Anattā in Anattalakkahana Sutta – No Soul or an Ātma

May 31, 2019

1. Attā is a Pāli word with two basic meanings that are very different and depend on the context.

  • In the conventional sense, “attā”just means “a person” like calling someone “John”. In rural Sri Lanka, to refer to someone, one could say “this attā” (මේ ඇත්තා or මේ අත්තා) just like we say “this person”.
  • The deeper meaning of “atta”is “full control” and “with substance”.
  • If one is in full control of SOMETHING, that THING can be called his or her attā. If something is not under full and complete control that is anattā.
  • This is related to the key concepts of “anattā” and “anatta” (one of the three characteristics of Nature or Tilakkhana); see, “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta“. “Anatta” is having “no control” and “without substance” or “without essence”.

2. Therefore, we need to be able to determine which “attā” is meant based on the context where the word is used.

  • For example, “bear” refers to the large animal in “I saw a bear” but in “to bear a burden” it has a completely different meaning.
  • Let us clarify those two meanings of attā directly using the Tipiṭaka.

3. The usage of “attā” in the mundane sense is clearly seen in the famous Dhammapada verse; see, “Attā Hi Attanō Nāthō“. There “attā” refers to “any person”. It just says that each person has strive for his/her own salvation (Nibbāna). Even the Buddha can only teach the way.

  • Another is “attānam damayaṃti panditā“, which means, “a wise person would control/discipline oneself“. This is in Dhammapada verse 80.

4. The second and deeper meaning of  “attā”(or actually of opposite of  “attā” or “anattā”) was described by the Buddha in his second discourse delivered after attaining the Buddhahood.

The second discourse, “Anattalakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59)” starts with the verse: “Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā. Rūpañca hidaṃ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṃ rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvatteyya, labbhetha ca rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ anattā, tasmā rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvattati, na ca labbhati rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti.

  • Translated: “Bhikkhus, form (physical body) is anattā (or not attā). For if, bhikkhus, if one’s body is attā, one would have full control over it, and it would be possible to say: ‘Let my body be like this; let my body not be like this.’ But because the body is anattā, it is subjected to decay and disease, and it is not possible to have it the way one desires: ‘Let my body be this way; let my body not be this way”.

5. The verse in #4 is a very important because it clearly describes what is meant by attā and anattā in the deeper sense: Attā would be one in full control. If one has full control of something, one would be able to maintain it to the way one wants.

  • For example, we like to think that if we “own” something we should be able to “have full control” over it. But we know that is not the case (cars, houses, anything we own evolve in their own way. Even though things like gold jewellery are stable, we will lose control over them when we die).
  • Specifically, if one’s body is attā, one should be able to make it the way one would like it to be: say, strong, healthy, and handsome/beautiful; one would be able to maintain it without catching any disease or injuries; furthermore, one would be able to make it live forever. But our bodies evolve in their own way. No matter how hard we try, they age, decay, and die.

6. This is emphasized in the another verse in that sutta: “Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ niccaṃ vā aniccaṃ vā”ti? “Aniccaṃ, bhante”. “Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā”ti? “Dukkhaṃ, bhante”.

Translated: ““What do you think, bhikkhus, can one’s body be maintained to one’s liking or not?”—“not possible, bhante.”—“Does that lead to suffering or happiness?”—“Suffering, bhante”.

  • As we have seen before, it is the anicca nature (inability to satisfy one’s desires/expectations) that leads to suffering; see, “Anicca – Inability to Keep What We Like“.
  • We encounter such suffering whenever something that we own breaks down (houses, cars, etc) and when people we love get sick or die. However, the worst suffering is when we ourselves get sick or when we face death ourselves. This is expressed in the next part of the above verse.

7. The verse continues: “Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipari­ṇāma­dhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ: ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’”ti? “No hetaṃ, bhante”.

Translated: ““If something cannot be maintained to one’s liking, if it undergoes unexpected change, and lead to suffering, is it appropriate to say: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my attā (my essence)’?”—“No, bhante.”

  • Now we are getting to the deeper aspect. If X owns a car, X would say, “this car is mine“. If that car breaks down, X will become unhappy (suffer).
  • However, X will never says, “this car is me, this is my attā (my essence)“.
  • On the other hand, X is likely to say, “this body is me, this is my attā (my essence)“. 

8. What the Buddha logically pointed out in the above section of the verse is since one’s body also cannot be maintained to one’s liking, since it undergoes unexpected change, and since leads to suffering, is it NOT appropriate to say: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my attā (my essence)” about one’s body too.

  • This needs to contemplated at depth.
  • This is one key aspect of grasping what is meant by sakkāya diṭṭhi, as we will discuss in a future post.

9. Furthermore, it is not only our body, but any rūpa (family, friends, cars, houses, etc) that is not under our control. In our deep past, we never had that control over any external or internal rūpa, and we will never be able to have such control in the future either. Therefore, the whole rūpakkhandha is anattā.

  • The sutta now repeats the same argument for the other four khandhās or aggregates: vedanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññānakkhandha.
  • Those are our thoughts, experiences, hopes and dreams. We do not have much control over them, and whatever control we have will be lost at death. We have no idea where we will be born next.
  • We are really helpless in this beginning-less rebirth process and that is the anatta Nature.

10. There is nothing in a “living being” that is not included in the five aggregates. Since one does not have any real control over any of them, none of them can be called one’s attā. 

  • Therefore, there is NOTHING that can be called one’s own, and thus can be maintained to one’s liking, For example, one does not have any control over WHERE one will be reborn.
  • That is dictated by Paṭicca Samuppāda, and most rebirths are the lower realms with much suffering. Thus one is truly helpless or anattā. 

11. This can be expressed by saying one has “no real intrinsic essence”, “one is helpless in the long run”, “all struggles for a permanent happiness will go to naught”, etc. Even if one lives a perfect and healthy life, one WILL become helpless at death, with the future totally uncertain.

  • This is why a living being is ALWAYS subjected to the anatta nature. Note that “rupam anattā” refers to the fact that one’s body cannot be one’s attā, and that anatta (without the long “a”) is a characteristic of the Nature.
  • Realizing this particular aspect of anatta Nature, i.e., that one’s five aggregates are not be taken as “one’s own” is the removal of sakkāya diṭṭhi.

12. Now we can see how this concept of anattā is clearly opposite to the concept of a “soul” in Abrahamic religions or the concept of an “ātma” (pronounced “āthma”) in Hinduism. Thus, according to those religions, there is an attā which is the “soul” or the “ātma“.

  • In the case of Abrahamic religions, one’s goal is to “purify” one’s soul and make it got to heaven where one will live forever.
  • In the case of Hinduism, the goal is to merge one’s ātma with the Mahā Brahma, and again be in that brahma realm forever.
  • However, the Buddha stated that there is no realm in this world that has a permanent existence like that.
  • This concept of an “everlasting identity” or a “soul” or an “ātma” is referred to as the “sāssatavāda” in the Tipiṭaka.

13. Those who do not believe in rebirth say that a “person” exists only as long as his/her body is alive. When one dies, that identity is terminated. Most scientists today seem to believe in this idea: There is nothing that is “carried over” to a next life. This concept (or argument) is called the “uccedavāda” in the Tipiṭaka.

  • But the Buddha explained that the real nature lies in between those two extreme views. Any “living being” exists as an ever-changing lifestream and that “lifestream” is carried over to a new life. But there is NOTHING that remains the SAME in that lifestream. The next life could be VERY DIFFERENT from the current life; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.
  • The next life is determined by the root causes and conditions that exist at the moment of leaving the current existence (cuti-patisandhi moment) based on Paṭicca Samuppāda.

A second key meaning of anatta is discussed at, “Anatta – No Refuge in This World“.

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