Anatta and Nibbaana

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is nibbŒna which is characterized by the highest happiness (parama sukha) as opposed to suffering. It is also defined as the cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodha) as with the attainment of this goal all suffering cease. However, it should well be understood in its proper context, that is, in the context of the four noble truths. According to the four noble truths the worldly existence is suffering which of course is not without cause, but it has its cessation when its cause is removed by following the noble eight-fold path.

3540339082_logoAll suffering is said to be due to the affirmation of self-idea which manifests in following three ways: ‘this is mine’, ‘this I am’ and ‘this is my self’ – representing craving, conceit, and view respectively.[1] In many discourses the Buddha explains that there can not be found any ‘self’ either inside or outside the five aggregates which constitute a being. Believing in the existence of self is a grave misconception on the part of worldlings (puthujjana). The very fact that they are subject to change, produce suffering and not under our control suggest that they are non-self. Thus the Buddha establishes the fact that there is no self but the self concept in beings.

Since the false believe in the existence of self is responsible for arising of all suffering, the Buddha advices us to be rid of the self-idea. Because he says with the removal of self-idea there is peace and emancipation. In his own words:

“If  a monk lives constantly with a mind intent on the thought of Selflessness with regard to what is unsatisfactory, his mind will become free from egoism or self-interestedness (ahaºkŒra), from the craving to possess and regard as ‘mine’ (mamaºkŒra), and from inclinations to pride (mŒna) with regard to this body with its consciousness as well as all other objects, he will get rid of arrogance and prejudice, attain peace and be emancipated”.[2]

Here it means the emancipation from suffering arising due to self-centered desires. In the very first sermon (i.e. the dhammacakkappavattasutta) the Buddha declares craving to be the cause of suffering.[3] There he mentions of three kinds of craving, namely, craving (1) for sensual desire, (2) for becoming, and (3) for non-becoming. The Dhammapada also says “all sorrow and fear arise from self-centered desires, when one is free from it there is then no sorrow and fear for him.”[4]

The self idea, the Buddha says, is a fool’s thought (bālassa saṃkappo) whereby ambition and pride increase.[5]  All other negative mental qualities exist together with the self-concept. Therefore the Buddha says: “Abandon the idea of Self, and Self itself and pride and other vices will be naturally, destroyed, and thereby mental peace will be attained”.[6]

download (2)Now we understand that the erroneous belief in the existence of self is the cause of all our suffering in life. And once it is removed there is then peace and emancipation. However, someone may ask if there is no self (atta) who attains nibbŒna and experiences happiness? This question, in fact, was raised by someone by the name UdŒyi to venerable SŒriputta. The venerable SŒriputta when asked this question said: “that there is no sensation itself is happiness”.[7]

In fact the Buddha says that all dhammas are non-self (sabbe dhammŒ anatta). It includes both conditioned and unconditioned things in its scope. The Dhamapada says ‘when one understands this with wisdom he turns away from suffering’.[8] The exposition of anatta in different discourses of the Buddha amount to say that there is no self in anywhere. Believing in the existence of self is misconception which produces suffering. NibbŒna is just the realization or insight into the reality that there is no self but supreme peace and happiness. Because in other words it is free from three fires: greed, hate and delusion which causes all the problems in life.[9] And they can exist only in relation to the self-notion. With the removal of self-notion they can not exist therefore there is peace and happiness.

In conclusion it should be said that one can attain nibbŒna in this very life itself. It is not some kind of state or plane of existence. It is just freedom from the ego-illusion and therefore emancipation from suffering. What happens to those who attain nibbŒna after their death? The question, the Buddha says, simply does not arise (na upeti). They just become extinguish just as the fire.


[1] MN 1.135; SN II. 94 etc.: etaµ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti.

[2] Wijesekera, O. H. De A, Buddhist Essays, Sri Lanka: The Buddha Sasana Ministry, 1977, p. 143.

[3] SN V, p. 421.

[4] Dhp: verse-216.

[5] Dhp: verse-74.

[6] Wijesekera, O. H. De A, Buddhist Essays, Sri Lanka: The Buddha Sasana Ministry, 1977, p. 144.

[7] Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught, p. 43.

[8] Dhp: verse-279.

[9] SN IV, p. 251.

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