Anatta and dukkha - it sounds like nihilism?

In my effort to understand let me state what I think you are saying so you can affirm that I got it or not.

You’re saying that suffering is part of the all and the all is non self and so just as feelings are non self so is suffering non self and because suffering is non self one who recognizes this then does not recognize the existence of either a worldling or an arahant. Neither exist because this distinction is part of the all, which is all non self.

Is this a correct summation of your position in regard to which you stated earlier “there is no worldling or arahant?”

If so, how would you distinguish this position from nihilism? By nihilism I mean the position that there is nothing but the suffering of conceiving that there is something and when suffering is seen as simply the conceiving of something then it ends leaving nothing, as it always truly was anyway. This is nihilism because it proposes that there is nothing other than the all, which is all suffering when conceived of as anything (and not nothing).

If not, how else can one state that “there is no worldling or arahant?” How else can this statement be made except as a way of stating that there is no self? And by stating that there is no self, that there is actually no suffering?

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Dear Kilaya
this is an important topic as understanding anatta at the intellectual level is key before any deeper understanding can grow.
Firstly let`s look at the Theravada creed:
Visuddhimagga XIX19

“There is no doer of a deed, or one who reaps the result. Phenomena alone flow on, no other view than this right.
“This is mere mentality-materiality, there is no being, no person

“The mental and material (nama rupa) are really here
But here is no human being to be found, for it is void and merely fashioned like a doll.

Now let`s clarify the Tilakkhana - the 3 general characteristics, anicca (impermanence), dukkha and anatta. These 3 apply to all realities (paramattha dhammas). And here we need to differentiate realities and concepts.

The thinking process consists of different cittas and cetasikas, including feeling, all arising and passing away rapidly. These are paramattha dhammas, ultimate realities. Let us consider a couple of [examples of] thinking.

  1. Think of an elephant. The process of thinking that imagines this, whether a graphic visualisation or your no-frills, idea only version, consists of cittas and cetasikas which are real. The object of this thinking is a concept, not real.

  2. Think of your mother or father (whether alive or not). Again same process - the cittas and cetasikas of the thinking process are real but the object, mother and father, is concept- not real.

  3. If your mother and father were right in front of you now (talking to you) and you think of them, again the object is concept, not real; but the thinking process is real. The colours are real, the sounds are real, but mother and father are concepts.

Example 1 is easily understood as merely a concept, not real. It is number 2 and especially number 3 that we get confused by.

The Tilakkhana of anicca, dukkha and anatta apply to realities only - so right now the 5 aggregates, khandhas, are real, are arising and ceasing, they are dukkha .
But the concepts like Robert, Kilaya, computer are not real.


Buddha dhamma is reality and it’s ultimate goal is nibbana. Nibbana is not a place where one goes. You can’t come in or go out of it. There’s no footing found in nibbana. Nibbana is also not-self, non-self, no-self, selfless or lacks a self. It’s just like the flames in a candle gone out. Where does the flame go? Nowhere, it’s just gone.

May you realize the sukha/pleasure of nibbana, which is feeling nothing at all.


Now some more about concepts:
Comprehensive_Manual_of_Abhidhamma trans. Bodhi

Analysis of Concepts
There are such terms as “land,” “mountain,” and the like,
so designated on account of the mode of transition of the respective
elements; such terms as “house,” “chariot,” “cart,” and the like, so
named on account of the mode of formation of materials; such terms
as “person,” “individual,” and the like, so named on account of the
five aggregates; such terms as “direction,” “time,” and the like,
named according to the revolution of the moon and so forth; such
terms as “well,” “cave,” and the like, so named on account of the
mode of non-impact and so forth; such terms as kasióa signs and
the like, so named on account of respective elements and
distinguished mental development.
All such different things, though they do not exist in the ultimate
sense, become objects of consciousness in the form of shadows of
(ultimate) things.
They are called concepts because they are thought of, reckoned,
understood, expressed, and made known on account of, in
consideration of, with respect to, this or that mode. This kind of
concept is so called because it is made known

Concepts can be classified in many ways. Things like a unicorn and God and rabbits horns can be considered as different types of pannati from trees. Trees, computers, humans, Robert, Kilaya, are the shadows of what is really there - and what is really there are only namas and rupas, mentality and matter, insignificant dhammas that can barely be said to exist because they pass away instantly. These concepts are more deluding than concepts like unicorns (which we know have no reality).

Because of accumulated avijja, ignorance, these type of concepts (pannatti) delude and instead of being given their correct status - as neccessary designations* - they are assumed to be actual. And that is where all problems begin and end.

*Note that these designations happen long before they are linguistic labels. What is called a thought in conventional language is comprised of billions of momentary arisings which repeatedly take a concept as object and may include mentally naming it. Becuase of this repetition - and the lack of insight into the actual dhammas - the illusion of permanence is solidified.

The commentary to the UDANA ( translation by Peter Masefield from PTS) (p71,vol1, enlightenment chapter)

it is ignorance since it causes beings to dart among becomings and so on within samsara…, it is ignorance since it darts among those things which do not actually exist [i.e. men, women etc] and since it does not dart among those things that do exist [.e. it cannot understand the khandas, paramattha dhammas].


Does that mean ‘we’ are basically actors in the world stage?

That women and men are just like people who play kings in a stage? Unreal?

Male and female are illusions and in reality there is nothing like that? It’s all just conditioned phenomena?

That ‘we’ are basically like marionettes?


In fact there is indeed dukkha (often translated as suffering). But there is not a self who suffers. What is taken as self is a mere concept, a useful designation.

Thus worldling and arahat are terms that are needed to explain the teachings. Indeed the nature of the mind is to form up concepts. There must be this process occuring, no one can stop it occuring. If it didn’t occur we would be utterly vacuous, know nothing at all, much less than a new born baby. Thus it is the most natural thing that concepts are taken as objects.

Unfortunately, though, throughout samasara we have given these concepts special staus that they don’t deserve, namely we think they exist. This mistaken notion means that we will do all sorts of evil to protect these illusionary figments such as self.
When we see that concepts are simply ideas, and that even paramattha dhammas(realities) are so temporary, would we still get so upset when we are criticised? I think we would not kill, steal, lie or cheat over disintegrating colours, sounds or tastes. We can only get angry because of the distorted vision that can’t fully penetrate these matters.

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Yes exactly :slightly_smiling_face:.
Visuddhimagga CHAPTER XVIII Purification of View

  1. Therefore, just as a marionette is void, soulless and without curiosity, and
    while it walks and stands merely through the combination of strings and wood,
    [595] yet it seems as if it had curiosity and interestedness, so too, this mentalitymateriality is void, soulless and without curiosity, and while it walks and stands
    merely through the combination of the two together, yet it seems as if it had
    curiosity and interestedness. This is how it should be regarded. Hence the
    Ancients said:
    The mental and material are really here,
    But here there is no human being to be found,
    For it is void and merely fashioned like a doll—
    Just suffering piled up like grass and sticks.

  2. And this should be explained not only by means of the simile of the
    > marionette, but also by means of the analogies of the sheaves of reeds and so on.
    For just as when two sheaves of reeds are propped one against the other, each
    one gives the other consolidating support, and when one falls the other falls, so
    too, in the five-constituent becoming mentality-materiality occurs as an
    interdependent state, each of its components giving the other consolidating
    support, and when one falls owing to death, the other falls too. Hence the Ancients
    The mental and material
    Are twins and each supports the other;
    When one breaks up they both break up
    Through interconditionality.

And Sela sutta:

This puppet is not made by itself,
Nor is this misery made by another.
It has come to be dependent on a cause,
When the cause dissolves then it will cease.

As when a seed is sown in a field
It grows depending on a pair of factors:
It requires both the soil’s nutrients
And a steady supply of moisture.

Just so the aggregates and elements,
And these six bases of sensory contact,
Have come to be dependent on a cause;
When the cause dissolves they will cease

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I find all these quotations of source material very valuable so thanks for sharing. I have not read the Abhidhamma except as it has been quoted in the notes of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations. So that has been minimal.

I’m not sure if I have stated my reason for my question fully, however. You have explained very well how these texts in the Abhidhamma support your statement that “there are no worldlings or arahants.”

My objection, however, is not from a view that worldlings or arahants exist. It is simply my rejection of the statement that they do not exist. Is there not a middle ground that is between the two? My reading of the suttas supports this as the Buddha’s recommendation. This is his middle path between eternalism and nihilism. Taking either side is not his dhamma in my understanding of it.

Let me know if you want sutta references for this opinion. I can dig them up but I think this aspect of the Buddha’s dispensation is well-known and self-explanatory. To state that there are these things or there are not these things is a view. And I think the Buddha taught the dhamma for eradicating such views altogether so that one can be freed of suffering through non-clinging. To state that something exists or does not exist (or neither exists nor does not exist, or both exists and does not exist) is a form of clinging. Why make such statements about things that are conditioned ultimately by ignorance?

BTW, are these views that you shared, specifically related to these particular Abhidhamma passages, universally accepted as true on this forum? Is this forum based on the outright acceptance as truth of these positions? Just asking, to see whether I really belong here or not because, for the above reason, I don’t resonate with them.


Dear Kilaya

SN22:94 Flowers:
“And what is it, bhikkhus, that the wise in the world agree upon as
existing, of which I too say that it exists? Form that is impermanent,
suffering, and subject to change: this the wise in the world agree upon as existing, and I too say that it exists. Feeling … Perception… Volitional formations…Consciousness that is is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change: this the wise in the world agree upon as existing, and I too say that it exists.”

Thus the Buddha affirms the (impermanent) existence of the khandhas, the five aggregates.

However, we can find a middle if you like in the sense that the texts often use conventional terms like arahats. Each stream of khandhas, arising and passing away mentality and materiality, is individual.
Sariputta was different from Ananda and so on.
So in that sense life and the world is just as we have always perceived it.
What the Dhamma reveals is the unceasing change beneath the surface that we could not know without the teaching of the Buddha.

This can be hard to accept.
I saw a passage in a book that included an interview with the head of the physics department at the University of Chicago (where they later first started making the atomic bomb). It was in the
1930’s and he was telling someone that they now knew that all matter was so ephemeral. He said he found it hard to accept that the very floor they were standing on was just space and
particles in flux - nevertheless that is what they had found. We accept this easily now because of our education but it is not so easy to see.
And the same for some of the deeper teachings about anatta in the texts.


It depends on context. There is samma -ditthi, right view.
Ghosa Sutta:

“Monks, there are these two conditions for the arising of wrong view. Which two? The voice of another and inappropriate attention. These are the two conditions for the arising of wrong view.”

“Monks, there are these two conditions for the arising of right view. Which two? The voice of another and appropriate attention. These are the two conditions for the arising of right view.

“The person possessing right view is of three kinds: the worldling
(puthujjana), the disciple in higher training (sekha), and the one beyond
training (asekha). Herein, the worldling is of two kinds: one outside the
Dispensation and one within the Dispensation. Herein, one outside the
Dispensation who believes in kamma is one of right view on account of the
view of kamma as one’s own, but not on account of that which is in
conformity with the truths, because he holds to the view of self. One
within the Dispensation is of right view on account of both. The disciple
in higher training is one of right view on account of fixed right view,
the one beyond training on account of (the right view) that is beyond

Eradicating all views is appealing but we have to understand a bit more.
The following quote is a little tangential but might be worth considering. Pañña means wisdom.
Bhikkhu Bodhi’s In the Buddha’s Words page 302:

Contemporary Buddhist literature commonly conveys two ideas about pañña that have become almost axioms in the popular understanding of Buddhism, The first is that pañña is exclusively nonconceptual and nondiscursive, a type of cognition that defies all the laws of logical thought; the second, that pañña arises spontaneously, through an act of pure intuition as sudden and instantaneous as a brilliant flash of lightning. These two ideas about pañña are closely connected. If pañña defies all the laws of thought, it cannot be approached by any type of conceptual activity but can arise only when the rational, discriminative, conceptual activity of the mind has been stultified. And this stopping of conceptualization, somewhat like the demolition of a building, must be a rapid one, an undermining of thought not previously prepared for by any gradual maturation of understanding. Thus, in the popular understanding of Buddhism, pañña defies rationality and easily slides off into “crazy wisdom,” an incomprehensible, mindboggling way of relating to the world that dances at the thin edge between super-rationality and madness.

Such ideas about pañña receive no support at all from the teachings of the Nikayas, which, are consistently sane, lucid, and sober, To take the two points in reverse order: First, far from arising spontaneously, pañña in the Nikayas is emphatically conditioned, arisen from an underlying matrix of causes and conditions. And second, pañña is not bare intuition, but a careful, discriminative understanding that at certain stages involves precise conceptual operations. Pañña is directed to specific domains of understanding. These domains, known in the Pali commentaries as “the soil of wisdom” (paññabhumi), must be thoroughIy investigated and mastered through conceptual understanding before direct, nonconceptual insight can effectively accomplish its work. To master them requires analysis, discrimination, and discernment. One must be able to abstract from the overwhelming mass of facts certain basic patterns fundamental to all experience and use these patterns as templates for close contemplation of one’s own experienc

For this forum to participate all it takes is a interest in the orthodox Theravada and a willingness to participate without actively refuting that. Doubts are a given so questions and expressions of doubt are quite acceptable - provided there is not some agenda to disprove the Theravada. Your points are all rather useful so I would encourage you to remain.


There is a sutta that might appeal.
Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View) (

‘Everything exists’: That is one extreme. ‘Everything doesn’t exist’: That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle: From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form. From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.


Thus we see how the teaching on paticcasamuppada (dependent origination) is also an exposition on anatta as it explains the conditioned nature of phenomena-giving the important links, and revealing that there is no self behind these links.

It is not surprising if at times we have resistance about anatta.
Even the venerable Channa, who later became an arahat, knew the teaching about anatta but he shrunk back from it.

Saṁyutta Nikāya
Connected Discourses on the Aggregates
22.90. Channa
, the elder bhikkhus said to the Venerable Channa: “Form, friend Channa, is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, perception is impermanent, volitional formations are impermanent, consciousness is impermanent. Form is nonself, feeling is nonself, perception is nonself, volitional formations are nonself, consciousness is nonself. All formations are impermanent; all phenomena are nonself.”

Then it occurred to the Venerable Channa: “I too think in this way: ‘Form is impermanent … consciousness is impermanent. Form is nonself … consciousness is nonself. All formations are impermanent; all phenomena are nonself.’ But my mind does not launch out upon the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all acquisitions, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nibbāna; nor does it acquire confidence, settle down, and resolve on it. Instead, agitation and clinging arise and the mind turns back, thinking: ‘But who is my self?’(see note 181 below) But such does not happen to one who sees the Dhamma. So who can teach me the Dhamma in such a way that I might see the Dhamma?”


Then the Venerable Channa set his lodging in order, took his bowl and robe, and went to Ghosita’s Park in Kosambi, where he approached the Venerable Ānanda and exchanged greetings with him…”[…]
The Venerable Ānanda then said:
“In the presence of the Blessed One I have heard this, friend Channa, in his presence I have received the exhortation he spoke to the bhikkhu Kaccanagotta:

“This world, Kaccana, for the most part relies upon a duality … (the entire sutta 12:15 is cited here) … Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”

“So it is, friend Ānanda, for those venerable ones who have such compassionate and benevolent brothers in the holy life to admonish and instruct them. And now that I have heard this Dhamma teaching of the Venerable Ānanda, I have made the breakthrough to the Dhamma.”

The Commentary (note 181 bhikkhu bodhi connected discourses):
Atha ko carahi me attā. Spk:

It is said that this elder had started to practise insight meditation without having done discernment of conditions. His weak insight could not eliminate the grip of self (attagāha), and thus when formations appeared to him as empty, agitation arose in him along with the annihilationist view, “I will be annihilated, I will be destroyed.” He saw himself falling into an abyss. [Spkpṭ: Agitation through fear (bhayaparitassanā) and clinging to views (diṭṭh’ upādāna) arose in him over the thought, “If phenomena are nonself, then what self can deeds done by what is nonself affect?” (see 22: 82 (III 104,1) and n. 142)]

Bodhi (note 183 ) explains that "

Ānanda’s choice of the Kaccānagotta Sutta is especially apt, as this sutta teaches how dependent origination counters the two extreme views of eternalism and annihilationism and replaces the view of self with the realization that it is only dukkha that arises and ceases.”

Doubts and confusions are expected as only the sotapanna has eliminated doubt. The way to gradually decrease these is by study, questioning and discussion on these hard points - and by seeing how true it is in daily life.
What is more problematic than doubt is if one decides that there can’t not be a self, that somehow the teaching on anatta allows room to sneak it in somewhere. That is wrong view (miccha-ditthi) and because it always arises with lobha (attachment), if nurtured it can become very sticky indeed.

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Yes. Indeed. Although Classical Theravāda is rare in the English world, it is the most common Theravāda Buddhism accepted by scholar monks. Try to imagine all the Western Monks compared with all of the Asian Theravāda monks from all 5 Theravāda countries. In fact, those who are into EBT or Suttanta-only often object to the “Theravāda” label for themselves. That is why we created this Classical Theravāda Forum. There are no subsections on this forum (or allowed) to entertain suttanta-only or ebt beliefs. There is no need to say… “According to Abhidhamma” because it is already a core belief of Theravāda.

If you ask this question, it probably means you have not read the FAQ. Please give a visit to the FAQ link below. If you feel you are good fit, or you are interested in learning Classical Theravāda without trying to prove it wrong, then you are most welcome to stay. Most questions are easy for us to answer because the depth of suttanta only subjects by original design are general outlines. @RobertK is sharp and also a seasoned PhD and can pull up scholarly references quickly and easy.

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