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May 2024
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III. Anattaa
The above discussion of the two signata of impermanence and unsatisfactoriness naturally leads to the basic Buddhist concept of anattaa, non-self or insubstantiality.
Every student of Buddhism knows that this concept is the most controversial of all the basic ideas of the system, and that a hundred and one interpretations have been suggested by commentators, scholars and critics. To the Western student of Buddhism the so-called “anattaa-doctrine” has been the hunting-ground, not always a happy one, for the display of personal ingenuity and dialectical jumbling, and it is signi­ficant that this idea has been the cause of the most glaring contradictions among themselves, and even within the writings of the same authority. Even our own historical schools of Buddhist interpretation have found this concept the most difficult. The main difficulty confronting the interpreters has, in my opinion, been the lack of a clear definition of the term attaa. It is curious how writers, particularly those of the West, have plunged into discussions of this doctrine equipped with no other definition of it than the ideas of Soul or Ego borrowed from theistic and pantheistic systems of philosophy or religion, as they were accustomed to before taking up the study of Buddhism. It is not intended to pursue the criticism of such interpretation in this article, but to emphasize the important fact that by the word attaa or atta books of the Pali Canon refer to a number of historical concepts that prevailed in India about the sixth century before Christ, and, therefore, the term must be defined accordingly in relation to the particular context under review. Here then we shall confine ourselves to those contexts where the adjective anattaa is used as the universal characteristic of all dhammas (sabbe dhamma anattaa) which is the third of the three signata or
The two previous articles dealt with the facts of the impermanence of all compounded things and processes, and of the general unsatisfactoriness of all states derived from these, namely, the five groups of physical and mental properties dependent on grasping (pa.tcupadaanakkhandhaa); in particular those feelings and sensations that go to make up individual experience (vedanaa) which could be classified as pleasant, unpleasant, and neither-pleasant-nor-unpleasant. The relevant texts were cited to show that the latter characteristic of general unsatisfactoriness is derived directly from the first characteristic of impermanence. It is now opportune to show how as a necessary corollary of this general unsatisfactoriness of all experience arises the reali­zation of the third and last verity included in the three signata, viz. the universal characteristic of all physical and mental states and phenomena as anattaa.
In the words of the Master himself: “Physical form, monks, is transient [anicca], and whatever is transient is unsatisfactory [dukkha] whatever is unsatisfactory, that is anattaa [non-self]; and whatever is non-self, that is not of me, that I am not, that is not my self.” This same rigorous logic is in turn applied to the four other groups constituting individuality viz. the feelings and sensations (vedanaa), perception and cognitions (sa.t.taa), mental processes and reflexes (sa.nkhaara) and finally, the individual’s consciousness itself ( This last application of the universal characteristic of non-self to consciousness is in several ways the most significant act in this statement, and when we remind ourselves that the Pali word includes even the innermost mental experiences of the. sentient being, we can see clearly the exact force of the anattaa characteristic as conceived by the Buddha. The most rarified concept of Self or Ego that any philosopher, before or after the Buddha, ever conceived was somehow or somewhere concerned with a state of self-consciousness, the consciousness that “I am I.”
To the Buddha, even this self-consciousness or “I-ness” is subject to the inexorable characteristics of impermanence and un­satisfactoriness, and since whatever is subject to these characteristics is non-self, this I-consciousness must be regarded as an illusion or an error. This is, in short, the significance of the adjective anattaa as used in the above mentioned doctrine. In the Cha-chakka Sutta (MN 148) a detailed analysis of this concept occurs:
“If any one regards the eye [i.e. seeing] as the self, that does not hold, for the arising and the passing away of the eye is [clear from experience]. With regard to that which arises and passes away, if anyone were to think, ‘myself is arising and passing away’ [such a thought] would be controverted by the person himself. Therefore, it does not hold to regard the eye as the self. Thus the eye [or seeing] is [proved to be] non-self. Similar­ly if anyone says that the forms [ruupaa or visual objects] are the self, that too does not hold.”
So both the eye and the visual objects [cognized by it] are non-self. The same argument applies to visual perception or the eye-conscious­ness [] if one were to consider this as self. Similarly, it applies to visual sense-contact [cakkhu-samphassa], so that the eye, its sense objects, visual consciousness and visual sense-contact are all four non-self [anattaa]. It applies also to feelings [that arise due to the above four], so that the eye, its sense-objects, visual consciousness, visual sense-contact, and the resultant feelings, are all five non-self. It applies lastly to the [instinctual] craving [ta.nhaa] that is associated with above five, so that the eye, its sense objects, visual consciousness, visual contact, the resultant feelings, and the craving behind them all, these six are non-self. And, what thus applies to the eye or the sense of sight, applies equally to the other five senses [the last being the mind (mano) as an organ of sense]. Thus, if it be said that the mind is self [mano attaa ’ ti ], that too does not hold. Similarly, it is inadmissible to assert that the mind, or its sense-objects [dhamma] or mental-consciousness [], or mental contact [manosamphassa], or the feelings [vedanaa] that result from all the craving [ta.nhaa], that is associated with all these, are the self. They are non-self, all of them. The way that leads to the origination of the [concept of] permanent individuality or personality [sakkaaya-samudaya] is to regard as mine, or as “I am this,” or as “This is my self” either the sense of seeing, or the visual data, or visual consciousness, or visual contact, its feelings or its craving or similarly, to regard hearing and the four other senses [including mind] with their adjuncts. The way that leads to the cessation of the [view of] permanent personality [] is to cease regarding as mine and so forth, either [the functions of] seeing, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting, or touching, or thinking, or their adjuncts.”
Now, the Buddha goes on to discuss the ethical impli­cations of this view of self (attaa) or permanent personality (sakkaaya):
“From sight and visual objects arises visual consciousness and the meeting of all three is contact, from which contact come feelings which may be pleasant, or un­pleasant, or neither. When experiencing a pleasant feeling, a man rejoices in it, hails it and clings tight to it, and a trend to passion [attachment] ensues. When experiencing an unpleasant feeling a man sorrows, feels miserable, wails, beats his breast and goes distraught, and a trend of repugnance ensues. When experiencing a feeling that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant he has no true and causal comprehension of that feeling’s origin, disappearance, agree­ableness, perils and outcome, and a trend of ignorance ensues. It can never possibly result that, without first discarding the pleasant feeling’s trend to passion, without first discarding the unpleasant feeling’s trend to repugnance, and without getting rid of the neutral feeling’s trend to ignorance, with­out discarding ignorance, and stopping it from arising, he will put an end, here and now, to dukkha. And what is true of sight, is equally true of the other five senses.”
Thus the Buddha admonishes his disciples to analyse the whole conception of self or abiding personality and thereby the whole of experience (loka) along with every single component of the process, whereby the fallacy of Self or abiding persona­lity arises, viewing this whole process of the arising of individuality (naamaruupa) in a perfectly objective manner.
From all this it becomes clear that the three concepts of anicca, dukkha and anattaa, the three signata or, are the three corner-stones of the whole edifice of Buddhism. To be convinced of their validity is to accept the Dhamma in its entirety and therefore there can be no half-way house in this process of conviction. It behoves each one of us, who call ourselves Buddhists, to contemplate these three permanent characteristics of the world as we experience it, both objectively and subjectively, and apply in our individual and social lives the ethical principles that, as the Master pointed out, derive from such conviction and lead us to that state free from these three signata, viz. the eternal bliss of Nibbaana.
The Three Signata
Gleanings from the Pali Scriptures
These texts have been selected by the editors of this series and partly adapted from various translations.
AN—A.nguttara Nikaaya
MN—Majjhima Nikaaya
DN—Diigha Nikaaya
SN—Sa.myutta Nikaaya
Vism—Visuddhi Magga
Whatever has origination, all that is subject to cessation. (MN 56)
“There is no materiality whatever, O monks, no feelings no perception, no formations, no consciousness whatever that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, changeless, identically abiding for ever.” Then the Blessed One took a bit of cow-dung in his hand and he spoke to the monks. ”Monks if even that much of permanent, everlasting, eternal, change­less individual Selfhood [attabhaava], identically abiding for ever, could be found, then this living of a life of purity [brahmacariya] for the complete eradication of ill [dukkha­kkhaya] would not be feasible.” (SN 22:96)
Here a monk abides contemplating rise and fall in the five categories affected by clinging thus: “Such is materiality, such its origin, such its disappearance, [and so with the other four].” Cultivating this kind of concentration conduces to the eradication of taints [aasavakkhaya]. (DN 33)
Monks, formations are impermanent; they are not lasting; they provide no real comfort; so that that is enough for a man to become dispassionate, for his lust to fade out, and for him to be liberated. (AN 7:62)
Here, monks, feelings, perceptions and thoughts are known to him as they arise, known as they appear present, known as they disappear. Cultivating this kind of concen­tration conduces to mindfulness and full awareness. (DN 33)
When a man abides thus mindful and fully aware, diligent, ardent and self-controlled, then, if pleasant feeling arises in him, he understands, “This pleasant feeling has arisen in me; but that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on this body. But this body is impermanent, formed and dependently originated. Now how could pleasant feeling, arisen dependent on an impermanent, formed, dependently arisen body, be perma­nent?” In the body and in feeling he abides contemplating impermanence and fall and fading and cessation and relin­quishment. As he does so, his underlying tendency to lust for the body and for pleasant feeling is abandoned. Similarly when he contemplates unpleasant feeling his underlying tendency to resistance [pa.tigha] to the body and unpleasant feelings is abandoned; and when he contemplates neither­-unpleasant-nor-pleasant feeling his underlying tendency to ignorance of the body and of that feeling is abandoned. (SN 36:7)
Monks, when a man sees as impermanent the eye [and the rest], which is impermanent, then he has right view. (SN 35:155)
Consciousness comes into being [sambhoti] by dependence on a duality. What is that duality? It is the eye, which is impermanent, changing, becoming-other, and visible objects, which are impermanent, changing and becoming-other; such is the transient, fugitive duality [of eye-cum-visible objects], which is impermanent, changing and becoming-other. Eye-consciousness is impermanent, changing and be­coming-other; for this cause and condition [namely eye cum-visible objects] for the arising of eye-consciousness being impermanent, changing and becoming-other, how could eye-consciousness, arisen by depending on an impermanent condition, be permanent? Then the coincidence, concurrence and confluence of these three impermanent dhammas is called contact [phassa]; but eye-contact too is impermanent, chang­ing becoming- other; for how could eye-contact arisen by depending on an impermanent condition, be permanent? It is one touched by contact who feels [vedeti], likewise who perceives [sa.tjaanaati]; so these transient, fugitive dhammas too [namely, feeling, choice and perception] are impermanent, changing and becoming, other. (And so with ear-cum­-sounds, nose-cum-odours, tongue-cum-flavours, body-cum­-tangibles, mind-cum-ideas.) (SN 35:93)
When a monk abides much with his mind fortified by perception of impermanence, his mind retreats, retracts and recoils from gain, honour and renown, and does not reach out to it just as a cock’s feather or a strip of sinew thrown on a fire retreats, retracts and recoils and does not reach out to it. (AN 7:46)
Perception of impermanence should be cultivated for the elimination of the conceit “I am,” since perception of not-self becomes established in one who perceives imperma­nence; and it is perception of not-self that arrives at the elimination of the conceit “I am,” which is extinction [nibbaana] here and now. (Ud 4.1)
Fruitful as an act of [lavish] giving is, yet it is still more fruitful to go with confident heart for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha and undertake the five precepts of virtue … Fruitful as this is, yet it is still more fruitful to cultivate even as little as a whiff of fragrance of loving-kindness. Fruitful as that is, still more fruitful it is to cultivate the perception of impermanence even for only as long as the snapping of a finger. (AN 9:20)
Better a single day of life perceiving how things rise and fall than to live out a century yet not perceive their rise and fall. (Dhp 14)
When a monk sees six rewards it should be enough for him to establish unlimitedly perception of impermanence in all formations. What six? “All formations will seem to me insubstantial. My mind will find no relish in all the world. My mind will emerge from all the world. My mind will incline towards Nibbaana. My fetters will come to be abandoned. And I shall be endowed with the highest in monkhood.” (AN 6:102)
All life and all existence here
With all its joys and all its woe,
Rests on a single state of mind,
And quick passes that moment by.
Nay, even gods whose life does last
For four and eighty thousand kalpas,
Do not remain one and the same,
Not even for two single thoughts.
Those groups that passed away just now,
Those groups that will pass later on,
Those groups just passing in between,
They’re not in nature different.
Not in the future moment does one live,
One now lives in the present moment.
”When consciousness dissolves, the world is dead“;
This utterance is true in the highest sense.
No hoarding up of things passed by,
No heaping up in future time!
And things arisen are all like
The mustard seed on pointed awl.
The groups of life that disappeared
At death, as well as during life,
Have all alike become extinct,
And never will they rise again.
Out of the unseen did they rise,
Into the unseen do they pass.
Just as the lightning flashes forth,
So do they flash and pass away.
(Vism Ch. 20)
The monk in deepest solitude,
Grown still and tranquil in his heart,
Feels superhuman happiness
Whilst clearly he perceives the truth.
Whenever he reflects upon
The rise and passing of the groups,
He’s filled with rapture and with bliss
Whilst he beholds the Deathless Realm.
(Dhp 373f.)
Transient are formations all.
Their law it is to rise and fall.
Arisen - soon they disappear.
To make them cease is happiness.
(SN 6:15, DN 16)

Dukkha—Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness
This only do I teach: suffering, and its end. (MN 22)
Suffering only arises when anything arises; suffering only ceases when anything ceases. (SN 12:15)
Suffering is threefold: intrinsic suffering [dukkha­-dukkha], suffering in change [viparinaama-dukkha] and suffering due to formations [sa.nkhaara-dukkha]. Bodily and mental painful feeling are called intrinsic suffering because suffering is their very nature, their common designation and because they are in them­selves suffering… . Bodily and mental pleasant feeling are called suffering in change because they are a cause for the arising of pain when they change. Neutral feeling and the remaining formations of the three planes of existence are called suffering due to formations because they are oppressed by rise and fall. ( Vism Ch. 16)
Pleasant feeling is agreeable while it lasts and is dis­agreeable when it changes; painful feeling is disagreeable while it lasts and is agreeable when it changes; the neither­ pleasant-nor unpleasant feeling is agreeable when there is knowledge and disagreeable when there is no knowledge. (MN 44)
A heedless man is vanquished by the disagreeable in the guise of the agreeable, by the unloved in the guise of the loved, by suffering in the guise of happiness. (Ud 2.8)
In the past, sense-pleasures were a painful experience, intensely burning and searing; in the future too, sense­-pleasures will be a painful experience, intensely burning and searing; and also now in the present, sense-pleasures are a painful experience, intensely burning and searing. But these beings have not yet lost their greed for sense-pleasures, are consumed by craving for sense-pleasures, burning in feverish passion for sense-pleasures; and with their faculties clouded, they have, in spite of that painful experience, the illusion of happiness. (MN 75)
Whoso delights in materiality, in feeling, in perception, in formations, and in consciousness, he delights in suffering; and whoso delights in suffering, will not be freed from suffering. Thus I say. (SN 22:29)
The arising, presence and manifestation of materiality, feeling, perception, formations, and consciousness is but the arising of suffering, the presence of maladies, the manifes­tation of decay and death. The cessation, the stilling, the ending of materiality, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness is but the cessation of suffering, the stilling of maladies, the ending of decay and death. (SN 22:30)
Inconceivable is the beginning of this sa.msaara; not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. Which do you think, O monks, is more: the flood of tears which, weeping and wailing, you have shed upon this long way, hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths, united with the undesired, separated from the desired; this or the waters of the four great oceans? Long have you suffered the death of father and mother, of sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. And whilst you were thus suffering you have, indeed, shed more tears upon this long way than there is water in the four great oceans. And thus, O monks, have you long undergone torment, undergone misfortune, filled the graveyards full; verily, long enough to be dissatisfied with all forms of existence, long enough to turn away and free yourselves from them all. (SN 15:3 )
How can you find delight and mirth
Where there is burning without end?
In deepest darkness you are wrapped!
Why do you not aspire for light?
Look at this puppet here, well rigged,
A heap of many sores, piled up,
Diseased and full of greediness,
Unstable and impermanent!
Devoured by old age is this frame,
A prey to sickness, weak and frail;
To pieces breaks this putrid body,
All life must truly end in death!
(Dhp 146–48)
For those who know not Ill and how Ill grows,
who neither know how Ill is stilled and quenched
nor know the Way to lay Ill to rest,
—those miss Release, alike of heart and mind;
they cannot end it all and reach the goal;
they tramp the round of birth, decay and death.
But they who know both Ill and how Ill grows,
and also know how Ill is stilled and quenched
and know the Way that lays all Ill to rest;
—these win Release of heart, Release of mind;
these surely end it all and reach the goal;
these nevermore shall know decay and birth.
(Sn 724–727)
When a monk sees six rewards it should be enough for him to establish unlimited perception of suffering in all formations. What six? “The thought of turning away from all formations will be established in me, like unto a murderer with drawn sword. My mind will emerge from all the world. I shall see peace in Nibbaana. The underlying [evil] tenden­cies will be eliminated in me. Dutiful shall I be. And l shall have well attended upon the Master, with a loving heart.” (AN 6:103)
Anattaa: Not-self or Egolessness
Give up what does not belong to you! Such giving-up will long conduce to your weal and happiness. And what is it that does not belong to you? Materiality, feelings, perception, formations and con­sciousness; these do not belong to you and these you should give up. Such giving-up will long conduce to your weal and happiness. (SN 22:33)
All ascetics and brahmins who conceive a self in various ways, all those conceive the five groups [as the self] or one or another of them. Which are the five? Herein an ignorant worldling conceives materiality, feeling, perception, formations or con­sciousness as the self; or the self as the owner of any of these groups; or that group as included in the self; or the self as included in that group. (SN 22:47)
It is impossible that anyone with right view should see anything [or idea, dhamma] as self. (MN 115)
The learned and noble disciple does not consider materi­ality, feeling, perception, formations, or consciousness as self; nor the self as the owner of these groups; nor these groups as included within the self; nor the self as included within the groups. Of such a learned and noble disciple it is said that he is no longer fettered by any group of existence, [his] own or external. Thus I say. (SN 22:117)
It is possible that a virtuous man while contemplating the five groups as impermanent, woeful . . , empty, not-self may realize the Fruit of Stream-entrance. (SN 22:122)
One should not imagine oneself as being identical with the eye, should not imagine oneself as being included within the eye, should not imagine oneself as being outside the eye, should not imagine: “The eye belongs to me.” And so with ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. One should not imagine oneself as being identical with visual objects, sounds, odours, tactile and mental objects. One should not imagine oneself as being included in them or outside of them; one should not imagine: “They belong to me.” One should not imagine oneself as being identical with eye-consciousness… ear-consciousness… nose-conscious­ness… body-consciousness… mind-consciousness; should not imagine oneself as being included within mind-conscious­ness; should not imagine oneself as being outside of mind-consciousness, should not imagine: “Mind-consciousness belongs to me.” One should not imagine oneself as being identical with the totality of things [the All, sabba.m] should not imagine oneself as being included in the totality of things; should not imagine oneself as being outside the totality of things; should not imagine: “The totality of things belongs to me.” Thus not imagining any more, the wise disciple clings no longer to anything in the world. Clinging no longer to any­thing, he trembles not. Trembling no longer, he reaches in his own person the extinction of all vanity: “Exhausted is rebirth, lived the holy life, the task is done, and nothing fur­ther remains after this.” Thus he knows. (SN 35:90)
It would be better for an untaught ordinary man to treat as self [attaa] this body, which is constructed upon the four great primaries of matter [maha-bhuuta], than mind. Why? Because the body can last one year, two years … even a hundred years: but what is called “mind” and “thinking” and “consciousness” arises and ceases differently through night and day. (SN 12:61)
Consciousness is not-self. Also the causes and condi­tions of the arising of consciousness, they likewise are not-­self. Hence, how could it be possible that consciousness, having arisen through something which is not-self, could ever be a self? (SN 35:141)
When a monk sees six rewards it should be enough for him to establish unlimited perception of not-self concerning all things [dhamma]. What six? “I shall be aloof from all the world. No impulses of ‘I’ [egotism] will assail me. No impulses of ‘mine’ will assail me. With extraordinary insight shall I be endowed. I shall clearly see causes and the causally-arisen phenomena.” (AN 6:104)

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