Atta – Two Very Different Meanings

July 1, 2020 

First, “atta (attā)” is pronounced with the “th” sound, as in “metta (mettā)”. See, #12 of “Tipiṭaka English” Convention Adopted by Early European Scholars – Part 1

Words With Double Meanings in English

1. A number of English words are spelled the same way and pronounced the same way, but have different meanings. For example, let us consider the word, “mine.”

  • The word mine is a possessive adjective. For example, “That house is mine” means the house belongs to me.
  • Mine is also a noun. It can refer to a place where minerals (coal, gold, etc) are dug out of the earth.
  • mine (or landmine) also refers to a bomb that is buried underground. It can explode when someone steps on it or drives over it. They are used in war.
  • There are many other words like that. We need to know which meaning to use based on the context (how it is used). Another simple word is right. It means a direction in “turn right at the traffic light”. But it means something entirely different in, “you are right” meaning “you are correct.”
Atta (and Attā) – Two Very Different Meanings

2. Many Pāli words have double meanings. In addition, many Pāli words have a mundane meaning and a deeper meaning. We need to know which one to use depending on the situation.

  • One becomes good at figuring out which meaning is relevant in a given context, only after having a good understanding of Buddha Dhamma. A good understanding comes especially with practice, not merely by reading about Buddha Dhamma.
  • That is why it is not a good idea to resort to Pāli dictionaries alone. See, “Pāli Dictionaries – Are They Reliable?
  • Pāli word “atta” has two frequently used meanings. One is the mundane meaning of “person” or “self.” Let us discuss that first.
Atta Meaning “Person” or “Self” in Mundane Usage

3. There are many Tipiṭaka verses, where “atta” means a “person.” The following are several examples.

  • Attānaṃ damayanti paṇḍitā” in Dhammapada verse 6.80 means “The wise persons control themselves.
  • Attano sukhamicchati” in Dhammapada verse 21.291 means “one seeks one’s own happiness.” Also, note the word iccha (desire) in “sukhamicchati” is “sukham” + “icchati.”
  • In the Attadīpa Sutta (SN 22.43), “attadīpā viharatha” means “make an island of yourself,” meaning “one has to seek one’s own refuge.”
Various Wrong Views based on “Person” or “Self”

4. Humans always wondered what it is that feels like “me”. What defines a “me” or a “self” or “attā“? Based on such thinking, they come to various wrong conclusions or wrong views about a “self.”

  • In the Brahmajāla Sutta (DN 1) the Buddha described 62 types of wrong views that people have.
  • All these wrong views can be divided into primarily two categories (the other views are variations of these two.) In the terminology used today, we can list those two categories as follows.

Permanent Soul (Sassata Vāda): A given person has a permanent soul in Abrahamic religions (or ātma or ātman in Hinduism.) When the physical body dies, “the soul” or “ātma” gets hold of another existence. In Abrahamic religions, that next existence is forever in either heaven or hell. In Hinduism, one may go through many “incarnations” and would finally merge with Mahā Brahma to attain a permanent existence.

Materialistic View (Ucceheda Vāda): When the present life ends, no more future lives or existences. The material body is solely responsible for generating our thoughts (in the brain.) Many scientists today belong to this category.

5. The verse describing sassata vāda: “Tatra, bhikkhave, ye te samaṇabrāhmaṇā sassatavādā sassataṃ attānañca lokañca paññapenti ..”

means, “when those ascetics and brahmins assert that the self and the cosmos are eternal ..”

  • Sassata means “eternal.”

The verse describing uccheda vāda: “Tatra, bhikkhave, ye te samaṇabrāhmaṇā ucchedavādā sato sattassa ucchedaṃ vināsaṃ vibhavaṃ paññapenti ..” meaning, “they assert the annihilation of an existing being..”

  • Uccheda means to “break off” or “cut off.” Materialists believe that we just live this life.
With the Mundane Meaning of Atta, Anatta is Not Used as Its Opposite

6. Therefore, in ALL of the above cases, the word “atta” refers to what we traditionally call a “self.”

  • In simple terms, materialists have the wrong view that a “self” has only this life.
  • People in the other camp have the wrong view that a “soul” is forever.
  • The Buddha pointed out that both views are wrong. A “self” would come to existence as long as appropriate causes and conditions are there. But there is no “permanent self” like a soul. An Arahant would not be reborn. He/she would have removed those causes and conditions for rebirth.
  • In both cases, the word “anatta (or anattā)” is NEVER used to indicate the opposite of attā as “a person.” The word “anatta” is NEVER used to indicate that a “self is absent.” For example, in the Ānanda Sutta (SN 44.10) Vacchagotta comes to the Buddha asked “Master Gotama, is it correct to say that there is a “self”?” He used the phrase, “atthi attāto ask whether there is a “self.” Then he phrased it the opposite way and asked, ” is it not correct to say that there is a “self”?” There he used the phrase, “na atthi attāto ask whether a “self” does not exist. See, “Anattā (Mundane Interpretation) – No “Unchanging Self

Now, let us discuss the absolute or paramattha meaning of “attā.” Here, the opposite of attā (or “anatta“) indicates two facts: (i) Any worldly thing does not have an essence. (ii) One would become helpless at the end if one attaches to those worldly things.  These meanings need to be used in the context of the three characteristics of nature or Tilakkhana.

Anatta As a Characteristic of Nature – No Essence in Worldly Things

7. This usage of the word “anatta” indicates “no refuge” or “no essence” to refer to THINGS IN THIS WORLD. It could also mean one would become “helpless” at the end if one pursues worldly things with greed or cravings. This involves the deeper meaning of “atta” being “with refuge” or “with essence.”

  • One would be safe and protected by overcoming the anatta nature. That is Nibbāna. Only Nibbāna has the “atta” nature.
  • In this context, the three words anicca, dukkha, and anatta describe CHARACTERISTICS of this world. They have NOTHING TO DO with the context of a “self” directly.
  • In brief, anicca means that “worldly things” cannot be maintained to anyone’s satisfaction in the long-run. Those “worldly things” include not only material things but also mental attributes, among them vedanā, saññā, saṅkhāra, and viññāṇa.
  • IF someone craves them and attaches to them, then that person will be subjected to future suffering. That comes in two parts. First, one would become distressed because those desires will not be fulfilled at the end. Secondly, if one does immoral actions to get them, then one will have to face bad consequences of such actions (including rebirths in bad existences.)
  • Thus, in the end, attachment to worldly things will be of “no essence.” Those struggles would be in vain and are fruitless. One would become helpless by pursuing such efforts.
Anattha and Attha Are Strong Versions of Anatta and Atta

8. I have explained in a previous post that the words “iccha” and “aniccha” have the same meanings as “icca” and “anicca” but with stronger emphasis. See, “Icca, Nicca, Anicca – Important Connections.”

  • In the same way, “atta” and “anatta” in the present context have stronger versions indicated by “attha” and “anattha.”
  • In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11), the Buddha described a person engaged in kāmasukhallikānuyoga or attakilamathānuyoga as “anatthasaṃhito.”
  • The verse at the beginning of the sutta is, “Yo cāyaṃ kāmesu kāmasukhallikānuyogo hīno gammo pothujjaniko anariyo anatthasaṃhito, yo cāyaṃ attakilamathānuyogo dukkho anariyo anatthasaṃhito.”
  • Here, the word “anatthasaṃhito” (anattha + san + hito) means an anariya or an ignorance average person is helpless because of the wrong views.

9. Furthermore, “attha” also indicates “truth” (“artha” in Sinhala) and “anattha” indicates “untruth or useless” (“anartha” in Sinhala) depending on the context. None of these words are used in the context of a “self.”

  • The above verse could also be explained as an anariya engaging in useless activities (either indulging in sense pleasures or going to the other extreme of self-mortification.) Either activity does not have any meaning or essence.
Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Closely Related Characteristics of This World

10. Anicca, dukkha, anatta are CHARACTERISTICS of this world.  The word “anatta” in that context DOES NOT mean “no-self” or anything like that. However, a given person can BECOME anatta (helpless) by attaching to things of anicca nature that lead to suffering (dukkha.) But a person with magga phala has overcome that state of “helplessness” and has become an Ariya with refuge (atta.)

  • The opposites of anicca, dukha, anatta (ie., nicca, sukha, atta) are characteristics of Nibbāna. See, “Tilakkhana – English Discourses
  • One gets to Nibbāna by renouncing “this world of 31 realms.”
  • One attains Nibbāna by first realizing the anicca, dukkha, anatta NATURE of this world. Only then that one would have understood the Four Noble Truths.
  • Only then it is possible to grasp that the Fourth Noble Truth of “the path to Nibbāna” is the Noble Eightfold Path. That Noble Path starts with Samma Ditthi, which is the “clear vision” that this world is of anicca, dukkha, anatta NATURE of the world with 31 realms.
“Previously Unheard Dhamma” of the Buddha

11. That is a very succinct description of Buddha Dhamma, the “previously unheard teachings that can only come from a Buddha.”

  • The common perception is that one can find long-lasting happiness in this world. That there are so many “mind-pleasing things” in this world worth pursuing. If one makes a determined effort, one can “succeed in life” and “be happy.”
  • The Buddha agreed that there are many “mind-pleasing things” in this world.
  • But the Buddha taught that there is suffering hidden in those apparent ‘mind-pleasing” things. That hidden suffering is hard to see, and that is why not everyone can understand Buddha Dhamma. Without making a determined effort, it may not be possible.
An Analogy – Assutavā Puthujjano Is Not Different From a Fish Biting Into a Tasty Bait

12. The Buddha gave the following analogy. A fish bites into a tasty bait, because it cannot see the hook hidden in it. The fish only see the “tasty bait” and cannot see the hook, string, fishing pole, and the person holding that pole. If it could see the “whole picture” it would not even go close to that bait.

  • In the same way, it is only a Buddha who can “see” the “bigger picture” with the 31 realms with the four suffering-filled realms and the rebirth process. Due to the ignorance of that “wider worldview,” living-beings spend most of the time in those four lowest realms.
  • An “assutavā puthujjano” or an “ignorant average human” is unable to see that hidden suffering. That is why most living-beings spend most of their samsaric journey within the four lowest realms. They get trapped there and become helpless. They become “anatta” or “without refuge” at the end. See, “Sakkāya Diṭṭhi – “Me and Mine” View
  • I have discussed those three words in many posts in the section “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta” and also in the recently revised section on “The Five Aggregates (Pañcakkhandha).” It was also discussed with another approach in the “Origin of Life” section. Each person is different and one of those could be appropriate for a given person. In the end, they all converge to the same point and one would be able to see that they are all self-consistent.
Evidence That Anatta Does Not Mean “No-Self”

13. There are many suttā in the Smayutta Nikāya that discuss anicca, dukkha, anatta, and the relationships among them. Specifically SN 22, SN 23, and SN 35.

  • For example, Koṭṭhikaanatta Sutta (SN 35.164) states, “Cakkhu kho, koṭṭhika, anattā; tatra te chando pahātabbo. Rūpā anattā; tatra te chando pahātabbo. Cakkhuviññāṇaṃ anattā; tatra te chando pahātabbo. Cakkhusamphasso anattā; tatra te chando pahātabbo. Yampidaṃ cakkhusamphassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā tampi anattā; tatra te chando pahātabbo …”

Translated: “The eye, sights, eye-consciousness, and eye “san-contact” (samphassa) are without essence: you should give up the desire/cravings for them.  The pleasant, painful, or neutral feeling that arises conditioned by eye “san-contact” (samphassa) is also without essence. You should give up the desire for it.”

  • That statement is then repeated for the ear, tongue, nose, body, and mind. It applies to anything and everything in this world!
Can Eye-Consciousness Have a “Self”?

14. Most other translations state all those entities that I highlighted above are “not-self.” See, “With Koṭṭhita on Not-Self” which states, “The eye, sights, eye-consciousness, and eye contact are not-self..”

  • How can eye-consciousness possibly have a “self”? How can eye contact have a “self”? What does it mean to say they have “no-self”? Even a child should be able to see that statement does not make any sense!
Anything In This World Has Anatta Nature

15. In fact, as stated in the sutta in #13 above (and MANY other suttā) ANYTHING that exists in this world is of anatta nature. They are all without any essence.

  • It starts with the anicca nature of ALL worldly things. That means no one can maintain anything in this world to one’s satisfaction over the long run.
  • But people try to do that impossible task because they crave many things in this world. But in the end, they would only suffer. That is partly because they do immoral deeds to acquire those “things” and end up having to face bad kamma vipāka. The verse “yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ” or the verse, “Yam pi icchaṃ na labhati tam pi dukkhaṃ” expresses that fact.
  • That process will gradually move anyone to more and more suffering. One will eventually end up in the apayā with much suffering, and at that point, one would be truly helpless (anatta.) That is what is meant by, “yaṃ dukkhaṃ tad anattā.
  • That verse, “yad aniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ, yaṃ dukkhaṃ tad anattā” appears in numerous suttā in the Tipiṭaka. It means, “things in this world cannot be maintained to one’s expectations (they are of anicca nature.) Thus, one becomes distressed and be subjected to much suffering (dukkha) when one tries to use immoral means to maintain such things. That leads to unfortunate births in the apāyā, and thus, one will become helpless (anatta) at the end.”
  • That is how living-beings become helpless in the rebirth process (by engaging in immoral deeds) in their quest of seeking “sensory pleasures.”
  • That is the “previously unheard Dhamma” of the Buddha.
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