A Poll on How to Translate Anattā

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I think it would be very interesting to get a better idea of what the SuttaCentralers think about this.

First of all I just wish to make clear the purpose of this poll. As I see it, a translation should be both true to the original and as accessible as possible. If we take anattā to mean a lack of unchanging essence, the question is how this can best be expressed so that most people immediately understand what is at stake. It seems fairly uncontroversial that the prefix an- can be rendered as “without.” This leaves us with choosing between “self” and “soul” for attā. So, is anattā best translated as “without self” or “without soul”? Which of these will most readily be understood to mean “void of unchanging essence”? It would be great to get feedback from anyone with an opinion on this.

If you don’t like either suggestion, please specify your preference in a separate post.

  • Anattā is best translated as “without self”
  • Anattā is best translated as “without soul”
  • Neither of the above

0 voters

Thanks for taking part!


Just to give it a contextual setting:

“What do you think, bhikkhus, is form permanent or impermanent?”—“Impermanent, venerable sir.”

“Is what is impermanent suffering or happiness?”—“Suffering, venerable sir.

“Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipari­ṇāma­dhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ: ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’”ti? “No

.”—“Is what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change fit to be regarded thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my {—}’?”—“No
SN 22.59


To make the context more detailed:

Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā. Rūpañca hidaṃ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṃ rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvatteyya, labbhetha ca rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti. Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ anattā, tasmā rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvattati, na ca labbhati rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti.

Bhikkhus, form is without {—}. For if, bhikkhus, form were {—}, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ But because form is without {—}, form leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’
SN 22.59


Seems to me that in some contexts “not a self” or “not oneself” would work.


guess it requires adjustment of the passage phraseology

Bhikkhus, form is without {self/soul}. For if, bhikkhus, form had {a self/soul}, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ But because form is without {self}…

that’s why before making a choice it would be interesting to see how Ven @Brahmali envisions the new rendering in context


Maybe, but the Pali text is pretty straightforward. It basically goes like ‘If X indeed were Y’. I am not very well-informed about the Pali constructions rendering possession, so I am not sure how you translate ‘to have’ into Pali. Right now, I am a bit uncertain, ‘X is Y’ and ‘X has Y’ are semantically very different in English.


actually the proposed rendering of anatta puzzles me, but i don’t think the example creates a problem because being without is synonymic to not having and thus i believe can be contradicted with having


I have often struggled with this question, as the characteristic of not-self is part of the triad of awareness (vipassana) of the reality of impermanence, of the distortion we call a “self,” and how attachment to permanence and self, in part, causes suffering. On the other hand, we have the Buddha distinguishing his Dhamma on kamma/intention and rebirth from that of the concept of ritual, a soul and reincarnation, that is part of the Vedic teaching. I hesitated to vote in the poll, because without a context, I am unsure of how to answer.


Honestly I’m not sure, although I like clarity of “without soul”. But even in this particular context (where attā is not a reflexive pronoun) in case of some suttas, like SN 22.33, it seems that it’s better to render attā as “self” rather than “soul”.


True, ‘X is without Y’ is virtually identical to ‘X doesn’t have Y’. The problems arise when we translate the other half of the dychotomy: ‘X is with Y’ or ‘X has Y’, while the Pali text - to my knowledge, and I may be wrong - seems to be plainly stating ‘if X were Y…’


In different ways I think that both a a bit problematic. What about something like ‘permanent essence’ or ‘unchanging essence’ or ‘unchanging core’ or ‘essential nature’. Perhaps also problematic… ?

While I like your idea of ‘soul’ in that it puts it more directly into perspective in terms of the context of the Buddha’s teaching, I do think it’s problematic, not because it will be challenging for some people (which is good!), but in terms of all the connotations & wide variety of understandings of the term in English. And, as with some other key Pali terms translated into English, I think this might lead to perhaps even more misunderstanding, with people thinking they know what it means when they really may well not. I guess if it were between ‘self’ and ‘soul’ I would still keep ‘self’ despite the problems with that as well.


ok, i see, the rendering “without self” causes distortion of the passage meaning which is that the form could change at will if it were self and, reversely, because it’s not self it cannot change at will
it’s because having self (i.e. being not without self) as its opposite, unlike simple being self, doesn’t bring out the connotation of the expected ability of self to change at will

and while atta and anatta are antonyms, in a capacity of either nouns or adjectives, self alone and without self are not and so cannot work in opposition

for retention of the passage meaning a more tenable pair of opposites could be having qualities of self/without qualities of self


I’ve always carried the pet theory that it would be good to translate “anattā” as “identity-less” or “lacking identity”, but I may be alone in preferring that rather strange rendering.

No self or not self discourse, whichever one prefers, I think ultimately and practically deals with the discarding of self-views. Even if you are of the persuasion that perhaps some sort of true self/ātman does exist, and that the Buddha teaches the way to it, even then one would still have to deal with all dhammā lacking this essence that one posits as a potentiality, so all self views still have to be discarded for what they are, views.

With this in mind, I personally think “without identity” is a more natural coinage for the English language and English language culture, although I understand that this suggestion is idiosyncratic, and I would certainly never insist upon it being “proper” in the sense that I would suggest others use it. “Self”, in English, has a natural metaphysical weight that makes the negation of self seem like a negation of kamma almost, a negation of responsibility, moral responsibility, morality, nihilism. Such is the “Self” in English, in my experience at least.

Identity we are used to thinking of as fluid, as unstable, as unsatisfactory. In this modern day age our “identities” can be stolen, appropriated. Identities are fictionalized and digitalized on the internet. English speakers very naturally associate identity with incoherence and fiction.

Futhermore, identity has a broader, more substantial meaning, that being, any way in which one considers or regards one’s “self” or anything other than something conventionally considered a “self”, to be a “self”. Identity is necessarily formed via identification of self-qualities, or self-parts. “I am an X. I am a Y.” Identity in English, in many ways, is similar to the Buddhist Hybrid English of “self-view”. There is even another interesting Buddhist Hybrid English term I have encountered in use before “I-making” or “self-making”, both of these are very readily relatable to “identity”, as a term, to the English-language neophyte, and once all self-view is understood to be (merely?) “identity”, one has the makings of proper instruction on what is expressed as “is not the self” in traditional Buddhist language. I think, at least.

In the modern era, we even have meta-identities, or hypostatizing identities with identifications within them, how often do we see “I am offended on behalf of X identity because I am Y identity and X and Y identity are united against Z identity”-type discourses abounding in all spectrums and manner of society, obfuscating real and pressing issues that underly these identity warfares, in the present age?

It is not an EBT, but I am reminded of the opening dedication of the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, “prapañcopaśamaṃ śivam”, " the auspicious cessation of reification", I think the cessation of “identity-forming” and “identification” (both of those being, I think at least, forms of “reification/objectification/substantialization/hypostatization”) is an important part of the Buddha’s teaching, but that language was not really used by the Buddha, so at best it can only really be my own personal responce to anattā, be it on or off track.

Anyways I hope that someone else finds something interesting in those sentiments.


That sounds about right but is even clumsier and more non-idiomatic than ‘aggregates’ :slight_smile:


and since this is the only case i can see as being able to accommodate such preposition as without in the rendering of anatta in this passage, the suggestion implicitly speaks in favor of sticking to traditional renderings


In cases where the Buddha is explicitly arguing against an unchanging essence, then the word soul is most appropriate. In cases where we need to let go of any identity delusion we may have created, then the word self is appropriate.

So it depends on context and alas, this constantly-changing-collection-of-khandhas has not read enough suttas to make an informed decision.


Without ownership.


I prefer “without” to “not”: “without self/soul”, which gives “form (etc.) is without self/soul.” I believe “without” is closer to the privative meaning of an-, and it allows for a broader interpretation of the relationship between each khandha and the supposed attā. This fits with the suttas, which define sakkāya diṭṭhi (which is how we express our sense of an attā through views) in terms of four kinds of relationships between the two, see e.g. MN 44, one of which is inherence, another that of ownership. “Form is without soul” includes both these latter senses, that is, there is no attā within form/inherent in form nor does an attā possess form.

Possession is normally expressed by the genitive case, sometimes the genitive + the verb “to be,” hoti. Occasionally, however, the genitive is left out altogether and the verb hoti itself expresses possession, as least from the point of view of the translation. In other words, it may just be an artefact of Pali idiom.

This means we could translate as “form is a soul” or “form has a soul.” The latter would be in keeping with the usual definition of sakkāya diṭṭhi in suttas such as MN 44.

Perhaps I should have given the two translations in various contexts. But that would have been much more time consuming. Please have compassion for me!

But “self” also has a number of connotations and variety of uses. A quick look at my OED suggest that “self” is just as polysemic as “soul”.

I think this might work. The only problem is that “identity,” or “personal identity,” is often reserved for sakkāya, which of course is closely related to anattā.

But the idea of anattā is much broader than this and includes the idea of identity, “form is a soul/self.”


Another alternative is break the linguistic symmetry of Pali and say ‘if form were… the self/soul’ and ‘form is without soul’.

Anyway, I like the old rendering better. It is Hybrid Buddhist English for sure, but as I had some knowledge of the anatta concept and have a primitive understanding of some Pali, it serves its purpose better. Which is why there can and perhaps should be more than one authoritative translation: one for those who have no idea and one for people who aremore interested in the nitty-gritty of the Pali text. They mean basically the same thing, but the latter one can sacrifice the linguistic elegenance for the sake of the philophical, linguistical and doctrinal precision.


√ अत् at, in atman (atta) might mean “to go constantly”.
(Extra note: √at is linked with the √अट् aṭ that means to roam, or wander about.)

“man” as a suffix, forming a primary substantive, gives the name atman, the trait of an agent.

Which makes attā, the agent that is unceasing/constant (as long as we live) - that is going constantly (for a while) - but paradoxically is intrinsically ceasing.

Therefore, atman might be translated as:
The constant - the permanent - the unremitting - the ceaseless - the perpetual - the ageless - etc.
Which obviously have all, the quality of being blissful (viz. granting such high and low contentments such as: sukha, nibbāṇa, nibbuti, pāmujjaṃ (pāmojja), santi, somanassa, iṭṭha, vitti, ānanda, pīti, etc.).

Attā, would be the permanent, (as in going constantly, as long as we live, ) .
And ānatta would mean the contrary; namely “the impermanent”; that does not bring bliss (in this case: dukkha - instead of sukha).

So neither of the above.
I would drop the “without” and call it “the impermanent,” as far as the agent ānatta is concerned (if ever ānatta applies only when we die) - and “impermanent” as a quality (viz. form is impermanent, feeling is impermanent, etc.)