In Buddhist philosophy, anatta (Pāli) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to "non-self" or "absence of separate self." Its opposite is Atta (Pāli) or Ātman (Sanskrit), the idea of a permanent Soul or Self which survives transmigration, which the Buddha explicitly rejects.
According to the Buddha, what is normally thought of as the "self" is in fact an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents known as "skandhas" ('aggregates', 'heaps'). The Buddha repeatedly emphasized not only that the five skandhas of living being are "not-self," but that clinging to them as if they were an immutable self or soul (ātman) gives rise to unsatisfactoriness (dukkha).
Anatta, along with dukkha (suffering/unease) and anicca (impermanence), is one of the three dharma seals, which, according to Buddhism, characterize all phenomena.
The term 'anatta' (Pali) is used in the Pali Canon to assert that all phenomena lack an ontological and independent self (Atman). The Buddha, therefore, regarded phenomena as “Na me so atta” (this/these are not my soul), which is one of the most common utterance of Gautama Buddha in the Buddhist Nikayas scriptures. These early texts also state that the five aggregates with which the unlearned man identifies himself, are not the Soul and that is why one should grow become detached from them and be liberated. Therefore, the Buddha described the nature of all things, from the macrocosmic to microcosmic, as composite, temporal, and transitory
Teaching the subject of anatta in sutra pertains solely to things phenomenal, which were: “subject to perpetual change; therefore unfit to declare of such things ‘these are mine, these are what I am, that these are my Soul’”
Gautama was asked by a layperson to elucidate the meaning of anatta. He replied as follows:
"[F]orm is not the Soul (anatta), sensations are not the Soul (anatta), perceptions are not the Soul (anatta), assemblages are not the Soul (anatta), consciousness is not the Soul (anatta). Seeing thusly, this is the end of birth, the Brahman life has been fulfilled, what must be done has been done.”
In the Buddhist text Samyutta Nikaya, Gautama Buddha was asked if there “was no soul (natthatta),” which it is conventionally considered to be equivalent to Nihilism (ucchedavada). Thus, the Buddha denied the existence of the mere empirical “self” but he distinguished his views from the nihilists (natthika) who denied the Soul. The Buddha said, “Both formerly and now, I’ve never been a nihilist (vinayika), never been one who teaches the annihilation of a being, rather taught only the source of suffering, and its ending” .
The phrase anatmavada is not found in the nikayas, existing only in Theravada and Madhyamika commentaries.
“Whatever form, feelings, perceptions, experiences, or consciousness there is (the five aggregates), these he sees to be without permanence, as suffering, as ill, as a plague, a boil, a sting, a pain, an affliction, as foreign, as otherness, as empty (suññato), as Selfless (anattato). So he turns his mind away from these and gathers his mind/will within the realm of Immortality (amataya dhatuya). This is tranquility; this is that which is most excellent!”
Students of Buddhism often encounter an intellectual quandary with the teaching in that the concept of anatta and the doctrine of rebirth seem to be mutually exclusive. If there is no self, no abiding essence of the person, it is unclear what it is that is reborn. The Buddha discussed this in a conversation with a Brahmin named Kutadanta.
Some Buddhist schools have attempted to explain that certain dispositions or psychological constituents have repercussions that extend beyond an individual life to the next. More innovative solutions include the introduction of a Pudgala, a "person," which functions comparably to the atman in the rebirth process and in karmic agency, but is regarded by its advocates as not falling prey to the metaphysical substantialism of the atman.
Others seek a proxy not for the atman but for Brahman, the Indian monistic ideal that functions as an atman for the whole of creation, and is in itself thus rejected by anatta. Such a solution is the Consciousness-only teaching of the Yogacara school attempt to explain the seeming paradox: at death the body and mind disintegrates, but if the disintegrating mind contains any remaining traces of karma, it will cause the continuity of the consciousness to bounce back an arising mind to an awaiting being.
Some Buddhists take the position that the basic problem of explaining how "I" can die and be reborn is, philosophically speaking, no more problematic than how "I" can be the "same" person I was a few moments ago. There is no more or less ultimacy, for Buddhists, between the identity I have with my self of two minutes ago and the identity I have with the self of two lives ago.
A further difficulty with the anatta doctrine is that it contradicts the notion of a path of practice. Anatta followed to its logical extremities rejects the reality of a Buddhist practitioner able to detach him/herself from clinging.
Buddhist teaching tells us that all empirical life is impermanent and in a constant state of flux, and that any entity that exists does so only in dependence on the conditions of its arising, which are non-eternal. Therefore, any Self-concept (attanuditthi) sense one might have of an abiding Self or a soul is regarded as a misapprehension; since the conceptualization of the Self or soul is just that, and not an ontological apprehension of same.
Much of modern Buddhism holds that the notion of an abiding self is one of the main causes of human conflict, and that by realizing the nonexistence of our perceived self, 'we' may go beyond 'our' mundane desires. (Reference to 'oneself' or 'I' or 'me' for Buddhists is used merely conventionally.)
That the denial of the empirical person or self (This person so-and-so, Bob, Sue, etc.) in Buddhism is not in question; that self "goes to the grave".
The Buddha taught that all clinging to concepts and ideas of a self are faulty and based on ignorance. The five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness were described as especially misleading, since they form the basis for an individual's clinging or aversion. He taught that once a monk renounces his clinging for all the five aggregates, through meditative insight, he realizes the bliss of non-clinging, and abides in wisdom. The Buddha clearly stated that all five aggregates are impermanent, just as the burning flame is inconstant in one sense, and that knowledge or wisdom is all that remains, just as the only thing constant about a flame is its fuel, or purpose.
Controversially, there has been, and continues to be, a minority of Mahayana Buddhists who understand the Buddhist doctrine of "non-Self" ("anatta"/"anatman") as relating solely to the ephemeral elements (the five "skandhas") of the being and not to the hidden and undying "Buddha-Principle" ("Buddha-nature") taught by the Mahayana Buddha to exist within the depths of each person's mind (see section on Anatta in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras below).
According to Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha chose not to assume the existence of an eternal self or soul (atman), although, as found in sources, from the Pali Canon he would refer to the existence of a conventional self-subject to conditional phenomena and responsible, in the causal-moral sense, for karma.
The Buddha was silent to the questions of the paribbajako (wandering ascetic) Vacchagotta of “Is there a self?” or “Is there not a self?” because this was an antinomy-based question that the Buddha always rejected (is it, is it not, is it both, is it neither). When Ananda later asked about his silence, the Buddha said that to affirm or deny the existence of an eternal self would have sided with sectarian theories and have disturbed Vacchagotta even more.
The Buddha's teachings were directed to the principles of causality; not in a negative, nihilistic way of non-reality, but rather by showing why it is and how to see it integrated positively in the causal relationships of the mental-physical factors of the experience of life. Causal relationships were detailed in the Buddha’s analysis of dependent origination and idappaccayata (lit. “This is founded on that”).
"All processes are impermanent … All processes are afflicted … All phenomena are not ‘Self’; when this is seen with knowledge, one is freed from the illusion of affliction. This is the pathway to purity." (Dhammapada, 20. 227 – 279)
Therefore, the goal of the Buddhist contemplative is to develop freedom of the will/mind (citta) from entanglement with things as they seem; through the delusions of desire and consequential self-identity with events, resultant fear, aversion and projected hopes—to awaken to things as they are; coming home to a natural understanding of reality with ones given abilities at work in an ever changing evolution of experience.
The understanding of anātman / anatta expressed in the Mahayana scriptures known as the "Tathagatagarbha sutras" (as well as in a number of Buddhist tantras) is distinctive: the doctrine presented by the Buddha in these texts claims to clarify that it is only the impermanent elements of the sentient being—the "five skandhas" (changeful constituent elements of mind and body)—which are "not the Self" ("anātman"), whereas the truly real, immanent essence ("svabhāva") of the being is no less than the "tathagatagarbha" ("buddha-matrix") or the "buddha-principle" ("buddha-dhātu," which is popularly rendered in English as the "buddha-nature"), and is inviolate and deathless. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha discloses that the basic non-Self teaching is given to those of his followers who are still in their spiritual infancy, as it were, and unable to digest the full, final and culminational Dharma of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, whereas the teachings of the tathagatagarbha are intended for those followers who have "grown up" and are capable of absorbing the undiminished Truth. The tathagatagarbha, the immortal element or essence within each being, is termed the "true Self" or the "great Self" by the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. It is said to be essentially free from rebirth and always remaining intrinsically immaculate and uniquely radiant—only awaiting discovery by all beings within the depths of their own minds. In the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Buddha tells of how, with his buddha-eye, he can actually see this hidden "jewel" within each and every being: "hidden within the kleśas [mental contaminants] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity, there is seated augustly and unmovingly the Tathagata's [Buddha's] wisdom, the Tathagata's vision, and the Tathagata's body […] all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of kleśas, have a tathagatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and replete with virtues no different from my own".
Moreover, the Buddhist tantric scripture entitled Chanting the Names of Mañjusri (Mañjuśrī-nāma-saṅgīti), as quoted by the great Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa, repeatedly exalts not the non-Self but the Self and applies the following terms to this ultimate reality:
Thus, the "non-Self" doctrine receives a fresh presentation in the Tathagatagarbha sutras (and in certain tantric texts) as a merely partial, incomplete truth rather than as an absolute verity.
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