The Anatta Lakkhana Sutta – The Second Discourse

The Anatta Lakkhana or Non-Self Attributes Sutta (Anattalakkhanasuttam, SN, III, 22, 59 (7)) is tucked away in a far corner of the Samyutta Nikaya. This very short text is a description of an address given to Reverend Gotama’s five Sakyan kinsmen, with whom he had lived in ascetic practice for years in a cave above Gaya. The sutta says that it was delivered at the Deer Park in Isipatana (now know as Sarnath, outside the current city of Varanasi) soon after Gotama’s experience of enlightenment at Gaya. This sutta is the second discourse given at Sarnath, following the one in which he presents the four noble truths. The entire Pali text of the sutta with interspersed English translation is available from the digital text of the Pali Canon available on-line from the Chattha Sangayana Tripitaka 4.0. An English translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu is published on-line at the Access to Insight web site:

This text, after the briefest of introductions stating the location of the address and the audience to which it was given, begins immediately with a statement that the five aggregates or khandhas in Pali; form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness, are “anatta” or not self. The proof or this contention follows the argument:

1) Form is impermanent (anicco)

2) That which is impermanent is suffering (dukkho)

3) It is unfitting to say that things that are impermanent and suffering and subject to change could be the self (atta).

Of each of the five aggregates it is said “na me so atta,” “this is not my self.” Seeing this, the well-instructed disciple becomes disgusted and becoming disgusted he becomes dispassionate. Becoming dispassionate, he is fully released from struggle of this world, he becomes an Arahant, one in whom human passion is extinct.

What does this text demonstrate about Gotama’s attitude to the self or soul; atta in Pali, atman in Sanskrit? In isolation from other texts in the Pali Canon, the writer is tempted to say, “Not much.” It is said that since the attributes of human life are impermanent, they must not be the self or soul. But this is no proof that a soul in fact exists, is permanent, or that Gotama thought that there was such a thing as a Great Soul, as taught in the Brahmanical literature, or in itself, a proof otherwise.

Gotama often in the suttas assumes the position of his opponents, as part of a reductio ad absurdum argument. We know from the Brahmajala Sutta, among many other instances, that the concept of atta as a permanent entity was a well known doctrine in India (at least in Magadha) at the time of Gotama. In the Brahmajala Sutta those who believe this doctrine are called Eternalists. This doctrine is called “sassatavādā” in Pali. And in the Brahmajala Sutta this doctrine is rejected as not leading to release.

In the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta the most that one can say is that Gotama argues that our material life, including consciousness, is not that permanent, static, entity, atta, identified in the Upanishads as equivalent to the entire universe. One is reminded of the Potthapada Sutta where Gotama is reported to have said, in response to Potthapada’s contention that  perception and the soul were one entity;  if there is a soul, then perception would be one thing and self another. The reality of a soul is assumed, for the purposes of argument, and shown to lead to a conclusion that is the opposite of that which the interlocutor espouses. The Anatta Lakkhana Sutta is important as the story of the second discourse where Gotama taught the message of the impermanence and suffering inherent in the nature of human life and for its argument that the five khandas are not self. But we must go elsewhere to find the fuller meaning of Gotama’s views towards self or atta. That meaning is more fully explored in the Brahmajala, Mahaniddana, Potthapada, and Alagaddupama Suttas, which are the subject of other discussions in this forum.

Lets look more closely at the logic of the “na me so atta’ passages in the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta. First in propositional logic: lets take A to represent the phrase ‘the khandhas are impermanent,’ the phrase ‘the khandhas are suffering’ by B, and the phrase ‘the khandhas are not self’ by C. The logical form is A , B |- C. Clearly this is not sound. There is nothing to relate C to A and B. Let’s try predicate logic, then. This looks more promising. Let E represent ‘eternal,’ let P represent ‘suffering’, let k represent the khandhas, let s represent self. We want to prove that –Ek , Pk |- -(k=s). Well, clearly we have the same problem here. We need something to relate s and k. That can only be provided by an additional (unmentioned) assumption, that the self is eternal, Es. A proof might run as follows:

1) –Ek                A
2) Pk           A
3) Es           A
4) xy(-Ex & Ey) -> -(x=y) (¿?)
5) –Ek & Es – > -(k=s) Substitution

What do we conclude here? First, the assumption about suffering (2) is redundant, a third wheel. It is not necessary for the conclusion. Secondly, the assumption of an eternal self (3) is necessary to the proof of the thesis that the khandhas are not the self. I haven’t provided the proof for step 4, but it appears sound. It says that for all combinations of objects, x and y, if one is eternal and the other is not eternal, they cannot be the same entity. So, the proof depends on the assumption of an eternal self. But why did Gotama take this position. The conclusion that I draw from this is that his argument is primarily directed against the Upanishadic doctrine of the permanence of soul and world. The argument is that if that is true then the khandhas must not be that soul and world. It says nothing additional about what that soul could be.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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1 Response to The Anatta Lakkhana Sutta – The Second Discourse

  1. Pingback: Zizek’s Event | Notes from my library

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