From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Not-self)
Jump to: navigation, search

In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pāli) or anātman (Sanskrit: अनात्मन्) refers to the perception of "not-self", recommended by the Buddha as one of the seven beneficial perceptions,[1] and is also part of the three marks of existence. The perception of "not-self" is not a metaphysical statement, but part of a strategy of detachment, perceiving the constituent elements of the person (both physical and mental) as "not-self", i.e. not "I" or "mine". This detachment leads to nirvana and release from transmigration.

Anatta in the Nikayas[edit]

The ancient Indian word for essence is atta (Pāli) or ātman (Sanskrit), and is often thought to be an eternal substance that persists despite death. Hence the term anatta is often misunderstood as referring to the denial of a self or essence.

The Buddhist terms anatta (Pāli) and anātman (Sanskrit) are used in the suttas to see phenomena as conditioned processes, instead of seeing them as entities with an essence. anatta perception is a specific view that forms a key strategy to be used to attain nibbana. Taken together with anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (imperfection), anatta (not self) is the last of the three marks of existence, which when grasped fully and used strategically, can lead to dispassion (nibbida). Dispassion then causes the mind to naturally tend to the deathless, and this is called release (vimutti).[2] In this sense anatta perception is a skillful karma to be used at a specific stage. Before that the development of a healthy perception of self is essential.

Karma and Anatta[edit]

The central framework of the teaching of the Buddha is karma, the principle of choosing skillful actions over unskillful ones. The teaching of anatta is a strategy that fits into this framework.[2][note 1] The Buddha 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, when one kills, steals, or even generously gives dana, then the perception of self, as the doer of the actions, and the heir to the results of those actions is skillful. Without such a perception of self, one can't even begin the Buddhist quest, which is rooted in the question What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term benefit? The attitudes of hiri (moral shame) and otappa (moral dread) are skillful perceptions of self which are said to guard and protect the world.[3]

The perception of not-self is also an action: it is one of the seven recommended perceptions.[1] When someone dies, or some toy breaks, or some effort seems to go wasted, the skillful action recommended is to develop a perception of not-self with regard to those things.

The Buddha pointed out that beings are already familiar with this perception, and that they regularly use it, such as when a group of men are burning up leaves and twigs:

"What do you think, monks: If a person were to gather or burn or do as he likes with the grass, twigs, branches & leaves here in Jeta's Grove, would the thought occur to you, 'It's us that this person is gathering, burning, or doing with as he likes'?"

"No, lord. Why is that? Because those things are not our self, nor do they belong to our self."

"Even so, monks, whatever isn't yours: Let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term welfare & happiness. And what isn't yours? Form isn't yours... Feeling isn't yours... Perception... Thought fabrications... Consciousness isn't yours: Let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term welfare & happiness.[4]

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.[5] The Buddha was also careful not to allow an atthikavādin interpretation of his doctrine of causality.[6]

Views of self[edit]

Non-existence of self[edit]

The teaching of anatta is often seen as a denial of the existence of a self. But the Buddha set aside the whole question of existence or non-existence, and taught the perception of self as an action. Existence and non-existence are not categories that can apply to actions - they are just either skillful, or unskillful. So the perception of self, as an action, is either skillful or unskillful, and so is the perception of not self.

When demanded that the Buddha address the question of "who", as in "who feels"[7] or "who is born",[8] he often responded with a description of dependent origination, stating that the question of "who" brings with it assumptions that are incorrect.[7]


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[9][10] 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'.[11]

Wrong self-views[edit]

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

  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. Examples are the view that I am this body, or I am the five clinging aggregates, or I am the thinking principle behind thoughts, or I am the mind etc., or even views such as I am intrinsically good, or my mind is intrinsically good, or I am a born sinner, or my mind is intrinsically bad.
  2. The second is the view that the self is contained in something else, which refers to identity view as contained in something else. Examples are the views of various religions or mystics that the soul is within the body, or in the emotions. It also includes views of occult practices that believe that they can contain the soul of someone in a toy or some other prop, and then cause them suffering.
  3. The third is the view that the self possesses something else. Again various religious traditions hold that the soul possesses the body. Some theories of rebirth (such as Bhagavadgita) claim that the soul leaves one body and assumes another like a man leaves old clothes and wears new ones. This is an example of view that self possesses a body. But the Buddha did not refer to only other religious ideas in saying this. He was referring to a very typical tendency of all beings to cling to their bodies and things that are dear and appealing, as if possessing them. This is also self identity view.

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]

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.[12][13] 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.[14] 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.[15] The statement is directed at the path, not the goal.[16] Peter Harvey agrees with the Theravada view that "all dhammas are not-Self" includes nibbana in its scope.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or I-identification.[20] One can transform one's self from an "insignificant self" into a "great self" through practices such as loving-kindness and mindfulness.[21] 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."[21]

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.[22]


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[23]

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[23]

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,[24] refers to the Buddha using the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics.[25] 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.[26]

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.[26]

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.[27] Other scholars do in fact detect leanings towards monism in these tathagatagarbha references.[28][note 2]

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.[33]

The pre-Buddhist Upanishads of Hinduism link the Self to the feeling "I am."[34] 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.'[34]

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.[34]

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.[34] 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?[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Since anatta is often treated as a doctrine, it is misunderstood to be the central teaching, especially as a contrast to other schools of philosophy (non-dual or otherwise) that claim that there is a self. But anatta is neither the central teaching, nor is it a doctrine.[2]
  2. ^ Michael Zimmermann, a specialist on the Tathagatagarbha Sutra,[29] 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'.[30] Zimmermann also avers that 'the existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra'.[31] 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.'.[32]


  1. ^ a b "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. ^ "The Guardians of the World", by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 5 June 2010,
  4. ^ "Alagaddupama Sutta: The Water-Snake Simile" (MN 22), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 December 2013,
  5. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 44.
  6. ^ David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 13.
  7. ^ a b SN 12.12 (PTS)
  8. ^ SN 12.35 (PTS)
  9. ^ MN 2 (PTS)
  10. ^ SN 22.81 (PTS)
  11. ^ Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, pages 39,40.
  12. ^ Damien Keown (2004-01-01). "ucchedavāda". Retrieved 2013-12-04. 
  13. ^ SN 12.17 (PTS)
  14. ^ Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, 1974, page 57. He indicated this about the sankhara translation himself.
  15. ^ Nanavira Thera, Nibbana and Anatta. [1]. Early Writings -> Nibbana and Anatta -> Sankhara and Dhamma.
  16. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Not-Self Strategy. See note 2, [2].
  17. ^ Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995, page 53.
  18. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 54.
  19. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 55.
  20. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 63.
  21. ^ a b Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 57.
  22. ^ "The Diamond of Perfect Wisdom Sutra", "25. There Are No Beings to Liberate". Retrieved on 8 May 2014.
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.Taylor & Francis, 1989, page 98, see also page 99.
  25. ^ 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."
  26. ^ a b Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking. Routledge, 2003, page 58.
  27. ^ Heng-Ching Shih,The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' -- A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'
  28. ^ Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 99-100
  29. ^ ^
  30. ^ 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
  31. ^ Michael Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 64
  32. ^ Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 81
  33. ^ MN 22
  34. ^ 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.