by Ven. Nyanatiloka Mahathera

From The Buddhist Dictionary Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines

Anattá: 'not-self', non-ego, egolessness, impersonality, is the last of the three characteristics of existence (ti-lakkhana, q.v.) The anattá doctrine teaches that neither within the bodily and mental phenomena of existence, nor outside of them, can be found anything that in the ultimate sense could be regarded as a self-existing real ego-entity, soul or any other abiding substance. This is the central doctrine of Buddhism, without understanding which a real knowledge of Buddhism is altogether impossible. It is the only really specific Buddhist doctrine, with which the entire Structure of the Buddhist teaching stands or falls. All the remaining Buddhist doctrines may, more or less, be found in other philosophic systems and religions, but the anattá-doctrine has been clearly and unreservedly taught only by the Buddha, wherefore the Buddha is known as the anattá-vádi, or 'Teacher of Impersonality'.

Whosoever has not penetrated this impersonality of all existence, and does not comprehend that in reality there exists only this continually self-consuming process of arising and passing bodily and mental phenomena, and that there is no separate ego-entity within or without this process, he will not be able to understand Buddhism, i.e. the teaching of the Four Noble Truths (sacca, q.v.), in the right light. He will think that it is his ego, his personality, that experiences suffering, his personality that performs good and evil actions and will be reborn according to these actions, his personality that will enter into Nibbána, his personality that walks on the Eightfold Path. Thus it is said in Vis.M. XVI:

"Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found;
The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there;
Nibbána is, but not the man that enters it;
The path is, but no traveler on it is seen."

"Whosoever is not clear with regard to the conditionally arisen phenomena, and does not comprehend that all the actions are conditioned through ignorance, etc., he thinks that it is an ego that understands or does not understand, that acts or causes to act, that comes to existence at rebirth .... that has the sense-impression, that feels, desires, becomes attached, continues and at rebirth again enters a new existence" (Vis.M. XVII, 117).

While in the case of the first two characteristics it is stated that all formations (sabbe sankhárá) are impermanent and subject to suffering, the corresponding text for the third characteristic states that "all things are not-self" (sabbe dhammá anattá; M. 35, Dhp. 279). This is for emphasizing that the false view of an abiding self or substance is neither applicable to any 'formation' or conditioned phenomenon, nor to Nibbána, the Unconditioned Element (asankhatá dhátu).

The Anattá-lakkhana Sutta, the 'Discourse on the Characteristic of Not-self', was the second discourse after Enlightenment, preached by the Buddha to his first five disciples, who after hearing it attained to perfect Holiness (arahatta).

The contemplation of not-self (anattánupassaná) leads to the emptiness liberation (suññatá-vimokkha, s. vimokkha). Herein the faculty of wisdom (paññindriya) is outstanding, and one who attains in that way the path of Stream-entry is called a Dhamma-devotee (dhammánusári; s. ariya-puggala); at the next two stages of sainthood he becomes a vision-attainer (ditthippatta); and at the highest stage, i.e. Holiness, he is called 'liberated by wisdom' (paññá-vimutta).

For further details, see paramattha-sacca, paticca-samuppáda, khandha, ti-lakkhana, náma-rúpa, patisandhi.

Literature: Anattá-lakkhana Sutta, Vinaya I, 13-14; S. XXII, 59; tr. in Three Cardinal Discourses of the Buddha (WHEEL 17). - Another important text on Anattá is the Discourse on the Snake Simile (Alagaddúpama Sutta, M. 22; tr. in WHEEL 48/49) . Other texts in "Path". - Further: Anattá and Nibbána, by Nyanaponika Thera (WHEEL 11); The Truth of Anattá, by Dr. G. P. Malalasekera (WHEEL 94); The Three Basic Facts of Existence III: Egolessness (WHEEL 202/204)