ATAMMAYATA:The Rebirth of a Lost Word

[From Evolution/Liberation #4 (1993)]

The term atammayata cannot be found in the Pali Text Society Dictionary. Readers will find it difficult to discover references to it in scholarly works, whether they come from West or East. The meditation masters of Tibet, Burma, or Zen do not seem to be interested in it. Mention it to most Buddhists and they will not know what you are talking about. Yet there is clear evidence in the Pali Canon that the Buddha gave this word significant meaning. Currently, one of Thailand's most influential monks is teaching that it is "the highest word in Buddhism, the final word of Buddhism."

Atammayata appears in a number of Pali suttas and each context suggests that the term has important meaning. The traditional commentators, however, never caught on. They glossed atammayata in a way that suggested the term was out of their depths: they rendered it as an absence of tanha (craving), absence of ditthi (wrong views), and an absence of mana (conceit). There are many Pali terms glossed in this stock, and therefore virtually meaningless, way. Even so, the commentators recognized atammayata's importance. Their standard explanation, although vague, describes it as the awakened state of the Arahant, or fully-awakened, perfected being.

Further confusion occurs in the Thai version of the Pali Tipitaka, which was originally written in Khmer script. We find three variations in the spelling: agammayata, akammayata, and atammayata. There is no reason to believe that these are different words. The Khmer characters that are here rendered g, k, and t share the basic form of a horseshoe or upside-down "u." They differ as to whether there is a small, large, or missing "head" (circle) attached to the left leg of the horseshoe. Obviously, misspellings have occurred. Transcribing errors would not be surprising. Of the three variations, atammayata is the most common. Further, in the final analysis, it can be deciphered etymologically, consistent with its various contexts.

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, from Suan Mokkhabalarama in southern Siam, first took note of this word about thirty years ago. The contexts in which he found atammayata convinced him that its meaning is important. As with other terms and teachings found in the Tipitaka, he was careful to look further than the orthodox grammarians, pedants, and pundits. He searched for a spiritual meaning on the deepest level possible. In the 1970s, he briefly mentioned atammayata, but felt his listeners were not yet ready for it. Finally, on Magha Puja Day 2531 (March 2, 1988), he brandished his newest Dhamma weapon. It immediately attracted attention.


In his first talk about atammayata, Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa interspersed literal interpretations of the term with the spicy, crude street language "ku mai ao kap mung ik to pai woi," which can be rendered, "I won't have anything to do with you ever again!" or "I ain't gonna mess with you no more!" These are words used by drunks, rowdies, and angry merchants, rather than highly respected religious. The pronouns ku and mung are considered to be low-class and coarse, although they were once proper and polite. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu has repeatedly used ku to point at the egoistic mind (the self-concept and selfishness) and its baseness. Nonetheless, his unique approach to atammayata raised a bit of a stir. The term was no longer ignored and forgotten. People who thought Buddhadasa Bhikkhu had grown too old, eighty-two at the time, recalled previous surprises and controversies.

We can only speculate as to why atammayata (or its misspellings) was left out of the Pali Text Society Dictionary. Surely not because it is impossible to decipher. A literal analysis gives us: a (not), tam (that), maya (to make, create, fabricate, or produce), and ta (the state of being or suffix "-ness"). Thus, atammayata may be translated as "the state of not being made up by, or made up from, that (thing or condition)."

The meaning becomes clearer if we recognize that maya is a synonym for sankhara (to concoct, compound, or condition). Atammayata is "unconcoctability," a state of mind independent of the objects and conditions of experience. Fully conscious and aware, this mind is not affected by the defilements of greed, anger, and delusion. Thus, the concept is close in meaning to the adjective visankhara, which describes the unconditioned state of Nibbana. Clearly, atammayata is something Buddhists should be aware of.

Why does Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa consider atammayata so important? In the Salayatanavibhanga Sutta of the Majjhima-nikaya (#137) the Buddha describes a spiritual progression carried out by "relying on this, to give up that." Relying on the pleasure, pain, and equanimity associated with renunciation, one gives up the pleasure and pain associated with worldliness. Relying on singular or one-pointed equanimity (ekaggata-upekkha), one gives up many-sided or multifaceted equanimity (nanatta-upekkha). Relying on atammayata, one gives up ekaggata-upekkha.

In this sutta, nanatta-upekkha is explained as "equanimity toward forms, sounds, odors, tastes, touches, and mind-objects," which implies the four meditative states known as the "rupa-jhana." Ekaggata-upekkha is explained as "equanimity dependent upon the four immaterial absorptions (arupa-jhana)." To more easily understand what this means, we may compare it with the common Buddhist hierarchy of the sensual (kama-), pure material (rupa-), and non-material (arupa-) realms. The ordinary worldling or "Thickster" (putthujhana) clings to sensual experiences due to craving for sensual pleasures. One gets free of sensuality by relying on pure materiality, that is, steady concentration upon material objects (rupa-jhana). Pure materiality is abandoned by relying on the arupa-jhana. Finally, these exalted states of consciousness are abandoned through atammayata.

In the Sappurisa Sutta of the Majjhima-nikaya (#113), the Buddha describes qualities of the "good person (sappurisa) who avoids indulging in and goes beyond the eight jhana through atammayata. There is liberation from the asava (eruptions), which is full awakening. The Buddha is reiterating his message that final liberation cannot be found in the temporary peace and bliss of deep meditative states -- in any conditioned state or thing, for that matter. Atammayata is given precedence over the most sublime experiences that humanity can attain. Further, atammayata, rather than mystical states, is offered as the means to liberation.

Upekkha is the highest of the seven bojjhanga (factors of awakening). When the seven factors are developed successfully, they lead to the penetration of the object on which they are focused. Penetration, or direct spiritual experience, means awakening to and deeply realizing the true nature of things. Yet, the above sutta tells us that atammayata takes the spiritual cultivator beyond even upekkha. The Buddha is saying that even upekkha is a state that can be clung to, thus preventing liberation. Atammayata frees upekkha, as well as the other six factors and any wholesome dhamma that aid liberation, from clinging and grasping. The mind with atammayata is not concocted by and does not rest in any state of mind, all of which are impermanent, undependable, oppressive, uncontrollable, and unownable, that is, void of selfhood.


Why does Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa call atammayata the "last word and final sword of Buddhism"? Based on the above interpretation, he puts atammayata at the transition point between the dhammatthitinyana (insights into the state, or reality, of nature) and the nibbananyana (insights regarding liberation and the realization of Nibbana). He explains this with a list of nine eyes (the Thai meaning of taa) or insights. The nine taa, or nyana, are:

The realization of these facts about the state of nature leads to the fruits of liberation, which can be described by the following nyana (insight knowledges):

The first list of insights describes an active penetration progressively deeper into the reality of conditioned things. The later list describes the results of that realization. The insight of atammayata is the realization that there is no conditioned thing, object, or state that can be depended upon. Contrary to the way we have learned to "see" things, they are powerless to concoct or affect us. They have no power to make us happy, safe, free from death, or whatever else we might desire. Then why get concocted by them through foolishly relying upon them? From this realization liberation naturally follows.


Buddhadasa Bhikkhu has given quite a few talks on the subject of atammayata since reintroducing it into Buddhist thought last year (1988). In these talks he has applied atammayata in three ways. The first approach is simple, almost crude. He applies atammayata to the practical problems of ordinary people with the crude but dramatic "You aren't gonna mess with me no more!" or "I ain't gonna mess around with you no more!" He suggests that we may bring this powerful thought to mind in order to "divorce" the things we ought to divorce, such as, superstitions, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, dishonesty, immorality, and so on. When tempted to indulge in such harmful things, we might recite atammayata as a mantra until the temptation passes. This method can also be used to divorce emotional states like greed, lust, anger, hatred, fear, worry, excitement, envy, boredom, laziness, and stupidity -- "I've had enough of you for ever!"

Whereas the first use of atammayata is to extricate us from our mistakes, the second use is preventative. It is a way of understanding the reality of conditioned things. When insight progressively deepens through the nine "eyes," then one realizes that there is nothing deserving of being concocted, affected, manipulated, or cooked and seasoned by us. By cultivating this understanding, human beings may liberate themselves from ignorance, from their attachments, from conflict and misery.

The third and highest use of atammayata is to signify the state of mind that is totally free, independent, liberated. Tan Ajahn Buddhadasa prefers to describe this state as being "above and beyond positive or negative." Human beings instinctually feel and perceive all experience as either positive or negative. This leads to evaluating and judging those experiences, which turns into liking and disliking those experiences, which in turn fosters craving, attachment, and selfishness. Thus arises dukkha (misery, pain, dissatisfaction). The mind that has gone beyond positive and negative cannot be pulled into the conditioned arising (paticca-samuppada) of dukkha. Thus, atammayata in this, its most proper sense, describes the state of the Arahant, the perfected, liberated human being.

Just Say "No" With Atammayata