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Puggala Nirātman and Dhammā Anatta -
A Dynamic Encounter With Life

SLABS Second Biannual International Conference
17 – 19, Nov. 2006

Dhammananda Bhikkhuni,
Postgraduate Institute of Pāḷi and Buddhist Studies
University of Kaleniya, Sri Lanka.

Using VU-Times font (Pali-Unicode)

One day, I visited venerable Sri Dhammananda at Mahavihara, Brickfield, Malaysia, he said that: "We, the Buddhists are more fortunate than the followers of other religions who believe in a permanent and unchanging soul that is to be rewarded or condemned by its Creator within only one life time. We have more chances to correct ourselves, to improve the situation if it goes wrong, we do not need to fear of a permanent hell, a state of condemnation forever..." His words echoed in my mind when I wrote this article.


Unlike all other systems of philosophy and theology, Buddhism advocates the non-self doctrine, a unique teaching that has caused many controversies up to date. What did the Buddha really mean by advocating such a revolutionary doctrine? How has it been understood and applied by Buddhists? Steven Collins, an American scholar, observes that: the anatta doctrine advocated by the Buddha and the practice of this theory is a matter of much diversity, complexity, and far from in uniform [1]... Another contemporary scholar, Sue Hamilton, also feels the same confusion regarding the so-called ‘non-self doctrine’. She said, "I can not imagine that one has no self. Perhaps, this can only be experienced in a madhouse!" [2] In this paper, my proposal is to interpret the anatta doctrine as a strategy to deal with mental problems and psychological illness rather than as a metaphysical enquiry.

Buddha discouraged his disciples from venturing into metaphysical matters, and a new trend in modern Buddhist studies tends to look upon the Buddha as a specialist in psychotherapy rather than as a philosopher or a founder of a religion. The anatta doctrine has been interpreted as not a metaphysical enquiry but a strategy to deal with mental problems and social tensions [3]. The three signate of the doctrine in which anatta is a corollary of anicca and dukkha seems to favor the latter. According to this, an insight into the real nature of life, i.e., to see life as impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self is the way to purity and liberation. [4]

To focus on the point, first we must consider the anatta doctrine in its philosophical and social context where and when it arises. The affirmation of a permanent and indestructible ātman in the Upanisads, and this, perhaps, solidifies the (wrong) view that results in the selfishness of priests and ascetics, and reinforces the delusion of cruel sacrifices to obtain merits and boons (for that petty self). The unverified issue of ātman and metaphysical inquiry causes much bewilderment for the masses. Seeing that this wrong view leads to craving and conceit, the Buddha teaches the anatta and Dependent Origination (Paticcasammuppāda) which challenges the evil tendency that prevailed India in Post-Vedic period.

Besides that, as a very sensitive human being, the Buddha had been aware of the mental anguish caused by craving and clinging to what are impermanent [5]. The five aggregates (Pañcakkhandha) are impermanent, subject to change, and being conditioned, therefore holding fast to them as ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘myself’ is the cause of self-conflict (dukkha). Not only one’s personality is a process, a dynamic state, but also things and people in general exist relatively. The problem is that, we are more often subjectively conceiving them via personal reference than what they really are. Misperception leads to error view, and self-gratification leads to craving and clinging. When the anatta doctrine is seen in this light, we can see that it is a kind of medication prescribed for illnesses caused by craving (etaṃ mama), conceit (eso’haṃ asmi) and view (eso me attā).

Mahāyana critics of Hīnayana (a term coined by Mahayana masters to distinguish themselves from their opponents) condemn the latter for their narrow view of the anatta doctrine: that the so-called Hīnayana masters only see the pudgala nirātman but fail to realize the dharma nirātman, the non-substantiality of all phenomena. This criticism was, perhaps, specially referred to Sarvastivāda, a sect of Buddhism advocated that dharmā exist in three periods. But this can not be applied to Theravada. We know that a popular contemplation of Theravādā practitioners is ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’, and this contemplation is based on the knowledge of dependent arising (Paticcasamuppada)- the same way, but many Mahayana Masters think that it is only available in their interpretation of the Buddha’s massage on Anatta doctrine. Moreover, we find a passage in the Alagaddūpama sutta (M.22) that states: "Bhikkhus, this Teaching is for giving up not for taking hold of,.. Just so, bhikkhus, my Teaching is comparable to a raft for the purpose of crossing over and not for getting hold of. You should let go off even the wholesome mental states (or good teaching-dhamma), how it should be more for the wrong ones-adhamma" [6]. This passage is identically found in the Diamond sutra thus: "Even the Dharma should be cast aside, how much more so the not-dharma?" [7]

The word dharma here denotes the Buddha’s teaching, but in the Pāḷi passage, it has a more flexible meaning. In the plural form, as in the above quoted text, it denotes things or phenomena in general, obligations and norms in ethics, methods of teaching, elements, etc. In the context of the sutta, the word dhammā might be interpreted as right methods, right means, and adhamma is the opposite. But the Buddha made it clear that they are ‘means’, not the ‘end’, therefore the followers should relinquish or cast aside one by one, not to grasp at things, methods, achievement, etc to flatter one’s ego.

Another passage in SN records a conversation between the Buddha and a-truth-seeker that goes like this:

"One who has reached the end:
Does he not exist,
Or is he for eternity free from affliction?
Please, sage, declare this to me
as this dhamma has been known by you."

The Buddha:
"One who has reached the end has no criterion
By which anyone would say that --
it does not exist for him.
When all dhammas are done away with
All means of speaking are done away with as well."

[ Sn. v.6, a translation of Thanissaro Bhikkhu. E-sources 1998]

"Is there self? Is there not self?.. Does the Tathāgata exist after death, or does he not exist after death?" Such a question is a metaphysical inquiry that puts inquirers into unverified speculation and they are often dismissed by the Buddha as not beneficial for one’s own welfare, does not concern the fundamentals of spiritual life, does not lead to disenchantment and cessation (of suffering).[8]

From an empirical observation, we can see that if a person has a fixed idea about himself/herself, that person will hardly tolerate what is bad (according to his idea) and what is not himself / herself. The desire to acquire a good image or a distinctive personality when it is not in accordance with reality might cause frustration, and self-conflict that leads to mental anguish and mental disorder. From that intolerance, there might develop defense mechanisms, projections and self-deception. Intolerance caused by fixed ideas about self and others also causes damage to relationships. The extension of the "I" is "mine". This ‘mine’ is the craving, grasping to external properties of the ‘I’. It is ‘my position’, ‘my property’, ‘my family’, ‘my race’, ‘my tradition’, ‘my country’, ‘my religion’, etc that one feels obligated to stand for. This extension of the ‘I’ causes conflict at the social level. Conceit (I am this) and craving (this is mine) are products of such a view.

Attachment and clinging to an old-fashioned self- image and unable to face the reality is the cause of many psychological conflicts and suffering. Many western psychologists have been aware of this condition in recent time.

"Dukkha arises because of attachment, aversion and ignorance (to and of that self) and is a cyclic reaction energized by desire. With Buddhism the path to freedom is one of insight into the nature of the conditioning forces. With wisdom, the attachment to conditions is severed and Nibbana, as ultimate freedom, is realized (Sole-Leris,1986).

"Suffering, on the other hand, results as the deluded mind creates self imposed boundaries and fantasy divisions between the 'self' and 'other'. The more contracted these existential boundaries are, the greater the alienation and subsequent suffering one experiences"(Wilber, 1981) [9].

If view, as a fixed idea about oneself and others causes conflict ranging from the personal level (self-conflict, self-deception, projection, mental disorder, etc.) to the interpersonal level and social level such as tensions, dissension, violence, and wars; the elimination of such a view when one contemplates on the anatta nature of personalities (khandha) as well as of events (sankhārā) and things (dhammā) will conduce to harmony and well-being of the individual as well as of the society.

The craving, passion and expectation that we invested in our life are the cause of most of our disappointments, distresses, and many untold suffering and tensions. The following passage in SN directly points out that:

"...when a person is not free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever & craving for physical form, feeling, perception, dispositions, and consciousness, then any change & alteration in that physical form, etc., arises sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair."

"...and seeing what benefit does your teacher teach the subduing of passion & desire for physical form, etc.?"

"...when a person is free from passion, desire, love, thirst, fever & craving for physical form, etc., then from any change & alteration in that physical form, feeling, perception, dispositions and consciousness, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief & despair do not arise." [10] [ S. III.22: 2]

When encountering the three marks of existence (anicca, dukkha, anatta), we have a choice. This is the freedom or free will to make karma for ourselves. The actions and reactions reveal the level of wit and wisdom or ignorance in each individual. An untrained and wrongly directed mind leads to unskillful action(s) and negative reaction(s) (akusalakamma and apuññābhisaṅkhārā), thus the muddle-headed fellow just acts out his impulsions, which are mostly driven by greed, hate, and ignorance. He desperately fights back the whole world to protect his fabricated ego, and at the end, he would find it a vain attempt, an ultimate failure. This neurotic state is described in the olden texts as: sabbe puthujanā ummattakā. He is the person who heads from darkness to darkness, who blindly roaming in the world of illusory termed samsāra. Or in other words, the samsāra is long for him who know not the true dhamma. [Dhammapada ...].

Negative reactions to life’s circumstances (that constant changing, dancing with vicissitudes, and abash to one’s will to control) is the path of akusalakamma and apuññābhisaṅkhārā. A positive reaction to life’s events is the path of kusalakamma and puññābhisaṅkhārā. A trained and well directed mind guides one in a right course of actions (kusalakammapatha) and positive reactions (puññābhisaṅkhārā), Thus one heads from darkness to light or from light to light. Mounting the first possibility (which caused by ignorance of the fact of life and blinded by one’s immature motives) by substituting it with positive way of reacting is the self- evolution. Accepting, understanding, letting go and emptying all the wants of the ego is the possibility founded in the attitude of the enlightened ones who have transcended all self-motives. They have no reaction, even the positive one; they see every thing that happen in the light of ‘pure phenomena’ (suddhadhammā).

Seeing the impersonal dhammā helps one to deal with oneself, people and life in a more liberal and flexible way. This is a-dynamic-encounter-with-life attitude, i.e. not taking oneself or others as some fixed identity, not taking things as entity, not taking events as fate, but all of these are just sankhārādhammā- conditioned things, vayadhammā- fleeting away events, viparināmadhammā- changeful phenomena. When ‘things go wrong’, we suggest another way to make it work, not to blame the person. When we view that another person is just a conditioned set of khandhas, like us, we will feel more compassion than anger, or contempt, or frustration. Thus see the dhammā, not the person, see it as phenomena, not ‘me’ and ‘mine’. This insight enables the practitioner to remain unshaken at all worldly conditions. This ability is described in Mangalasutta as: "phuṭṭhassa loka-dhammehi. Cittaṃ yassa na kampati. Asokaṃ virajaṃ khemaṃ - Etam mangalam’uutamaṃ.- When encountering with worldly conditions; his mind does not tremble; sorrowless, stainless and serene – this is the highest blessing."

Dhammanandā Bhikkhuni,
BCC, 125 Anderson Road,
Dehiwala. Sri Lanka
Sep. 29. 2006.


[1] Steven Collins, Selfless Persons (Cambridge University Press-1978) P.70

" The idea of kamma is a very basic plank of the Buddhist doctrinal edifice; the theory of non-self and of continuity, which I will examine later, represent far more sophisticated and complex intellectual products. If kamma is not an ubiquitous and uniform element of religious practice in Buddhist societies, how much less so will be such abstruse matters as non-self and continuity?"

And: "The intellectual position of specialist Buddhism is quite specific; despite its being a system which emphasizes to an almost exaggerated degree individual responsibility in ethics (through the strict application of karma) and which offer a way to complete salvation (in nirvāna), there is a radical refusal to speak of a self or permanent person in any theoretical contexts. It is, I think, fruitless for a choolar to try to explain, in his own more or less technical terms, what is "mean" and what such a salvation can be. Rather he should see Buddhism’s idealogical stance as a social, intellectual, and soteriological strategy. Among those Buddhists who are concerned with and pay explicit allegiance to the doctrine of anattā, it provides orientation to social attitude and behaviour (particularly vis-ā-vis Brahmanical thought and the ritual prists who purveyed it), to conceptual activity in the intellectual life of Buddhist scholastics, and to soterological activity in the life of virtuoso meditators." P. 78

[2] Sue Hamilton, Early Buddhism: a new approach "I the Beholder", Black stone, London 2002, P. 22: "Several scholarly studies have draw together extensive textual evidences suggesting that early Buddhist texts do in fact allow for a conventional every day self, and it was at this conventional level that the teaching applied (Collins 1982; Harvey 1995). But they did not satisfactorily explain what to me was the more fundamental problem: how can one experience that one is or has no self? With the best will on the world, I could not but think that in any context out side of a madhouse the very idea of it is incoherent. In offering alternative interpretations, some scholars went so far as to suggest that the point of anatta teaching was that one should not confuse any conventional notion of self with one’s eternal & real transcendental self (Prez- Remon 1980). But eternalists are coupled with annihilationists in the texts and get equally short shift."

[3] Caroline Brazier, Buddhism on the couch, from analysis to awakening using Buddhist psychology (Ulysses Press. UK 2003), P. 138: "Human are dependently originated and conditioned by events and circumstances. With events and circumstances, people change. The teaching of non-self is not a denial of the existence of the person as a complex entity, functioning in a complex world. Non-self theory places people in a dynamic encounter with one another and with the environment they inhabit."

[4] Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’ti. Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’ti. Sabbe dhammā anattā’ti.

Yadā paññāya passati. Atha nibbindati dukkhe. Esa maggo visuddhiyā.

'All conditioned things are impermanent
When one sees this with wisdom
And becomes disenchanted with stress,
This is the path to purity.

'All conditioned things are stressful'
When one sees with wisdom
And become disenchanted with stress,
This is the path to purity.

'All dhammas are not-self'
When one sees with wisdom
And becomes disenchanted with stress,
This is the path to purity. [ Dhp 277-279]

[5] See Ariyapariyesanasutta. MN i

[6] M 22. P.188. Chatthasangiti Tipitaka edition. Penang 2000: Kullūpamaṃ vo bhikkhave dhammaṃ desessāmi nittharaṇatthāya, no gahaṇatthāya...Evameva kho bkikkhave kullūpamo mayā dhammo desito nittharaṇatthāya, no gahaṇatthāya. Kullūpamaṃ vo bhikkhave dhammaṃ desitaṃ ājānantehi dhammāpi vo pahātabbā, pageva adhamma.

[7] The Seeker’s glossary of Buddhism. Second edition 1998 by the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation. Taipei, Taiwan. P. 40

[8] See Potthappadasutta (DN), Malunkyasutta (MN), SN iii, 24, Diṭṭhisamyatta.

[9] Malcolm Huxter: A Path to Psychological Freedom. E-sources.

[10] S III. 22:2, Devadaha sutta: rūpe kho āvuso, avigatarāgassa avigatachandassa avigatapemassa avigatapipāsassa avigatataṅhassa tassa rūpassa vipariṇāmaññathābhāvā uppajjanti sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā...

"panāyasmantānaṃ ānisaṃsaṃ disvā rūpe chandarāgavinayakkhāyī satthā, vedanāya chandarāgavinayakkhāyī satthā, saññāya chandarāgavinayakkhāyī satthā, saṅkhāresu chandarāgavinayakkhāyī satthā, viññāṇe chandarāga vinayakkhāyī satthāti".

Evaṃ puṭṭhā tumhe āvuso, evaṃ byākareyyātha: "rūpe kho āvuso, vigatarāgassa vigatachandassa vigatapemassa vigatapipāsassa avigatataṅhassa tassa rūpassa vipariṇāmaññathābhāvā nūppajjanti sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā, vedanāya... saññāya... saṅkhāresu... viññāṇe kho āvuso, vigatarāgassa vigatachandassa vigatapemassa vigatapipāsassa avigatataṅhassa tassa rūpassa vipariṇāmaññathābhāvā nūppajjanti sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā.

* * *


Primary sources:

Dīgha Nikāya, Poṭṭhapādasutta (PTS)

Majjhima Nikāya, Aladgadūpamasutta; Ariyapariyenasutta, Malunkyasutta (Chatthasangiti Tipitaka edition. Penang 2000)

Samyautta Nikāya, Khandha samyutta; Diṭṭhisamyutta; Sn. v.6, a translation of Thanissara Bhikkhu. E-sources 1998

Khuddaka Nikāya, Dhammapada; Mahā maṅgalasutta

Secondary sources:

Steven Collins, Selfless Persons (Cambridge University Press-1978)

John Welwood, Toward a Psychology of Awakening. Shambhala- Boston & London 2002

Caroline Brazier, Buddhism on the couch, from analysis to awakening using Buddhist psychology (Ulysses Press. UK 2003)

Sue Hamilton, Early Buddhism: a new approach - "I the Beholder", Black stone, London 2002.

The Seeker’s glossary of Buddhism. Second edition 1998 by the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation. Taipei, Taiwan

Malcolm Huxter : A Path to Psychological Freedom. E-source.

Ajahn Sumedho, Self-view, Personality and Awareness, a talk at Amaravati. UK. 2003.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Not-self Strategy, Copyright © 1993 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.


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