May 31, 2019; revised August 25, 2022
1. Attā is a Pāli word with two primary meanings that vary and depend on the context.
- In the conventional sense, “attā” 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 complete control of SOMETHING, that THING can be called their attā. If something is not under full control, that is anattā.
- That is related to the fundamental 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 determine the meaning of “attā” 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 an entirely different meaning.
- Let us clarify those two meanings of attā directly using the Tipiṭaka.
3. The usage of “attā” in the ordinary sense is seen in the famous Dhammapada verse; see, “Attā Hi Attanō Nāthō.” There, “attā” refers to “any person.” It just says that each person has strived for their salvation (Nibbāna). Even the Buddha can only teach the way.
- Another is “attānam damayaṃti panditā,” which means, “a wise person would control/discipline oneself.” That is in Dhammapada verse 80.
4. Buddha described the second and deeper meaning of “attā” in his second discourse delivered after attaining Buddhahood.
“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 impossible 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 critical because it clearly describes what is meant by attā and anattā in the more profound sense: Attā would be one in complete control. If one has full control of something, one would be able to maintain it 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 evolves in their way. Even though things like gold jewelry 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 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, the anicca nature (inability to satisfy one’s desires/expectations) leads to suffering; see, “Anicca – Inability to Keep What We Like.”
- We suffer when something we own breaks down (houses, cars, etc.) and when people we love get sick or die. However, the worst suffering is when we get ill or face death. That 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 say, “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. Then, the Buddha pointed out that the statement also holds for one’s physical body. One’s body cannot be maintained to one’s liking; it undergoes unexpected change and leads to suffering. Thus, is it NOT appropriate to say: ‘This (body) is mine, this I am, this is my attā (my essence).”
- Understanding that will remove sakkāya diṭṭhi.
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 helpless in this beginning-less rebirth process, which is the anatta nature.
10. Anything related to a “living being” (or a given lifestream) is in the five aggregates. There is not even a single entity we have control over,i.e., 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 has no control over WHERE one will be reborn.
- Anything in the five aggregates arises via Paṭicca Samuppāda. We only have control over two types of saṅkhāra (vaci and kāya saṅkhāra) and have no control over mano saṅkhāra. It is essential to understand the types of saṅkhāra: “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means.”
- Furthermore, most rebirths are the lower realms with much suffering. Thus one is helpless or anattā.
11. Thus, there is “no real intrinsic essence” like a soul. Also, “one is helpless in the long run” and “all struggles for 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 uncertain.
- Note that “rupam anattā” refers to the fact that one’s body cannot be one’s attā, and also, anatta (without the long “a”) is a characteristic of nature.
- Realizing this particular aspect of anatta nature, i.e., that any part of one’s five aggregates can not be taken as “one’s own,” is the removal of sakkāya diṭṭhi. We get attached to small parts of pañcakkhandha (i.e., pañcupādanakkhandha) because we think those are our own. See “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.”
12. Now, we can see how this concept of anattā is 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, the “soul” or the “ātma.”
- In the case of Abrahamic religions, one’s goal is to “purify” one’s soul and make it go 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 no realm in this world 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 the next life. This concept (or argument) is called the “uccedavāda” in the Tipiṭaka.
- But the Buddha explained that the fundamental nature lies 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 when leaving the current existence (cuti-patisandhi moment) based on Paṭicca Samuppāda.
A second fundamental meaning of anatta is in “Anatta – No Refuge in This World.”
Anattalakkahana Sutta discussed in detail: “Anatta in Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta – Part 1.”