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In Buddhist philosophy, anatta (Pāli) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to "non-self" or "absence of separate self"[1]. One scholar describes it as "...meaning non-selfhood, the absence of limiting self-identity in people and things..."[2]. What is normally thought of as the "self" is in fact an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents ("skandhas"). This concept has, from early times, been controversial amongst Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike and remains so to this day[3]. In the Pali suttas and the related āgamas (referred to collectively below the nikayas) the Buddha repeatedly emphasizes not only that the five skandhas of living being are "not-self", but that clinging to them as if they were an immutable self or soul (ātman) gives rise to unhappiness.

Another understanding of anatta (as enunciated by the Buddha in the Mahayana "Tathagatagarbha" scriptures) insists that the five "skandhas" (impermanent constituent elements of the mundane body and mind of each being) are indeed "not the Self", since they are doomed to mutation and dissolution, but that, in contrast, the eternal buddha nature deep within each being is the supramundane True Self—although this realisation is only fully gained on reaching awakening ("bodhi").

Anatta, along with dukkha and anicca, is one of the three dharma seals, which, according to Buddhism, characterise all phenomena.

Anatta in the Nikayas

The Buddhist term anātman (Sanskrit) or anatta (Pali) is used in the suttas both as a noun and as a predicative adjective to denote that phenomena are not, or are without, the Soul, the ontological and subjective self (atman).

Specifically in sutra, anatta is used to describe the nature of any and all composite, consubstantial, phenomenal, and temporal things, from the macrocosmic, to microcosmic, be it matter as pertains the physical body or the cosmos at large, including any and all mental machinations which are of the nature of arising and passing. Anatta in sutra is synonymous and interchangeable with the terms dukkha (suffering) and anicca (impermanent), and all three terms are often used in triplet in making a blanket statement as regards any and all phenomena. “All these aggregates are anicca, dukkha, and anatta.”

Anatta refers to the absence of the permanent soul as pertains any one of the psycho-physical (namo-rupa) attributes, or Khandhas (skandhas, aggregates). In Samyutta Nikaya 4.400, Gautama Buddha was asked if there “was no soul (natthatta)”[How to reference and link to summary or text], which it is conventionally considered to be equivalent to Nihilism (ucchedavada). Common throughout Buddhist sutra is the denial of psycho-physical attributes of the mere empirical self to be the Soul, or confused with same. The Buddhist paradigm as regards phenomena is “Na me so atta” (this/these are not my soul), nearly the most common utterance of Gautama Buddha in the Nikayas.

Logically so, according to the philosophical premise of the Buddha, the initiate to Buddhism who is to be “shown the way to Immortality (amata)” [MN 2.265, SN 5.9], wherein liberation of the mind (cittavimutta) is effectuated through the expansion of wisdom and the meditative practices of sati and samadhi, must first be educated away from his former ignorance-based (avijja) materialistic proclivities in that he “saw any of these forms, feelings, or this body, to be my Self, to be that which I am by nature”. Teaching the subject of anatta in sutra pertains solely to things phenomenal, which were: “subject to perpetual change; therefore unfit to declare of such things ‘these are mine, these are what I am, that these are my Soul’” [MN 1.232]

The one scriptural passage where Gautama is asked by a layperson what the meaning of anatta is is as follows: [Samyutta Nikaya 3.196] At one time in Savatthi, the venerable Radha seated himself and asked of the Blessed Lord Buddha: “Anatta, anatta I hear said venerable. What pray tell does Anatta mean?” “Just this Radha, form is not the Soul (anatta), sensations are not the Soul (anatta), perceptions are not the Soul (anatta), assemblages are not the Soul (anatta), consciousness is not the Soul (anatta). Seeing thusly, this is the end of birth, the Brahman life has been fulfilled, what must be done has been done.”

The nikayas state that certain things (5 aggregates), with which the unlearned man identifies himself, are not the Soul and that is why one should grow disgusted with them, become detached from them and be liberated.

What has Buddhism to say of the Self? "That's not my Self" (na me so atta); this, and the term "non Self-ishness" (anatta) predicated of the world and all "things" (sabbe dhamma anatta; Identical with the Brahmanical "of those who are mortal, there is no Self/Soul", (anatma hi martyah, [SB., II. 2. 2. 3]). [KN J-1441] Anatta is never used pejoratively in any sense[How to reference and link to summary or text] in the Nikayas by the Buddha, who himself has said: [MN 1.140] “Both formerly and now, I’ve never been a nihilist (vinayika), never been one who teaches the annihilation of a being, rather taught only the source of suffering, and its ending”[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The phrase anatmavada is not found in the nikayas, existing only in Theravada and Madhyamika commentaries.

“Whatever form, feelings, perceptions, experiences, or consciousness there is (the five aggregates), these he sees to be without permanence, as suffering, as ill, as a plague, a boil, a sting, a pain, an affliction, as foreign, as otherness, as empty (suññato), as Selfless (anattato). So he turns his mind away from these and gathers his mind/will within the realm of Immortality (amataya dhatuya). This is tranquility; this is that which is most excellent!” [MN 1.436]

Anātman in other Indian traditions

The term anatman is found not only in Buddhist sutras, but also in the Upanishads and lavishly so in the writings of Shankara, the founder of Advaita Vedanta. Anatman is a common via negativa (neti neti, not this, not that) teaching method, wherein nothing affirmative can be said of what is “beyond speculation, beyond words, and concepts” thereby eliminating all positive characteristics that might be thought to apply to the Soul, or be attributed to it; to wit that the Subjective ontological Self-Nature (svabhava) can never be known objectively, but only through “the denial of all things which it (the Soul) is not.”[4]

Interpretive problems

Students of Buddhism often encounter an intellectual quandary with the teaching in that the concept of anatta and the doctrine of rebirth seem to be mutually exclusive. If there is no self, no abiding essence of the person, it is unclear what it is that is reborn. The Buddha discussed this in a conversation with a Brahmin named Kutadanta.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

There have been a number of attempts by various schools of Buddhism to make explicit how it is that rebirth occurs. The more orthodox schools claim that certain of the dispositions or psychological constituents have repercussions that extend beyond an individual life to the next. More innovative solutions include the introduction of a Pudgala, a "person", which functions comparably to the atman in the rebirth process and in karmic agency, but is regarded by its advocates as not falling prey to the metaphysical substantialism of the atman.

Others seek a proxy not for the atman but for Brahman, the Indian monistic ideal that functions as an atman for the whole of creation, and is in itself thus rejected by anatta. Such a solution is the Consciousness-only teaching of the Yogacara school attempt to explain the seeming paradox: at death the body & mind disintegrates, but if the disintegrating mind contains any remaining traces of karma, it will cause the continuity of the consciousness to bounce back an arising mind to an awaiting being (i.e. a fetus developing the ability to harbor consciousness).

Some Buddhists take the position that the basic problem of explaining how "I" can die and be reborn is, philosophically speaking, no more problematic than how "I" can be the "same" person I was a few moments ago. There is no more or less ultimacy, for Buddhists, between the identity I have with my self of two minutes ago and the identity I have with the self of two lives ago.

A further difficulty with the anatta doctrine is that it contradicts the notion of a path of practise. Anatta followed to its logical extremities rejects the reality of a Buddhist practitioner able to detach him/herself from clinging.

Dependent Origination

Main article: pratitya-samutpada

Buddhist teaching tells us that all empirical life is impermanent and in a constant state of flux, and that any entity that exists does so only in dependence on the conditions of its arising, which are non-eternal. Therefore, any Self-concept (attanuditthi) sense one might have of an abiding Self or a soul is regarded as a misapprehension; since the conceptualization of the Self or soul is just that, and not an ontological apprehension of same.

Much of modern Buddhism holds that the notion of an abiding self is one of the main causes of human conflict, and that by realizing the nonexistence of our perceived self, 'we' may go beyond 'our' mundane desires. (Reference to 'oneself' or 'I' or 'me' for Buddhists is used merely conventionally.)

That the denial of the empirical person or self (This person so-and-so, Bob, Sue, etc.) in Buddhism is not in question; that self "goes to the grave"[5]

Rather than directing his listeners to discover Atman, the Buddha taught that all clinging to concepts and ideas of a self are faulty and based on ignorance. The five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness were described as especially misleading, since they form the basis for an individual's clinging or aversion. He taught that once a monk renounces his clinging for all the five aggregates, through meditative insight, he realizes the bliss of non-clinging, and abides in wisdom. The Buddha clearly stated that all five aggregates are impermanent, just as the burning flame is inconstant in one sense, and that knowledge or wisdom is all that remains, just as the only thing constant about a flame is its fuel, or purpose.

Controversially, there has been and continues to be a minority of Mahayana Buddhists who understand the Buddhist doctrine of "non-Self" ("anatta"/"anatman") as relating solely to the ephemeral elements (the five "skandhas") of the being and not to the hidden and undying "Buddha-Principle" ("Buddha-nature") taught by the Mahayana Buddha to exist within the depths of each person's mind (see section on Anatta in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras below).

Theravada Buddhism and anatta

According to Theravada the Buddha chose not to assume the existence of an eternal self or soul (atman), although, as found in sources, from the Pali Canon he would refer to the existence of a conventional self-subject to conditional phenomena and responsible, in the causal-moral sense, for karma.

The Buddha was silent to the questions of the paribbajako (wandering ascetic) Vacchagotta of “Is there a self?” or “Is there not a self?” [SN.5:44,10] because this was an antinomy-based question which The Buddha always rejected (is it, is it not, is it both, is it neither). When Ananda later asked about his silence, the Buddha said that to affirm or deny the existence of an eternal self would have sided with sectarian theories and have disturbed Vacchagotta even more.

The Buddha's teachings were directed to the principles of causality; not in a negative, nihilistic way of non-reality, but rather by showing why it is and how to see it integrated positively in the causal relationships of the mental-physical factors of the experience of life. Causal relationships were detailed in the Buddha’s analysis of dependent origination and idappaccayata (lit. “This is founded on that”).

All processes are impermanent … All processes are afflicted … All phenomena are not ‘Self’; when this is seen with knowledge, one is freed from the illusion of affliction. This is the pathway to purity.

— Dhp. 20. 227 – 279

This analysis is applied to knowing the interplay of senses within the mental-physical factors just as they are. It is a careful analysis of these realities in terms of their changefulness, instability or un-satisfactoriness and that these lack inherent personal identification. And this leads to wisdom (prajña, pañña), cessation of craving (nirodha), and to liberation (nirvana) of the will/mind (citta).

This empirical (namo-rupic) person is actually nothing more than an evolution of natural elements and latent tendencies of consciousness, held together by a thread of memory running through an ever-changing experience of reality.

Therefore the goal of the Buddhist contemplative is to develop freedom of the will/mind (citta) from entanglement with things as they seem; through the delusions of desire and consequential self-identity with events, resultant fear, aversion and projected hopes—to awaken to things as they are; coming home to a natural understanding of reality with ones given abilities at work in an ever changing evolution of experience. “The mind (citta) is cleansed of the five skhandhas (pañcakkhandha)” [Nettippakarana 44]

Anatta in early Mahayana Buddhism

The early Mahayana sutras add new concepts to Buddhism, but generally affirm the same teachings as the Nikayas about the self. These sutras are known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras, and one of the most famous of these is the Diamond Sutra. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says that while many people believe in an "I", or a self, the Buddha sees that there really is no "I", or self. As a result, when the Buddha liberates sentient beings, it is said that he is not really liberating anyone, because there are no beings to be liberated.[6]

Anatta in Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism, known as Chan in China, sees the belief in a self as the root of all negative mental afflictions, known as the kleshas. The kleshas refer to corrupting mental states, such as greed, anger, and pride. While these negative mental states are caused by conceitedness and an adherence to the belief in a self, all non-corrupting mental states (such as generosity, goodwill, etc) are caused by selflessness and non-self. Bodhidharma, who founded Chan Buddhism in China, said that "all beings are without a self" and that the dharma is "free from the impurities of self".[7] This is in accordance with the traditional teachings about the self in the Nikayas, as well as the earliest Mahayana writings known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras, but differs from later Mahayana writings that were composed in India.

Anatta in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras

The understanding of anātman / anatta expressed in the Mahayana scriptures known as the "Tathagatagarbha sutras" (as well as in a number of Buddhist tantras) is distinctive: the doctrine presented by the Buddha in these texts claims to clarify that it is only the impermanent elements of the sentient being—the "five skandhas" (changeful constituent elements of mind and body)—which are "not the Self" ("anātman"), whereas the truly real, immanent essence ("svabhāva") of the being is no less than the "tathagatagarbha" ("buddha-matrix") or the "buddha-principle" ("buddha-dhātu", which is popularly rendered in English as the "buddha-nature"), and is inviolate and deathless. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha discloses that the basic non-Self teaching is given to those of his followers who are still in their spiritual infancy, as it were, and unable to digest the full, final and culminational Dharma of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, whereas the teachings of the tathagatagarbha are intended for those followers who have "grown up" and are capable of absorbing the undiminished Truth. The tathagatagarbha, the immortal element or essence within each being, is termed the "true Self" or the "great Self" by the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. It is said to be essentially free from rebirth and always remaining intrinsically immaculate and uniquely radiant—only awaiting discovery by all beings within the depths of their own minds. In the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Buddha tells of how, with his buddha-eye, he can actually see this hidden "jewel" within each and every being: "hidden within the kleśas [mental contaminants] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity, there is seated augustly and unmovingly the Tathagata's [Buddha's] wisdom, the Tathagata's vision, and the Tathagata's body [...] all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of kleśas, have a tathagatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and replete with virtues no different from my own"[8].

Moreover, the Buddhist tantric scripture entitled Chanting the Names of Mañjusri (Mañjuśrī-nāma-saṅgīti), as quoted by the great Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa, repeatedly exalts not the non-Self but the Self and applies the following terms to this ultimate reality[9]:

  • "the pervasive Lord" (vibhu)
  • "Buddha-Self"
  • "the beginningless Self" (anādi-ātman)
  • "the Self of Thusness" (tathatā-ātman)
  • "the Self of primordial purity" (śuddha-ātman)
  • "the Source of all"
  • "the Self pervading all"
  • "the Single Self" (eka-ātman)
  • "the Diamond Self" (vajra-ātman)
  • "the Solid Self" (ghana-ātman)
  • "the Holy, Immovable Self"
  • "the Supreme Self"

Thus, the "non-Self" doctrine receives a fresh presentation in the Tathagatagarbha sutras (and in certain tantric texts) as a merely partial, incomplete truth rather than as an absolute verity.

See also


  2. Rawson (1991: p.11)
  3. see, e.g., Perez-Remon, Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism, Mouton, 1980
  4. Meister Eckhart
  5. Udana
  6. The Diamond of Perfect Wisdom Sutra, "25. There Are No Beings to Liberate"
  7. The Essence Of Mahayana Practice (with Annotation)
  8. Lopez, 1995, p.96
  9. cf. Mountain Doctrine: Tibet's Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha-Matrix, Snow Lion, NY, 2006, tr. by Jeffrey Hopkins, pp.279-294


  • Doctrine of the Buddha, George Grimm
  • Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism, Perez-Remon, Mouton, 1980

External links

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