How can there be no-self when there seems to be a self?

In Buddhism there is no soul/atman, hence one of the single most important realisations is that there is no-self. The Mango Tree analogy is sometimes given; the idea of rebirth is but a “process." A B C D E F, when there is B, A is extinguished etc.

The problem is that past lives can be remembered, pointing towards “personal” memory/memories that are passed on. Or there are institutions such as the Dalai Lama of which we are now at the “14th" Dalai Lama, again a very “personal” or “self” memory that seems to be passed on. It appears as though “B" does not extinguish “A”, hence there is a form of “self" that goes forth.

This comes across as a contradiction? The idea of no-self as a core concept in Buddhism but than there is the idea of rebirth where a self is reborn hundreds of thousands of times. In Mahayana Buddhism I read that the idea of “no-self” is to do with the fact that the real “you” is the diamond mind/pure awareness/buddha nature and that everything else are imprints based on external factors. But again, even with this the issue remains with rebirth: remembering past lives, i.e. a personal transfer of personal memories.

I’d very much appreciate your input.


Shaun you may find these essays of interest:


Thanks Kay!!!

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I would like to recommend you to check this one as well:

From which I quote:

"(…) The issue is not, “What is my true self?” but “What kind of perception of self is skillful and when is it skillful, what kind of perception of not-self is skillful and when is it skillful?”

We already engage in these perceptions all of the time and have been doing so ever since we were children. We have many different perceptions of self. Each sense of self is strategic, a means to an end. Each comes with a boundary, inside of which is “self” and outside of which is “not-self.” And so our sense of what’s self and what’s not-self keeps changing all of the time depending on our desires and what we see will lead to true happiness.
In terms of the Buddha’s two categorical teachings, the teaching on not-self is a strategy for helping you with the duties they call for if you want to put an end to suffering and stress: helping you to avoid unskillful action in the first categorical teaching, and to comprehend stress and abandon its cause in the second. You do this in conjunction with some skillful self-strategies that help you give rise to skillful actions and to develop the path. When you master these strategies properly, they enable you to realize the end of suffering. This is why these teachings are included in the Buddha’s handful of leaves."


Thanks Gnlaera!

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I guess the primary issue is “personal memories” of past lives that are passed on from life to life.

“How does one seed produce a new seed? Suppose a seed is planted in a good field, it is fed by moisture carrying essential nutrients, and it grows to maturity producing another seed at its death. There is no soul or self in the seed, yet one seed has evolved into another seed following a process of cause and effect. The original seed and the new seed are completely different.

If the original seed and new seed are completely different than how does the new seed remember thousands of years of the seeds that produced it?

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I would also chip in the book on Anatta by late Ven. Buddhadasa:

The Buddha’s Doctrine of Anatta (pdf here).

It goes well with his Patticcasammupada. (Was only able to locate a transcribed or OCR-ed file on Scribd here – the one on seems to just a selection of passages.) He dealt with the matters of of rebirth in quite a provocative way for the Thai orthodoxy back in the day.

A remark: as you will see, in almost all Theravada materials one will see ‘not-self’ or ‘non-self’, rarely, if ever, ‘no-self’, and this distinction is sometimes also separately emphasized.

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Thank you mhviriyo!

The question has its merits and I don’t think we can find an EBT that will provide a satisfactory answer to it.

What you will find in EBTs is the concept of three superhuman knowledges - tevijja in Pali - a possible outcome of awakening and the one the Buddha experienced himself at the night from which he started calling himself a Tathagata (one gone beyond). One of the three knowledges possible to come up with our own awakening is the vision of previous lifetimes, usually described this way:

“Bhikkhus, I declare that it is through the Dhamma that one becomes a brahmin possessing the threefold knowledge: (I do not say this) of another merely because he can talk persuasively and recite. And how do I declare that it is through the Dhamma that one becomes a brahmin possessing the threefold knowledge?

“Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu recollects a variety of former lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births; many aeons of world-contraction, many aeons of world-expansion, many aeons of both world-contraction and expansion.
He recollects in a particular life being such a one by name, of such a clan, of such an appearance, having this kind of nutriment, experiencing these kinds of pleasure and pain, having this lifespan; and deceasing from there he arose here.
Thus with all their details and particulars he recollects a variety of former lives.
This is the first knowledge attained by him.
Ignorance is dispelled, knowledge has arisen; darkness is dispelled, light has arisen, as happens in one who lives diligent, ardent, and resolute.

With that in mind I turn my curiosity as fuel to my efforts and endeavour in the fullfilment of the four ennobling tasks the four noble truths are about.

Who knows, maybe we may win the awakening lottery and once we fulfil the enobbling task of verifying for ourselves the end of suffering we gain as a bonus the three superhuman knowledges ourselves!

And then, only then, we may have enough to come up with an answer to this riddle?! :anjal:


Dhamma means also the nature, the essential quality, the peculiarity of something.
For instance, in ŚBr., (in its BṛĀr.Up.), the nature of the Kṣatriya is “righteousness”. In other words, the “essential quality” (dhamma) of the warrior, is to be “righteous”.

Therefore Dhp 1 should read:

“All (completed) aggregations are not continual”
Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā”ti

“All (completed) aggregations are (not seen rightly as such above, so they are) suffering/distress.”
Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā”ti

“All the peculiarities (of saṅkhāras) are (to be) not-self (viz. not continual => not bliss)”
Sabbe dhammā anattā”ti

in my view which i expressed elsewhere on this forum, self does exist but only in samsara, that’s why recollection of past lives is possible, only that the very phenomenon of transmigration is again pertinent to samsara, the problem with this self is that unless it’s relinquished no freedom and liberation from suffering are possible as it lies at the core of the experience of suffering and anguish, and as soon as it’s cast away, whether it lingers after death or ends with the body and birth no longer matters

to paraphrase a popular saying: a way to nibbana lies over one’s dead self

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Without the two extreems existence and non-existence, Buddha taught dependent origination.


How can I stumble over a stone if this stone is made of atoms that are made of more than 99% emptiness? :grinning: How can a computer store data if it doesn’t have a self? :astonished:


Respectfully, in respect to the late Ajahn Buddhadasa, I would suggest Anatta & Rebirth , which was a lecture given to American university students in the 1988 (rather than The Buddha’s Doctrine of Anatta, which was written in 1939) .

Regards :seedling:

Audio here: (live translation), although the PDF is probably more accurate & easier to digest.

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Excellent. Wanted to link to the same talk from the Suan Mokkh website but forgot. Thank you.

When I first read the old book indicated, I did find it instructive. I always found these old cleaned talks with the audio translation just a tad difficult to listen to (perhaps having to do with being a non-native speaker).

PS. Listened to a recording recently where Ven. Buddhadasa actually spoke in English himself, and whilst his general tone transmitted in translated written word always seemed quite stern (and some Thais affirm this stereotype about him as the man of the “South”), he was explaining anapanasati, constantly chuckling in an easy manner as though being amused that he has to explain this at all. :slight_smile: Had only ever heard him in Thai or via Santikaro’s English translation before. That was a surprise.

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Welcome & thank you Maha Viriyo. There are at least two English language talks, where Ven. Buddhadasa’s choice of English words is impeccable. When the Thai-English talks were given live, Buddhadasa would often correct an inaccurate translation of Santikaro. Therefore, his comprehension of English appeared excellent. The subject matter of talks was always serious but Buddhadasa never came across as overly stern to me (although possibly Santikaro sounds stern). I heard Buddhadasa speak live around 70 times, where his persona was very hospitable. His everyday public persona was very detached, thus the stern impression by Thais. Plus his Thai talks would be often be played over the loud speakers, where the word ‘kilesa’ was often spoken in Thai. I personally never spoke to him but never gained the impression he was stern. Only serious thus having conviction about the subject matter. Regards. :seedling:

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This perceived contradiction is dependent upon interpretation, which is why there are different sects in Buddhism. For some sectarian views, there is no apparent contradiction or need to rationalize.

[quote=“Shaun, post:1, topic:5041”]
past lives can be remembered…[/quote]

In later Buddhism, there arose ‘Jataka’ teachings (including the Buddhavaṃsapāḷi & Apadānapāḷi), which are literal past lives, which is also the style found in a handful of suttas attributed to the Buddha, such as AN 3.15, AN 9.20, MN 50, MN 81, MN 123, MN 143.

However, the numerous stock Pali sutta discourses on the Threefold Knowledge (such as Iti 99) may not explicitly refer to ‘past lives’ but, instead, mention a phrase ‘pubbe nivasa’, which literally means ‘past homes’ but is also translated as ‘past abodes’, such as in this translation of SN 22.79.

At Savatthi. Bhikkhus, those ascetics and brahmins who recollect their manifold past abodes all recollect the five aggregates subject to clinging or a certain one among them. What five?

When recollecting thus, bhikkhus: ‘I had such form in the past,’ it is just form that one recollects. When recollecting: ‘I had such a feeling in the past,’ it is just feeling that one recollects. When recollecting: ‘I had such a perception in the past,’ it is just perception that one recollects. When recollecting: ‘I had such volitional formations in the past,’ it is just volitional formations that one recollects. When recollecting: ‘I had such consciousness in the past,’ it is just consciousness that one recollects.

SN 22.79 gives the impression of recollecting when the unenlightened mind, in the past, clung to one or more of the aggregates as ‘self’ (rather than recollecting past lives).

Words such as ‘nivasa’, ‘nivesa’ & ‘vāsa’ are found throughout the suttas, where, when translated as ‘abode’, generally refer to a mental state, for example, AN 10.20.

Or SN 22.3 has a play on the word ‘home’ & also includes the word ‘nivesa’ in ‘ābhini­ve­sā’, translated as ‘adherences’, which seems to conform with the teaching in SN 22.79 about ‘past abodes’.

And how does one not live at home? Any desire, lust, delight, and craving, the engagement and clinging, the mental standpoints, adherences (ābhini­ve­sā) and underlying tendencies… these the Tathagata has abandoned, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Therefore the Tathagata is said to be not dwelling at home. SN 22.3

The word ‘lives’ seems to be ‘jīva’ or ‘jīvita’, which seems different to ‘nivasa’, ‘nivesa’ & ‘vāsa’.

In summary, the recollecting of past abodes described in SN 22.79 does not contradict the common perception of not-self (anatta).

Kind regards :deciduous_tree:



Those questions point to the limitations of using analogies to fully understand this deep teaching. They help us get a grasp of it, but can’t take us all the way. That requires diligent practice.


There is no self or soul. Each moment is dependently originated.

Listen to this one.

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sure, the samsaric self is dependently originated, yet your self is separate from mine and factors influencing and perpetuating your self are different from those of mine, in my opinion if there were no self in samsara you would not be able to tell yourself from myself

the possibility of recollection of past lives can be explained by constancy of self within samsara, which is changing and yet is distinct and separate from other selves
the idea of transience of self within itself doesn’t account for its autonomy from selves of others

unless i’m shown (textually) that past lives available for recollection aren’t related to the person recollecting