The thorny issue of anatta

Tags: #<Tag:0x00007f7893edecd0>


Beautifully put! It brought to mind, dependent origination (as used as a fractal law within a single lifetime) - Becoming/ Birth due to improper attention to the sense bases and subsequent craving and clinging.


So in SN24.2, self-view results from grasping the aggregates? But who or what is doing the grasping?
And similarly, who or what is regarding the aggregates as “me” and “mine”, given that the aggregates are the All? Who or what is identifying with the aggregates?
I don’t understand how the aggregates can grasp themselves, or identity with themselves, or regard themselves as “me” and “mine”.


I don’t think he stuck to ontology or phenomenological analysis only. I don’t even think he would believe such a disctinction would make a lot of sense in the context of the Dhamma. It can be made, but it doesn’t really serve any meaningful purpose.

Let us take SN 35.23, Sabba Sutta, as an example. In that sutta the Buddha proclaims that the all is nothing but six exterior sense fields and sense interior sense fields, i.e.

it’s just the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and touches, and the mind and thoughts.
Cakkhuñceva rūpā ca, sotañca saddā ca, ghānañca gandhā ca, jivhā ca rasā ca, kāyo ca phoṭṭhabbā ca, mano ca dhammā ca—

Now, claiming that exterior sense fields, i.e. sights, smells, tastes, touches and thoughts even exist is already an ontological statement. Notice, however, how the word dhammā refers to, for lack of a better word, ‘objects’ of the mind sense faculty. I think that one possible interpretation of this usage is implicit psychologizing of the exterior sense objects in the sense that they are not available for us in any other form except our thoughts about them. Obviously, they cannot be perceived directly, since it would mean they are not ‘exterior’. The only way we can perceive them is an indirect one, by our perception of our thoughts about them, our perception of them as concepts, as principles, as it were, according to which our phenomenal perception operates: 'The presence of an interior perception X requires the existence of its exterior correlate X1."

One cannot grow disillusioned with the exterior sense objects in and of themselves, since they are not accessible for us. What we grow disillusioned with is how we picture them to ourselves, with our dhammā about them; the same is true for attachment. Moreover, this is true for all conscious thinking: being aware of something means adding an element of meta to a primary stimulus, means having a thought, however vague, about experiencing something, e.g. ‘I see red’. The absence of this element leads to absence of conscious perception, so you can stare at a table absent-mindedly without really seeing it. This meta-level of conscious cognition is where we as conscious beings actually exist and suffer, so untangling the know of suffering means focusing first and foremost on this phenomenological side of things because this is the only way we can actually cover all the bases in our meditative practice, so to say.

As for the necessity of an observer for phenomenal experience, well, I firmly believe that this presupposition is unwarranted. I personally could never understand why a feeling or a thought has to be observed by someone, by a subject. It is not only me, hardcore materialists like Daniel Dennett reject this idea as well. What we call conscious observation could merely feel as if someone were observing something, it would be just another phenomenal experience having no subject as its substratum but instead having merely a different phenomenal content. In other words, instead of saying after Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’ or ‘I see red therefore there is something observing red’, we could safely dispense with the presupposition of an agent and merely state ‘thinking is occurring’ or ‘perception of red is occurring’.

Indeed, I believe that this is exactly the standpoint that the Buddha himself adhered to. He just saw no Self in the All of six exterior and interior sense bases. Since for us there can be nothing accessible and, therefore, even remotely meaningful beyond this All, the concept of Self is just that, meaningless and totally useless. Bringing it back out of the left field and saying ‘well yeah, maybe the Self does exist outside of this all’ would literally change nothing and serve no purpose.


To me the process of trying to find the key to understanding anatta in single suttas is highly flawed. More than two hundred suttas deal explicitly with anatta - and we have to rely on one sutta here or there to understand it? In order to be convincing I think one needs to build an argument on a majority of these suttas.

  • There are five aggregates together making up a conscious being. These five aggregates do not have a common substratum or core, so it is would be ultimately wrong to say ‘I am sad’ or ‘I hear a bang’ but rather ‘sadness is occurring’ or ‘hearing of a bang is occurring’.

  • Since these five aggregates are not awakened, among the elements comprising these five aggregates there exists grasping them. Cf. MN 44:

The desire and greed for the five grasping aggregates is the grasping there.”
Yo kho, āvuso visākha, pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu chandarāgo taṃ tattha upādānan”ti.

Bhikkhu Bodhi argued in his essay Aggregates and Clinging Aggregates that this greed and desire are contained within the Sankhara aggregate exclusively, but I am not really sold on it. In any case, there is again no core substratum for this desire or greed, they just emerge as part of the five aggregates naturally, just like heat is a natural part of a fire burning.

  • As a natural result of grasping being there, there arises a thought ‘I exist’ or ‘I am my body’. These thoughts are part of the five aggregates, just like 16 is part of the set of natural numbers. There is no-one and nothing identifying with the aggregates, there is only an identification with them as one of their elements. This is exactly the point: these thoughts and views have no carrier, they just exist. They’re just there.

  • One of the natural results of Awakening is the elimination of thoughts like ‘There is a Self’, ‘I exist’, ‘I am my body’, etc. They just vanish. What results are merely the aggregates not containg these elements.

  • Since these elements play an important role in the process of replication of aggregates aka rebirth, their elimination leads to extinguishing of the entire mass of aggregates at their death.


The difficulty I see with statements like “Perception of red is occuring” is that they lack context - this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Biologically the perception of red requires both the ability of a person to see “red” (eyes, brain, etc), and something red to see. Or as the suttas put it, eye-consciousness (seeing) requires the eye and visible form.
It seems like “Perception of red is occurring” really only has meaning if we specify it as occuring to a person, or at least to an individual biological organism, an animal or whatever.


Oh, well, ‘perecption of red is occurring within this set of aggregates’, sure. This particular set of aggregates is a result of a long evolutionary and biological process and is, of course, individual in the sense that it is bound to contain some unique elements, but this is it.

The point is that when we say ‘I’ we definitely refer to something else than ‘a set of physical and phenomenal elements’. The ‘I’ is one-pointed, singular, not discrete, our intuitive grasp of this concept does not involve multiplicity. In reality, there is no singular ‘I’ observing red, its observation happens in a complex pattern-like structure having no singular centre.


You are right…it’s not a ‘who’ … It’s a ‘what’.

It is just the combined process activity of all the 5 aggregates that is constantly receiving stimulus, evaluating it against prior stored information, making risk/ reward evaluations based on maximal pleasure/ minimal pain, reacting…
As long as the process runs, it will respond. Craving is simply the reward feedback subsystem. The Self is an illusion generated by the need of the Process to hold onto whatever stimulus is giving the optimum reward feedback.
The human is not much different from the Bot in the video… It’s all just processing! Unfortunately in humans, it generates Suffering.


Apologies, but ‘there is no understanding occurring’, because there seems to be no problem then.


What problem are you talking about? I mean, I don’t quite get what you mean.



There really isn’t, as long as the process is aware that it is a process… unfortunately, we are all subject to Avijja. If we were fully aware (experientially not conceptually) of our true nature, we would be enlightened!

See the video of these bots talking to each other.

There is spontaneous generation of sankhara (Hello, there) by one bot. The second bot has a sense organ (sound receiver) which because of Contact becomes active, generating signal (Vinnana) to the CPU. Within the CPU, the sound signal information is compared to previously stored memory pattern and recognized (Nama- Rupa). Based on its perception of information (Sanna) the CPU generates a response (sankhara). In all this back and forth conversation, is there any “Self”? Or is this just the result of electronic parts acting out their programmed function?

Humans have additional complexity to these bots viz. 5 sensory inputs, Vedana, Tanha and the 6th sense- the ability to view and analyse their own processing. These kinds of complex processes have already been replicated in next generation recurrent neural networks. Please keep in mind that bots have been around for just 10-15 years…
Coming back to the issue of Self- it’s quite logical that a pattern recognition/ reaction bot would come up with a theory of Self when asked to explain its own processing pattern… If it was unaware of its true nature. What other explanation could there possibly be?

This is exactly what the Buddha is saying in SN24.2. The processes of Form, Feeling…etc simply are, it is the grasping of them, the need to control, to hold onto them that generates “Self”.

In this connection, one of Ajahn Brahm’s anecdotes comes to mind. In his student days, his club called over a hypnotist. The hypnotist placed a suggestion in the mind of a volunteer that at a particular cue, the volunteer would sing the British national anthem. An order to forget the suggestion was also given. The hypnotist proceeded with the lecture and some time later triggered the cue, which caused the volunteer to sing the national anthem.:rofl: Now, the volunteer was asked to explain his actions. Unaware of how he had been programmed earlier, the volunteer justified his actions saying he felt it was absolutely rational…“I just wanted to do it”. That is how the Self comes to be.


Part of the thread seems to be occupied with grammatical gymnastics. "The word ‘I’ is bad, let’s replace it with ‘aggregates’ - not ‘I’ see a red chair, but instead ‘there is perception in the aggregates, perceiving redness in the chair-aggregate’’ - as if this solves anything.

I know it’s about fine-tuning right view, but just conditioning myself to refer myself in this convoluted way is not nibbana, it’s not a solution and not core of the problem.


As far as I’m concerned there is nothing bad in the word ‘I’ and its use when referring to oneself. I also don’t feel like anyone was arguing for that, and frankly, saying that someone has, sounds like a straw man to me.

The discussion actually revolved around how this word is understood in the language, the conceptual basis behind it. It is very similar to when we use the word ‘table’ when referring to a collection of atoms used for certain purposes. Even though we know it is a collection of atoms, in our everyday life we still regard it as a single solid entity not consisting of discrete particles. Despite this latter view being patently false, no-one would argue that using the word ‘table’ as denoting this single non-particle entity in our regular language is wrong. Except when we use it in a somewhat technical philosophic discussion, when we actually talk about what a table is. In such contexts the use of ‘I’ and ‘table as a solid thing’ could be discouraged to avoid interference from the connotations of these words, why not?


You are correct, Friend Gabriel! These are just verbal gymnastics, attempts to try to convey the correct meaning using words which are just place holders.
They are certainly not necessary.

“If a bhikkhu is an arahant,
Consummate, with taints destroyed,
One who bears his final body,
Would he still say, ‘I speak’?
And would he say, ‘They speak to me’?”

“If a bhikkhu is an arahant,
Consummate, with taints destroyed,
One who bears his final body,
He might still say, ‘I speak,’
And he might say, ‘They speak to me.’
Skilful, knowing the world’s parlance,
He uses such terms as mere expressions.


P.S I’m just as trapped in Samsara as anyone else. But, having taken the Red Pill offered by the Buddha, I’m looking for the way out. :rofl:


Because the underlying basis for the ‘entity-way-of-thinking’ is not touched by a new way of wording. Maybe for some brief moments of insight, yes, but then it turns into a lingo, a convoluted way of talking only accessible to ‘insiders’.

What I think is more interesting is: under which circumstances does this new vocabulary translate into a weakening of attachment and identification? What else has to be there so that these samma-ditthi reflections manifest in progress in meditation and liberation?


Great question!
Once there is intellectual understanding, one must work towards experiential application.
The basis of this is the 8 fold path.
How will you apply the knowledge of Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta towards your Intentions, Speech, Actions and Livelihood?
Will you (hypothetically!!!) still be able to put money above everything else, go Deer shooting with your Boss, talk ill of your competitors, lie to the wife while you date that hot co worker, over bill your customers or sell a gun to that obviously under age and disturbed teen-ager?? :rofl:
Millions of people are doing these very things at this very moment, you know!

If you apply this insight in the way the Buddha recommended, Sila becomes automatic.
Being at peace, Samadhi is achieved effortlessly.
Deep Samadhi predisposes to deeper Insight.
And that’s how liberation is achieved!

For a wise person who has arrived at true knowledge, right view springs up. For one of right view, right intention springs up. For one of right intention, right speech springs up. For one of right speech, right action springs up. For one of right action, right livelihood springs up. For one of right livelihood, right effort springs up. For one of right effort, right mindfulness springs up. For one of right mindfulness, right concentration springs up


Actually, yes, I could do it maybe even more easily. When as a ‘person’ I would have to care about ethics, guilt, pleasure, etc. - now as a ‘non-person’ I don’t have to trouble myself with these petty ‘human’ concerns anymore. The specific Buddhist sila doesn’t come from anatta, it comes from compassion towards beings and the belief in karmic retribution.


Talking about how we actually can achieve this change of perspective would be off topic here, wouldn’t it? This thread is dedicating to discussing and expounding the meaning and implications of the anatta doctrine. It being a counter-intuitive way of seeing things, we have to use convoluted counter-intuitive lingo, much like when discussing any other not so self-evident theory like the Kantian epistemology or quantum field theory. If there is a right place to use it, then here, in this very thread. Your displeasure with its umwieldiness is understandable, but there is no other choice if one does decide to take part in this discussion.

This is why the virtuous way of living, compassion and whatnot have been described by the Buddha as ‘mere trifling matters’. Sila as a foundation of our practice is cultivated while we still have the atta-perspective on ourselves and other beings. It is on its ground that we can develop ourselves sufficiently to be able to have a deep insight into anatta, anicca and other horrible things our existence is comprised of without wincing even once. Sila in and of itself is indeed a petty concern from the anatta perspective, but so is everything, and I suspect only an awakened being can fully appreciate how liberating this is.


The suttas seem to do just fine with conventional language. But okay, what is gained by statements like:

The speaker is assuming the position of ‘reality’, stating that ‘things just happen’ without the necessity of a ‘center’ or ‘I’. Are you sure that there is ‘red’ without a singular center, or ‘observation’, or ‘happening’?

Of course not. Or rather, ‘infinity-simultaneously’, and singling anything out just re-introduces the center, the observer, the ‘I’. So, again, I argue that not much is gained.

I understand that you have a certain surplus of insight in mind when you make the statement, I just like to understand the mechanics intended.


Beautifully said. This reminds me of Bahiya Sutta and also Malunkyaputta Sutta. The flame is burning because of the fuel of greed, hatred and delusion. It is a process for sure, but the more appropriate word IMO would be sankhara. So when the flame is extinguished due to lack of fuel, there is only a stilling of all sankhara. The Buddha said in MN.64;
“etaṃ santaṃ etaṃ paṇītaṃ yadidaṃ sabbasaṅkhārasamatho sabbūpadhipaṭinissaggo taṇhākkhayo virāgo nirodho nibbānan’ti.”
With Metta