Anatta, the unique concept in Buddha Dhamma


by R S Jayaratne

Buddhist devotees are quite familiar with the basic philosophical concept of "Tilakkhana" the three characteristics of existence, as explained in the in the Buddha Dhamma. They are "anicca" impermanence, "dukkha" misery or suffering, and "anatta" non-self. As revealed by the Buddha, the comprehensive realization of the fact that our physical form, (rupa) feelings, (vedana) perceptions, (sanna) karma formations, (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana) are all subject to the above three characteristics of existence, i. e. Anicca, dukha and Anatta will certainly pave the way for the eventual realization of Nibbana.

Of the above three characteristics, we Buddhists have a reasonably clear idea of the "anicca" and "dukkha". However, with regard to the concept of "anatta ", we are aware that "anatta" means the non-existence of an Athma. It would be most helpful to have a clear perception of the exact nature of the Athma concept, and most importantly of its negative impact on the realization of higher levels of contemplative meditation.

The most effective way to understand the nature of the Athma concept and its negative impact in the proper understanding of the Buddha Dhamma is to focus our attention on the historic occasion on which the Buddha, initially explained the futility of the Athma concept to the world.

As explained in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, etc., the Buddha, after his delivery of his first sermon Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta to his former associates the the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus, at Isipatana, was compelled to spend a number of days explaining its contents to them in great detail. However, despite such an effort, when the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus were still unable to comprehend the Dhamma, the Buddha realized that it was due to their belief in an Athma deeply ingrained in their minds. Accordingly, he decided to preach them his second sermon, the Anattalakkhana Sutta, on the Anatta concept, through which he effectively convinced them of the futility of the belief in a mythical Athma, and It was only thereafter, the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus were able to fully comprehend the Buddha Dhamma and to become the first group of Arahants in the Buddhasasana.

In this context, it will also be relevant to consider the religious background of the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus at the time they were addressed by the Buddha. As explained in detail in the Mahasaccaka Sutta, Bodhirajakumara Sutta, Maha Sihanada Sutta, etc., the Buddha himself during his ascetic life, practised along with the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus, the "attakhilamatanuyoga" a penance of inflicting severe pressures on the body with the intention of cleansing the Athma believed to be operational within the body of each individual. However, he gave up such practices, upon his realization of their futility. However, his associates the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus were displeased with the Buddha"s decision and left him, to continue with such rigorous practices at Isipatana. This is confirmed in the Buddha’s initial advice to them in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta that one should avoid both extremes such as the enjoyment of worldly luxuries "kamasukhallikanuyoga" as well as the rigorous penances known as "attakhilamatanuyoga" Hence, it is clearly evident that by the time the Buddha’s meeting the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus at Isipatana, they had been firm believers in the existence of a permanent Athma actively functioning within their own personalities.

As explained by eminent scholars such as Professors O H De A Wijesekara, K N Jayatilaka, David Kalupahana etc, many Suttas in the Suttapitaka refer to the strong belief in the existence of an Athman, which had been firmly established among a vast number of contemporary ascetic communities and the lay societies. The Brahmajala Sutta refers to sixty two such ascetic groups comparing them to a shawl of fish trapped up in a fisherman’s net.

The pre-Buddhist Upanishads vividly explain in great detail, the nature of the Athman believed to be operational within every human being, functioning as an inner controller "antaryamin " Accordingly, the feelings "vedana" perceptions, "sanna" karmic formations "sankhara" and consciousness "vinnana" generated through the six faculties such as the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and the mind are believed to be received and reacted upon by the Athma, and that the individual has no control over them.

This concept is frequently illustrated in many contemporary Upanishads. For example, the pre-Buddhist Chandogya Upanishad explains the above phenomena as follows;-

"When the eye gazes upon space it is the Athman in the eye [ who actually sees ] the eye itself is merely the instrument of sight, when a man is conscious of smelling something, it is the Athman [that smells] the nose [is only the instrument of smell, when a person is conscious of saying something, it is the Athman [which speaks ] the voice is [only the instrument ] of speech, when a person is conscious of thinking ,it is the Athman [that thinks ] the mind is Athman’s divine eye."-- Chapter 8.12.4 -- (Translation by F. Maxmuller )

This concept is more effectively explained in the Prashna Upanishad as follows:-

"This one who actually sees, touches, listens, smells, tastes, contemplates, becomes conscious, and the one who acts is the Athman" -- Chapter 4.4.9 --- (Translation by Patrick Olivelle )

Some pre-Buddhist Upanishads also refer to certain unsuccessful efforts by some to clearly identify their Athman separately from their body, the form "rupa". of such a person. For example, the pre-Buddhist Chandogya Upanishad quotes a dialogue between Prajapati -- the Creator and some persons, who wished to separately identify the Ahman operational within them. In response to such an inquiry, Prajapati - the Creator has advised them as follows.

"Look at yourselves in a vessel full of water. If you have any doubts about the self even thereafter, let me know." Thereafter, the persons looked and seen themselves in water, and the Creator asked "What do you see" They replied "We see the reflection of our whole self, including our hair and nails" Chandogya Upanishad - Chapter.8.8.1. (Translation by Swami Lokeswarananda.)

However, the following passage in the pre-Buddhist Bruhadaranyaka Upannishad explains the exact opposite of the same situation, when the Athman was looking around to see its own body, separately from the form "rupa", within which it had been functioning. The Sanskrit text goes as follows :-

"athmaivedam agraasith purushavidah, so’nuweekshya nanyad athmano’pashyat, so’ham asmi’ti agre vyaharath tato’ham nama bhavati ….." (Bruhadaranyaka Upanishad - Chapter 1.4.1) which means,

"At the very beginning, there existed only the Athman in the form of a male person (purusha). Looking around, Athman happened to see his own reflection [in the water] and realized that it is no one else but it is only himself. Then at once, he said "so’ham asmi" "it is me". By saying it In that manner, the name "nama" of I "Aham" came into existence…" (Translation by Swami Nikhilananda.)

As evident in the Tevijja Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, which refers to four Upanishads as well as a number of Suttas such as Mahanidana Sutta, Cha chakka Sutta etc, the Buddha had been quite familiar with the contents of the Pre-Buddhist Upanishads including those Upanishads referred to above. Similarly, it is most likely that the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus too, who had been continuously engaged in ascetic practices had been quite conversant with the contents of such Upanishads including those quoted above.

In the delivery of the Anatta lakkhana Sutta to the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus, it is quite clear that the Buddha appropriately adopted an analytical approach in order to remove their strong conviction of the existence an all powerful Athma. As evident, in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha firstly referred to the subject of form "rupa" and got them to admit that it was impermanent and subject to constant change "anicca". Thereafter, the Buddha got them to admit that because the form "rupa" is sorrowful "dukkha" as well. Thereafter, the Buddha’s final question was as follows:-

"Now that you on your own have accepted that the form "rupa" is impermanent "anicca", and sorrowful "dukkha ", and under such circumstances, could you consider the form "rupa" as something to be called as "it is mine" (etam mama) and "that is me" ( eso ’ham asmi) and "that is my Athman ("eso me Attha)? --- Anattalakkhana Sutta

It is quite probable that the Buddha was inviting the attention of the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus to a very familiar passage in the Bruhadaranyaka Upanishad quoted above, which had referred to the Athman identifying the form "rupa" reflected in the water as "it is mine" (etam mama) and "that is me" (eso’ham asmi) Quite obviously, the response of the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus to the above question by the Buddha was their immediate admission that the Athman cannot claim the form "rupa" as "it is mine "(etam mama) or "that is me (eso’ham asmi) or "that is my Athman" (eso me Atta).

As evident in the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha having got the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus to admit that the form "rupa" is not Athman, and additionally that the feelings "vedana" perceptions "sanna" karma formations "sankhara" and consciousness "vinnana", too could not be considered as the Athman. Accordingly, the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus were fully a convinced of the non existence of an Athman operational within them, and most significantly, of their own capacity and capability to control their body and mind.

As explained in the Anattalakkhanasutta, the Pancavaggiya Bhikkus ultimately realized that their e six faculties as well as the "Pancaupadakkhandas", i. e. the five groups of clinging within them are subject to the three characteristics of existence, i. e. impermanence "anicca", sorrowful "dukkha" and non-self "anatta" and that they could be effectively disciplined only by themselves through the meditational process as advised by the Buddha, upon the realization of this ultimate truth, all the five Bhikkus eventually attained the supreme bliss of Arahantship.

As explained above, the belief in an Athma places any devotee at the assumed control of a mythical Athman, who is believed to be the controller of his feelings perceptions etc. It makes a person feel absolutely helpless being unable to control his/her faculties, due to the total dependence on an unseen force called Athman. Buddha Dhamma, in complete contrast, while rejecting the concept of an Athman, clearly demonstrates one’s own ability to control his/her faculties, paving the way to discipline the body and the mind, to develop perfect equanimity Upekkha, the extinction of all feelings and perceptions, i. e. "sanna vedayita nirodha" leading to the achievement of Nibbana.

As clearly evident from a large number of Suttas in the Suttapitaka, the Buddha while explaining the Dhamma particularly to the audiences who had been strong believers in the Athma concept, used every possible means and methods to dispel their wrong belief in the existence of a mythical Athma since such a conviction was an essential prerequisite for the comprehensive understanding of the Buddha Dhamma.

Accordingly, the concept of Anatta, which is the clear conviction of the nonexistence of a mythical entity called Athman operational within every human being controlling his/her faculties, and concurrently, the establishment of the full confidence in the human beings of their own capacity and the ability to control his/her faculties, ensuring the eventual achievement of Arahantship, leading to the termination of the eternal cycle of Sansara.

Sabbe sattha bhavantu sukhitatta - May all beings be blessed with happiness!

(The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs.

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