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The Doctrine of Anatta

U Han Htay
Research Officer

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Vol. III, No. 2, 1983

     To the ordinary level of knowledge and thinking the Anatta dhamma may appear as a metaphysical concept, but it is the only practical realistic truth in life. This can be correctly realised by means of satipatthana practice on the existing phenomena. We all experience such as emotion, cognition, feeling, thinking, etc. They are all sankhara dhammas, that is, the processes of rise and fall, in short, by looking through the nama and rupa we discern, in a deeper insight dimensions, the voidness of soul in us. With the progress of Vipassana insight the three characteristics of existence are fully known: impermanence, suffering, and absence of individuality or ego. At first we may learn these profound spiritual truths by means of hearing and thinking. At perceptual level, these truths may seem dreary or pessimistic. But at insight level the highest truths are revealed to deliver us from the clutches of pride, lust and delusion.

     Ignorance of these existential, spiritual truths or life’s characteristics is seen to be the greatest obstacle in the path to lift man from his common average level. This kind of delusion also retards psychological and moral development in man. Conflicts arise because of wrong beliefs such as the belief in an ego.

     Now what is Anatta? This technical Buddhist term means all "beings" are composed of transient natures or changing forces, too quick to see with the ordinary eyes, so much so that they are void of substances or soul. The Buddha advises us, in our search for highest truths, to note the present changing materialities and mentalities (nama and rupa). Universally all puthujjanas, the uninstructed human beings, take these ultimate realities to be permanent entities and they think souls, entities, individualities and selves really exist in the ultimate sense. Thus the wrong belief, the Sakkayaditthi belief in personality or eternal soul, is the hardest and greatest obstacle to achieve mental and spiritual peace.

     True happiness means liberation from all kinds of false illusions and beliefs. Liberation from false beliefs is a basic step in wholesome living. Purity is attained. The Buddha therefore emphatically teaches that if there is impermanence there is also egolessness. Thus the Anatta truth arises from the nature of life, Anicca dhamma, the impermanence of all phenomena.

     It will be realised that the unique Anatta teaching of the Buddha, as clearly stated in the Khandhavagga Samyutta, is based on the truths of rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara and vinnana. These five groups of existence, life’s basic factors, clearly show the hidden truths such as the facts of unnsatifactoriness, unsubstantiality, rapid changefulness, void of self, etc. By knowing our five khandhas— materiality, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness— we know the truth of Anatta. One realizes the reality of Anatta by introspecting one’s daily experiences here and now. We take note of the changing phenomena intensively through our six sense-doors. We meditate deeply on the nature of pathavi, apo, tejo and vayo, the four basic elements of life. Consequently we come to know the truth of Anatta and find supreme peace. The benefits we gain are many; such as humility, humbleness, compassion, contentment, clarity of vision, right belief and right conduct. Thus the truth of Anatta is beyond ontological and theological concepts. It is a profound truth, but we can learn it from our nama and rupa (mind and matter) which constitute life.

     Voidness (sunnata) is another name for Anatta. We find in Pali Buddhism the empirical Voidness of our existence which is realised by mindfulness. The original Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches only three kinds of sunnata: (1) voidness of the idea of beings and persons, puggala sunnata, (2) voidness of soul, atta sunnata, and (3) voidness of nama and rupa which is Nibbana. These three kinds of truth must be realised practically with the aid of Vipassana which brings the Four Noble Truths in all their aspects.

     Sometimes, the meaning of Anatta may be difficult to understand even at theoretical level. But Anatta is always present as dhamma in our daily life, Seeing, hearing, thinking, moving, etc, are Anatta. It is the practical voidness for practical persons. Many people make fun on the truth of emptiness by asking how empty is the emptiness. This type of question can only lead to theology or ontology. We must take down to the actualities of life in view, In fact for the Vipassana meditators, the term "emptiness" assumes great significance. As followers of the Eightfold Noble Path we must know that the world is empty of self and permanence. So the Buddha, in the light of highest insights, teaches the actuality of life known as sunnata. All our khandha worlds, ayatana worlds, dhatu worlds are sunnata.

     By realizing the sublime truths our attitudes and motivations become more pure and more refined. Our attitudes change for the better. Our minds become steady and concentrated. Now we are not under the control of (maya), illusion. We realistically face the hard, deep truths of life. Yet our minds become clear and noble. A full ethical life is lived by all persons who gain this right understanding on the meaning of life. The emptiness of life does not convey the meaning of hopelessness, uselessness or futility. In life we appreciate and use such noble dhammas as viriya (effort), piti (joy), dhammavicaya (investigation), as taught in the seven enlightenment factors. A noble person enjoying the Nibbanic peace within, remains calm and clear amid all kinds of distracting turmoils and changing processes of life. He, by finding the peace of Anatta truth, knows how and when to act rightly. Righteousness becomes a keynote in his life.

     Even by thinking of the fact of Anatta while we see or hear dhamma, either good or bad, we extract peace and purity from the turmoils of our daily life. Ups and downs of life are seen in a new perspective. They are now utilized for the achievement of Anatta insight which at once promotes Nibbanic peace in our hearts, indeed Anatta insight clarifies all mental confusions, it destroys all illusions that create fool’s paradise.

     Whenever we experience "bad’’ things in the ‘world around us, we should instantly form right attitude together with right understanding. We should not run away from life. Neither should we indulge in momentary pleasures which generate false belief in permanent self. Since, from the ultimate standpoint of understanding, there is no self we should enjoy five sensual pleasures with the help of right knowledge. Otherwise delusions will increase in as much as pleasures of the senses are regarded as ‘lasting", "likeable" or "agreeable". These wrong attitudes are against the truth of Anatta. Anatta teaches us that even our sensual pleasures are without agreeable substances, permanent entities and selves. With this right knowledge we should take pleasures and displeasures correctly. Life then will become meaningful and full of dhammas to see with our wisdom eye. Anatta, in brief, shows us that there are no "I" and "you" who like or dislike "things" and "persons". All are dhamma. The dhamma’ of lust (lobha-raga) only enjoys. The dhamma of hatred (dosa-patigha) only hates. Attachment and irritation can now be seen as "dhammas" only. So we gain dhamma-eye to see all things are "dhamma". Hence all wise people, knowing dhamma, do not suffer from the influences of lust and anger. They know Anatta!

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