Dhamma Letter No. 19

Anatta (Non-Self) No. 2

This week we are picking up where we left off from our discussion of anatta in Dhamma Letter No. 18.

The Meaning of Anatta

In various contexts, we translate anatta as ‘not-I’, ‘not-self’, and ‘non-ego’. What does in anatta really mean?

Even in the Indian philosophical tradition, anatta was a new concept during the time of the Buddha, who pointed to existence of the non-self (and consequently the non-existence of the self). It is more than just non-ego, although that is a useful starting point to establish a basic understanding of Buddhism.

The Experience of Anatta

All bases of cause begin with anatta’s opposite, atta (I, me, mine). The final stage of the Path is to understand this completely and experience the anatta for oneself.

Consider the statement again,

If my mind is mine, I must control my mind as I wish by myself.

Likewise for the body, consider,

If my body is mine, I must control my body as I wish by myself.

Let us start with form (rūpa, 色), the physical body and its senses. The eye cannot observe the eye itself. The ear cannot observe the ear itself. The nose cannot observe the nose itself. The tongue cannot observe the tongue itself. The body cannot observe the body itself.

However, sensation at the body and the six senses is experienced in and of themselves. The fact that they can be observed individually and only objectively means that they are not-self.

Additionally, the body itself is inconstant and ever-changing. So too are the sensations felt at the six senses. The persistence of the processes of the body give the appearance of continuity, but as a whole it is unfixed.

Similarly, the mind can be observed as a process involving the other four aggregates consisting of awareness (consciousness, viññāṇa, 識), the formation of perceptions about that which we are aware, feelings (vedanā, 受) ascribed to those perceptions (saññā, 想), and intentions and mental actions (sankhāras, 行) formed as a result. The passivity of this process and, like the body, the fact that it can be observed objectively means that it is not-self.

The Importance of Anatta

The teaching of not-self is the teaching of the Buddha. Why did he so emphasize the importance of experiencing anatta?

If we remain identified with the self, attached to the ‘I’, we continuously cause dukkha (discussed in Dhamma Letters No. 14-16) for ourselves and others. Furthermore, the degree to which we are conceited and identify as a self is proportional to the problems we cause in our relationships.

The Buddha’s teachings of anatta help us end our continual creation of dukkha (suffering). However, the Buddha did not just dispense vacuous theory. He also the taught the practical means by which to escape this cycle and experience anatta for oneself. We will discuss this point in future Dhamma Letters.

May you understand Anatta and be free from any suffering!

With Metta,

Ayyā Kosallā & Mahāpajāpatī Bhikkhunī Sangha
Edited by Max Montgomery 

If you have any questions related to dhamma, please feel free to ask. You can reach Ayya Kosalla directly at bhikkhuni.kosalla@gmail.com. We will answer your questions and include them in future Dhamma Letters.

Bhikkuni Kosalla Vipassini is the Abbess of Mahapajapati Monastery in Pioneertown, California. For monastery updates, please see Mahapajapati’s Facebook. Donations are gratefully accepted, whether you volunteer your time, offer funds, or provide needed requisites for the monastics. If you are inspired to donate, you may do so here.

Buddha Sāsanaṁ Ciraṁ Tiṭṭhatu! 
May the Buddha’s teachings last a long time!

​Bhavatu Sabba Sotiṁ ca Maṅgalaṁ ca!!  
May everyone be led on the path of peace and blessing!!

Sādhu Sādhu Sādhu !

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