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Nibbana and Anatta

06/07/201115:33(Xem: 1028)
Nibbana and Anatta

canhdep_1dNibbana & Anatta

 Nanavira Thera


Atthangatassa na pamánam atthi
Yena nam vajju tam tassa natthi
Sabbesu dhammesu samúhatesu
Samúhatá vádapathá pi sabbeti

(Suttanipáta, Upasívamánavapucchá)

Of one who's passed away there is no measure
Of him there's naught whereby one may say aught;
When once all things have wholly been removed,
All ways of saying, too, have been removed.


It is a common error to suppose that a negative quantity is merely nothing, and that therefore, somehow or other, it 'does not exist'. A negative quantity describes the operation of subtraction: it expresses the difference between an earlier and later state. Suppose there are eight oranges in a pile, and three of them are taken away and eaten, then five will be left; and by comparing the pile before the oranges were removed with the pile after they were removed we can say that the later pile is the earlier pile 'minus three oranges'. The difference of the two piles is expressed as a negative quantity, but no-one would say that the difference 'does not exist'. Even if all the oranges are taken away and there is nothing left, a comparison gives the difference as minus eight, not as nothing; and, again, the difference is not a fiction.

In much the same way, a statement that nibbána, or extinction, is negative, that it is a destruction or an absence or cessation, does not mean that it 'does not exist', nor does it mean that it is something mythical or unreal, nor that it is nothing; it simply means, as we shall see, that nibbána is the essential difference between an earlier state and a later, between an ordinary living being and an Arahat.

What has the Buddha said about nibbána? We can hardly find a fuller description than the following Sutta affords.

Vuttam hetam bhagavatá arahatáti me sutam.
Dvemá bhikkhave nibbánadhátuyo. Katamá dve.
Saupádisesá ca nibbánadhátu anupádisesá ca nibbánadhátu.
Katamá ca bhikkhave saupádisesá nibbánadhátu.
Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu araham hoti khínásavo vusitavá katakaraníyo ohitabháro anuppattasadattho parikkhínabhavasamyojano sammadaññávimutto. Tassa titthanteva pañcindriyáni, yesam avighátattá manápámanápam paccanubhoti, sukhadukkham patisamvediyati. Tassa yo rágakkhayo dosakkhayo mohakkhayo, ayam vuccati bhikkhave saupádisesá nibbánadhátu.
Katamá ca bhikkhave anupádisesá nibbánadhátu. Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu araham hoti khínásavo vusitavá katakaraníyo ohitabháro anuppattasadattho parikkhínabhavasamyojano sammadaññávimutto. Tassa idheva bhikkhave sabbavedayitáni anabhinanditáni sítibhavissanti, ayam vuccati bhikkhave anupádisesá nibbánadhátu.

Imá kho bhikkhave dve nibbánadhátuyoti.
Etam attham bhagavá avoca, tatthetam iti vuccati:

Duve imá cakkhumatá pakásitá
Nibbánadhátú anissitena tádina,
Eká hi dhátu idha ditthadhammika
Saupádisesá bhavanettisankhayá,
Anupádisesá pana samparáyiká
Yamhi nirujjhanti bhaváni sabbaso.
Ye etad aññáya padam asankhatam
Vimuttacittá bhavanettisankhayá,
Te dhammasárádhigamá khaye ratá
Pahamsu te sabbabhaváni tádinoti.

Ayam pi attho vutto bhagavá iti me suttanti.
(Itivuttaka, Dukanipáta, II,7)

I heard this said by the August One, said by the Arahat.
'There are, monks, two Extinction Elements. Which are the two?
The Extinction Element with Remainder[3] and the Extinction Element without Remainder.
Which, monks, is the Extinction Element with Remainder?
Here, monks, a monk is an Arahat, one whose cankers are destroyed, who has lived the life, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, achieved his own welfare, destroyed attachement to being, one who is free through knowing rightly. There remains in him just the five faculties; through their being undemolished he suffers what is agreeable and disagreeable, he experiences what is pleasant and painful. It is his destruction of lust, hate, and delusion, monks, that is called the Extinction Element with Remainder.
And which, monks, is the Extinction Element without Remainder?
Here, monks, a monk is an Arahat, one whose cankers are destroyed, who has lived the life, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, achieved his own welfare, destroyed attachement to being, one who is free through knowing rightly. All his feelings, monks, not being delighted in here and now, will become cold: it is this, monks, that is called the Extinction Element without Remainder.

These, monks, are the two Extinction Elements.'
The August One said those words. This also he said:

'These two Extinction Elements are made plain
By the Untrammelled One, the Saint, the Seer:
Here, through destruction of what to being leads,
One Element with Remnant still, in life;
And one without Remainder as yet to come
Wherein beings (= existences) shall entirely cease.
The minds of those who know this unformed state
Are free, through destruction of what to being leads:
The Teaching's heart attained, such ones rejoice
In destruction, all beings laid aside.'

These words, too, spoken by the August One, I heard thus.

The five khandhá, or aggregates, which constitute a living being together with his entire experience of the world, are in a condition of perpetual change. They are continually arising and passing away, and though the body may appear to alter slowly, the changes of the mind can be seen to follow each other in rapid succession; and so long as rága, dosa and moha, or lust, hate, and delusion, have not been destroyed, the five aggregates continue to arise life after life.

Rágam appaháya dosam appaháya moham appaháya na parimuccati játiyá....
(Anguttara II,i,6)

Without putting aside lust, hate, and delusion, one is not free from birth....

An Arahat is one who succeeds in destroying, once for all, his lust, hate, and delusion: this destruction, as we have seen, is known as saupádisesá nibbánadhátu, or the Extinction Element with Remainder. The remaining basis -- due to former lust, hate, and delusion -- comprises the Arahat's five faculties -- eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body -- and permits his experiences of pleasant and painful sensations while he yet lives. He does not, however, delight in, nor is he affected by, these various feelings, since he has destroyed lust, hate, and delusion; and when he dies his feelings cease. That is to say: his five faculties break up at death, and, being rid of lust, hate, and delusion, he is free from birth; the faculties, therefore, will not again come into existence, and there can consequently be no fresh sensations dependent upon them -- in other words, his feelings 'will become cold':

Seyyathápi bhikkhave telañca paticca vattiñca teladípo jháyeyya, tasseva telassa ca vattiyá ca pariyádáná anáháro nibbáyeyya; evameva kho bhikkhave bhikkhu káyapariyantikam vedanam vediyamáno, Káyapariyantikam vedanam vediyámíti pajánáti, jívitapariyantikam vedanam vediyamáno, Jívitapariyantikam vedanam vediyámíti pajánáti, Káyassa bhedá uddham jívitapariyádáná idheva sabbavedayitáni anabhinanditáni sítibhavissantíti pajánátíti.
(Vedaná Samyutta, 7)

Just as, monks, an oil lamp burns dependent upon oil and wick, and simply through the coming to an end of its oil and wick, being without sustenance, it is extinguished; so indeed, monks, when a monk feels a feeling that the body has come to an end he understands 'I feel a feeling that the body has come to an end', and when he feels a feeling that life has come to an end he understands 'I feel a feeling that life has come to an end', and he understands 'With the breaking up of the body and the coming to an end of life, all feelings, not being delighted in, here and now will become cold'.

Not only are feelings extinguished at the death of an Arahat, but the entire five aggregates, being inseparable, no longer arise:

Abhedi káyo, nirodhi saññá, vedaná sítibhavimsu sabbá,
Vúpasamimsu sankhárá, viññánam attham agamáti.

(Udána, VIII,9)

The body broke up, perception ceased, all feelings become cold,
Formations subsided entirely, consciousness passed away.

This is called anupádisesá nibbánadhátu, or the Extinction Element without Remainder.

The important thing to notice is that both the Extinction Elements are either destruction or cessation. The Extinction Element with Remainder is destruction of lust, hate, and delusion: it is the destruction, and not the remainder -- the faculties -- nor the sensation dependent upon it, that is called the Extinction Element. (In much the same way it is the absence of disease that is called 'health', and not the body itself, which can only be said to 'possess health' or to 'be healthy'.) This destruction, furthermore, is permanent, since lust, hate, and delusion, once destroyed, can reappear neither in this lifetime nor hereafter: and also, since the presence of these three things is necessary for mentalsuffering to arise, this destruction, or Extinction Element, is pleasant, in the sense that absence of mental distress is pleasant. (Bodily suffering, as we have seen, is not affected so long as the faculties remain.) With the Extinction Element without Remainder, the remainder -- the faculties --, which was not destroyed earlier, now breaks up, and the five aggregates finally cease to arise. This Extinction Element too -- final cessation -- is permanent, and it is pleasant in the sense of complete absence of all feelings whatsoever, mental or bodily:

Tatra kho áyasmá Sáriputto bhikkhú ámantesi, Sukham idam ávuso nibbánam, sukham idam ávuso nibbánanti.
Evam vutte áyasmá Udáyi áyasmantam Sáriputtam etad avoca, Kim panettha ávuso Sáriputta sukham yad ettha natthi vedayitanti.
Etad eva khvettha ávuso sukham yad ettha natthi vedayitam.

(Anguttara IX,34)

Then the Venerable Sáriputta addressed the monks, 'It is extinction, friends, that is pleasant; it is extinction, friends, that is pleasant.'
When this was said, the Venerable Udáyi said to the Venerable Sáriputta, 'But what, friend Sáriputta, is pleasant herein, since herein there is no feeling?'
'Just this, friends, is pleasant herein, that herein there is no feeling.'

Thus, neither of the Extinction Elements is stated as containing, or consisting of, all or any of the five aggregates; both are stated in terms of absence of undesirable things; both are permanent and pleasant. Nibbána then, or extinction, is negative, as 'minus three oranges' is negative: but just as there must have been a pile of oranges in the first place before we can say 'minus three oranges', so there must have been a living being full of lust, hate, and delusion, before we can say 'nibbána'. Nibbána is not nothing: it iscessation of the process of[4] existence.

Bhavanirodho nibbánam, bhavanirodho nibbánanti.
(Anguttara X,6)

Extinction is cessation of being! Extinction is cessation of being!

And is this not annihilation? So, indeed, it will appear to anyone who believes that there is something permanent and unchanging, a lasting self, to be annihilated:

Siyá nu kho bhante ajjhattam asati paritassanáti.
Siyá bhikkhúti bhagavá avoca. Idha bhikkhu ekaccassa evam ditthi hoti, So loko so attá so pecca bhavissámi nicco dhuvo sassato aviparinámadhammo sassatisamam tatheva thassámíti. So sunáti tathágatassa vá tathágatasávakassa vá sabbesam ditthitthánádhitthánápariyutthánábhinivesánusayánam samugghátáya sabbasankhárasamatháya sabbúpadhipatinissaggáya tanhakkhayáya virágáya nirodháya nibbánáya dhammam desentassa. Tassa evam hoti: Ucchijjissámi náma su, vinassissámi náma su, na su náma bhavissámíti. So socati kilamati paridevati, urattálim kandati, sammoham ápajjati. Evam kho bhikkhu ajjhattam asati paritassaná hotíti.

(Majjhima 22)

'Might there be anxiety about internal non-being, venerable sir?'
'There might be, monk', the August One said. 'Here, monk, someone holds this view, "that is the world, that is the self; when I have departed I shall be permanent, enduring, eternal, not subject to change; and like this shall I remain, for ever and ever". He listens to the Tathágata or his disciple teaching the doctrine (dhamma) for the uprooting of all views, prejudices, obsessions, inclinations, and tendencies, for the calming of all formations, for the relinquishing of all foundations, for the destruction of craving, for dispassion, for cessation, for extinction. It occurs to him, "I shall surely be cut off! I shall surely perish! I shall surely be no more!" He sorrows, is distressed, and laments, and beating his breast and bewailing, he falls into confusion. Thus indeed, monk, there is anxiety about internal non-being.'

Only when the world of the five aggregates is no longer thought of as permanent and unchanging self (and we shall see that the idea of self is merely a mistaken view of the five aggregates), only then will extinction of becoming cease to appear as annihilation of self.

The second discourse of the Buddha to the first five monks, the Anattalakkhana Sutta (Khandha Samyutta 59), is one of the better-known Suttas, and no-one now disputes that the Buddha categorically denied the existence of attá, self or soul, in the five aggregates. But belief in self is strong, and hard to abandon; and many people, forbidden to look for self inside the five aggregates, hope to find it outside;[a] and they sometimes come to think that nibbána must contain, or be, attá.

In thinking that nibbána is attá, two mistakes are made. The first may be seen from this text:

Ye hi keci bhikkhave samaná vá bráhmaná va anekavihitam attánam samanupassamáná samanupassanti, sabbe te pañcupádánakkhandhe samanupassanti, etesam vá aññataram.
(Khandha Samyutta 47)

Whatever ascetics or recluses, monks, there may be who consider self in various forms, they are all considering the five aggregates of clinging or one of them.

All thoughts about self are necessarily, whether the thinker is aware of it or not, thoughts about the five aggregates of clinging; and to think of nibbána as attá is to think ofnibbána as consisting of one or more of these five aggregates.

The second mistake is to believe that there really is such a thing as self. The following text leaves no doubt about the matter.

Ahañ cánanda Vacchagottassa paribbájakassa, Atthattáti puttho samáno, Attháttati vyákareyyam; api nu me tam anulomam abhavissa ñánassa upádáya, Sabbe dhammá anattáti.
No hetam bhante.

(Avyákata Samyutta 10)

'If, Ánanda, when asked, "Does self exist?", I had answered the wanderer Vacchagotta, "Self does exist"; would that have been in accordance with the knowledge that I have, "All things are not-self"?'
'No indeed, Venerable Sir.'

Whatever the significance of sabbe dhammá anattá (a matter that will be discussed later), it is clear that an affirmative answer to the question 'Does self exist?' would not have been in accordance with the Buddha's knowledge.

It is quite evident that 'nibbána is attá' cannot be said.

Depending upon whether water is present or not, a piece of cloth may be either wet or dry; there is no third possibility: and it might seem that this alternative applies to all things. Whatever is not wet must be dry; whatever is not dry must be wet. Just so, it may be thought that whatever is not attá must be anattá, and whatever is not anattá must be attá. Since we cannot say 'nibbána is attá', it follows that nibbána must be anattá. But suppose a hole is made in the cloth by cutting a small piece of material from the middle: though the cloth itself must indeed be either wet or dry, the hole, as such, is neither. A hole is a negative, an absence of some material substance -- in this case, of cotton threads --, and we cannot ascribe to it qualities, such as wet and dry, that properly apply only to actual material substance. Nibbána, like the hole in the cloth, is a negative, an absence of what formerly was present; and attá and anattá can properly apply -- attá mistakenly, and anattá correctly -- only to the positive five aggregates. The attempt to ascribe these attributes to nibbána lands us in absurdities, as we may see when the Anattalakkhana Sutta (Khandha Samyutta 59) is travestied by substitutingnibbána for the five aggregates:

Nibbánam bhikkhave anattá. Nibbánañca hidam bhikkhave attá abhavissa, na yidam nibbánam ábádháya samvatteyya, labbhetha ca nibbáne, Evam me nibbánam hotu, evam me nibbánam má ahosíti. Yasmá ca kho bhikkhave nibbánam anattá, tasmá nibbánam ábádháya samvattati, na ca labbhati nibbáne, Evam me nibbánam hotu, evam me nibbánam má ahosíti.

Extinction, monks, is not-self. For if, monks, extinction were self, then extinction would not lead to affliction, and one would obtain of extinction, 'Let my extinction be thus, let my extinction not be thus'. And indeed, monks, extinction is not-self, so extinction leads to affliction, and it is not obtained of extinction, 'Let my extinction be thus, let my extinction not be thus'.

To say that nibbána is attá is to think that we can alter our personal extinction to suit our taste, which is a very curious idea: but to say 'nibbána is anattá', in our haste to correct the mistaken view that nibbána is attá, is merely to assert that extinction leads to affliction -- to change, decay, and death --; and we escape out of the fire, but only into the frying-pan. Those who hold the view that nibbána is attá are, indeed, doubly mistaken -- they misunderstand nibbána, and they believe in the reality of attá. But although those who hold that nibbána is anattá may not believe in the existence of attá, or may think they do not believe in it,[b] they still confound nibbána, consciously or unconsciously, with the five aggregates.

If it is remembered, that permanent abiding attá can only be thought of in connexion with the five aggregates; that, in fact, such a thought is mistaken, since it rests on an ontological deception, a mirage, the illusion 'I am'; that the five aggregates are consequently without attá, or unchanging principle or essence; that, since they have no unchanging principle or essence, they are powerless to resist impermanence and inevitably 'lead to affliction' -- to change, decay, and death --; and that this impotence in the face of change is the characteristic of anattá: and if it is also remembered that nibbána is both void of the five aggregates and permanent, -- then it should not be difficult to see why nothing is attá, why the five aggregates are anattá, and why it cannot be said that nibbána is either.

Certainly, a statement by the Buddha that nibbána is attá or that it is anattá is nowhere to be found it the Suttas.


A discussion of nibbána and anattá might, perhaps, have been needless, were it not that, in spite of the Buddha's silence on the matter, the view that nibbána is anattá is often put forward. To justify this view, appeal is generally made to these three statement of the Buddha's, which occur in the Suttas in many places:

Sabbe sankhárá aniccá.
Sabbe sankhárá dukkhá.
Sabbe dhammá anattá.

       (Anguttara III,134; Dhammapada 277-279; &c.)

All formations are impermanent.
All formations are suffering.
All things are not-self.

They are interpreted in this way. Sabbe sankhárá means everything that is sankhata, or formed; or, in other words, everything excluding the asankhata, the unformed,nibbánaSabbe dhammá means both sankhata and asankhata; that is to say, everything, nibbána included. Nibbána is thus anattá.

As evidence of the correctness of such an interpretation, this Sutta passage will perhaps be adduced:

Yávatá bhikkhave dhammá sankhatá vá asankhatá vá, virágo tesam dhammánam aggam akkháyati, yadidam madanimmadano pipásavinayo álayasamuggháto vattúpacchedo tanhakkhayo virágo nirodho nibbánam.
       (Anguttara IV,34)

Whatever things (dhammá), monks, there are, formed or unformed, the topmost of those things is declared to be dispassion, that is to say, the ending of intoxication, the removal of thirst, the uprooting of yearning, the interruption of the round, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, extinction.

At first sight this passage seems convincing; and it is only on closer examination that the argument based on it is seen to be falacious. For this reason, and also because it provides a salutary warning against treating the Buddha's teaching as an exercise in logic, it is dealt with here. It is clear enough that, in this Sutta, the asankhata, or nibbána, is referred to as a dhamma. But to suppose that the term dhamma can therefore always apply to nibbána would be a mistake, for it is said elsewhere,

Dhammá aniccá: yad aniccam tam dukkham: yam dukkham tad anattá.
       (Saláyatana Samyutta 4)

Things (dhammá) are impermanent: what is impermanent is suffering: what is suffering is not-self.

Since nibbána, as we saw earlier, is both permanent and pleasant -- pleasant precisely because it is void of suffering --, it is evident that the word dhamma does not always have exactly the same meaning. It is not intended to prove that nibbána is never referred to as dhamma, but simply to show that any syllogistic reasoning using the termdhamma -- 'All things (dhammá) are anattánibbána is a thing (dhamma): therefore nibbána is anattá.' -- is suspect and unreliable. And, in fact, reference to the full text of the Sutta passage in question shows dhammá in the company of the words buddha and sangha -- a context where dhamma means '(The Buddha's) Teaching' or 'Doctrine' or 'Norm'. This is clearly a quite different order of meaning of dhamma from that in sabbe dhammá anattá, and the above argument is consequently invalid.[5]

The earlier discussion should leave no doubt that sabbe dhammá anattá cannot possibly refer to nibbána; but if this is once admitted, it becomes necessary to account for the change from sankhára to dhamma in the three statements, sabbe sankhárá aniccá, sabbe sankhárá dukkhá, and sabbe dhammá anattá. Why not simply sabbe sankhárá aniccá, dukkhá and anattá? In the absence of an explanation by the Buddha, all that we can hope for, and, indeed, all that we can really want, is a simple interpretation that should not conflict with the Suttas and should be in conformity with the general intention of the Buddha's teaching. What follows does not pretend to be more than a tentative opinion: it is a suggestion rather than an assertion.

Like the colours of the rainbow, the meanings of sankhára and dhamma are many and various; and just as the blue merges into the green, and the green into the yellow, without any abrupt change, so each meaning of these two words merges into another, and that into a third, without our ever being able to say where one ends and the next begins: under these circumstances, exact definition is impossible, and formal logic, as we have seen, misleading. Some of these meanings -- káyasankhára, 'in and out breaths', for example, and dhamma and adhamma, 'right' and 'wrong' -- are clearly irrelevant to the problem; others, just as clearly, are essential to it. The task is to decide where the dividing line shall be drawn. Quotations from the Suttas are here chosen according as they seem to illustrate various relevant meanings of sankhárá and dhammá(in their plural form); and their general sense, indicated by these quotations, which cover for each word a certain limited range of meanings, will be found to give a reasonable intepretation of the three statements under discussion.

Four texts will be enough to show that sankhárá -- at least within the range that is taken here -- has a threefold aspect.

Katamañca bhikkhave rúpam....
Katamá ca bhikkhave vedaná....
Katamá ca bhikkhave saññá....
Katame ca bhikkhave sankhárá. Chayime bhikkhave cetanákáyá, rúpasañcetaná saddasañcetaná gandhasañcetaná rasasañcetaná photthabbasañcetaná dhammasañcetaná. Ime vuccanti bhikkhave sankhárá....
Katamañca bhikkhave viññánam....

       (Khandha Samyutta 56)

And which, monks, is matter?....
And which, monks, is feeling?....
And which, monks, is perception?....
And which, monks, are formations? There are, monks, these six groups of volition: volition regarding forms, volition regarding sounds, volition regarding smells, volition regarding tastes, volition regarding touches, volition regarding things. These, monks, are called formations....
And which, monks, is consciousness?....

All the volitions of a living being, which arise in connexion with objects either of senses or of the mind, all his affective reactions to experience, his desires and aversions, his likes and dislikes, are called sankhárá, or -- as it is translated here -- formations, and are included in the aggregate of formations. In this passage, therefore, sankhárá are just volitions, and compose one of the five aggregates.

In the next quotation the emphasis shifts:

Kiñca bhikkhave rúpam vadetha....
Kiñca bhikkhave vedanam vadetha....
Kiñca bhikkhave saññam vadetha....
Kiñca bhikkhave sankháre vadetha. Sankhatam abhisankharontíti bhikkhave tasmá Sankháráti vuccanti. Kiñca sankhatam abhisankharonti.
   Rúpam rúpattháya sankhatam abhisankharonti.
   Vedanam vedanattháya sankhatam abhisankharonti.
   Saññam saññattháya sankhatam abhisankharonti.
   Sankháre sankhárattháya sankhatam abhisankharonti.
   Viññánam viññánattháya sankhatam abhisankharonti.
Sankhatam abhisankharontíti kho bhikkhave tasmá Sankharáti vuccanti.
Kiñca bhikkhave viññánam vadetha....

       (Khandha Samyutta 79)

And what, monks, do you say is matter?....
And what, monks, do you say is feeling?....
And what, monks, do you say is perception?....
And what, monks, do you say are formations? 'They form what is formed', that, monks, is why they are called 'formations'. And what is the formed that they form?
   Matter as matter is the formed that they form,
   Feeling as feeling is the formed that they form,
   Perception as perception is the formed that they form,
   Formations as formations are the formed that they form,
   Consciousness as consciousness is the formed that they form.
'They form the formed', that indeed, monks, is why they are called 'formations'.
And what, monks, do you say is consciousness?....

Sankhárá are no longer merely volitions: though still one of the five aggregates, they are now seen in their dynamic function. Sankhárá 'form what is formed'. And what is formed? The five aggregates are formed; all existence is formed. This simply means that the present existence of a living being -- the five aggregates -- is conditioned by his volitions in the past, and that his present volitions condition his future existence.

Finally, here are two texts in which the meaning of sankhárá has moved right over; and the word now refers to 'what is formed', to all five aggregates, to the new existence or the embryo in the womb.

Rúpam bhikkhave aniccam, vedaná aniccá, saññá aniccá, sankhárá aniccá, viññánam aniccam...: sabbe sankhárá aniccá....
       (Majjhima 35)

Matter, monks, is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, formations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent...: all formations are impermanent....

Kabalinkáre ce bhikkhave áháre atthi rágo atthi nandi atthi tanhá, patitthitam tattha viññánam virúlham; yattha patitthitam viññánam virúlham, atthi tattha námarúpassa avakkanti; yattha atthi námarúpassa avakkanti, atthi tattha sankháránam vuddhi; yattha atthi sankháránam vuddhi, atthi tattha áyatim punabbhavábhinibbati; yattha atthi áyatim punabbhavábhinibbati, atthi tattha áyatim játijarámaranam; yattha atthi áyatim játijarámaranam, sasokam bhikkhave sarajam saupáyásanti vadámi.
       (Nidána/Abhisamaya Samyutta 64)

If, monks, there is lust for the sustenance of solid food, if there is delight in it and craving for it, consciousness established there increases; where established consciousness increases, there is descent (into the womb) of mentality-and-materiality; where there is descent of mentality-and-materiality, there is growth of formations; where there is growth of formations, there is in the future a coming into renewed existence; where there is in the future a coming into renewed existence, there are in the future birth, decay, and death; where there are in the future birth, decay, and death, monks, there will found sorrow, passion, and despair, I say.

Sankhárá are first, volitions; secondly, what form the formed; and thirdly, the five aggregates, the living being. Volitions, thus, are what form the formed; and what is formed is the living being. Combining these, we get a single phrase, 'volitions form the living being', which covers all three meanings. This we shall take as expressing the general sense of sankhárá. The emphasis, in particular contexts, on any one of these three aspects may be more than on the others, as the quotations show; but if the general sense is entirely forgotten in such contexts, the essential background connecting different uses of the word sankhaárá is lost; and many passages, thus isolated, become hard to understand. If the context does not indicate any one particular aspect, then sankhárá may be understood in its general sense.

It will be seen that the general sense of sankhárá, 'volitions form the living being', describes a process taking place in time -- past volitions form present beings, presentvolitions form future beings. Since the chief characteristic of a temporal process is change, we may say 'every formation of living beings by volitions is a process of change', or more shortly, 'all formations are impermanent'; and we thus arrive at sabbe sankhárá aniccá.

A general sense of sankhárá has been found by putting together three particular and connected meanings: the result is, as it were, the Lowest Common Multiple. The meanings of dhammá, however, seem to be related rather differently, and the general sense may perhaps best be arrived at by finding a formulation that is true of all of them -- a kind of Highest Common Factor.

Manañca paticca dhamme ca uppajjati manoviññánam.
       (Majjhima 148)

Dependent upon the mind and upon things, mind-consciousness arises.

Mano anicco: dhammá aniccá: manoviññánam aniccam.
   (Saláyatana Samyutta 43)

The mind is impermanent: things are impermanent: mind-consciousness is impermanent.

In these quotations, and in many other passages, dhammá -- here translated as the neutral word 'things' -- means anything that can be the object of mind-consciousness (as opposed to eye-consciousness and so on), or in brief, 'objects of the mind'.

The second quotation shows that dhammá, as objects of the mind, are impermanent. Nibbána, being permanent, is clearly not an object of the mind; for if it were, consciousness and nibbána would both cease together, and lust, hate, and delusion, would return to plague an Arahat upon his death -- a strange state of affairs.

Seyyathápi Sandaka purisassa hatthapádá chinná, tassa carato ceva titthato ca suttassa ca jágarassa ca satatam samitam jánáti, chinná me hatthapádáti, udáhu paccavekkhamáno jánáti, chinná me hatthapádáti.
Na kho bho Ánanda so puriso satatam samitam jánáti, chinná me hatthapádáti, api ca kho pana paccavekkhamáno jánáti, chinná me hatthapádáti.
Evameva kho Sandaka yo so bhikkhu araham khínásavo vusitavá katakaraníyo ohitabháro anuppattasadattho parikkhínabhavasamyojano sammadaññávimutto, tassa carato ceva titthato ca suttassa ca jágarassa ca satatam samitam ñánadassanam na paccupatthitam, Khíná mé ásaváti, api ca kho pana paccavekkhamáno jánáti, Khíná mé ásaváti.

'Suppose, Sandaka, there is a man whose hands and feet are cut off; whether he walks or stands or sleeps or wakes, does he perpetually and continuously know "My hands and feet are cut off", or, rather, is it when he reflects that he knows "My hands and feet are cut off"?'
'No indeed, master Ánanda, that man does not perpetually and continuously know "My hands and feet are cut off", but it is when he reflects that he knows "My hands and feet are cut off".'
'Just so, Sandaka, a monk who is an Arahat, whose cankers are destroyed, who has lived the life, done what was to be done, laid down the burden, destroyed attachment to becoming, who is free through knowing rightly; whether he walks or stands or sleeps or wakes, he does not have knowledge and vision perpetually and continuously established in him "My cankers are destroyed", but it is when he reflects that he knows "My cankers are destroyed".'
       (Majjhima 76 -- Burmese reading)

The man, when he is reflecting, actually sees only the stumps at the ends of his arms and legs -- for there is nothing else to be seen --, and from the fact that he no longer sees his hands or feet he infers that these are cut off. In much the same way, the Arahat sees only his own undefiled mind, and from the fact that he no longer sees his former defilements he infers their destruction -- which is nibbána. Even if an Arahat is not engaged in reflecting on the state of his mind, still lust, hate, and delusion, remain absent, and nibbána endures. To think about nibbána is to entertain an idea or a concept; to realize nibbána is to destroy lust, hate, and delusion;[c] to infer or reflect upon nibbána is to compare two states -- before, and after, destruction of lust, hate, and delusion --: but just as we can never actually see, only infer, 'minus three oranges', so in no case cannibbána itself -- namely, 'minus lust, hate, and delusion' -- be directly an object of the mind.

Even though dhammá -- as objects of the mind -- cannot, perhaps, include nibbána, yet it may still be maintained that sabbe dhammá -- all things -- cannot possibly excludenibbána. Nevertheless, here, surely, is a passage where sabbe dhammá does not refer to nibbána:

Chandamúlaká ávuso sabbe dhammá, manasikárasambhavá sabbe dhammá, phassasamudayá sabbe dhammá, vedanásamosaraná sabbe dhammá, samádhipamukhá sabbe dhammá, satádhipateyyá sabbe dhammá, paññuttará sabbe dhammá, vimuttisárá sabbe dhammá, amatogadhá sabbe dhammá, nibbánapariyosáná sabbe dhammáti.
       (Anguttara X,58)

All things, friends, are rooted in desire; all things are born of attention; all things originate with contact; all things have their source in feeling; all things have concentration as the foremost; all things have mindfulness as the chief; all things have understanding as the highest; all things have release as the heart; all things are swallowed up in the deathless; all things are ended in extinction.

The meaning of dhammá in this text is less easy to determine precisely than in those considered first. Desire, in one way or another, is the root condition of all sentient existence; and feeling, as the Buddha explains at length in the Mahá Nidána Suttanta (Dígha 15), is the source of tanhá, or craving, which is responsible immediately for much of the suffering of this existence, and more remotely for rebirth in the next. But sabbe dhammá, although it undoubtedly refers to sentient existence in general, has a more definite meaning. 'All things -- sabbe dhammá -- are born of attention' and 'originate with contact', and they are therefore not separate from consciousness; for when there is no consciousness there is neither attention nor contact. Furthermore, concentration, mindfulness, understanding, and release, all of them relate only to the mind. A meaning of dhammá that suggests itself as valid throughout this Sutta is 'experiences', understood in a wide sense to include all mental events: without experiences there is no sentient existence; experiences are not separate from consciousness; and also, concentration and other mental states are experiences in the sense intended here. Nibbána, the deathless, brings all experiences to an end.

'All things -- sabbe dhammá -- are born of attention': so it was said above. This leads us to another Sutta.

Catunnam bhikkhave satipatthánánam samudayañca atthagamañca desissámi, tam sunátha. Ko ca bhikkhave káyassa samudayo.
Áhárasamudayá káyassa samudayo, áháranirodhá káyassa atthagamo. Phassasamudayá vedanánam samudayo, phassanirodhá vedanánam atthagamo. Námarúpasamudayá cittassa samudayo, námarúpanirodhá cittassa atthagamo. Manasikárasamudayá dhammánam samudayo, manasikáranirodhá dhammánam atthagamoti.

       (Satipatthána Samyutta 42)

I shall teach, monks, the origination and the passing away of the four stations of mindfulness; listen to it. And what, monks, is the origination of the body?
With the originating of sustenance there is the originating of the body; with the cessation of sustenance there is the passing away of the body. With the originating of contact there is there is the originating of feelings; with the cessation of contact there is the passing away of feelings. With the originating of mentality-and-materiality there is the originating of mental states; with the cessation of mentality-and-materiality there is the passing away of mental states. With the originating of attention there is there is the originating of things (dhammá); with the cessation of attention there is the passing away of things.

Here, dhammá are one of the four satipattháná, or stations of mindfulness. The body, feelings, and mental states, the first three satipattháná, are, for all their variety, fairly simple entities, and they can be observed more or less immediately. They originate and pass away together with sustenance, contact, and mentality-and-materiality, respectively; independently, that is to say, of whether they are deliberately made the objects of mindful contemplation or not. But dhammá, as described in the Satipatthána Sutta (Majjhima 10), are the complex elements of five quite different elaborate analyses of various aspects of existence -- five hindrances, five aggregates, six internal and external bases, seven factors of enlightenment, and four noble truths. These elements are entities that have been observed and identified by analysis and given a mental label.

Idha bhikkhave bhikkhu santam vá ajjhattam kámacchandam, Atthi me ajjhattam kámacchandoti pajánáti; asantam vá ajjhattam kámacchandam, Natthi me ajjhattam kámacchandoti pajánáti; yathá ca anuppannassa kámacchandassa uppádo hoti tañca pajánáti; yathá ca uppannassa kámacchandassa pahánam hoti tañca pajánáti; yathá ca pahínassa kámacchandassa áyatim anuppádo hoti tañca pajánáti.
       (Majjhima 10)

Here, monks, a monk understands present sensual desire, 'Sensual desire is present in me'; or he understands absent sensual desire, 'Sensual desire is absent in me'; and how there is arising of unarisen sensual desire, that he understands; and how there is putting aside of arisen sensual desire, that he understands; and how there is no arising in the future of sensual desire that is put aside, that he understands.

Here, the observed entity is the lustful emotion that has arisen, and 'sensual desire' is the label. This labelling, and the elaborate analysis of the situation that accompanies it, are only possible in a deliberate contemplative effort of the mind; and the identified entities, the elements of analysis, the dhammá, can only occur in the mental process of analysing experience, irrespective of whether the original entities are mental or material. That is why dhammá only last as long as attention (manasikára) is being paid to them, and why 'with the cessation of attention there is the passing away of dhammá'. This suggests a more specific meaning of dhammá, having particular reference to the fourth satipatthána, namely, 'elements of mental analysis'.

From the discussion in the last paragraph, it is apparent that dhammá as 'elements of mental analysis' represents what is common to both dhammá as 'objects of the mind' anddhammá as 'experiences' (in its widest sense); for 'elements of mental analysis' are experiences that have become objects of the analysing mind. We can now formulate a general sense of dhammá that is valid at least within the range of meanings indicated by the Suttas that have been considered: dhammá are 'objects of mental analysis'. This general sense has been derived, not as an exact definition of dhammá, but as a guide to the implication of sabbe dhammá anattá.

When this result is applied, sabbe dhammá anattá becomes 'all objects of mental analysis are not-self'. Since attá, or self, arises in the first place merely as a delusive figment of the mind, and is then attributed by the deluded mind to its objects -- 'the five aggregates of clinging or one of them' --, a statement that mental analysis finds no attá in any of its objects is equivalent to an absolute denial of attá. Remembering this, and also the fact that the mind is the only means there is of investigating anything at all, the foregoing interpretation of sabbe dhammá anattá may not seem unreasonable.[d]

Cakkhum kho Ánanda suññam attena vá attaniyena vá: rúpá suññá attena vá attaniyena vá: cakkhuviññánam suññam attena vá attaniyena vá: cakkhusamphasso suñño attena vá attaniyena vá: yampidam cakkhusamphassapaccayá uppajjati vedayitam sukham vá dukkham vá adukkhamasukham vá, tam pi suññam attena vá attaniyena vá.
Sotam suññnam...: saddá suññá....
Ghánam suññnam...: gandhá suññá....
Jivhá suññá...: rasá suññá....
Káyo suñño...: photthabbá suññá....
Mano suñño...: dhammá suññá....
Yasmá ca kho Ánanda suññnam attena vá attaniyena vá, tasmá, Suñño lokoti vuccatíti.

       (Saláyatana Samyutta 85)

The eye, Ánanda, is void of self and of anything to do with self: forms are void of self and of anything to do with self: eye consciousness is void of self and of anything to do with self: eye-contact is void of self and of anything to do with self: whatever feeling arises conditioned by eye-contact, whether pleasant or painful or neither painful nor pleasant, that too is void of self and of anything to do with self.
The ear is void...: sounds are void....
The nose is void...: smells are void....
The tongue is void...: tastes are void....
The body is void...: touches are void....
The mind is void...: things are void....
Since, Ánanda, it is void of self and of anything to do with self, therefore 'The world is void', it is said.

Thus the Buddha analyses the world into forty-two dhammá, and finds no self. There is no mention, be it noted, of nibbána.

What more remains to be said? We have sabbe sankhárá aniccá because change is the characteristic of sankhárá, a synthesis, a process involving time: sabbe sankhárá dukkhá because suffering is a characteristic of change: and sabbe dhammá anattá because dhamma implies an analysis, a tally of the state of affairs at a given moment, in which no self can be found.

If a length of cable is looked at sideways, the strands can be traced without difficulty from end to end, but it is hard to tell how many there are, and to make sure that not one is overlooked. Sabbe sankárá aniccá is existence seen sideways, as a process: impermanence is easy to observe, but can we be certain there is no hidden core of self inside? If a cross-section of the same cable is looked at, although the strands cannot be seen as they run through the cable they can be counted immediately, and not one will pass unnoticed. Sabbe dhammá anattá is existence seen in cross section, as a state: although impermanence is not immediately not evident, a hidden core of self inside would be noticed at once.

Rúpam bhikkhave aniccam, vedaná aniccá, saññá aniccá, sankhárá aniccá, viññánam aniccam; rúpam bhikkhave anattá, vedaná anattá, saññá anattá, sankhárá anattá, viññánam anattá: sabbe sankhárá aniccá, sabbe dhammá anattáti.
       (Majjhima 35)

Matter, monks, is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, formations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent; Matter, monks, is not-self, feeling is not-self, perception is nor-self, formations are not-self, consciousness is not-self: all formations are impermanent; all things are not-self.

Seen as sankhárá, the five aggregates are aniccá, seen as dhammá, they are anattá. Existence -- the five aggregates -- may be looked at, like the cable, in one way or in another: but in whichever way it is looked at, it is still aniccadukkha, and anattá.

How, then, can nibbána be any of these things? For it is cessation of existence.

Sabbesu dhammesu samúhatesu
Samúhatá vádapathá pi sabbeti.

December 1953

Back to Nibbána & Anattá - Contents

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[5] From this point to the end the argument is seriously at fault and hopelessly misleading. Ñánavíra. 12.iii.65. [Back to text]

[c] 'To realize nibbána and 'to destroy lust, etc.' are synonymous expressions. Extinction is cessation of craving (and consequently of the five aggregates). When craving is put aside (pahíná), nibbána is ipso facto achieved or realized (sacchikatam); and this happens when the eightfold path is developed (bhávito) and suffering is thereby penetrated (pariññátam) -- i.e. by seeing the five aggregates as impermanent, suffering, and not-self. In the path (which is sankhata) both sammásati and sammásamádhi are present, and the object of the latter is the four satipattháná (Cúlavedalla Sutta, Majjhima 44). Thus the object of the mind at the moment of the path is the five aggregates or (which amounts to the same thing) the four satipattháná, and not nibbána. To say that nibbána is seen at the moment of the path is only to speak figuratively. [Back to text]

[d] Perhaps the most satisfactory translation of dhamma in this sense is 'phenomenon' -- that of which a sense or the mind directly takes note, immediate object of perception (Concise Oxford Dictionary). 'All formations are impermanent, all formations are suffering, all phenomena are not-self.' [Back to text]



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