Sayadaw U Silananda
Edited by
Anthony Billings & Maung Tin-Wa
Published by
Penang · Malaysia


  • Introduction

  • Impermanence, Suffering and No-Soul

  • Direct Experience of Anatta

  • Analysis of the Discourse on the Characteristic of No-Soul

  • Understanding Anatta

  • Misunderstanding Anatta

  • Questions and Answers

  • Introduction

    The following discourse is based on a collection of lectures on the Anatta doctrine given by Sayadaw U Silananda. Anatta is a Pali word consisting of a negative prefix, ‘an’ meaning not, plus atta, soul, and is most literally translated as no-soul. The word atta, however has a wide range of meanings, and some of those meanings cross over into the fields of psychology philosophy and everyday terminology as, for example, when atta can mean self, being, ego, and personality.
    Therefore, in this preface, we will examine and elucidate the wide range of meanings which atta can signify in order to determine exactly what the Buddha denied when He proclaimed that He teaches anatta, that is, when He denied the existence of atta. We will examine both Buddhist and non-Buddhist definitions of the term soul, and we will also examine modern definitions of terms such as ego and self.

    Most writers in the field of religion, when writing about soul or anatta specifically use the terms self, ego, being and soul interchangeably, while psychologists define those terms as totally different entities. If we define atta as including the terms self ego, personality, and being, we may make the mistake of claiming that Buddha denied the phenomena of individual differences, individual personalities, individual kamma and other features of individuality in people.

    But if we say that Buddha denied only the theological entity of a soul, while leaving intact a psychological entity such as an ego or self, then we are also mistaken. The resolution of this dilemma lies in the fact that we must deal with two levels of reality simultaneously, the ultimate level and the conventional level.

    In the absolute sense, the anatta doctrine denies any and all psychological entities or agents inside the person. In the absolute sense, all phenomena, including what is called a person, are composed of elements, forces, and a stream of successive states.

    The Buddha organised these phenomena into conceptual groups, known as khandhas (aggregates), and they are: (1) material processes, also known as bodily form, corporeality or matter; (2) feeling; (3) perception; (4) mental formations; and (S) consciousness. Most importantlý when all mental and physical phenomena are analysed into those elements, no residual entity, such as a soul, self, or ego, can be found. In short, there are actions executed by these groups, but no actor The workings of these groups of forces and elements appear to us as an ego or personality but in reality the ego or self or agent of the actions has only an illusory existence.

    However on the conventional level, the workings of these forces, elements, and states are organised by causal laws, and, although they in no way constitute any extra-phenomenal self or soul, they do produce a human individual, a person - if we want to call a certain combination of material and mental processes a person.

    This complex combination of material and mental processes is dependent entirely on previous processes, especially the continuity of kamma which is the process of ethical volitions and the results of those volitions. Thus individual differences are accounted for even though the self or ego or personality is, in the ultimate sense, denied.

    An individual may be an angry, hot-tempered person, for example, because in the past he or she has performed actions which leave conditions for traits, which are kamma results, to arise in the present. But this happens because kamma leaves a potential for those traits of anger and ill will to arise, not because any kind of self of the person is continuing. Actually the human individual does not remain the same for two consecutive moments; everything is a succession of forces and elements, and there is nothing substantial.

    Therefore, on the conventional level, we may say that individual differences have an illusory existence. Common everyday conceptions, such as ego, self, and personality seem to be very real, obvious, and well-defined by psychologists and laymen alike, but they are, on the absolute level and in the eyes of those who have achieved enlightenment, illusory.

    Another way to approach Buddhist psychology is to examine the very complex and technical psychological system known as Abhidhamma. The Abhidhamma is, in the words of Narada Maha Thera, “a psychology without a psyche. Abhidhamma teaches that ultimate reality consists of four elementary constituents.

    One, Nibbana (in Sanskrit, Nirvana) is unconditioned, and the other three, citta, cetasika, and rupa - consciousness, mental factors, and matter respectively - are conditioned. These elementary constituents, called dhammas, alone possess ultimate reality. The familiar world of objects and persons, and the interior world of ego and self are only conceptual constructs created by the mind out of the elemental dhammas.

    Abhidhamma thus restricts itself to terms that are valid from the standpoint of ultimate realities: it describes reality in terms of ultimate truth. Thus it describes dhammas, their characteristics, their functions, and their relations.  All conceptual entities such as self or being or person, are resolved into their ultimates, into bare mental and material phenomena, which are impermanent, conditioned, dependently arisen, and empty of any abiding self or substance.

    Consciousness, for example, which seems like one continual flow, is described as a succession of discrete evanescent mental events, the cittas, and a complex set of mental factors, the cetasikas, which perform more specialised tasks in the act of consciousness. There is no self, soul, or any kind of agent inside a person involved in this process.

    Now let us examine some of the terms related to atta that we find in various sources. The definition of Soul, Spirit given in the Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions is as follows: “That which gives life to any animate thing; or the inner essential, or noncorporeal part or dimension of any animate thing; or a noncorporeal but animate substance or entity; or a noncorporeal but individuated personal being.”

    Another definition of soul comes from Richard Kennedy in The lnternational Dictionary of Religion: “Many religions teach that man is composed of a physical body, which does not survive death, and an eternal, invisible core which is the true self or soul.

    Donald Watson, in A Dictionary of Mind and Spirit, writes, in the entry Sou/: “It goes by many names: jiva (Jain), Atman (Hindu), Monad, Ego, Self, Higher Self, Overself, elusive self, psyche, or even Mind.” In these non-Buddhist definitions of soul, we see many terms inter-changed, such as core, ego, and essence. Sayadaw U Silananda will elaborate on these meanings in his lectures.

    Two Buddhist definitions of atta are here given. The first is from Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary. “... anything that in the ultimate sense could be regarded as a self existing, real ego-entity soul or any other abiding substance. “ In The Truth of Anatta, Dc G.P Malalasekera states that atta is “self, as a subtle metaphysical entity soul.”’ These definitions also cover a wide range of meanings of the term atta and of the usual translations of atra as soul and self.

    The above definitions of atta, soul, sometimes cross over into the realm of psychology when the authors define soul as self, ego, psyche or mind. Did the Buddha deny that such conceptions as ego and self are real when He proclaimed the anatta doctrine? Once again, the answer depends on whether we are speaking of absolute or conventional reality. But first we will examine some definitions from psychology to see what was actually denied both implicitly and explicitly by the anatta doctrine.

    According to the Dictionary of Psychology self is: “(1) the individual as a conscious being. (2) the ego or I. (3) the personality or organisation of traits.” The definition of ego is “the self, particularly the individual’s conception of himself.” Personality is defined as “the dynamic organisation within the individual of those psycho physical systems that determine his characteristic behaviour and thought."

    Another definition of personality is “that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation.”” These psychological terms correspond to some of the terms used in Buddhism to deal with the conventional life of sentient beings. They have a useful purpose as labels, but in the ultimate sense, these labels are, as we shall see, mere designations which have only an illusory reality,

    In Pali, we have the terms satta, puggala, jiva and atta to describe the conventional psychology of beings. Satta, according to Nyanatiloka, means “living being." Puggala means “individual, person, as well as the synonyms: personality individuality being (satta), self (atta). Tiva is “life, vital princi-ple, individual soul.”

    Some uses of atta also fall within the realm of psychology. Atta can mean, according to Dr. Malalasekera, “one’s self or one’s own, e.g. attahitaya patipanno no parahitaya (acting in one’s own interest, not in the interest of others) or attana va akatam sadhu (what is done by one’s own self is good).”

    Atta can also mean “one’s own person, the personality including body and mind, e.g. in atrabhava (life), attapatilabha (birth in some form of life).”

    Pali has some terms which correspond to the psychological notions of traits. For example, the concept of nature or character is called carita. Using this term, we can speak of different types of persons. For example. we may describe a person as raga-carita (greedy-natured), dosa-carica (hateful-natured), moha-carita (dull-natured), saddha-carita (faithful-natured), buddhi-carita (intelligent-natured), and vitakka-carita (ruminating-natured) - six types altogether. Different people are at different stages of development, according to their kamma. Buddhism does not deny that such conceptions of individuality have validity but they have validity only in the conventional sense.

    Dr Malalasekera writes: “Buddhism has no objection to the use of the words atta, or satta, or puggala to indicate the individual as a whole, or to distinguish one person from another where such distinction is necessary, especially as regards such things as memory and kamma which are private and personal and where it is necessary to recognise the existence of separate lines of continuity (santana).

    But, even so, these terms should be treated only as labels, binding-conceptions and conventions in language, assisting economy in thought and word and nothing more. Even the Buddha uses them sometimes: ‘These are worldly usages worldly terms of communication, worldly descriptions, by which a Tathagata communicates without misapprehending them".

    Nyanatiloka adds to this idea when writing about the term satta: “This term, just like atta, puggala, jiva and all other terms denoting ‘ego-entity,’ is to be considered as a merely conventional term (vohara-vacana), not possessing any reality value.

    All of the various conceptions of psychology and religion regarding a self or soul of any kind were indeed denied existence in the ultimate sense by the Buddha. But we may use terms such as self and ego to describe a particular arrangement of the five khandhas (aggregates) which give the illusory appearance of an individual. As Sister Vajira, an Arahant at the time of the Buddha, said:

    When all constituent parts are there,
    The designation ‘cart’ is used;
    Just so, where the five groups exist,
    Of ‘living being’ do we speak.

    In conclusion, the Sayadaw U Silananda has given us lectures on the anatta doctrine in which he uses terms such as soul and self interchangeably. This is because the doctrine of anatta was taught by the Buddha from the point of view of the Fully Enlightened One, a view which saw that all things are anatta. It is with this wisdom that the lectures are given.