MN 22 - a single anattā doctrine Pali sutta

Alex Wynne has also written about MN22 here The Buddha's 'skill in means' and the genesis of the five aggregate teaching | Alexander Wynne -
He sees this sutta as recording the skill in means moment where the Buddha formulated/closed the model of the 5 khandhas.
The phrase ‘the seen, heard or cognised by the mind’ is shown to be borrowed from the day and referred to meditative or mystical experiences – this is what he replaces with viññana


Thanks for reminding me of that paper. Looking at it again I see a few things worth discussing.

Wynne and Norman are certainly right that “drste ´srute mate vijn˜ate” is a reference to a few places in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. I can’t see though how that authenticates MN 22 in particular. The sutta is (like many other MN and DN suttas) largely a fragmented collection of ideas from other suttas.

For example the claim of SC 2.2 can also be found in MN 12, and more importantly AN 4.8.
SC 3.8 can be found in MN 14, and more importantly AN 5.76.
A lot of the following is formulaic or comes from AN 5.155.

We have an original middle part is SC 10.6 - SC 14.4 (simile of snake and raft).

The “so loko so attā” has some SN references

SC 16-19 and up until SN 26 is original in MN 22, but has similarities to MN 2 and SN 22.85.

SN 26-30 has many parallels
SN 30-36 has a few
and again similarities and references until the end…

So there is an original part in the middle - the question is why should that exactly be ‘old’ and stemming from the Buddha? Wynne has his reasoning, esp. regarding the wording of the khandhas, and it’s interesting to follow that.

I cannot really follow Norman’s/Wynne’s argument regarding the upanisads. It seems very probable that we have a reference to some brahmanic thought in MN 22 - it was valuable at that time to point that out. But we now should go beyond that and identify which concepts are really referenced. Here Wynne remains vague.

As discussed in a post above, yes, there are certain similarities to the BU, but Buddhist studies has finally to accept that “Upanisadic concept” or “late Vedic belief” is only a very vague idea. For example we can say, the idea of rebirth is vague in early vedic literature and very pronounced in late vedic texts. But this is just a pointer, nothing precise.

So in the sense that MN 22 mentions ‘atta’ and ‘eternity’ it is late vedic, but there are dozens of late vedic convictions like these. That MN 22 rejects one of these does not mean that it rejects all of them. Strangely MN 22 claims to reject all, but references only a very specific one, and that out of context as well.

To analyze the atta-view was however not Wynne’s intent with his paper, he focuses on khandhas. In our discussion here we’re interested in MN 22 because it is the only Pali sutta that (seemingly) categorically rejects any atta - and while this still stands IMO, I conclude that it is not convincing doing it because the arguments are weak.

Wynne is right about the fundamental importance of the five khandhas in the early Buddhist period (p.10) - But I think he has understood nada about what they are - As much as in p. 10, than in p. 8.
No need to go further therefore.

First, there is a need to “complete the list with the fifth item” (viññāṇa) (p. 8). Secondly, there is nothing “unusual” in the pericope in §3 of section 4, as far as consciousness is concerned, in this context.

Sometimes, the knowlege of the Oxbridge “intelligence” is lacking a bit of understanding.

I like Wynne though - but with moderation.

Glad to see in one simple sentence, what your OP question is all about.
Is there a particular passage that makes you believe that?

I tried to show that a general anatta is the impression the sutta creates in the not too detail-minded reader - but that looking at the logical arguments, one can see a sloppiness there.

The general anatta case is made in two passages:

  • SC 23.1-5
  • SC 25.1-5

Well, you have to see that on a macro level.

That is to say that, seeing khandhas as the personal pronoun self; that is to say as “mine” - might the latter be the material or the spiritual (immaterial) atta, as expounded earlier - is uncorrect.

SC 22 shows that you cannot be possessive about something that’s not permanent, everlasting, eternal, imperishable, if you want to equate that to a self.

What is at stake is that you cannot find an Upanishadic, (or whatever Vedic creed) permanent, everlasting, eternal, & imperishable self , in paticcasamuppada. Because ignorance (avijja) is the cause of the khandhas. And the khandhas are not permanent, everlasting, eternal, & imperishable.

So neither can you see the khandhas as “mine” or as"“I”.
What is permanent, everlasting, eternal, & imperishable, is outside paticcasamuppada.
The deathless is just an intermediary step (the place where the “spiritual” personal pronoun atta in paticcasamuppada, dwells) .

You know, Samkhya is very clear about this process. Although Samkhya is not Buddhism.
This is why I have already talked about the Ajo (Unborn) , and its relation to early Vedic thoughts. Maybe Buddha was just a conservative Vedist, with an accurate dharman (paticcasamuppada,) that concerns all the creatures in what we call (westernly and late Vedically-Hinduistically,) our “Universe”.

There is no self in paticcasamuppada.
There are other dharmans.
That’s what the earlier Texts say.

One more thing about Wynne, is that he seems to pretend that the edicts are a proof of some early doctrinal certainty.

It is as absurd, as comparing the early message of Christ, with the christian doctrine in the First Council of Nicaea.
With Constantine the great, Christianity just entered politics through the main door.

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Not just “some brahmanic thought” but much of the framework of the anatta doctrine is directly responding to Brāhmaṇa views on ātman current at the time.

In addition to the paper mentioned, a good place to begin is Norman’s A note on Attā in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (1981) and R.F. Gombrich’s Recovering the Buddha’s Message (1988).

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As already pointed out in post 49, we need to go beyond the position of Norman/Gombrich so far. It is not enough to say that “the anatta doctrine is directly responding to Brāhmaṇa views on ātman current at the time” - to which view specifically?

What is mentioned in MN 22 is 1.not found in Indian texts 2.not a philosophy, it’s just a sentence.

To refute a sentence that I pretend represents a whole philosophy is a polemic, not a ‘response’.

DN 13 for example has two brahmin students argue whether Pokkharasāti or Tārukkha teach the straight direct path to brahmaloka, but it doesn’t bother to tell us what it is. Which means that even within the Kosala brahmin elite there were already at least two different soteriological paths - not to mention Magadha.

It’s not really the job of the suttas to give us the detailed opponents’ view (a bhāṣya can do that), but to shorten it to a caricature and then to call it ‘foolish’ is also not honorable.

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Couldn’t this diversity be in favour of an anātmavāda that actually does address a variety of positions and doctrines, instead of one that refutes a particular ātmavāda?

The Upaniṣadaḥ already show a diversity of ātma views. When we speak of Upanishadic doctrine, it has to be in plurality.

Why ought the Buddha not be addressing a wild and barely-unified cosmopolitan garden of views?

Not sure I understand. For me mostly we have a significant loss of information. With the six sectarian ascetics for example we have names + doctrines, also a little bit of Nigantha Nataputta. Which shows that suttas were capable of preserving specific doctrines.

From the brahmin elite of Kosala (where the Buddha spent most of his time) we know the names, but not much doctrine: Pokkharasāti, Todeyya, Jāṇussoṇi, Caṅki, Tārukkha, (an unspecified) Bhāradvāja. As the upanisads (of Buddhists of the next 500 years) they would have disagreed on many points.

I don’t think we can speculate based on the suttas on how unified their views were, but the anatta-views of the suttas are overwhelmingly repetitive: khandhas are not atta, ayatanas are not atta, atta cannot be possessed. This doesn’t sound like a versatile conversation.

Your logic is a bit confusing to me, Gabriel.

Khandhas are not atta, ayatanas are not atta, does not logically yields a: atta cannot be possessed.
Khandhas are not atta, ayatanas are not atta, yields a definite: there is no self into that.
And it is very possible that it could mean further, that there is nothing of your self into that.
Considering for instance, the Samkhya philosophy, in which there is nothing of your-self in prakriti.
But it does not mean that there is no self. Or that self can’t be possessed.

Who can say that there’s an Atman outside of experience.

Can’t the strange organization of this sutta be explained with reference to the view held by Ariṭṭha, which the Buddha corrects? Ariṭṭha had the thought “As I understand the Buddha’s teachings, the acts that he says are obstructions are not really obstructions for the one who performs them.”

This strange opinion seems to be implicit in the idea of an eternal, imperishable self, and the view “the self is eternal” may have been the source of Ariṭṭha’s stated view in the sutta: If the one who performs an obstructive action lasts forever, then the one who performs an obstructive action is clearly not affected by the consequences of his action. He can’t be; to be affected by an action is to be dependently co-originated, and hence this thing termed the self is impermanent.

The overall import of the sutta would be something like “Ariṭṭha was wrong because – while we cannot say anything positive about the identity of the self – the consequences of your actions will still return to you, in your life, as well as affecting many others. This in itself proves that the self is impermanent.”

The origins of self-view are repeated here because they show self-view to be conditioned, and in need of discarding. Once that’s done, Ariṭṭha’s doctrine can’t be defended anymore.

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That’s a smart take on the sutta! I can totally follow the idea that if we understand Arittha’s interpretation we would understand the Buddha’s refutation better.

One problem is, we don’t exactly know what Arittha refers to: “the acts that he says are obstructions…” are a special translation of B. Sujato (agreeing with B. Thanissaro). In Pali its ‘dhammā’. B. Bodhi translates as ‘things’ (following Nyanaponika).

I’ve found the schizo life of the term ‘dhamma’ always discomforting: ‘teaching’ - ‘thought’ - ‘thing’ - and now ‘act’ - I don’t buy it. The translators might have made peace with their take on it, but I don’t have the burden to come up with a translation and can afford to be critical. Take the whole sentence:

tathāhaṃ bhagavatā dhammaṃ desitaṃ ājānāmi yathā yeme antarāyikā dhammā vuttā…

In the same sentence we’re supposed to swallow the same term as ‘teaching’ and ‘acts’/‘things’. Sure, it could be a Pali quirk and you can always find strange arrangements like that in English as well, but I personally don’t believe central doctrines like ‘dhamma’ would have been used so casually in different meanings.

Anyhow, it maybe doesn’t affect your argument much. We would get in the three variations …

“As I understand the Buddha’s teachings,

  • the acts that he says are obstructions
  • the things that he says are obstructions
  • the teaching-aspects that he says are obstructions [my choice]

are not really obstructions for the one who applies them.”

The big problem is Arittha doesn’t explain himself in the sutta - which he probably did in real life. Taken in itself his position is really stupid, or rather the sutta stupifies it.

Does your interpretation depend a lot on dhamma = act? Could you pursue your understanding independent from its (difficult) translation?

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I don’t know nearly enough Pāli to be of more help here. In this case I only know just enough to be irritated that the contested term is dhamma, because I know it’s maybe referring one of several widely different things. None seems clearly ruled out by context, either, at least to my very limited understanding.

This sutta is far from the only time I’ve read and thought, “Gosh, if only I knew better what all these other people really thought back then.” I feel like I’d maybe understand the Buddha a bit better if I did.

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If you have read the threads " Anicca is not just impermanence, there are eight more to it " and " Attā and anattā real meaning reveal in the sutta " then, you would have known that atta and/or anatta have four senses:

Sense one :
As an agent self: atta means self

Sense Two :
As impermanence self: anatta means no-self

Sense Three :
As substantial of which atta means “of value”, “ultimate truth”, etc.
As insubstantial of which anatta means “valueless”, “no ultimate truth”, etc.

Sense Four :
As of control of which atta means “in-control”.
As of no control of which anatta means “not in-control”.

If you have understood atta as “self” and anatta as “no self” only, you would have not equipped yourself on concepts for this large extent of meanings for the above four senses which narrow your horizon to know that the current sutta has not been translated with the right senses for the meaning of the words attā and anattā.

Below is the correct meaning for the sutta MN 22 for the verses 16.2 to 16.9:

16.2 They regard form like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not to me attā (in-control).’
rūpaṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti samanupassati;

16.3 They also regard feeling …
vedanaṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti samanupassati;

16.4 perception …
saññaṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti samanupassati;

16.5 choices …
saṅkhāre ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti samanupassati;

16.6 whatever is seen, heard, thought, cognized, searched, and explored by the mind like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not to me attā (in-control).’
yampi taṃ diṭṭhaṃ sutaṃ mutaṃ viññātaṃ pattaṃ pariyesitaṃ, anuvicaritaṃ manasā, tampi ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti samanupassati;

16.7 And the same for this ground for views:
yampi taṃ diṭṭhiṭṭhānaṃ—

16.8 ‘He is attā (in-control) and the loko (world) and after death he will get what he desire (nicco), becomes permanent (dhuvo), eternal (sassato), not subject to change (avipariṇāmadhammo) like the eternal things (imperishable) (sassatisamaṃ), and will last forever and ever.’
so loko so attā, so pecca bhavissāmi nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo, sassatisamaṃ tatheva ṭhassāmīti—

16.9 They also regard this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not to me attā (in-control).’
tampi ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti samanupassati.

Verse 16.8 above, clearly states that when the person is in full control (attā), he is with the world (loko) [meaning he is an arahant] and after death he will get what he desire ( nicco ), becomes permanent ( dhuvo ), eternal ( sassato ), not subject to change ( avipariṇāmadhammo ) like the eternal things (imperishable) ( sassatisamaṃ ), and will last forever and ever.’

But verse 16.8 is not as what it should be, as verse 16.9 also (same as 16.2, 16.3, 16.4, 16.5, and 16.6) states that it is not in-control ( na meso attā).

This is an incorrect English rendering of the Buddhavacana.

It is, in turn, based on an interpretation unique to the contemporary nationalist Sri Lankan Waharaka sect.

For more pertinent information on the Waharaka sect see here.


When making statements such as

You really need to cite the source of your translation, and provide further evidence to argue such a substantive change to understanding of 16.8 and 16.9.

Here is a link to several translations hosted at SC. for comparison to the version that Kstan has presented above.

Alagaddūpama Sutta MN 22MN i 130

Additionally here is a link to other resources

There has been much debate about this in these many discussions before, and you mention the two main topic threads, that your OP is addressing, in your opening statement. Rather than creating a new topic to go over the same ground, please continue this discussion in one of the existing threads