April 2, 2017; revised November 10, 2017; September 1, 2018; June 6, 2019; re-written June 13, 2021
Atta/Anatta – Various Meanings
1. This important post will help connect the deeper teaching of the Buddha Dhamma (anicca, dukkha, anatta) and the practice, i.e., cleansing one’s mind via abstaining from dasa akusala and cultivating dasa kusala.
- The Tilakkhana (three characteristics) represent the “theory side” or the “nature of this world,” and dasa akusala are associated with the practice. Thus the connection between the two is important.
- I have not seen this addressed directly outside of the Tipiṭaka.
2. We discussed in the previous post, “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?” why the Pāli words “atta/anatta” do not convey “self/no-self” but rather “with essence/no essence” or “truth/untruth” or “useful/not useful” or “protected/helpless.”
- We also discussed how “atta/anatta” is closely related to the Sanskrit words “artha/anartha” (අර්ථ/අනර්ථ in Sinhala), also giving the meanings “truth/untruth” or “useful/not useful.”
- Finally, we touched on the fact that anatta (and thus dukkha and anatta) nature is a manifestation of engaging in dasa akusala.
3. Recently, I realized that many suttā in the Anguttara Nikāya (AN) express various concepts in brief. Many suttā are just a paragraph providing the key idea; see “Anguttara Nikāya – Suttā on Key Concepts.”
- Here we will discuss three short suttā in the Anguttara Nikāya that can clarify the connection between dasa akusala and Tilakkhana.
Kusala and Akusala
4. First, the Kusala Sutta (AN 10.180; in the Sadhuvagga) has just one verse defining dasa akusala:
- “..katamañca, bhikkhave, akusalaṁ? pānātipāto, adinnādānaṃ, kāmesumicchācāro, musāvādo, pisunā vācā, parusā vācā, samphappalāpō, abhijjhā, vyāpādō, micchādiṭṭhi akusalaṃ..”
- Conventionally translated: “killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slandering, harsh talk, empty talk, greed, hate, and wrong views.” These are discussed in “Ten Immoral Actions (Dasa Akusala).”
- In the next and last paragraph of the sutta, dasa kusala are defined as the opposites of dasa akusala (veramani means “abstain from”): “Katamañca, bhikkhave, kusalaṁ? pānātipātā veramani, adinnādānā veramani, kāmesumicchācārā veramani, musāvādā veramani, pisunā vācā veramani, parusā vācā veramani, samphappalāpā veramani, abhijjhā veramani, vyāpāda veramani, sammādiṭṭhi kusalaṃ ‘ti.
- Therefore, kusala and akusala are stated clearly and succinctly in that sutta.
Engaging in Akusala Lead to Anattho (One Who Has Become Anatta or Without Refuge)
5. Then in the very next sutta, Attha Sutta (AN 10.181; in the Sadhuvagga) anattho is defined in terms of dasa akusala:
- “..katamo ca bhikkhave, anattho? pānātipātō, adinnādānaṃ, kāmesumicchācāro, musāvādo, pisunā vācā, parusā vācā, samphappalāpō, abhijjhā, vyāpādō, micchādiṭṭhi – ayam vuccati, bhikkhave, anattho..”
- This means dasa akusala are “not the real nature.” When one goes against nature, one gets into trouble; see, “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?“.
- In the next and last paragraph of the sutta, attho is defined as the opposite of that: pānātipātā veramani, adinnādānā veramani, kāmesumicchācārā veramani, musāvādā veramani, pisunā vācā veramani, parusā vācā veramani, samphappalāpā veramani, abhijjhā veramani, vyāpāda veramani, sammāädiṭṭhi – ayam vuccati, bhikkhave, attho. ‘ti.
- That means one will have refuge (and thus will NOT be helpless) if one refrains from such akusala kamma.
- Here are more short suttā that confirm this point: “Anguttara Nikāya – Suttā on Key Concepts.”
The Wrong View of a “Me” Is in Sakkāya Diṭṭhi
6. Those two short suttā make crystal clear the following important facts:
- Anatta has nothing to do (directly) with whether a “self” exists. Note that the wrong view of a “me” is Sakkāya Diṭṭhi.
- Anatta is all about being helpless in the rebirth process due to one’s engagements with dasa akusala.
- Therefore, getting to Nibbāna is about avoiding dasa akusala, i.e., cleansing one’s mind.
Confirmation in Other Suttās
7. Now, several suttā in the Anguttara Nikāya put it all together. The first verse in the Patama Adhamma Sutta (AN 10.113 in the Paccorohanivagga) states it nicely:
- “Adhammō ca, bhikkhave, veditabbō anattho ca; dhammō ca veditabbō attho ca.”
- I will write another post explaining other verses in that sutta. Still, we can easily translate that verse: “Bhikkhus, it is to be comprehended that adhamma leads to anattā (helplessness), and dhamma leads to attā (refuge in Nibbāna).”
- Furthermore, those who are still clinging to the incorrect interpretation of “anatta” as “no-self” should be able to clearly see that it leads to the foolish statement: “Bhikkhus, it is to be comprehended that adhamma leads to no-self, and dhamma leads to self.”
- Even Sakkāya Diṭṭhi is not about a “self.” It is deeper. It says that nothing in this world can be OR should be taken as “me” or “mine.” In ultimate reality, not only is there no everlasting “soul,” there is no “me” or “I” either. But the PERCEPTION (saññā) of a “me” goes away only at the Arahant stage. See, “Vipallāsa (Diṭṭhi, Saññā, Citta) Affect Saṅkhāra.”
- The root cause of this misinterpretation is explained in “Misinterpretation of Anicca and Anatta by Early European Scholars.”
Dhammā and Adhammā
8. Dhammā is what one should bear, i.e., principles one should live by. But it is normally used in the sense of “good dhamma.”
- Adhamma (or adhammā) is the opposite, i.e., immoral living. If one engages in dasa akusala, one engages in adhamma, i.e., one bears adhammā.
- Consider the following similar situation. We normally use the word “smell” to mean “bad smell.” However, we specifically say “good smell” to indicate a good smell.
- In the same way, dhammā can be good or bad (“what one bears”). However, we normally use the word dhammā to indicate good dhammā. Bad dhammā are adhammā.
9. Normally, the word dhamma indicates teaching or a principle, as in Buddha Dhamma. The word dhammā (with a long “a”) is used to indicate what one bears as a result of past kamma; see, “What are rūpa? – Dhammā are rūpa too!“. Dhammā are the same as kamma bīja.
- We need to determine the meaning depending on the context and how the word is used in a given verse.
Consistency Within the Whole Tipiṭaka
10. When examining ANY sutta in the Tipiṭaka, they will be consistent with the above explanation.
- Those three suttā make the key connection between the deeper Tilakkhana (“theory”) and the practice (cleansing the mind via sila, i.e., staying away from dasa akusala). We don’t need to analyze hundreds of suttā to see the connection.
- When I go to online discussion boards, I get baffled. People quote suttā from different sites, and normally they have incorrect meanings of key Pāli words. It is a waste of time to read all those long posts providing “evidence” from different places, and of course, there are usually inconsistencies among them.
- This was a major reason that I decided to start this website because I can show that everything is consistent if one uses the true meanings of key Pāli words.
11. It is also good to remember that a major problem with many texts is that they take conventional meanings of keywords and apply them incorrectly.
- Unless one knows the true meanings of such keywords and where to use a given meaning, it is easy to veer off in a wrong direction; see, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?“. Also, see “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency.”
12. In the previous post, “Anatta – the Opposite of Which Atta?“, we briefly mentioned that anatta is closely related to dasa akusala. I hope the connection is much clear now.
- Engaging in dasa akusala can only lead to suffering and, thus, helplessness in the long run. Therefore, engaging in actions, speech, and thoughts associated with dasa akusala is pointless and dangerous.
- This idea is quite clear in the Sinhala word for anatta. It is “anārtha” that we discussed in that previous post. It means “doing useless things and can only bring harm.”
Kamma Vipāka Can Materialize at any time – When Conditions Are Right.
13. Those who believe that doing dasa akusala can bring “bad vipāka” only in future lives are mistaken. Many people do not realize that even having immoral thoughts can bring us stress in this life itself.
We discussed this in detail in the beginning posts in the “Living Dhamma” section. That section is important in two aspects:
- While abstaining from dasa akusala, one can experience a definite sense of relief — also called nirāmisa sukha — which should be the initial focus.
- When one starts experiencing this nirāmisa sukha, one also starts comprehending deeper aspects of Dhamma, like the anicca and anatta nature. Only with those insights can one start to “see” the long-term kamma vipāka due to dasa akusala — like those leading to births in the apāyās (lowest four realms).
Attha Could Also Mean “Truth”
14. Note that atta is sometimes spelled out as “attha” (with an “h”) in many texts, and each may imply a mundane or deeper meaning. For example, the old Sinhala commentaries are called “atthakathā.” It means “accounts about the truth” (“kathā” means “story”).
- Those are the reliable commentaries in the Tipiṭaka: Paṭisambhidamagga, Peṭakopadesa, and Nettippakarana. Of many Sinhala atthakathā, those three are the only ones surviving.
- On the other hand, commentaries by Buddhaghosa and others do not belong to atthakathā. Visuddhimagga is a popular but erroneous commentary; see “Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga – A Focused Analysis.”
One Will Live by Dhammā When One Grasps Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana
15. Finally, we can now see the truth in verse, “Adhammañca viditvā anatthañca, dhammañca viditvā atthañca yathā dhammo yathā attho tathā paṭipajjitabbaṁ,“ that is also in the Patama Adhamma Sutta of #7 above.
- That means, “Knowing that adhamma leads to anattha and dhamma leads to attha, you should practice accordingly (following yathā dhammo will lead to yathā attho.)
- If one bears dhammā and stays away from adhammā, that will help one grasp the Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. Then one will not become anattā or helpless in this rebirth process. Instead, one will have “attā” or refuge.
- Once grasping the Noble Truths, one will never live by adhamma.
- This important post provides a simple but critical link between “theory and practice.” It is a good idea to read those relevant other posts and come back and re-read this post until this connection is grasped.