Anatta and rebirth


And btw, I never said that we should think “I have a potential to act”. We should simply act skillfully! Observe the results of the actions see if it results in dukkha or not. If it does, we abandon the cause of the dukkha, which is our unskillful action. We keep doing this until we develop the skill of acting. Do you see the similarity to the framework of the four noble truths here?

In doing this, we never even thought “I have this/that”. We simply acted by thinking in the framework of the four noble truths.


Indeed, if someone said that beings don’t exist after liberation, that would be annihilation, for sure.

But this is another one of those things the Buddha refused to answer. He refused to say that after liberation or after death, an enlightened being ceases to exist. Nor does he say that they do exist. In fact he refuses to admit any of the four categories: a) exists, b) not exists, c) both exists and doesn’t exist, d) neither exists, nor doesn’t exist.

What this means is that after liberation, there is no way to describe the arahant. That doesn’t mean that they don’t feel anything.

When Ajahn Chah went around his monastery once, after his mother had passed away, he said “It feels different without my mother around.” Ajahn Chah was an arahant. But even he had feelings. Just that he wasn’t entangled by them.

Before liberation, it is better not to describe beings as “existent” or “non-existent”, but merely as “clinging, and needing to train further”. Once liberated, a better way to describe such “beings” is to say “cut through craving, needs to do nothing further”. Notice the focus on whether one still needs to do anything further or not. Yet again, the focus is on action - not on entities.

Yes, we are both winners. But I hope you don’t see this as winning or losing. I am just as much a learner as you. I was merely sharing what I understood with you, only so that you don’t misunderstand the Dhamma. But I too have misunderstood the Dhamma in the past, and am still subject to such errors. In fact, none of us see the Dhamma clearly until we are liberated, or at least at the first glimpse of nibbāṇa (or sotāpatti).

Thanks a lot for your patience with me. I may have misunderstood your questions and asked your the same question in a number of ways. I hope it didn’t vex you. Kindly pardon me if I said anything that offended you, and feel free to point them out.


Perhaps in a way the Buddha did answer this by asking in return where he was when he was alive (I have to go to bed and don’t have time to look up the sutta). I believe it is precicely because the question was about a being that really didn’t exist.

There’s really no way to be sure of this. I too believe he was an arahant in the end, but that is also just my belief.

No, I only meant that we both got something useful out of it and weren’t just arguing for the sake of being right.

No need to worry and no offences were registered and ditto.

May you be happy and well!


Interesting! I’m waiting for the reference. I’d be surprised if that were the case, because the Saṃyutta Nikāya section 44 (Abyākata Saṃyuttaṃ) has almost 10 Suttas where each time the Buddha and his disciples refuse to answer this question. The response strategy used here was always to abandon the question - not to counter-question.


Could not fall asleep (forgot about DST) so I decided to look up the reference after all:

So basically I think the Buddha refused to answer the question of what happens to him after death, not because the answer couldn’t be put to words, but because it wasn’t a valid question. Kind of like “Who feels?” and “Who craves?” etc.

Perhaps to avoid further confusion I should also stop saying that there really is no being and stick to “because coming into being is seen, it can’t be said that there’s nothing and because cessation is seen, it can’t be said there’s something”. But that kind of sounds like eel-wriggling to someone who doesn’t understand it and doesn’t know to ask for an explanation of it…

With metta,


Hi Raivo,

Thanks for that. I understand how you mean “eel-wriggling”. In human mental conditioning if the issue we are talking about is side-stepped and things are put in entirely different terms we feel that the person is “eel-wriggling”, or perhaps “evading the issue”. It is perhaps one of the mind’s conditioned ways of thinking that limits us.

So when you say that it feels like “eel-wriggling”, it is because you feel that the Buddha should have taken a stance on whether there are beings or not, and whether a Tathagata exists after death or not, and whether there is a self or not. This is because we think these are issues worth taking a stance on, just as we think it is worth taking a stance on the origin of the universe. Not just religious people seem to be concerned about such issues - even scientists are obsessed with the origin of the universe. :smile:



Dear Balaji,

It’s important to try to get a direct understanding of the teachings of the Buddha without too much filtering by other teachers. I did read this essay by Ajahn Thanissaro some time ago, and I do not agree with it’s central thesis that the idea of non-self is just a strategy.

The suttas don’t really say anything about “assumptions”; what they talk about is how things are to be regarded. In the Anattalakkhana Sutta the Buddha specifically says that all aspect of the five aggregates “should be seen according to reality as not mine, I am not this, this is not my self” (SN22.59; and, importantly, this is a standard exposition found throughout the suttas). This is saying two things simultaneously: (1) It is correct according to reality to view the five aggregates as empty of self, and (2) you should practice so as to see this for yourself. Developing the perception of non-self is part of this practice.

The suttas are quite consistent that the view of not-self is only wrong when it is used to express the idea of annihilationism.

The stream-enterer is defined as someone who sees in accordance with reality; that’s why they are called diṭṭhi-patta, attained to (right) view. A stream-enterer’s abandoning of sakkāya-diṭṭhi is a consequence of this seeing of reality.

Yes, sakkāya-diṭṭhi is certainly counter-productive to long-term happiness. But it’s not a strategy; it’s a part of unawakened psychology. It’s a way of looking at the world, a view, specifically the view that there is a self somehow connected with the five aggregates (MN44). You cannot choose whether to have this view or not, and it can only be abandoned through insight. By abandoning this view you abandon the view that there is a self in the five aggregates (MN44).

Again, I am not too interested in Ajahn Thanissaro’s views; I prefer sticking to the suttas.

Again, the suttas make it clear that when the aggregates are seen according to reality, they are seen as empty of self. No “assumptions” are required, but this is what Buddhist practice is aiming at.

The sense of self is not the product of I-making; it is the I-making that is the product of the sense of self. This is why sakkāya-diṭṭhi must be abandoned before the I-making comes to an end with the attainment of arahantship.

This is not how it works. The crucial insight is the one you have at stream-entry, and only then can the I-making gradually cease. The end of suffering then follows.

I think it is fairly obvious that one’s outlook or view of the world affects one’s long-term happiness. Strategy is fine, but it has to be embedded in a world-view that matches reality. A strategy that is combined with delusion, however good the strategy may seem, is not going to work, at least not beyond a certain point.

The point is that the world is constructed in a certain way, that is, either there is a permanent aspect to reality that can be labelled a self or there is no such permanent aspect. It is penetrating to this reality that forms the essential part of the experience of awakening.

I think there is some truth to this, but I would phrase this as follows. You first create a wholesome sense of happiness for yourself, and based on that happiness you abandon the sense of self. Only then can you achieve the highest happiness.

The sense of self is inextricably linked up with our psychological make-up. It is not just a strategy that we choose to use at will.

The definition in this sutta is just a kind of edifying etymology, a play on the words satto (being) and visatto (stuck). It is a rare usage and it is not advisable to read too much into this.

My best wishes to you!

With metta.


Dear @raivo , @russell , @balaji and bhante @brahmali thank you very much for your posts. I passed last 3 weeks on reading about anatta&rebirth and your posts was very instructive and helped me to have an overall picture of suttas (EBTs) on anatta&rebirth.

If I understand well (please correct me if not): the question like “if aggregates are not self then what self will be touched by the actions done by what is not-self?” (mn 209 sn 22.82), “who clings?” (sn 12.12) etc. are irrelevant. More appropriate way is to put it like “this has come to being because of that” (sn 12.31)

In any case this ever popping consciousness will not go trough becoming (mn 38) in this life, much less to the next. Yet the teaching is not about the annihilation of a being but about stress and the cessation of stress (mn 22).
(Really liked the “because coming into being is seen, it can’t be said that there’s nothing and because cessation is seen, it can’t be said there’s something” and “kamma is the field, consciousness the seed, and craving the moisture”)

There could be minor differences of interpretation of EBTs on anatta&rebirth. But all agree that the thing is not to cling at any view but use them as a raft (but attention to not to catch the snake by the tail) to pass to other shore where the raft is abandoned (mn 22).

A one good way to start is disidentification by seeing it as it is: this is not me etc.

Thank you all again.

With metta.


Thank you for sharing, Russell. I really love the simile in this sutta, as it is profound while being precise and simple. I am somewhat fascinated by the use of the word ‘transmigration’ as the translation of saṃsāro. This is perhaps because the word in itself denotes the movement or displacement of objects/people (often forcefully) from one place to another. For instance, the first definition of the word ‘transmigration’ in the OED reads, “The removal of the Jews into captivity at Babylon; sometimes used for the Captivity.” This is obviously not what the translator was intending in their choice of diction, but I think it’s interesting to point out the pre-existing connotations inherent in language and to discuss what (if any) they have on our understanding of the suttas.

The third entry in the OED reads, “Transition from one state or condition to another”, a definition that is by far more fitting for our purposes in understanding rebirth. But what, then, is being transmigrated? Is it the essence, the biological component, (i.e. “the seed” of a mango); or is transmigration the shift in one state of ‘being’, one condition to the next? These questions are mainly rhetorical but are being asked in attempt to provide a framework for why certain language is utilized.


This has been a very thoughtful thread, thanks to you all. I just wanted to mention one thing, which struck me many years ago while reading Ven Thanissaro’s argument on the not-self “strategy”. It was a long time, so I can’t remember the source; it may have been his Mind like Fire Unbound.

He quoted from the Vacchagotta sutta referred to above, SN 44.10. However in this text it is perfectly clear that the statement which we translate in English as “there is no self” in the Pali (natthatta) has, or at the very least in that context would have had, the meaning “my self will be annihilated”.

For some reason this meaning, although made explicit twice in the sutta, is passed over. This is, in my view, a part of the tendency in modern Buddhism to sideline just how important questions of rebirth were for the early suttas. But for the suttas the very center of the question of the self was, “what is it of me that lasts for eternity?” Vacchagotta was, at that time, unable to even comprehend the teaching of not self, and he would have only assumed that he has a self, which was going to be destroyed. The Buddha knew very well of Vacchagotta’s limitations, as he was constantly pestering the Buddha with these kinds of questions.

In a second passage, Snp 5.16, Ven Thanissaro gave an example of the kind of question the Buddha actually did answer, as it dealt with strategy, not ontology:

“So, to the One With Excellent Sight, I have come in need with a question:
Looking on the world in what way does the king of Death not see one?”

“Look on the world as empty, Mogharāja, being always mindful.
Having removed wrong view of self, in this way one will cross beyond Death.
When looking on the world in this way the king of Death does not see one.”

Which sounds persuasive until you read the whole sutta, which begins:

“Twice I asked the Sakyan,” said venerable Mogharāja,
“but the Visionary did not answer me,
if asked up to a third time the Divine Seer answers, I have heard.

That’s right: the sutta given as an example of how the Buddha liked to answer directly questions about strategy in fact begins by saying that the Buddha did not answer this questions, twice! The sutta itself doesn’t explain why, although the commentary, reasonably enough, says that Mogharaja was not ready to understand when he asked earlier.

So the difference between the Buddha answering Vacchagotta and Mogharaja had nothing to do with the difference between ontology and strategy, and everything to do with personality and patience.

On the whole, I find the difference a puzzling one. The reason a strategy works is because it is grounded in the real world. Ontology (the first noble truth) informs strategy (the fourth noble truth).


Hi Brenna,

This is a simile, a good one, but not an example of rebirth. If you consider it as an example, it may become inaccurate. Between a mango tree and its progeny, there is a genetic link, so something goes from this tree to that three. Rebirth as progeny is considered in Upanishads (Aitareya-Upanishad, « First He becomes the seed of a man, which is light gathered from all the limbs of the body. Man nourishes himself within himself as seed. When he ejects that seed into a woman, he himself is born. That is his first incarnation. […] Before and after the birth of the child, man blesses the child, blessing himself. Man lives in his child; that is his second incarnation. The son being the father over again, carries the traditions of the family, and the father having completed his fate, exhausted his years, dies and is born again. That is his third incarnation. »), but I don’t think that it is the case in early Buddhist texts.
Although, it is tempting to consider the “personal” unity and continuity of karma as something genetic (in metaphysical terms), that may be transmitted through the gandhabba to a new being. In that case, it would be easy to explain what really rebirth is. But, again, I don’t think that it is the case in early Buddhist texts (may be I am wrong, hope Bhante @sujato will confirm or correct that position).

With metta.


Your are quite right, it is a simile only; and it is, perhaps, the downfall of the “self” theory that it takes such ideas too literally.

But it really is a good simile, and one that is even better in the light of modern genetics. Nowadays, we take the crucial genetic information coded in the DNA to be the core carrier of information. Call that viññāṇa, if you will. But that can in real life only beget a new organism if assisted by a whole range of other things: RNA, proteins, the whole mechanisms of cells, the nutriments carried in the seed, the soil, the rainfall, and so on. Call that nāmarūpa if you like, or compare AN 3.76 Bhava, in which case this is craving and kamma.

Thus far biology; but from the point of view of physics, all this is simply patterns of energy, or as we like to say, saṇkhāras. Just energies bouncing around, be they strings or quarks or photons or protons or whatever, organized into higher and higher levels of structure, and making a whirling oneness out of all that activity. There is no single determined “thing” that goes from parent to offspring. Just patterns of energy, which code information for making new life.

This is how our world works: even this message on the internet is getting to you the same way.

And in the same way, also, what we call “consciousness” and “mental and physical phenomena” are merely patterns of energies, always moving and always changing, playing out the same kinds of patterns again and again, organized and breaking into chaos, evolving and disintegrating.

And BTW in one of the most interesting passages of the Upaniṣads, the simile of the seed is given; the student is asked to break of the husk of the seed, then the skin, then the outer flesh, then the inner membrane, until the core of the seed is reached. So far we have discarded the nāmarūpa. But then the teacher asks the student to break open the innermost core of the seed and see what is inside there: nothing at all.


Thank you Bussho and Bhante for your answers, they are quite helpful. Is it then feasible to say that what is ‘carried over’ in the process of rebirth is not a tangible or distinct aspect of the self, but rather an abstract notion of reality (saṇkhāras)?


There is no tangible self, all there is is energies. I wouldn’t describe saṇkhāras as an “abstract notion of reality”, though. There’s nothing abstract about them, any more than a photon is abstract. Of course it requires some abstract thinking to grasp the concept, but the thing itself is not abstract.


That is basically what I meant by using the word ‘abstract’. It seems to some extent that we, as people, define the ‘self’ as something non-abstract, something knowable or understandable whether that be in terms of body or consciousness. Perhaps our (or mine at least) inability to utilize “abstract thinking” is part of the reason we have so much difficulty explaining or defining anattā.


Perhaps, yes. The history of the concept of “self” is a history of abstraction. The most basic idea of self is the body, but then what happens when you die? So maybe some part of the body, your breath perhaps; or maybe an external soul.

But these ideas fall apart under scrutiny, and anyway they obscure the point: what people want is not a body, but the pleasure that the body gives them. So, maybe it is the feeling that is our self? Maybe that is what survives, so that we experience just bliss in the next life. So wonderful! Unless, of course, you get the other thing… But feeling, too, turns out to be an inadequate bearer of the self.

And so it goes. I see the five aggregates as a gradual abstraction of the concept of self. We want to find something concrete and knowable, but it always turns out unsatisfactory, so we turn to something less knowable, more ethereal: we start with the body, but we end up with awareness itself, infinite and shining. And it was the almost unthinkable dismissal of consciousness as self that set the Buddha apart from all others.


Dear Brenna, dear all,

in terms of understanding anatta, I always very much liked two similes used by Ajahn Brahm (I guess they stem from the suttas). You probably heard them, but they are so beautiful, that repeating them probably does no harm. :slight_smile:

  1. Simile comparing a being to the flame of an oil-lamp: The flame of an oil-lamp exists on the conditions of oil, a wick, air, and heat. If any of these conditions are removed the flame is extinguished, e.g. oil runs out, wick burns up, flame is suffocated, or heat is blown away… However, the flame is neither the oil, the wick, the air, nor the heat.

  2. Simile comparing rebirth of a being by passing on the fire from a candle that is almost burned up to a new candle: Imagine there is a candle at the end of its life-span, about to burn up and bound to extinguish. Then, just before the candle dies down it is taken and a new candle is lit with its last fire. Then, the new candle catches fire and starts to shine, just as the old candle expires. Is the fire of the new candle the same as the fire of the old candle, i.e. is the reborn being the same as the previous one?

Looking at the second simile from the perspective of physics, one would probably even conclude that the fire of the old candle was even never the same fire for any two moments, because the composition of the flame in terms of the individual atoms that emitted the light was constantly changing. Looking further into the process of reaction & combustion one could even argue, if there is such a thing as a flame: Due to thermal vibration an atomic bond in a hydrocarbon molecule rips open and a reactive site at a carbon atom is exposed temporarily. At the same time a neaby oxygen atom, due to thermal vibration, is able to free itself enough from its partner (in the oxygen molecule) so that it can start interacting with the carbon atom. A new bond is being formed between the carbon and oxygen atoms resulting in release of lots of energy, which means that these two vibrate even more vigorously, maybe ripping loose and attaching to the second nearby oxygen atom, thus forming CO2 and releasing even more energy. Most of the energy goes into energy of movement (kinetic energy), which means the CO2 molecule is dashing vigorously through space and the oxygen atoms are bouncing vigorously at the sides of the carbon atom. Part of the energy goes into lifting electrons in the shells of the atoms to higher energy levels. When the electrons fall back to the original shell (or another shell) the energy difference is released by emission of a photon, which we perceive as the light and colour of the flame. Hence, really, there is no flame. There is just a crazy dance of atoms and molecules and the emission of photons. For practical purposes we say “flame”, because we can put some spicy tofu on a stick and roast it in this crazy dance… :slight_smile:

And, BTW don’t start looking at the atom, because then you could get convinced that there is no atom… The atom consists to more than 99% of empty space (in terms of its volume). What we experience as the dimension of the atom is related to the repulsive force of the negatively charged atomic shell. However, the shell is just composed of tiny and very light electrons smeared over a large volume. The mass of the atom sits allmost all in the nucleus which is about a 1000 times smaller than what we would say is the size of the atom. Then if we dig into the components of the nucleus, say a proton, again we find lots of empty space and three even more tiny quarks smeared over what we thought was the volume of the proton. And behold, the energy that sits in the bond of the three quarks (this energy is given the name of a particle, it is called a gluon) is a substantial fraction of the total energy of the proton. Since energy and mass are interchangeable, one can also say that the energy in the bond between the gluons is a substantial fraction of the total mass of the proton. In other words, if you would take the three quarks and put them on a scale - each one in turns - you would find that the sum of their individual masses is significantly less than the mass of the proton. The remainder of the mass is in the gluon, but the gluon is just the energy in the bond between the quarks. It is not a particle, or is it? Hence, as Bhante Sujato says, as one keeps on digging ever further into matter, from a certain scale on, the physical world is just a dance of energies. Why should the mental world be any different?

Of course Physics is also just a model of reality, i.e. a simplified view on reality. It is not equal to reality.

With much mettā,

P.S.: My apologies for the long reply, I seem to keep getting quite carried away by these issues. :slight_smile:


Thank you, Robert! Your explanation is a little over my head but also awesome.

I’m not sure if these are the suttas you are referring to specifically but just for reference here are the examples I found.

MN 146

"Sisters, suppose an oil-lamp is burning: its oil is impermanent and subject to change, its wick is impermanent and subject to change, its flame is impermanent and subject to change, and its radiance is impermanent and subject to change. Now would anyone be speaking rightly who spoke thus: ‘While this oil-lamp is burning, its oil, wick, and flame are impermanent and subject to change, but its radiance is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change’?”

Miln 3.5.5

“‘Suppose a man, O king, were to light a lamp from another lamp, can it be said that the one transmigrates from, or to, the other?’
‘Certainly not.’
‘Just so, great king, is rebirth without transmigration.’”


Identification to my body, identification to my mind, that’s how my brain works. But this “I” in my head is not really like how it is perceived.
This sense of “I” and a feeling of unity with my body and mind are constructions of my brain, but there is no second head inside my head. There is identification, but no identifier. This I-making is virtual.

Yesterday, a friend told me “that’s funny how different parts of my consciousness are sometimes out of my control”. I replied “do you think that you have any control on this consciousness that feels lacking control on other parts of your consciousness”? I think I start to understand :slight_smile:

At this point, many EBTs make sense, including suttas on karma like Lonaphala Sutta (The Salt Crystal): the karma produced “to be felt in such & such a way, that is how its result is experienced”.
In brief, it becomes more and more clear how, in this life, this stream of consciousness goes, dependent on my body (including my brain), in interaction with my social and material environment (these includes my body and mind) and being alive as a condition.

Yet, I still don’t get how my karma preserves it’s identity and integrity trough successive lives. I am not talking about mango trees or successive lamp flames, but what connects them: mango seeds and touching wicks.

Becoming make sense, like consciousness seeds that grows in karma fields aroused by craving, I just don’t get (yet) how these streams of consciousness are connected trough successive lives. There is more than environmental, social or genetic links that binds different lives? There is this notion of bhava in EBTs and there is some evidence showing that it happens, but do we really know how successive lives are connected or how karma preserves it’s identity and integrity trough successive lives?



I’ve come to think of the field of kamma as a bunch of potentials in our mind. When we act in a skillful way, we create a potential to experience a feeling perceived as pleasurable. When we act in an unskillful way, we create a potential to experience a feeling perceived as painful. Then when we encounter a certain sense object, that triggers the release of a certain potential that produces a certain kind of conciousness.

All this happens in the “subconcious” part of our mind, which I’ve come to believe is accessible across lives, is most likely immaterial in nature and of which only a small fraction (if any) is “stored” in our brain. So it seems to be another one of those things we really can’t know for sure…

With metta,