Anatman / Anatta

DSC00012/Burma/Yangon/Shwédagon Temple/Novice'...
Burma/Yangon/Shwédagon Temple/Novice’s Monk by DANIEL JULIE via Flickr

Anatman (Sanskrit) and Anatta (Pali): “no self”

Anatta theory is generally held to be a Theraveda Buddhist theory stipulating the non-existence of the soul or eternal self. But like any philosophical theory about the self, there’s much room for debate as to just what this means.

At one extreme, we have those who say that the Buddha, himself, did not believe in any kind of permanent individual self. At the other extreme, we have interpreters like the Chán Buddhist, Nan Huaijin, who says that modern interpretations are too materialistic and “totally wrong.”¹

“When the Hīnayāna speaks of no self, it is in reference to the manifest forms of presently existing life; the intent is to alert people to transcend this level, and attain Nirvāṇa. But when this flowed into the world of learning, especially when it was disseminated in the West, some people thought that the Buddhist idea of no self was nihilism and that it denied the soul, and they maintained that Buddhism is atheistic. This is really a joke.”²

English: A photo of Nan Huaijin in 1945, after...
A photo of Nan Huaijin in 1945, after descending Mount Emei following his time as a hermit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the problem is trying to figure out what we mean by an eternal or everlasting self. For some, this includes all the changeable aspects of the entire personality. For others, like many Hindus, it refers to an eternal soul (atman) that grows in wisdom to ultimately become one or, depending on the school of Hinduism,³ in some kind of close relation with the ultimate soul (brahman). For others, for example Christians, it refers to a “seed” that is planted at baptism and which potentially grows into something worthy of everlasting heaven.

Aspects of anatman and anatta theory fit with or, to some extent resemble some of the ideas implied by the theory of reincarnation. But there are differences between anatman (Hindu) and anatta (Buddhist) theories.

In Buddhist anatta theory, a temporary seat of consciousness is often said to be exterminated like a candle flame at death, to be re-lit as a new candle at each succeeding birth. Personality characteristics (skandhas) reappear from one lifetime to another as a result of dependent origination. But the reappearance of these characteristics from one life to another is discontinuous. That is, they’re just a bunch of temporary aggregates that cluster around a new life, much like iron filings would cluster around a new electromagnet if the old one were turned off.

This opposes the popular Hindu view of reincarnation in which one soul (atman) repeatedly reincarnates (taking within itself all it has earned and learned) as it enters and departs from many bodies, until it achieves full identity with, or some close relation to, ultimate consciousness (brahman).


² Ibid.

³ Compare, for instance, Sankara vs. Ramanuja.



  1. Subtle and difficult, but how then are the Skandhas different from soul?

    Soul is thought to be the animating force (?) that makes us think we are… The Skandhas are the aggregates that make us think we are…

    As I understand it, consciousness doesn’t continue, but the habit energy, or karma does. If the Skandhas make self, and if as you say, the Skandas incarnate, then really what is the difference? is it just another discriminatory label?

    Or does Form necessarily become another like form? and so on…


  2. Thanks for an interesting question. The way I understand it, for this school of Buddhism the skandhas form a temporary construct known as the personality, which is an illusion to be dispensed with. Another more fundamental illusion is the notion of an eternal individual self, existing somehow behind the personality.

    This link might help:

    Along with this one:


  3. The skandhas are not carried over. There isn’t a direct continuity between incarnations, so much as similar skandhas are formed again in the ‘medium’ or ‘mold’ of conditions.

    In this sense, the candle dictates the form of the flame. Light a match. Light a candle. Blow out the match. Light a match from the candle. Blow out the candle. Light another candle from the match. Is it the same flame? You could light any number of candles from the candle, light any number of matches from the match, light any number of matches from the candle, light any number of candles from the match… is it the same flame?

    It is conditioned by the form to express in the same way, but it isn’t the same flame.

    That the skandhas form the illusion of self is agreed. That the skandhas carry over to the next life is disputed here.

    Attachment is reborn. The stated idea that, “All personality characteristics (skandhas) are carried over from previous lives to the next life…” is a symptom of attachment to the idea that there is something that doesn’t extinguish.

    Subtle and difficult.


  4. We’re getting into interesting stuff. If you have the time and interest could you please look at this paragraph and comment on it. Specifically I’m wondering if Broad, as I present him, indeed retells the notion of skandhas or if perhaps I’m taking a bit too much liberty here.

    “The philosopher C. D. Broad’s idea of the psychic factor offers another explanation for the alleged experience of past lives. Essentially a Western retelling of the Buddhist idea of skandhas,(4) Broad believed that at death certain mental aspects, if not the total personality, exist for a time or dissipate into nothingness. If sufficiently clustered these hopes, fears, dispositions, desires and memories could attach themselves to another person while in a trance state. Broad believed the psychic factor could also associate with an embryo, having a vital influence on human personality development.(5)”


    Note: On the basis of your comments and subsequent research I changed the sentences in question to:

    “Personality characteristics (skandhas) may reappear from one life to another life as a result of dependent origination. But the reappearance from one life to another is said to be discontinuous.”

    from the former

    “All personality characteristics (skandhas) are carried over from previous lives to the next life as a result of karma. But the jump from one life to the other is discontinuous.”

    I also edited the entry on skandhas.



  5. “Personality characteristics (skandhas) may reappear from one life to another life as a result of dependent origination. But the reappearance from one life to another is said to be discontinuous.”

    ‘Karma’ was not wrong, as consciousness – as some say, as my teacher insists 🙂 goes with karma

    I think a problem you’re having here is that you seem to want to link incarnation to the Skandhas. The expressed result of the skandhas – as personality, if you will – is formed by Dependant Origination.

    Karma is a chain of causes, your actions and deeds, the record of your actions and deeds and thoughts and speech which have effects. What incarnates is this habit energy. You can see this in a purely material way, or something more mystical. I lean to the more material (despite certain experiences :-))

    Feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness depend on form. Without form the next four do not have a ground to ‘exist’. Without the four elements – some say five – form has no existence.

    As this continuity – Karma – Dependant Origination -does not end or begin at any particular point it seems reasonable to extrapolate that consciousness has some continuity or link beyond the material.

    Some streams view this idea as essential. Some streams do not.

    As to Form, when we die, the body returns to the elements. Is that reincarnation? Nope. Just proof we were never separate from the world to begin with. When form is gone, the skandhas are gone, where does the consciousness go? It’s gone. Sunyata. Emptiness, Anatman. But as with the matches and candles what is it that continues?

    Karma. Craving. Your habits and expression. And these are continuous.

    Now it is true that some streams of Buddhism propose that a strongly willed consciousness can direct this rebirth. This is where the C.D. Broad bit is very similar. This driven consciousness, it is proposed, driven by karma seeks a ‘rebirth’. Some are driven or guided into various realms. Powerful and clear consciousnesses can overcome distractions in the Bardo and choose the rebirth. Most ordinary consciousnesses follow their attachments. This also can lead to some of the various realms. Sometimes it can be a new human rebirth.

    The Desire to Save All Beings is a powerful attachment. It is not the 13th Dalai Lama who was incarnated as the 14th, but Compassionate Wisdom which has embodied again and again.

    My teacher wouldn’t disagree with this essential part of the statement;

    “at death certain mental aspects, … exist for a time … If sufficiently clustered these hopes, fears, dispositions, desires and memories could attach themselves to another person … the psychic factor could also associate with an embryo, …”

    Much of what Buddha taught can be cast in more modern and scientific language. Sometimes this is just pretend or pseudo-science, or a clinging to a belief in something eternal.

    Sunyata. Emptiness, Anatman. Just as it is empty of any fixed thing that continues, it is entirely full of everything else. Just get out of the way.

    An alternate, and still Buddhist view, is that we incarnate, attach, are reborn in every instant.


  6. Thanks for presenting such a variety of views. The reason I mentioned my article with E. Raymond Rock is because I’ve had certain experiences which for me affirm an essential individual self (not the conceptual or personality aspects of the self). So this is why I am fascinated by this topic but also reluctant to fully accept self as mere illusion. For me there is an individual self. But it’s very fundamental. Not fundamentalist!

    Now you could say this is all just an illusion on the way to ridding oneself of all illusion. But by the same token, I could say that you’re perhaps fascinated with an intricate, intriguing system that might not completely do justice to the greatness of God and God’s creation.

    At which point you could start conceptually deconstructing the ‘God’ word…

    And I could reply that you’re using the intellect to do so, but that’s a lesser kind of analysis than piecing together the greater logic of God’s ways (dimly and usually after-the-fact perceived by my human intellect).

    For me, I find aspects of truth in the dialogue, and in others like this.

    I hope this makes sense. Thanks for all your careful input and, so I believe, kind intentions.


  7. Some Buddhist streams also put it off till the ‘next life’. Pure Land, in one version practices that the lay person cannot dedicate the time this time around to achieving Nirvana, but maybe an advanced standing to get it next time around. Another interpretation for Pure Land is that the Pure land is a state of mind you can generate now.

    Attachment isn’t necessarily the difficulty, depends on what the attachment is toward, and how it is expressed. Desire to save all Sentient Beings, or Desire to Enlightenment aren’t bad attachments. Does the practice, the doing, the affecting other persons, does that create more or less suffering? less is better, don’t you think?


  8. I think most people are trying to do the ‘right thing,’ as it were. It’s just how we interpret the ‘right thing’ that sometimes brings us into discord.

    I like this notion of the ‘anthropic’ that you mentioned. I had to check that out and still just have the slightest idea. But it seems that, in good old fashioned terms, it’s about humility, recognizing limitations, etc.

    Myself, I’ve been through so many different paths – or seemingly so – when really they’ve all been just one path. Mine! And I very strongly believe that there are as many different paths as there are individuals.

    Sometimes those who brazenly proclaim to belong to a certain religion or organization upon closer inspection hold secret, unorthodox beliefs that they don’t tell others in their immediate religious or spiritual peer group. I won’t betray any confidences, of course, but I have pretty good reason to say this.

    Anyhow, as you can see, I’m answering your queries in increasingly roundabout ways. A familiar strategy of mine to avoid conflict and save energy!

    I guess I’d just sum up by saying that I believe we really do each have to find our own way, and keep our eyes open for any changes as we grow (or go, if you prefer). 🙂


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.