Anatta: The Buddhist Doctrine of "No self"

by Luke Wayne
4/01/2016

One of the most distinctive teachings of Buddhism that sets it apart even from other eastern religions is the doctrine of "anatta". This is the teaching that there is no personal self at all, nor is there any aspect of anything that could be called "you" or "I" that persists from one moment to the next. Any concept of a distinct, personal identity is an illusion, and it is this illusion that leads to all the suffering and pain in the world.1 The doctrine of "anatta" is most commonly applied to persons, but it further applies to every object which one might perceive as a distinct thing over time. Nothing has any distinct identity or any enduring essence of itself. As The Society for the Promotion of Buddhism explains:

"This is one of the most fundamental points in Buddhism. All existence and phenomena in this world do not, ultimately, have any substantial reality. It is very natural for Buddhism, which advocates the impermanence of all existence, to insist that such an impermanent existence could not, therefore, possess any perpetual substance in it."2

The term "anatta" is commonly translated "no self,"3 or sometimes "no soul"4. Strictly speaking, the word actually means no "Atman," a concept from Hindu thought that has no western counterpart or proper English translation. Hinduism is highly pantheistic. In other words, it is believed that there is an impersonal, divine being/essence from which all things come. Indeed, all things really are little more than expressions of this one divine essence. Hindus call this impersonal "god" of sorts "Brahman." Brahman is in everything, and everything, in its very essence, is truly Brahman. Behind the illusion of this world, everything is really one ultimate thing, and that one thing is Brahman. The "Atman" is the divine essence of Brahman present and manifest in individual things and persons. It is the only thing that is real, permanent, and enduring in you.

According to this Hindu perspective, when you die in this life and are born again in the next life, it is not your body, mind, will, or memories that are reborn. It is the permanent, unchanging "Atman" in you that is incarnated again in the next life. The goal in Hindu thought, then, is to escape the cycle of endless mortal lives and for the drop that is "Atman" to rejoin the ocean that is Brahman. It is this divine essence that is the only eternal and unchanging aspect of "you" to become one with the divine essence of the universe. As one Eastern scholar explains of "Atman":

"It is discovered subjectively in their own person. It is an Intellectual Reality, The Lord of Cognition, The Internal Guide, The Light of Mind, The True Light, the Highest Splendor. Where there is no sun, no moon, no star, no lamp, Atman alone shines in the darkness, from whom all persons take of the light. It was finally identified with the universal self, which was also called the Maha-purusa (Great Person) or Mahatman (Great Self). Finally, the mysticism of identity was realized...I am Brahman." 5

When Siddhartha Gautama (the man who came to be known as Buddha) opposed the teachings of the Hindu leaders of his day in India and said "anatta" or "no atman," he was denying that this pure and permanent divine self-essence existed. When one places it within the context of the rest of Buddhist thought, however, it becomes apparent that the implications of the teaching go far beyond this. He did not merely mean to describe men, animals, and objects as not having an Atman (most anyone outside of Indian pantheism would agree with that particular claim) but to further describe people, animals, and objects as being nothing more than combinations of momentary phenomena and chains of cause and effect.

According to Anatta, There is no such thing as a man, at least as a real, distinct, and enduring composite whole. What we call a "man" is really just a combination of different sensations, thoughts, and states of consciousness that are each here for only an instant before causing a different series of such phenomena to arise in their place. None of these momentary parts of a man is itself a "man," and none of them lasts from one instant to the next.6 There is, therefore, no such thing as a "man" at all. A "man" is an illusion.7 Buddha himself is reported to have said, in describing one's coming to enlightenment:

"A man is composed of six elements: solidity, fluidity, heat, motion, space, and consciousness. He analyzes them and finds that none of them are 'mine' or 'me' or 'myself.' He understands how consciousness appears and disappears; how pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations appear and disappear. Through this knowledge, his mind becomes detached."8

Enlightenment is the realization that you do not exist. There is no distinct person that is "you" at any given moment, and nothing exists from one moment to the next. Even thoughts, reflections, and states of consciousness are just phenomena that appear and disappear, leaving others in their place. There are no persons, no selves. You never began reading this article, and you can never finish it. You didn't read that last sentence, nor are you the one who started this one. There is not and can be no "you". This is foundational to Buddhist enlightenment.

Of course, to try to make this case is to give it away. To attempt to teach someone that neither you nor they exist is to betray the fact that you know that they do exist and that they are distinct from you. It further reveals that you exist and believe yourself to possess a truth that you can teach to another actual person. You begin a conversation with another person only because you believe that you and that person will both be around through time to exchange words and ideas. The fact that Buddhism is a religion passed on from person to person is an irony we cannot allow to be lost on us.

Only when people act as distinct people can they perpetuate the notion that there are no distinct people. Only those who act as if there are real other persons can teach the doctrine that there are no real other persons. Buddhist authors hold copyrights on books and collect royalties on their sales as if they are the people who wrote the books at some earlier time and have special rights to those books that other people, distinct from themselves, do not have. Buddhists live as if they are real, enduring people because it is impossible not to. When your philosophy has to desperately fall back on skillfully nuanced metaphysical hairsplitting when confronted with the objection, "says who?" it is generally a sign of a problem in your worldview.

What's more, followed out consistently this view not only denies that anything stays the same, but also that anything changes. To change is to experience some transition in form or attributes. Buddhism, however, insists that such apparent transitions in attributes are evidence that the object is no longer the same thing at all. It didn't change, it simply went out of existence and was replaced by a new thing. So there is nothing that stays the same and there is nothing that changes. There is, in fact, no "thing" at all. What are we talking about then? And who is it that is talking about it? Everything is an illusion, but there is no one experiencing the illusion. What, then, does "illusion" mean? All is deception, but there is no one to be deceived. These assertions, while giving the emotional appearance of wisdom to some, are problematic at best.

Finally, if the doctrine of anatta and the related concepts in Buddhist philosophy were nevertheless coherent, they would still render life utterly meaningless, purposeless, and without priority or values, as knowledgeable Buddhists will themselves admit.9 Despite efforts to be positive about this, the results of this teaching would be a world that is quite bleak were there anyone really there to ponder it.

Thankfully, there are real persons with real value and worth granted them by God who graciously made them in His own image. We certainly do experience great change. Our lives are mortal, fleeting, and are all tainted by suffering, loss, and ultimately death. God, however, is eternal and unchanging. In Him is life, and He will impart to us eternal life and freedom from suffering and loss if we will turn from our evil thoughts and deeds and the selfish, prideful intents of our hearts and put our trust in Jesus Christ. He took our sin and guilt upon Himself and died in the place of all who will repent and believe.

  • 1. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 4
  • 2. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 298
  • 3. Houston Smith and Philip Novak "Buddhism: A Concise Introduction" (HarperCollins Publishers, 2003) 54
  • 4. "The Teaching of Buddha" (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1966) 298
  • 5. To Everyone an Answer (IVP Academic, 2004) 313
  • 6. Walpola Rahula, "What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada" (Grove Press, 2007) Kindle Edition, Chapter 2
  • 7. ibid, Chapter 6
  • 8. ibid, Chapter 4
  • 9. Rodney Smith, "Stepping Out of Self Deception" (Shambhala Publications, 2010) 27, 29