Anattā (Mundane Interpretation) – No “Unchanging Self”

December 5, 2018

1. These days, most people translate the key Pāli word “anatta” simply as “no-self.” However, just by looking at a few occurrences of “anatta” in the Tipitaka, we can see that it needs to be interpreted in different ways, depending on the context.

  • The words “attha,”atta,” and “attā” can have many different meanings depending on the context.
  • Even in English, there are cases like this: The word “right” means two different things in “you are right” and “turn right.” Even though it is pronounced the same way, “write” means something entirely different from both those meanings of “right.”

2. Even though this a bit deep suttaĀnanda Sutta (SN 44.10) provides an excellent basis to start a discussion on anatta. Just as now, many people in the days of the Buddha wondered whether a “self” or a “soul” (attā) exists. That is, of course, the ordinary meaning of attā. 

  • Vacchagotta comes to the Buddha asked “kiṃ nu kho, bho gotama, atthattā” ti?” OR “Master Gotama, is it correct to say that there is a “self”?”.
  • Note that “atthattā” is “atthi attā” where “atthi” means “exists” and (as Vaccagotta meant in this case) “attā” to be “self.” Thus, by saying “atthattā,” Vacchagotta meant: “correct to say an attā exists.”

3. The Buddha remained silent, and Vacchagotta asked the question again in the negative form. The second time, he asked: “Kiṃ pana, bho gotama, natthattā” ti?” or, “Master Gotama, is it not correct to say that there is a “self”?”. Seeing that the Buddha is refusing to answer his question, Vacchagotta got up and left.

4. When Vacchagotta left, Ven. Ānanda asked why the Buddha did not answer the question.

  • The Buddha explained that if he answered in positive (i.e., there is a “self”), then he would agree with those who had the wrong view that such a “self” exists. This view is called sassatavāda or the belief that there is an “everlasting entity” (these days also called “a soul”).
  • If answered in the negative (i.e., there is “no-self”), then he would agree with those who had the wrong view that such a “self” does not exist. That is called ucchedavāda or the belief that the death of the body is the “end of a person,” i.e., no re-birth.
  • The Buddha rejected both views of “self” (sassatavāda) and “no-self”(ucchedavāda).

5. Just from that verse, it is clear that if one takes “anatta” as “no-self,” then one has the wrong view taken by one faction of brahmins in the days of the Buddha: that of ucchedavāda.

  • I was surprised that the Sutta Central English translation says precisely what I explained in the #4 above; see, “Ānanda Is There a Self? (SN 44.10)“. Directly quoting from that translation:
  • “If, Ānanda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists. And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists.”
  • So, the translation of this verse is the same as mine. But the Sutta Central translation of the next verse uses the same meaning of “no-self” in ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’ and gets into a contradiction, as we discuss now.

6. Then the Buddha told Ven. Ānanda that any discussion on this topic would confuse Vacchagotta because he would then get mixed up with the deeper meaning of “anatta” in ‘sabbe dhammā anattā.’ That refers to “anatta nature”: “Ahañcānanda, vacchagottassa paribbājakassa ‘atthattā’ti puṭṭho samāno ‘atthattā’ti byākareyyaṃ, api nu me taṃ, ānanda, anulomaṃ abhavissa ñāṇassa uppādāya: ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’”ti?”. “No hetaṃ, Bhante.”

  • That the confusion most people have today. They equate “anatta nature” in “sabbe dhammā anattā” with the “no-self” meaning of “anattā.”
  • Sabbe dhammā anattā” needs to be translated as all dhammā are of anatta nature,” i.e., of “without essence,” and that one would become “anattā” or “without refuge” if one does not comprehend the “anatta nature.”

7. In the Sutta Central translation, the same mundane meaning (“no-self”)  is used for anatta in “sabbe dhammā anattā.” 

  • The verse in #6 in the Sutta Central translation  is: “If, Ānanda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that ‘all phenomena are nonself’?”.
  • First of all, the statement “all phenomena are non-self,” does not make any sense. Dhammā cannot have a “self” anyway. Here, the correct translation is something like, “all phenomena are of no real essence.” We will discuss this in detail later.
  • Furthermore, that translation, “all phenomena are non-self,” is self-contradictory to the Sutta Central translation of previous verses in #5 above, where both “self” and “no-self” were shown to be rejected by the Buddha.

8. That is the danger in translating suttas word-by-word, without grasping the real meanings of Pāli words and without understanding that meanings depend on the context.

  • Therefore, it should be quite clear that Vacchagotta’s confusion is not different from the misunderstanding that many people have today.
  • However, Vacchagotta was able to grasp that distinction later on and became a bhikkhu. Ven. Vacchagotta became an Arahant.
  • I sincerely hope those who have the wrong understanding today will also be able to see the truth at some point.

9. The deeper meaning of “anatta” will become clear as we discuss this in detail in the future after the discussion of the essential material. Without understanding those more basic concepts, it is dangerous to translate a given key Pāli word like anatta using a generic English word(s).

  • For now, we will postpone the discussion on the deeper meaning of “anatta” and focus on “attā” and “anattā” in the sense of “self” and “no-self.”

10. A given living being can be born in any of the 31 realms (actually a few realms are reserved for Anāgāmis); see, “31 Realms of Existence” and “31 Realms Associated with the Earth“.

  • But the point is that a human could be born a deva or an animal in the next life. Would a dog have the same “self” as a human?
  • So, it is quite clear that there in no “unchanging self.”

11.  On the other hand, a human does not just become a deva or an animal or a preta in the next life without underlying causes. It is not a random process.

  • There is a continuation of the “lifestream” from this life to the next. One’s gati, and one’s kamma vipaka play key roles. I have discussed the critical and forgotten keyword gati (or gathi) in many posts.
  • That is why it is not correct to say that there is “no-self.” There are “personality attributes” that flow from this life to the next. 
  • That is explained in Paticca Samuppāda (PS) or Dependent Origination. As we know, PS cycles start with “avijjā paccayā sankhāra” and go through “bhava paccayā jāti.” That explains how avijjā leads to future births (jāti).
  • Roughly speaking, high levels of avijjā (or mōha) leads to births in the apāyās.

12. Therefore, from #10 and #11, we can see why the Buddha rejected both views of “an unchanging self” and “no-self.”

  • Instead, there is a next life (birth) according to the principle of Paticca Samuppāda, which is cause and effect, just like in modern science. We will discuss PS later. However, it is easy to see this with an understanding of kamma and kamma vipāka.
  • Dasa akusala (and pāpa kamma or immoral deeds) lead to bad births, and dasa kusala (and punna kamma or moral deeds) lead to good births.
  • This was discussed in: “Kusala and Akusala Kamma, Punna and Pāpa Kamma“.
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