All the above statements convey the meaning of the word, “anatta“; that is the saññā that one needs to absorb.

9. When one pursues “pleasurable things in this world,” assuming that nature is nicca (i.e., can lead to happiness), one will be subject to suffering or dukha, and thus one is anatta (becomes helpless). This is explained in the key post, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations.”

  • When one pursues worldly things assuming that the world is of “nicca” and “atta” nature, one tends to do dasa akusala.
  • When one realizes that nature is anicca and anatta, one will try to stay away from dasa akusala even when pursuing worldly things. It is fairly easy to see potential problems with the three types of akusala done with the body and the four types of speech. This is the first stage in the path (mundane path).
  • When one follows the mundane path (i.e., live a moral life), one starts to cleanse one’s mind and discard many micchā diṭṭhi, i.e., start cleansing the mind.
  • At that stage, when one is exposed to the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, one can comprehend them and start on the lokottara (Noble) Path.
  • One would seriously start tackling the akusala done by the mind when one becomes a Sōtapanna and starts on the Noble Path. All dasa akusala are removed only at the Arahant stage. That is the “atta” or the “nātha” state; one is no longer anatta.

10. One will be subjected to much suffering (dukha) until one realizes that it is fruitless to pursue “valuable things” by engaging in dasa akusala.

  • The Noble Truth of dukkha sacca (or Dukkha Sathya) is to see that relief from suffering comes only by rejecting dasa akusala and by engaging in “good and moral activities,” i.e.,,, dasa kusala.
  • When one reaches Nibbāna, that is the state of nicca, sukha, atta. It is the opposites of anicca, dukkha, anatta, characteristics of this world of 31 realms.
B. Discussion of the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta

11. There are several Pāli (and Sinhala) words (mama,  asmi, and ) that are used to indicate “mine,” “I,” “to me.” Attā is also used to mean “self” in the conventional sense, and “having no essence” in the more profound sense. It is important to note the difference in all those usages.

  • These terms are in the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta, the key sutta that discussed the concepts of atta and the opposite, anatta, in the more profound sense. Here are the key verses that are relevant to our discussion here:

“Tam kim mannāta, bhikkhave: rupam niccam vā aniccam vā ti? “Bhikkhus: is any rūpa (material entity) nicca or anicca?” or “Bhikkhus: can any rūpa be kept to one’s satisfaction, or it cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction?”

– Aniccam , Bhante  “It cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, Venerable Sir.”

Yam pan aniccam dukham vā sukham vā ti? “Will such an entity lead to suffering or happiness?” 

-Dukham, Bhante. “Suffering, Venerable Sir.”

Yaṃ pan aniccam dukham viparināma dhamman, kallam nu tam samanupassitum: ‘etan mama, ēso hamasmi, ēso mē atta ‘ti“Will such an entity that cannot be kept to one’s satisfaction, that leads to suffering,  and is a viparināma dhamma, should be considered as “myself or mine, or can be taken as my atta?”

–  N’ hetum, Bhante.” “No reason to think so, Venerable Sir.”

12. Now, that last verse also clearly states what words were used by the Buddha to mean “me,” “I,” “myself.”

  • This key verse with these words is, “Etam mama, eso’ham asmi, eso  attāti,” which means, “That is mIne, it is me, or my attā (my essence).”
  • It is interesting to note that even today, the Sinhala word for “me” or “myself” is “mama,” and “asmi” is the sense of “me” or “mine” as in asmi māna, which is one of the last samyōjana removed at the Arahant stage; see, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
  • Also see, “Anattā in Anattalakkahana Sutta – No Soul or an Ātma“.

13. The first type of “wrong diṭṭhi” or the idea that “I am my physical body” (and “I am my vedana,” etc.) are removed at the Sōtapanna stage by removing Sakkāya Diṭṭhi.  The much deeper-embedded saññā of “a me” is removed only at the Arahant stage; see, “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi is Personality (Me) View?“.

  • Anatta — on the other hand — is the correct saññā that, (i) this world of 31 realms cannot offer any “essence” or “true happiness” and, (ii) therefore, one who is struggling to find such “ultimate truth in this world” is helpless.
  • This is why a qualified person explaining Dhamma must have the patisambhidā ñāna to at least some extent, to figure out the correct meaning of keywords in the suttā. We discussed another important example in last week’s post:Sakkāya Diṭṭhi is Personality (Me) View?.
  • One cannot just consult a Pāli dictionary and use the meaning given there; see, “Sutta – Introduction” and  “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“.
  • Of course, that seems to be the origin of the incorrect translation of anatta as “no-self,” i.e., choosing the wrong (conventional) meaning of “attā” (with a long “a” at the end).
C. What About Athma/Anathma?

14. The final piece of this puzzle are the words āthma/anātma. These are Sanskrit words and NOT Pāli words. Pronunciation:

  • The confusion came when people started translating atta/anatta as ātma/anātma in Sanskrit and Sinhala (many Sanskrit words have been adopted as Sinhala words is unfortunate because that makes things more confusing).
  • In the Sinhala language, they are written as “ආත්ම” and “අනාත්ම.”
  • In Sanskrit, ātma basically means “soul,” an indestructible entity that survives death and eventually merges with the “Mahā Brahma” equivalent of the “Creator God” in Abrahamic religions. This is different from both Pāli words of atta and attā that we discussed above.
  • Atta/anatta are deep concepts with several underlying concepts. One meaning of anatta is that there is no unchanging soul/ātma. Therefore, anatta INCLUDES anātma (the opposite of ātma); see, “Anattā in Anattalakkahana Sutta – No Soul or an Ātma.”

The connection between dasa akusala and anatta is discussed at “Dasa Akusala and Anatta – The Critical Link.” That will complete this discussion and will help to cultivate the “anatta saññā.”

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