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Not-self and no-self and possibly non-self. Totally different

Is there a distinction in Pali between not-self and no-self? Do the suttas ever make any distinction? I mean, is there a Pali term (or word) for not-self and another Pali word for no-self ? Anatta and ?

In English, we would say no-self means that there is nothing that can be called a self, i.e. there is no self. On the other hand, not-self means that some things are not self but leaves open the possibility that some things or thing may be self.

Just to pre-empt some obvious objections, I’m NOT making a doctrinal point about self. I’m simply illustrating a clear semantic distinction between no-self and not-self. It is quite common for translators and commentators to use these terms as synonyms, but they are NOT synonyms. It might be argued that doctrinally they amount to the same thing, but again, semantically they are not the same thing.

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it :

the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self, but a not-self strategy for shedding suffering . … (link)

That is a huge statement. “the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self” It would indicate that Thanissaro will always translate anatta as not-self. Furthermore, he is making a very important doctrinal point: the anatta teaching is not a doctrine of no-self.

But that still leaves open my question at the top. Do the pali terms for not-self and no-self differ or are they the same?

Furthermore, if there is no distinction, then the issue no-self vs not-self becomes crucial as Thanissaro Bhikkhu makes evident:

“the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible “(ibid)

Think about the significance of that statement. It completely contradicts the Britannica article on anatta (link) and completely invalidates the widespread belief that Buddhism denies the existence of a self!

I would be particularity interested to hear Bhante @sujato views on this issue.

Also everyone, don’t forget to answer my original question. Do the pali terms for not-self and no-self differ or are they the same?

Peace :anjal:

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The nonexistence of a self is the central teaching of the Buddha and thousands of pages of suttas are dedicated to the problem. Despite this, Thanissaro claims that Buddha had no opinion about the existence of a self. This claim on his is based on twisting a sutta out of context where Buddha is asked weather there is a self or not and he does not answer. The ending of the very same sutta explains why Buddha had no answered the question, but Thanissaro apparently has only read the first part of that sutta. Thanissaro is well known in the western buddhist world as one of the only bhikkhus to believe in a self.

As for “not-self” and “no-self” being different or not, I am no expert in pali but one thing I can say for sure: Buddha was as clear as humanly possible that a self does not exist.

"Monks, these two slander the Tathagata. Which two? He who explains a discourse whose meaning needs to be inferred as one whose meaning has already been fully drawn out. And he who explains a discourse whose meaning has already been fully drawn out as one whose meaning needs to be inferred. These are two who slander the Tathagata."
AN 2.25

Those who are incapable of inferring even the most obvious teaching of them all are certainly not the best persons in the world to get advice from in terms of discerning the dhamma.

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[quote=“DaoYaoTao, post:1, topic:4902”]
Do the pali terms for not-self and no-self differ or are they the same?
[/quote]As far as I know, there is just anattā, all of this “no-” vs “not-” is related to debates as to how to properly translate it.

The debate in speculative Early Buddhist metaphysics you allude to, I think, has something to do with the subtle difference in meaning between the Pāli words attā and aham, but I don’t know enough about it to comment.

In Chinese it is 無我 (wú wŏ), “no I,” “lacking I,” “without I,” “not I,” they are all functionally equivalent.

Think of the equivalence here: “Any thing is not self.” vs “There is no self in any thing.”

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I think it’s not a matter of translating single words, since neither “no-self” nor “no-self” occurs outside of a sentence. We must look at context. Some real-life examples of Pāli would be:

SN 22.59 Anatta­lak­kha­ṇa Sutta
rūpaṃ bhikkhave anattā
Form, O monks, is not-self

MN 2 Sabbāsava Sutta
natthi me attā
There is not for me a self

I agree with @Maiev that what the Buddha is really arguing against in MN 2 is speculative thought and the adoption of views that lack a foundation in direct insight. He didn’t want people to go around thinking, “There is no self.” He wanted people to see this for themselves.

In SN 22.59, the Buddha first of all exhaustively divides human experience into five heaps. He then points out that none of these heaps contains a self. Because of the structure of this argument, anattā as not-self, anattā as no-self, and anattā as without-self all end up implying the same thing.

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As others have noted, the distinction between “not-self” and “no-self” is not found in Pali. It’s a straw man argument, as no knowledgeable translators actually translate anattā as “no self”. It is always used in the sense of “something is not self” and “no self” wouldn’t work.

Having said which, Thanissaro’s writings on this subject are unreliable. When he says:

he is simply wrong. This has been pointed out many times, for example by Ven Bodhi in his footnote for this sutta, SN 44.10:

Probably this means that Vacchagotta would have interpreted the Buddha’s denial as a rejection of his empirical personality, which (on account of his inclination towards views of self) he would have been identifying as a self. We should carefully heed the two reasons the Buddha does not declare, “There is no self”: not because he recognizes a transcendent self of some kind (as some interpreters allege), or because he is concerned only with delineating “a strategy of perception” devoid of ontological implications (as others hold), but (i) because such a mode of expression was used by the annihilationists, and the Buddha wanted to avoid aligning his teaching with theirs; and (ii) because he wished to avoid causing confusion in those already attached to the idea of self. The Buddha declares that “all phenomena are nonself” (sabbe dhammā anattā), which means that if one seeks a self anywhere one will not find one. Since “all phenomena” includes both the conditioned and the unconditioned, this precludes an utterly transcendent, ineffable self.

In addition, have a look at my recent note on another sutta:

When writing that article, I debated whether I should make the connection between that sutta (MN 90) and SN 44.10, but decided against it. So your question is most timely!

Notice that the linguistic form of the statement in SN 44.10 and MN 90 are identical:

  • “Kiṃ pana, bhante, atthi devā”ti?
  • “Kiṃ pana, bho gotama, natthattā”ti?

(The last two words are joined, this is normal.)

In both cases, the text only really makes sense when atthi is read in a pregnant metaphysical sense: to exist eternally and absolutely. Remember that this way of looking at existence is fundamental to the Upanishadic philosophy, so it is not all surprising to find it here, especially when dealing with a non-Buddhist such as Vacchagotta.

Note that Pali has two words for “to be”. The more common, bhavati, is typically used in a subordinate sense as a copula, eg., when saying that “that car is red”. Atthi, which is used here, has a stronger sense and is used as a “full verb” in asserting the existence of something. There is quite a nice discussion of the difference here.

This reading is not a forced one: indeed, the Buddha explicitly says that he avoids saying atthatta in order to avoid siding with the “eternalists”, i.e. those who postulate an eternal existence, prominent among whom were the Upanishadic brahmins.

“Ānanda, when Vacchagotta asked me whether the self exists, if I had answered that ‘the self exists’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists.

Similarly, when discussing the negative form of the statement, it only really makes sense if “existence” is considered in an absolute sense:

When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self does not exist, if I had answered that ‘the self does not exist’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists.

To be clear, the annihilationist view is that there is a self, but that self is destroyed (usually at the time of death). Clearly this is not what we mean when we say in English that “the self does not exist”.

Either the text is incoherent, or the notion of existence is quite different. Since we know that such notions of existence were, in fact, prevalent in ancient India, that must be the preferred reading.

In fact, in light of my more recent reflections on this, I will probably change the translation to something like:

“Ānanda, when Vacchagotta asked me whether the self exists absolutely, if I had answered that ‘the self exists absolutely’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists.

When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self does not exist absolutely, if I had answered that ‘the self does not exist absolutely’ I would have been siding with the ascetics and brahmins who are annihilationists.

Again, the connection between this statement and the absolute sense of existence is not inferred or imposed on the text, but is stated explicitly:

“When Vacchagotta asked me whether the self does not exist absolutely, if I had answered that ‘the self does not exist absolutely’, Vacchagotta—who is already confused—would have got even more confused, thinking: ‘It seems that the self that I once had no longer exists.’”

So the text clearly states that the meaning of “doesn’t exist”, as understood by Vacchagotta, is something that does exist, but only temporarily, so it will pass away.

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MN2 seems to be saying that belief in no self and belief in self are both wrong view …

When he attends unwisely in this way… …the view ‘no self exists for me’ (I have no self *) arises in him as true and established… This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say.

*I have no self BPA (link)
*I have no self Thanissaro Bhikkhu (link)

but it then goes on to say :

three fetters are abandoned in him: personality view, doubt, and adherence to rules and observances. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by seeing. mn2

or

the following three fetters disappear, namely, the illusion of Self [Sakkāyadiṭṭhi: illusion of Self in regard to the manifestation of one’s khandhas or aggregates, as: “This is mine”, “This is I”, and “This is my Self”], uncertainty and belief in the efficacy of mere rites and rituals. These are called the āsavas which should be removed through vision. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.bpit.html

or

three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices. These are called the fermentations to be abandoned by seeing. (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.002.than.html)

Good pick, this is the same phrasing, and should probably be translated the same way:

‘Atthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;
The view ‘my self exists absolutely’ arises and is taken as a genuine fact.
‘natthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;
The view ‘my self doesn’t exist absolutely’ arises and is taken as a genuine fact.

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Bhante, what do you think about using ‘persist’ as a translation?

“The self does not persist” would perhaps bring out the annihilationist idea that ‘the self exists but dies with the body’. A main meaning of persist is to keep on existing.

Edit: Personally I would prefer “exist eternally” than “exist absolutely”, it is not really clear to me what it means for something to exist absolutely (does it mean that the self exists but not absolutely?), and it opens up for more philosophical speculation than it closes (IMO).

I think a simple translation would be beneficial here.

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That’s great analysis bhante. When one doesn’t know how “to exist, to be” might work in Pāli then obvious dilemma comes up (as I have put it on different forum):

Did ucchedavādins denied the existence of atta (SN 44.10) or did they said that it is, but its nature is perishable (DN 1)?

It first occured to me that there’s something different about Pāli usage of the verb “to exist, to be” (atthi) when I have studied standard formula of right view (as in MN 117):

‘There is what is given and what is offered and what is sacrificed; there is fruit and result of good and bad actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are beings who are reborn spontaneously; there are in the world good and virtuous recluses and brahmins who have realised for themselves by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world.’


‘Atthi dinnaṃ, atthi yiṭṭhaṃ, atthi hutaṃ, atthi sukata­dukka­ṭā­naṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko, atthi ayaṃ loko, atthi paro loko, atthi mātā, atthi pitā, atthi sattā opapātikā, atthi loke samaṇabrāhmaṇā sammaggatā sammāpaṭipannā ye imañca lokaṃ parañca lokaṃ sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedentī’ti

Here “to be” has obviously more conotations than normal English use of the word. Depending on the context it implies various sort of things, which standard meaning of the word can’t cover.

But why would the Buddha say such a belief is wrong?

I will bear these in mind and let it sit for a while. Another possibility might be: “My self is essential.”

Yes, some of these are hard to understand normally, aren’t they? One clue is that, in addition to implying existence in an eternal, absolute sense, atthi also conveyed a positive emotional and moral implication: existence is good. This is natural, since the world springs from Brahmā.

Because, as in the case of Vacchagotta, what it really means is “I have a self, but it will disappear when I die”.

Is self view, a self fulfilling prophecy?
Please forgive me for bringing this hot topic question that never seems to get an answer.
But I am asking the question in a different angle.
If my present existence is due to my past ignorance (self -view – not knowing four noble truths etc) then I can say that I have a self.
If I do not eliminate the self- view in this life I will continue into the future.
Though there is no permanent and unchanging entity, the thought “I” will continue into the future or my ignorance (self- view) continue to the future.
“I think so I am”
So based on that assumption, I would say that I have a self- view so I have a self until I attain final Nibbana?

https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=18241&hilit=

Self-view is not a prophesy, but you could say it is self-perpetuating. This seems to be what you are getting at. And it is not the case that you have a self until you attain final extinguishment, but rather the view that there is a self. This is a crucial distinction.

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So we have three options:

  1. there is a self that survives physical death.
  2. there is a self that does not survive physical death.
  3. there is no self.

The Buddha chooses option 3.

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Actually it’s more accurate to say that two wrong options are:

  • The self is perishable
  • The self is everlasting

Because not all ucchedavādins proclaimed destruction of the self at death. Those who claimed that the self can survive death strived to achieve its destruction due to various practices.

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Thank you, Bhante. Yes, I meant self-perpetuating of self-view. What we call self is a mental construct due to our ignorance. So ignorance is there hence the self. This is similar to an angry person. We can’t say there is no anger. Anger is a mental construct. But we know anger can be eliminated.

Ven, do you have any thoughts on the translation strategy here? It is one of those cases where I am fairly confident about the meaning, but am concerned about overburdening the translation with philosophy.

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I have to admit I am bit sympathetic to @Erik_ODonnell argument. “Exists eternally” is much more direct and immediately comprehensible than “exists absolutely.” And I prefer this to “the self persists,” which I feel is still not clear enough.

I have also been thinking of how to render anattā. This is a case where the prefix -an has a privative meaning rather than referring to negation. In other words, anattā means “devoid of self” or “without self,” not “anti-self.” Using this as a translation, you get the lucid meaning “form is devoid of self,” “feeling is devoid of self,” etc., which to me is far easier to understand than “form is non-self,” etc. I do not know, however, what the wider ramifications of such a change might be.

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“Empty” of self, perhaps? Though I guess “empty” has essentially the same meaning as void/devoid.

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