Anatta in Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta – Part 1

September 19, 2021

Introduction

1. “Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (SN 22.59)” was the second sutta delivered by the Buddha after his Enlightenment (attaining the Buddhahood.) He taught the first two suttas to the famous five ascetics. The first one, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) — delivered and discussed over several days — led to all five ascetics attaining the Sotapanna stage.

  • Then the Buddha delivered the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta to the same five ascetics who reached the Arahanthood.
  • In the previous post, I explained that anatta is a characteristic of the world of 31 realms and not about a “self.” See, “Anatta is a Characteristic of the World, not About a “Self.”
  • Here we will discuss the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta, specifically about that “characteristic of anatta” or “anatta lakkhaṇa.” As we know, lakkhaṇa means “a characteristic.”
Outline of the Sutta

2. If you look at the first half of the sutta, it points out the anatta nature of rupa, vedanā, saññā, sañkhāra, viññāṇa, or the five aggregates (pañcakkhandha.)

  • The Buddha points out that those aggregates CANNOT be under one’s control in that first part. They evolve according to paṭicca Samuppāda.
  • The second part of the sutta starts with the verse, “Taṁ kiṁ maññatha, bhikkhave, rūpaṁ niccaṁ vā aniccaṁ vā’ti?” Here, he points out the reasons why they cannot be under one’s control. The key reason is that all five aggregates have the anicca nature, i.e., they evolve according to nature’s laws and NOT according to one’s wishes or hopes. As we have discussed, anicca nature leads to dukkha, and that is why all efforts to “get control” will not be successful and one will lose control and become helpless (anattā): “Yad aniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁyaṁ dukkhaṁ tad anattā.” 
  • The final third part of the sutta starting with the verse, “Evaṁ passaṁ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako rūpasmimpi nibbindati, ..” states the conclusion: A Noble Person (Ariya Sāvaka) who comprehends the above two facts about the nature of this world would not crave those five aggregates (nibbindati). Once that wisdom (paññā) takes hold in mind, that mind liberates from this world. That mind will NOT grasp (upādāna) anything in this world, and thus the rebirth process will cease, and one will merge with Nibbāna at the death of the physical body.
  • To get the full impact of the sutta, we need to fully understand what are meant by those five aggregates (pañcakkhandha.)
What Is an Aggregate (Khadha)?

3. Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta (SN 22.59) is one of 159 suttas in the Khandha Samyutta (SN 22.) All those suttas are related to the five aggregates or collections (pañca khandha which rhymes as pañcakkhandha.)

  • What is a khandha or a collection/aggregate? One of those 159 suttas in the Khandha Samyutta, the “Khandha Sutta (SN 22. 48),” clarifies that.
  • Katame ca, bhikkhave, pañcakkhandhā?” OR “Bhikkhus, what are the five aggregates?”
  • Yaṁ kiñci, bhikkhave, rūpaṁ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁ ajjhattaṁ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṁ vā sukhumaṁ vā hīnaṁ vā paṇītaṁ vā yaṁ dūre santike vā, ayaṁ vuccati rūpakkhandho” OR “Bhikkhus, the rupa aggregate consists of the following 11 types of rupa: past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near. This is called the rupa aggregate.
  • The other four aggregates have the same 11 types. For example, the viññāṇa aggregate has the same 11 types: past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near.
Five Aggregates Encompass the Whole World!

4. As we can see from the definition of the rupa aggregate, it includes any rupa that one has ever seen, one is seeing now, and expects to see in the future. Those are the three main categories.

  • For example, suppose I saw the World Center Towers before their destruction in the terrorist attack in 2001. Those towers are in my rupakkhandha. Of course, those towers physically do not exist now. But my rupakkhandha has their “mental impressions.” That is why I can recall how they looked before the terrorists destroyed them.
  • But if another person had not seen those towers before their destruction, they are not in that person’s rupakkhandha. One’s pañcakkhandha are one’s own!
  • Furthermore, any type of vedanā that I experienced looking at those towers are in my vedanāṇakkhandha. My recognition of them as “World Center Towers” is in my saññākkhandha. Any sañkhāra that my mind generated while looking at the Towers are in my saṅkhārakkhandha. Any types of viññāṇa that arose are in my viññāṇakkhandha.
  • Therefore, most of the five aggregates consist of one’s past experiences. As we know, there is no traceable beginning to each of our “lifestreams.” We have been going through an infinite number of rebirths in our past. The present moment goes into the past within a blink of an eye. Future rupa, vedanā, etc., are associated with our expectations/hopes.
  • Please take time and think about the above. There is a lot of information there. It is critical to understand these fundamentals.
  • I have discussed these concepts in “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).”
Role of Pañcakkhandha in a Sensory Event

5. When we are attracted to a sensory event that involves not only the rupa one is experiencing at that moment, but also one’s memories about similar rupa experienced in the past, and one’s hopes for experiencing similar rupa in the future as well.

  • That is better explained with an example. Suppose person X meets a person Y on the street. Suppose X is an enemy of Y and the moment X sees Y, thoughts of anger arise in his mind.
  • But to trigger anger in X, he must first realize that Y is his enemy. For that to happen, his mind must have instantly recalled past events involving Y. Therefore, that sensory event of “seeing Y” involved recalling past events with not only Y’s figure (rupa) but also types of mental factors (vedanā, saññā, sañkhāra, viññāṇa) associated with some “bad encounters with Y” in the past.
  • That is why capturing a “snapshot” of Y (like with a camera) is not enough. The mind MUST recall previous encounters with Y, and those are in pañcakkhandha! In other words, those cittas not only “see” Y, but also incorporate past sights of Y AND associated vedanā, saññā, sañkhāra, viññāṇa.
  • Now, based on the sight of Y, X has generated anger and has “gotten attached” to that sight of Y. Therefore, sensory information associated with ‘seeing Y” is now in X’s pañcupādānakkhandhā!
Khandha Sutta Also Defines Pañcupādānakkhandhā (“Five Grasping Aggregates”)

6. At the latter part of the Khandha Sutta defines pañcupādānakkhandhā, conventionally translated as “the five grasping (or clinging) aggregates.”

  • Katame ca, bhikkhave, pañcupādānakkhandhā?” OR “bhikkhus, what are the five grasping aggregates?
  • Yaṁ kiñci, bhikkhave, rūpaṁ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁpe… yaṁ dūre santikesāsavaṁ upādāniyaṁ, ayaṁ vuccati rūpupādānakkhandho” OR “Whatever kind of rupa there is, whether past, future or present … far or near, that can induce āsava (sāsavaṁ), that can induce attachment (upādāniyaṁ): this is called the rūpupādānakkhandha.
How Do We Attach to Past and Future Rupa (Vedanā, Saññā, Sañkhāra, Viññāṇa)?

7. Now, someone may ask the question: “How do we attach to past and future rupa? I thought we attach to the rupa that we are seeing, hearing, etc., at this moment.”

  • That is a CRITICAL point to understand. We do attach to a given rupa that we are experiencing at present. However, that attachment is based on the past rupa and even future rupa of a similar type (that we had thought about). 
  • For example, seeing a friend cannot be compared to just taking a snapshot of him. We not only “see” but also recognize who it is and generate certain feelings about him. All that happens in a split second. That rapid process involves all five aggregates (pañcakkhandha.)

8. Let us take another example. Suppose person X meets a person Y on the street. Suppose Y is an enemy of X and the moment X sees Y, thoughts of anger arise in his mind.

  • But to trigger anger in X, he must first realize that Y is his enemy. But for that to happen, his mind must have recalled past events involving Y. Therefore, that sensory event of “seeing Y” involved recalling past events with not only Y’s figure (rupa) but also types of mental factors (vedanā, saññā, sañkhāra, viññāṇa) associated with some “bad encounters with Y” in the past.
  • That is why capturing a “snapshot” of Y (like with a camera) is not enough. The mind MUST recall previous encounters with Y, and those are in pañcakkhandha! In other words, those cittas not only “see” Y, but also incorporate previous sights of Y AND associated vedanā, saññā, sañkhāra, viññāṇa.
  • The “past component” of pañcakkhandha is the same as nāmagotta or our memories. Even though we cannot recall nāmagotta from the distant past, we can easily recall nāmagotta of significant events from this life.
  • I have discussed this issue with examples in the post, “The Amazing Mind – Critical Role of Nāmagotta (Memories).”
Our Attachments Are Based on Our Habits/Character (Gati)

9. There is another way to understand the above point. Each person has a set of cravings/attachments. The Pali word to represent this idea is “gati” (pronounced “gathi.”) Gati are also related to āsava and anusaya.

  • For example, X may be attracted to a type of woman that Y may not be attracted to. X may like to eat chocolates, but Y may not. Each of us has a set of gati that have evolved, most times going back to recent previous lives. There are neutral gati (like being left-handed) and also bad gati (like the tendency to become angry), and moral gati (like being kind).
  • I have discussed this issue in many posts, including how gati are related to āsava/anusaya. See “Search Results for gati gathi āsava.”
  • It is essential to read and understand some of those posts. Then you will see why the Buddha explained rūpupādānakkhandha in terms of āsava and upādāna:, “Yaṁ kiñci, bhikkhave, rūpaṁ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁpe… yaṁ dūre santikesāsavaṁ upādāniyaṁ, ayaṁ vuccati rūpupādānakkhandho
  • As I keep emphasizing, one must spend time to understand these fundamental issues. Just reading mindless word-by-word translations are of no benefit.
  • Just reading these posts will also not be good enough. These posts will provide the necessary material to make progress. However, it will take a significant effort even for those who are interested. I am willing to answer questions to the best of my ability.
Summary

10. In this post, we have discussed two critical concepts needed to understand the content of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta.

  • Pancakkhandha (five aggregates) includes records of our deep past even if we remember mostly the significant events in this life. However, it is possible to cultivate jhāna and to recall past lives. Some small children can recall their previous life (if it was a human life).
  • Pañcupādānakkhandhā (five “grasping” aggregates) represents our gati/anusaya/āsava that have evolved over our past lives. We can change our pañcupādānakkhandhā or the types of attachments (that arise out of greed, anger, and most importantly, ignorance of Tilakkhana/Patica Samuppāda/Noble Truths.)
  • Now we have sufficient background to understand the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta. We will finish the discussion in the next post.
  • The sutta says that our struggles to seek a permanent solution to suffering within this world are vain. That is the anatta nature. Once one starts understanding that, one will begin to losing big chunks of upādāna in pañcupādānakkhandhāAfter the Arahant stage, there will be no trace of pañcupādānakkhandhā. Thus, only a living Arahant will be free of all defilements. They have fully understood the anatta (and of course anicca and dukkha) nature.
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