Interpretation of sabbe dhammā anattā

I understand that the traditional (commentarial?) interpretation of the statement “sabbe dhammā anattā” refers to nibbāna as dhammā which is not inconstant (that which does not fall into “sabbe sankhārā aniccā”).

I have an alternative interpretation of this statement and I’d like to know whether there’s support for it in the EBTs.

AN 3.136 mentions the dhammaniyāmatā, i.e. fixed laws concerning dhammā. These are sabbē sankhārā aniccā/dukkhā and sabbē dhammā anattā. Can we consider these laws (or natures) as themselves being dhammā? The formulation of dhammaniyāmatā being a sort of recursive definition that also applies to itself? If so, then being fixed laws that do not undergo change these niyāmatā would fall only into the “sabbe dhammā anattā” category. Or is this too broad an interpretation of the word “dhammā”?

Do the EBTs have any support for the traditional interpretation of nibbāna being a dhamma?


Is Satipathana EBT?
Nibbana is described as Dhamma in Satipathana.
Abhidhamma describe Nibbana as Dhamma. But some people think it is not EBT.
Another thing to consider is that the word Dhamma is used in different ways.

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Yes I would consider Satipatthana Sutta to be an EBT but not the Abhidhamma.

Where in the Satipattana Sutta is Nibbana described as a Dhamma? The only references to Nibbana I see are descriptions of Satipatthana being the way leading to Nibbana.

Don’t four noble truths contains Nibbana?

Finally, someone agrees with me! I wrote an essay arguing this exact point many years ago.

In an essay several decades ago, Ven Kheminda pointed out the fallacy of seeing nibbana as a dhamma in this context, since the contemplation of sabbe dhammā anattā is supposed to lead to repulsion and disenchantment.


Isn’t this a Sutta teaching?

I think key question is not: “:s it in a sutta?” but "What does it mean?

It’s useful to quote the whole verse: Dhp 279

“All things are not-self”—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

Alas, it appears to be un-Googleable… :cry:

To me, the meaning is very clear.
Nothing is I, ,me or myself even Nibbana.
If we try to analyse this as two words as Dhamma and Anatta we will get in to a mess.
There are varied meaning for Dhamma and Anatta.

You’re welcome.


You made a grave mistake in your article.
You said "however, because Nibbana is never directly referred to as ‘not-self’ in the suttas."
You mentioned this twice in your article.
It is clearly mentioned in Sutta which I can’t recall where it is.
I will PM if I find it again.
So in your opinion is Nibbana; Atta?
This is the most important point here.

We seem to be of the same mind here Bhante.

No that’s not what he’s saying. May I bring your attention to SN 44.3:

‘The Tathagata exists after death’: this, friend, is an involvement with feeling … an involvement with perception … an involvement with volitional formations … an involvement with consciousness. ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death’: this is an involvement with consciousness. ‘The Tathagata both exists and does not exist after death’: this is an involvement with consciousness. ‘The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist after death’: this is an involvement with consciousness.

Similarly, any categorical statement made about Nibbāna by a non-arahant of the form “Nibbāna is anattā” or “Nibbāna is attā” is necessarily an involvement with form … feeling … perception … formations … consciousness. Therefore such proliferation about Nibbāna is entirely useless for one who is practicing the path, if not downright dangerous. This is why Nibbāna is described in terms of negative statements throughout the Sutta pitaka.

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I’m waiting.

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Tathagata is not the Nibbana.

Of course not. I was simply making a point analogous to the one made by Ven Sariputta.

I agree, here. These laws seem permanent (thus not anicca) & are reliable (thus not dukkha).

Not for me. For me, dhamma is all things, i.e., phenomena, the laws of nature, the path, the path factors (eg. AN 10.15), the fruit, etc.

MN 26, as I posted elsewhere.

I attained the undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna. The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘My deliverance is unshakeable; this is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being.’

I considered: ‘This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise… it is hard to see this truth, namely, the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna.

I think it is very easy to understand the term of “Sabbe dhamma anatta” by reflecting the 3 stanzas one by one.

First stanza says that all conditioned things are impermanent, second one says the suffering of conditioned things.

here, impermanence and suffering are dhammas or phenomena of conditioned things. So, these dhammas can not be controlled or change by anyone( because conditioned/unconditioned things do not have self). that is why they (phenomena) are called dhamma.

So, finally I would say Nibbana does not mention here. Because, Nibbana does not have impermanence and suffering due to its unconditionality. So it is wrong to say that Nibbana is included in Dhamma in this stanza.

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sabbe sankhārā aniccā
All formations (conditioned) are impermanent
sabbe sankhārā dukkhā
All formations (conditioned) are suffering
sabbe dhammā anattā
All phenomena (unconditioned—i.e., including Nibbāna—and conditioned things) are not-self

Nibbāna is not included in the first two, for the reasons that you described, but it is a dhamma (it is phenomena) and therefore is classified in the third characteristic (all things are not-self).