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

Anatta in the Nikayas

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 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]

Views on self

Existence and Non-existence

When asked about the existence of a self, the Buddha often refused to answer. Instead, he pointed out the drawbacks of thinking in terms of existence and non-existence,[3] and recommended that one view phenomena as arising and passing away, based on impermanent conditions. This means that instead of the question "Is there a self?", it is recommended to ask, "How does the perception of self originate?"[3]


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[4][5] 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'.[6]

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

Wrong self-views

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.[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

While the concept of jiva in Hinduism and Jainism is distinct from the Buddhist concept of a self, certain concepts of jiva are seen to contradict the notion of anatta.[9][10] Eternalism, or the idea that there is a soul or jiva distinct from the body, raises the question of the existence of an eternal self, which the Buddha did not teach. 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 did not teach.[citation needed]

Karma and Anatta

Skillful action

Because most philosophers focus on asserting or rejecting a self,[11] 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.[12] 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 fit into this framework.[2][13]

Moral responsibility

The 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".[14] Instead, the Buddha repeatedly asserted that there are skillful and unskillful actions,[15] and that the distinction between them is universal. In the Buddha's framework of karma, the perception of self is only skillful to the extent that it brings about right view regarding actions, and motivates one to choose skillful actions.

Developing the self

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.[16] 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.[17] The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or "I-identification."[18] One can transform one's self from an "insignificant self" into a "great self" through practices such as mettā and mindfulness.[19] 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."[19]

Anatman in Mahayana Buddhism

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


While commenting on Āryadeva, Candrakīrti defines anatta[20][21][22][23][24] 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[25]

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[25]

Tathagatagarbha Sutras

The Tathāgatagarbha sūtras 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,[26] refers to the Buddha using the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics.[27] 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.[28]

The Ratnagotravibhāga, 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.[28]

According to some scholars, the Buddha-nature discussed in these sutras does not represent a substantial self; rather, it is a positive language and expression of śūnyatā "emptiness" and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices.[29] Other scholars do in fact detect leanings towards monism in these tathagatagarbha references.[30][note 1]

Relation to Vedic and Hindu philosophy

The pre-Buddhist upanishads of Hinduism link atman to the feeling "I am."[35] 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 arhat says, "Above, below, everywhere set free, not considering 'this I am.'"[35]

While the pre-Buddhist Upanishads link the Self to the attitude "I am," others like the post-Buddhist Maitrayaniya Upanishad hold that only the defiled individual self, rather than the universal self, thinks "I am this" or "I am that". 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."[35]

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.[35] 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?"[35]

See also


  1. Michael Zimmermann, a specialist on the Tathagatagarbha Sutra,[31] 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'.[32] Zimmermann also avers that 'the existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra'.[33] 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.'.[34]


  1. "Sañña Sutta: Perceptions" (AN 7.46), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
  3. 3.0 3.1 "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,
  4. MN 2 (PTS[full citation needed])
  5. SN 22.81 (PTS)[full citation needed]
  6. Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press 1995, pages 39,40.
  7. SN 12.12 (PTS[full citation needed])
  8. SN 12.35 (PTS[full citation needed])
  9. Damien Keown (2004-01-01). "ucchedavāda". Retrieved 2013-12-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. SN 12.17 (PTS[full citation needed])
  11. 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.[citation needed]
  12. For example: "If there is no self, then who or what is reborn?"
  13. Thai forest monks in the lineage of Ajaan Mun Bhuridatto, including well known monks like Thanissaro Bhikku, and Ajahn Chah.[citation needed]
  14. David Kalupahana, Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. The University Press of Hawaii, 1975, page 44.
  15. "Kusala Sutta: Skillful" (AN 2.19), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 August 2010,
  16. Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 54.
  17. Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 55.
  18. Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 63.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 57.
  20. Moonshadows: Conventional Truth in Buddhist Philosophy (2010), New York: Oxford University Press.
  21. J. Garfield; Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagārjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (1995), New York: Oxford University Press.
  22. J. Garfield;Empty Words: Buddhist Philosophy and Cross-Cultural Interpretation (2001), New York: Oxford University Press.
  23. G. Newland; Introduction to Emptiness (2011), Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications
  24. J. Westerhoff; Nagārjuna’s Madhyamaka: A Philosophical Analysis, New York: Oxford University Press
  25. 25.0 25.1 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
  26. Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.Taylor & Francis, 1989, page 98, see also page 99.
  27. 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."
  28. 28.0 28.1 Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking. Routledge, 2003, page 58.
  29. Heng-Ching Shih,The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' -- A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'
  30. Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 99-100
  31. ^
  32. 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
  33. Michael Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 64
  34. Zimmermann, A Buddha Within, p. 81
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 35.3 35.4 Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995, page 34.


External links

  • Nirvana Sutra English translation of the Nirvana Sutra by Kosho Yamamoto.