A while ago @sujato wrote an essay on the meaning of n’atthi atta in SN44.10–the sutta on Vacchagotta’s questions on the existence of a self. That topic is old and has sparked many discussions already. I have a point related to it, but which is also wider, so I thought I’d open a new topic to make that point.
Sujato argues the verb atthi often describes what he calls “absolute existence”. This may be true, but atthi is far from always used in this sense, so maybe there is something else going on.
I think in this text the annihalationist view of n’atthi atta may better be interpreted as “the self will not exist” instead of “the self does not exist (absolutely)”. The present tense in Pali can have a future connotation, as indicated by AK Warder who says it implies to the “immediate future”, although perhaps it should be “certain (imagined) future”. We see this use of the present tense for example in na hoti param marana, “[the self] no longer exists after death”. (e.g. SN 44.7) Here hoti is a present tense, while the context is the future.
- AN 3.92: hoti so samayo, “there will come a time”.
- AN 9.4: pajjati, “will attain” (translated this way by Bhikkhu Bodhi).
- MN 140: na jīyati, na mīyati, “he will not get born, will not die”
- AN 3.94, an example of atthi itself: Tasmiṁ ce, bhikkhave, samaye ariyasāvako kālaṁ kareyya, n’atthi taṁ saṁyojanaṁ yena saṁyojanena saṁyutto ariyasāvako puna imaṁlokaṁ āgaccheyyā. “If, bhikkhus, the noble disciple would pass away on that occasion [when he is in jhana], there is (i.e. will be) no fetter bound by which he might return to this world.”
In English there exists a similar use of the present tensen, as in "he arrives tomorrow”.
The Buddha says in SN44.10 that if he would teach n’atthi atta, he would be “siding with” the annihilist. And translating it as “there will be no self” makes the statement effectively identical to statements made by annihalists, such as “after death this self is (i.e. will be) destroyed” (Iti 49). It may cause other problems in English, that I don’t know, but as far as the Pali goes, I think that’s what it’s saying here. Either way, I think it creates less confusion than “the self does not exist absolutely”, which is a bit artificial and akward in my opinion. Also, this is not an annihilist statement per se.
This future use of the present tense also can be applied to other core doctrinal passages. For example, there are suttas stating “being enlightened, one is freed from suffering” (e.g. AN 8.6). But an arahant still suffers, so this might better be translated as “and being enlightened, one will be freed from suffering”. Or in dependent cessation we can have “when birth ceases, death will cease” instead of “when birth ceases, death ceases”, because obviously there will still be one last death after birth has ceased.
Maybe that is useful to you, but probably not!