A Poll on How to Translate Anattā

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I don’t quite get the grammar yet. First, what does ‘Genetive is left out altogether’, could you please provide an example (even an artificial one)?

Second, we have an expression ‘Rūpañca … attā abhavissa’ that can be literally translated as ‘form-and… soul/self would be’ and can be analyzed as:

  • rupaṃ ‘form’ Nom Sing,

  • -ca ‘and’,

  • attā ‘soul/self’ Nom. Sing.,

  • abhavissa Cond. of bhavati

If we use the Genitive construction, the phrase would sound something like rūpassa attā abhavissa, and it is very unclear to me how and why Genetive would suddenly change to Nominative (importantly without the word being left out altogether), so that the entire sentence would sound like a predicative one. In that case a predicative sentence sounds just like a genetive construction, which is quite impractical for pragmatic purposes.

I don’t want to doubt your Pali expertise or blow mine out of the proportion, but with the data I am having now I am not convinced that we are having a possessive construction instead of a predicative phrase at all, which means I don’t think it is justified to translate it as ‘form has attā’. I don’t mean we shouldn’t or that I am right, I just would be happy to see a more substantial grammatical case for this rendering :blush: :pray:


What is the definition of Soul and Self?
Are these terms used in Buddha’s time?


This is true but maybe without so much ‘baggage’ & Christian overtones. I’m also thinking of how the word might be understood in other (non-western and/or non-Christian) cultures/languages (as was pointed out by a few people in another discussion on this).

In reflecting on it further, I think one of the disadvantages of ‘soul’ (though I can also see the advantage of using this, as I said earlier) is that in a way it might bolster materialist & annihilationist views/misunderstandings about Buddhism in that those theories and ‘Buddhist practioners’ who hold those views would also certainly agree there is no soul.

This may be one of the trickiest translations yet (not to mention that there is already so much confusion re: the subject and that penetration of the meaning, so to speak, is key to awakening and thus impossible to really ‘get’ merely linguistically or conceptually)! Of course, as I think you and/or others have said before, people can always misunderstand & also misrepresent things no matter what translations are used.

But I guess I generally prefer words that are a little less ‘loaded’ in English even if other choices may also be polysemic. That’s why I was trying to think of a word/words that more directly spoke to certain qualities (no essence, no permanent or unchanging nature, etc, none of which are particulary satisfactory either)…


You are right; most likely the sense is predicative. While translating, however, I have come across instances where an expression of the kind “A is B” must mean “A has B.” The context required it. Unfortunately I cannot remember any such instance off hand, but I will get back to you if I do.

But it is fairly clear that the two expressions can be very close in meaning, also in English. For instance, you can say “the car is red” or “the car has a red colour.” There is no clear semantic difference between the two, and thus it would not be surprising if some languages expressed the latter idea using the verb “to be.”

You may wish to have a look at the PTS dictionary which makes it clear that bhavati (= hoti) is used quite flexibly in Pali.

Please look it up. I am not so interested in definitions, but more in how people relate to these terms. It is important to me to translate in a way that makes the meaning as transparent as possible.

We are trying to capture the meaning of anattā.

This is a good point. I suppose a counter-argument might be that some of these same materialist, say a psychologist, agree that there is no self, too. This doesn’t mean they have truly understood it.


I have learned so much from you. I have compassion, and gratitude as well! :slight_smile:


Yes, e,g. Russian, where we say u men’a yest’ ya, lit. ‘at me is I’, ‘I have a self’. Or Arabic. Or Irish. Or Welsh. However, all these languages have specific constructions showing they are used in a possessive sense. Pragmatically, it is very odd to have possessive constructions identical to predicative statements. With a straightforward predicative phrase like ‘apple is a fruit’ the only way to twist it into the have-paradigm would be to use some additional noun referring to an abstract quality as you or LXNDR did: ‘If form would have the quality of self’ or ‘the car has a red colour’. The straight-up change of the verb can drastically alter the meaning of the translated sentence: ‘form is self’ or ‘form has self’ are for me two different statements with different possible far-reaching consequences. As for how one can understand the predicative sentence in Pali, if it looks like a dog, and barks like a dog…

I mean, we shouldn’t give up on the has-translation, but to prove it is viable we have to find cases in Pali where a predicative phrase must be rendered with ‘have’ in English :anjal:


Well, to give a rather stupid example in awkward English, in describing something, such as a deciduous tree in the winter, we could say:
“The tree (X) is without leaves (Y)” or “The tree doesn’t have leaves"
This then also works the other way round for the tree in summer:
“The tree is with leaves” or"The tree has leaves”.

But I agree in that it doesn’t make sense to say “If the tree were leaves…” You’re the language expert (and I am most certainly am not) but it seems this usage works in both English and Pali, at least at times, for example when used to describe something.

P.S. oops, I see now this is similar to the example Ven @brahmali gave and I also now see your follow-up replies.


The thing is Pali says literally ‘if the tree were leaves’, which is, by the way, a nice way to show how absurd the idea of atta and its identification with khandhas is :blush: If it said ‘the tree is with leaves’, I wouldn’t have even mentioned this whole thing :grinning:


Yes, definitely. Many psychologists (I say this with some background in the field) would agree there is no self, or that self is a construct, subject to conditions, that there are many different selves or aspects to self, etc. But at the same time, often many of those who agree about that also seem to still advocate a ‘True Self’ or ‘Real Self’ or "Authentic Self’ (sometimes with caps, sometimes not) some unchanging ‘thing’ which somehow undlerlies or transcends the ‘constructed or little self or selves’.

That would seem to be one good reason to translate as ‘soul’ but at the same time, I think some of the psychologists who do not have a particulary materialistic view and who would also advocate the above would also not particuarly ‘believe in’ a soul (though it’s often not clear how they distinguishbetween Self and soul, (maybe sometimes it’s just discomfort wth the religious connotations of the word).

I realize I’m speaking in very broad generalizations here, which is not a particulary good idea… But I’ve certainly seen a tremendous amount of confusion, not only outside Buddhist circles but also within the western Vipassana scene in the US (some of which is highly influeced by various pschological approaches & a very ecclectic approach mixing all kinds of ideas and spiritual traditions).

Well, I’m just glad I’m not the one trying to decide on the best translation. I’ll be very interested to hear what you and @sujato decide :wink:


Yes, I’ve noticed this as well, in some circles in psychology there is sometimes a slide from an empirical sense of self as changing phenomena, and a subtly re-introduced metaphysical Self, which appears where convenient.

Conveniently, if the Wikipedia article on the Atman may be considered as a guide to how modern Hindus prefer to translate atman, it uses both self and soul throughout.

Returning to the main question, it seems that most of the definitions of “soul” emphasize that it is “immaterial”. This would seem to be a strong mark against it, as many kinds of atta are, in fact, material. Perhaps “self” is to be preferred, after all, as it is more vague and can more fully encompass the wide range of atta beliefs.


It strikes me that there is a danger in some of these metaphysical musings of losing track of the connections between the anatta teachings, on the one hand, and the teachings on suffering and the path to the end of suffering, on the other hand. There might be certain kinds of suffering that are connected with thinking of oneself as possessing an unchanging essence that persists unaltered from moment to moment. But most kinds of suffering don’t depend on that articular conception of oneself, but will be present as long as one has any of many standard and normal self-conceptions.

My scholarly work is on the philosophy of David Hume. Hume is famous among western philosophers for having denied the view of the self as a simple and perfectly identical substance underling the various mental changes that transpire within us, and having defended the view that the self, properly understood, is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” This is not a great deal different from the Buddha’s conception of mental processes as arising and passing away in succession in accordance with paticcasamuppada. Hume’s original views have spawned many successors. It is a commonplace among contemporary secular western philosophers to view the self or a person is some kind of complex process made up of constituent elements causally interacting across time.

Now, lots of my Humean friends have views of this kind. However, it doesn’t seem to me that they are any less prone to suffering than other people! They still worry about their futures, experience regrets their pasts, feel dreadful anxieties about illness and mortality, worry about their careers, worry about their property, worry about their social status, crave fame, hate embarrassment, worry about their children, experience jealousy in regard to their love affairs and spouses, and all the rest.

Most of these forms of suffering depend on our having a self-conception or “sense” of self. When we consider the various phenomena presented to us in our experiences, among what the Buddha would call the khandhas, we do not regard them all equally. For example, we regard the somatic feelings in our chests and necks, or even our hands, as much more constitutive of ourselves than are our preset visual sensations of a tree - or even our visual experiences of our own hands. And even considering just our visual sensations, clearly we do not regard them all equally. Some of the things I see around me I conceptualize and feel to be my wife, my son, my car, my friend, my house, my land. And I tend to think of all of my conscious experiences as my experiences. I tend to regard the fact that my experiences are going to come to an end some day as rather dreadful, and tend to strive on mightily to preserve these experiences as long a possible. This is not a feeling I have about, say, George Clooney’s experiences. Not only do I not directly experience Clooney’s experiences, but even if I could view the inside his mind in some way and see what he is experiencing, so long as I could distinguish those experiences from my own, I would not feel the same way about them.

Now this is a very deep and mysterious psychological process, and yet somehow completely natural to ordinary human life. Call it what you will. The Buddha called it “I-making and my-making”. A modern psychologist might call it “ego construction.” But in either case, we are referring to the fact that somehow, out of the raw materials of our experience, we are continually manufacturing a kind of special ground distinguished from the ground external to it, and toward which we have extra-special concern. It’s the territory we defend, the bundle of material and human acquisitions we have and are always jealously trying to protect and extend, the process whose potential termination fills us with dread, whose loss of social status in the world fills us with shame and whose enhanced status fills us with pride. This is where all our suffering comes from.

It doesn’t seem to me that this process has anything particularly to do with whether we think of ourselves as having an unchanging essence or soul - although these these latter views might intensify our sense of self.

I think that when the Buddha spoke - as he did in so many places - about coming to understand the world we experiences as without atta, he was referring to the fact that, through a very long and arduous course of training, we could dig down to the very bottom of this I-making and my-making process, and achieve a state of complete detachment and dis-identification from all experienced phenomena, regarding nothing we experience as in any way “mine” or “me”. This blissfully unperturbed state, which only very rare saints achieve, is one in which there is nothing human or inhuman whose impending cessation would cause us fear or actual cessation would cause us grief, no object or terrain which is experienced as a possession, and no territorial division of humanity into friends and enemies.

It strikes me as very implausible that this extremely profound transformation of universal and ordinary human psychological experience can be accomplished simply by coming to have the proper philosophical grasp of the metaphysical idea that the world contains no soul, or substantial human essence. And that’s why I think it is a mistake to reduce the Buddha’s anatta teachings, which wind their way throughout many of the suttas in many slightly different forms, and with different kinds of emphasis, to something like the latter metaphysical claim.


If you still could not make-up your mind and still have sleepless night the following article give some food for thought.:grinning:


I was musing along similar lines…

In the past I’ve come across the word ‘self’ used in modern psychology contexts, but as something very much external; though sometimes ascribed to “the unconscious or subconscious” mind and thus perhaps a bit deeper, going into the internal. But then, I’ve also seen the notion that while such a self, or selves are not us, there is a deeper unchanging “soul” that is us…

So yes, perhaps “soul” is a better word for atta.

If I wanted to conceptualise this within the framework of Buddhist meditation or cosmology; I could perhaps loosely say that “self” is being used for the kamaloka and “soul” is being used for the rupaloka and the arupaloka. Or perhaps even, “self” for the kamaloka and rupaloka, and “soul” for the arupaloka.

Perhaps in the end, it doesn’t matter too much what the word is, as long as it’s use leads us to following that trail through the lokas, to the end where, apparently, nothing is left.


Perhaps, as long as the word or phrase used, clearly points to the notion of something being absent or “empty of”, perhaps that is enough of a sign post to anyone seeking they way to what might be Truth.


Hi Bhante
Doesn’t ownership include the idea of an identity/owner? “Form is identified with, as me /mine”.


Dear Bhante, might I suggest that instead of discussing a particular word, what about a particular rule/standard/principle for choosing translations?

For example, “The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, visible in the here-&-now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.” is often found in the suttas.

A rule could be which way of translating conveys the most timelessness, is the most inviting to verification, etc.

Or for example from AN 8.52 (in this case dhammas is translated as qualities):

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may categorically hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”

One rule might be to choose the translation which is in most in line with this.

Or another rule might be to choose the translation which is most true to the cultural context of the time of the Buddha.

It’s easier to agree and disagree on a principle and whether a translation is in line with that principle or not; I think framing the discussion in this way could help pull the conversation away from the domain of personal opinion.

It could also be interesting to see if different principles suggest different translations, there might be some good learning outcomes in that.


Hello folks,

I am new here. I followed a link from another site to this discussion.

This subject is already covered over there in this thread. -> Dhamma Wheel Disussion

I would invite Lal from to explain the revised meaning in detail.


"As he attends inappropriately in this way, one of six kinds of view arises in him: The view I have a self arises in him as true & established, or the view I have no self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive self… or the view It is precisely by means of self that I perceive not-self… or the view It is precisely by means of not-self that I perceive self arises in him as true & established, or else he has a view like this: This very self of mine — the knower that is sensitive here & there to the ripening of good & bad actions — is the self of mine that is constant, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and will stay just as it is for eternity. This is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. Bound by a fetter of views, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is not freed from birth, aging, & death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. He is not freed, I tell you, from suffering & stress. MN2

MN2 seems to use ‘atta’ to mean the ‘autobiographical’ self and the metaphysical self. It might suggest that ‘atta’ had a broad meaning in Pali which makes sense in a way because the soul would be the very essence of self while the aggregates take on the material/mental form of it. The inability to fully control the aggregates suggests the aggregates are not worthy of being called the Self as if they were we would be able to wield them they way we want to (this being the aggregates being the self, view, not the Self is outside the aggregates view).

With metta


Puredhamma? Is that this group who interprets the old Pali words with the semantics of the modern Sinhalese words and ignores linguistics? I would suggest they do it in a separate post, aklong with providing a sound and scientifically valid (as in ‘linguistically sound’) explanation of how they arrived to their revised meaning. The reason for his suggestion is that it could be a rather long discussion :slight_smile:

Unorthodox renderings of anatta

Well, I just quickly went through your posting history. You seem to admit not having a clue of either Pali or Sinhala.

I am just wondering how you come to a conclusion Pali or Sinhala word is ‘linguistically sound’ or not.