An issue has arisen a few times on this forum regarding the commentarial interpretation of the famous phrase sabbe dhammā anattā. This phrase occurs as part of a frequently repeated set of statements, often in verse, that speak of the contemplation of “conditions” (saṅkhārā) as impermanent and suffering, but when it comes to “not-self”, it switches to dhammā. So the question arises as to why this switch is made. In this article I’ll refer to this set of statements as the threefold contemplation.
Dhamma in this context is often, in modern times, taken to include Nibbana. However I have said, based on my reading of Kheminda’s article on the topic, that the commentaries don’t explain this passage as referring to Nibbana.
However, a note by @dhammanando appears to question this:
Ven Dhammanando knows the commentaries much better than I, so his opinion is valuable. Note that I haven’t followed this argument in detail, so I may be taking it out of context. But anyway, let’s see what the commentaries say on this point. Quick and dirty translations by myself!
Samyutta commentary: SN 44.10
Anulomaṃ abhavissa ñāṇassa uppādāya sabbe dhammā anattāti yaṃ etaṃ ‘‘sabbe dhammā anattā’’ti vipassanāñāṇaṃ uppajjati, api nu me tassa anulomaṃ abhavissāti attho
"Would that be congruent with the arising of the knowledge that ‘all phenomena are not-self’?" Means: insight knowledge arises, and wouldn’t that be congruent with that?
Here the knowledge is said to be that of insight, hence not Nibbana.
Samyutta commentary: SN 35.80
sabbe dhammāti sabbe tebhūmakadhammā
"All phenomena" means: all phenomena of the three planes.
Note that this isn’t a passage featuring the three contemplations, so the meaning of “all phenomena” may not be relevant. Nevertheless, it is in line with comments that are in the context of the three contemplations, so I include it for interest.
Theragāthā commentary: Thag 15.1#6
Sabbe dhammā anattāti sabbepi catubhūmakā dhammā anattā. Idha pana tebhūmakadhammāva gahetabbā
"All phenomena are not-self": the phenomena of the four planes are not self. But here only the phenomena of the three planes are counted.
Note that, in the commentarial system, the fourth plane includes the so-called “nine transcendent phenomena”, i.e. the phemonena pertaining to each of the four pairs of path and fruit, as well as Nibbana. Here the commentary says that all these are not self. Yet in this specific context, i.e. the contemplation of all phenomena as not-self, it says that only the three (worldly) planes are included.
Niddesa commentary: Mnd 4
Sabbe dhammāti nibbānampi antokatvā vuttā
"All phenomena": is said including even Nibbana.
This follows on from an earlier definition of saṅkhārā as "all conditioned phenomena (sabbe sappaccayā dhammā). This appears to explicitly include Nibbana, and hence support the modern argument.
Note that the Niddesas themselves treat the threefold contemplation frequently, and so far as a brief perusal reveals, they always treat them exactly the same, making no distinction between saṅkhāra and dhamma.
Niddesa: Cnd 5
Sabbe dhammā anattāti nibbānaṃ antokaritvā vuttaṃ
The same as above.
Dhammapada commentary: Dhp 279
Tattha sabbe dhammāti pañcakkhandhā eva adhippetā
In this context, “all phenomena” refers only to the five aggregates.
This excludes Nibbana.
Netti commentary: Ne 4
Sabbe dhammāti sabbe saṅkhatā dhammā
"All phenomena" means all conditioned phenomena.
Not only does this exclude Nibbana, it is specifically intended to do so.
Udāna commentary: Ud 4.1
Anattasaññā saṇṭhātīti asārakato avasavattanato parato rittato tucchato suññato ca ‘‘sabbe dhammā anattā’’ti
"One is established in the perception of not-self" means: as coreless, powerless, alien, vacant, void, empty, and as “all phenomena are not-self”.
Here the phrase is treated alongside others that are contemplating the aggregates in insight meditation, hence excludes Nibbana.
So it seems, from this brief survey, that the commentaries mostly exclude Nibbana from the scope of the three contemplations.
The exception to this is the commentary to the Niddesa, which on two occasions explicitly includes Nibbana, and indeed says that this is the difference between dhamma and saṅkhāra in the three contemplations. This commentary, the Saddhammapajjotikā, is not by Buddhaghosa, but is attributed to a Sinhalese monk named Upasena, and was composed a century or two after Buddhaghosa. While generally the various commentaries are quite uniform in doctrine, it seems that in this case it offers a different opinion.