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In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pāli) or anātman (Sanskrit: अनात्मन्) refers to the perception of "not-self", recommended as one of the seven beneficial perceptions,[1] which along with the perception of dukkha, and anicca, is also formally classified among the three marks of existence.

Anatta in the Nikayas[edit]

The ancient Indian word for self or essence is attā (Pāli) or ātman (Sanskrit), and is often thought to be an eternal substance that persists despite death. Hence the term anatta is often interpreted as referring to the denial of a self or essence. anatta is used in the early Buddhist texts, as a strategy to view the perception of self as conditioned processes (or even an action), instead of seeing it as an entity or an essence.

Taken together with the perceptions of anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (imperfection), anatta (not self) perception is the last of the three marks of existence, which when grasped strategically, leads to dispassion (nibbida). Dispassion then causes the mind to naturally tend to the deathless, and this is called release (vimutti).[2]

Karma and Anatta[edit]

Skillfull action[edit]

Because most philosophers focus on asserting or rejecting a self,[3] when people approach Buddhism, they assume it is answering the same questions. Thus they approach the Dhamma with the assumption that anatta is the basic framework, and wonder how karma could ever fit into such a framework.[4] But this brings assumptions that have no bearing on the Buddha's way of teaching. The Buddha's central teaching framework was karma. Anatta is just one of the strategies that fitted into this framework, as the forest dwelling monks of Thailand,[5] point out.[2]

The Buddha simply pointed out when the act of conceiving a self is skillful, and when it would be unskillful, and when the act of conceiving "not-self" is skillful, and when unskillful.[2] For example, the question "What, when I do it, would lead to my long-term benefit, and what would lead to my long-term hard?" involves skillful perceptions of self and is therefore a very skillful question, especially since it is framed in terms of karma. But views such as "there is a self", "there is no self, "because there is a self, one is reborn", or "despite there being no self, one is reborn", are all unskillful views.

Moral responsibility[edit]

The Buddha repeatedly asserted that there are skillful and unskillful actions,[6] and that the distinction between them is universal. He even talked of hiri (moral shame), otappa (moral dread), and appamāda, all undeniably reminding one of moral responsibility.[7] In the Buddha's framework of karma, the perception of self is skillful to the extent that it brings about right view regarding actions, and motivates one to choose skillful actions.

According to David Kalupahana, Buddha criticized two main theories of moral responsibility: the doctrine that posited an unchanging Self as a subject, which he calls "atthikavāda", and the doctrine that did not do so, and instead denied moral responsibility, which he calls "natthikavāda". According to David, the Buddha rejected them both on empirical grounds,[8] which would imply that the Buddha was evasive about the issue of moral responsibility. But this interpretation is not known to be well-established or accepted, given that the Buddha himself explicitly takes sides on the issue of moral responsibility.[9][10][11]

Views on self[edit]

Existence and Non-existence[edit]

The teaching of anatta is often misunderstood as a denial of the existence of a self. But when asked point-blank if there is a self, the Buddha refused to answer. The Buddha pointed out the drawbacks of thinking in terms of existence and non-existence.[12] Instead he recommended that one view phenomena as arising and passing away, based on impermanent conditions. This applied even to the perception of self. This means that instead of the question "Is there a self? Does a self exist?" it is recommended to ask "How does the perception of self originate? What sort of perception of self should one give rise to? What perception of self is skillful, and when?".

It is often thought preferable or safer to assume that "there is no self", than to assume that "there is a self". But according to the Buddha, both the views "there is a self", and the view "there is no self", constitute wrong view.[13] Of these, the view "there is no self" could give rise to the view that "there is no self doer, and no other doer",[14] which the Buddha criticized as a ludicrous view. Even in his most thoroughgoing teachings on anatta, the Buddha never recommends replacing the view that "there is a self", with the view "there is no self".[15][16] Instead his teaching of anatta is best viewed as a teaching on skillfully managing an experience, using the perception of self at times, and the perception of not self at other times.[2][17][18][19]


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 is 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[20][21] 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'.[22]

Teachings on karma and rebirth might seem to imply a persisting entity that transmigrates, but when demanded that the Buddha address the question of "who", as in "who feels"[23] or "who is reborn",[24] he often responded in terms of one impersonal phenomenon conditioning the other (see dependent origination). Thus according to early Buddhism the mechanism of a phenomenon is best understood as an interplay of conditioned phenomena, and not as some noumenon that drives the phenomena.[23] As an analogous example, if asked "what rains?", the Buddha would not answer that water droplets rain. Instead he would say that the question is invalid and answer that "dependent on condensation, there is rain".[25] In the same way, instead of answering "who is reborn?" in terms of a noumenon, the Buddha simply said "dependent on craving there is becoming, and dependent on becoming, there is birth.".

Wrong self-views[edit]

There are three ways in which self views could be conceived and all three are said to be wrong views.[citation needed] A wrong view is not wrong because it is factually incorrect, but because it leads to dukkha (suffering).[citation needed]

  1. The first is the view that "this is the self," which refers to identity view with regard to something, or passing blind judgement on the intrinsic quality of oneself.
  2. The second is the view that "the self is contained in something else," which refers to identity view as contained in something else.
  3. The third is the view that "the self possesses something else," which refers to the self possessing an entity such as a body.

All these views types of identity view fetter one to samsāra, and it is for this reason that they are wrong views.

Eternalism and annihilationism[edit]

According to Damien Keown, 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.[26][27] 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.

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.[28] 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.[29] According to this interpretation, the statement is directed at the path, not the goal.[30] Peter Harvey agrees with the Theravada view that "all dhammas are not-Self" includes nibbana in its scope.[31]

Developing the self[edit]

According to Peter Harvey, while the suttas criticize notions of an eternal, unchanging Self, they see an enlightened being as one whose changing, empirical self is highly developed.[32] 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.[33] The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or I-identification.[34] One can transform one's self from an "insignificant self" into a "great self" through practices such as loving-kindness and mindfulness.[35] 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."[35]

Anatta in Mahāyāna[edit]

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


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[36]

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[36]

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,[37] refers to the Buddha using the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics.[38] 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.[39]

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.[39]

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.[40] Other scholars do in fact detect leanings towards monism in these tathagatagarbha references.[41][note 1]

Relation to Vedic and Hindu philosophy[edit]

The pre-Buddhist Upanishads of Hinduism link the Self to the feeling "I am."[46] 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.'[46]

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.[46]

The Upanishadic "Self" shares certain characteristics with nirvana; both are permanent, beyond suffering, and unconditioned. However, early Buddhism shunned any attempt to see the spiritual goal in terms of "Self" because in this 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.[46] 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?[46]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Zimmermann, a specialist on the Tathagatagarbha Sutra,[42] 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'.[43] Zimmermann also avers that 'the existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra'.[44] 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.'.[45]


  1. ^ "Sañña Sutta: Perceptions" (AN 7.46), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  2. ^ a b c d "Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  3. ^ Many Indian philosophers before, during, and after the Buddha propounded various theories of self. Even the philosophy of Romanticsm involved the assumption that the self is one with the universe, which is a form of self-view.
  4. ^ For example: "If there is no self, then who or what is reborn?"
  5. ^ Thai forest monks in the lineage of Ajaan Mun Bhuridatto, including well known monks like Thanissaro Bhikku, and Ajahn Chah.
  6. ^ "Kusala Sutta: Skillful" (AN 2.19), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 August 2010,
  7. ^ "The Guardians of the World", by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010,
  8. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 44.
  9. ^ One very important place is the Apannaka Sutta: "Apannaka Sutta: A Safe Bet" (MN 60), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  10. ^ "Bala-pandita Sutta: Fools & Wise People" (AN 2.21), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 August 2010,
  11. ^ "The Buddhist Layman", four essays by R. Bogoda, Susan Elbaum Jootla, and M.O'C. Walshe. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  12. ^ "Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View)" (SN 12.15), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  13. ^ "Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile" (MN 22), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 December 2013,
  14. ^ "Attakārī Sutta: The Self-Doer" (AN 6.38), translated from the Pali by K. Nizamis. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013,
  15. ^ "Pañcavaggi Sutta: Five Brethren" (SN 22.59), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  16. ^ "Sabbasava Sutta: All the Fermentations" (MN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  17. ^ "Adhipateyya Sutta: Governing Principles" (AN 3.40), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  18. ^ "Bhikkhuni Sutta: The Nun" (AN 4.159), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  19. ^ "Maha-nidana Sutta: The Great Causes Discourse" (DN 15), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  20. ^ MN 2 (PTS)
  21. ^ SN 22.81 (PTS)
  22. ^ Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, pages 39,40.
  23. ^ a b SN 12.12 (PTS)
  24. ^ SN 12.35 (PTS)
  25. ^ This example is found in the Ațțhakathā to SN 12.2, and SN 12.5, PTS
  26. ^ Damien Keown (2004-01-01). "ucchedavāda". Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  27. ^ SN 12.17 (PTS)
  28. ^ Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, 1974, page 57. He indicated this about the sankhara translation himself.
  29. ^ Nanavira Thera, Nibbana and Anatta. [1]. Early Writings -> Nibbana and Anatta -> Sankhara and Dhamma.
  30. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Not-Self Strategy. See note 2, [2].
  31. ^ Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995, page 53.
  32. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 54.
  33. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 55.
  34. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 63.
  35. ^ a b Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 57.
  36. ^ 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
  37. ^ Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.Taylor & Francis, 1989, page 98, see also page 99.
  38. ^ 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."
  39. ^ a b Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking. Routledge, 2003, page 58.
  40. ^ Heng-Ching Shih,The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' -- A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'
  41. ^ Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 99-100
  42. ^ ^
  43. ^ 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
  44. ^ Michael Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 64
  45. ^ Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 81
  46. ^ 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.