Anatta in the Pali Canon

The following is a brief explanation for the Buddha’s teaching of anatman. I realize that there are differences in terminology between this description and the Pali suttas.

Would someone please tell me if there are any particular philosophical or doctrinal points which, in substance, diverge from the Pali canon? I appreciate your help.

Buddhists can be very ‘soulful.’ However, we know that we don’t, other people do not, and, in fact, no one has a soul. No person, place, object or event has the sort of essence-thing called a “soul”. No real person has or is a soul. “Soul” is an abstract concept. It does not name a reality that exists. A soul is not the proper explanation for the unity of personal identity.

What is Denied

What was specifically denied by Sakyamuni Buddha and all of his most discerning disciples over these past 2,500 years is the atman. This soul theory of Brahmanical tradition, what is now called Hinduism, is pretty close to what is usually meant by a soul in Western religious and philosophical traditions as well.
The atman/soul would be: permanent, unchanging, subject of experience, non-physical, uniquely one’s own, and the true center of and explanation for the existence of one’s personal identity. This is not the correct explanation of the nature of our identity. It is not a description of anything that actually exists.

What is not Denied

Neither Sakyamuni nor any of his great disciples ever denied the purusha (the Self), nor the pudgala (the individual). We are each individuals and we are, each our own selves. Neither the self nor individuality is denied in early or classical Buddhism. A basic objective for Buddhists is to overcome our selfishness. If there were no self, in any sense, how could we worry about being too selfish?

As the Buddha-dharma is taught to individuals in specific contexts you may find otherwise competent teachers say-ing that there is no “self ”. In such cases, we must attend to what they are specifically meaning by “self ”. It is usually the concept of a soul lying behind and giving unity to a self that they mean to deny. Obviously, you do exist [pursha is not denied]. You are an individual [pudgala is not denied].

What is Implied by the Rejection of Soul theories

What is implied about your identity and mine, by denial of the soul theory, is that we are not, each of us, uniquely self-same. Your identity is not uniquely your own. My identity is not uniquely my own.

As John Lennon once put it, in charmingly simple fashion, “I am he, as you are he, as you are me, as we are all together” [Lennon/McCartney 1967].

In other words, we are each the big thing. We are each Reality Such-as-it-truly-is. We are each unique presentations of Buddha-nature. We are each unique appearances of the one Universe. This could not be true if the basis for our personal identities consisted of having or being a soul.

Who and What We Are in Truth

Each of us is a way in which the universe expresses and knows itself. This is what John Lennon was saying in “I am the Walrus,” quoted above. It is also the thrust of Mahayana Buddhist teachings which address identity.

Each of us is a way in which the Universe expresses itself. You are we being you, and I am we being me. In the final analysis, there is only this one great life we share together, but it does not swamp our individuality…

As the Heart Sutra put it, emptiness, one term for Reality-such-as-it-truly-is, only exists as specific forms. The universe only takes shape in particular forms such as you and me. Our uniqueness comes from our specific relations to others and from the qualities we have as individuals.
Our uniqueness does not involve our being some ghostly soul-things. That would separate us. That would make the universe split into meaningless multiplicity. That would disappoint both Sakyamuni Buddha and John Lennon. We certainly would not want to do that.
No Soul and Being Reality Itself – San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple

The Pali Canon refers to “Anatta”, which does not mean “no soul” or “no self” or “emptiness”. It means “NOT self”. All things are “not self”. When it comes to whether there ultimately was anything at all that could be construed as a “self”, the Buddha stayed silent.

If there is no separate self, does the Pali canon teach the interconnectedness of all beings? This seems to be suggested by dependent origination.

Not in any grand big ‘I’ kind of way. Just in a way bits a domino set would be considered ‘interconnected’. More accurately it would be better to say ‘one gives rise to the other’. All worldly concepts of beings, trees, love, etc all seen to an illusion, like seeing the pixels on a screen breaks through the illusion of text or people on screen.

With metta

There is a pervasive belief in the west at this time particularly that the Buddha taught interconnectedness, but this is not a teaching of the Buddha. See this article: Interdependence and and Dependent Co-arising in Buddhism - Thanissaro Bhikkhu - Tricycle: The Buddhist Review


I don’t think so, this was a later development in some Mahayana schools.

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This remains me of the guy who gets an opportunity to tell a joke to the Dhalai Lama. The joke goes something like the Buddha orders a pizza asking “can you make me one with everything?” Of course, the Dhalai Lama doesn’t get it, perhaps because of the language barrier, but maybe because it’s a non-sequitur. You can see it on Youtube, an epic fail.

I have never gotten any flavor or universal interconnectedness from the teachings of the Buddha. The closest match is from the Culasunnatta sutta where the Buddha describes his meditation trajectory but in the context of realizing the emptiness of what appears to be unifying.

O @Kensho , you have to read this one: SN 22.85/SA 104

So rūpaṃ upeti upādiyati adhiṭṭhāti ‘attā me’ti.
They engage with form, and appropriate it, and rest upon it as ‘my self’.

Like the rich man engages the bodyguard, and rests upon him, as if he was family.


√ स्था sthā

  • rest or depend on RV. AV. MBh.

अधि adhi

  • ( with acc.) upon.

Yes. Denied both as the Ātman of the Upaniṣads, specifically Yājñavalkya’s view of it in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad; and the habit of reification of such a permanent and lasting atta by an individual grasping at cognition.