Anatta – No Refuge in This World

June 7, 2019; revised June 12, 2021; August 29, 2022

Recap of First Meaning of Anatta – No “Soul” or “Atma”

1. In the previous related post, we discussed one aspect of anatta — that there is no everlasting “essence” in a living being like a soul or an ātma; see, “Anattā in Anattalakkahana Sutta – No Soul or an Ātma.”

  • However, life does not come to an end at death. There is a continuation at death with birth in one of the realms “in this world of 31 realms”; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.
  • When life as human ends, one does not control what the next existence will be. It happens according to the prevailing causes and conditions, i.e., via the Paṭicca Samuppāda process.

2. Therefore, there is no “unchanging essence” in a given “person”; he/she is just a collection of the five aggregates that keep evolving according to the principle of cause and effect (Paṭicca Samuppāda).

  • Vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna all arise due to conditions present at a given time, i.e., they arise on Paṭicca Samuppāda (“avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra,” “saṅkhāra paccayā viññāna” lead to saṅkhāra and viññāna; “phassa paccayā vedanā” leads to vedanā (and saññā since vedanā and saññā arise together; see, “Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises“). Furthermore, our bodies (rupa) arise via “bhava paccayā jāti“).
  • A “person” is no more than the five aggregates: rupakkhandha, vedanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññānakkhandha.
  • Those aggregates evolve moment-to-moment according to Paṭicca Samuppāda or the principle of cause and effect, where conditions play a major role.
  • There is no “attā” or a “soul” or an “ātmathat can cause these entities to arise when a new ārammana comes to any of the six senses; see “Complexity of the Mind – Viññāna and Sankhāra” and “Kamma are Done with Sankhāra – Types of Sankhāra.”

3. We can see that the Buddha explained the deep concepts of anicca, dukkha, and anatta in his first two suttā (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and Anattalakkhana Sutta that were delivered to the five ascetics just after attaining the Buddhahood.

  • In the post, “Anicca – Inability to Keep What We Like,” we discussed the first discourse of Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, in which the Buddha described what anicca means and how the inherent anicca nature leads to dukkha or suffering.
  • As we discussed in that post, the key verse in that sutta is, “yampiccam nalabhati tampi dukkham,” which is shortened version (that rhymes) of the full verse “yam pi iccam na labhati tam pi dukkham, “and that the word “anicca” is the opposite “icca” that is hidden in that key verse (then dukkha arises because of the inability to satisfy one’s expectations (icca).
  • In the same way, Anattalakkhana Sutta introduced the term anatta, which highlights the fact that one is unable to maintain even things one perceives to be “one’s own,” like one’s physical body or one’s mental faculties (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāna); see, “Anattā in Anattalakkahana Sutta – No Soul or an Ātma.”
  • Of course, those two aspects are related. Since one does not have complete control over ANYTHING, one will become helpless and will inevitably be subjected to suffering in the rebirth process. Of course, we are only talking about long-term consequences in the rebirth process and NOT short-term ones. One MUST have short-term goals.
Anatta – Becoming Helpless in the Rebirth Process

4. In this post, we will discuss another aspect of the anatta nature: how one becomes helpless (anatta) in the long term. That is another meaning of anatta, sometimes written as anattha. (The Tipiṭaka was written down in Pāli but with Sinhala script; see “Historical Background.” The word “anatta” was written as අනත්ත. Sometimes –especially to provide the meaning that we are discussing now — it is also written as අනත්ථ and that we write here as “anattha“).

  • The Pāli word “attha” could mean “the truth” or “having a refuge,” or “meaningful,” depending on the context. The opposites of “untruth,” “helpless,” or “meaningless/unprofitable” are indicated by the word “anattha.”
  • When one does not comprehend the anicca nature (that it is impossible to get what one wants AND keep it that way), one would be tempted to try to get one’s wants by any means necessary. This is when one starts engaging in immoral deeds.
  • This is when one sets up causes and conditions to bring so much suffering in the future that will lead to becoming truly helpless (anattha) via bad rebirths due to bad kamma.
  • Therefore, knowing the first meaning of anatta is not enough; one needs to comprehend the second related meaning and work diligently to avoid dasa akusala. This is discussed below.

5. In the “Paṭha­ma­ Adham­ma ­Sutta (AN 10.113)“, the Buddha succinctly states what dhamma/adhamma and attha/anattha are:

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, adhammo ca anattho ca? Micchādiṭṭhi, micchāsaṅkappo, micchāvācā, micchākammaṃto, micchāājīvo, micchāvāyāmo, micchāsati, micchāsamādhi, micchāñāṇaṃ, micchāvimutti—ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, adhammo ca anattho ca“,  AND

Katamo ca, bhikkhave, dhammo ca attho ca? Sammādiṭṭhi, sammāsaṅkappo, sammāvācā, sammākammaṃto, sammāājīvo, sammāvāyāmo, sammāsati, sammāsamādhi, sammāñāṇaṃ, sammāvimutti—ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, dhammo ca attho ca“.

  • Dhamma” are those thoughts, speech, and actions that benefit oneself. One who engages in those is engaged in fruitful/meaningful things and will lead to one’s refuge (“attha“). As we can see, this encompasses the Noble Eightfold Path followed by sammā ñāṇa and sammā vimutti (i.e., Arahanthood).
  • The opposites or “adhamma” are those thoughts, speech, and actions that lead to much future suffering. Those who engage in those are engaged in unfruitful/immoral things, leading to becoming helpless in the rebirth process (“anattha“).

6. Another way to express the same idea is to say that one who is engaged in dasa akusala (adhamma) will become helpless in the rebirth process (anattha); see “Dasa Akusala and Anatta – The Critical Link.”

  • One who is engaged in the opposites of dasa kusala (i.e., Buddha Dhamma) will have refuge in the rebirth process (attha) and become free of future suffering by becoming an Arahant.
  • Many key suttā stating these “core facts” about Buddha Dhamma is listed in “Anguttara Nikāya – Suttā on Key Concepts.”

7. Therefore, we see that the first meaning of anatta states that one will never have full control over one’s affairs in the long run, and thus one is bound to become helpless in the rebirth process.

  • The second meaning provides a practical way out of this dangerous outcome: Only a Buddha can discover this special way to avoid future suffering; it is the Noble Eightfold Path.
  • In other words, one should follow Buddha dhamma to have refuge (attha) instead of following adhamma to become helpless (anattha).
  • In the “Paṭha­ma­nātha Sutta (AN 10.17)” and “Dutiya­nātha Sutta (AN 10.18)“, the Buddha advised bhikkhus to live a moral life to avoid becoming anātha: “Sanāthā, bhikkhave, viharatha, mā anāthā.”
Yadaniccam tam dukkham, tam dukkham tadanatta

8. With this second interpretation, It is easier to see how the anicca nature leads to suffering (dukkha) and eventually to helplessness (anatta).

  • Any human who has not heard and comprehended to some extent what anicca nature is called an “assutavā puthujjano.” One who has is called a “sutavā ariyasāvako.” Here sutavā means “has heard about the true teachings of the Buddha (and comprehended),” and assutavā is, of course, one who has not heard/comprehended.
  • If one does not realize that all struggles to achieve “permanent happiness” are not possible, one would be doing one’s best to achieve such a state of happiness. This is done by merging one’s soul with a Creator God in heaven or one’s ātma with Mahā Brahma in a Brahma realm. But the Buddha explained that those efforts would be in vain.

9. It is, of course, necessary to have goals for certain achievements while one is living in this world — even mundane achievements. For example, one needs to get a good education and employment (and ensure that one’s children will do the same). This is necessary to avoid suffering in this life.

  • But then one would need to hear about the true nature of this world on a long-term basis: That life continues after the death of this physical body, and one needs to work towards attaining some spiritual goals. That will lead to stopping suffering in the rebirth process.
  • It is only when one contemplates this “long-term picture” that one can comprehend the anicca (and dukkha and anatta) nature of this world: No matter how many mundane achievements one may achieve, one would have to leave all that behind when one dies and then — if fortunate enough to be born human — re-start the whole process again.

10. Therefore, ignorance of anicca nature leads to suffering (dukkha).

  • If one tries to attain happiness by doing dasa akusala (which is very likely to happen when the temptations become high), one would be born in the lower four realms, and the suffering will be much higher. That is when one becomes helpless (anatta).

This fact is stated repeatedly in many suttā with the succinct statement: yadaniccam tam dukkham, tam dukkham tadanatta.”

  • That is a condensed version made to rhyme for easy oral transmission. The complete verse is: “yad aniccam tam dukkham, tam dukkham tad anatta,
  • “If we cannot maintain things to our satisfaction, suffering arises; that makes us helpless in the end.”
  • For more details, see “Anicca – Inability to Keep What We Like.”

11. The above important verse appears in many suttā in the Samyutta Nikāya (Anicca Vagga), including “Ajjhattanicca Sutta (SN 35.1),Bahiranicca Sutta (SN 35.4)“, and “Yadanicca sutta (SN 22.15)“, the Buddha stated that the three characteristics of “this world” (anicca, dukkha, anatta) are RELATED to each other:

  • This statement is applicable in this life. No matter how many achievements/accomplishments/victories we make in this life, we will have to leave all that behind when we die.
  • However, the Buddha’s key message was regarding this statement’s implications in the rebirth process. If one engages in dasa akusala (unavoidable if the temptation is high enough), one is bound to be subjected to much suffering via rebirths in the four lower realms. That is when one becomes helpless (anatta).
  • This is why one would need to remove the ten types of miccha diṭṭhi first (mundane Eightfold Path) to understand the fundamentals like the laws of kamma and the validity of the rebirth process. Only then can one start comprehending the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature and start on the Noble Eightfold Path; see “Buddha Dhamma – In a Chart” and “Mahā Cattārisaka Sutta (Discourse on the Great Forty).”
All Meanings of Anicca/Anatta Self-Consistent

12. All meanings/interpretations of anicca and anatta are interrelated.

  • The first meaning of anatta says that there is no “unchanging essence” in a living being controlling its destiny. Everything happens due to causes and conditions, even moment-by-moment Idapaccayā Paṭicca Samuppāda. Then the rebirth process takes place according to Uppatti Paṭicca Samuppāda; see “Paṭicca Samuppāda.” Once the basic idea is grasped, one can follow the steps in “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Overview” to understand things better.
  • This is related to the anicca nature of not being able to maintain anything to one’s liking. One does not have that ability because one does not control anything one perceives to be “one’s own.”
  • When one goes against nature (i.e., do adhamma) and tries to maintain things to one’s liking, one may do dasa akusala and then be subjected to their bad kamma vipāka. One critical aspect of this is to be born in the four lower realms where suffering is high. One can avoid much suffering by grasping this meaning of anatta.

13. There is something under our control, even though one has to be disciplined to make it work. This is one’s gati. One’s gati controls one’s destiny.

  • Since one’s gati can change at any time, those are not fixed. Anyone can decide to change one’s gati and work towards a better outcome by rejecting adhamma and adhering to dhamma, i.e., by following the Noble Eightfold Path; see, “9. Key to Ānāpānasati – How to Change Habits and Character (Gati)“.
  • But first, one must fully grasp the fundamentals embedded in anicca, dukkha, and anatta (and sometimes asubha is added to the list).
  • Even before that, one must get rid of those ten types of miccha diṭṭhi. For example, one can never grasp the anicca/anatta nature if one does not believe in rebirth. The whole point is to stop suffering in future rebirths. Current life has already arisen due to past causes/conditions and will inevitably lead to decay and death.
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