The True Nature of Existence —
Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta

4 of 5

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha



Anatta — the 'notself' nature of 'myself'

Selflessness, non-self, is the deepest and the most difficult of the universal characteristics of phenomena. In the teaching of anatta, the Buddha proclaims that there is nothing that can be identified as self, that all the things that we take to be ourself, to be I and mine, are really not self.

Self and selfhood

First we have to discriminate between what the teaching does and does not deny by distinguishing the different meanings of the word self. Anatta means literally 'not self'. So what is the 'self' that is denied in the teaching of 'anatta'?

The word "self" can be used in three senses.

  • Reflexively, as when we speak of "myself", "yourself", "oneself". The Buddha applies this use of the word "self" in his teachings; he says that you should train yourself, you should purify yourself, you have to make the effort yourself, and so on.
  • Referring to one's own person, to the compound of body and mind.  Here self is a shorthand device, accepted in Buddhism, used to refer easily and economically to what is really a complex process. We use 'self' in this sense to distinguish different people.
  • A substantial ego entity, a lasting subject existing at the core of the psycho-physical personality.
It is the assumption of selfhood that draws us into suffering.

It is with the idea of selfhood in this last sense that the Buddha's teaching is concerned, for it is this assumption that draws us into suffering.

The Buddha’s teaching does not deny the existence of the person taken as a psycho-physical complex. It does, however, deny that the person exists as a "self," as a lasting, simple ego-entity.

The person exists, but the person is anatta. The individual is a complex of the five aggregates, and to say that a person exists is to say that this unified compound of the five aggregates exists. To say that a person is anatta is to say that no inner nucleus of selfhood can be found within or behind the personality  made up of the five aggregates.

An example – the snake is a rope

Investigating selfhood

We can make the teaching of Anatta clearer by investigating more carefully two questions: What exactly is the nature of selfhood? Why is the person not-self? (What are the reasons for negating selfhood in the five aggregates?)

What does the idea of self involve?

There are four dominant criteria of selfhood:

Idea of lastingness
We think the self has to be an entity which persists through time. It might be a temporary duration, for example, that we come into being at birth, continue as the same self throughout life,  and are annihilated at death. Or else a permanent duration, the idea of an eternal everlasting self.

We think the self is not compounded, that it possesses a basic simplicity or indivisibility.

We assume that the self must possess its own power of being, it must be  self-sufficient, unconditioned, not dependent upon causes and conditions.

We assume that if something really belongs to us we should be able to exercise mastery over it, to control it so that it is subject to our determination.

Selfness nature of the five aggregates

To illustrate the selfless nature of the five aggregates, the Buddha gives certain similes. He says:

  • The body is like a lump of foam — it seems solid but when crushed turns out to be a hollow.
  • Feeling is like a bubble — bubbles on water just arise and break up and show themselves to be empty.
  • Perception is like a mirage — a mirage appears but when we examine it we don't find anything substantial.
  • Formations are like the trunk of a banana tree. Just rolls of tissue within rolls and rolls without hard wood.
  • Consciousness is like a magical illusion. It appears but has no substance.
    The teaching of anatta or not-self is not so much a philosophical thesis as a prescription for self-transcendence. It maintains that our ongoing attempt to establish a sense of identity by taking our personalities to be "I" and "mine" is in actuality a project born out of clinging, a project that at the same time lies at the root of our suffering.