Anatta in Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta – Part 2

September 26, 2021; revised August 25, 2022

Summary of the Previous Post

1. In the previous post, “Anatta in Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta – Part 1,” we reached the following conclusions:

  • Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta describes the NATURE of the five aggregates: rupa, vedanā, saññā, sañkhāra, and viññāṇa. It specifically addresses the anatta nature. To make it easier, we divided the sutta into three parts. You may want to print the previous post for reference.
  • In the middle of the sutta (second part), the Buddha makes the connection to the anicca and dukkha nature, as we will discuss below.
  • In the third part of the sutta, the Buddha explains that a Noble Person who understood the world’s real nature to be anicca, dukkha, and anatta would not attach to the five aggregates. Thus, an Arahant, who has completed the Path, does not have pañcupādānakkhandha.
  • That is because a Noble Person would have understood the verse, “saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā” OR “in brief, the origin of suffering is the craving for the five aggregates of rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, viññāna. See “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.” That is the post where we discussed the essence of the Dhammacappavattana Sutta, the first sutta delivered to the five ascetics. As we have seen, icchā (craving/liking) is related to anicca; see “Icca, Nicca, Anicca – Important Connections.”
  • Therefore, in this second sutta to the five ascetics, the Buddha wraps up the discussion on Tilakkhana. Attachment to things of anicca nature leads to dukkha. Thus, one should refrain from taking worldly things as “mine” because they do not have any essence or substance, i.e., worldly entities (pañcak­khan­dhā) are without essence or of anatta nature.
First Part of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta

2. At the beginning of the sutta, regarding rupakkhandha, the Buddha says:

Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, anattā. Rūpañca hidaṁ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṁ rūpaṁ ābādhāya saṁvatteyya, labbhetha ca rūpe: ‘evaṁ me rūpaṁ hotu, evaṁ me rūpaṁ mā ahosī’ti. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, rūpaṁ anattā, tasmā rūpaṁ ābādhāya saṁvattati, na ca labbhati rūpe: ‘evaṁ me rūpaṁ hotu, evaṁ me rūpaṁ mā ahosī’ti.

First, as discussed in the previous post, “Rūpaṁ” refers to rupakkhandha (the rupa aggregate and NOT just one’s body) as some people perceive it. 

Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, anattā” means “rupa aggregate is useless because it has no essence.” See “Anattā – A Systematic Analysis.”

  • The rest of the above verse explains WHY the rupa aggregate is of no essence: “If rupa aggregate is of essence (and is under one’s control), my body (which is a part of the rupakkhandha) would not have ailments, and it would be possible to have: ‘Let my body (or any other rupa) be the way I like; let it not be the way I don’t like.’ But because the rupa is not under my control, it can face unexpected changes, and it is impossible to have: ‘Let my rupa be thus; let my rupa not be thus.”

Here, the verse seems to focus on one’s physical body. But it could also mean any rupa that one likes/dislikes. As we will see, whether it is one’s own body or any other external rupa, they evolve according to Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS.) A rupa does not evolve according to anyone’s wishes, but ONLY according to PS. That has been true for any rupa that ever existed, any rupa existing now, and any rupa that will ever exist, i.e., it is true for rupakkhandha!

  • Then that verse is repeated for the other four aggregates: vedanāṇakkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, and viññāṇakkhandha.
  • Here, the words “anatta/anattā” refer to the unfruitful nature of any rupa, vedanā, sanna, sañkhāra, viññāṇa (i.e., one’s world).
Second Part of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta

3. The second part of the sutta starts with the verse, “Taṁ kiṁ maññatha, bhikkhave, rūpaṁ niccaṁ vā aniccaṁ vā’ti?” Here, the Buddha points out 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.” 
  • Then the Buddha asks the CRITICAL question: Yaṁ pana aniccaṁ dukkhaṁ vipariṇāmadhammaṁ, kallaṁ nu taṁ samanupassituṁ: etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’”ti? OR
  • If something evolves according to its intrinsic nature (and not according to my wishes) and can lead to suffering, should one regard it thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this can be of benefit/refuge to me?” The answer is no.
  • To look at the verse ‘etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ a bit more closely, esohamasmi is a shortened form of “eso aham asmi.” And mama” means “mine,” “aham asmi” means “I am,” and “me” means “to me.” That is how we get the translation above. 

4. That last verse is of critical importance. It helps clarify the current misconceptions about a “self.”  As I have pointed out previously, it is better to talk about “me” rather than a “self” because some people may interpret “self” to mean a “permanent entity” like a soul.

  • As we can see, the Buddha freely used the word “me.” That is because, AS LONG AS a living being is in the rebirth process, it has the perception of a “me.” That could be called a “self,” too, if one understands that such a “self” is not associated with a permanent “soul.”
  • On the other hand, the words “atta/attā” do not refer to a “me” or a “self” in this suttaAs we saw, this sutta is about the five aggregates (pañcak­khan­dhā), which encompass everything in this world.
  • Those who have not understood the Four Noble Truths consider the world (pañcak­khan­dhā) to be of nicca/sukha/atta nature. Therefore, they attach to certain worldly things or pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā, and that is the origin of future suffering: “saṃkhittena pañcu­pādā­nak­khan­dhā dukkhā.” See “Essence of Buddhism – In the First Sutta.”

5. The Buddha explained what is meant by a “satta” or a “living being” to Rādha in the “Satta Sutta (SN 23.2).” “Rūpe kho, Rādha, yo chando yo rāgo yā nandī yā taṇhā, tatra satto, tatra visatto, tasmā sattoti vuccati. Vedanāya … saññāya … saṅkhāresu … viññāṇe yo chando yo rāgo yā nandī yā taṇhā, tatra satto, tatra visatto, tasmā sattoti vuccati”

  • Translated (just the meaning): “Rādha, when there is desire (chanda), rāga, and a perception of high value (nandī) of material form (rūpa), there is clinging (satto), strong clinging (visatto) for form, and then an ignorant living-being (satto) is spoken of. Similarly, when there is desire (chanda), rāga, and a perception of high value (nandī) of vedanā … saññā … saṅkhāra … viññāṇa, then a living being is spoken of.”
  • We discussed that in the introductory post, “Five Aggregates and Tilakkhaṇa – Introduction.”
  • This is why any living being in any of the 31 realms (except those who have attained magga phala) is a “satta”  (“satva” in Sanskrit.) Even the Buddha before Enlightenment was a “Bodhisatta” or a “satta destined to attain the Buddhahood.”
  • The present body of even a living Arahant arose due to past kamma done with the perception of a “me.” That body results from that past kamma and will be there even after attaining Arahanthood. A new life/body will not arise at the death of an Arahant. Until that time, Arahant will use the words “I” and “me” but with the understanding that those words need to be used as long as one lives in this world. That is what the Buddha did, too.
Third Part of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta

6. The final third part of the sutta states:

Evaṁ passaṁ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako rūpasmimpi nibbindati, vedanāyapi nibbindati, saññāyapi nibbindati, saṅkhāresupi nibbindati, viññāṇasmimpi nibbindati. Nibbindaṁ virajjati; virāgā vimuccati. Vimuttasmiṁ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṁ hoti.” OR

  • “Seeing thus, Bhikkhus, a noble disciple (who has understood the above truths), would not attach to rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa. The mind sees that those mind-pleasing things have no value and becomes liberated (from this world.) Once liberated, he realizes that he is liberated:

Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṁ brahmacariyaṁ, kataṁ karaṇīyaṁ, nāparaṁ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī”ti.” OR

  • He understands:Destroyed is rebirth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of existence (in the suffering-filled world).”


7. The above is a summary of the Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta. Let us summarize the conclusions.

  • The first thing to note is that the analysis is on the five aggregates (pañcak­khan­dhā.) Since pañcak­khan­dhā represents one’s world, the sutta is about the anatta nature of the world of 31 realms.
  • In the second part, the Buddha states that the anatta nature results from anicca nature. In simple terms, that means any rupa (whether internal or external) or mental impressions due to rupa (i.e., vedanā, saññā, sañkhāra, viññāṇa) arise NOT due to the way one wants/wishes. Rather they arise due to a natural process that takes place because of one’s ignorance of that natural process. That process is Paṭicca Samuppāda.  We can easily see that vedanā, sañkhāra, and viññāṇa arise in Paṭicca Samuppāda, starting with “avijjā paccayā sañkhāra.” The “bhava paccayā jāti” step describes the arising of the internal rupa. We will get to those details soon.
  • Finally, the Buddha says that the world is unfruitful, and there is nothing that can be considered to be valuable. However, an average human thinks highly of the “pleasures” to be had in this world! That is why the Buddha said his Dhamma had never been known to the world. Only a Noble Person who has understood the anicca, dukkha, and anatta nature of this world can cultivate the Eightfold Noble Path and be “fully liberated” from this suffering-filled world, i.e., attain the Arahanthood.
  • As you can see, this sutta is highly condensed. Translating the sutta word-by-word makes it impossible to understand its embedded message. Deep suttas like this need to be explained in detail; see “Sutta Interpretation – Uddēsa, Niddēsa, Paṭiniddēsa.”
  • We will look deeper into the sutta in the upcoming posts, especially to make the connection between anicca and  Paṭicca Samuppāda.


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