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.

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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:

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

“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.”

Ok @Myspace, but let’s imagine here self is a convenient term, but what does it mean?
For example, the words ceramic pot is a convenient expression to use instead of saying “this aggregation of molecules that have a specific shape and that interact with some specific objects in such way that we call it ceramic pot”…
What does “self” stand for?
If it stands for the 5 aggregates, then does that phrase make sense if we substitute the convenient term for the longer expression?
"the 5 aggreagtes are really the lords of the 5 aggregates, for who else would be their lord?
Since the 5 aggregates are dependent phenomena, not independent, they are not their own lords. I can’t sate my thirst without relying on my own body alone, or only in the thought of water. That means my aggregates are dependent, not their own lords.

What do you think self stands for, as a convenient expression?

As a convenient expression, “self” is implied whenever a person uses those terms (not complete list) in language: “I”, “I am”, “I have”, “I can/may/must”, “I do/desire/hate/want…”, “I feel”, “I think/imagine/remember…”, “myself”

Right. But what is this self? Only a word? Or something that exists, like particles and perceptions? If it is just a word that does not refer to anything, what is the meaning of the teachings to be an island to oneself, that the self is its own master, etc.?

Again, we need to put in a context of convenient expression, to my understanding:

“to be an island to oneself” means “give to yourself only reliable truths”
“the self is its own master” means “true freedom comes from yourself”

“What is this self”? I already gave my answer in the context of convenient expression above.

“Self as something that exists”? To my understanding, I suggest you follow the teaching of the Buddha as in the Nikāya, then you will answer that question by yourself.

I recently wrote this poem, no copyright (just copy it right) :smiley:

Oh! Conditional is suffering.

Suffering do we really want?

Nay! So, let’s end all things conditional.

Feeling stills, perception stills,

Formation stills and so consciousness stills.

Conditioned by stilling process

So, whatever left must also be conditional.

I wonder if that is a sort of question that is left unanswered in the Nikayas, actually… Most of the EBTs are clear that no dhamma is a self, but some suttas talk about self-mastery, etc.

You speak as if there were an obvious readily available answer. I’m still looking for it, though :sweat_smile: As I mentioned before, one of the early schools of Buddhism, the Sammityas, affirmed the existence of a transcendental self which is neither of the aggregates. Another school, the Sarvastivada, refused to accept the existence of a self. Maybe the Sammityas were trying to come to terms with such exhortations to self-reliance and self-mastery that appear in many suttas.

your first explanation didn’t make much sense to me, but the second did! :slight_smile: Maybe it is all a question of not relying on anything external, but rather on our internal resources. Maybe it is about the mind relying on itself and mastering itself rather than relying on the objects it perceives. Thus self here would stand for mind, or stream of thoughts (maybe + mental factors and + the physical support of thoughts, thus including all 5 kandhas, as @Myspace said).

If someone tells you to study hard yourself so as to pass exam, you know instinctively what yourself means. It is the same self that Buddha wanted his disciples to rely upon to cease dukkha.

In addition, I would suggest reading MN2 Sabbāsavasutta. Instead of dwelling on the subject of what am I etc that was mentioned as unwise, attend to the four noble truth. By attending wisely, one could abandon personality view.

“This is how he attends unwisely: ‘Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I become in the future?’ Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’

“When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him. The view ‘self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘no self exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive self with self’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive not-self with self’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘I perceive self with not-self’ arises in him as true and established; or else he has some such view as this: ‘It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.’ This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say.

“He attends wisely: ‘This is suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; he attends wisely: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’ When he attends wisely in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: personality view, doubt, and adherence to rules and observances. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by seeing.


I cannot denie that there are livings beings, unique, all different in body and mind. And i am one of them. I cannot denie i exist as a unique person, once born, getting older, and once dying. Are my father and mother wrong when they think i am their son, and are once born? Are they deluded to call this body and mind Green?

I cannot denie that my choices make a difference. I have impact on others and the world. If i steal, it is worthless to declare someone else other stole:-) No one will accept this.

Surely i am more then the components, just like a car is more then a dismantled car. A dismantled car cannot drive. It does not make noise. I cannot reduce myself to the parts because the whole is more than the parts. It has different qualities. I cannot spiritaway my existence as a unique person by reasoning.

But i think this is something different than believing in a self as a controlling mental agent inside, an ego, an entity who rules over body and mind and who experiences, feels etc. That is another issue, i belief.

Ok let me try again :sweat_smile::
“to be an island to oneself” means “give protection to yourself”
“Let the teaching be your island” means “let the reliable truths be your protection”
So, we got in the end as “give to yourself only reliable truths”

Well, that means you need to study and practice the Buddha’s teaching more to answer by yourself that question.

It depends on different starting point of each person to see if the answer is obvious readily available or not. Keep looking, keep studying, keep practicing, keep testing, keep asking questions, keep pondering, the answer is really there. Only you can convince yourself the best :smiley:

@Green Let me give you this checklist as my understanding:

  1. Is there a person? Yes.
  2. Is that person eternal? No.
  3. Are the person experiences the consequence and the person did the action the same? No.
  4. Are the person experiences the consequence and the person did the action unrelated? No.
  5. Is there something eternal? Yes, only nibbāna.
  6. Does that person possess something eternal? No.
  7. Does that person control something eternal? No.
  8. Does that person have something eternal as a characteristic? No.
  9. Is something eternal inside that person? No.
  10. Does that person create something eternal? No.
  11. Does that person belong to something eternal? No.
  12. Does something eternal control that person? No.
  13. Does something eternal have that person as a characteristic? No.
  14. Is that person inside something eternal? No.
  15. Does something eternal create that person? No.
  16. Does that person feel/perceive/think/do/know? Yes.
  17. Does something eternal feel/perceive/think/do/know? No.
  18. Does something eternal have physical/feeling/perception/thought/act/consciousness as characteristics? No.
  19. Is physical/feeling/perception/thought/act/consciousness something eternal? No.
  20. So, what does a person have anything to do with something eternal?
    The eternal is no suffering. If a person does not want suffering, he/she needs to realize and practice the path leads to the eternal. Succeeding in doing so, a person will experience the eternal.

But in that case, how can you be accused of something, because in this view the one who committed the deed (murder, stealing, raping, giving) is not the same person as the one who is on trial?

But how can there be a Path that leads to the eternal for a person when that person has nothing to do with the eternal?

You only see and quote the 3rd sentence. Please see my 4th sentence:

  1. Are the person experiences the consequence and the person did the action unrelated? No.

Tell me what is your understanding of the Path first (do your homework :sweat_smile:).

No that makes no sense to me. If a car hits a person and after a year investigation bloodstains are found on that car, it makes no sense at all to say it was another car who hit the person because that car is now a year older, and maybe is corroded. Makes no sense at all. It is the same car.

The same way. It makes no sense to claim that the person who did the murder is someone different than the one in jail. One cannot not even accuse someone of murder this way.

Also, what use is in it to see it that way? If you ourself did some bad deed yesterday do you really think…"oh that was not me yesterday? Now i am someone different?"That would be immoral, shameless., stupid, sorry…

The Path is mudane and supra-mundane (MN117).

Please read carefully what I wrote.

so, in your mind it works this way?

One day you cheat on your woman. She finds out after some weeks. She asks you what happened.

Then you answer…"yes, my dear love…but you must understand dear love it was not me but someone related to me, who cheated on you but i am very sure, dear, it was not me!

Your woman says: oke, and who is that person related to you:-))