Anatta is a Characteristic of the World, not About a “Self”

September 13, 2021; revised June 4, 2023

Anatta is a characteristic of this world, not about a “self.” The translation of anatta as “no-self” is a serious error. Instead, it is Sakkāya Diṭṭhi that deals with the issue of whether anything in this world can be/should be considered to be “mine.”

The Sense of a “Me” Is There Even Though There is no “Soul”

1. It is difficult to decide whether the word “self” means just a “sense of me” or a “soul.”

  • That is why it is best to avoid the term “self” in discussing “anatta/anattā.
  • The Buddha denied a “soul” in Abrahamic religions or an “ātman” as in Hinduism. But he taught that the sense of a “me” is real and WILL BE THERE until one attains Arahanthood.
  • To avoid confusion, let us not use the word “self.” We will use “me” for the “temporary self” and “soul” for the “everlasting self.” The Buddha accepted the use of a temporary “me” but denied the existence of a permanent “soul/ātman.”
  • Now we all understand that “me” is DIFFERENT from a “soul.” If someone thinks that the “self” is the same as the “soul,” then the Buddha denied the existence of such a “self.”
  • I hope this point is crystal clear. Otherwise, we can get into many arguments wasting precious time.
Even the Buddha Used the Word “Me”

2. As long as one lives in this world, it will be impossible not to use the words “me” and “I.”

  • Even the Buddha freely used the words “me” and “I” daily and even referred to previous births. He has given accounts of “his” previous lives. Such usage is not possible to avoid.
  • Furthermore, even a living Arahant, for example, would have its own habits. Of course, they would not have any habits even remotely related to lobha, dosa, or moha. 
  • For example, Ven. Moggalana was a bit strict. One time he dragged a bhikkhu out of a gathering. Ven. Pilindavaccha addressed others with words like “vasala” (“one of low birth”), which was not due to anger but because of the way he was used to speaking. As long as one lives in this world, there are unique characteristics regarding physical appearance and how one speaks and thinks.
  • This is why the Buddha rejected both extreme views:
    (i) It is not correct to say that someone does not exist since, obviously, a person is living and doing things in their own way.
    (ii) It is also incorrect to associate a “permanent soul” with any person. A “living being” exists due to causes and conditions (Paṭicca Samuppāda) and will cease to be reborn in this suffering-filled world when avijjā is removed.
  • However, the concept of anatta is not about a temporary or permanent “self.” It is a characteristic of anything in this world (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa.)
Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Three Characteristics

3. In recent posts, I cited many Tipiṭaka references that clearly state anicca, dukkha, and anatta mean three CHARACTERISTICS of this world. See, “Tilakkhana – Introduction.”

  • Furthermore, those three characteristics are related to each other via “Yad aniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁyaṁ dukkhaṁ tad anattā.” 
  • The above verse says that anything that belongs to this world (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa) is ALL of anicca nature and thus has dukkha nature; whatever is of dukkha nature has anatta nature.
  • If one attaches to things of an anicca nature, one will be subjected to dukkha. Because of that, ALL worldly things are not fruitful (anattā.)
  • It should be quite clear that anatta/anattā is NOT about a “self” or “me.”

4. That is succinctly stated in the verse, “Rūpaṁ (vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa) atītānāgatapaccuppannaṁaniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti.

Translation: “Any rupa ( or vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa) that ever existed will exist in the future, or that is being experienced now has the following three characteristics: Any such rupa is of anicca nature because one’s hopes for enjoying rupa will only lead to one’s demise (“aniccaṁ khayaṭṭhena.”) It will eventually lead to sufferings that one should be afraid of (“dukkhaṁ bhayaṭṭhena.”Therefore, such cravings are unfruitful and will make one helpless in the rebirth process (“anattā asārakaṭṭhenāti.”)

5. From the above verse, it is pretty clear that anatta is a characteristic of not only our physical body but ANY rupa existing now, ever existed, or will exist in the future! That means anatta is a characteristic of the rupa aggregate (rupakkhandha.)

  • Furthermore, as explained in that post, the anatta characteristic applies to all five aggregates. As we have discussed, the five aggregates encompass “the whole world.”
  • Thus, anything in this world has the anatta characteristic!
  • How can these translators say “anatta” means “no-self”? 
  • It is alarming to see the efforts in Sri Lanka to ban any interpretation of “anatta” other than  “no-self.” See “Proposed Tipiṭaka Conservation Bill in Sri Lanka.”
Simple Examples

6. Little children take immense satisfaction and joy in building sandcastles. They spend hours building them and enjoy looking at the finished product.

  • However, their joy turns to sadness if a strong wave or a running dog destroys that sandcastle. They may even go home happily but would be sad to see their sandcastle destroyed when they return the next day.
  • This is why adults don’t build sandcastles. As that same child grows, understanding slowly occurs that “building sandcastles is a waste of time” even though a “pleasurable activity.”
  • Yet, fully grown and intelligent adults do the same all their lives. They work tirelessly in hopes of a better life. But only at the moment of death do they realize that all those efforts have gone to waste. Furthermore, if they had cultivated an “immoral mindset” by engaging in immoral thoughts and activities, they are not only going to be disappointed but could be subjected to much suffering in future lives.
  • A sandcastle is of anicca nature. Getting attached to it will inevitably lead to disappointment (dukkha). Thus engaging in that activity is unfruitful and non-beneficial to anyone (anatta.)

7. However, anatta nature means unfruitful (as in the above example) and dangerous.

  • Alcoholics consume alcohol because it gives them pleasure. But he has not comprehended that heavy drinking can lead to sickness and even death.
  • Therefore, heavy consumption of alcohol is of an anicca nature. It will lead to dukkha (suffering). Therefore, that activity is of an anatta nature.
The Same Principle Applies to All Sense-Pleasing Activities

8. It is hard to believe at first, but craving sensory pleasures is not unlike craving alcohol!

  • The truth of the above statement can be seen only within the long-term rebirth process.  This is why it is difficult for many people to understand the deeper aspects of Buddha Dhamma about suffering. In particular immoral activities seeking short-term pleasures WILL lead to much suffering in future rebirths.
  • We discussed the example of #6 above in “How Does Anicca Nature Lead to Dukkha?”  As explained there, all five aggregates (rupa, vedanā, saññā, saṅ­khāra, vinnana) are of an anicca nature. Therefore, per #3 above, all five aggregates are of the anatta nature too! 
  • That is specifically stated in the “Yadanattā Sutta (SN 22.17)“: “Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, anattā..Vedanā anattā ..saññā anattā …saṅkhārā anattā …viññāṇaṁ anattā.”
  • That is why NONE of the things in this world (rūpa, vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa) can be considered beneficial.

9. Here, it is essential to realize that we accumulate kammā (more correctly, kammic energies) not only by our actions but also with speech and even thoughts (via kāya, vaci, and mano saṅ­khāra.) See “Saṅkhāra – What It Really Means

  • Furthermore, such kamma accumulation can be based on recalling past events or thinking about future events.
  • And all those involved not only rupa but associated vedanā, saññā, saṅkhārā, viññāṇa. For example, one may recall a good time with friends in the past. That means he would recall who was present and what types of activities he enjoyed, and associated mental aspects.
  • That is why the Buddha always referred to aggregates. For example, as we discussed, rupakkhandha includes our mental impressions of physical rupa ever arose in our minds. Similarly for vedanākkhandha, saññākkhandha, saṅkhārakkhandha, viññāṇakkhandha.  
  • Therefore, in #8 above, “Rūpaṁ, bhikkhave, anattā” means any rupa experienced in the past, experiencing now, or expected to experience in the future are ALL of anatta nature. 

10. The concept of anatta is not about personality, a self, or a “me.”

  • Anicca, dukkha, and anatta are characteristics of anything in our mental world.  Of course, anatta nature applies to anything in the external world too!
Print Friendly, PDF & Email