Sabbe dhamma anatta – Did the Buddha really teach that there is no self?

Introduction

There is a phrase that gets paraded around a lot to try and prove that the Buddha taught that there is no self – “sabbe dhamma anatta” .

But really, you need to understand:

  1. What sabbe dhamma (all things) really refers to    AND
  2. What is excluded from “sabbe dhamma”

Because the Buddha is very clear that when he talks about sabbe dhamma – “all things” – he is only referring to samsaric things and specifically excludes his enlightenment (Nirvana) from this.

The Meaning of sabbe dhamma anatta

So what does this phrase mean?
  • sabbe – means “All”
  • dhamma – means “things” – specifically it means phenomena experienced through your 6 senses
  • anatta – means “not Atta” – not Self or not the Atta or not the Atman – not me, not what I am, not my self

In the Pali language, the words “Sabbe dhamma” are synonymous with the word “sabba” which means “All” (which the Buddha himself defined as the 6 sense spheres in the Sabba Sutta).  So “sabbe dhamma” or “sabba” means “all things” or “all phenomena”.

And “sabbe dhamma anatta” does NOT mean “There is no self”.

What it means is, “All phenomena are not Atta (Self)”.  All things (all of the phenomena that you perceive through your 6 senses) are not you.  So this applies to everything within the sensory realms – that’s the limit to which sabbe dhamma anatta applies – this is crucial to understand because it does NOT apply to anything beyond the world of the senses.

5 Reasons why sabbe dhamma anatta does not apply to Nirvana or the Buddha

Here are 5 reasons why sabbe dhamma anatta does not apply to the Buddha or his enlightenment – because the Buddha himself said that:

  1. The Buddha Transcends all phenomena (Sabbābhibhū – Majjhima Nikaya 26)
  2. The Buddha is Unsullied among all things (Sabbesu dhammesu anūpalitto
    – Majjhima Nikaya 26)
  3. The Buddha is NOT IN all phenomena (Majjhima Nikaya 49)
  4. The Buddha is NOT all phenomena (Majjhima Nikaya 49)
  5. The Buddha has crossed over all things (Pāraguṃ sabbadhammānaṃ – Sutta Nipata 5.14 and 5.15 – this phrase appears in quite a lot of other passages)

So All “things” are not self because they are “things” and are not you.  All things means “all of the phenomena that you perceive through your senses” – are perceptions and are not the perceiver – all your perceptions are not you.

 

So the Buddha himself says that he transcends all things, is unsullied by all things, is unlinked from all things and has crossed over all things.  So obviously, “All phenomena” is excluded from the enlightenment that the Buddha achieved (Nirvana).

And so, Nirvana is excluded from the not-self reflection – Nirvana is NOT anatta – Nirvana is NOT not-self.  Here, we have a double negative – a negation of a negation – which cancels the original negation out.

The not-self reflection only applies to worldly, samsaric phenomena perceivable by your senses – it is samsara that is not self!  Don’t just mindlessly apply anatta to the Buddha or Nirvana because that would be wrong.

Now if it was true that anatta was supposed to be applied to Nirvana and/or the Buddha – you would easily be able to find the Buddha saying “Nibbana Anatta” or “Nirvana Anatman” or “Tathagata Anatta” in the Sutras and Suttas – but isn’t it interesting that the Buddha never said that Nirvana is not self – precisely because he knows that he has transcended “all phenomena”!

 

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2 thoughts on “Sabbe dhamma anatta – Did the Buddha really teach that there is no self?

  1. I love this site is very usefull for me, If only the coumponded things are empty (anatta), why Nagarjuna teaches the Nirvana is empty too? I want make a site or blog like yours, can I translate some texts and, with credits to your site, and provide these texts in Portuguese language? Thanks

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