Suttas against 'no self' and 'no soul'

Hi all

I don’t believe there are ‘no-self’ teachings in authentic suttas. That depends on me translating ‘an-attā’ as ‘not soul’ , just as another’s belief there are those teaching would be based on translating it as ‘not-self’. As I understand it, the PTS says it is mostly used as ‘not-soul’, rather than ‘not-self’ (see: Thus they say: ‘anattā (n. and predicative adj.) not a soul, without a soul. Most freq. in combn. with dukkha & anicca.’

To me, doubt about ‘self’ (ahaṃ), is clearly taught to be unwise attention here: especially paragraphs: sc7.

’…Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not?.. (also translatable as ‘do I exist’ and ‘do I not exist’)
…Etarahi vā ­pac­cup­pan­na­maddhā­naṃ ajjhattaṃ kathaṃkathī hoti: ‘ahaṃ nu khosmi? No nu khosmi?..’

khosmi = kho-asmi, therefore we have: ahaṃ nu kho asmi and (ahaṃ) no nu kho asmi

So the unwise attentions (ayoniso-manasikāra) involve ahaṃ=self.

“When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him. The view ‘soul exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; or the view ‘no soul exists for me’ arises in him as true and established; …
Tassa evaṃ ayoniso manasikaroto channaṃ diṭṭhīnaṃ aññatarā diṭṭhi uppajjati. ‘Atthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati; ‘natthi me attā’ti vā assa saccato thetato diṭṭhi uppajjati;"

So the wrong view arising is about soul (attā).

“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.”

So attending unwisely one would mix up, or miss the difference use of ahaṃ and attā.

I think the PTS Dictionary clearly identifies that it is the permanent aspect that is rejected and many people, like me, believe in an impermanent ‘self’. An impermanent ‘soul’ is a contradiction in terms for me.

So when something is taken as permanent, it cannot be soul. Thus all saṅkhārūpādānakkhandā are (impermanent, suffering and not-soul) along with the other four clung-to aggregates.

Thus, for me, the Buddha would not reproach someone who believed in an impermanent self, along with acceptance of multiple births, as I believed he clearly taught both.

I have not found anywhere the Buddha promoted both:

I do not exist/there is no self: n’atthi ahaṃ/ahaṃ no-asmi and
the soul does not exist/there is no soul: n’atthi attā

Yes, the Third Characteristic (as in Pāli):
sabbe dhammā anattā
is often misrepresented as ‘there is no soul’ when it actually says:
all dhammas are not soul.

To me, this is just like saying:
‘all oranges are not apples’ means
‘all apples do not exist’.

Also see Jayarava’s post at: An unique experiment - First time on a buddhist forum

best wishes


“Not soul” is actually an incorrect translation of anattā. I recently had cause to correspond with Prof. Richard Gombrich on this topic as I had mistaken a negated past participle for an example of a negated adjective in an article I submitted to him. He kindly pointed out my mistake. In the cited phrase from the Dhammapada, anattā is an adjective (a bahuvrīhi compound) and it has to be read in this case as “without attā

I think most scholars now accept at “attā” here is a reference to the Vedic ātman, which in turn references the Vedic belief that there is a reality beyond our senses which consists of absolute being. Also known as brahman. To call ātman a “Soul” would tend to imply an individual soul, as per Christianity, but the Vedic absolute being obliterates the individual which merges into the absolute and loses all trace of individuality. “All is one” as the Hindus say, and they really mean it.

So “not soul” is no better than “no soul”, in that it is both an incorrect and a misleading translation. This is an example of the failure of purely semantic methods for understanding a foreign literature (I’ve been intensively working on another these last two weeks that ought to appear in print in a few months). What provides the continuity between lives in Vedic belief is absolute being - the whole phenomenal world, including all the people, is an illusion and once you get rid of the illusion there is just brahman. It is in some respects similar to the puruṣa of Sāṃkhyadarśana.

The problem never was the existence or non-existence of anything. It was that people who came to Buddhism looking for absolute being (or absolute truth or reality, since sat can translate them all) would be disappointed (dukkha) by examining their experience: since experience changes all the time, one will never find absolute being in experience. Absolute being cannot change or it wouldn’t be absolute.

It is purely conjecture on my part, but I suspect that non-Buddhists who achieve cessation both then and now often mistake nirodha for contacting the absolute. It has in late Vedic terms three characteristics: saccidānanda: being (sat), awareness (cit), and bliss (ānanda). And since in cessation, nothing is arising and passing away, one can easily mistake it for the absolute (if one believes in such a thing). One of these days I’ll try to make the case more formally.

So I hope this is clear. In this Pāli phrase anattā is an adjective (a bahuvrīhi compound) that means “without ātman”, where ātman has to be understood as it is defined in the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads, i.e. as absolute being. It would be good to get everyone on the same (the right) page before beginning yet another interminable discussion of “self/soul” in Buddhism.


To say self or soul is a form of extreme. Likewise for no self.

The teaching teaches that of the middle-way…based on Not-self…which avoids the extremes…so to transcend to that dimension where it is described as: Ud8.3

There is, monks, an unbornunbecomeunmadeunfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.


I am really glad to see you posting here @Jayarava!
And thanks for this, it really helps keeping things clear!

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Thanks to both @Brother_Joe and @Jayarava for a learned discussion on this.
In spite of the following comments I think both of you have a point. Which would mean that the EBT reflect not one position on anatta, but several. Which would mean in turn that either we find the Buddha’s authentic position in none, one, or several of them - if he was pragmatic depending on the context.

Granted that anattā can be an adjective, but do you mean that it is always an adjective, or originally an adjective, or sometimes?

‘Self’ emphasizes this individual aspect much more. ‘Soul’ too, but at least it also connects to such concepts as in Genesis 2:7 where God blows the נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים, lit. “the breath-soul of life” into the nostrils of Adam. ‘Soul’ is probably the closest we have to the divine aspect of (wo)men.

Yes and no. Definitely they get rid of the idea of an individual. A simple “All is One” (in a more advaitic Sankara interpretation of the Upanisads) should not be interpreted easily.

There is no ‘Vedic belief’. That would mean that people over 1,500 years just believed one thing. The idea of the phenomenal world being an illusion can be traced here and there, mostly in the Upanisads, but is by far not the standard view of PBT (pre-Buddhist texts). The rites, rituals, sacrifices, prayers of the Vedas prove in contrast that there was a phenomenal world that needed manipulation. Or else I would like to see Vedic passages consistently saying that the world is an illusion. I strongly caution the Buddhist specialists to think that atman was a unified concept in PBT - it was a fragmented, conceptual mess!

The problem is that the Upanisads mostly don’t define ātman, but just use it in several contexts. It doesn’t mean one thing, and we don’t know exactly which aspect the Buddha referred to - apparently in one of the main contexts as something that is not-changing (anicca) and not-a-source-of-negativity (dukkha).

Here are some passages from the Upanishads that are not compatible with this view:

BU 1.2.1 "Then death made up his mind: "Let me equip myself with an atman"
Doesn’t sound too great for an atman - it’s created, certainly not a transcendent reality, and coming from death doesn’t sound too blissful either. If anything ‘atman’ here is an ‘embodyment’, or as Olivelle indeed translates, a ‘body’.

BU 1.2.4 "Then death had this desire: “Would that a second atman were born for me!”"
Again, it’s created and not unique either. At least death has two atmans.

We find a very different myth in BU 1.4.1:
“In the beginning this world was just a single atman shaped like a man. He looked around and saw nothing but himself… That first being received the name ‘man’ (purusa)”

The esoteric gibberish that Buddhists like to refer to in atman/brahman is there indeed, e.g. BU 1.4.10:
“In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only atman, thinking: ‘I am brahman’”

etc. etc. there are hundreds of passages in the Upanisads regarding atman, referring to very different concepts. I think in the Buddhist discourse we have two possible approaches: Either to forget all the PBT and just work out from within the EBT which view the Buddha was opposing, or doing a comprehensive study of the different atmans in the PBT first and then choosing which one(s) the Buddha is actually referring to. To pick just one convenient ‘atman’ concept from the Upanisads and assuming it’s valid for all pre-Buddhist India is clearly misleading.


Thanks, I was aware of that, but I would not say ‘it has to be read’ as I don’t take a position of dictating what people must do. I would qualify it with ‘understanding the grammatical structure…’.

I’ll try to say ‘all dhammas are without soul’ in future. Though you would disagree with ‘soul’.

I don’t have a problem with that, as, for me, the main focus is suggesting or believing an impermanent and conditioned thing is otherwise; choosing ‘soul’ as a translation would be the closest idea in common English language and I believe the Buddha taught us to teach Dhamma in the common language.

Yes, I was also aware of that idea, which, I believe is based on the experience of the first of the formless attainments, where, for me at least, perception of (the limit of) my body (the nearest and dearest form/rūpa) ended and I could not distinguish myself from the rest of the universe and there was just unending/infinite space for me. Fortunately I had read the Buddhas teaching on not identifying with experience, so I didn’t make it ‘I am one with the universe’ and example of sakkāya-diṭṭhi based on asmi-māna.

BTW I link the qualities ascribed to God, to the first three formless attainments:

  • perception of infinite space (God is omnipresent)
  • perception of infinite consciousness (God is omniscient)
  • perception of nothingness (God is omnipotent, from nothing he created everything)

best wishes


Thanks also to you for pointing out the PBT situation.

I do believe the EBTs reflect more than one position or meaning of many key terms, but I do not believe that was part of the Buddha’s pragmatism. Indeed he seems to have encouraged monks to use the common language, for common (concrete) nouns, like ‘bowls’, but I believe he was very specific and consistent in his meaning and use of key (psychological/mental) terms, such as dukkha, loka, satta (being), birth, death… and we have examples of him defining clearly these terms, or giving a clear context, sometimes with the sentence ‘in my Dhamma Vinaya x means…’ such as with ‘death’.

This is my compilation of definitions/clarifications from the Buddha on his use of terms:

best wishes


The Buddha uses “attā” in the positive, affirmative sense conventionally, e.g.

“Attadīpā, bhikkhave, viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā

Live as islands unto yourselves, brethren, as refuges unto yourselves, take none other as your refuge

DN 26

This wouldn’t make any sense if attā were taken as soul; the only way to explain the Buddha’s repeated use of attā conventionally despite his rejection of it via anattā is if it is taken as self, which cannot be avoided in conventions, whereas soul easily can.


attadīpā is indeed a curious example that of course has been acknowledged. Do you have examples from other contexts that would show a pattern?

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In the case of dead languages with grammatical structures that have been fixed and unchanging for centuries, we do not have the kind of wiggle-room that would justify your incorrect and misleading translation. So qualify it if you must, but please use the correct translation rather than an incorrect and misleading translation. That’s all I ask.

“Soul” is also simply incorrect and misleading. When the Buddha suggested, in a single rather obscure sutta (Araṇavibhanga Sutta MN 139), that people teach Dhamma in the vernacular, he used the example of the name of an eating dish. Same concept; different name. That works when you live in an area in which most people speak closely related dialects of the same language family and you are definitely talking about the same concept.

Soul is a completely different concept, and we are translating into a language and a worldview which are separated from the Pāli by a vast gulf.

You keep writing things that are incorrect and misleading and replying “I was aware of that” when corrected. I’m not sure what to make of this. It would be simpler all round for you to not use incorrect and misleading translations in the first place, especially if you are aware that they are incorrect and misleading. Yes?

I understand that translating from Pāli into English can be tricky, but those of us who can do it, have a duty to others to be as accurate as possible, and to be honest about the great difficulties involved.


Again, this is an incorrect translation. Please see my explanation above: anattā is an adjective, not a noun. It would be great if we could spread this simple grammatical fact around.


To experience cessation one needs to have seen tilakkhana. If you see the Anattalakkhana sutta the tilakkhana is seen first- then the meditator sees nibbada, virago and nirodha (cessation). Unless the meditator experiences a false experience of cessation (some state of samadhi like the asana state or even animitta state, which can be experienced without a concomitant panna, wisdom component), the meditator has already penetrated that there is nothing which can be seen as self or internal ‘being’, homunculous, spirit, Tathagata (spiritual), Brahma, or other versions of that ilk, and therefore there is no risk of cessation being identified as such.

with metta


And this is why I don’t last very long in Buddhist forums. Sayonara.


Do you think the Buddha developed a Buddhist ‘philosophy’ or his teachings were a result of the fruits of his search for the cessation of suffering?

If it isn’t a de novo articulation of philosophy and a result of practice, then is it required for practitioners to speak the texts in ‘cut and paste’ mode to communicate the dhamma to each other, when the other person seems unaware or unable to appreciate?

It’s not clear what you are referring or find objectionable.

With metta

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I do not accept the quote you give as original, as, to me, it contradicts the other on the same topic, which immediately follows it. ‘take Dhamma as your refuge, take no other refuge’. This latter advice is consistent with more teachings ascribed to the Buddha. For me the sentence you quote has been added later, when the meaning of attā had already changed.

‘conventional truth’ and ‘ultimate truth’ are not truths taught by the Buddha, from my research, unlike the ‘Four Noble Truths’. To me, the former are interpretations or extrapolations from a clear instruction he gave about using local names for concrete nouns, e.g. bowls and not insisting on one particular dialect’s name.

I know I sometimes do this, but I try to avoid it, that is, stating as fact what the Buddha does. It is recorded that the Buddha taught us to state our beliefs, just as beliefs, not as facts:

“If a person has a conviction, his statement, ‘This is my conviction,’ safeguards the truth. But he doesn’t yet come to the definite conclusion that ‘Only this is true; anything else is worthless.’ To this extent, Bhaaradvaaja, there is the safeguarding of the truth. To this extent one safeguards the truth. I describe this as the safeguarding of the truth, but it is not yet an awakening to the truth” M 95 : M ii 171

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I see that as a common misconception of nirodha, based on the wrong thinking/view that the First Noble Truth is, the Five Aggregates are Suffering (life is suffering), rather than the summary the Buddha seems to have given, the Five clung-to Aggregates are suffering (clung to life is suffering).

That of course is linked to taking the Three Characteristics as universal, with various corrupted suttas, imo, to support the idea that (these) things are suffering because they are impermanent.

The summary sentence of the First Noble Truth, tells me, the Five Aggregates are suffering when clung to and only impermanent and without soul, when not clung to, as with the Arahant. So it would be the clinging that makes things suffering. That’s how I now understand it, after believing and testing the popular interpretation for 30 years and finding it ineffectual.

So I could reword it to: ‘in cessation no suffering arises or passes away’.


I have come to the conclusion that it is effective.

Vipassana shows me the opposite of your position.

With metta


The main problem I have with the translation “attā” as “soul” instead of “self” is that, for many people (myself included), “soul” implies non-materiality — that is, it’s some aspect of ourselves that is beyond physical matter that can survive bodily death. This is pretty much how the term “soul” is used in a Christian context — “soul” is the immortal spiritual entity that will go on to heaven and hell when our physical body dies. In other words, eternalism. However, eternalism isn’t the only type of “attā-identity” Buddha rejected. It’s pretty clear from the Suttas that Buddha also rejected as wrong view the idea that the attā can be identified in the perishable material elements. In DN 1, for example, describes the following as a form of wrong view :

85. "Herein, bhikkhus, a certain recluse or a brahmin asserts the following doctrine and view: ‘The self, good sir, has material form; it is composed of the four primary elements and originates from father and mother. Since this self, good sir, is annihilated and destroyed with the breakup of the body and does not exist after death, at this point the self is completely annihilated.’ In this way some proclaim the annihilation, destruction, and extermination of an existent being.

“not-soul” imho does not adequately communicate that identifying attā with body is also wrong. Furthermore, positing a mortal attā is also wrong.

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The anatta teachings, in my opinion, cannot be separated from the teachings on I-making and my-making, and all of the other similar and related teachings, on the different ways of conceiving one’s experience in relation to a self. Yes, there are texts whose sole focus seems to be the denial of an Upanishadic atman. But there are many other texts on very closely related matters that cannot be jammed into that framework. In many places the texts tell us that nibbana requires, among other things, a deep psychological transformation that includes completely overcoming the sense of “I” and “mine” that is present in experience, as well as overcoming the tendency to conceive a self that is either in form, encompassing form, emerging from form or directed toward form. These pervasive psychological phenomena structure all ordinary human experience, and go well beyond - and are more universal than - further metaphysical doctrines that attribute ultimacy, simplicity, unity or eternity to the self that is thus psychologically constructed.


Have you come across suttas that combine ‘(an)atta’ and ‘i-making’ & ‘mine-making’? Without having researched it my vague assessment would be that these two contexts are neatly separated?