Ethical Significance of Anatta

Anatta is one of the three characteristics of the phenomenal existence. It is the unique and central teaching of Buddhism. According to this doctrine there is no permanent or everlasting self either inside or outside the five aggregates which constitute a being. This doctrine is usually discussed as a philosophical problem leaving aside its ethical significance which is the subject matter of this short essay.

images (6)By ethics is generally meant good and evil or right and wrong behaviors of individuals. According to Buddhism individual’s behavior has a psychological basis. In other word, as Prof. Karunadasa says, Buddhist ethics is the ‘ethics of intension’. Because Buddhism uses two sets of psychological terms namely 1) kusala and 2) akusala to evaluate all moral actions. Actions influenced by the former are considered skillful and actions influenced by the latter are unskillful. Skillful actions result in happiness whereas the unskillful ones bring about harmful consequences to both oneself and others.[1] The rationale provided is that the skillful actions are based on the right view whereas the unskillful ones are rooted in the wrong view (micchādițțhi). The Buddha with reference to the two views says; “he sees no single factor so responsible for the suffering of living beings as wrong view, and no factor so potent in promoting the good of living beings as right view.”[2] The most detriment of all views is said to be the view of self (sakkāyadițțhi) removal of which is possible only by realizing the truth regarding anatta. Thus it is at this point the Buddhist doctrine of anatta becomes significant in the Buddhist ethics.

The main purpose of Buddhism as we all know is the ‘attainment of perfection’ by ending of all forms of suffering. Anatta in this respect plays a very important role. Prof. Wijesekera says, “The idea of Anatta or Selflessness, according to the Teachings, is the ultimate concept to be developed by the disciple intent on the highest spiritual perfection.”[3] The Buddha, in fact, is seen in many discourses to have presented the analysis of five aggregates to show the soullessness nature of them. In the Anattalakkhanasutta the Buddha says, the five aggregates are impermanent, they produce suffering therefore it is not advisable to regard them as “this is mine, this I am and this is my self”[4]. In Saṃyuttanikāya he says, “bhikkhus, the eye (ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering is nonself. What is nonself should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, that is not my self’.”[5] Why they should not be regarded as self because the sense organs, sense objects and corresponding consciousness constantly arise and pass away.[6] If they were self it would not happen.

Contemplation on soullessness was encouraged by the Buddha because it enables individuals to be rid of the unwholesome mental qualities such as pride, craving, anger etc. and brings about peace in their mind. In the words the Buddha:

If a monk lives constantly with mind intent on the thought of selflessness with regard to what is unsatisfactory, his mind will become free from egoism or self-interestedness (ahaṅkāra), from the craving to possess and regard as ‘mine’ (mamaṅkāra), and from inclinations to pride (māna) 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”.[7]

Thus when one is completely free from the ego-centric idea then there is no retributive kammic bondage for him. It should logically be understood as follows. When there is a self idea in me, whatever action is performed by me, I am their subject. Therefore any consequence that results from them will ultimately come to me. But if I do not uphold the idea of self, there is then only action but no actor/doer. Therefore there will also be only results without experiencer. This idea is clearly expressed by Venerable Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. He says: “Mere suffering exists, no sufferer is found; The deeds are, but no doer of the deeds is there.”[8] Thus with the understanding of no-self one overcomes the kammic bondage. But he is not an amoral rather an ethically perfect person. Such a person indeed is considered to have attained the supreme bliss of nibbāna. He is thus regarded as sampanna-kusala and parama-kusala. For in him is then extinguished the three akusala-mèla: greed, hate, and delusion.”[9]

In conclusion it should be said that nibbāna is the highest moral perfection which should be attained with complete eradication of the false belief in the self-notion. Because it is the root of all evils. With the removal of self-notion all evils are removed. Thus the ethical significance of anatta should be understood.




1) Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy (Sri Lanka), 1985.

2) Wijesekera, O. H. De A. (1977): Buddhist Essays, Sri lanka: Buddha Sasana Ministry.

3) _________________ (1960): The Three Signata: anicca, dukkha, anatta, Kandy: BPS.

3) Karunadaasa, Y. (2001): The Early Buddhist Teaching on the Practice of the Moral Life, Calgary, Alberta.

4) _____________ (1994): The Moral Life: Both as a Means and an End, Middle Way (Volume 69:1 p. 17).

[1] See: Kālāmāsutta in AN I, p. 188.

[2] Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy (Sri Lanka), 1985, p. 23.

[3] Wijesekera, p. 141

[4] SN III, p. 66.

[5] SN IV, p. 01. Translation is by Bhikkhu Bodhi in His Translations of the Samyutta Nikāya, Vol II, p. 1133.

[6] MN III, p. 282.

[7] Quoted by Prof. Wijesekera in his book ‘Buddhist Essays’, p. 120.

[8] Quoted by Dr. W. Rahula in his book ‘What the Buddha Taught’. p. 26.

[9] AN V, p. 9.

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