The Significance of the Anattalakkhana-Sutta in Understanding the Essence of Early Buddhism

According to the Mahāvaggapāḷi after the Dhammacakkapavattasutta the Anattalakkhaṇasutta was the second sermon delivered by the Buddha to his first five disciples (pañcavaggiya) at Saranath. The sutta occurs both in the sutta-pițaka (SN, III, 66) as well as in the vinaya-pițaka (Vin, I, 13). Hence the sutta is authenticated as the second earliest discourse of the Buddha. J. K. P. Ariyaratne even calls it as ‘the Buddha’s foremost sūtra’.[1] However, in this short essay I shall try to present the importance of the sutta in understanding the essence of early Buddhism.

index_03This sutta is seemed to have been delivered by the Buddha in succession to his first sermon i.e. the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta. In the Anattalakkhanasutta the Buddha analyzed individual into five aggregates namely form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness. The Buddha begins the sutta by saying that none of the five aggregates are permanent as they are totally out of our control. Therefore they can not be regarded as self. In his own word:

“Form, monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.’ But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, ‘Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.”[2]

The same is repeated with reference to the other four aggregates too. He explains that these five aggregates are impermanent, they produce suffering and therefore they should not be regarded as “this is mine, this I am, and this is my self.”[3] Because if they were ‘self’; they would not change and suffering would not follow. To the question why something that is impermanent should produce suffering the answer is given in the earlier discourse. It says, “In short, the five aggregates of grasping are suffering”.[4] The Buddha did not say that the five aggregates themselves are suffering, but it is the grasping to them that results into suffering. In the next stage of his preaching he says that there is no self-entity either inside or out the five aggregates. The Text runs;

“Thus, monks, any form (feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) whatsoever that is past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every form (feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness) is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.”

In this passage the Buddha plainly explains that the existence of ‘self’ in any form is not evident. This can be linked up with two extreme practices ‘self-indulgence’ and ‘self-mortification’ that were spoken of in the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta. Prof. Karunadasa opines that the two practices are based on two different psychological grasping of self, namely, metaphysical self and physical self and ‘the Buddhist doctrine of no-self is the result of a critical response to the mutual opposition between the two ...’[5]

The importance of the sutta lies in its concluding passage where it says that upon hearing the sutta all five monks attained complete release from the fermentations.[6] This, in fact, is the central focus of Buddhism. As the Buddha says, he is concerned with only two things, namely, suffering and the cessation of suffering.[7] In fact, we see when the Buddha preached Dhammacakkapavattanasutta, out of five monks, only Kondañña gained the dhamma-eye, but when the Anattalakkhanasutta was delivered all five monks became fully released. An interesting remark is made by J. P. K. Ariyaratne in this regard. He says, “the Buddha’s success rate in completely liberating the Five Ascetic from the cycle of samsāra was less than 5% in the exposition of the Dhammacakkapavattanasutta, whereas his success rate was 100% in the exposition of the Anattalakkhanasutta.”[8]

Thus from the above discussion we understand that ‘anatta’ is the unique and central teaching of the Buddha without a full knowledge of which one can never get out of this samsaric existence. N.K.G. Mendis regarding the teaching of anatta says; “It is only when insight is gained in this respect that progress can be made along the Path to full enlightenment”.[9] And that is what we have seen in the case of all five monks in the Anattalakkhanasutta. Therefore this sutta can be regarded as the essence of the entire Buddhist philosophy.







[1] Sri Lanka Journal of Buddhist Studies, Vol. V, 1996, p. 196

[2] Here I have adopted Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation.

[3]etaṃ mama, eso’hamasmi, eso me attā

[4]saṅkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā

[5] The Buddhist Doctrine of Non-Self, and the Problem of the Over-Self, Y. Karunadasa, Middle Way (Volume 69:2) August 1994.

[6]āsavehi cittāni vimucciṃsūti

[7] M I, p. 139.

[8] J. P. K. Ariyaratne, p. 196.

[9]On the No-self Characteristic: The Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, translated, with an introduction by N.K.G. Mendis. Access to Insight, September 25, 2010,


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