Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Attā and Anattā (Part One)

The title of this post is copied from an essay written by the Pali scholar, Isaline Blew Hornerattā means ‘self’; an- means ‘not, without’; hence anattā means ‘not self’ or ‘without self’. I. B. Horner had been working on this topic for quite a while with some earlier drafts (IH A/12) dating to Nov 1948 and the publication of a similar paper in French, 'Attā et Anattā dans les Textes du Canon Pali’ in La pensée Bouddhique, Bulletin des Amis du Bouddhisme, Jan. 1949. pp. 6-13. But it seems it wasn’t until 1952 that it appeared in English, in The Golden Lotus (Philadelphia) and The Middle Way (the journal of the Buddhist Society in London). About 20 years later it was reprinted for Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 7, No. 1. (Winter 1973).

It’s quite an unusual essay: whilst Horner presents some philological analysis, as befits her professional background, her main point is that there’s a major gap in terms of research, though she doesn’t really reveal her intentions until the second half of the paper. Her argument, or plea, is that passages mentioning attā have been relatively neglected and should be given closer attention. She appears to be demonstrating this in the title by placing attā alongside anattā, from which we may infer that these two terms should be studied in tandem. However, being a major undertaking, it is beyond the scope of such an article to provide the detailed analysis, so she cites a number of passages where attā could be usefully explored further, an open invitation to the community.

Horner felt strongly that this was needed: she included a similar call in her introduction to her Pali Text Society translation of the Mahavagga in the Khandhaka, the second book of the Vinaya, the book of monastic discipline, where she writes (in 1951), "Various passages in the Pali canon, including the Attavagga of the Dhammapada, should not be ignored in estimating the position of attā as a philosophical concept in Early Buddhism." (p. xxiv)

I was quite struck by the article, hence this post. After summarising her approach and selective quotes, I indicate how it has been received and responded to, and then offer some response from my own tradition in light of the teachings of the late Chao Khun Phramongkolthepmuni, the late Abbot of Wat Paknam, and re-discoverer of the Dhammakaya tradition. The aim is to show how the teachings can be harmonised, setting these concepts in the framework of a path of practice. Originally intended to be a single post, I’ve split it into three owing to its length, but they should ideally be all read together. If there’s sufficient interest and time, I may tidy up my writing and put together a more formal article.

References are made to the Pali canon in the conventional way, i.e. first to the Pali Text Society edition of the Pali original, using the PTS abbreviations, i.e. a Roman numeral for a book number and then the Arabic numeral; then the Arabic number and section for the translation, as used by popular websites such as Access to Insight. For example: S iii 119 [SN 22.87].

Towards a More Nuanced View of attā

Horner opens by expressing the problem:

It is becoming more and more general to think and to say that Buddhism teaches not-self, anattā...

[It’s certainly a general view today.]

However, based on her extensive readings of the Pali canon (which probably only a handful of scholars could match), she perceives this all-encompassing view as invalid. Choosing her words carefully, she observes:

But Early Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Vinaya and the Suttapitaka, does not exactly teach not-self, except in so far as it says that certain definite things are not-self; therefore put them away, they are not yours (S. iii. 33-34; M. i. 140-141).

She was well aware that her position could (and would) be seen as controversial, so she makes her case gradually, in three parts. Initially, she cites a number of passages relating to anattā, how they are variously framed. She provide explanations that few scholars would disagree with — the five khandhas (aggregates) of grasping, namely rūpa (form), vedanā (feeling), sañña (perception), saṅkhāra (mental formations) and viññāna (consciousness), are of the nature to be impermanent and thus not-self. She goes on to describe how an ordinary worldling is bound by this grasping through the senses, giving rise to a wrong view about oneself. Such false views are to be got rid of. So far, so good.

In addition to establishing the common ground, for the next step Horner intimates in various ways how the meaning of attā is not so clear-cut. And in fact one of her first quotes, from the Vinaya, specifies a condition for attā:

Had they been self: rupam (etc.) c'idam attā abhavissa (Vin. i. 13), there would have been power of disposal over them: Let my body be such, let it not be such. But as they are not self, one cannot alter them.

This could be argued as hypothetical as it doesn’t say whether there really are such attā. However, Horner follows up with a statement by the Buddha that is more direct:

"What is not self, that is not my self" (yad anattā . . . na meso attā) (S. iii. 45, iv. 2) [Anicca Sutta].

This is a strong statement that seems to posit attā: besides the fact that it’s contained in the attādīpa Vagga (‘Self as Island’ section) of the Samyutta Nikaya, the context of eradicating the asavas (taints) across each of the khandhas to obtain final release points to the non-conventional.

To further indicate that there may be more subtle meanings to attā Horner relates the Buddha’s encounter with a wandering recluse called Vacchagotta, to whom the Buddha remains silent when asked in turn: “Is there Self?” and then "What then, is there not self?"(S. iv. 400-401).

Evidently there was no definitive statement that the Buddha could make in this instance. When questioned by his disciples the Buddha made reference to false doctrines that were prevalent at the time (and there were a vast array, including eternalism, as described in the Brahmajāla Sutta). Giving an answer depended not only on the context of the question and what the Buddha knew as true, but also on the questioner's state of mind and frames of reference, which in this case could not support right understanding. Nevertheless, the questioner was asking about ultimate truth and in this context the Buddha would not make a general denial about attā. I think it is this matter of context operating at various levels is what Horner wishes to draw to our attention, though I do not agree with her parenthetical comment about all things (dhammas) being not-self include nibbāna.

Here I would insert a quote attributed to the Buddha from Udana 8.3, which, although not using the term attā, is an affirmation of what likes beyond the khandhas, pointing to a higher sense that may be related:
There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

[Translated by John D. Ireland]


When I was 15 years old the head master at my school required every pupil to write about their spiritual beliefs. Even though I had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, I wrote about ‘God’ in terms of energy and superconsciousness. By the time I had reached my early 20s I had reflected intellectually on the recursive dissolution matter into smaller and smaller parts, finding it inherently formless and devoid of self. At the same time I also intuited superconsciousness with effects in the world of form, but, confining my view of such agency to experience I queried the anthropomorphism, and could not perceive anything beyond a kind of supramundane awareness.

Then, as though reading my mental state, my mother casually remarked, “Apparently there is a realm of Buddhas.” My mother practised a lot of meditation, it was not a statement I could ignore. Very soon my view changed radically as I ceased being annihilationist (from the Latin ad + nihil. literally: to/towards nothing). I’ll try to intimate this in the next two parts.

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