A Poll on How to Translate Anattā

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sure, i was speaking of them, and with respect to total newcomers without prior familiarity with Oriental philosophies, some learning curve is inescapable regardless of lexis, as terminology (and language in general) is only a set of signs pointing at concepts, without explaining what they are

the Buddha had it easy because with his audience he spoke common language as everyone belonged to the same cultural milieu


The same happens with Portuguese. The best translation we can come up with is “não-eu” which means “not-I”! :unamused:



Indeed, the above quote uses anattā in the sense of owning something and advocates removing that attachment in the mind (and physically too).

In other contexts, the Self as a metaphysical postulate is put down. The closest equivalent in Western philosophy that I know of (with my limited reading) is the noumenon term used by Kant. The basic search in Hinduism, especially Vedanta, was to find out if anything lies behind the world of appearances that is immune to change and decay. In this process, they just discarded the perceived world as mere illusion - Maya - and posited a Reality that was entirely beyond sense perception and apparently exists on its own, without any supporting conditions.

Kant tried to prove that it was impossible to know such a thing, Schopenhauer tried to prove that noumenon is nothing but Will, and so on.

The Buddha, on the other hand, declared that the search for such a Reality is just deluded.

I don’t know how you picked this example, but as far as syringes go, I can say that one gets used to it if they have to be used several times a day, in case of something chronic. As a routine sets in, the breathless anxiety that rises when taking up a needle in the early days gradually disappears until one looks at them with a mixture of distaste and repugnance and eventually, just plain apathy. But hey, the vaults of the pharma industry have to overflow perpetually…


Essence is a good choice.

But is “un-changing”, the nature of this essence, or is it the “un-interrupted” nature of that essence that is at stake.
Is it about unvariance, or un-continuity? - without variation or without interruption?
Indian philosophy starts with the Ṛg Veda. The book of hymns, the epic, the roaming of the gods. This is the gist of that philosophy. A constantly going activity; of which Ātman is the principal “subject”, across the Veda.
At”, in atta, comes from √ अत् at in Ātman, which means “to go constantly” (and also to roam). And such is the meaning of the √ at in the Pali; viz. to roam.

Nicca comes from नित्य nitya, meaning “on & on” [PTS] - continual , perpetual , eternal (RV.) [MW].
(or maybe even from निज nija, meaning constant , continual (AV. - Br. - MBh.) ?

The activity of the Buddhist “world” (anthropomorphised in the Ṛg,) is not “going constantly”, says Buddha. Therefore, that activity must be stilled and abandonned, because delusive. Stilled as to escape it.

Is there a “Self” that is “going constantly”? - and what is it? - what is the essential nature of this blissful “constantly going activity” without dukkha?
No need to speculate about that, says Buddha - because that does not help getting out the delusive activity of this “world” (of senses), and the later fine material and immaterial worlds - which are all “un-continuous” - All dhammas arise and fade. They are all discontinuous.

Note: Buddha did hint about a “Self” though - in MN 22:

"There is the case where someone doesn’t have this view:
‘That which is the self is the world (namely the continuous and ubiquitous Ātman/Brāman - of which Ātman is mostly the “subjective” (internal) part - & Brāhman the mostly subjective & objective one). After death this I will be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that (namely “as I am now”,) for an eternity.’ (In other words, what I see in this world of senses, is that Ātman/Brāhman, with which I must be totally in unison).

He does not think thus: ‘So I shall be annihilated! So I shall perish! So I shall be no more!’ (namely that there is nothing “else” - like a “Self”).

“That is how there is no agitation (MA=fear & craving,) about what is non-existent internally”_ (evaṃ kho, bhikkhu, ajjhattaṃ asati aparitassanā hoti).

Anyway, this possible “Self” behind nibbana - (the unsayable “Self”, on which we would not be able to put a name) - would definitely not be an “unchanging” self.
But a “Self”, whose (constantly going) activity, would have nothing in common with the activities delineated in paṭiccasamuppāda. The latter activities being inherently full of dukkha - therefore with no bliss.


I probably thought of that example because I’m eligible to donate blood again and need to make an appointment. And for sure I’m less anxious about getting poked now that I’ve been jabbed a few times by the thick gauge donation needles!

(not my arm btw :stuck_out_tongue: )


Just to give more background on Hume: He thought that the “true idea of the self” was an understanding of the self based on what we could actually observe it to be: a flux or “bundle” of different mental states succeeding each other rapidly in time. But he thought that we were subject to a certain kind of delusion about the self, seeing it as:

  1. Simple - possessing no parts at all, and
  2. Perfectly identical over time - a single, steadfast thing abiding from one moment to the next, rather than a succession of different things.

So, a lot of his discussion is devoted to explaining how his delusion arises.


I rather like that. It strikes to the very heart.

I don’t think you can cover all bases, such as what ESL speakers will think, because they’re always going to have very particular issues with English translations.

Personally, I’m sure someone new to the suttas is going to get it. I mean, all they have to do is look up the word and get a very straightforward definition. Even the new agers and those into therapies based on a number of different ‘selves’ are going to get this; not least, because they’ll all understand the meaning of the word ‘essential’, because, I know it’s a stereotype, but they’ll probably have some familiarity with “essential oils”! And I’m not being derogatory…I know lots of nice folks who are like this and I have a little collection of essential oils too.


And that right there is failure for a translator.



The only serious and reliable study on essential oils, I am aware of, was done by two french doctors (Franchomme & Pénoël).
They studied 1500 essential oils, with their different chemotypes, over a 40 years survey and experiments, in hospital environment.
They published a book on their results, which is used by the practice of the medicine community.
Having, on one side, the components (of a special chemotype,) that deliver the goods (viz. using Franchomme & Pénoël’s book) - and having , on the other side, what serious essential oils laboratory can give you, as detail informations about these components (some do on request on the batch number), makes a real difference.
Or you could rely on an old-timer pharmacist, specialised in that sort of products. They definitely know the good suppliers (rare & dear) - more prone to chance, though.
Grandma’s old tip, and/or poor quality oils, won’t also, always succeed.

Essential oils are what organic is to chemical farming. You (should) give chemicals (synthetic,) to a plant that is doing bad; but you (should also) nurture them long term with organic fertilizer (natural).

Different ‘selves’ are mostly a Saṃkhya’s construct.
The fact that there is no “self” [within paṭiccasamuppāda]; but maybe a “Self” [beyond nibbana,] in Buddhism, does not entail necessarily that there are different “selves” involved.
Far from that.
The idea is to escape the round of samsara; through the “unchanging” (static) process of nibbāna -stilling the (delusive) fabrications.
The ecstatic & peaceful nature of nibbāna, is the closest you can get to bliss, I suppose.


Essence is a very good word. I am not a scientist, and barely passed mathematics at university. One of my professors even kindly walked me outside after a class, to tell me I had no future in mathematics. I nearly fell off the bench, as I was only in his class because it was a required three credit hours. I wanted to be in math as much as I wanted to be a rodeo clown.

Despite my maths stupidity, physics is a terribly interesting subject, and quantum mechanics even more so. Listening to Bhante’s talk this week on the physics of rebirth, and the analogy of the fax machine, it seemed to me that the world of quantum physics might offer a suggestion of a proper word for atta/anatta.

The word essence seems to be used frequently in many articles on quantum physics (one example: . I have this sense that the physics of anatta and rebirth is a near cousin to the physics of other forms of matter, energy, and as yet undefined forms of matter and energy. Wave, particle, both, neither?


If someone reads
Form is void of essence
Feeling are void of essence
Perception is void of essence
Intension is void of essence
Consciousness is void of essence

If they haven’t read the discussion that lead to choosing this word, i think it will complicate matters especially for a newcomer to Buddhism.


I agree. It is too general of a word to use here.


Very true. On the other hand, if they see words like ‘self’ or ‘soul’, they may be either puzzled by ‘eye is not self’ or amused by ‘eye is not soul’. I like ‘essence’ a lot, it sounds like a nice compromise. Maybe we could change it to ‘unchanging essence’ or something else.

The problem is that I think it will be impossible to translate ‘atta’ into English without any further clarification. A single commentary like ‘soul, self, unchanging true ego’ would possibly suffice for the reader to grasp the meaning. Without any clarifications the concept of ‘atman’ will be surely misunderstood by a modern Western person because it is absent in the Western thinking and mindset, but ‘essence’ is still great, because Asārakaṭṭhena anattā.


The word atman is actually in the Oxford English Dictionary:


The word phthalaldehyde is included there too :slight_smile:


Sorry guys, I changed my mind. I do not understand the meaning of soul. I spoke to one of my Christian friends and s/he said there is soul (sounds like Rupa) and spirit (sounds like Nama).
I strongly believe that the word Anatta, should be kept untranslated.
So I voted “neither of the above”. Unfortunately, I can’t change my vote.:sob:


This is actually a good point. There is nothing really in the Bible about such matters, at least not in any coherent form, and the Christian schools have different ideas. At least there is no obvious meaning of a Christian soul.


English ‘soul’ and German ‘Seele’ have the same root. If I’d to summarize the applications of ‘Seele’ I’d say… ‘Seele’ is the container in which everything related to the rather deep levels of the heart-mind happens. It is rather cardiocentristic, can be at peace or in turmoil, and even after death it can be troubled…
If that is anything close to the associations of ‘soul’ in English then it’s probably far away from ‘atta’.

I’m not a fan of ‘self’ either, but at least it is more of a dry, ‘existential’ term.


The Orthodox Christian authors I am reading now have written hundreds of pages of text about the Church anthropology without mentioning the word ‘soul’ even once. Okay, maybe once or twice, and then mostly in set phrases like ‘save your soul’. Instead they are talking about human ‘person’, ‘personality’ or ‘hypostasis’ that for all intents and purposes can be defined as atta with a beginning in time. Seems like they are as confused and embarrassed by soul as many Buddhists are by transference of merit or Jatakas.


Although I think “essence” captures much of what attā is about, I have to admit I sympathise with your comment. Just reading “essence,” without any reference to a being, is too broad and unclear.

If “essence” is to be used it would have to in conjunction with some other word that relates it to living beings, perhaps “personal essence.” This would dovetail nicely with Ven. Bodhi’s translation in the Numerical Discourses of sakkāya as “personal existence.” (Sakkāya and attā are closely related concepts.) On the other hand, “personal essence” is a bit unwieldy and I am not even sure how clear it is when used in context:

Form is without personal essence

This seems clear enough when you know what’s going on, but for a newcomer I suspect it’s not easy to decipher.

Yet another possibility, closely related to the one above but a bit simpler, might be “one’s essence” or “your essence.” This has the advantage of being very close to the normal translation of attā when used reflexively, “oneself” or “yourself.” This would yield:

Rūpaṃ anattā.
Form is not your essence.

Cakkhu anattā.
The eye is not your essence.

Taṇhā anattā.
Craving is not your essence.

Anattani attāti saññāvipallāso.
The distortion of perceiving your essence in what is not your essence.

Rūpe anattānupassī vihareyya.
One should contemplate form as void of essence. (Here “one’s” or “your” does not seem necessary. Perhaps it can be left out in certain contexts.)

Sabbe dhammā anattā’ti.
All things are void of essence.

Yo, bhikkhave, anattā; tatra vo chando pahātabbo.
Monks, you should abandon desire for whatever is not your essence.

Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā. Rūpañca hidaṃ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṃ rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvatteyya.
Monks, form is not your essence. For if form was your essence, it would not lead to suffering.

Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipariṇāmadhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ— ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’ti.
Is it appropriate to see anything that is impermanent, suffering, and changeable as “This is mine, I am this, this is my essence”?

… sabbaṃ viññāṇaṃ— ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ.
One should see all consciousness with right wisdom according to reality as “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my essence.”