Suttas against 'no self' and 'no soul'

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Hmm… Well it seems to me that the Mahapunnama Sutta (MN 109) is one place where almost all the teachings related to selves and not self, I and mine, etc. come together. There is discussion there about what is and is not fit to be regarded as a self. That’s the strictly anti-atman (anatta) aspect of the teaching. But there is also discussion of I-making and my-making, conceit, form, the various ways of conceiving a self in relation to form, and right discernment of form in the sense of understanding it not to be self and not to me mine.

It seems to me that all of these teachings naturally fit together as a unified organic whole. Simply denying certain metaphysical views about the self as a kind of inner controller, or as the ground of being, do not encompass the whole teaching about the illusions of the self. Even MN 1, where a major point is to deny the Upanishadic doctrine of the self as the root of all things, also includes discussion of the various ways of conceiving a self. And MN2 follows right up with further talk about conceiving a self, and encouragement to strive toward extricating oneself from the bewildering thicket of views about what one is, or was, or will become.


OK, so, this is a bit interesting. What can we take from this observation? There are two points to make here.

  1. You are entirely correct that ātman is only part of the story. Or better, it is one story that we find in the Iron Age texts that describe “Buddhism”.
  2. Ahaṃkara is another story. But ahaṃkara is not a word that was coined by Buddhists either. In this case it comes from Sāṃkhyadarśana.

So there are these two stories about what Buddhism is about, and yet they both come from pre-existing religious systems. And they are not compatible, instead they are mutually incompatible.

Does it? Given that there is no equivalent of the term “psychological” in Pāḷi? What is it that you are really referring to here? As Michael Taft and Kenneth Folk quipped recently, Buddhism is not a life improvement program, it is a life extinction program.

This just sounds like religious claptrap. I have no idea what any of this means.


Not-self is used as a strategy so one (conceit I-am) can escape the mundane…illusion Samsara, crossing over to non-delusion…which is ideal for the purpose. Yet, it cannot be used beyond.

The Buddha used the word "Awakened…under AN4.36.

Furthermore, under AN10.81, it is said:

The Tathagata dwells with unrestricted awareness


I don’t see how you can, in one moment point out the complete incompatibility of two teachings and then say this in the next. There is no “unified organic whole” here. It’s a mishmash.

Pāli Buddhism is very obviously a badly put together composite of many different religious ideas, attitudes, and practices; and it incorporates a load of material from other religions: Brahmanism, Jainism, Sāṃkhya, as well as what seem to br chthonic, almost shamanic, traditions. It doesn’t form a unified whole except under the narrowest of filters. But if you are looking for unity, you tend to find it. It is a very strong cognitive bias, especially in the history of religious ideas.

There is more than one kind of Buddhism in the suttas. At least three distinct major cults I would say, probably more.


There’s no point in preaching religious dogma at me when I’m talking about Pāli grammar and morphology.


One common description of nibbana (extinguishment) is the destruction of passion, aversion, and delusion. Obviously these are psychological in that they are qualities of the mind.


I have not seen yet a serious dating of Samkhya literature before 1st century BC/CE. Hulin’s Volume on Samkhya also doesn’t see texts earlier than EBT. Please share your sources, otherwise we have to assume that ahamkara indeed appears first in the EBT.


I was talking about ahaṃkāramamiṃkāra, usually translated as “I-making and my-making”, which occurs a number of times in the suttas for example in the Upasena Sutta (SN 35.69)

I think it’s only incompatible if one takes the anatta teaching to be an entirely an “an-atman” teaching. But the Buddha also indicates that part of the point is to correctly understand everything one encounters within one’s experience as not a self and not possessing anything pertaining to or related to a self. We are constantly constructing a self out of the khandas, the raw materials of our experience, but that constructed self is illusory, like the conjurings in a magic show. The goal is to achieve a state in which we stop doing that. There is no doubt that this state is quite difficult to attain.

Well, after 2500 years, it appears they have not been doing a very efficient job of it! :slight_smile: But that view is popular, and Venerable Brahmali probably agrees with you. Nevertheless, I do not think it is the whole story, and if we assemble all of the sutta discussions of nibbana and try to take them in their totality (such as is done, for example, in Ajahn Amaro’s and Ajahn Passano’s text The Island), I think a different picture emerges.

My reading is that earliest Buddhism was primarily an ascetic or renunciative tradition. It wasn’t supposed to be life-transforming in the modern, secular sense of a kind of mental health program that helps you chill out while you clock your 50 weekly cubicle hours at Samsara Inc. But it was certainly radically transformative. The early texts, especially the verses left to us by some of the earliest elder monks and nuns, and also the Buddha I believe, testify to how liberating it was to become a wanderer who had severed all ties to worldly burdens, obligations and responsibilities, had conquered the fear and dread of living alone in remote forest dwellings, and had reduced their livelihoods to what was required to live a bare minimum. Upon achieving the goal of the holy life, they exult, and give expression to their sublime peace.

It is hard to read these verses as anything other than the testimony of a person whose life has been utterly transformed:

Having renounced All,
he is said to be at peace;
having clearly known, he
is an attainer-of-wisdom;
knowing the Dhamma, he’s
Moving rightly through the world,
he doesn’t envy
anyone here.

Whoever here has gone over & beyond
sensual passions —
an attachment hard
to transcend in the world,
doesn’t sorrow,
doesn’t fret.
He, his stream cut, is free
from bonds.

Burn up what’s before,
and have nothing for after.
If you don’t grasp
at what’s in between,
you will go about, calm.

For whom, in name & form,
in every way,
there’s no sense of mine,
and who doesn’t grieve
over what is not:
he, in the world,
isn’t defeated,
suffers no loss.

To whom there doesn’t occur
’This is mine,'
for whom 'nothing is others,‘
feeling no sense of mine-ness,
doesn’t grieve at the thought
’I have nothing.’

Not harsh,
not greedy, not
in tune:
this is the reward
— I say when asked —
for those who are free
from preconceptions.

For one unperturbed
— who knows —
there’s no accumulating.
Abstaining, unaroused,
he everywhere sees
The sage
doesn’t speak of himself
as among those who are higher,
or lower.
At peace, free of selfishness,
he doesn’t embrace, doesn’t reject,"

Sn 4.15


I agree the Pali texts include material from diverse sources and are not entirely consistent. Johannes Bronkhorst is particularly good about identifying discrepancies - especially discrepancies about Jain teachings that appear to be sometimes accepted, sometimes rejected.

But I also wouldn’t say that they are badly put together. There is a great deal of material that is repeated consistently, and it’s all very similar thematically. There are also other bodies of separate teachings that, while sometimes strikingly different in their conceptual organization, are not really inconsistent, but represent different ways of coming at the same material. For example, the SN book on the khandas takes a very different view of mental activity than the subsequent book on the sense bases. But these are not really inconsistent accounts. They just differ in their objects of focus.

I don’t understand the inconsistencies you detect in the various ideas about the self. For example, these five thematically related teachings are different, but not at all contradictory:

  1. There is no atman to be found in experience.

  2. There is an activity of I-making and my-making, and the attainment of the goal involves bringing that activity to an end.

  3. There is a natural human tendency to interpret sensory objects as either part of oneself, or as something that the self is part of, or as something that the self is observing, or as something that the self proceeds from. But these are all illusory experiences.

  4. There are speculative philosophical tendencies to form dogmatic ideas about what what the self is, or what the self isn’t, or how the self perceives itself, etc. But these dogmatic ideas should be abandoned.

  5. There are natural human tendencies to attend to and worry about questions such as what will I be in the future, what was I in the past, what am I now, do I really exist, etc. But attending to these questions is unwise attention.


But maybe I misunderstood your point, which was about originality, perhaps? Who cares if the Buddhists coined the term? They didn’t coin the term ahimsa either, but harmlessless clearly became firmly ensconced within Buddhism, as well as Jainism, as an ideal.


that’s great and Vipassana shows me the opposite of your position

I have only done it for 3 years intensively apart from 30 years non-intensive practice.


The Pāli shows, the pronoun ‘ahaṃ’ = ‘self’ is not used in this quote, but rather ‘attā’ however it is translated.

I don’t think discussions around this topic can be settled, if agreement cannot be found on translations and if those agreed translations are not applied consistently.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can come to agreed translations, as we seem to take different approaches. I take a historical one, in which there may be texts that use the words with different meanings to what I believe the Buddha had or used.

‘attā’ may have had different meanings to different people. Some may have believed that their essence ‘attā’ was material, as in the quote. I would call that view ‘a materialist one’.

It seems this discussion has gone off topic. I hope people can post references/links to suttas that discuss or include the terms: an-ahaṃ (without self?) and an-attā (without soul? or however you wish to translate it).

So far, I have not found a sutta discussing an-ahaṃ, which could easily be translated as ‘without self’


Yes, I agree. I believe it is only found in commentarial literature, in which I include discourses by disciples, e.g. Upasena Sutta (SN 35.69).

The only occurrence I know of that is ascribed to the Buddha is four times in MN 109:

Just like leaving upādāna out of the First Noble Truth and thus getting ‘life is suffering’ rather than ‘live with clinging is suffering’, modern Buddhist seem to leave the verb out of ‘(ahaṃ) asmi-māna’ and simply get ahaṃ-māna - the ‘I conceit’ and thus ‘I making…’

Both to me are corruptions of the Buddha’s teaching, based on omitting of something the Buddha seems to have put in and if he taught only what was necessary, omitting it would make it ineffectual.


I agree and I am interested in the Buddha’s teaching, rather than forms of Buddhism, even ‘early’ Buddhism.

I know of no other person who at least tries to identify and consistently apply, what seem to be redefinitions of key terms by the Buddha. I try to do that.


I simply disagree, as for me the important focus is on not taking something that is impermanent and conditioned as the opposite. I believe one can avoid doing that even translating attā as soul.


I don’t know if that would be my preferred translation, but there is indeed no ‘anaham’ in the whole tipitaka…

What do you make of the (from Buddhist perspective) weird mentions of atman in the Upanisads I referenced above - were they known/not known/ignored by the EBT compilers?


Are you saying that it is always an adjective? If so, how do you account for the fact that although in two suttas (SN22:55 and SN22:85) the ending of anatta is modified to agree with the gender, number and case of the accompanying noun, everywhere else it retains the single form ‘anattā’?

Examples of both in a single sutta:

Anattaṃ rūpaṃ ‘anattā rūpan’ ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anattaṃ vedanaṃ ‘anattā vedanā’ ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anattaṃ saññaṃ ‘anattā saññā’ ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anatte saṅkhāre ‘anattā saṅkhārā’ ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, anattaṃ viññāṇaṃ ‘anattā viññāṇan’ ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti.
(Udānasutta SN22:55)


Selves have to be fixed, otherwise it wont be one thing, if it keeps turning into another…

…hence there cannot be an impermanent self.

(EBT based Vipassana requires seeing aggregates arising and passing away, in terms of idapaccayata. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks of seeing that to understand there is no self to be found anywhere in the impermanent sankhara, even for a doubter).

with metta


I know, that’s exactly my point. My problem with “soul” as a translation for “attā” is that “soul” implies non-corpeality and immortality, when in fact “attā” could be defined as a mortal and material entity. Someone who isn’t familiar with Buddhist teachings will stumble across the doctrine of “not soul” and think it means that Buddha was denying non-corporeal/post-mortum life, which isn’t quite right. But maybe you have a different understanding of “soul” than I do.


Good point. Does “ahaṃ” related to the fetter of conceit? I do see what you are saying, that “self” may also be a problematic translation of “attā.” Perhaps it’s best to think of attā as “essential self” or “true self.” Granted, it’s a bit wordier. But I dunno, imho “not true self” has a nice ring to it.

While I don’t disagree with this, I would expand on it by saying that we should not to cling to something impermanent and conditioned. We can still acknowledge something is impermanent/conditioned and cling to it anyway, which is what annihilationists do. This is getting a bit off topic though.


I beg to differ on this one. There is no clear theory of ‘self’. When we discuss platonic ideas or Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ or Kant’s imperative, we can argue about what it is and what not. ‘Self’ is not a concept or a theory - everyone does with it what they want. There were times, e.g. in more Christian discourses, when ‘self’ was closer to the soul. Today it can well be much more material and flexible and changing all the time.

In fact, I think we would have difficulties finding someone (a ‘typical materialistic Westener’) saying “My self has been the same since conception, my self has never changed and it will never change”.

I’d agree with you of course that there is a system of tremendous clinging in the unconscious, no matter what people say. But if we go to the level of what people say and how they understand ‘self’ (i.e. a rather superficial ditthi) we have to acknowledge that there is a broad range of meaning and no agreement at all. I personally for example would say I have a constantly changing sense of self - knowing that it’s a stupid thing to say, but hey, everything we say about the self is probably stupid :slight_smile: