Atammaya: Ancient Vision, Timeless Ring

The term ‘atammaya’ is not easily rendered into English. It comes from the Suttas, the discourses of the Pali canon, where it appears in some lesser-known passages; it is to the credit of Ajahn Buddhadāsa (and his translator Santikaro) that this fascinating concept of spiritual freedom has received renewed attention in recent times.

Atammaya in the Suttas

The old commentaries on the Pali discourses seem strangely at a loss with the term, identifying it somewhat abruptly with the “absence of desire” (MA iv 99 u. MA v 27) without addressing its dimension of non-identification; they are also more than reticent in their explanations.

The various lineages of the Theravāda have not given the concept any special attention until recent times. This makes the presentation of atammayatā in the discourses themselves all the more extraordinary: in the sense of a non-identification with even the most subtle meditative experiences such as that of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (M iii 94) or as an aid to overcoming the finest attachments to equanimity (M iii 220), finally as the inner attitude of non-entanglement of a ›knower of the world‹ (lokavidū) and of liberated sages (muni) towards all things (A 3.40 / A i 150). In the passage quoted below, atammayatā is used as an invocation to this inner possibility of a detached and unentangled attitude in connection with conceit (māna), personality view (sakkāydiṭṭhi) and self-construction (A 6.104 / A iii 444).

On translation

The word a-tam-maya is an adjectival compound; the breakdown of its components is straightforward:

a – ‘not’ (negative particle)
tam – ‘that’,
maya – ‘made of / consisting of’.

Literally ‘not-made-of-that’.

Occasionally also as a noun with an additional – as an abstraction suffix:

– atammayatā – ‘not-made-out-of-that-ness’.

Figuratively and less awkwardly: ‘non-identification’ or, more freely, ‘unentanglement’.

A term with a past

The opposite term – tammaya without the negative prefix a- (i.e. ‘consisting of this’ / ‘of this kind’) – also appears in the Pali discourses; it has negative connotations throughout (e.g. M i 319, Sn 846).

In his criticism of tammaya, the Buddha indirectly names an attitude of the Vedas that is problematic from the standpoint of his own teaching, namely that they do not distinguish between epistemology and ontology. This is vividly illustrated by a view that is condensed in the Vedic term tan-mayatā (‘consisting-of-this’): this concept states that the mind, when collected and exclusively oriented towards the brahman, actually becomes this brahman – that the meditating mind in the act of knowing becomes identical and consubstantial with the known object.

The origin of this idea, so Richard Gombrich, an eminent scholar of Early Buddhism, is rooted in a theory of sense perception for which the grasping hand serves as the central analogy: “It takes the shape of what it apprehends”. A similar Vedic notion concerns the sense of vision, in which the eye sends out a kind of ray that takes the form of what it sees and carries it back to the eye; likewise with thought – this corresponds to the perceived object, making thought conform to its object (Gombrich, 1996). Thus, in a Vedic context, the notion of tan-maya-tā brings to the point that the mind of the meditator becomes consubstantial with the object realised.

This view, plausible to the then Vedic understanding of mind, was already alien to the Buddha’s thinking: consciousness, even in its subtlest forms, is not identical with its objects (M i 258) but is, without exception conditionally arisen, process-like and can be modified.

Even from today’s point of view, the identification of consciousness and its content is difficult to accept. Although intentions and thoughts are likely to create realities in the long run, psychologically speaking, any appropriation or complete identification of an experiencer with thought or imagined mental content would amount to something like ‘psychic equivalence’ – typically the expression of a cognitive developmental stage in early childhood – or rather an adult’s regression into such a stage.

A vision of freedom

The term a-tammaya in Buddhist teachings is the negation of this Vedic notion of a “consubstantiality of mind with its contents” – the mind and its contents are not identical. However much the sand dissolved in the glass of water is swirled around and makes the liquid appear homogeneously turbid: as soon as the glass is set down and its contents calm, the sand settles and the water clears, mind and its objects show themselves to be separate in their diversity.

Atammayatā in the expositions of early Buddhism is an expression of this ‘not-of-this-kind-ness’. Such ‘unentangledness in the midst of things’ is one of the promises of spiritual realisation from the Buddha’s point of view. Put a little more precisely, such realisation manifests in two directions: In an object-oriented, outward-looking perspective, this unentanglement is illustrated by an attitude of ‘non-forming’, ‘non-concocting’ or ‘non-reification’ of the world experienced through the senses by the mind.

Conversely, from a subjective and inward-looking perspective, atammayatā corresponds to an attitude of ‘non-attachment’, ‘non-identification’ and unentangled handling of the experienced contents of the mind.

Akincano | ๛ 2013-2021

From “The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha”:

Non-Identification (Atammaya Sutta)
Mendicants, seeing six benefits is quite enough to establish the unlimited perception of not-self in all phenomena. What are these six benefits?
(i) ‘I will be unattached and without identification in the whole world (atammaya).
(ii) The I-centredness (ahaṅkārā) of my thinking will disappear.
(iii) The my-centredness (mamaṅkārā) of my thinking will disappear.
(iv) Extraordinary realisations will come to me.
(v) Causes will become clearly apparent to me,
(vi) and likewise the causally arisen phenomena.’
A 6.104 / A iii 444 (Translation: Akincano)


“cha, bhikkhave, ānisaṃse sampassamānena alameva bhikkhunā sabbadhammesu anodhiṃ karitvā anattasaññaṃ upaṭṭhāpetuṃ.
katame cha?
sabbaloke ca atammayo bhavissāmi,
ahaṅkārā ca me uparujjhissanti,
mamaṅkārā ca me uparujjhissanti,
asādhāraṇena ca ñāṇena samannāgato bhavissāmi,
hetu ca me sudiṭṭho bhavissati,
hetusamuppannā ca dhammā.
ime kho, bhikkhave, cha ānisaṃse sampassamānena alameva bhikkhunā sabbadhammesu anodhiṃ karitvā anattasaññaṃ upaṭṭhāpetun “ti.
A iii 444

Literature on atammaya / atammayatā:

Canonical passages:
M 113; M 137; A 3.40 / A i 150; A 6.104 / A iii 444; Sn 850 (852) na tammayo.

English translations:
Bodhi, Bhikkhu: The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications 2012
Sujato, Bhikkhu: Numbered Discourse Collection, 2021 |

Secondary literature:
– Sferra, Francesco: Atammayatā in the Pāli Nikāyas. In: Annali. Università Degli Studi Di Napoli “l’Orientale” Napoli, 2007, lxvii.
– Gombrich, Richard: How Buddhism Began. The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. 1996, p. 86 (In: III Metaphor, Allegory, Satire).
Sujato Bhikkhu: https://suttacentral.net/an6.104
– Tan, Piya: Atammayatā. Not Making Anything of That: An Introductory Study of an Ancient Term, 2007.
– Nyanananda, Bhikkhu: The Magic of the Mind: An Exposition of the Kālakārāma Sutta. Kandy, 1974 (p. 52).
– Nyanananda, Bhikkhu: Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought. Kandy, 1971 (pp. 32-34).
– Amaro, Ajahn/Pasanno, Ajahn: The Island: An Anthology of the Buddha’s Teachings on Nibbāna. 2009 (In: VI Atammayatā: “Not made of that”).