Self/Soul in Jainism & Brahmanism vs Buddhism

This topic is intended as a source collection and comparison of Buddhist and Jain and Brahmin ideas related to terms that over time have been identified with ‘self’ or ‘soul’ - be it ātman, brahman, jīva, or viññaṇā. It will be especially interesting where these different traditions actually become similar.

There is not much need to indulge in the well-known bullet points:
Buddhism says not-soul
Brahmanism says eternal universal soul
Jainism promotes non-violence and self-mortification for liberation by the end of karma


To make a start I’d like to point out that we have different variations of anatta in the Nikayas:

  • the SN has most prominently the teachings that khandhas and ayatanas are not-self (SN 22 & SN 35)*
  • the AN mostly has anatta-saññā as a practice**
  • the MN mostly works with formulas of dis-identification: “This is not my self” (netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na me so attā, also in the SN) ***

So even within the Nikayas we apparently have different traditions and perspectives. Where do they intersect with some brahmanical or Jain views?

In BU 4.1 Yajnavalkya rejects other Brahmin views, namely that Brahman was in the senses, the mind, or the heart. In BU 4.4.8 he says:

a man who does not desire - who is without desires, who is freed from desires, whose desires are fulfilled, whose only desire is his self […] brahman he is, and to brahman he goes.

When they are all banished, / those desires lurking in one’s heart;
Then a mortal becomes immortal, / and attains brahman in this world.

BU 4.4.18: The breathing behind breathing, the sight behind sight, the hearing behind hearing, the thinking behind thinking— Those who know this perceive brahman, the first, the ancient.

BU 4.4.22: About this self (atman), one can only say ‘neti, neti’. He is ungraspable, for he cannot be grasped. He is undecaying, for he is not subject to decay. He has nothing sticking to him, for he does not stick to anything. He is not bound; yet he neither trembles in fear nor suffers injury."

BU 4.4.24: this is the immense and unborn self, unaging, undying, immortal, free from fear—the brahman.

.* SN 22.11, SN 22.14-17, SN 22.20, SN 22.42, SN 22.45-46, SN 22.59, SN 22.68, SN 22.76, SN 22.82, SN 22.90, SN 22.122, SN 22.143-145, SN 22.149, SN 23.17, SN 23.23-34, SN 35.1-12, SN 35.43, SN 35.55, SN 35.59, SN 35.78, SN 35.142, SN 35.164, SN 35.174-176, SN 35.183-185, SN 35.192-194, SN 35.201-221, SN 35.224, SN 35.227, SN 35.234

.** AN 1.471, AN 1.476, AN 5.62, AN 5.72, AN 5.304, AN 5.305, AN 6.35, AN 6.104, AN 6.112, AN 6.142, AN 7.27, AN 7.48, AN 7.49, AN 7.616, AN 7.617, AN 9.1, AN 9.3, AN 9.16, AN 9.93, AN 10.56, AN 10.57, AN 10.59, AN 10.60, AN 10.237, AN 10.238

.*** MN 1, MN 2, MN 8, MN 22, MN 28, MN 35, MN 62, MN 109, MN 140, MN 144, MN 148


Great thread! more quotes from other texts please.

(For those like me who had to look it up)

Anatta , (Pali: “non-self” or “substanceless”) Sanskrit anatman, in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul. Instead, the individual is compounded of five factors (Pali khandha; Sanskrit skandha) that are constantly changing.

The postulate that self exists is very much like the parallel postulate in geometry. The parallel postulate is crudely stated as “parallel lines never meet”, i.e. they are infinite in extent, much like that “eternal universal soul”. This was the fifth of Euclid’s postulates. It is the fifth because it cannot be proved from the other four.

What is interesting about the parallel postulate and the (non-)identity postulate is that we get different geometries by changing the postulate. The postulate is neither right nor wrong, it simply alters the domain of discourse.

With the parallel postulate we get Euclidean geometry. The world is an infinite flat plane. With the identity postulate, we get a world bound for Atman. Sentient beings are conscious of self, so the most sentient being is the highest attainment. The body becomes imperfect (i.e., not-parallel) and dismissable. Brushing teeth is pointless, since ideal teeth (parallel teeth) never decay. Given the perfection of parallelism and Atman, mortification is simply the erasing dismissal of the irrelevant non-parallel, not-immortal smaller self.

With the non-parallel postulate we get many different geometries. The world is no longer flat. It can be spherical, for example. Indeed, on Earth, parallel lines always intersect somewhere on the globe. Without recourse to the infinite Atman, we are forced to investigate alternate ways of dealing with those pesky intersecting lines, those endings, those broken lines. With no lines being parallel and no self being infinite, mortification becomes pointless and is seen simply as nihilism. If all lines cross, we have to deal with crossing lines and suffering in this very life.

Although there might be agreement on the other postulates, the (non-)identity postulate is quite significant. Note that the postulate and its opposite is neither true nor false. The postulates are building blocks for separate geometries or frameworks of thought. Changing that one postulate changes the realm of discourse entirely.


From Matsumoto Shiro(松本史郎 )'s book ‘Criticism on Tathagata-Garbha Theory’:

The book is in Chinese, and I wanna save some time here, so let me explain the words briefly.
“A” means atman/atta, citta, mind, spirit …etc., and it is the “good thing”;
“B” means body, pain, worldly, matter…etc, and it is the “bad thing”.
The spiritual practice is to free/release A from B.
Having a released A (atta/atman), means nrivana, vimutta… etc.

Then, he gave lots of examples of atman: atta, attana, thitatta in Suttanipata (Sn, in his book, the S Nikaya is SN):

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And in this last paragraph, he stated the viewpoint I mentioned above, and gave some "B"s in Buddhism (kasaya, asava… etc.), while “A” is the atta/atman:


A while ago in another topic I mentioned the statistical research of Walser (2018)* who found that Brahmins in the Suttas were rarely taught anatta and more jhana. He then raised the question if in the early days there could have been ‘parallel canons’, e.g. a jhana-oriented collection for Brahmins and a anatta-oriented collection for sramanas and dedicated locals.

I would like to take that more seriously and see how many suttas we can find that clearly feature both aspects - jhana/samadhi and anatta.

So far I have to say I can confirm Walser’s suggestion that both don’t mix much. In the SN or AN I have so far found only AN 4.124 and AN 9.36.

I find MN or DN problematic regarding this question simply because of their composite nature. And please don’t mention ‘implicit’ references, like jhana and right view, implying that right view includes anatta. Let’s look for suttas which explicitly combine jhana/samadhi and anatta.

To me this looks similar to “neti neti”, and also appears similarly to involve a “seeing through” of the personal aspects of existence - though of course with a different underlying assumption.

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Which assumption do you have in mind? and can we find also this assumption in the suttas?

SuttaCentral Voice search for “jhana anatta” indicates at least 22 suttas include both. I say “at least” because the search is conducted only on supported suttas.

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Maybe you could check them, especially SN and AN, if they actually contain anatta and jhana, and list them here?

SCV returns in decreasing order of relevance as scored by matches, so I’ll only list the first half for dicussion.

AN9.36 :

Mendicants, I say that the first absorption is a basis for ending the defilements
They contemplate the phenomena there—included in form, feeling, perception, choices, and consciousness—as impermanent, as suffering, as diseased, as an abscess, as a dart, as misery, as an affliction, as alien, as falling apart, as empty, as not-self.


A mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.
the perception of impermanence, the perception of suffering in impermanence, the perception of not-self in suffering, the perception of giving up, and the perception of fading away.


Then, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, they enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.
Now, brahmin, that person who doesn’t mortify either themselves or others

Note that the use here is anattantapo, which is used in the specific non-mortifying sense, and therefore loosely related to non-self.


Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, they enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.
This includes such topics as talk about kings, bandits, and ministers; talk about armies, threats, and wars; talk about food, drink, clothes, and beds; talk about garlands and fragrances; talk about family, vehicles, villages, towns, cities, and countries; talk about women and heroes; street talk and well talk; talk about the departed; motley talk; tales of land and sea; and talk about being reborn in this or that state of existence.

15 references to anatta, but not as “non-self”

References to anatta, but not as “non-self”


A mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption
the perception of impermanence, the perception of not-self, the perception of ugliness, the perception of drawbacks, the perception of giving up, the perception of fading away, and the perception of cessation.


Then, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, they enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.
They live without wishes in the present life, extinguished, cooled, experiencing bliss, having become holy in themselves.

Here again we have anattantapo, which is used here a bit closer to the non-self meaning. What is more interesting is “holy in themselves” from brahmabhūtena attanā viharati. This is perhaps in alignment with the Jain/Brahmanism Atman.

References to anatta, but not as “non-self”

(see above for use of “holy in themselves”)

References to anatta, but not as “non-self”


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Thanks for filtering it, just we don’t have to report what comes out of the vague search, it’s more practical to provide the actual suttas.

sorry again, but anattantapo has no relation to the not-self of anatta at all.

anatta is a specific doctrine of general detachment and dis-identification and has no relation to the ‘self’-mortification of brahmins and jains.

As mentioned above the most helpful would be references to the short SN and AN suttas. The MN and DN suttas are compilations of shorter material, and it’s more probable that we find there in one Sutta material that originally was not used in the same context.

Yes, I mentioned AN 9.36 already above, next to AN AN 4.124.
So, apart from DN 33, and DN 34 (which have no single theme) I see no other sutta above with jhana + anatta, no?


Yes. I’d say my research proves your point.

I’m more inclined to think that the Buddha’s teachings evolved and clarified themselves in the context of constant exposure to Jainism, and eventually reached the clear “anatta” non-self declaration in the later part of his life where he was approving, for example, Sariputta’s DN33, which discusses both jhana and non-self.

The sticking point here with Jainism was mortification vs. non-self. With mortification, one casts off the crude self to attain the pure self. With non-self, mortification is seen as pointless. That is why the anattantapo hints for me at the eventual clarity of the fully declared non-self in DN33.

Obviously DN1 is key

These are the four grounds on which those ascetics and brahmins assert that the self and the cosmos are eternal. Any ascetics and brahmins who assert that the self and the cosmos are eternal do so on one or other of these four grounds. Outside of this there is none. DN1

The Brahma mistakenly believes he is God.

Now, the being who was reborn there first thinks: ‘I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Undefeated, the Champion, the Universal Seer, the Wielder of Power, the Lord God, the Maker, the Author, the Best, the Begetter, the Controller, the Father of those who have been born and those yet to be born. These beings were created by me! Why is that? Because first I thought: “Oh, if only another being would come to this state of existence‘. DN1

Some recall their reincarnation and wrongly assume the five aggregates are Self.

It’s when some ascetic or brahmin—by dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, and right focus—experiences an immersion of the heart of such a kind that they recollect their many kinds of past lives. That is: ten eons of the cosmos contracting and evolving; twenty, thirty, or forty eons of the cosmos contracting and evolving. They remember: ‘There, I was named this, my clan was that, I looked like this, and that was my food. DN1

They come to this conclusion about that

Because of this I know: “The self and the cosmos are eternal, barren, steady as a mountain peak, standing firm like a pillar.

They also conclude ‘partial eternalism’ by weaker ability to view past lives.

It’s possible that one of those beings passes away from that group and is reborn in this state of existence. Having done so, they go forth from the lay life to homelessness. By dint of keen, resolute, committed, and diligent effort, and right focus, they experience an immersion of the heart of such a kind that they recollect that past life, but no further. SuttaCentral

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Yes, we could go into the DN, but as mentioned, it would be more interesting to find material from SN or AN.

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In Hindu texts there is the assumption of something beyond “The All”, whereas in the EBTs there is not - with the possible exception of Nibbana.


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I scanned the MN in detail, with interesting results. First of all I expected more Suttas that combine jhana & anatta, simply because I assume that MN Suttas are later compilations from older and shorter material, and assumed that later compilers would have little hesitation to assemble material they considered important, no matter if it comes from different contexts…

  • MN 8 has both concepts (jhana + “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self”), but strangely disconnected, and in a way not found anywhere else
  • In MN 43 the two concepts are found in an Upanisad-like conversation between Mahākoṭṭhita and Sariputta (the two have frequent analytical conversations in Suttas - post-Buddha?)
  • MN 44 combines the two in a conversation between Visākha & Dhammadinnā, but disconnected
  • MN 64 comes directly from the above-mentioned AN 9.36. This is a fascinating content as it says to reach the first Jhana, then to contemplate anicca-dukkha-anatta, and then reach liberation.
  • MN 112 has both, but not in fully direct connection. It seems to suggest though to first practice anatta, and then jhana
  • MN 138 features both, but disconnected

As a conclusion we can say that in the MN the combination of jhana and anatta in the same doctrinal context, eg. a progression, is an absolute rarity. If they occur in the same Sutta (6 times), they are mostly not directly connected to each other, two Suttas are not spoken by the Buddha.

The one big exception, MN 64, a direct copy from AN 9.36, is spoken by the Buddha, and has both in the same doctrinal context. This exception is unique and still allows to maintain the hypothesis that originally the teachings of jhana and anatta were not mixed. Going back to Walser’s hypothesis, we can still maintain that Brahmins were mostly taught Jhana, and non-Brahmins anatta.

If both paths can be considered to reach the same goal of liberation this would mean that to follow a practice of not-self was not essential, and that liberation following the fourth jhana implied the same understanding and realization without anatta having been a corner-stone of the previous views and practices.

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Next I scanned the SN, and I couldn’t find a single Sutta in which jhana and no-self teaching were combined. ‘Jhana’ appears not even once in SN 12, SN 22, or SN 35 - the ‘big not-self chapters’.

To make sure I also ran a search over pāmojja (gladness), which is an alternative formula for introducing samadhi. I only found SN 22.90 where Channa practices anicca-dukkha-anatta, and then later develops samadhi spontaneously.

Finally I ran a search on the bojjhangas, which are another framework that includes samadhi. Here in SN 46.73 the enlightenment factor of sati is developed by numerous saññās, i.a. anatta (after anicca and dukkha, and more of course).

The SN strongly confirms the hypothesis that jhana and not-self were not taught together. The big ‘not-self chapters’ SN 12, SN 22 and SN 35 don’t feature jhana at all. If anything, the meager two Suttas where not-self and samadhi-factors appear together indicate that anatta-saññā was one of many fundamental practices which could lead to samadhi.

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There’s one sutta where Ven Sariputta thinks Brahmins like to be reborn in Brahma worlds and taught one Brahmin who is on his death bed the road to that, and later the Buddha finds him at fault for not taking him all the way to Nibbana. It seems like a clear indication being Buddhist they would have been encouraged to teach Buddhism as Brahaminanism in whatever form would have been taught by Brahmin teachers at the time. I can’t find the sutta just now.

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