Possible alternate rendering for anatta

Anatta is generally rendered as ‘non-self’, ‘not-self’, ‘no-self’.

But I find these expressions a bit clumsy and not very clear. For example:

The eye is not-self

An alternate rendering I am pondering over would be in my opinion clearer:

The eye is without-owner

Thus rendering anatta as ‘without-owner’ or when appropriate ‘without-spectator’.

The eye is without-owner, visible forms are without-spectator


The eye is not-self, visible forms are not-self


How about “not yours”?

See SN22.33.

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BS also uses ‘not-self’ in other contexts eg AN 7.49

Perhaps something like ‘no-owner’ would fit in such a context

Without-owner seems alright, but without-spectator seems false. There is a spectator, which is the 5 aggregates, it’s just that there is no self/owner/intrinsic being/soul in the aggregates. If there was no spectator then the text could not be read and understood.

Machines still spectate things, and respond to stimulus for example.


That is interestingly close to how I phrase anatta. When working with others, I mostly use “without-self” or “without a self.”

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When this question comes up, I’m reminded of the Buddhist commentary in Chinese sources about the phrase “Thus I have heard.” The literalist will ask, “But how can we say ‘I’ if there’s no self?” The commentator then explains conventional vs. actual truth. It’s one of those glosses that makes it pretty clear that atta was considered synonymous with the first-person pronoun.


You will own nothing and you will be happy. :slightly_smiling_face:

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I think anatta should be translated as “not self”. And such statement as “The eye is not self” is actually very good and should be kept.

On the other hand, such statement as “The eye is without owner” is actually clumsy and not very clear.

The reason is, you still leave out other possibilities such as: “The eye is without owner but the eye is the owner by itself” or “The eye is without owner but the eye is one and the owner is another, they are separate from each other” or “The eye is without owner but the eye is used by a person/being without owning it, like a person/being is exploiting/borrowing/stealing the eye” or “The eye is without owner but the eye can only be used by a certain person/being with certain characteristics/attributes” or some other messy statements…

Well, it’s very messy, please stay with “not self”, it’s consistent with the suttas too. :pray:


Hi Tito,

What could stop anyone from saying “there is a self, which is the 5 aggregates”?

The weather also responds to stimulus, doesn’t it?

Here is the definition of ‘to spectate’ from the free dictionary:

to be present as a spectator
[Back-formation from spectator.]

In turn, for spectator:

a person who looks on or watches; onlooker; observer

So it would seem that ‘to spectate’ would presuppose ‘a person’, an ‘atta’

Totally! But we mean it in a slightly different way than the WEF :smiling_face:

Hi ORsEnTURVi, thanks for your feedback, it’s always good to have feedback.

However, it seems we may have a disagreement. To me, “The eye is without owner” doesn’t sound as clumsy as ‘not-self’ and is clearer. I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about Buddhism and who encounters a sutta for the first time. In my opinion, if they read

the eye is not-self

they will scratch their head. But if they read

the eye is without-owner

the eye is not yours

they will grasp the meaning immediately. Obviously, your mileage varies. But this could be settled with a survey of people who have never read a sutta, preferably who are completely unfamiliar with Buddhism, asking them which solution makes more sense to them. However such a survey may not be easy to conduct.

Also, what would prevent anyone who is bent on finding misinterpretations from saying such things as

“The eye is without self but the eye is the self by itself”

“The eye is without self but the eye is one and the self is another, they are separate from each other”

“The eye is without self but the eye is used by a person/being without owning it, like a person/being is exploiting/borrowing/stealing the eye”

“The eye is without self but the eye can only be used by a certain person/being with certain characteristics/attributes”

has some canonical basis, as when the Buddha is explaining what “anatta” means in the Anattalakhanasutta, he explains it as the opposite of:

‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self’
‘etaṁ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’

which makes it clear that anatta can be understood as “not-(belonging to)-self”

I cannot think of any canonical justification for this translation, however. Do you have a sutta which might support such a reading, Bhante? :pray:


:anjal: Bhante

If I remember properly, the sutta that sent me down this path was AN 10.60, the one where this quote is from:

BS kind of side-stepped the issue with:

‘The eye and sights, ear and sounds, nose and smells, tongue and tastes, body and touches, and mind and thoughts are not-self.’

BB has:

‘The eye is non-self, forms are non-self; the ear is non-self, sounds are non-self; the nose is non-self, odors are non-self; the tongue is non-self, tastes are non-self; the body is non-self, tactile objects are non-self; the mind is non-self, mental phenomena are non-self.’ Thus he dwells contemplating non-self in these six internal and external sense bases

I find it quite odd to say ‘[visible] forms are non-self’ or ’ odors are non-self’.

I find it clearer to say for example ‘[visible] forms are without-spectator’.

I thought of bringing this up as well, but not as a gloss of anatta. It’s a common addition after anatta in many sutras to eliminate the objection that something belongs to a self but isn’t a self. That then was expanded to four alternatives, as was often the case in Buddhist texts, to: X is not self, X doesn’t belong to a self, X is not part of a self, and self isn’t part of X. Basically, the idea was to simply stop any and all theorizing about self, concrete or abstract.


I do not advocate changing ‘self,’ but the self is actually an aggregate of many experiences, mental and physical, which is reflected in daily life and perceived by others.

Yes, i remember Patisambhidhamagga also refers to it this kind of way: it says:

  • eye is empty of self or what belongs to self (there is no self as owner of the eye) or what is permanent, everlasting or eternal or not subject to change…ear, nose, tongue, body, mind is empty.

This is from the Treatise on Voidness, translation bhikkhy nanamoli

Well, rather, I think it shows that “not belonging” is one of the aspects of not-self.

The primary sense, however, is not “belongs to” but “is”. When Yajnavalkya asserted that the atman was nothing but a sheer mass of consciousness, he did not mean that the atman possesses a sheer mass of consciousness.

IMHO, the biggest obstacle to understanding anattā is not terminology, but psychology. Anattā is a philosophical term, whose primary purpose was to undermine the metaphysical doctrine of the Upanishads. Of course it has a psychological dimension, but it can’t be reduced to psychology. But when moderns hear about it, they typically reduce it to a psychological term, ignoring the metaphysical aspect completely. So if we’re going to discuss renderings, the first question should be: does this rendering make it clear that the attā theory was metaphysical, not just psychological?


Bhante, I am going to argue against what you said above, I hope it will not be seen as a sign of disrespect.

Bhante, if I am not mistaken, 2 out of 3 of those refer to a relationship of possession, indicated by the use of the genitive case (mama, me), so “not belonging” is arguably 2/3rds correct.

I don’t think the average French reader has ever heard of Yajnavalkya. I would agree if the average French reader knew him and took his philosophy as a reference to understand any sutta that they read. It is arguably not the case.

Isn’t it first and foremost one of the 3 characteristics of all phenomena to be understood through insight, along with anicca and dukkha?

I don’t think that when a reader reads “the sounds are not-self” (AN 10.60) they think to themselves “ah yes of course this means that there’s a metaphysical theory behind this which is designed to undermine the metaphysics of the Upanishads as expressed by Yajnavalkya”. I think that they are much more likely to scratch their head in confusion.

It seems to me that the priority should be understandability. If they first understand the meaning in terms of psychology, there’s a chance that later they will also understand that it has a metaphysical dimension. But if they read something that makes no sense they might navigate elsewhere to something that doesn’t sound as obscure.

At least that is my opinion


Is there any sutta support for the common idea above? I have never noticed any debates or discussions of this issue between the Buddha & the Upanishadists in the suttas? Thank you

Interesting discussion between the Bhantes. What is your opinion that some suttas make it clear that it’s

  • Dukkha in Anicca
  • Anatta in Dukkha

This implies that impermanence sets the greater context which dukkha is a part of, and that anatta is part of dukkha. I.e. it’s only no-self because why would you identify with something painful? Who purposely chooses to suffer? If you had a self (i.e. control) you could will your diseases away and other unpleasant conditions on demand, so no one chooses to suffer, hence suffering is born of ignorance (improper attention & unmindfulness), not wisdom (awareness & choice). So it’s suffering in impermanence (conditioned) things, and no-self in suffering.

This is supported by another sutta where the Buddha says he’d rather have people identify with the body than with the mind, because the mind is more impermanent (rises and falls / volatile) than the body. The more impermanent it is, the more dukkha, the more one should let go of it.

You can’t will away bodily disease on demand, but non-returners can enter jhana at will, implying mind mastery is the escape from both bodily and mental impermanence and dukkha.

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The Buddha is portrayed debating with Brahmins, who appear to represent religious orthodoxy, but I don’t recall much debate specifically on the Atman v. Anatta issue.
Actually those following the Upanishads wouldn’t have disagreed with the Buddhist assertion that the aggregates are not-self. The pivotal difference is Buddhism not teaching that there is an Atman “beneath” the aggregates. Meanwhile In the Upanishads, Atman is said to be sheathed by the koshas, which are roughly equivalent to the aggregates.