attā: Description welcome. Info can be removed after imput.
by late Ven. Nyanalokita Thera:
by the Pali Text Society:
by Ven. Thanissaro Maha Thera:
by Ven. Varado Maha Thera:
Explaining unconditionality: Chachakka Sutta
The Chachakka Sutta (MN iii 282) says that the arising and disappearance of the six senses are discernable (uppādo pi vayo pi paññāyati), and that he for whom arising and disappearance is discernable in something they regard as endowed with personal qualities would be forced to the conclusion that ‘My [absolute] Selfhood arises and disappears’ (attā me uppajjati ca veti cā ti). Thus the six senses are void of personal qualities.
The arguments used in this and the two following paragraphs are only meaningful if Selfhood is understood to be unconditional. Though attā is commonly rendered as ‘Self’ or ‘soul’ these renderings obscure the important connotations of anattā: ungovernability, unlastingness and inherent unsatisfactoriness. Hence our term ‘[absolute] Selfhood.’
Explaining unconditionality: Pañcavaggiya Sutta
The Pañcavaggiya Sutta (SN iii 66-7) says that if the five aggregates were endowed with personal qualities they would not lead to affliction (ābādhāya saṁvatteyya) and one could command them: ‘Be thus! Be not thus!’ One could have them unconditionally according to one’s will. The Buddha compared this to a claim a king might make concerning ‘his own realm’ (sakasmiṁ vijite) where he has the power to punish criminals as he wishes, but outside his realm he has no such power (MN i 230). Likewise the five aggregates are outside one’s realm. They are ours conditionally not unconditionally. They cannot be regarded as endowed with personal qualities because they do not accord unconditionally with one’s will.
Explaining unconditionality: Udāyī Sutta
In the Udāyī Sutta, Venerable Ānanda explained that viññāṇa cannot be regarded as endowed with personal qualities because it arises dependent on conditions. If the indispensible and necessary conditions for viññāṇa were to cease completely and totally without remainder (so ca hetu so ca paccayo sabbena sabbaṁ sabbathā sabbaṁ aparisesaṁ nirujjheyya) viññāṇa would not be discerned. Thus viññāṇa is conditional, not unconditional. Therefore it is void of personal qualities (viññāṇaṁ anattā ti SN iv 166).
Anattā (adjective): ‘void of personal qualities’
As an adjective, attā is rendered in this Glossary as ‘endowed with personal qualities,’ and anattā as ‘void of personal qualities’ because it is part of the argument yadanattā taṁ n’etaṁ mama n’eso’hamasmi na me so attā ti (SN iv 1). This argument shows that yadanattā has a meaning broad enough to cover n’etaṁ mama n’eso’hamasmi na me so attā ti. It covers all terms: “not [in reality] mine,” “not [in reality] what I am,” “not my [absolute] Selfhood.” Thus we say: What is void of personal qualities should be seen according to reality with perfect penetrative discernment as “not [in reality] mine,” “not [in reality] what I am,” “not my [absolute] Selfhood.”
Parenthesis: [in reality]
The parenthesis ‘[in reality]’ is justified because of attā‘s link to yathābhūtaṁ:
• What is void of personal qualities should be seen according to reality with perfect penetrative discernment as “not [in reality] mine,” “not [in reality] what I am,” “not my [absolute] Selfhood”
yadanattā taṁ n’etaṁ mama n’eso’hamasmi na me so attā ti evametaṁ yathābhūtaṁ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṁ. (SN iv 1)
Another example is this:
• He does not discern bodily form which is void of personal qualities according to reality, thus: ‘Bodily form is void of personal qualities.’
anattaṁ rūpaṁ anattā rūpan ti yathābhūtaṁ nappajānāti. (SN iii 114)
Inevitable link between the adjective and noun
The scriptures confirm the inevitable link between the adjective and noun:
1) For example, if something is anattā (void of personal qualities, adjective), it should be seen as not my attā ([absolute] Selfhood, noun: yadanattā taṁ n’etaṁ mama n’eso’hamasmi na me so attā ti evametaṁ yathābhūtaṁ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṁ SN iv 1).
2) To say that the senses are attā (endowed with personal qualities, adjective) is untenable because their arising and disappearance are discernable and one would be forced to the conclusion that ‘My attā ([absolute] Selfhood, noun) arises and disappears (MN iii 282-4).
Distinguishing adjectives and nouns
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish adjectives and nouns in the scriptures; indeed, so difficult that DOP fails to recognise attā as an adjective at all. This is surprising. Not only does its predecessor, the PED, recognise the adjective, but also the DOP itself (under attan) translates the term attatthaṁ (SN ii 29) as ‘one’s own interest or profit’ where ‘one’s own’ is adjectival. Bodhi also recognises that attā in attatthaṁ is an adjective and translates it ‘your own good.’ However, at MN iii 282 both he and Horner do not recognise the adjective in the sentence cakkhuṁ attā ti yo vadeyya taṁ na upapajjati. This would be naturally rendered as ‘endowed with personal qualities’ but Bodhi and Horner render it as ‘self’:
Although Ñāṇamoli agrees that attā can be adjectival (in Anattā According to the Theravāda) in the section on Derivation and Usage he overlooks the adjective form, and in his translations in the same essay he consistently calls it ‘not self.’ For example, he renders rūpaṁ anattā as ‘materiality is not self’ where we would say ‘is void of personal qualities.’ Therefore, it seems he considered the adjective form to be negligible.
Attā: paradoxical useage
Occasionally the Buddha used attā in a paradoxical way.
• He used it to indicate Ultimate Reality, one’s [absolute] Selfhood, but in conversation with young brahmans for whom this expression would be appropriate and meaningful (Vin.1.23): ‘What do you think, young men: which is better for you: that you seek for a woman, or that you seek for your [absolute] Selfhood?
katamaṁ nu kho tumhākaṁ varaṁ yaṁ vā tumhe itthiṁ gaveseyyātha yaṁ vā attānaṁ gaveseyyāthā ti
Suffix -atta: redundant
1) Enthusiastically applying himself [to the teaching], he scrutinises [it].
… Having scrutinised [it], he strives [to practise it].
… Being resolutely applied [to the practice] he realises with his very being the supreme truth, and he sees [the nature of reality] having penetrated it with discernment.
pahitatto samāno kāyena ceva paramaṁ saccaṁ sacchikaroti paññāya ca naṁ paṭivijjha passati. (MN i 480)
Here padahati is directly linked to its suffixed past participle, where the suffix is clearly shown to be redundant.
2) May they be happy.
Atta’s role as a suffix is not noted in the Pāli grammar books, nor in the dictionaries sv Atta, though Duroiselle says pahitatto means ‘resolute, whose mind is bent upon, literally directed towards,’ and ṭhitatto means ‘of firm mind’ (PGPL, para 555). Neither DOP nor PED mention ‘mind’ as a meaning of atta, but for anavositatta DOP says ‘whose mind has no firm convictions,’ and for susamāhitatto (sv su) PED says ‘of steadfast mind.’ PED adds ‘will,’ sv Pahita, saying pahitatta means ‘of resolute will’. PED also sometimes considers -atta redundant, for example in rendering ṭhitatto as ‘self-controlled, composed, steadfast,’ and sukhitatta as noted above. But if -atta means ‘mind’, then it is still redundant. What, after all, is the difference between ‘happy’ and ‘happy-minded’?
PED’s collection of -atta words is this:
ubbilāvitatta: rejoicing, exultancy, elation of mind
katatta: self-possessed, disciplined
khematta: one who is at peace
gatatta: self-perfected, perfect
ṭhitatto: self-controlled, composed, steadfast
pahitatta: of resolute will
yatatta: selfcontrolled, one whose heart is kept down
rakkhitatta: one who guards his character
vimuttatta: having an emancipated self
saṁyatattaṁ: having one's self restrained, self-controlled
sukhitatta: happy, easy
susamāhitatto: of steadfast mind
Anattā usually has an object associated with it:
• He abides contemplating the voidness of personal qualities in all things.
sabbadhammesu anattānupassī viharati. (AN iv 14)
• He abides contemplating the voidness of personal qualities in the six senses and their objects.
imesu chasu ajjhattikabāhiresu āyatanesu anattānupassī viharati. (AN v 109)
• the perception of the voidness of personal qualities in all originated phenomena.
Where anattā occurs without an object, the context sometimes shows what should be parenthesised, sometimes not:
• And what, Ānanda, is the perception of the voidness of personal qualities [in the six senses and their objects]. In this regard, Ānanda, a bhikkhu… reflects that the six senses and their objects are void of personal qualities.
katamācānanda anattasaññā? Idhānanda bhikkhu… iti paṭisaṁcikkhati cakkhuṁ anattā rūpā anattā… mano anattā dhammā anattā ti) . (AN v 109)
• In one who perceives the voidness of personal qualities [in all things], self-centredness is uprooted. He realises the Untroubled in this very lifetime
anattasaññi asmimānasamugghātaṁ pāpuṇāti diṭṭheva dhamme nibbānaṁ ti. (Uda 37)
Illustration: attā, ego
Those who roam the world who are truly liberated [from individual existence], liberated from the perception of existence, spiritually perfected, with egos restrained.
Ye ve asattā vicaranti loke akiñcanā kevalino yatattā. (Snp 490)
Walk on almsround through the streets with ego well-restrained.
Susaṁvutatto visikhantare caraṁ. (Snp 1119)
Illustration: attā, themselves
Those bhikkhus, either now or after my passing, who abide spiritually self-reliant, with themselves as their refuge, with no other refuge; relying completely on the teaching, with the teaching as their refuge, with no other refuge; it is these bhikkhus, Ānanda, who will be for me foremost amongst those desirous of the training.
Ye hi keci ānanda etarahi vā mamaccaye vā attadīpā viharissanti attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā tamatagge me te ānanda bhikkhu bhavissanti ye keci sikkhākāmāti. (SN v 154)
Thus do noble young men declare their [attainment of] arahantship: the matter is spoken of without any reference to themselves.
attho ca vutto attā ca anupanīto. (AN iii 359)
There is no hiding place for the doer of unvirtuous deeds
Natthi loke raho nāma pāpakammaṁ pakubbato.
You yourself, man, know what is true or false.
Attā te purisa jānāti saccaṁ vā yadi vā musā.
Indeed, sir, you disdain the virtuous aspect of yourself which witnesses [all that you do].
Kalyāṇaṁ vata bho sakkhi attānaṁ atimaññasi.
You are [trying to] conceal from yourself unvirtuousness existing within yourself
Yo santaṁ attani pāpaṁ attānaṁ parigūhasi. (AN i 149)
If a bhikkhu does not fulfil the training in virtue, the Buddha said the Teacher criticises him, his discerning wise companions in the religious life criticise him, the devas criticise him, and he himself even criticises himself.
attā pi attānaṁ upavadati. (MN i 440)
Illustration: attā, endowed with personal qualities
If bodily form was endowed with personal qualities (rūpañca hidaṁ bhikkhave attā abhavissa) it would not lead to affliction (ābādhāya saṁvatteyya) and it would be possible to demand of bodily form (labbhetha ca rūpe): ‘My bodily form: be thus! My bodily form: be not thus!’ (evaṁ me rūpaṁ hotu evaṁ me rūpaṁ mā ahosī ti). But because bodily form is void of personal qualities it leads to affliction (rūpaṁ anattā tasmā rūpaṁ ābādhāya saṁvattati) and it is not possible to demand of bodily form: ‘My bodily form: be thus! My bodily form: be not thus!’. (SN iii 66-7)
Illustration: attā, himself; [absolute] Selfhood
Saccaka claimed that a person has the five aggregates as himself (rūpattāyaṁ purisapuggalo… viññāṇattāyaṁ… ). The Buddha asked if Saccaka was claiming the khandhas were “my [absolute] Selfhood” (rūpaṁ me attā… viññāṇaṁ me attā ti) and compared this to a claim a king might make concerning his own realm (sakasmiṁ vijite), where he has the power to punish criminals as he wishes. The Buddha asked whether Saccaka exercised any such power over the five aggregates so as to command them ‘Let them be thus, or not thus’ (vattati te tasmiṁ rūpe… viññāṇe vaso evaṁ me rūpaṁ… viññāṇaṁ hotu evaṁ me rūpaṁ… viññāṇaṁ mā ahosī ti). Saccaka agreed he did not (MN i 230).
Illustration: attā, endowed with personal qualities; [absolute] Selfhood
To say that the visual sense is endowed with personal qualities is untenable (cakkhuṁ attā ti yo vadeyya taṁ na upapajjati) because the arising and disappearance of the visual sense is discernable (cakkhussa uppādo pi vayo pi paññāyati) and he for whom arising and disappearance is discernable, would be forced to the conclusion that ‘My [absolute] Selfhood arises and disappears’ (attā me uppajjati ca veti cā ti). Thus the visual sense is void of personal qualities (iti cakkhuṁ anattā) (MN iii 282; SN ii 95).
Illustration: attā, [absolute] Selfhood
A disciple of mine… perceives all bodily form according to reality with perfect penetrative discernment as “not [in reality] mine,” “not [in reality] what I am,” “not my [absolute] Selfhood.”
Idha aggivessana mama sāvako… sabbaṁ rūpaṁ n’etaṁ mama n’eso’hamasmi na me so attā ti evametaṁ yathābhūtaṁ sammappaññāya passati. (MN i 234-5)
this is “[in reality] mine”
this is “[in reality] what I am”
this is “my [absolute] Selfhood”?
eso me attā ti
• No, bhante (SN iii 66-7).
The Buddha said there are three types of sense impression: pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral (sukhaṁ vedanaṁ… dukkhaṁ vedanaṁ… adukkhamasukhaṁ vedanaṁ). If anyone experiences these sense impressions considering them to be “my [absolute] Selfhood” (eso me attā ti), then when they cease he would have to hold that ‘my [absolute] Selfhood has been shattered’ (vyaggo me attā ti). Therefore it is not suitable to hold sense impression is “my [absolute] Selfhood” (nakkhamati vedanā me attā ti samanupassituṁ) (DN ii 67).
• If there were no sense impression in any way, would there be the thought “I am this”?
yattha panāvuso sabbaso vedayitaṁ natthi api nu kho tattha ayamahamasmī ti siyā ti
• No, bhante.
• Therefore this argument is invalid: Sense impression is not my [absolute] Selfhood. My [absolute] Selfhood is without sense impression.
Tasmātihānanda etenapetaṁ nakkhamati na heva kho me vedanā attā appaṭisaṁvedano me attā ti samanupassituṁ. (DN ii 67)
Claiming that “my [absolute] Selfhood is without sense impression” is to claim knowledge of something one is simultaneously claiming to be unaware of.
There was once a number of non-Buddhist ascetics living around Sāvatthī. And they were of various dogmatic views, as follows:
• Eternal are the [absolute] Selfhood and the world [of beings]
sassato attā ca loko ca
• Not eternal
asassato attā ca loko ca
• Both eternal and not eternal
sassato asassato attā ca loko ca
• Neither eternal nor not eternal
neva sassato nāsassato attā ca loko ca
• Produced by oneself are the [absolute] Selfhood and the world [of beings]
sayaṁ kato attā ca loko ca
• Produced by another
paraṁ kato attā ca loko ca
• Produced by oneself and another
sayaṁ kato paraṅkato attā ca loko ca
• Produced by neither oneself nor another. They have arisen spontaneously
asayaṁ kāro aparaṅkāro adhiccasamuppanno attā ca loko ca
And they lived quarrelsome, cantankerous, contentious, stabbing each other with verbal daggers. (Uda 70)
The ignorant Everyman improperly contemplates
- 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 uncertain about the present in regard to himself
ajjhattaṁ kathaṅkathī hoti
- Am I?
- Am I not?
- What am I?
- How am I?
- Where has this being come from?
- Where will it go?
As he improperly contemplates in this way, one of six dogmatic views arise in him as real and actual:
channaṁ diṭṭhīnaṁ aññatarā diṭṭhi uppajjati
• I have an [absolute] Selfhood
atthi me attā ti vā'ssa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati
• I do not have an [absolute] Selfhood
natthi me attā ti vā'ssa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati
• I perceive an [absolute] Selfhood with an [absolute] Selfhood
attanā’va attānaṁ sañjānāmī ti vā'ssa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati
• I perceive what is not an [absolute] Selfhood with an [absolute] Selfhood
attanā'va anattānaṁ sañjānāmī ti vā'ssa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati
• I perceive an [absolute] Selfhood with what is not an [absolute] Selfhood
anattanā'va attānaṁ sañjānāmī ti vā'ssa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati
or else he has a view like this:
Atha vā pana'ssa evaṁ diṭṭhi hoti
• It is this [absolute] Selfhood of mine that speaks and experiences and feels here and there the karmic consequences of meritorious and demeritorious deeds; and this [absolute] Selfhood of mine is everlasting, enduring, eternal, of an unchangeable nature, and will endure like unto eternity itself.
yo me ayaṁ attā vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṁ kammānaṁ vipākaṁ paṭisaṁvedeti. So kho pana me ayaṁ attā nicco dhuvo sassato avipariṇāmadhammo sassatisamaṁ tatheva ṭhassatī ti. (MN i 8)
From the time Ānanda when a bhikkhu
yato kho panānanda bhikkhu
no longer regards sense impression to be the [absolute] Selfhood,
neva vedanaṁ attānaṁ samanupassati
or considers that “my [absolute] Selfhood is without sense impression,”
no pi appaṭisaṁvedanaṁ attānaṁ samanupassati
or considers “my [absolute] Selfhood experiences”
no pi attā me vediyati
or considers “my [absolute] Selfhood is subject to sense impression,”
vedanādhammo hi me attā ti samanupassati
by not so regarding he does not grasp anything in the world [of phenomena].
so evaṁ asamanupassanto na ca kiñci loke upādiyati
Thus he is not agitated.
anupādiyaṁ na paritassati
Being not agitated, he realises the Untroubled for himself.
aparitassaṁ paccattaṁ yeva parinibbāyissati. (DN ii 68)
When the ascetic Vacchagotta asked whether or not there is an [absolute] Selfhood (atthattā ti… natthattā ti) the Buddha refused to answer, because, as he later explained, if he had answered that:
• There is an [absolute] Selfhood, this would have been siding with those ascetics and Brahmanists who are eternalists.
ye te ānanda samaṇabrāhmaṇā sassatavādā tesametaṁ laddhi abhavissa.
• There is no [absolute] Selfhood, this would have been siding with those ascetics and Brahmanists who are annihilationists.
ye te ānanda samaṇabrāhmaṇā ucchedavādā tesametaṁ laddhi abhavissa.
• There is an [absolute] Selfhood, “would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that ‘all things are void of personal qualities’?”
apinu me taṁ ānanda anulomaṁ abhavissa ñāṇassa uppādāya. Sabbe dhammā anattā ti no hetaṁ bhante.
• ‘There is no [absolute] Selfhood, “the ascetic Vacchagotta, already bewildered, would have become even more bewildered, thinking, ‘It seems that the [absolute] Selfhood I formerly had does not exist now.’”
sammūḷhassa ānanda vacchagottassa paribbājakassa bhiyyo sammohāya abhavissa ahu vā me nūna pubbe attā so etarahi natthī ti. (SN iv 400)
Illustration: atto, ego
Illustration: attano, ego
Having heard my word, train yourself in the quenching of the ego.
Ito sutvāna nigghosaṁ sikkhe nibbānamattano. (Snp 1062)
• Is there, Mallikā, anyone more beloved to you than yourself?
atthi nu kho te mallike ko cañño attanā piyataro ti?
• There is no one, great king, more beloved to me than myself. But is there anyone, great king, more beloved to you than yourself?
Natthi kho me mahārāja ko cañño attanā piyataro. Tuyhaṁ pana mahārāja atthañño koci attanā piyataro ti?
• For me too, Mallikā, there is no one more beloved to me than myself.
Mayhampi kho mallike natthañño koci attanā piyataroti.
Then the Blessed One… recited this verse:
Having traversed all quarters with the mind,
Sabbā disā anuparigamma cetasā
One finds nowhere anyone more beloved to oneself than oneself.
Nevajjhagā piyataramattanā kvaci
Others hold themselves likewise beloved;
Evaṁ piyo puthu attā paresaṁ
Hence one who loves himself should not harm others.
Tasmā na hiṁse paraṁ attakāmo ti. (SN i 75)
Illustration: attānaṁ, himself
The Buddha said a bhikkhu should be straightforward and aboveboard presenting himself according to reality to his teachers and to his knowledgeable companions in the religious life (yathābhūtaṁ attānaṁ āvīkattā satthari vā viññūsu vā sabrahmacārīsu). (MN ii 128)
Illustration: atta, [absolute] Selfhood
• Bhikkhus, you might well grasp a theory of an [absolute] Selfhood which would not arouse grief, lamentation, physical pain, psychological pain, and vexation, but do you see any such theory?
Taṁ bhikkhave attavādūpādānaṁ upādiyetha yaṁsa attavādūpādānaṁ upādiyato na uppajjeyyuṁ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā.
• No, bhante.
• Good, bhikkhus. I also see no such theory. (-MN i 137)
And what, Ānanda, is the perception of the voidness of personal qualities [in the six senses and their objects]
In this regard, Ānanda, a bhikkhu… reflects that the six senses and their objects are void of personal qualities
iti paṭisaṁcikkhati cakkhuṁ anattā rūpā anattā… mano anattā dhammā anattā ti) . (AN v 109)
Illustration: anattā, void of personal qualities
Bhikkhus, the visual sense is unlasting. What is unlasting is intrinsically unsatisfactory. What is intrinsically unsatisfactory is void of personal qualities.
Cakkhuṁ bhikkhave aniccaṁ. Yadaniccaṁ taṁ dukkhaṁ; yaṁ dukkhaṁ tadanattā. (SN iv 1)
Suttas and Dhammadesanā