An-atta: On Self and Non-self

28 Sep

Dear Sreenivasa Rao Sb,

 Form your various blogs I noted that Buddha thought [1] everything in the universe is changing except the change; [2] consciousness is nebulous and cannot be defined. Probably Buddha did not discuss the existence or non existence of God or he had a clear opinion?

Recently I read a book in Telugu authored by one Buddha Ghosha which said that Buddha believed that there is nothing like “self”? Is it correct?

Saying that there is nothing called soul which is constant is different from saying soul is self but also changes [evolves], splits [as water drop lets in a river] and recombines [as genes do] is different. What is the correct position of Buddha?

May I expect a small blog or knol on this?


DMR Sekhar.

dhyani buddha

Dear Shri Sekhar, That is a tough one; and is a much debated one too. I am neither qualified nor I claim to have the right answers. Let me try.

1.1. The subject you mentioned refers to the Buddhist concept of Anatta (an-atman or an-atmavada) meaning the doctrine of no-permanent soul. The Buddhist tradition believes that the root of all  suffering is in regarding the “self” as a permanent or a static entity or as an unchanging essence; and clinging to it.

The Buddha a few days after his first discourse at Saranath on the outskirts of Varanasi, speaks about his concept of Anatta in his second discourse ‘Anatta-lakkhana –sutta’. The teaching instructs one not to identify self with ‘”Any kind of feeling whatever…Any kind of perception whatever…Any kind of determination whatever… Any kind of consciousness whatever…”

Rupam (material form) is an-atta (not the self); vedana (sensation) is an-atta; sanna (perception) is an-atta; samkhara (pre-dispositions) is an-atta; vinnanam (consciousness ) is an-atta (not the self) “ …” whether past, future, or present; whether gross or subtle; whether in oneself or in others; whether inferior or superior: whether far or near; must, with right understanding of things as they really are, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine. This is not I. This is not my self …”

Please recall the five aggregates or the skandas that I mentioned in my post Consciousness- a Buddhist view. None of the skandas or all of it is construed as one’s self.

1.2. The Buddha did not deny existence of feelings, thoughts, sensations or whatever; but, he did not also talk about a permanent conscious substance that experiences all these. According to him, the streams of consciousness ever changing, arise and perish leaving behind no permanent “thinker”.In other words, it seems to suggest that there is no “self” apart from the process.

2.1. However, it must be mentioned that Buddhism does not deny a soul altogether. The Buddhist view is that the belief in a changeless “I-entity” (soul) is the result of incorrect interpretation of one’s experiences. It seems to me that in the Buddhist view, self/soul is not perceived as a permanent  entity, or a static substance, or as an essence, but it is understood as a dynamic process which one experiences as perceptions, ideas or desires. It says; self is wrongly taken as a fixed, enduring entity. Because, according to Buddhism, there is not anything which is enduring, fixed, and eternal. Everything is interdependent and changing. Everything is in constant flux and has no astitva or existence outside of shifting contexts. As Abhidhamma kosa explains that there is no soul apart from feeling, ideas, volitions, etc “There is no self separate from a non-self”.

2.2. The Buddha favored a middle path avoiding the extremes of an entity called soul that survives birth after birth; and that of a soul which perishes as the body withers away. The Buddha explained a human as the dynamic inter-relation of five skandas. “Truly, if one holds the view that self is identical with the body, in that case there can be no holy life. Again, if one holds the view that self is one thing and the body another, in that case, too, there can be no holy life. Avoiding both extremes the Perfect One teaches the doctrine that lies in the middle.” (Sauyutta Nikaya: 2, 61).

2.3. Thus, it appears to me, translating the Buddhist concept of an-atma or anatta as ‘no soul’ or ‘self does not exist at all ‘is rather misleading. An-atta, I reckon, means ‘self is not an enduring entity or eternal essence’.

The Buddha did not deny a soul; but maintained that it was not the ultimate reality (dharmataa). He seemed to imply that an-atta, whatever that term meant, was not The Truth (dharma). An-atta, I reckon, (just as a-dvaita), is a negative expression pointing to the un-definable positive ultimate reality (dharmataa).


3.1. The Buddha is often blamed for maintaining silence on the key question of a permanent self. But, in fact, the Buddha did explain  why he chose not to give out a partial answer of either  ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The Sutta Nipaata (6.400) elaborately narrates the context and the reason for the Buddha’s silence. I am mentioning its substance in a brief and a summarized form:

Vacchagotta the wanderer questions the Master “what have you to say about the existence of self (atta)?”

The Exalted One was silent.

Vacchagotta   again questioned “Is there no such thing as the self?” .

The Exalted One was silent.

At which Vacchagotta just walked out.

Soon thereafter, venerable Ananda the disciple enquires the Master why he chose to be silent.

The Master explains:

“Ananda, if when asked   ‘Does the self exists?’ had I replied to him ‘yes, the self exists’ I would then be siding with all those Samanas and Brahmanas who regard soul as eternal and unchanging (eternalists).And, that reply  would have also been not consistent with my knowledge that all things are impermanent….”

“Had I replied; ‘no, the self does not exist ‘I would then be siding all those Samanas and Brahmanas who are annihilationist (those who view death as the annihilation of consciousness).And, that reply would have added to the bewilderment of Vacchagotta who was already bewildered. He would have exclaimed in disgruntle ‘Formerly I had a self; but now I have one no more’ …”

3.2. In case the Buddha sided with the annihilationist that would have led to denying his own concepts of kamma, rebirth, and dependent origination etc.

3.3. Thus, the Buddha rejected the two extremes concepts of ‘Permanent Self’, and ‘Annihilation’.

3.4. The an-atta doctrine, undoubtedly, is extremely difficult to comprehend. Yet, it is the Buddha’s strategy to free oneself from identities and attachments.


4.1. The Buddhism believes that the self is a changing phenomenon. It is like a raindrop. When it is in the ocean it is a part of the ocean ; when it evaporates it becomes a part of the cloud; and, when it rains it becomes a part of stream or a lake or a well. It is its functions and relationship which give form to its character.

4.2. The Buddha was reluctant to define the indefinable which is the true self. The Upanishads too chose to describe the Truth as that which cannot be apprehended by mind. They also said (in almost the same words) the correct view is to assert ‘This is not mine; this am I not; this is not my self’.  Both the Buddha and the Upanishads refused to be attached to an identity.

To put it in another way, The Vedanta’s call of realizing ones true identity -is a philosophical view. The Buddhist interpretation of letting go all identities is an  objective prescription.

4.3. By negating identity with the conditioned skandas (in his second discourse: Anatta-lakkhana-sutta) the Buddha was pointing to the unconditioned impersonal nature of true self. That was also the view of the Upanishads.

5.1. Both accept that attaining liberation is the aim; rather than merely understanding what liberation is all about. Both accept that conceptual thinking is part of the problem; and therefore philosophy too must eventually be transcended or let go. Because, ultimately it is one’s experience that truly matters. Experience is the key.

Therefore, both the Buddha and Sri Shankara asserted that the truest test of all is one’s own experience.

5.2. The difference between the two, as I mentioned elsewhere, was that Sri Shankara described the reality from outside, as it were, because that is the only perspective from which it can be understood as One. Sri Shankara was basically a philosopher; and as all philosophers do, he looks upon the whole of reality objectively and attempts to comprehend its structure. It is as if the philosophizing intellect takes a look at the whole of existence from outside of it.

5.3. But the Buddha, the yogi, was describing his experience. He realized (just as Sri Ramana)  that one cannot get outside of reality and describe it as an object; because one is inseparable from that reality. He also believed too much philosophizing and clinging to ideas is an obstruction to enlightenment. He advocated: let go all attachments, even the attachment to ideas and concepts.





Posted by on September 28, 2012 in Buddha, Buddhism, Indian Philosophy


Tags: , , , ,

7 responses to “An-atta: On Self and Non-self

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 18, 2015 at 8:20 am

    which is indescribable
    it is an experiential realty but not a thing
    not an object and it can not be identified
    with any material, sensation, perception or consciousness.
    is it an interdependent /independent cosmic entity?
    I wonder what he meant??


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 18, 2015 at 8:21 am

      Dear Shri Sampath, Welcome. As always, your observations are thought provoking. I admire you; and always look forward to your comments. As you wondered, the subject of soul in Buddhism is rather tricky. I did not dwell much on the debates surrounding the issue for fear of complicating the blog. The matter is somewhat difficult. That is because though Buddhism is rationalistic; its rationalism is but qualified. Sakyamuni does not admit the existence of a Self, a permanent individual entity; but he nevertheless teaches reward of actions in a future life. There is, prima facie, a contradiction. How do we understand that? Let me try.

      According to Buddhist beliefs, Man is made of five aggregates (skandhas). He is a compound; and no compound can be an individual, a being. But, this psycho-physical compound is dynamic, a living continuous complex, which does not remain quite the same for two consecutive moments. It is a series of physical states and states of consciousness (intermittent series of psychic throbs) generated in succession, each one depending upon another; although each of them lasts only for a moment. In other words, human body is a continuous series of births and deaths each giving rise to its next state. Therefore, just as the components of this compound keep changing and evolving there is continuity too. As a result, despite the endless number of changes the present state of the component/compound is not completely different from its previous state. At the same time, the successive states are not identical.

      This dynamic process works on the composite nature of Man , according to its own laws its own laws. And, there is no permanent entity called self or soul, apart from the skandas ,which oversees all. Thus: “there is action, but there is not an agent.”

      Accordingly, the aggregate of skandas is neither changeless nor permanent; and at the same time it is not annihilated. This process of this nature continues even after the physical body withers away.

      When a person dies, the physical organism dissolves, and the physical life therefore comes to an end. But the person is not annihilated entirely. Because, owing to the strength of his actions his goodness or wickedness persists and causes another body to take shape. And, the being who is revived is not the same as the old one; he is not, on the other hand, different from the old one.

      It is explained; that it is the attachment to things or the desire or the urges that propel life after life. It is said; there is no migration of a soul, but there is migration of the character or of consciousness which is an intermittent series of psychic throbs associated with a living organism .( A good man dies; but his goodness does not perish, and causes another good man to take shape).

      Buddhism does not recognize a changeless entity called soul. But it recognizes a living complex, a continuous fluid complex both physical and psychical, which continues through many existences. As this complex is not a substance or an entity, it is capable of dissolution. This dissolution is ‘deliverance’ or Nirvana: when the series of the states of consciousness is interrupted , and when desire and fruits of action have been destroyed, just as the fire dies on the nearer bank of the river when there is no wind.

      ‘When liberated there arises in him the knowledge ‘I am liberated’. He knows all distinctions (jati) are ended; the holy-life (brahmacharya) has been lived; what ought to be done (karaniyam) has been done; there is nothing beyond (na-param) this state (itthattaya).

      By negating ‘self’ to the five skandas, the Buddha was not explaining away the self. He was not talking about destruction of self; but was focusing on the destruction of the notions of self leading to attachment and false identities. ‘’This is not mine. This is not what I am. This is not my self. ‘(etam na mama; eshoham na asmi; eso me na atta)’

      He was, at the same time, all the while, pointing towards another concept. He was attempting to wean his disciples away from the conditioned; and was leading towards the unconditioned. He was pointing toward the impersonal absolute. For instance, while addressing the monks at Jeta-vana at Savatthi the Teacher said:

      “There is, brethren, an un-born, a not-become, a not-made and not-compounded….

      But since, brethren, there is this unborn , not – become , non – made, not – compounded, therefore is made known an escape from what is born , made and compounded”–(Udana). This is the prajna or bodhi in Sakyamuni’s teachings.

      I fear, I complicated the issue further.


      • sreenivasaraos

        March 18, 2015 at 8:22 am

        Dera rao saheb,

        No… I can keep reading you for hours and get lost in the beauty of the unknowable..
        you never complicate things as I m not looking for
        an answer to the un answerable.
        I have to go beyond articulations
        to comprehend nay cathect with your articulation
        people like you are rare..
        when one sees and hears such peple
        there is immense joy of being..

  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 18, 2015 at 8:22 am

    Dear Sreenivasa Rao Sb,

    I am indebted to you for this blog. The question of “self” is a tough problem and modern scientists abandoned this question long back. One of my friends an American Chemical Engineer Libb Thims says that “life is a defunct scientific theory” in other words there is nothing called life. Honestly Libb’s position is the position of the present day science. I respect Libb for his honesty though I disagree with him.

    If I understood properly Buddha’s view is that there is self which is not constant but one that evolves. In other words myself yesterday is not same as myself today and will not be the same as myself tomorrow.

    I asked this question to see if Buddha’s view is same as that of Libb’s. Some how I feel that Buddha and Karl Marx are the greatest thinkers the humanity has ever produced.

    I am planning to write “The paradox of life” for which I needed Buddha’s view on “self”.

    Sir, thanks for this enlightening blog.

    DMR Sekhar.

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 18, 2015 at 8:23 am

      Dear Shri Sekhar, You are welcome. Please also go through the series I posted on Samkhya to gain understanding of the differences in approach to individual and the Universal consciousness. You may initially start with Part Four; and then to Part Five & traverse back and forth from one to five – leading to comparison of Samkhya- Buddhism and Vedanta. Regards

  3. r

    June 6, 2022 at 2:14 pm

    great article, i also have written something similar at


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