SuttaCentral

Meaning of Atta

I’ve just come across this verse in the Dhammapada:

Self is indeed the lord of self,
Attā hi attano nātho,
for who else would be one’s lord?
ko hi nātho paro siyā;
Self is indeed the home of self,
Attā hi attano gati,
so restrain yourself,
tasmā saṁyamamattānaṁ;
as a merchant his thoroughbred steed.
Assaṁ bhadraṁva vāṇijo.

What is the meaning of self/atta here? Does the self exist in some sense according to EBT?
Other suttas say that all dhammas are anatta. How to make sense of that?

I’ve heard that Sammityas affirmed that the self existed but was none of the aggregates. Might that in the end be a proper interpretation of parts of the suttas such as this one?

Thank you

Here is my own understanding for consideration.

Does a self comprising body and mind, who knows the world, who is responsible for its own deeds, who learns and practises Dhamma exist? Yes, obviously.

Does a Self that owns the body and mind exist? No. If it does, it would be able to control it as it wishes so it would not be subjected to old age, sickness, death and whole mass of sufferings - Dukkha.

Just like a wild elephant, you may tame it and put it to good use but never own it. It grows old, get sick and die of its own causes and conditions.

This figment of imaginary Self which is immutable, sukkha, pure and independently originated is what the Buddha described as perversions; as wrong views.

four perversions of perception, perversions of mind, perversions of view. Which four? ‘Constant’ with regard to the inconstant is a perversion of perception, a perversion of mind, a perversion of view. ‘Pleasant’ with regard to the stressful… ‘Self’ with regard to not-self… ‘Attractive’ with regard to the unattractive is a perversion of perception, a perversion of mind, a perversion of view.

There are other versions of translation that make whole lot of sense…

“Self” in this verse was intended to be Sammuti (conventional sense). But not Paramattha (ultimate sense).

One should know how to differentiate Sammuti and Paramattha, then he/she will have a chance to understand the deep and profound Buddhavacana, without misrepresentation and misinterpretation.

Hi @anon72036881 . I’ve included the pali in there just to make clear that the verse itself says atta.

Right. But then why not just say mind is the lord of mind, or body is the lord of body, rather than atta?
Some suttas say that all dhammas anatta. That means that body and mind are also anatta.

Also, there would be a problem in saying that mind is the lord of mind for example. Mind is conditioned. Body is conditioned. They are not lords of themselves.

I’d say that the Sammitya interpretation seems to make sense in teachings like this. In a sense of a transcendental atta beyond the dhammas. Another interpretation is that it is conventional, as @anon72036881 said. But that would not make as much sense. How is a conventional self lord of oneself? What does that mean?

I think it is just a convenient way of speaking. Otherwise, it would be awkward and cumbersome to invent other terms to say something which everyone has a common understanding already.

For instance, the Buddha address the Monks to be their own refuge in the following sutta as atta too.

SN22.43 Be your own island
Mendicants, be your own island, your own refuge, with no other refuge. Let the teaching be your island and your refuge, with no other refuge.
“Attadīpā, bhikkhave, viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.

It is used in conventional terms literally. Imagine the Monks running after Buddha and asked “you said anatta, now which atta :paw_prints:you want us to be an island :desert_island:and take refuge from?” :joy:

Other translations of this Dhp verse translate “attā” as oneself. I’m curious why bhante @sujato translated it as self instead? :thinking: