The Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic, is, by traditional accounts, the second discourse delivered by the Buddha, shortly after his first discourse setting the Wheel of the Dhamma in motion. His audience was the same five bhikkhus who had heard that first discourse in which the Buddha set the Wheel of the Dharma in motion. At the conclusion of that first discourse, the Venerable Aññakaṇdañña had attained Enlightenment, had become an arahant. This second discourse awakened the other four; the final line of the sutta summarizes the historical moment: “And there were then six arahants in the world.”
The term “anattalakkhana” is a compound. The first syllable “an” negates the meaning of what follows, as the “a” in our word “atheist”, or the “an” in “anarchy”. In the animistic theories that were held by many brahmins in the Buddha’s time, “atta” means “soul” : the permanent identity that exists separate and distinct from a person’s current worldly form and that continues to exist when that worldly form ends, transmigrating to a new worldly form. The new form, because it is informed by the same eternal soul, is in some significant way identical with the first form: it is the same Self. Finally, “lakkhana” means “sign” or “characteristic”, in the sense of evidence, or an identifying mark. So the name of the sutta can be translated, approximately and long-windedly, as “The evidence for the non-existence of an essential Self”.
In the Anattalakkhana Sutta, the Buddha leaves no doubt about what he thinks of the notion of such an entity—an eternal Self or soul. He examines all of the places where one might locate such a self—a person’s body, that person’s perceptions, feelings, ideas and conceptual formations, the consciousness itself, and he finds each of those incapable of providing the foundation for a permanent self or a soul. No matter where you look, you will see the same thing: “This is not mine; this is not what I am; this is not my self.”
But the Buddha’s intention here is not to engage in doctrinal dispute or to establish a point of view; as in practically every discourse, the purpose is to point the way to personal transformation. What’s important is not whether or not an essential Self exists, but that by abandoning the conceit of a permanent identity, one can get on with the business of cutting attachments, of ending the craving that is the essential condition for the dukkha that informs our lives. The five entities that the Buddha examines to see if any of them can support the notion of a Self, are form (the body), perceptions, feelings, conceptual formations, and consciousness; those are the same entities that the Buddha identified, in the first teaching, as “The Five Aggregates subject to clinging”, and he identified those as identical with dukkha. Only by abandoning craving with regard to the body, with regard to perceptions, with regard to feelings and ideas and consciousness, does one eliminate the condition that nourishes dukkha; only by abandoning any notion that what I feel to be my self depends, in any way, on the Five Aggregates, can one awaken to “the knowledge and vision of things as they are” which is the sufficient condition for Enlightenment. Thanissaro Bhikkhu has written an excellent essay on the Buddha’s “Not-Self Strategy”, in which he examines the Anattalakkhana Sutta with that understanding.
As Thanissaro Bhikkhu demonstrates, the Buddha rejected both extreme views: the view that there is an eternal soul, and the view that there is nothing that lasts beyond this life. Both views, the former characterized as “Eternalism” and the latter as “Annihilationism”, were dismissed by the Buddha as “fetters”. Once again, the Buddha finds the Middle Way; while there is certainly no “soul” in the sense that the term was understood by Brahmanic animistic theory, the consequences of our kammic actions, just as certainly, persist in some way beyond our current lives, influencing the lives of those born after us. While we won’t get very deeply into the complex of notions regarding kamma and rebirth in this course, “The Teachings of the Buddha”, we will spend one class entirely on that topic in the course “Important Topics in Mainstream Buddhism”. If you are interested in pursuing these ideas, I’ve posted an essay I wrote on the subject for a dharma talk a couple of years ago.
The Online Pali-English Dictionary says of this theory of the Soul: “It is described in the Upanishads as a small creature, in shape like a man, dwelling in ordinary times in the heart. It escapes from the body in sleep or trance; when it returns to the body life and motion reappear. It escapes from the body at death, then continues to carry on an everlasting life of its own. “