Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dr. Walpola Rahula on Anattā

Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula

"In the Dhammapada, there are three verses which are extremely important and essential in the Buddha’s Teaching. They are verses 277, 278, and 279 in Chapter 20:

277. All compound things are impermanent; those who realize this through insight- wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.
278. All compound things have suffering as their nature; those who realize this through insight-wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.
279. All states are without self; those who realize this through insight-wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.

The first two verses say: “All compound things (saṁkhārā) are impermanent” (sabbe saṁkhārā aniccā) and “All compound things have suffering as their nature” (sabbe saṁkhārā dukkhā). But the third verse says: “All states (dhammā) are without self” (sabbe dhammā anattā).

Here, it should be carefully observed that, in the first two verses, the word saṁkhārā “conditioned things, compound things” is used. But in its place in the third verse, the word dhammā “states” is used. Why does the third verse not use the word saṁkhārā “conditioned things, compound things” as in the previous two verses, and why does it use the term dhammā instead? Here lies the crux of the whole matter.

In the first two verses, the term saṁkhāra denotes the Five Aggregates, that is, all conditioned, interdependent, relative things and states, both physical and mental. If the third verse had said: “All saṁkhārā (“conditioned things, compound things”) are without self”, then, one might think that, although conditioned things are without Self, yet there may be a Self outside conditioned things, outside the Five Aggregates. It is in order to avoid misunderstanding that the term dhammā is used in the third verse.

The term “dhamma” is much wider than saṁkhāra. There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma. It includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the unconditioned, the Absolute, nibbāna. There is nothing in the universe or outside of it, good or bad, conditioned or unconditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term. Therefore, it is quite clear that, according to this statement: “All states (dhammā) are without self”, there is no Self, no ātman, not only in the Five Aggregates, but nowhere else either outside them or apart from them.

This means, according to the Theravādin teaching, that there is no Self either in the individual (puggala) or in dhammas. The Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy maintains exactly the same position, without the slightest difference, on this point, putting emphasis on dharma-nairātmya as well as on pudgala-nairātmya."

Note: As with many Westerners, my first exposure to the Buddha's teaching came through reading the Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula's wonderful little book 'What the Buddha Taught.' The above is a section from the chapter entitled The Doctrine of No-Soul, and had a profound effect on me. (In fact, it still does today!) The entire book can be downloaded free of charge in PDF format from the kind people of the Charleston Buddhist Fellowship at the link below:

What the Buddha Taught 


Sudheer Babu said...


I come from an advaita background. All advaita masters talk about an self. Is this a contradiction from what the buddha taught or was he misinterpreted?

G said...

Forgive me if I'm wrong, Sudheer, but Advaita teachers talk of the Self (Atman), don't they? If this is what you are referring to, then strictly speaking, the Buddha denied the ultimate reality of any such thing. Anatta in Sanskrit is Anatman ('No-Atman'), and there are plenty of examples in the Pali Tipitika (the Buddhist scriptures) where the Buddha states this clearly. On the other hand, there is much that Advaitists and Buddhists have in common, and I would hope that we can be friends despite any differences in our understandings of this issue. Thank you for your enquiry.

Sudheer Babu said...

How do you explain re-incarnation and Karma if there is no self? Who is it that is reborn if there is no self? Who gets enlightened if there is no self? Sorry for my questions, just trying to understand anatta.

Janaki said...

Dear Sudheer,
The following is the link to Venerable Walpola Rakula's book "What the Buddha taught". You'll find the answer to your questions about "no self",etc.


G said...

Missed that second comment, Sudheer. Apologies!

Janaki has given you the means to find answers to your questions. (Thank you, Janaki.)

It would be amiss of me not to reply to them here, however. Buddhism does not explain reincarnation because there is no-one to be reincarnated. Instead, the Buddha taught rebirth, which is the continuance of a 'stream of consciousness' (viññāna-sota), but not the reincarnation of a 'soul' or 'self.'

Karma (action) & its results are performed by beings but not 'selves.' This 'stream' is not consciousness as a whole, but aspects of it, which along with other conditioning factors, result in a new being upon rebirth, and it is this being in totality that receives the results of previous births.

'Who' gets enlightened? There is no 'who' that realizes enlightenment...if there was, it wouldn't be Buddhist enlightenment. In a sense, to answer this question properly, nirvana must be realized first! To write more may merely cause confusion; for the writer as well as the reader!

We can understand anatta to a limited extent through thinking, Sudheer. But the Buddha wanted us to see it & understand it through such experience, not philosophize or ruminate over it. Some thought on the matter is inevitable, and can help (or hinder) us initially. But, if we really want to know anatta, we need to see it. In the meantime, I hope your studies lead to some understanding of the above matters, and that in the long run, you realize nirvana. Apologies again, for such a late reply.