The thorny issue of anatta

Tags: #<Tag:0x00007f7889e34708>


(English is not my mother tongue, sorry in advance if I make mistakes)

I recently read Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s writings [1] [2] on anatta and although I found his arguments persuasive I am still conflicted.

I invite you to read them at least in part before reacting as they are rich in arguments and answers to the first objections that might come to mind.

Nevertheless, I quote TB’s summary of his thesis and the objections he encountered:

These reflections were sparked recently by reading a critique of an article I wrote in 1993, called “The Not-self Strategy.” The thesis of that article (available in the essay collection Noble & True)—which I revised in 2013 both to tighten and to expand the presentation—was that the Buddha intended his teaching on not-self (anattā), not as an answer to the metaphysical/ontological question, “Is there a self?” but as a strategy for cutting through clinging to the five aggregates and so to put an end to suffering. The main argument I presented in support of this thesis in both versions of the article was that the one time the Buddha was asked point-blank, “Is there a self?”… “Is there no self?” he remained silent (SN 44.10). Similarly, in MN 2, he stated that such questions as “Do I exist?” “Do I not exist?” and “What am I?” are not worthy of attention because they lead to conclusions that fetter a person in a “thicket of views” and a “fetter of views,” including the views that “I have a self” and “I have no self.” In other words, any attempt to answer these questions constituted a side road away from the path of right practice.

The critique—“Anattā as Strategy and Ontology,” written by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi—was brought to my attention just over a month ago, even though it has apparently been around for some time. It takes issue both with the thesis and with the argument of my article, but in doing so it displays the scholarly bias mentioned above: that the practice of the Buddha’s teachings is primarily a process of leading the meditator to give full assent to the accuracy of those teachings as a description of reality, and that this assent is what frees the mind from suffering. Because this bias is not only the bias of the critique, but of so much thought in the Buddhist world, I thought it might be useful to explore how both the thesis of the critique and the arguments used in support of that thesis display this bias, so that it can be recognized for what it is not only in this case but also in other Buddhist writings.

I came across this page where you are debating the view of TB in opposition to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s response. In particular, I found this answer interesting.

I’d like to hear your views on the arguments on both sides. Anatta: only a strategy for realization or a real “ontological” position?

Among the trilakkhanas, anatta is really the one I have the most trouble with. I can’t understand it. And the more I learn about it, the more I realize that Buddhists don’t seem to understand it either, given all the disagreements on the subject. Even within Theravada, many ajahn of the Thai Forest Tradition seem to reintroduce a form of self by talking about the “mind that does not disappear, immutable and indestructible reality” (which clearly resembles the Hindu atman / purusha). Ajahn Maha Bua, considered by his peers to be an arhat, stated that he “observes the essential enduring truth of the sentient being as constituted of the indestructible reality of the citta (heart/mind), which is characterized by the attribute of Awareness or Knowingness. This citta, which is intrinsically bright, clear, and Aware, gets superficially tangled up in samsara but ultimately cannot be destroyed by any samsaric phenomenon.”.

In the Mahayana it’s even more obvious, we could talk about tathāgatagarbha, buddhadhātu, dharmakāya, dharmadhatu

Absolutely all these concepts seem to me to be reinsertions through the window of the self thrown out the door. They all affirm, in one form or another, an ultimate reality, which they call “awareness” or “mind”, a state of bliss… wich literally corresponds to the Hindu definition of the supreme self.

Yet the Buddha seems to speak explicitly of this state and describe it as just a step towards the summit:

Furthermore, a mendicant—ignoring the perception of earth and the perception of the dimension of infinite space—focuses on the oneness dependent on the perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness. (…)


Even vacuity (sūnyatā) does not seem to be the destination, the infinite nothingness being only a penultimate stage of the jhanas.

What should we think about all this? At the end of the day, it seems to me that the subject can be summed up in one question:

It is often said that the Buddha would have affirmed that all phenomena are without self: sabbe dhamma anatta

Then the question arises as to whether Nibbana is a phenomenon (dhamma) or not. If this is not the case, as some people maintain, it is logical to consider that the supreme reality, being neither impermanent nor dukkha, does not possess the third seal of the no(t)-self either, and to start talking about this supreme mind, awareness, etc., which is not a dhamma, but a permanent and blissful source of all impermanent and unsatisfactory phenomena - by the way, how better to define the phenomenon than as what appears in consciousness? -; in this case, the border with the Hindu atman-brahman becomes extremely thin, not to say non-existent. If, on the contrary, Nibbana is also a phenomenon (dhamma), having no self, the difference with Hindu thought remains but then, what about the other two seals of all phenomena: anicca and dukkha? How to apply them to Nibbana?

Maybe, like dukkha and anicca, anatta must be abandoned once the destination is reached.

With metta!

PS: I also found this interesting answer from Bhikkhu Sujato to TB’s thesis


Thanks for reminding us of that Essay!

I recently re-listened to Patrick Kearney’s lectures on not-self (three lectures “The Not-Self Series” towards the bottom of the page): Audio | Dharma Salon

While I’m not sure I completely agree with all of his arguments, I found it very helpful and thought-provoking.

Some of Joseph Goldstein’s talks have some useful practical hints. For example:
2019-02-07 Reflections On Non-Self Dharma Seed - Joseph Goldstein's Dharma Talks


I agree. And I think the root of the problem is that we try to understand not-self. But the actual problem is to understand the self. Once we know what the Buddha was talking about when he talked about the self, it is much easier to get a start on what it might mean for that to not be there.

I was recently invited to teach a retreat on the subject of not-self. Normally I steer away from the topic to avoid exactly these issues. So it was an interesting challenge for me to see how to frame this topic in a way that would be interesting and meaningful to a varied group of people. The talks were through, I’ll see if there are copies online.

This particular question was, in my view, raised and satisfactorily answered by Ven Kheminda many years ago. In brief, the phrase sabbe dhammā annattā is instruction for vipassana meditation, and in that context, seeing this is said to lead to revulsion. Nibbana can hardly be said to induce revulsion, so it cannot be included.

There’s no particularly important reason why Nibbana should not be described as a dhamma, but it seems the EBTs usually avoid doing so, and the phrase sabbe dhammā anattā is talking about something else.

See my previous comments on this here:


May I please just clarify

If Nibbana is neither a place, a destination, nor a state of being, rather ‘extinguishment’, Cessation of conditions/process, then how could it be a ‘dhamma’.
:slight_smile: Perhaps either my understanding of Nibbana or of dhamma needs some clarification :slight_smile:


It’s funny to me it’s the other way around. I can’t see why Nibbana would be a phenomenon (or a thing, a dhamma): it doesn’t have the characteristics of the phenomena. It’s neither impermanent nor dukkha, it’s not conditioned. I am quite convinced by this interpretation. But, I don’t know, it seems to reintroduce a subject/self that didn’t exist in the historical understanding of Buddhism.



I had this exact response in mind but Bhante beat me to it!! :grinning:

I, personally find that all apparent debates about Anatta come from people having unconciously adopted differing versions/ definitions of what “ATTA” viz Self means to them. So before debating, we should at least agree on mutually acceptable definitions.

It is best to use the definition the Buddha himself provided.

How did the Buddha define"Self"?

For if, bhikkhus, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ But because form is nonself, form leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’

SA34 is even more clearly worded (or translated?)

Thus have i heard. At one time the Bhagavān was dwelling in Vārāṇasī, at the Deer Park of Ṛṣipatana. At that time, the Bhagavān told a group of five bhikṣus, “Form does not exist as a self. If form existed as a self, then form would not be associated with the arising of illness and suffering. Regarding form, it is also not possible to cause it to be like this, or not like this, because form is not oneself. From form and the arising of illness and suffering, one also grasps the desire to make form like this, or not like this. For sensation, conception, synthesis, and discrimination, it is also such as this.

So, Self should (a) not lead to affliction and (b) be completely under voluntary control and bend to the whims.
viz. There should be complete and absolute ownership, with no possibility of what is considered as Self changing on its own or causing unwanted distress.

It is because this definition is adopted that the examination of a potential candidate for Self proceeds as (a) Is it permanent, stable, unchanging and under complete control? (b) Does it cause Suffering?

When it doesn’t fulfil these criteria, it fails the test and has to be classified as Not-Self.


Feeling is impermanent…. Perception is impermanent…. Volitional formations are impermanent…. Consciousness is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.’

With this definition and methodology being adopted as the framework for all further discussion, how can anyone view any of the 5 aggregates or even Atman/ Brahman as Self?


I’m skeptical towards this line of reasoning. I’ll try to explain why :slight_smile:

The goal one is to arrive at is:

“So you should truly see any kind of form at all—past, future, or present; internal or external; coarse or fine; inferior or superior; far or near: all form—with right understanding: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

I.e. the point is to see one’s own body as “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.”

And look at the phrase “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.”

Two thirds of it “This is not mine, I am not this”

So while the Buddha is perhaps speaking to a group that has an idea of a controllable, blissful self, the point doesn’t seem to be to refute just that view and nothing else.

IMO, the underlying point seems to be “form, feeling, perception, will and consciousness are suffering, don’t identify with things that are suffering.”

I don’t think the particular theory of self/soul that existed in ancient India is that important compared to the proposal that we’re wrong when we think “this is me, I am this” in regards to our body and mind.

Anyway, just my two cents.


"So the Buddha himself says that he transcends all things, is unsullied by all things, is unlinked from all things and has crossed over all things. So obviously, “All phenomena” is excluded from the enlightenment that the Buddha achieved (Nirvana).

And so, Nirvana is excluded from the not-self reflection – Nirvana is NOT anatta – Nirvana is NOT not-self. Here, we have a double negative – a negation of a negation – which cancels the original negation out." (Quoted from the document you cited)

The words “transcends, unsullied and unlinked” all refer to what the Buddha let go. That means the Buddha first realized Nibbana as said in SN 56.11 “This noble truth of the cessation of suffering should be realized.” “Taṃ kho panidaṃ dukkhanirodhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ sacchikātabban’ti” If it is a realization
it cannot happen without the senses which means it is a Dhamma.

The only difference here is that the Buddha let go that realization too which is described with words such as “transcends” etc.

IMO the words mislead us and we should be mindful of the fact that the language itself is a mental creation.
With Metta.


The Parivara describes Nibbana as a dhamma. No, it’s not an EBT, but it lies a lot closer to the early texts than we do, and was written by someone with far better knowledge of Pali. Moreoever, the Suttas do call Nibbana a dhātu, a word that is very similar in meaning to dhamma.

Words are okay. I wouldn’t say that they mislead us; but it’s certainly true to say that insisting too much on them misleads. Clearly Nibbana does not mean dhamma in the sense required by the passages quoted (sabbe dhammā anattā and so on), but dhamma has many meanings, and language is endlessly creative.


I find it hard to understand why Nibbana would be the cessation of two trilakkhanas (anicca and dukkha) but not of anatta, which would remain valid until the end. :confused:

I have always felt that these three truths should be understood as a whole. Impernanence being a source of dukkha for the one who clings to it (who makes it his own).

All composed things being impermanent (anicca), impermanence being unsatisfactory (dukkha), these things can not be considered as oneself (anatta).

If you have any good books to recommend on anatta, I’ll take them! I’ve been told to look into Nagarjuna… Maybe the problem is that I wonder too much about what Nibbana is, almost thinking in terms of substance, instead of what it is not (sunyata).


This method is what I have used and it has been very useful. Looking at absence. And then really focusing on extinguishment, from the perspective of the flame.

All a wonderful adventure :slightly_smiling_face::upside_down_face:


A living being is a flame burning with greed, hatred and delusion due to conceit of self . When the flame extinguishes, the conceit of self disappears simultaneous with greed, hatred and delusion. When we all reach that level of realization we can know for ourselves if Nibbana is Dhamma or not and more specifically what self or not self is and let’s all strive for that goal.
With Metta


Well said.
It reminded me of a quote I like:



May it be so :slight_smile: :pray:


You may find this article of Ajahn Brahmalis of interest :slight_smile:




So, is anatta ‘not-self’ / nibbana ‘cessation of dhamma’ a dhamma ‘phenomenon’?


Perhaps when we’ve achieved extinguishment, we’ll no longer worry too much about it.

It puzzles me that people search for not self. The logic would seem to be to keep searching for self and finally realise & accept that it’s not to be found … to the stage where one stops acting as if there is a self to direct and be protected.
(Not textually-based I’m afraid, unless someone can help me out.)


This is exactly what the Buddha said as cited by faujidoc1 above.


That would be fine, once that the question “what is self” has even been conceived of - which was part of the Buddhas enlightenment process, seeing causality and conditioning - to realise (Dependent Liberation) that Self wasn’t there.
See the citation on Bhantes work earlier in the posts (I clicked on the link and copied in a bit larger part of the post)

Ajahn Brahmali 's Paper, above, goes into detail, with full sutta references, on many of the issues of what exists or does not exist and what ceases, according to the Nikayas.

That is for sure! :wink::rofl: