Anattā (Mundane Interpretation) – No “Unchanging Self”

December 5, 2018; revised March 6, 2021; August 29, 2022

Anatta is Not About a “Self”

1. These days, most people translate the key Pāli word “anatta” simply as “no-self.” However, just by looking at a few occurrences of “anatta” in the Tipiṭaka, we can see that it needs to be interpreted differently, depending on the context.

  • The words “attha,”atta,” and “attā” can have many different meanings depending on the context.
  • Even in English, there are cases like this: The word “right” can mean two different things: “you are right” and “turn right.” Even though it is pronounced the same way, “write” means something entirely different from the possible meanings of “right.”
  • An easy way to remember the true meaning of anatta is to understand what is meant by “sabbe dhammā anattā” in the “Uppādā Sutta (AN 3.136).” Here, “dhammā” refers not to Buddha Dhamma but to “dhammā” (plural) that bears everything in this world. This is the dhammā in “Ye dhammā hetuppabhavā, Tesaṃ hetuṃ tathāgato āha”  or “any dhammā giving rise to this world arises due to “three “san” of lobha, dosa, moha as explained by the Buddha.”  See #6 below. Thus, all such dhammā are without essence (anattā.)
Ānanda Sutta (SN 44.10)

2. Even though this is a bit deep sutta, “Ānanda Sutta (SN 44.10)” provides an excellent basis to start a discussion on anatta. Just as now, many people in the days of the Buddha wondered whether a “self” or a “soul” (attā) exists. That is, of course, the ordinary meaning of attā. 

  • Vacchagotta comes to the Buddha asked “kiṃ nu kho, bho gotama, atthattā” ti?” OR “Master Gotama, is it correct to say that there is a “self”?”.
  • Note that “atthattā” is “atthi attā,” where “atthi” means “exists” and (as Vacchagotta meant in this case) “attā” to be “self.” Thus, by saying “atthattā,” Vacchagotta meant: “correct to say an attā exists.”

3. The Buddha remained silent, and Vacchagotta asked the question in the negative form. The second time, he asked: “Kiṃ pana, bho gotama, natthattā” ti?” or, “Master Gotama, is it not correct to say that there is a “self”?”. Seeing that the Buddha refused to answer his question, Vacchagotta got up and left.

Buddha Rejected Both “Self” and “No-Self”

4. When Vacchagotta left, Ven. Ānanda asked why the Buddha did not answer the question.

  • The Buddha explained that if he answered positively (i.e., there is a “self”), then he would agree with those who had the wrong view that such a “self” exists. This view is called sassatavāda, or the belief that there is an “everlasting entity” (these days also called “a soul”).
  • If answered in the negative (i.e., there is “no-self”), then he would agree with those who had the wrong view that such a “self” does not exist. That is called ucchedavāda, or the belief that the body’s death is the “end of a person,” i.e., no re-birth.
  • The Buddha rejected both views of “self” (sassatavāda) and “no-self”(ucchedavāda).
A Rare Correct Translation of Anatta at Sutta Central

5. Just from that verse, it is clear that if one takes “anatta” as “no-self,” one has the wrong view taken by one faction of brahmins in the days of the Buddha: that of ucchedavāda.

  • I was surprised that the Sutta Central English translation says precisely what I explained in #4 above; see, “Ānanda Sutta (SN 44.10)“. Directly quoting from that translation:
  • “If, Ānanda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists. And if, when he asked, ‘Is there no self?’, I had answered, ‘There is no self.’ That would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists.”
  • So, the translation of this verse is the same as mine. But the Sutta Central translation of the next verse uses the same meaning of “no-self” in ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’ and gets into a contradiction, as we discuss now.
Sabbe Dhammā Anattā

6. Then the Buddha told Ven. Ānanda that any discussion on this topic would confuse Vacchagotta because he would then get mixed up with the deeper meaning of “anatta” in ‘sabbe dhammā anattā.’ That refers to “anatta nature”: “Ahañcānanda, vacchagottassa paribbājakassa ‘atthattā’ti puṭṭho samāno ‘atthattā’ti byākareyyaṃ, api nu me taṃ, ānanda, anulomaṃ abhavissa ñāṇassa uppādāya: ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’”ti?”. “No hetaṃ, Bhante.”

  • That is the confusion most people have today. They equate “anatta nature” in “sabbe dhammā anattā” with the “no-self” meaning of “anattā.”
  • Sabbe dhammā anattā” needs to be translated as all dhammā are of anatta nature,” i.e., of “without essence,” and that one would become “anattā” or “without refuge” if one does not comprehend the “anatta nature.”

7. In the Sutta Central translation, the same mundane meaning (“no-self”)  is used for anatta in “sabbe dhammā anattā.” 

  • The verse in #6 in the Sutta Central translation  is: “If, Ānanda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that ‘all phenomena are nonself’?”.
  • First, “all phenomena are non-self” does not make sense. Dhammā cannot have a “self” anyway. Here, the correct translation is, “all phenomena are of no essence.” We will discuss this in detail later.
  • Furthermore, that translation, “all phenomena are non-self,” is self-contradictory to the Sutta Central translation of previous verses in #5 above, where both “self” and “no-self” were shown to be rejected by the Buddha.
The Danger in Translating Suttā Word-by-Word

8. That is the danger in translating suttā word-by-word without grasping the real meanings of Pāli words and understanding that meanings depend on the context.

  • Therefore, it should be quite clear that Vacchagotta’s confusion is not different from the misunderstanding that many people have today.
  • However, Vacchagotta could grasp that distinction later on and became a bhikkhu. Ven. Vacchagotta became an Arahant.
  • I sincerely hope those with the wrong understanding will also be able to see the truth at some point.

9. The deeper meaning of “anatta” will become clear as we discuss this in detail; See “Paṭicca Samuppāda – Essential Concepts.” Without understanding those more basic concepts, it is dangerous to translate a given key Pāli word like anatta using a generic English word(s).

  • For now, we will postpone the discussion on the deeper meaning of “anatta” and focus on “attā” and “anattā” in the sense of “self” and “no-self.”
Which Realm Correspond to an Unchanging “True Self”?

10. A given living being can be born in any of the 31 realms (a few realms are reserved for Anāgāmis); see “31 Realms of Existence” and “31 Realms Associated with the Earth“.

  • But the point is that a human could be born a deva or an animal in the next life. Would a dog have the same “self” as a human?
  • So, it is quite clear that there in no “unchanging self.”

11.  On the other hand, a human does not just become a deva or an animal or a preta in the next life without underlying causes. It is not a random process.

  • There is a continuation of the “lifestream” from this life to the next. One’s gati and one’s kamma vipāka play key roles. I have discussed the critical and forgotten keyword gati (or gati) in many posts.
  • That is why it is incorrect to say there is “no-self.” There are “personality attributes” that flow from this life to the next. 
  • That is explained in Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS) or Dependent Origination. As we know, PS cycles start with “avijjā paccayā saṅkhāra” and go through “bhava paccayā jāti.” That explains how avijjā leads to future births (jāti).
  • Roughly speaking, high levels of avijjā (or mōha) leads to births in the apāyās.

12. Therefore, from #10 and #11, we can see why the Buddha rejected both views of “an unchanging self” and “no-self.”

  • Instead, there is a next life (birth) according to the principle of Paṭicca Samuppāda, which is cause and effect, just like in modern science. We will discuss PS later. However, it is easy to see this with an understanding of kamma and kamma vipāka.
  • Dasa akusala (and pāpa kamma or immoral deeds) lead to bad births, and dasa kusala (and puñña kamma or moral deeds) lead to good births.
  • This was discussed in: “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Punna and Pāpa Kamma“.
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