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This is focusing in on one specific aspect of what was asked here: What are the three marks of existence?

I often hear "anatta" explained as being an expression of the non-existence of the self. However, various places add an adjective first. For example, I've heard it said that anatta refers to the non-existence of a "permanent" self, or a "material" self, or a "separate" self (or some combination of those and others).

It seems clear to me that it cannot mean the non-existence of a self per se, because such a statement -- "There is no self" -- would be auto-refuting.

So exactly what is meant by anatta?

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    Can you elaborate on how it is 'auto-refuting'? – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 3 '14 at 20:45
  • Sankha, see my comment in response to zweibel's answer below – tkp Jul 3 '14 at 22:24
  • This question drew a lot of new users to post answers - interesting. Anatta seems to be the single most difficult concept to accept. You could almost define it as the whole teaching (no disrespect implied!) – user2341 Nov 10 '15 at 0:39

11 Answers 11

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Anatta is used in an adjectival sense, as a characteristic of something (all things including nibbana, in fact). So it doesn't have anything to do directly with a philosophy that "there is no self". This doesn't by any means suggest that the Buddha encouraged belief in a self. The best refutation of such an idea that I know of is in the Alagaddupama Sutta (MN 22):

23.“Bhikkhus, you may well cling to that doctrine of self that would not arouse sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who clings to it.262 "" But do you see any such doctrine of self, bhikkhus?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Good, bhikkhus. I too do not see any doctrine of self that would not arouse sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair in one who clings to it.

...

25.“Bhikkhus, there being a self, would there be for me what belongs to a self?” —“Yes, venerable sir.”—“Or, there being what belongs to a self, would there be for me a self?”—“Yes, venerable sir.”—“Bhikkhus, since a self and what belongs to a self are not apprehended as true and established, then this standpoint for views, namely, ‘That which is the self is the world; after death I shall be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I shall endure as long as eternity’—would it not be an utterly and completely foolish teaching?”

“What else could it be, venerable sir, but an utterly and completely foolish teaching?”

(Bodhi, Trans)

So what does anatta mean, then? According to the Visuddhimagga, it means specifically that the item in question has no core (asāraka), as per the third stage of insight knowledge:

‘Materiality, whether past, future, or present, is impermanent in the sense of destruction, painful in the sense of terror, not-self in the sense of having no core,’ is knowledge of comprehension.

Path of Purification, XX.6

The explanation of having no core means having none of the four kinds of self:

  1. Sāmi attā - controlling self

  2. Nivāsī attā - continuous self

  3. Kāraka attā - active agent self

  4. Vedaka attā - experiencing self

These four types of self are explained in the Mahasi Sayadaw's discourse on the anatta-lakkhana-sutta. Briefly, according to the Visuddhimagga:

In the sense of having no core because of the absence of any core of self conceived as a self, an abider, a doer, an experiencer, one who is his own master; for what is impermanent is painful (S III 82), and it is impossible to escape the impermanence, or the rise and fall and oppression, of self, so how could it have the state of a doer, and so on? Hence it is said, “Bhikkhus, were materiality self, it would not lead to affliction” (S III 66), and so on. So this is also not-self in the sense of having no core.

-- Path of Purification XX.16

The Visuddhimagga goes on to give five characteristics of the five aggregates that make them each non-self (the entire list of 40 characteristics is worth reading, but the rest have to do with the other two main characteristics):

  1. as alien because of inability to have mastery exercised over them, and because of intractability;

  2. as empty because of their emptiness of the lastingness, beauty, pleasure and self that are conceived about them;

  3. as vain because of their emptiness, or because of their triviality; for what is trivial is called “vain” in the world;

  4. as void because devoid of the state of being an owner, abider, doer, experiencer, director; as not-self because of itself having no owner, etc.

  5. as not-self because of itself having no owner, etc.;

-- Path of Purification XX.19

Practically speaking, what does all this mean? Not a whole lot, since the point is not to understand intellectually the concept of non-self, but rather to experience it. From a point of view of experience, non-self is understood through observing that the five aggregates (i.e. the aspects of experience) conform to the explanations above. This understandling comes naturally through objective observation of the four foundations of mindfulness, so it's not really something to ponder over or doubt about.

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    Cool, thanks. Shades of Wittgenstein's, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must remain silent." in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. – tkp Jul 3 '14 at 22:21
  • @yuttadhammo bhikku - No core does not mean that there is not an Essence of the causal laws (Self). In other words, if the ephemeral materiality (instant subtance of instant form,) found in Anatta has no core, then the Self (as the Essence of the causal laws,) has no deliberate core either. I explain: If what belongs to the Self is the essence of the causal laws, and if what belongs to Anatta is impermanent and useless (no core;) then the Self must be useless (no core,) also. Buddha does not seem to rule out the Self, but just to see it as useless as the rest. – user635 Aug 17 '14 at 12:23
  • @yuttadhammo bhikku - My question is: Is there any occurrence in the teaching of the Bhudda himself that the causal laws strictly belong to Anatta; or otherwise, at large, of an occurence of some kind of their ubiquity (such as belonging to the Self and Not-Self)? – user635 Aug 17 '14 at 14:57
  • I like the ending part, that this isn't something to discuss or talk about too much but to directly experience and thus taste the freedom of Buddhadharma! – Ahmed Jan 17 '15 at 2:49
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Saying there is no self is a bit of a mistranslation or abbreviated translation. A better translation would be "there is nothing you can take as me, mine or self, which is permanent, non changing and persistent;" though this is more verbose.

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The Buddha did not say that there is no self at all. That is a common misunderstanding of anatta.

A recurring theme in the Buddha's teachings is the middle way between eternalism and annihilationism.

With respect to the self, annihilationism is the idea that there is no self at all (see SN44.10). In fact, the Buddha rubbished that idea in the Attakari Sutta:

“So, brahmin, when there is the element of endeavoring, endeavoring beings are clearly discerned; of such beings, this is the self-doer, this, the other-doer. I have not, brahmin, seen or heard such a doctrine, such a view as yours. How, indeed, could one — moving forward by himself, moving back by himself — say ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer’?”

On the other hand, eternalism is the idea that the self is a permanent absolute eternal standalone entity (see SN44.10) at the core of sentient beings.

You can find this idea described in the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita in chapter 2:

That which pervades the entire body, know it to be indestructible. No one can cause the destruction of the imperishable soul. Only the material body is perishable; the embodied soul within is indestructible, immeasurable, and eternal. The soul is neither born, nor does it ever die; nor having once existed, does it ever cease to be. The soul is without birth, eternal, immortal, and ageless. It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed. As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one. Weapons cannot shred the soul, nor can fire burn it. Water cannot wet it, nor can the wind dry it. The soul is unbreakable and incombustible; it can neither be dampened nor dried. It is everlasting, in all places, unalterable, immutable, and primordial. The soul is spoken of as invisible, inconceivable, and unchangeable.

The Buddha unequivocally rejected eternalism in SN44.10, saying:

"If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"

"Sabbe dhamma anatta" (Dhp 279) means "all phenomena are not-self". This means that everything including Nibbana does not have a permanent absolute eternal standalone entity in it.

So, according to the middle way between eternalism and annihilationism, there is neither no self at all, nor a permanent absolute eternal standalone entity anywhere.

In that case, where or what is the self?

Here comes the concept of dependent origination, which is a very complex topic.

A summary of dependent origination with respect to the self, is that the self is a mental idea (Snp 4.14) that arises dependent on the inter-working of the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness.

A very nice analogy for this is given in the Vina Sutta:

"Suppose there were a king or king's minister who had never heard the sound of a lute before. He might hear the sound of a lute and say, 'What, my good men, is that sound — so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling?' They would say, 'That, sire, is called a lute, whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' Then he would say, 'Go & fetch me that lute.' They would fetch the lute and say, 'Here, sire, is the lute whose sound is so delightful, so tantalizing, so intoxicating, so ravishing, so enthralling.' He would say, 'Enough of your lute. Fetch me just the sound.' Then they would say, 'This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It's through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.'

"Then the king would split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces. Having split the lute into ten pieces, a hundred pieces, he would shave it to splinters. Having shaved it to splinters, he would burn it in a fire. Having burned it in a fire, he would reduce it to ashes. Having reduced it to ashes, he would winnow it before a high wind or let it be washed away by a swift-flowing stream. He would then say, 'A sorry thing, this lute — whatever a lute may be — by which people have been so thoroughly tricked & deceived.'

"In the same way, a monk investigates form, however far form may go. He investigates feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go. As he is investigating form... feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go, any thoughts of 'me' or 'mine' or 'I am' do not occur to him."

The lute (vina) is a stringed musical instrument similar to a cello, that you can play by plucking. From it comes music. The different parts of the lute are like the five aggregates. Music is like the self. One might think that the music is located somewhere in the lute or pervades the lute.

Using a musical instrument you can play nice music. But if you break it down to its constituent parts, you cannot find music. Music cannot be isolated from the musical instrument. Similarly, the self arises from the inter-working of the five aggregates. You cannot isolate the self from the five aggregates.

Perhaps, you can look at it in this way: The musical instrument is the sentient being. The music coming out of the musical instrument is the self. The musical instrument is composed of various parts which are analogous to the five aggregates. When these parts work together, they make music. The way they work together is dependent origination.

And that is a very nice and simple way to think about anatta.

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The buddhist concept of anattā/anātman is IMO only fully understandable when seen against the background of mainstream Indian soteriology/liberation theory of the Buddha's time. This background, against which anattā/anātman is shaped is the upaniṣadic theory of an eternal, imperishable, immutable, indestructible and ultimately inalterable self as the core of existence and that-which-is-reborn. The further elaboration of this is in brief: by good and bad actions particles (sometimes thought of as material, sometimes not) of good and bad karman stick to this self and create the illusion of this very self to be identical with the body or certain mental characteristics of the person in question. Liberation then means the insight of this very self, that it is not the body and not identical with the person who is incorporated in this body in this existence.

Now, accordingly, the simplest possible explanation of the buddhist concept of anattā/anātman, which I believe to be its absolute core, is the denial of exactly this self with this particular properties, the upaniṣadic theory of the self.

I don't really get though, what you mean by it being auto-refuting.

  • auto-refuting means self-refuting, but I used "auto" instead of "self" so as not to confuse things. The statement "There is no self" is self-refuting because by definition a statement has a stater, and the name given to the stater of a statement by the stater of the statement is "self". "This is not a sentence." is another example of a self-refuting statement. They are false by virtue of the fact that they exist. – tkp Jul 3 '14 at 22:17
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    AFAIK this is a problem that hasn't been considered in buddhism. Indeed, at least I know what you mean now, but I can't really see this as a problem either. The (empirical) person (Skt. pudgala or Pa. puggala) does exist and is capable to make statements, even though there may be no immutable soul. Of course people say "I" and "me" and "mine", the point is just, that these are empty constructs. Empty constructs obviously able to make statements. – zwiebel Jul 3 '14 at 22:38
  • @zweibel, it's only a problem to the extent that a lot of people talk about anatta as meaning simply "there is no such thing as self". When described more carefully, as you and yuttadhammo have done, there isn't a problem. (Well -- not that problem. It's still an extremely non-intuitive concept. To the scientifically-trained western mind -- OK, at least to me then -- anyway :-) ) – tkp Jul 3 '14 at 23:59
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I think the self exists in proportion to the 5 aggregates of clinging. The higher the clinging, the higher the sense of self (ego). So, in this sense, the self does exist. But when in 'perfect' mindfulness and concentration, there's no clinging of any kind so the self disappears, albeit temporary. Even the slightest thought will bring about the sense of a self.

The 'best' way to reduce clinging is to view dhamma (all worldly phenomena) as 1) impermanent, 2) not satisfactory 3) of no essence (not-self), ie. EMPTY.

The Heart Sutta explains it very well.

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I view it differently. I or me are words.A word given to understand the concept of either I or me.if not for the word methere wouldn't be any me. It is through words that we make concepts initially. Then what makes the word? it is sound.how did we get the impression me when that particular sound hit my ear. Either I was taught to think in those terms or made to understand in that sense in the circumstances. If not for my eye (blind since my birth) or ear(deaf since birth) there wouldn't have been I or Me. So anatta in pali is a word which you have to understand as a word. But the anatta concept to be understood beyond a language visible to your eye or sensible to your ear. The only mode you could understand it is not logic. Think beyond language and feel it without eye or ear.

The method is described in Sathipattana Sutta ,the discourse on mindfulness. That is firstly body contemplation, then feeling contemplation, mind contemplation and finally mind object contemplation which would bring about real wisdom to understand anatta concept.

May all of you attain nibbana. Krisantha

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From my earlier answer regarding the term "karma" I slipped into the notion of Anatta as well. Hope that helps:

To understand correctly anattā teachings, we have first to determine what exactly is Something according to Buddha and Buddhism. Something , or positive value, according to Buddhism is 5 skandhas, 12 Āyatanas or 18 Dhātu, i.e. - all perceivable reality - and that is indeed what doesn't reborn.

Buddhism is here inline with Upanishadic teachings on Ātma - which defines: "Ātma is naught" , "Neti, neti" - "Nor this nor that", "Only naught exists" - it is nothing which could be included in our empirical perception, but still it exists, or otherwise - you cannot tell exactly not that it exists, not that it doesn't...

Sadly enough there are many misconceptions on this subject today among people - since there would be different experiences of those clearly perceiving the inner light and those living in ignorance...

Regarding Karma I agree with what was said earlier - on one hand - Karma is vasanas or impressions in the consciousness, or Alaya-vijnana, created by the our Activities - Wrong action, speech or thought - since the word "Karma" itself means Action, Activity in a wider sense.

On the other hand, from the absolute viewpoint of realization of Buddha-mind - those impressions in the mind are as much "real" for the Liberated as the reality of Anatta or ego itself, as much real as all 5 skandhas perceived by the ego, who is not real actually.

So - from the Absolute viewpoint "only naught exist" - nor mind, nor karma, nor Ātma nor perceptions, nor feelings, nor categories have a real being.... They are just a mud hiding from us the ever shining Buddha mind, alas god in other religions...

No wonder in Sanskrit both - Buddha and incarnations of God - are addressed equally - Bhagavān - translated by Buddhist authors - as Lord - and translated by Krishnaits - as "The Divine Personality of Godhead":)

But let's remember - for ordinary people, who are not reached the absolute Liberation yet, not all affections and ignorance is cleared yet - "Everything exists" - meaning all 5 Skandhas exist, and they are quite "real" for an ordinary citizen and cloud their perception and intentions.

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Anatta is word form to refudiate the theory of soul. Anatta is impersonal, unknowable, nor fine nor gross, not far nor near, not coloured nir colourless, not moving nor steady, neither with parts nor a whole. Anatta is eye of wisdom.

Where knowing, knower and object to known are indifferent, that state is anatta. Nothing is mine! So, give up that whatever not yours!

Upanishadas believe in Brahman, absolute entity and then said, "you are that". In fact that same Brahman is replaced by the word anatta(no-self) by Buddha. Imagine if one believe in upanshadic theory, insead of detachment, attachment towards mine and me increases. Also that theory is dangerous to the one who is asleep. Instead of proceeding towards goal, he will take the whole world blindly that he is "Brahman". Buddha replace the word for Brahman(self) into Anatta(non-self).

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J. Krishnamurti, recent philosopher, stated: "Observer is the observed". When one observes certain phenomena there is no distinction between the phenomena and the one who observes that phenomena because "I" the observer comes into being through a long series of imprints deposited on the brain of the person during interactions with other persons or things. Observer and observed both are dynamic processes which come into existence through certain combinations and are subject to change and dissolution. This phenomena is what may be termed as anatta and need to be understood in combination with the random nature of all processes which confirm that there are in essence nothing more than any material process one comes across in daily life. There is end to all such things of mind and matter and ,therefore, one needs to be careful in dealing with oneself as one is nothing but a material process. P. S. Rajpal

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This pali is completely define anattā. If you deeply understand pali language.

sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā, sabbe dhammā anattāti.

Everything, saṅkhata, that is arose by any causes is impermanent (unstable, even a god can die), so all of it is suffering because of impermanent-characterizes.

But Everything, saṅkhata & nibbāna & paññnatti, that is arose or not by causes, is uncontrollable (no man power), because the arising thing, saṅkhata, never arises by just one cause, or by itself. It must arises by multi causes that each other also arises by multi causes, too. And because the non-arising thing, nibbāna (asaṅkhata), is no arising of anything, so it is no self arise there, too. Also because the non-arising thing, paññatii, is just an imagination : in the other hands, nothing is real in a dream.

Anattalakkaṇasutta is non-self conclusion. But I recommend the meditation in advance, because after you meditated samatha & vipassanā, you will understand abhidhamma, so then anattā will appear very clearly.

I never find the easier more than tipitaka-reciting & tipitaka-memorizing & tipitaka-meditation, to access anattā-insight. I had searched for the commentary of anattā, before I recited & memorized & meditated tipitaka. After I do, no need commentary of anattā anymore. I can clearly understand anatta by logic myself because of tipitaka-reciting & tipitaka-memorizing & tipitaka-meditation (but I still not enlighten nibbāna because I not meditate the meditation enough).

**tipitaka-meditation = meditation follow tipitaka.

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    I think that, in summary, you're saying that conditioned and unconditioned things are anatta: conditioned things are anatta because they're uncontrollable; and the unconditioned is anatta because the self doesn't arise. If you wrote instead that "the view of self doesn't arise" that would be closer to other people's answers. Also I didn't understand what you added, about paññatii. – ChrisW Sep 11 '17 at 10:04
  • Thank you so much. Sotapanna-saupādisesanibbāna-dhātu = "the view of self doesn't arise", but above answer is anupādisesanibbāna-dhātu= nibbāna that ariya is known and nibbāna after dead (see: abhidhammāvatāro nibbānaniddeso). Another, anattā is a kind of paññatti. It is doesn't arise like nibbāna, but nibbāna is a reality. Nibbana is the opposite of being living by taṇhā, so when diṭṭhi with taṇhā (view) can't arise anymore, it is called anupādisesa-nibbānadhātu. And when no being living, finished next life, it is called anupādisesa-nibbānadhātu. – Bonn Sep 11 '17 at 11:03
  • As for, paññatti is just an imagination, not a reality. In the other hands, it look like a dream. Nothing is real in a dream. See this one also: unmixedtheravada.blogspot.com/2017/09/… . I am not sure how to modify the answer. I will appreciate to you very much, if you help me (after you understood those 2 nibbāna and paññatti). It is very deep description and deeper when I have to write it in english, because my english still terrible. – Bonn Sep 11 '17 at 11:03
  • i bow to you my friend! understand it directly from the tipitaka - in Buddha's original words, not by some scholar-monk's words, perfect... :) – Mishu 米殊 Sep 11 '17 at 16:16
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I think anatta means nonself. Nonself means realizing that no self can be considered as I am because every identification of self passes away, and is the cause of suffering and is changeable.

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