Commentaries on whether "sabbe dhammā anattā" refers to Nibbana

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.


From what I understand of this passage, it is that:

  • First, this passage attempts (and succeeds) at describing all aspects of existence.
  • Nibbāna, being unconditioned and, in reality solely being an absence of unwholesome mental qualities—but still representing a state insofar as attempting to encompass everything, and in relation to the goal of the teachings—cannot be aniccā.
  • Nibbāna can’t obviously be dukkhā, being itself how Nibbāna is defined.
  • Nibbāna, however, can be anattā, as everything is non-self.

So basically, it’s not that sabbe dhammā anattā refers to Nibbāna; it’s that Nibbāna can’t be classified as being dukkhā or ananttā.

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Whatever the argument about what constitutes Dhamma, it is very clear Nibbana is not Atta.
That is what matters.

“He perceives Nibbāna as Nibbāna. Having perceived Nibbāna as Nibbāna, he conceives himself as Nibbāna, he conceives himself in Nibbāna, he conceives himself apart from Nibbāna, he conceives Nibbāna to be ‘mine,’ he delights in Nibbāna. Why is that? Because he has not fully understood it, I say.>


Compare also this article:

Interesting question but the suttas themselves do not provide much clarity- unless we dip in to the Chinese texts and commentaries; even then, then opinion is diverse.

There is one version of ‘Sabbe dhammā anattā’ in several suttas, such as SN35.164, SN35.145 etc. The word dhamma has several meanings, and the meaning is to be inferred based upon the context in which it is set in. In this case it refers to mental objects or thoughts or ‘that which is sensed via the mind door’.

The other way ‘dhamma’ is used is as ‘teaching’. However to say ‘all teachings are not-Self’ is without meaning. So that translation can be safely avoided.

Lets consider the sutta in question:

“All conditioned things [sankhara] are impermanent”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.
“All conditioned things [sankhara] are unsatisfactory”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.
“All things [dhamma] are not-self”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

MN1 provides us with some direction on this issue:

"He conceives himself apart from Nibbāna."

That is, to consider oneself as nibbana or even to consider oneself not as nibbana, are both wrong views: the valid position is to stop all conception about nibbana with regards to the Self.
This then weakens the idea that the word dhamma in ‘sabbe dhamma anatta’, includes nibbana as well as other conditioned dhammas.

The following sutta makes it more obvious:

Then it occurred to the Venerable Channa: “I too think in this way: ‘Form is impermanent … consciousness is impermanent. Form is nonself … consciousness is nonself. All formations are impermanent; all phenomena are nonself.But my mind does not launch out upon the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna; SN22.90

Then the next question to clarify is why sankhara was altered to dhamma in the third paragraph.

In my opinion it is because there is another experience (dhatu, in this case) that cannot be identified as impermanent (anicca) during insight (vipassana) practice, or therefore, as per the famous SN22.59, suffering dukkha. That is space or Akasa.

MN140 states about it:

“both the internal space element and the external space element are simply space element. And that should be seen as it actually is with proper wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’ When one sees it thus as it actually is with proper wisdom, one becomes disenchanted with the space element and makes the mind dispassionate towards the space element.” MN140

One of the major arguments against containing nibbana within the term dhamma was the following sentence, about becoming disenchanted with it. Now this doesn’t make sense, whereas, as seen above, it is possible to become disenchanted with the space element. This suggests a good fit and reason why sankhara had to be changed to dhamma, as in Dhp279.

with metta

Maybe I can make an argument here that the mind’s door, or eye, can be liked what Dualists called “immaterial spirit”. Maybe Immaterial Screen is a better name, nowadays, anyway.

Maybe we can call a screen, dhamma. Obviously this would include hearing, touching, etc., but those are not usually recalled, later.

Another way to look at this is that all things visualized, in mind, are dhamma. Literally, the contradiction becomes someone self-identifying with mind’s images as self being told those forms are not them, or not-self. Very hard to do when one sees what they see.

So then, now attention is held, what would be an entity who is born here, in this realm, without recall in mind’s eye or mind’s ear? What did Buddha say of those who appear here free of the dual view?

Saṅkhāra - ‘that which has been put together’ and ‘that which puts together’ (a screen puts together an image which has been put together for viewing)
Saṅkhāra - Wikipedia

A nibbana that can be conceived of thought about talked about cannot possibly be nibbana. Nibbana is the destination of path of purification. Therefore cannot be a dhamma.

Sabbesu dhammesu samuhatesu
Samuhatā vādapathāpi sabbeti - Snp 5.7

When all phenomena are done away with
all means of speaking
are done away with as well

Is Nibbana a dhamma?

AFAIK you have in in EBTs nibbana as a dhatu, a principle or quality that becomes known by the heart once it is freed from suffering.

Interesting suttas which describe awakening as the experience of the element or principle of nibbana (nibbānadhātu) are listed below. I highlight the beautiful and concise SN45.7:

“Sir, they speak of ‘the removal of greed, hate, and delusion’.
“‘Rāgavinayo dosavinayo mohavinayo’ti, bhante, vuccati.
What is this a term for?”
Kissa nu kho etaṃ, bhante, adhivacanaṃ: rāgavinayo dosavinayo mohavinayo’”ti?
“Mendicant, the removal of greed, hate, and delusion is a term for the natural principle of extinguishment.
Nibbānadhātuyā kho etaṃ, bhikkhu, adhivacanaṃ: ‘rāgavinayo dosavinayo mohavinayo’ti.
It’s used to speak of the ending of defilements.”
Āsavānaṃ khayo tena vuccatī”ti.

Note that in the suttas the term dhatu is not about afirming ontological truths but pointing to qualities that can be known, seen, experienced.

This is aligned to the middle path approach of dependently originated experience of suffering and its cessation - as an alternative to the extreme views of existence and non-existence of oneself, others, atoms, etc. This is at least what I understand from reading AN3.55:



It can be called dhathu.

All dhammas are not-self, seeing this as suffering… sentence cannot include Nibbana as one cannot see suffering in dhammas or Dhamma (teaching/principle).

Out of curiosity, how is what is known, seen, experienced, not ontological?

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It is not ontological in the sense it is affirmed as something that exists but indeed the experience of the cessation or absence of a process (suffering).

Thus it is said in suttas to be a dhatu in the sense of information or datum of the awakened experience , inaccessible to the experience still doomed by ignorance in regard to the four Noble truths and its respective ennobling tasks.

When you experience the ending of greed, hate, and delusion without anything left over,
Yato kho ayaṃ, brāhmaṇa, anavasesaṃ rāgakkhayaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti, anavasesaṃ dosakkhayaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti, anavasesaṃ mohakkhayaṃ paṭisaṃvedeti;
that’s how extinguishment is realizable in this very life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know it for themselves.”
evaṃ kho, brāhmaṇa, sandiṭṭhikaṃ nibbānaṃ hoti akālikaṃ ehipassikaṃ opaneyyikaṃ paccattaṃ veditabbaṃ viññūhī”ti.

Think of coldness of night or a shade in a desert. There is no fundamental particle or element that makes up the absence of heat experienced, but the experience of a shade or night is definitely different to the experience of heat of the day or open air.

It is therefore a possible dhatu of experience of one in the desert who survives through night or finds a shade ! Yet the very experience cannot be pinpointed with an ontological affirmation in terms of independent element or anything like that.

In the case of Nibhana it is a natural , impersonal and very welcome possibility that comes with dependent origination itself. If the suffering perpetuating linkage looses enough ground to the suffering cessating linkage, then the dhatu Nibbana becomes a possibility, and hopefully the vanishing which ensues a practically certain conclusion or end result.

That’s why the Buddha says it is a amazing aspect of Nibhana that it doesn’t matter how many people experience it does not get “crowded”. It is like an ocean of vanishing, it does not matter how many beings vanish into it, it does not " change ".

I think AN4.174 does a great job to remind us that the process is stilled at the point of the six fields of contact. It also makes clear that any ontological speculation of what lies beyond its stilling is pointless as it proliferating the unproliferated.

“If you say that ‘when the six fields of contact have faded away and ceased with nothing left over, something else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated.
If you say that ‘nothing else exists’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated.
If you say that ‘both something else and nothing else exist’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated.
If you say that ‘neither something else nor nothing else exist’, you’re proliferating the unproliferated.
The scope of the six fields of contact extends as far as the scope of proliferation.
The scope of proliferation extends as far as the scope of the six fields of contact.
When the six fields of contact fade away and cease with nothing left over, proliferation stops and is stilled.”



Some scientists have an information ontology. “The universe is made of information!” etc.

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Yes, it is the basis of the holographic principle. But that is not what the Buddha in EBTs is talking about, at least to me!

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It lies beyond the range of thought. No ontology can touch it. To be actualised by the wise. A paradox for us mortals.

Yours alone is the eye, Evil One. Yours are forms, yours is the sphere of consciousness of contact at the eye. Where no eye exists, no forms exist, no sphere of consciousness & contact at the eye exists: there, Evil One, you cannot go. Yours alone is the ear… the nose… the tongue… the body… Yours alone is the intellect, Evil One. Yours are ideas, yours is the sphere of consciousness & contact at the intellect. Where no intellect exists, no ideas exist, no sphere of consciousness of contact at the intellect exists: there, Evil One, you cannot go."

SN 4.19

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I think as distinct from phenomenological, I word I find difficult to spell and still cannot pronounce. :yum:

In terms of the suttas it involves a focus on what arises at the sense bases - sights, sounds, sensations, flavours, odours, thoughts and feelings.
See for example the Sabba Sutta: SuttaCentral

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I would say that anything you perceived from your mind is Dhamma.
Nibbana is Dhamma for a living Arahant.

The Sabbasutta strikes me as a very ontological text.

How does this intersect with the Sabbasutta?

There seems to be a disagreement over whether or not nibbāna is a mental object.

well, i can no more describe nibbana than a blind man can describe colours. But it has been described as the goal of the holy life. But as per the suttas it lies beyond the Allness of the All.

‘If, good sir, you have directly known the extent of what has not been experienced through the allness of the all, may it not turn out to be actually vain and void for you.’

"'Consciousness without surface,
endless, radiant all around,
has not been experienced through the earthness of earth … the liquidity of liquid … the fieriness of fire … the windiness of wind … the allness of the all