Anātman and Philosophy Conference (University of Oxford & Online)

About the conference

The increasing inclusion of Indian and Buddhist rooted philosophies in Euro-American-styled Philosophy Departments and their growing presence in the mainstream public consciousness have opened up important and intriguing new avenues for dialogue between past and present Buddhist and contemporary non-Buddhist philosophy. Such dialogue encourages novel approaches to perceived philosophical issues already under debate and, due to the soteriological aim and practical aspects of Buddhist philosophy, more radically prompts a reexamination of the underlying frameworks and methodologies shaping philosophical disciplines today. Nevertheless, we must question our tendency to interpret Buddhist philosophies according to and, even if unintentionally, in forced conformation with non-Buddhist frameworks, paradigms, and perspectives. This crucially involves applying linguistic, philological, historical and cultural contextual analysis to Buddhist philosophical texts and concepts to reassess our understandings of Buddhist philosophy and the contemporary discourse it inspires, as well as the views and biases in our historical and present encounters.

This conference aims to partake in this re-examination through a central concept and one of three fundamental marks of phenomenal experience in Buddhism: ‘anātman’. It emphasises the importance of exacting what anātman entails according to different thinkers and debates, including both the philosophy derived from grammatical and logical analyses, as well as the cultural, intellectual, and philosophical milieu in which it arose. By rethinking our interpretations of the central Buddhist teaching of anātman and related concepts, as well as its application to issues in contemporary philosophy, ‘Anātman and Philosophy’ offers space for reflection on the nature of our current engagements with Indian philosophies. Questioning our cultural and disciplinary received assumptions, as well as carefully drawing on philological and historical methods, will fruitfully generate new and refreshed understandings of concepts and practices in Buddhist philosophy and an increasingly globalised philosophy more generally.


  • Prof Diwakar Acharya (University of Oxford)
  • Shree Nahata (University of Oxford)
  • Prof Alex Watson (Professor of Indian Philosophy, Ashoka University)
  • Prof Maria Heim (Crosby Professor of Religion, Amherst College)
  • Dr Pyi Kyaw (Senior Lecturer in Theravada Studies, Shan State Buddhist University, Myanmar)
  • Dr Avram Alpert (The New Institute)
  • Dr Amrita Nanda (Lecturer, Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong)
  • Dr Mikel Burley (University of Leeds)
  • Dr Christopher V Jones (Assistant Professor in Buddhist Studies, University of Vienna)
  • Dr Amber Carpenter (Yale-NUS, Singapore)
  • Dr Jingjing Li (Leiden University)
  • Prof Douglas Duckworth (Professor of Religion, Temple University)
  • Dr Karen O’Brien-Kop (Lecturer in Modern Asian Religions, King’s College London)
  • Dr Bronwyn Finnigan (Australian National University)
  • Dr Szilvia Szanyi, Departmental Lecturer in Buddhism (University of Oxford)
  • Justin P. Holder (University of Oxford)
  • Prof Simon P. James (Durham University)
  • Dr Katie Javanaud (Associate Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics)
  • Prof Francisca Cho (Professor of Buddhist Studies, Georgetown University)
  • Prof Smita Sirker (Professor of Philosophy, Jawaharlal Nehru University)
  • Fay Lee (ReMA student, KU Leuven)
  • Wintor L. Scott (PhD Student, Princeton University)
  • Eng Jin Ooi (Early Career Researcher; College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University)

Find the full conference description here,

‘Anātman and Philosophy’ is organised in collaboration with Philiminality Oxford and generously supported by the British Society for the History of Philosophy, Oxford Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Radhakrishnan Memorial Bequest), Oxford Faculty of Theology and Religion, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (Narasimhacharya Bursary) and The Spalding Trust


The lack of clarity of the perspective of this conference is seen from the use of the Sanskrit “anatman” along with the Pali “cetana” in the conference description.

The forum has a cool event feature that is explained here. If you could add an event to your first post that would be helpful.

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Since “intention” is cetanā in both Pali and Sanskrit, one could just as well say that anātman and cetanā are two Sanskrit words.

But suppose that the conference organizers really had used a mixture of Pali and Sanskrit words, why would that indicate a lack of clarity on their part?

To me it would be simply a case of opting for the more familiar form of each term, which will sometimes be the Pali and other times the Sanskrit. E.g., satipaṭṭhāna is better known than smṛtyupasthāna, but Sarvāstivāda is better known than Sabbatthivāda.

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Anatman in Hinduism is very different to anatta in Theravada. It’s only lack of clarity from a Theravada practice perspective. The conference is intended to be broadly based encompassing Mahayana- Theravada, so should accomplish its goal of introducing non-self into the scientific mainstream.

It’s good to see Buddhism/Indic philosophies taken seriously in academia. It still happens far too often that you see something like a “history of democracy” or “roots of free will” or “the Greeks abolished human sacrifice” and it just completely ignores the Indic context.

Just checking a random Aussie I see there, Bronwyn Finnigan has an interesting paper (not in the conference) on the Apannakasutta and Pascal’s wager. It’s kind of wild to see in mainstream academia that they still struggle with so much anxiety over basic questions like “is not self compatible with rebirth” or the reliability of the oral tradition. It feels like it comes from decades ago in some ways. Anyway, generally it’s a well argued and carefully thought through discussion, well worth a read.

One small mistake, she says,

‘No mother, no father’ is the denial that beings are reborn from causes and conditions, in contrast to the claim that ‘no beings are reborn spontaneously’.

That’s not what “spontaneous rebirth” means. All rebirth is from “causes and conditions” (again, an oddly 20th century Abhidhammic turn of phrase).

The word we translate (perhaps poorly) as “spontaneous” is opapātika, which is a secondary derivation from upapāta (“rebirth”, “rearising”), most well-known from the phrase cutūpapāta, the “falling away and re-arising” of beings. So it doesn’t really have any inherent meaning except for those that are reborn. It’s only by usage that we infer the sense.

The commentary explains the term thus, emphasis mine:

vinā etehi kāraṇehi uppatitvā viya nibbattā abhinibbattā’ti opapātikā
“Spontaneously rearisen” means being reborn or reincarnated as if having rearisen without those causes.

The terms for rebirth etc. here are all synonyms, so ignore that. The point is that the explanation clearly indicates that it just seems as if they appear without the specified (kammic) causes (not without all causes).

Just looking for alternate translations, in Webster under spontaneous, sense number 5 is:

developing or occurring without apparent external influence, force, cause, or treatment

The inclusion of “apparent” makes this similar to the commentarial definition. But it’s important to remember that the fundamental sense is simply “arisen”, not “causeless”.


Nibbana will be discussed in an Indian submission (final session):

“In imagining a contrary situation of x , we may include the thought of non- presence (absence) of something (the presence of non-x )”

— Prof Smita Sirker (Jawaharlal Nehru University), ‘Śūnyatā: A Metaphysics of Nothingness via the Epistemic Category of Absence’ Smita Sirker | Welcome to Jawaharlal Nehru University