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The Buddhist doctrine of Anatta (Pāli) or Anātman (Sanskrit) specifies the absence of a permanent and unchanging self (ātman).

Anatta is one of the Three Seals of Buddhist doctrines and is recorded as having been one of the primary realizations attained by the Buddha during his enlightenment experience.



Buddhist teaching tells us that all in life is impermanent and in a constant state of flux, and that any entity that exists does so only in dependence on the conditions of its arising, which are non-eternal. Therefore, any sense one might have of an abiding self or a soul is regarded as a misapprehension.

Buddhists hold that the notion of an abiding self is one of the main causes of human conflict, and that by realizing the nonexistence of our perceived self, 'we' may go beyond 'our' mundane desires. (Reference to 'oneself' or 'I' or 'me' for Buddhists is used merely conventionally.)

While the Buddha himself provided no confirmation the existence of a self or Atman as claimed by philosophers of his time, his teachings were not meant to know an Atman, but to know the fact that all clinging to concepts and ideas of a self are faulty and based on ignorance. The Buddha's teaching was apophatic and was aimed at realizing the truth and not any concept of self created by birth, imagination, speculaton, metaphysical study or through self-ideation. The five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental fabrications and consciousness were especially important in this regard, since they are the ones an individual forms clinging or cleaving for. Once a monk renounces his clinging for all the five aggregates, through meditative insight, he realizes the bliss of non-clinging, and abides in wisdom. The Buddha clearly states that all five aggregates are impermanent, just as the burning flame is inconstant in one sense, and that knowledge or wisdom is all that remains, just as the only thing constant about a flame is its fuel, or purpose.

Interpretive problems

Students of Buddhism often encounter an intellectual quandary with the teaching in that the concept of anatta and the doctrine of rebirth seem to be mutually exclusive. If there is no-self, no abiding essence of the person, it is unclear what it is that is reborn. The Buddha discussed this in a conversation with a Brahmin named Kutadanta.

There have been a number of attempts by various schools of Buddhism to make explicit how it is that rebirth occurs. The more orthodox schools claim that certain of the dispositions or psychological constituents have repercussions that extend beyond an individual life to the next. More innovative solutions include the introduction of a Pudgala , a "person", which functions comparably to the ātman in the rebirth process and in karmic agency, but is regarded by its advocates as not falling prey to the metaphysical substantialism of the ātman.

Others seek a proxy not for the ātman but for Brahman, the Indian monistic ideal that functions as an ātman for the whole of creation, and is in itself thus rejected by anatta. Such a solution is the Consciousness-only teaching of the Yogacara school attempt to explain the seeming paradox: at death the body & mind disintegrates, but if the disintegrating mind contains any remaining traces of karma, it will cause the continuity of the consciousness to bounce back an arising mind to an awaiting being (i.e. a fetus developing the ability to harbor consciousness).

Some Buddhists take the position that the basic problem of explaining how "I" can die and be reborn is, philosophically speaking, no more problematic than how "I" can be the "same" person I was a few moments ago. There is no more or less ultimacy, for Buddhists, between the identity I have with my self of two minutes ago and the identity I have with the self of two lives ago.

See also

External links

  • Digital Dictionary of Buddhism無我 (log in with userID "guest")
  • Atman in Sunyata and the Sunyata of Atman An attempt to reconcile Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta on the issue of the Self.
  • No Inner Core: An Introduction to the Doctrine of Anatta by Sayadaw U Silananda (PDF file).

Last updated: 02-06-2005 18:53:24
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01