Not -self and control: the problems of translating a Chinese passage

In a previous post we discussed issues that have been raised in an essay by Tse-fu Kuan, Rethinking Non-self: A New Perspective from the Ekottarika Āgama. One of the points they raise deals with the well-known passage in the Anattalakkhana Sutta where the self is discussed in terms of control. Essentially they argue that the Pali text has the idea that each of the 5 aggregates is not subject to control, but this contradicts the Upanishadic idea of a self, which that the self is the wielder of control.

In my earlier remarks, I pointed out that there is no real philosophical problem here: a controller requires a controlled, and the absence of a controlled shows there is no controller. Further, I identified a number of other weaknesses in the argument.

Nevertheless, it is an interesting point, and the differences between the Pali and Chinese texts in this are noteworthy. So let’s look a little closer. Of course, I know virtually no Chinese, so any corrections would be welcome. For this essay we just take the first case, that of rūpa, understanding that it applies to all five aggregates.

We are primarily concerned here whether there may be a simple textual reason for the difference between the versions. Now, it is possible that the difference is not textual but philosophical. But I find this very implausible. If the early schools really did diverge in this aspect of the qualities of a supposed self, this would be expressed in the abhidhammas, rather than an obscure wording of a sutta text. No-one really has any horses in this race, so it seems hard to explain the divergence as anything other than a transmission error.

The Pali text of SN 22.59 says this. I bold a few subtleties of the text, which I will discuss below.

Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā.
“Mendicants, form is not-self.
Rūpañca hidaṃ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṃ rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvatteyya,
For if form was self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction.
labbhetha ca rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti.
And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’
Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ anattā, tasmā rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvattati,
But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction.
na ca labbhati rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti.
And you can’t compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’

The main purport of the bolded portions is to highlight the way that the Pali text establishes the logical connections between the ideas.

  • The (partially elided ) hi flows the text on from the previous statement, and can usually be rendered “for”.
  • abhavissa is the third person conditional for bhavati, i.e. “if it were”. This is a somewhat unusual form, although not hugely so.
  • labbhetha is third person passive optative middle “it could be had of …”. And yes, this is pretty much as obscure in Pali as it sounds. The only other occurrence in the EBTs I can find is in a verse at Thag 7.2#3.
  • the co-ordinated yasmā … tasmā … has the sense “Since … therefore …”.
  • Note also the use of ca: here, it identifies two parallel clauses, showing that the sentence is to be divided up as shown.

So this passage includes are fairly large number of quite subtle logical connections and unusual forms. Thanks to the good work by Pali commentators, grammarians, and translators, we can sort this out without too much difficulty. But it is easy to see how these might get lost or misconstrued in the passage through dialects, still more so when translated to Chinese, a language that handles such things very differently.

Now, of course, we are not (I hope!) Pali fundamentalists here, and it is possible that these issues are an artifact of the Pali text. However, this seems to me unlikely. Understood properly, the text is very precise, clear, and idiomatic, and couches a subtle point in appropriately subtle language. It doesn’t convey to me any of the hallmarks of a corrupt or confused passage.

So let’s see what the Chinese translations made of this. Now, we have two renderings of this in the main parallel of the Samyutta, at SA 33 and SA 34. These have minor differences. I presume these are just a slight looseness in translation. In addition to Kuan’s translation in his essay, these are both translated on SC, so check those out. I won’t use any of those translations, but will line the Pali text next to the Chinese and see what happens. In addition, there is an independent translation at T102. I would guess there are likely to be other parallels, too, especially in the Vinayas. Anyway, this is what we have. The first couple of phrases are straightforward.

  • Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, anattā.
    • Form is not self.
  • SA 33: 色非是我
  • SA 34: 色非有我
  • T 102: 色不是我
  • Rūpañca hidaṃ, bhikkhave, attā abhavissa, nayidaṃ rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvatteyya,
    • For if form was self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction.
  • SA 33: 若色是我者,不應於色病、苦生
  • SA 34: 若色有我者,於色不應病、苦生
  • T 102: 若是我者,色不應病及受苦惱

It’s in the next bit that differences appear, which I highlight. Since T 102 is quite different I will treat that separately.

  • labbhetha ca rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti.
  • And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’
  • SA 33: 亦於 色令如是、不令如是
    • Also one should not regarding form wish to make it be like this or like that.
  • SA 34: 亦於 色令如是、不令如是
    • Also one does not have regarding form the wish to make it be like this or like that.

So there are some interesting variations here. Notably, while all three translations handle the opening statements, which are more grammatically obvious, the same, they diverge here, both from the Pali and from each other.

SA 33 and SA 34 introduce an extra 不, a negative which is absent from the Pali.

SA 33 uses 應 “should”, where SA 34 has 得 “have”. Here, 得 clearly represents the Pali labbhetha and is the preferred reading. Indeed, SA 33 uses 得 below. But the difference, I think, hints at the struggle with an oblique idiom.

Both SA 33 and SA 34 use 欲, a term for “want, desire”, which does not have a literal parallel in the Pali. Probably this also arises from the same need to express the idiom.

From here they continue as expected, reversing the negative in the final statement, and thus proving that the difference from the Pali is not incidental.

  • Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ anattā, tasmā rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvattati,
  • But because form is not-self, it leads to affliction.
  • SA 33: 以色無我故,於色有病、有苦生
  • SA 34: 以色無我故,於色有病、有苦生
  • na ca labbhati rūpe: ‘evaṃ me rūpaṃ hotu, evaṃ me rūpaṃ mā ahosī’ti.
    • And you can’t compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’
  • SA 33: 亦得於色欲令如是、不令如是
  • SA 34: 亦得於色欲令如是、不令如是
    • Also [one] does have regarding form the wish to make it be like this or be like that.

The real question here is the handling of the negatives. Now, notice one thing. In the Pali text, the complex sentence begins with a negative (nayidaṁ). In some cases, such a negative construction might be distributed across both clauses, and this may in certain instances create ambiguities. Negatives are hard! However, the repeated use of ca shows clearly that the clauses are distinct, and the negative should be applied to the first clause. So one possible source of the confusion would that the Chinese translation, or its source, improperly distributed this negative, letting it leak outside its scope.

This explanation, however, cannot apply when the argument is reversed. There, the Pali clearly does not have a negative in the first clause, and does have it in the second: there is no ambiguity. So we have two possible situations:

  • The Pali removed the negative from the first clause and added it to the second.
  • The Chinese improperly distributed the first negative and removed the second to avoid inconsistency.

So it’s easier to see how the Chinese could have arisen by a simple textual mistake. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that the Chinese is at a further remove from the original, and as already seen, struggles to represent the grammar precisely and consistently.

T 102 takes a very different approach, and appears to dispense with the grammatical problem altogether. I suspect the translator simply chose a more direct and simpler way of expression. Rather than speaking of having or wanting form to be like this or that, it has a direct speech passage, conveying the same sentiment. In any case, this does not support the use of the extra negative. This is made explicit in the next section, which again does not closely parallel the other texts, but rather appears to paraphrase the text:

  • 我欲如是色,我不欲如是色
    • I want form like this, I do not want form like this
  • 既不如是,隨情所欲,是故當知,色不是我
    • Since it does not accord with one’s wishes, for this reason it should be understood that form is not self.

Thus it seems on close inspection that there is no compelling case to assume a corruption in the Pali tradition in this passage. To recap:

  • There is no philosophical problem with the problem of controller/controlled, as they are two sides of the same coin, i.e. control.
  • The Pali passage is perfectly coherent.
  • The subtleties of the Indic passage appear to have created a number of problems for the Chinese translators.
  • It’s easier to explain the difference as arising in the Chinese (or its source) rather than the Pali.
  • The independent Chinese translation supports the Pali.

Lacking a Sanskrit parallel for direct comparison, it may not be possible to draw any further conclusions from these passages. Of course, I have not considered all the Chinese passages here, and these conclusions, tenuous as they are, might well be refuted by other contexts.


Amazing literary skills! :anjal:

With metta


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To resume: (see also here)

Buddha would have said something like this to an Upaniṣadic philosopher, I suppose:

With what you, Upanishadic folks, call the ubiquitous and pervasive self, my satta as such, with its mano, would be able to control the impermanent and painful nature (dukkha) of the external khandhas, and make it permanent and not suffering - that is to say “blissful” (the utmost nature of self - anandamaya atman ).
But you can’t do that, even if you desire so."

In other words the “I” (which in your views is also self), with all the will it has with its mano, is not able to change the impermanent nature of dhammas in general; such as making this inherent dukkha in dhammas, an intrinsically blissful self, as the latter is supposed to be.
So, not only the nature of the external khandhas are not self (not blissful) - but the next step in paṭiccasamuppāda, that could make satta an “I” (as a blissful self,) - with all the volition of its mano - would not be able to make these khandhas blissful.

So control here is to be able to make dhammas blissful (viz. “self”).
But “self” is bliss; not control.
Mano is control.

And dhammas are not bliss (because of their impermanence); therefore they are all ānatta (not-self/no-self/devoid-of-self - not-bliss/no-bliss/devoid-of-bliss - whatever you want).

That’s my (crazy) take; from the reading of the Vedas and the Suttas/Sutras. :upside_down::head_bandage:
That’s all folks! - oops! - brothers!.

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I agree. We can not dismiss basically the whole nikayas and make a case for a self existing based on a strange chinese translation of a passage that appears a couple of times through the nikayas.

As for the notion of control requiring a self, that is dismissed by pointing out how our computer can control pieces on the board at Chess Titans without having a self. Control does not imply existence of a self.


If form was self, it wouldn’t lead to affliction.
And you could compel form: ‘May my form be like this! May it not be like that!’

I really can’t follow this argument.
Could someone please answer the following two questions:

a. Why would self never lead to affliction?
b. Why would I always be able to compel self to be like this or not be like that?

Thanks in advance for any clear explanation.

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not sure about clarity, but here

a. because one would simply not allow oneself to be subjected to it, maintaining their focus on pleasure and happiness incessantly with mere volition, but in reality people can’t exercise control even over their bodies
b. that appears to be the view held by eternalists contemporary to the Buddha
self here can be replaced with any reflexive pronoun, because it’s you who would thus be able to compel yourself to be whatever
i’m not aware what could have been the rationale behind such view, i can guess it was a parallelism with the self of Godhead, who being almighty and having the ultimate control over everything, itself included, is able to transform freely

As K.R. Norman (1991: 206) points out, the Buddha‘s ability to reject the idea that the five aggregates are the “self” (attā) depends upon his audience knowing that attā is, by definition, permanent (nicca) and happy (sukha). Who gave such a definition of the “self” (attā)? The answer lies in the Upaniṣads of Brahmanism.
J.L. Brockington (1996: 78) says:
"[E]arly Buddhism denied other basic tenets of the Upaniṣads with its theories of impermanence and non-self which … can be viewed as a deliberate antithesis to the understanding gradually developed in the Upaniṣads of a permanent, blissful self."

and onwards, from the Tse-fu Kuan’s article referenced in the OP


These point to the notion of self that the people at the time were looking to. Remember, unlike the Christian system where salvation comes from outside, virtually all the Indic systems took it for granted that salvation, happiness, freedom, nibbana, whatever you want to call it, come from finding your true self.

So then consider the first statement. Consider the case where, for example, the body is identified as self. If this was the case—and for some people in the time of the Buddha, it was—then the body would only lead to happy, blissful feelings, would not age and get sick, and so on. But since this is obviously not the case, then how can the body be that which is our ultimate bliss and freedom?

The second case is more difficult, and this is where the Chinese and Pali texts differ. But again, consider the case where the body is taken to be the self. If we think of something that “belongs” to us, like, say a piece of clothing, we have control over that, at least to some degree. We can dye it or alter it any way we see fit. But our body is not like that. We can’t just say, “I want to be taller! I want to be skinnier! I want to grow an extra pair of arms!” So a body is not even controllable as “ours” in the same way that a garment is.

Perhaps this point is a little clearer in the case of feelings. We often tend to identify with our feelings, but we cannot control them. If we’re sad, we can’t just say, “be happy!” So feelings also lead to affliction and can’t be controlled. Elsewhere, of course, the Buddha points out that this is so because they are conditioned, that is, they arise dependent on a range of causes and conditions many of which we have no influence over at all.


@LXNDR and @sujato

I think it a matter of seeing the truth of it, rather than an attempt to get rid of a Self.

With metta

There is a curious point I found in some Christian apologetic works I read (at least in the Orthodox tradition). They argue that since God is good and created human beings in his image, we are essentially good. A good God couldn’t have created evil selves. The evil is caused by our failure to follow our good nature, by the failure of our selves to discover their true quality. It is acually a bit more nuanced, as at least one author I know of, deacon Andrey Kuraev, argues that our self per se doesn’t possess any quality at all since it is different from our nature, but a detailed discussion would bring us too farn away from the topic.

So, if we ‘re-discover’ the true nature of our self (through Holy Ghost’s grace and Blessing and our personal effort) and follow it, we will be saints not capable of sinning - or at least we will be not as prone to sin. The self per se thus cannot be a source of any affliction we experience, on the contrary, it will be a source of our holiness - if God’s Spirit will give us His grace and blessing. We will also be able to control our self, because our self is us, and if we can’t control ourselves, what can we control, then? (I don’t really think the Buddha would agree to that last statement, but we are talking Christianity).

Our body, however, is definitely a constant source of affliction and suffering, just as any other khandha, so, according to this Christian logic, it cannot be our true self, our ὑπόστασις. Funny how that Sutta works out just fine for Christianity, isn’t it? Even funny is how Upanishadic and even Jain-like this position sounds :slight_smile:

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Possibly, but it could also be argued that the Brahmanic Atman is nothing like the Abrahamic Soul

As Bhikkhu Bodhi says:

There is an “absence of an ultimate distinction between the Atman, the innermost self, and Brahman, the divine reality, the underlying ground of the world. From the standpoint of the highest realization, only one ultimate reality exists — which is simultaneously Atman and Brahman — and the aim of the spiritual quest is to know that one’s own true self, the Atman, is the timeless reality which is Being, Awareness, Bliss.”

Mainstream Abrahamic (Jews, Christians, Muslims) most certainly do not view the soul in that way.

As for the translation, it would be far less confusing if it said:

“For if form was ātman, it wouldn’t lead to affliction.”

At least then we would know that the Upaniṣadic ātman is being referred to rather than the Abrahamic soul or the Humean empirical self, all three of which have their myriad interpretations and disputed definitions. A conceptual quagmire.

But I think Atman is the way to go in terms of translation. Which sounds mad. Lets translate the Pali into Sanskrit to put it into proper context and not mislead or confuse our readers! rofl :grin: But I’m sure you see my point.


This is correct, but in all other characteristics: permanence, absence of all qualities, etc. this interpretation is a complete match. In fact, it is almost indistinguishable from Dvaita Vedanta (cf. also Vishishtadvaita Vedanta) in what concerns atman. I mean, it is very possible that not all Upanishadic teachers subsrcribed to the non-dualistic tat tvam asi paradigm, as this phrase may be interpreted dualistically: atman is essentially mini-Brahman, so it is Brahman, but it exists separately from it. For many Christian authors finding your true self and following your true nature means becoming like Christ, achieving theosis, i.e. discovering the Brahman-nature of their soul and tuning in to it.


Sadhu 3x bhante! This a very powerful contemplation and should be the reason why people better practice daily and consistently rather than occasionally and only when things “go alright”(e.g. on gets to do a retreat etc).

First of all one should know what kind of choices within his reach can lead to those positive states - by consistently sitting in silence with ourselves and investigating what is present we learn that the more we focus on the foundation factors of right view, thought, speech, action, livelihood and effort, the more we find ourselves mindful of good feelings and happy mind states.

In short, it will eventually become clearer and clearer how the dependent origination of awakening is a possibility to ourselves and anyone else through an impersonal and natural process, as beautifully put in AN10.2 and AN11.2

If people cling to the view of a immutable or persistent self somewhere in his brain or spirit he would never realise that negative states such as depression, delusion, anger etc as just naturally arisen from a heart and mind which lacks proper attention and care - they are weeds that naturally sprout when the field is not properly looked after. And the eightfold path is the ultimate guide for how to look after our little, fragile and rather impermanent fields.


From your analysis, the Pali and the Chinese seem to say the same thing in the end, but the Chinese has that added twist that we wish to compel form (I like that observation: so true, and the whole point, actually, of why we suffer), which, of course, is impossible due to its impermanent nature. A moving target! It changes before our orders can be carried out. Not that we can order around something that is not-self anyway.