A Poll on How to Translate Anattā

Because I have linguistic education, language resources and Pali texts in quite many wrting systems are readily available even here on SC, and, finally, a linguistically sound explanation would account for the semantics, etymology, as well as phonology and grammar of a discussed language both synchronically and diachronically and would be convincing even for people not speaking Sinhala or Pali but capable of using publicly available data. In a similar vein, I could give to you a linguistically sound explanation of language phenomena even in the languages you personally possibly don’t speak: Russian, German, Latin, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Vedic, Proto-Indo-European (and I have a somewhat higher than average knowledge of the Indo/European linguistics) etc. We can even ignore the semantics for the time being and focus on the historical phonology, but again I would advise you to do it in a seperate thread.

Two examples of what I would consider a linguistically sound explanation (sorry, no sources there, but I can look them up if I were asked to do it):

You can try and refute my arguments even if you don’t speak Latin, for example, by sources on the historical phonology and etymology of Latin, Vedic and Proto-Indo-European languages. They are all out there and can be checked against - or contested, provided you have enough solid evidence.

The source of this information is none other than Ven. Wataraka Thero. An eminent monk whom many believe is an Ariya-puggala even achieved the ultimate goal available to a human being.
Following his revised meanings of the Tripitaka, many are in the process of achieving identical results.

Just to give an example, many people are following the Anapanasatti Bhavana the wrong way the world over. The venerable was able to explain the correct meditation. This is just one example.

More here ->

I like to think we are in the business of ending suffering. So linguistics should take a back seat even if things are academically sound yet does not really solve our ultimate problem.

So given all above, do you think it is worthwhile to consider the revised meaning?

No, unless you prove it is worth considering. i do not know whether Ven. Wataraka Thero was an arahant or not, and I do not know whether his teachings are leading people to the Enlightenment. It is impossible both to prove or disprove it. So, I have to take into account other evidence.

The crux of the argument for the revised meaning is linguistic (because comparing pali words to modern Sinhala ones is a linguistic argument), so you should provide linguistic evidence for its validity. If you are not ready to provide it, then please don’t use linguistical comparisons in your argumentation (like ‘in Modern Sinhala this word means this and this, so this is what it should mean in Pali because teh sounds are kind of similar’), because it would be plainly dishonest to use scholarly looking arguments if you cannot back them with scientific data. Just postulate the revised meaning and ask us to accept it on faith: this is pretty much what you did here in this thread, so it is okay, I have nothing against it. Still, I know that you are using linguistically looking arguments elsewhere, so why not do it here?

Could we please discuss the matter further in a separate topic please?


Well, the word in question here is “Anartha”. I have lived with Sinhala for decades and the etymology of this word is certainly not modern. Although it is something I myself need to confirm.

In due course you will need to bring the linguistics that suggest this word is modern. I look forward to engage you on this later.

Per my understanding, self hits the meaning better than soul because it is a more comprehensive term. Though obviously unacceptable from a readability pov, a conglomeration like not-self/soul/I/me/mine/myself would make things most clear.

I voted for Neither of the above. I translate the meaning of Anatta as “futile”.

In order to demonstrate the revised translation and the prevailing meaning, I will list 2 examples. See which ones make sense.

The present understanding.

Sabbe dhammā anattā
Things do not have a soul

Sabbesu dhammesu anattānupassī viharati
One meditates observing no self in all things

Ven. Waharaka revision (new)

Sabbe dhammā anattā
Everything is futile

Sabbesu dhammesu anattānupassī viharati
One meditates observing the futility of things

Maybe spirit instead of soul:

It’s still mostly immaterial, but seems better to me.

Anyway - do you have to translate it consistently as one word? I know this is the best, and would be great to do - but if the semantic content of (an)atta doesn’t fit any one English word, split it into two / more words, it would preserve the meaning better.

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We should give up the “without”?
But we should also give up “soul” and “self”.
There is not/no “soul”/“self” in attā.

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In pre-Upaniṣadic litterature, the subjective & objective (Ātman & Brāhman) are already appearing as being identical. Mental & cosmic are one.
“That one who is Brāhman in man, and that one who is in the sun, is one”. (TBr. 1.5)

This is what “soul”/“self” means in Vedic term. Might it be transcendent, like in the Ṛg Veda (“soul”); or immanent, like in the Upaniṣads (“self”).

The “Ceaseless” (Āt-man), and the “Expander” (Bṛh-man) are also both continuous & ubiquitous (pervasive).
But not attā.

Attā is compared (in Buddhism,) with this subjective, ceaseless, ubiquitous, and pervasive, but not transcendent Ātman - for transcendence does not belong to the realm of paṭiccasamuppāda (and therefore a speculative waste of time).
Also, this attā is compared with the subjective/objective, ceaseless, ubiquitous, and pervasive, and immanent Brāhman.

But because of impermanence, attā can’t be ceaseless and continuous; as per Buddha’s doctrine (in other words, impermanence = no bliss = no self).

It is definitely not “soul”, because it is not transcendent; as per paṭiccasamuppāda range.
It is not “self” either, because there is no ubiquitous immanence, [immanence in Buddhism has its locus in satta - mano is located in satta and is not ubiquitous]; but also because there is no continuity (for the reason that there is an impermanence of all the dhammas).

About “Identity”.

It is not really the identity between the object and the subject that is at stake here, (as it is in the close-set pre-Upaniṣadic and Upaniṣadic litterature); but about the continuity (and subsidiarily the ubiquity and identity) that is both common to the transcendent “Soul” that is ātman, in the Ṛg Veda for instance; and the immanent “Self/self” of the TBr., or the Upaniṣads. Continuity that does not take place in Buddhism.
Because everything is impermanent within paṭiccasamuppāda; there is no continuity.

Identity is a purely mano’s (satta’s) process, and adds a lot of unecessary confusion to the concept of self (see below).

First, there is the inherent impermanent nature (non continuity) of the phenomena (dhammas) in nāmarūpa. - (up to now it is easy - no continuity => no “self” - We could stop here - but why make things easy, when we can make them more complicated - so let’s continue towards the obscure).

Then identity appears as the “I” in saḷāyatana; when one considers the khandhas SN 22.33, the internal ayatanas SN 35.138, or the dhammas in general, as being “theirs”. [what is “not yours”, says Buddha, in these suttas].

Impermanence & identity are not really the same thing. Yet there must be a common point between “mine”, “I” and “self”; in the famous pericope: this is “mine”, this “I am”, this is “my self”. - etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti
How “continuous” (“permanent”) is that? - (and that is when things become a little bit more confused, with this unecessary additional “identity” shebang.)

Well, let’s see the process in this reverse (patilomam) order; viz. Mine >> I >> self.

What “I” make “mine”, is done by “I” becoming fettered to the craving procured by the dhamma. “I am” making the craving for the feeling (in vedanā nidāna) - procured by the dhamma - “mine”. [Remember?: feeling (vedanā nidāna) >> craving (taṇhā nidāna) >> clinging (upādāna)].

In the forward order (anulomam,) first, there is the making of the dhamma as an “I” (with the help of mano) - that is to say, to identify with the dhamma; then and only then, making the feeling born of this identification “Mine”, through craving & clinging to it.
To illustrate that anulomam order’s process, lets take the example of a nice sight that you identify with. This creates a good feeling in you. But the sight finally vanishes. The feeling remains - you crave for it - you bind yourself to that craving.
This is the usual process of the “I” >> “Mine”.
“I” makes first an identification with the dhamma in namārūpa, or wherever - (with the help of his mano). And this is where the continuity lies. “I” considers, like a late Vedic , or Upaniṣadic philosopher would do, that there is continuity in the flow; that his subjective Ātman (or in our case ātta,) is ubiquitous to the point that it can be considered as the same thing than the object. Continuity and ubiquitousness are melted in one sole process.
“I” considers himself as “self”; as continuous and ubiquitous in nature.
It is because people think that dhammas are continuous and ubiquitous, that there is identity.

Identity is making this nice sight, an “I” - “I am” this, says satta - and although the sight has disappeared, it still makes it “mine”, by craving for, and clinging to it.
The same holds for your satta, that is made of nāmarūpa constituents. Components that are empty by nature. They are impermanent like the rest, yet we make them an “I” - and a “mine” when we fill them up with experiences and feelings; which feelings we crave for and cling to.

So the object is non continuous (impermanent), and can’t be identified with the subject.

So continuity is the primary concern here. And identity just a secondary aftermath.

As said before, atta could just be conceptualized as a “continuous” satta, as long as he lives - but we could additionally say that the dhammas that are experienced, can’t be identified with atta, just because there is no adequation between the duration of an atta, and the duration of a dhamma.

"There is the case where someone doesn’t have this view: ‘This cosmos is the self. After death this I will be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity.’

He hears a Tathagata or a Tathagata’s disciple teaching the Dhamma for the elimination of all view-positions, determinations, biases, inclinations, & obsessions; for the stilling of all fabrications; for the relinquishing of all acquisitions; the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding. The thought doesn’t occur to him, ‘So it might be that I will be annihilated! So it might be that I will perish! So it might be that I will not exist!’ He doesn’t grieve, isn’t tormented, doesn’t weep, beat his breast, or grow delirious. It’s thus that there is non-agitation over what is internally not present."

So I guess that some people will continue to argue endlessly on “identity”, instead of “continuity” - on the effects, instead of the cause.
Obscurantism is often the attribute of those who praise the light (and it’s goddamn heavy).
Suci (the thrice born Aharant).:head_bandage:

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I have read this thread carefully. I am still confused. Thus, on matters of metaphysical or semantic soul, I’m just going to go to the highest source:


Because you think there is “Ï” to be confused!

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I first learned the subject (Me) and object (my brother) from my aunt when I was about ten years old. Until such time I did not know the difference! For me, I and my brother were the same.
When I was about fifteen I told my mother I do not want to study because it is no use as I am going to die one day. She said that I will be re-born and will carry my knowledge to the next life. It was good enough reason for me to continue my education. I thought that I will go for ever in to the future.
I think that self identification and self view is an innate (Anusaya) and the concept of soul is a learned thing.
Any way I voted "without soul"
I did not vote “without self” because I have a self( ignorance) so I (ignorance) will continue until I realise Nibbana.

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I lurked on Dhammawheel a bit and came across this amazing post by @sylvester suggesting that we could translate Rūpaṃ anattā and Sabbe dhammā anattā differently, perhaps (and this is my five cents) so the former is rendered as ‘the form is not soul/self’ and the latter ‘all dhammas are without soul/self’ or ‘all dhammas do not have the quality of soul/self’. I posted too much on this thread so it would be a good idea to show some restraint, but I couldn’t help sharing this with you, Bhante :pray:

On a side note, cakkhu atta from MN148 mentioned in the same thread makes the English renderings ‘the eye has soul’, or even more so ‘the eye is soul’ sound very weird to me. On the other hand, I am not entirely sold now on the idea that Rūpā anattā is not an adjectival proposition because the adjectival form anattā could sound identical both in singular and plural. The absence of grammatical evidence in the text doesn’t mean that it is a nominal proposition, it baiscally means - I think - that we can’t decide whether it is nominal or adjectival.

The problem I see is: when ‘form is not the Self’ is used, what is being denied ? The Vedic conception of an eternal, unchanging principle ?


IMO, it’s denying all conceptions of self.

[quote]At Savatthi. “Bhikkhus, whatever is not yours, abandon it. When you have abandoned it, that will lead to your welfare and happiness. And what is it, bhikkhus, that is not yours? Form is not yours: abandon it. When you have abandoned it, that will lead to your welfare and happiness. Feeling is not yours … Perception is not yours … Volitional formations are not yours … Consciousness is not yours: abandon it. When you have abandoned it, that will lead to your welfare and happiness.

“Suppose, bhikkhus, people were to carry off the grass, sticks, branches, and foliage in this Jeta’s Grove, or to burn them, or to do with them as they wish. Would you think: ‘People are carrying us off, or burning us, or doing with us as they wish’?”

“No, venerable sir. For what reason? Because, venerable sir, that is neither our self nor what belongs to our self.”

“So too, bhikkhus, form is not yours … consciousness is not yours: abandon it. When you have abandoned it, that will lead to your welfare and happiness.”

SN 22.33[/quote]
So if you had complete insight into anatta and someone cut your hand off, you wouldn’t suffer over clinging to it. “My hand has been cut off! Woe! Woe!.” You’d still experience the painful feeling but you wouldn’t cling to that either. And you could still verbalize it as “my hand” to others.

Or for a less gruesome and more relatable example, take getting a shot or having your blood drawn by a needle. I know I get somewhat anxious in the lead-up to the actual insertion of the needle. The insertion itself is actually pretty benign as far as the physical feeling goes; smacking my shin against something hard physically hurts more. But the waiting and anticipation for the poke is the worst part. There’s a lot of “khandha is the self” in that process and it’s pre-verbal.


Thanks everyone for taking part in this. I will respond to a number of the points you have made, but first I wish to comment on the results of the poll.

It is interesting that opinions are so evenly divided between “without self” and “without soul.” There could be a number of reasons for this, but my main takeaway is that neither candidate is obviously better than the other. This could mean - unfortunately - that none of them is a particularly good choice.

Just last night I was approached by an educated and seemingly intelligent person who was confused about the meaning of non-self. When I told him it meant a lack of a permanent essence, he was rather astonished; it seems it had never occurred to him that this might be the meaning. I get the impression that many people are as perplexed about the meaning of non-self as this young person was.

Given that “without soul” has its own problems - such as its focus on the mental aspect of existence - we should perhaps go further afield and consider other renderings. It strikes me that whenever I want to explain anattā I tend to say it means “without permanent/unchanging essence.” I get the impression that most people find this easy to grasp. Now I would argue that the word “essence” includes the idea of “unchanging” within it, for how could anything be called essential if it is there one minute but gone the next? (OED defines essence as “The intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, which determines its character.”) I am wondering, therefore, whether anattā could be rendered as “without essence” or “void of essence.”

Seeing it used in context, as suggested by @AnagarikaMichael, might be helpful:

Rūpaṃ anattā: form is without essence/form has no essence
Cakkhu anattā: the eye is without essence/the eye has no essence
Taṇhā anattā: craving is without essence/craving has no essence
Sabbe dhammā anattā: all things are void of essence
Anattasaññā: the perception of lack of essence/the perception of non-essence
Yo kho, bhikkhu, anattā; tatra te chando pahātabbo: monk, you should abandon desire for anything without essence

And some contexts for attā:

Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipariṇāmadhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ— ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attāti?
Is it proper to regard anything that is impermanent, suffering, and changeable as “this is mine, I am this, this is my essence”?

Rūpañca hidaṃ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa …
Monks, if form were essence/Monks, if form had an essence …

Anattanāva attānaṃ sañjānāmī
I perceive essence with essence/I perceive my essence with my essence

Some of the alternative renderings above are slightly loose, but I believe they are doctrinally acceptable.

Yes, but not necessarily so. We know from a number of statements in the suttas that the relationship between the supposed self/soul/essence and form can be quite varied, including the idea of the essence being in form.

In any case, I am quite happy to translate with a predicative sense: “form is essence.” It may well be that the predicative is better at including all the sub-senses. But we should not really expect to capture all these senses in a single sentence. The only way to understand a profound concept such as anattā is through wide reading of the suttas.

Much of what you say here seems true, but I believe you are missing an important part of the story.

My understanding - and since this is your area of expertise, please correct me if I get it wrong - is that Hume was an exceptionally gifted philosopher. He was, I understand, first and foremost an empiricist. So when Hume says there is no unchanging self, he is basing this on unflinching observations of his own mind. It takes a special kind of genius to take such observations to their logical conclusion that there is no unchanging essence, and I suspect very few people would be able to arrive at this truth in this way. The natural conclusion, rather, when we watch ourselves in an unsystematic way, is the exact opposite of what Hume arrived at. We feel that we exist, we experience a kind of amorphous continuity that we can’t quite pin down, but the sense is very strong and persuasive. It is this sense of identity that most people go by, and it is this that most philosophies are based on.

In the final analysis I have no doubt that this was true for Hume himself. Although he had metaphysically accepted that there is no self, he would still have experienced the world like most people. In other words, he would have experienced a sense of essence, a sense of permanence, somewhere in his psyche. It is the fact that he was able to override this strong sense of identity that made Hume special as a philosopher.

My point is that the sense of self is always based on a sense of continuity and identity over time, even for Hume. Normally this gives rise to the sort of metaphysical views seen in the brahmanical tradition, since the distance between the perception of personal continuity that all non-ariyan have and the view of personal continuity is very short. Both of them are species of the attā delusion, and both are critiqued by the Buddhist conception of anattā. The difference between the two is not great.

So whether you are Hume or not, whether we are dealing with perception or view, it comes down to the same thing: a sense of unchanging essence.

It is the root perception of continuity that is the real problem. The “I-making and my-making” and “ego construction” is based on this distorted outlook; it is not that the “I-making” is the root source of the problem. And, to repeat, this root distortion is normally very closely related to our metaphysical views.

I suppose it does, but sometimes things need to be spelled out to leave no room for doubt.

I think this is a very good point. In fact I have discussed translation principles with Bhante Sujato for quite a while. But I am sure we could go much further in this area.

One of the principles we have agreed on is that the translation should be easy to understand for most people. When the Buddha taught, people normally understood him, and this is no doubt an important reason why so many people practised successfully at the time. So instead of using jargon, Buddhist hybrid English, a complicated vocabulary, and complex sentences, we have tried to simplify things and make the meaning as transparent as possible. I think many of the translation principles you have mentioned here are in part fulfilled when the text is easy to understand.

Another principle we have followed is to avoid obscurities, even where the Pali is not entirely clear. In other words, you take a stand on what the Pali means, rather than rendering it a obscure way which leaves everyone either confused or able to read whatever they like into it. By taking a clear stand, even if we get it wrong, we are furthering the discussion of what the original means.


apart from requiring some effort to grasp the concept, it could as well be incorrectly understood as not real , and granted that in the absolute sense it may be true, treatment of phenomena as not real is not useful from the practical point of view and to my recollection never really postulated in the EBT

I think a non-native English speaker would find this difficult to understand. Even those used to Colonial English would first think of something material than metaphysical. Considering how broad the word anatta is maybe it is best left untranslated or left as Self to capture any and all nuances, bearing in mind this might be a task for Seeing (dassana) and not just Knowing (nana).

With metta

As a non native I disagree :wink:
It seems to convey the meaning much better than self or soul. Soul carries too much weight from Catholicism / Christianity for me. Self on the other hand is a good English word, that is (as far as I tried) almost impossible to translate to Polish consistently into one word.

What I’m not sure, is the choice between “essence” and “permanent essence”. I don’t feel the permanence aspect in the “essence” word strong enough, although I’m not native, so it might be just me :wink:


self has in the modern times pretty consistently been the English rendering for the Indic concept of atman regardless of the doctrine, so its meaning must have gotten ingrained within the subconsciousness of the anglophones either native or non-native and therefore doesn’t require any special elucidation

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Well, you should only go for a new rendering if you think it substantially improves on the original. I believe people who are already familiar with “not-self” for anattā will find it easy to understand “void of essence.” So the real test, I feel, is whether the new rendering is easier to grasp for newcomers.