Does “all Dhammas” include Nibbāna?

Note: This is one of the first Dhamma essays I wrote, in 1999. I submitted it to the Eastern Horizon, but they rejected it. :sob: Anyway, I haven’t revised it, so here it is in its original glory.

‘All sankharas are impermanent… all sankharas are suffering… all dhammas are not-self.’

These succinct phrases describing the three characteristics of reality are a well-known summary of the Buddha’s teaching. They are profound, radical, even devastating in their philosophical implications. But, true to the pragmatic orientation of the Dhamma, their chief purpose is not to fuel coffee-table debates on the meaning of life, but to orient our inner explorations, providing concise yet comprehensive guidelines for insight meditation.

As such, the meaning of these phrases would seem to be of no little interest for those pursuing the Buddha’s way of calm and insight. Yet their precise interpretation remains elusive, particularly the enigmatic shift from ‘sankharas’ to ‘dhammas’ in the third phrase. Both of these terms are highly ambiguous, assuming a variety of meanings in different contexts. Here I will leave them untranslated so as to not colour the interpretation.

One popular contemporary interpretation sees ‘sankharas’ here as ‘conditioned phenomena’, or more precisely, the phenomena of experience as active participants in an ongoing process of cause and effect. ‘Dhammas’ is seen as being broader, including conditioned phenomena plus Nibbana, the unconditioned. Doubt has been thrown on this view, however, because Nibbana is never directly referred to as ‘not-self’ in the suttas. The purpose of this contemplation is to become repulsed from suffering, so one contemplates phenomena as ‘not-self’, ‘a disease’, ‘a barb’, ‘an affliction’, etc. Obviously, Nibbana does not come within the scope of such contemplation.

It has been pointed out, however, that Nibbana is referred to as ‘not-self’ in the Vinaya Parivara. This late compendium of monastic discipline is an odd place indeed to find such a statement, but at least this shows that such ideas were considered orthodox by the emerging Theravada school.

One reason for the popularity of the view that ‘all dhammas’ includes Nibbana has been to counter the opinion of some prominent scholars that Nibbana is a kind of higher ‘Self’. The persistence of such ideas is quite astonishing in light of the Buddha’s consistent and unsparing condemnation of all doctrines of self, and the total lack of any hint that Nibbana is a ‘self’. However, it does not necessarily follow that the statement ‘all dhammas are not-self’ refers to Nibbana. In fact, it’s a weak argument. One should never rely on a disputed interpretation of an ambiguous term to buttress one’s position in a debate.

The Theravada commentaries offer conflicting opinions on this point—a sure sign that the teachers of old were not unanimous. One explanation has it that ‘sankharas’ here means the ‘aggregate of sankharas’ (i.e. various mental factors headed by volition), while ‘dhammas’ means all five aggregates. I find this interpretation too arbitary to do justice to the context. Elsewhere the commentaries suggest that ‘dhamma’ includes ‘concepts’ along with conditioned phenomena. This is interesting, but it rests on philosophical premises more characteristic of later strata of Buddhist thought, namely the distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth.

The main problem with all the above theories is that they lack sutta support. Ideally we should like an important sutta dealing directly with the three characteristics which refers to something as a ‘dhamma’ while stating or implying that that ‘dhamma’ is neither impermanent nor suffering. To find such a passage we need look no further than the well-known ‘Discourse on the Lawfulness of Dhamma’. I translate only the relevant portions.

‘“All sankharas are impermanent.” Whether Tathagatas arise or not, that element is stable, that stability of dhamma, that lawfulness of dhamma…
‘“All sankharas are suffering.” Whether Tathagatas arise or not, that element is stable, that stability of dhamma, that lawfulness of dhamma…
‘“All dhammas are not-self.” Whether Tathagatas arise or not, that element is stable, that stability of dhamma, that lawfulness of dhamma…’

The idea is that the principles of the dhamma are always true. Things are impermanent. In the past they were impermanent. In the future, too, they will be impermanent. While the sutta stops short of such a bold statement as ‘impermanence is permanent’, still the terms ‘stability’ and ‘lawfulness’ are virtually the opposite of ‘impermanence’.

If the principles of the dhamma cannot be regarded as impermanent, neither, it would seem, should they be regarded as suffering. They are not mentioned in the usual descriptions of suffering, nor do they fall into the threefold analysis of suffering as the suffering of painful feeling, the suffering of sankharas, and the suffering of change.

So the principles of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness are the ‘dhamma’ which is not impermanent or suffering; yet it seems plain enough that such principles are not-self. This is confirmed in a related discourse, which uses similar phrases such as the ‘stability of dhamma’ in the context of dependent origination. While the factors of dependent origination, the ‘dependently originated phenomena’ headed by ignorance, are impermanent, the causal relationship between the phenomena remains fixed. Whenever there is ignorance, that will always give rise to conceptual activities, and so on. And it is precisely this consistent manner in which experience operates which creates the illusion of ‘self’, of a permanent essence or core underlying the transient fluctuations of experience. To see through this illusion, the Buddha taught us to make the conditional relation itself a focus of our investigation, to see experience neither as a random meaningless chaos, nor as diverse surface manifestations of a hidden inner unity, but as a flow of transient phenomena governed by natural laws.

The three characteristics themselves are really little more than another perspective for examining conditionality. The suttas often treat ‘impermanent’ as a virtual synonym for ‘dependently originated’. So in the end we can summarize like this. ‘Sankharas’ means ‘conditioned phenomena’, while ‘dhammas’ encompasses the conditioned phenomena as well as the principles of conditionality.

This is useful. It reminds us that insight is not just ‘bare awareness’ of transient phenomena, but must lead to an act of understanding, an intuitive realization of their fundamental nature. Seeing that ‘this thought is impermanent’, ‘this feeling is suffering’, ‘this idea is not-self’, we can let go of that thought, that feeling, that idea. But only when we see that ‘all thoughts are impermanent’, ‘all feelings are suffering’, ‘all ideas are not-self’ can we let go of all thoughts, all feelings, all ideas.

The key to thus universalizing the particulars of one’s own experience is conditionality. Again and again and again one sees thoughts arising when certain conditions are present; and again and again and again one sees that when those conditions are absent, thoughts do not arise.

One bright day it clicks: one understands. This inner event is really quite mysterious. No-one can say how or when it will occur; and yet we can point out how to bring it about. When it happens, one has no thought of identifying or clinging to the passing parade of phenomena, the Mardi-gras of the mind, for one understands: all dhammas are not-self.


AN 3.136


This resonated with me because at a meeting of a low-key meditation/Dhamma group this evening we were discussing the khandas . There I mentioned one of my pet annoyances, which is the view that the khandas are some sort of building blocks, rather than my understanding (which is by no means original!) that they are simply ways of classifying (actually I like your term “examining”) experience (with the sense bases being another, somewhat orthogonal, classification/examination).

Similarly, the three characteristics, expecially with the grandiose title “Three Marks of Existence”, are, perhaps, over-hyped. As is, perhaps, anlaysing the minute details of dependent origination, rather than understanding the key point that we should:


Thank you, Bhante, for republishing this essay! These explanations make a lot of sense to me, more than anything I read on this topic so far!!


I see it in the following manner:

While impermanence (anicca) and its derivation unstatisfactoriness (dukkha) are ready descriptors of ‘fabrications’ or ‘everything’ (sankhara), the Buddha used dhamma to mean that which is seen to have a firm existence. The classical Sanskrit noun dharma is a derivation from the root dhṛ… “what is established or firm”. Dhamma was the noun most likely to be pointing towards a soul.

It would be obvious (hopefully) that that which is impermanent could not have a stable self.

That which is unsatisfactory (dukkha) could not be considered Self, when considered against the Brahmanical belief that ‘Atman is …bliss’Ātman_(Hinduism). Otherwise the statement in the Anattalakkhana sutta that that which is unsatisfactory cannot be Self, doesn’t make much logical sense. So it would seem that this sentence is said to the listener who has a Brahmanical understanding.

Furthermore it makes sense to choose ‘dhamma’ as the culturally appropriate word of choice, to negate, thereby with the resulting contrast, drive deeper the teaching to the listener. The Buddha with his six Patisambidha knowledges would have utilized the tool of his particular trade…

with metta


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I had always questioned the usefulness of the category “unconditioned dhamma”, as in, “a dhamma that is unlike any other dhamma ever”. Is it even a dhamma? What is the use of classifying it as a dhamma if it isn’t anything like anything else that would ever be called a dhamma?

The conclusion I reached was basically that Nibbāna might have been came to be classified as a “special dhamma” to try to stress how it can be experienced, as a culmination of various attempts to stress this over time, which lead to the eventual classification. Either that, or classifying it as an “unconditioned dhamma” is just a way to further trying to “really establish” that it exists, by placing it in the matrix of later dhamma-theory. The Chinese āgamāḥ that I have read, and many of which I have brought up here, seem to unilaterally and uncritically, based on my limited exposure, accept the notion that Nibbāna is a dhamma, but that just seems to make them stranger, and IMO doesn’t help in clarify anything “about” Nibbāna.

I also think the nibbānadhātuyo, from Iti 44, perhaps more specifically saupādisesā ca nibbānadhātu, might be another example of classifying Nibbāna in such a way as to stress how it can be experienced. If Nibbāna, or experience thereof, can be a dhātu all on its own, then why not a dhamma all on its own?

That being said, it is a curious thing. But I am not well-versed in this Theravāda discourse, which I assume is also Abhidhammic Theravāda discourse, on the “unconditioned dhamma”, so I might be uninformed.

Apologies if I departed from relevance, it was not my intention.

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This is amazing because in my personal inner lingo after thinking a lot about the issue I came to translating dhamma with the word ‘principle’ in all contexts (though I don’t claim it is valid translation that should be used y everyone). It’s stunning how similar different minds can work! :fearful:

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“There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.”

Doesn’t above praise say Nibbana is unconditioned?
He says “Ther is, Bhikkhu” Doesn’t this mean that there is something?

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This does not use the word dhamma.

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"In the same way, monks, for a disciple of the noble ones who is consummate in view, an individual who has broken through [to stream-entry], the suffering & stress that is totally ended & extinguished is far greater. That which remains in the state of having at most seven remaining lifetimes is next to nothing: it’s not a hundredth, a thousandth, a one hundred-thousandth, when compared with the previous mass of suffering. That’s how great the benefit is of breaking through to the Dhamma, monks. That’s how great the benefit is of obtaining the Dhamma eye

How about this?

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Still, no.

(Here’s a hint: there is precisely one reference to nibbana as not-self in the Pali canon. No more, no less. Click below if you dare!)

[details=Spoilers]It is in the Parivāra, a Sinhalese Vinaya commentary dated perhaps 400 years after the Buddha, and one of the latest texts in the Pali canon. The verse occurs at, and is as follows:

Aniccā sabbe saṅkhārā,
dukkhānattā ca saṅkhatā;
Nibbānañceva paññatti,
anattā iti nicchayā.[/details]


Than you Bhante.
I have never seen this.
By the way, please be kind enough to translate that for me.


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It is not, "Nibbana is not self."
Nibbana is another term for state of a person who has realised not self nature.
I think it is a another kind of Dhamma.
If we say self view is Dhamma then we can say not having a view of self also Dhamma.

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All I am saying is, this is not what the suttas say. Instead of arguing on the basis of what you think is reasonable, then assuming that this is what the suttas say, why not simply read what the suttas have to say, then see if that seems reasonable?


I agree to this point.

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This does not make sense to me because it seems to purport the mind is like a god or Brahma, creating its own subjective reality. It becomes even more unusual that each individual would classify experience in the same way, namely, in terms of five aggregates.

The reality seems to be that the majority of people are not intimately aware of the five aggregates and only those that develop meditation clearly become intimately aware.

Many suttas (SN 56.11; MN 43, etc) state the five aggregates are to be comprehended. Thus, they are obviously building blocks or functions, as clearly stated in SN 22.79 or SN 5.10 or SN 22.48.

Thus, SN 22.85 states the end of the life of an arahant is merely the ending of the khandhas.

And why, bhikkhus, do you call it form? ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form. Deformed by what? Deformed by cold, deformed by heat, deformed by hunger, deformed by thirst, deformed by contact with flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and serpents. ‘It is deformed,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called form.

“And why, bhikkhus, do you call it feeling? ‘It feels,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called feeling. And what does it feel? It feels pleasure, it feels pain, sn.iii.87 it feels neither-pain-nor-pleasure. ‘It feels,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called feeling.

“And why, bhikkhus, do you call it perception? ‘It perceives,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called perception. And what does it perceive? It perceives blue, it perceives yellow, it perceives red, it perceives white. ‘It perceives,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called perception.

“And why, bhikkhus, do you call them volitional formations? ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called volitional formations. And what is the conditioned that they construct? They construct conditioned form as form; they construct conditioned feeling as feeling; they construct conditioned perception as perception; they construct conditioned volitional formations as volitional formations; they construct conditioned consciousness as consciousness. ‘They construct the conditioned,’ bhikkhus, therefore they are called volitional formations.

“And why, bhikkhus, do you call it consciousness? ‘It cognizes, ’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called consciousness. And what does it cognize? It cognizes sour, it cognizes bitter, it cognizes pungent, it cognizes sweet, it cognizes sharp, it cognizes mild, it cognizes salty, it cognizes bland. ‘It cognizes,’ bhikkhus, therefore it is called consciousness.

SN 22.79

Where is this found in the EBTs, i.e., marks of “existence”, i.e., ‘bhava lakkhana’?


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Nibbana is a ‘dhatu’ in many other places also, such as MN 15, SN 45.7, etc. It appears included in “all dhammas”.

This, bhikkhu, is a designation for the element of Nibbāna: the removal (vinayo) of lust, the removal of hatred, the removal of delusion. The destruction of the taints is spoken of in that way. SN 45.7

MN 1 appears to directly state Nibbana is not-self.

He directly knows Nibbāna as Nibbāna. Having directly known Nibbāna as Nibbāna, he should not conceive himself as Nibbāna, he should not conceive himself in Nibbāna, he should not conceive himself apart from Nibbāna, he should not conceive Nibbāna to be ‘mine,’ he should not delight in Nibbāna. Why is that? Because he must fully understand it, I say.

MN 1


I reached the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Nibbana. Then the thought occurred to me, 'This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment… this state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.

MN 26


[quote=“Deeele, post:18, topic:4673”]
Nibbana is a ‘dhatu’ in many other places also, such as MN 15, SN 45.7, etc. It appears included in “all dhammas”.
[/quote]I could not find “dhātu” in MN 15.

On terms of mention of “all dhammā”, I found these passages, this from MN 15:[quote]Sace, āvuso, bhikkhu pacca­vek­kha­māno sabbepime pāpake akusale dhamme appahīne attani samanupassati, tenāvuso, bhikkhunā sabbesaṃyeva imesaṃ pāpakānaṃ akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ pahānāya vāyamitabbaṃ. Sace panāvuso, bhikkhu pacca­vek­kha­māno sabbepime pāpake akusale dhamme pahīne attani samanupassati, tenāvuso, bhikkhunā teneva pītipāmojjena vihātabbaṃ, ahorat­tā­nu­sikkhinā kusalesu dhammesu.

Seyyathāpi, āvuso, itthī vā puriso vā, daharo yuvā maṇḍanajātiko, ādāse vā parisuddhe pariyodāte, acche vā udakapatte, sakaṃ mukhanimittaṃ pacca­vek­kha­māno, sace tattha passati rajaṃ vā aṅgaṇaṃ vā, tasseva rajassa vā aṅgaṇassa vā pahānāya vāyamati; no ce tattha passati rajaṃ vā aṅgaṇaṃ vā, teneva attamano hoti: ‘lābhā vata me, parisuddhaṃ vata me’ti. Evameva kho, āvuso, sace bhikkhu pacca­vek­kha­māno sabbepime pāpake akusale dhamme appahīne attani samanupassati, tenāvuso, bhikkhunā sabbesaṃyeva imesaṃ pāpakānaṃ akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ pahānāya vāyamitabbaṃ. Sace panāvuso, bhikkhu pacca­vek­kha­māno sabbepime pāpake akusale dhamme pahīne attani samanupassati, tenāvuso, bhikkhunā teneva pītipāmojjena vihātabbaṃ, ahorat­tā­nu­sikkhinā kusalesu dhammesū”ti.[/quote]It seems to be talking about akusala dhammā, rather than Nibbāna, when “sabbe” is employed, but my Pāli is terrible.

And then we come to SN 45.7, where a “Nibbāna-dhātu” appears, but no reference to dhammā of any sort.

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Woops. Sorry. I meant MN 115.

“Venerable sir, is there another method through which the bhikkhu becomes clever in the elements?”

“There is a method. These two are the elements, such as the compounded and the uncompounded elementwhen the bhikkhu knows and sees them, saying it rightly he becomes clever in the elements.”

Sure. However, the word ‘dhatu’ can be synonymous with ‘dhamma’, in certain contexts. These two words at least share the same linguistic root.

All things are dhatu, including Nibbana; thus all things must also be dhammas.

Since Nibbana is a sense object (ayatana, per Ud 8.1), it must be included within ‘dhamme’ as a sense object of the mind (mano) and mano-vinnana, as follows:

manañcāvuso, paṭicca dhamme ca uppajjati manoviññāṇaṃ

In short, I can empathize with the publishers of Eastern Horizon. I cannot discern any compelling, important or beneficial distinction made in Ajahn Sujato’s article, even if Ajahn Sujato is correct.

I did suggest MN 26 & MN 1 seems to directly state Nibbana is a ‘dhamma’ & is ‘not-self’.

MN 140 states:

Thus a monk so endowed is endowed with the highest determination for truth, for this — Unbinding, the undeceptive — is the highest noble truth.

Are we now suggesting a ‘noble truth’ is not a ‘dhamma’?

Also, Ajahn Sujato seemed to suggest (if I read right) that ‘dhamma law’ in SN 12.20 & AN 3.136 fall within the word ‘dhamma’. Since SN 12.20 is about dependent origination, surely it would include the reverse, namely, dependent cessation, which is synonymous with Nibbana.

Regards :deciduous_tree:

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