From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pāli) or anātman (Sanskrit: अनात्मन्) refers to the notion of "not-self" or the illusion of "self". In the early texts, the term is used to state that the five khandhas are "not-self", i.e. not "I" or "mine", and that clinging to them as if they were "I" or "mine" gives rise to unhappiness.

Anatta in the Nikayas[edit]

The Buddhist terms anatta (Pāli) and anātman (Sanskrit) are used in the suttas to emphasize that phenomena are void of any quality of self. This includes the views that some things are self, contain a self, or otherwise belong to a self. The terms anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (imperfection) are often used in a similar manner, emphasizing that phenomena are impermanent and imperfect. Together, they represent the three marks of existence that describe all conditioned phenomena.

Views of self[edit]

Identity-view is defined as one of the fetters to be abandoned, and a requirement for stream entry. By analyzing the characteristic of not-self as pervading all conditioned phenomena, and removing notions of "self" and "I-making, one able to attain liberation. The Nikayas describe various views of self to be abandoned, such as "this is mine, this I am, this is my self", "I will be", "I will be this", "I will be otherwise" etc. A few of the suttas[1][2] even see belief in no self as tied up with the belief in a self. Views of "denial", in the form "I am not this", or "I will not be that", are thus rooted in the same 'I am' attitude; even the view "I do not exist" arises from a preoccupation with 'I'.[3]

Eternalism and annihilationism[edit]

While the concept of a soul (jiva) is distinct from the concept of a self (atta, ātman), certain doctrines concerning the soul are seen to contradict the notion of anatta.[4][5] Eternalism, or the idea that there is a soul distinct from the body, implies the existence of an eternal self, which the Buddha rejected. Annihilationism, or the idea that the soul and the body are the same, implies the existence of a temporary self that is later destroyed upon death, which the Buddha also rejected. When demanded that the Buddha address the question of “who”, as in “who feels”[6] or “who is born”,[7] he often responded with a description of dependent origination, stating that the question of “who” brings with it assumptions that are incorrect.[6]

Anatta and moral responsibility[edit]

The Buddha criticized two main theories of moral responsibility: the doctrine that posited an unchanging Self as a subject, which came to be known as "atthikavāda", and the doctrine that did not do so, and instead denied moral responsibility, which came to be known as "natthikavāda". He rejected them both on empirical grounds.[8] The Buddha was also careful not to allow an atthikavādin interpretation of his doctrine of causality.[9]

Nibbana and anatta[edit]

According to Walpola Rahula in declaring "all dhammas are anatta," the Buddha included even nirvana in his blanket statement that all things are not self.[10] Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Nanavira Thera disagree, asserting that nibbana as a dhamma applies only up to the level of non-returning. For the arahant, however, nirvana is directly known, and is the transcending of all dhammas.[11] The statement is directed at the path, not the goal.[12] Peter Harvey agrees with the Theravada view that "all dhammas are not-Self" includes nibbana in its scope.[13]

Developing the self[edit]

While the suttas criticize notions of an eternal, unchanging Self, they see an enlightened being as one whose changing, empirical self is highly developed.[14] One with great self has a mind which is not at the mercy of outside stimuli or its own moods, but is imbued with self-control, and self-contained.[15] The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or I-identification.[16] One can transform one's self from an "insignificant self" into a "great self" through practices such as loving-kindness and mindfulness.[17] The suttas portray one disciple who has developed his mind through loving-kindness saying: "Formerly this mind of mine was limited, but now my mind is immeasurable."[17]

Anatta in Mahāyāna[edit]

There are many different views of Anatta (Chinese: 無我 wú-wǒ; Japanese: 無我 muga) within various Mahayana schools.

Prajnaparamita Sutras[edit]

While the nikayas take a fairly conservative approach to the teaching of not-self, trying to avoid being confused for nihilistic attitudes, the early Mahayana Prajnaparamita Sutras are more direct about it. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says that while ordinary beings believe that there is an "I" or a self, the Buddha sees that there is no "I" or self. This means that when the Buddha liberates sentient beings, he is not really liberating anyone, because there are no beings to be liberated. [18]


While commenting on Āryadeva, Candrakīrti defines anatta as follows:

Ātman is an essence of things that does not depend on others; it is an intrinsic nature. The non-existence of that is selflessness.

Bodhisattvayogacaryācatuḥśatakaṭikā 256.1.7[19]

Buddhapālita adds, while commenting on Nagārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,

What is the reality of things just as it is? It is the absence of essence. Unskilled persons whose eye of intelligence is obscured by the darkness of delusion conceive of an essence of things and then generate attachment and hostility with regard to them.

Buddhapālita-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti P5242,73.5.6-74.1.2[19]

Tathagatagarbha Sutras[edit]

The Tathagatagarbha Sutras declare the existence of "atman," which in these scriptures is equated with buddha-nature.[citation needed] The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a long and highly composite Mahayana scripture,[20] refers to the Buddha using the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics.[21] From this, it continues:

The Buddha-nature is in fact not the self. For the sake of [guiding] sentient beings, I describe it as the self.[22]

The Ratnagotravibhaga, a related text, points out that the teaching of the tathagatagarbha is intended to win sentient beings over to abandoning "affection for one's self" - one of the five defects caused by non-Buddhist teaching. Youru Wang notes similar language in the Lankavatara Sutra, then writes:

Noticing this context is important. It will help us to avoid jumping to the conclusion that tathagatagarbha thought is simply another case of metaphysical imagination.[22]

According to some scholars, the "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature discussed in these sutras does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of sunyata (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices.[23] Other scholars do in fact detect leanings towards monism in these tathagatagarbha references.[24][note 1]

Relation to Vedic and Hindu philosophy[edit]

Possibly the main philosophical difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is that the concept of atman was rejected by the Buddha.[29]

The pre-Buddhist Upanishads of Hinduism link the Self to the feeling "I am."[30] The Chandogya Upanishad for example does, and it sees Self as underlying the whole world, being "below," "above," and in the four directions. In contrast, the Buddhist Arahant says:

Above, below, everywhere set free, not considering 'this I am.'[30]

While the pre-Buddhist Upanishads link the Self to the attitude "I am," others like the post-Buddhist Maitri Upanishad hold that only the defiled individual self, rather than the universal self, thinks "this is I" or "this is mine". According to Peter Harvey,

This is very reminiscent of Buddhism, and may well have been influenced by it to divorce the universal Self from such egocentric associations.[30]

The Upanishadic "Self" shares certain characteristics with nibbana; both are permanent, beyond suffering, and unconditioned. However, early bUddhism shunned any attempt to see the spiritual goal in terms of "Self" because in his framework, the craving for a permanent self is the very thing which keeps a person in the round of uncontrollable rebirth, preventing him or her from attaining nibbana.[30] Harvey continues:

Both in the Upanishads and in common usage, self/Self is linked to the sense of "I am" [...] If the later Upanishads came to see ultimate reality as beyond the sense of "I am", Buddhism would then say: why call it 'Self', then?[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Zimmermann, a specialist on the Tathagatagarbha Sutra,[25] sees the notion of an unperishing and eternal self in that early buddha-nature scripture and insists that the compilers of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra 'do not hesitate to attribute an obviously substantialist notion to the buddha-nature of living beings'.[26] Zimmermann also avers that 'the existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra'.[27] He further indicates that there is no evident interest found in this sutra in the idea of Emptiness (sunyata), saying: 'Throughout the whole Tathagatagarbha Sutra the term sunyata does not even appear once, nor does the general drift of the TGS somehow imply the notion of sunyata as its hidden foundation. On the contrary, the sutra uses very positive and substantialist terms to describe the nature of living beings.'.[28]


  1. ^ MN 2 (PTS)
  2. ^ SN 22.81 (PTS)
  3. ^ Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, pages 39,40.
  4. ^ Damien Keown (2004-01-01). "ucchedavāda". Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  5. ^ SN 12.17 (PTS)
  6. ^ a b SN 12.12 (PTS)
  7. ^ SN 12.35 (PTS)
  8. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 44.
  9. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 13.
  10. ^ Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, 1974, page 57. He indicated this about the sankhara translation himself.
  11. ^ Nanavira Thera, Nibbana and Anatta. [1]. Early Writings -> Nibbana and Anatta -> Sankhara and Dhamma.
  12. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Not-Self Strategy. See note 2, [2].
  13. ^ Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995, page 53.
  14. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 54.
  15. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 55.
  16. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 63.
  17. ^ a b Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 57.
  18. ^ "The Diamond of Perfect Wisdom Sutra", "25. There Are No Beings to Liberate". Retrieved on 8 May 2014.
  19. ^ a b Translations from "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment", Vol. 3 by Tsong-Kha-Pa, Snow Lion Publications ISBN 1-55939-166-9
  20. ^ Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.Taylor & Francis, 1989, page 98, see also page 99.
  21. ^ Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.Taylor & Francis, 1989, page 100. "... it refers to the Buddha using the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics."
  22. ^ a b Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking. Routledge, 2003, page 58.
  23. ^ Heng-Ching Shih,The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' -- A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'
  24. ^ Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 99-100
  25. ^ ^
  26. ^ Zimmermann, Michael (2002), A Buddha Within: The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Biblotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica VI, The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, p. 64
  27. ^ Michael Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 64
  28. ^ Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 81
  29. ^ MN 22
  30. ^ a b c d e Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995, page 34.


External links[edit]

  • Anatta: Non-Self Audio discussion of Anatta from Buddhist Society of Western Australia.
  • Nirvana Sutra English translation of the Nirvana Sutra by Kosho Yamamoto.