The Buddha's Teaching of No-Self

Printed in the Fall 2015 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: ReigleNancy. "The Buddha’s Teaching of No-Self" Quest 103.4 (Fall 2015): pg. 143-147.

Many people think that the Buddha denied the concept of the Atman, or Self. This may not be the case.

By Nancy Reigle

Nancy ReigleDoes Christianity believe in reincarnation? Of course it does not. Yet students of the Wisdom Tradition may seek to find evidence that early Christians did accept reincarnation. Similarly in Buddhism. Does Buddhism believe in the atman, the permanent self? Certainly the Buddhist religion does not. Yet there is evidence that the Buddha, when teaching his basic doctrine of anatman, “no-self,” only denied the abiding reality of the personal or empirical atman, but not the universal or authentic atman.

The Wisdom Tradition known as Theosophy teaches the existence of “an Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable Principle” often compared to the Hindu atman, the universal “self,” while Buddhism, with its doctrine of anatman (literally “no-self”), is normally understood to deny any such universal principle. But there have been several attempts to show that the Buddha did not deny the existence of the authentic atman.

Only one of these attempts seems to have been taken seriously by scholars: the work of Kamaleswar Bhattacharya. His book on this subject, written in French, L’Atman-Brahman dans le Bouddhisme ancien, was published in Paris in 1973. An English translation of this work, The Atman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism, was published in 2015. Here Bhattacharya sets forth his arguments for the existence of the Upanishadic atman in early Buddhism.

To begin with, how must we understand the Sanskrit term atman, or in Pali (the language of the oldest Buddhist texts), atta? The word atman has been translated into English a number of different ways by writers, sometimes as “soul” or “self” or “ego.” The consensus among scholars for some time now has been to translate atman as “self,” which we will do here. Likewise we will translate Sanskrit anatman, or Pali anatta, as “no-self.” Translating atman as “self” also avoids confusion between “soul” and “self” when it distinguishes atman, the eternal and unchanging self, from the reincarnating and evolving soul.

One of the basic teachings of Buddhism is that all existence has three defining characteristics (tri-lakshana): suffering (duhkha), impermanence (anitya), and no-self (anatman). If these are the Buddha’s basic teachings, then why question his teaching of anatman (no-self)?

In the case of Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, while he was doing research in the Sanskrit inscriptions of ancient Cambodia, he came across an inscription that caused him to question the teaching of anatman. The inscription that caught his attention begins with the following stanza. Note that nairatmya (non-self, absence of self) is a synonym for anatman (no-self). It reads:

Buddho bodhim vidadhyad vo yena nairatmyadarshanam |
viruddhasyapi sadhuktam sadhanam paramatmanah ||

The concept of paramatman [the highest self] is in contradiction (viruddha) with the doctrine of nairatmya [non-self]; nevertheless, the Buddha taught that same doctrine [of non-self] as a means (sadhana) of attaining to paramatman [the highest self]!

This may be restated as: the Buddha taught that through the cultivation of non-self (nairatmya), one reaches the highest self (paramatman). The idea here is that by emptying yourself of your personality, your lower self, you are able to reach or ascend to your highest self, your spiritual essence.

Interestingly, author Paul Brunton talks about this same inscription in one of his notebooks. He renders it as:

Let the Buddha give you the Bodhi, by Whom has been taught well the philosophy denying the existence of the individual souland teaching the cult of the universal soul though [the two teachings seem to be] contradictory.

When George Coedès, who was later to became Bhattacharya’s mentor, first saw this inscription in 1908, he thought that it had been contaminated by Hindu influence. But after Sylvain Lévi published his edition and translation of the Mahayana-Sutralamkara in 1907 and 1911, it became apparent that no contamination had taken place.

This important Buddhist text supported the idea that paramatma (the highest self) and nairatmya (non-self), found together in the inscription, were not contradictory:

In utterly pure Emptiness, the Buddhas have attained to the summit of the atman, which consists in Impersonality [nairatmya, non-self]. Since they have found, thus, the pure atman, they have reached the heights of atman.

And, in this Plan Without-Outflowing, is indicated the paramatman of the Buddhas — How so? — Because their atman consists in the essential Impersonality [nairatmya, non-self]. (Mahayana-Sutralamkara, 9.23, with beginning of commentary)

Note that Lévi has translated nairatmya as “Impersonality,” instead of “non-self,” which has been used above.

Bhattacharya then quoted another Mahayana text, the Ratnagotravibhaga commentary, to support this idea further:

The Tathagata [Buddha], on the other hand, by virtue of his absolute knowledge (yathabhutajnyanena), has gained perfect intuition of the Impersonality [nairatmya] of all separate elements. This Impersonality [nairatmya] accords, from every point of view (yatha-darshanam), with the characteristics of the atman. It is thus always regarded as atman, because it is Impersonality [nairatmya] which is atman (nairatmyam evatmeti kritva).

From this we can see that the two seemingly contradictory ideas of paramatman (the highest self) and nairatmya (non-self) found in the Cambodian inscription are not incompatible with Buddhist scriptures. Bhattacharya concludes: “The idea of paramatman is thus not contrary to the doctrine of nairatmya; the two terms rather designate the same thing from two different points of view.”

Another scholar, R. Grousset, commenting on the passage quoted above from the Mahayana-Sutralamkara, says that the nairatyma idea is also found in the Upanishads, known for their teaching of atman. He writes:

Such a conception recalls, curiously enough, material from some of the Upanishads; the atman consisting essentially in nairatmya, or, if preferred, the person being resolved in its very depths in impersonality, we there approach the impersonal atman of the Brihadaranyaka [Upanishad].

It is Bhattacharya’s belief that the Buddha did not deny this impersonal, eternal atman of the Upanishads.

Bhattacharya distinguishes two types of atman: (1) the authentic atman and (2) the empirical atman.

The authentic atman is the true spiritual atman of the Upanishads, eternal and unchanging. The empirical atman is the psychophysical individuality, the person, which is ephemeral and changing. This psychophysical individuality is made up of five components, which are called skandhas, or aggregates. These five skandhas are:

1. Form, or body (rupa)
2. Feeling (vedana)
3. Perception and conception (samjrina)
4. Karma formations, or karmic seeds (samskara)
5. Consciousness (vijrinana)

In other words, the five skandhas, or aggregates, make up what we would call the everyday person. As we saw earlier, just like everything else in existence, the skandhas, too, are characterized by suffering (duhkha), impermanence (anitya), and no-self (anatman).

Throughout the Buddhist scriptures of the Pali canon, we find the Buddha repeatedly denying the existence of the atman in the five skandhas. The following dialogue is one example, where he says:

“Now what think you, Sona? Is body permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, lord.”

“And what is impermanent, is that woe or weal?”

“Woe, lord.”

“And is it fitting to hold such views as ‘this is mine,’ ‘this am I,’ or ‘this is the self of me,’ about that which is impermanent and unstable?”

“Surely not, lord.”

“Is feeling . . . perception . . . the activities [karma formations] . . . is consciousness permanent or impermanent? (as before) . . .”

“Surely not, lord.”

“Wherefore, Sona, whatsoever body there be, whether past, future or present, inward or outward, gross or subtle, low or lofty, far or near . . . every body should thus be regarded as it really is by right insight. Thus ‘this is not mine,’ ‘this am not I,’ ‘this of me is not the self.’”

And so also with regard to feeling, perception, the activities [karma formations] and consciousness (so should they be regarded). (Samyutta-Nikaya, 22.49.20)

This type of negation is meant to dispel the idea of a permanent, truly existing personality, the satkaya-drishti. It is clear that the skandhas, the ephemeral person, cannot be the eternal, unchanging atman.

While the Buddha clearly and repeatedly said that there was no atman in the skandhas, he did not directly or specifically deny the existence of the eternal atman of the Upanishads. As Bhattacharya says:

The Buddha did not say, “There is no atman.” He simply said, in speaking of the skandhas/khandhas, ephemeral and painful, which constitute the psycho-physical being of a man: n’etam mama, n’eso ’ham asmi, na m’eso atta, “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my atman.” 

The scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy, in his book Hinduism and Buddhism, agrees: “The repeated expression ‘That is not my Self’ has so often been misinterpreted to mean ‘There is no Self.’”

Bhattacharya cites another passage from the Pali canon to illustrate that the Buddha did not deny the existence of the authentic atman. This passage speaks of an “unborn,” “unproduced,” “uncreated.” This is reminiscent of the immutable principle spoken of in The Secret Doctrine. The Buddha says in this passage:

There is, monks, an unborn, unproduced, uncreated, unformed. If there were not, monks, an unborn, unproduced, uncreated, unformed, there would be no issue [escape] for the born, the produced, the created, the formed. (Udana, 8.3)

Bhattacharya elaborates on this passage from the Udana, with scriptural support from the Samyutta Nikaya:

Note that the “unborn, unproduced, uncreated, unformed” (ajata, abhuta, akata, asamkhata), in a word, the Unconditioned, is not another world, situated beyond the “born, produced, created, formed” (jata, bhuta, kata, samkhata). It is in us, is our very selves: it is our essential nature. It must, then, be discovered in the depths of our being, by transcending our phenomenal existence.

Bhattacharya’s thesis is that when the Buddha denied the presence of the atman in the skandhas, he was indirectly affirming the existence of the authentic, Upanishadic atman.

To support his position, Bhattacharya cites the Indian logician Uddyotakara of the Hindu Nyaya school, who said that thistype of negation, “This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my atman,” doesn’t make sense logically unless one accepts that the atman exists. This is called a specific negation. Uddyotakara says:

This negation is a specific negation (visheshapratishedha), not a universal negation (samanyapratishedha). One who does not accept the atman must employ a universal negation: “I am not,” “You are not.” A specific negation always implies a corresponding affirmation: when, for example, I say, “I do not see with my left eye,” it is understood that I do see with my right eye. 

In this case, the specific negation of atman in the skandhas would have for its corresponding affirmation the existence of the authentic, Upanishadic atman.

The eminent Buddhist scholar La Vallée Poussin, commenting on a passage from the Majjhima-Nikaya, corroborates Bhattacharya’s thesis when he says:

In the light of this text, which really is quite straightforward, we may understand several sermons, and notably the sermon of Benares, not as the negation of the atman as do the Buddhists — but as the affirmation of an atman distinct from the skandhas.

This brings us back to the teaching of the stanza in the inscription that we began with:

The Buddha taught the doctrine of nairatmya [non-self] as the means (sadhana) of attaining to paramatman [the highest self]. 

Here the stanza teaches us to cultivate the specific negation of nairatmya (non-self) in order to attain to its corresponding affirmation of paramatman (the highest self). The two Mahayana texts we cited earlier to support these ideas (the Mahayana-Sutralamkara and the commentary to the Ratna-gotravibhaga) treated nairatmya and paramatman as synonyms. In other words, once understood, they become two different sides of the same coin. Nairatmya, the negation of the empirical self, reveals paramatman, the highest authentic self, which is inexpressible.

This type of logic can be fruitfully employed when referring to truth or the absolute, such as atman or paramatman. Since truth is beyond discursive thought, it can be referred to in negative terms only, such as the neti neti, “not this, not that,” of the Upanishads. As Bhattacharya says:

All truths as can be formulated are, in fact, but approximations of Truth, which is inexpressible; none of them can be identified with Truth itself. They aid us in reaching it, they guide our progress towards it; but they must be transcended if it is to be reached.

It is perhaps for this reason that when the itinerant monk Vatsagotra (Pali: Vacchagotta) came to the Buddha and asked him if there is an atman or not, the Buddha remained silent. Also, it is there explained that had the Buddha answered either way, Vatsagotra would have misunderstood him because of his preconceptions. To have given any answer would have been misleading.

What are some possible reasons for confusion concerning the atman in Buddhism?

1. The Buddha’s silence on pertinent questions, such as whether the atman exists, as we have just seen in the Vatsagotra story, has been a long-standing source of confusion for readers of the Buddhist scriptures. While the Buddha taught that the skandhas are anatman, he did not say that there is no atman. If he had wanted to dispel the idea of the atman itself, he could have done so directly, to avoid confusion.

2. Although the Buddha repeatedly taught the doctrine of anatman relative to the skandhas, there are nevertheless numerous occurrences of the word atman throughout the Buddhist scriptures. With all the emphasis the Buddha placed on the teaching of anatman, the many references to atman can be confusing.

Citing the Pali canon alone, Pérez-Remón says:

In fact the references to atta [atman] in the five Nikayas are as overwhelming, as regards their numbers, as the references to anatta, and plenty of those references are extremely significant.

3. Although both positive and negative formulations of atman are found in the Buddhist scriptures, it is the negative formulations that predominate. Bhattacharya says:

There certainly are positive expressions, relative to the atman, in the Pali Canon . . . But these positive expressions — often moreover wrongly interpreted — are almost drowned in the mass of negative expressions . . . It is this predilection for negative expression which would seem to have been responsible for the pernicious theory of the “negation of the atman.”

4. Another source of confusion in the Buddhist scriptures is the fact that the word atman can be used in more than one sense. Not only can atman have the meaning of the authentic, Upanishadic atman, but it can and often is used simply as a reflexive personal pronoun. As Steven Collins says: “Atta [Atman] is the regular reflexive pronoun in Pali, used in the masculine singular for all numbers and genders.”

Thus, as a reflexive pronoun, the word atta [atman] can be used for “myself,” “yourself,” “himself,” “herself,” “ourselves,” etc.

As we have seen, the word atman can be used to indicate either the empirical self, designated by the personal pronoun, or the authentic, Upanishadic self. Hence the possible confusion that can arise in translation in certain contexts. Bhattacharya

cites a verse from the Dhammapada illustrating the different usages of the word atman within a single verse (emphasis added):

atta hi attano natho ko hi natho paro siya |
attana hi sudantena natham labhati dullabham ||

The atman is the refuge of the self. What other refuge can there be?

When the (phenomenal) atman is properly subdued, a refuge, difficult to find, is obtained. (Dhammapada, 160) 

Walpola Rahula, the distinguished Sinhalese monk and Buddhist scholar, interprets this verse differently. Here is his translation (emphasis added):

Oneself is one’s own protector (refuge); what other protector (refuge) can there be? With oneself fully controlled, one obtains a protection (refuge) which is hard to gain. 

Note that Rahula translates each occurrence of “atman” as the reflexive pronoun (“oneself”), while Bhattacharya translates the first occurrence of “atman” as the authentic atman, followed by the empirical atman.

Bhattacharya also cited some verses from the Bhagavad Gita (6.5-7) to show a precedent for this alternating translation of atman as the empirical and the authentic atman. Here is verse 6.5 (emphasis added):

uddhared atmanatmanam natmanam avasadayet |
atmaiva hy atmano bandhur atmaiva ripur atmanah ||

May one be saved by himself, may one not let himself perish.

The (phenomenal) atman is the friend of the (true) atman, and it is also its enemy.

This example clearly shows the juxtaposition of atman in its two meanings within a single verse. Some of the confusion in interpreting the atman in Buddhism could be avoided by distinguishing between the two. As Bhattacharya says:

The Buddha certainly denied the atman. That atman, however, is not the Upanishadic atman.[END EXCERPT]

And elsewhere:

 Before stating that Buddhism has denied the atman, modern authors should, therefore, have been precise as to which atman is meant. 

Bhattacharya cites a statement from the great Buddhist master Vasubandhu, “which perfectly elucidates the so-called ‘negation of atman’ in Buddhism”:

 It is by virtue of that nature of things, consisting in subject and object, which the ignorant imagine, that the things are devoid of self, not by virtue of that ineffable Self which is the domain of the Enlightened Ones. (Vimshatika-vritti, verse 10) 

Bhattacharya has a panoramic view of Buddhism within the larger Indian context. He believes that it did not arise out of a vacuum, but that in fact the Buddha “was continuing the Upanishadic tradition.” Comparing the teachings of the Pali canon with those of the Upanishads, Bhattacharya writes:

The existence of similarities between two traditions does not imply total identity. But the difference between the teachings of the Pali Canon and those of the Upanishad[s] has too often been exaggerated. The Buddha’s Absolute appears to be the same as that of the Upanishads. 

He repeats this statement in another place, concluding in an even stronger manner:

 The Buddha’s Absolute is the same as that of [the] Upanishads; the gulf was created later, by the scholastic interpretations. 

Bhattacharya sees the difference between the Upanishads and Buddhism as “simply a difference in emphasis.” He says that “Buddhism is, first and foremost, a doctrine of salvation.” Whereas the authors of the Upanishads were more philosophers than saviors, the Buddha was more a savior than a philosopher. While the Upanishadic authors spoke “much more of the Infinite than of the finite, much more of the Goal than of the Way,” the Buddha spoke “more of the finite than of the Infinite, more of the Way than of the Goal.” But he says that the goal of the philosopher and the savior are the same, and that goal is “Knowledge which is Deliverance.”

Bhattacharya has said that deliverance, or liberation, is “rediscovering our true being by transcending our phenomenal existence.” But he notes that deliverance is not complete for a bodhisattva until the entire world is delivered, “since he and the world are identical.” The Buddha shows “the way which leads from the ephemeral to the Eternal, from the mortal to the Immortal, from the sorrow of the finite to the Bliss of the Infinite.”

Transcending our phenomenal existence to realize the authentic atman leads us from the ephemeral to the eternal. Realizing the anatman (or nairatmya), the no-self of the person, leads us to the realization of the atman (or paramatman), the true spiritual self. When understood correctly, we can see that there is no contradiction between them. As Bhattacharya says:

There is no contradiction between atman and anatman. The atman, which is denied, and that which is affirmed, through that negation itself, pertains to two different levels. It is only when we have not succeeded in distinguishing between them, that the terms atman and anatman seem to us to be opposed.

Bhattacharya concludes:

Does not Buddhism deny the atman? . . . I have but one answer which I have tried to formulate in various ways in this book, on the basis, invariably, of a study of the Pali canon and of the Nikayas in particular, that is: the Buddha does not deny the Upanishadic atman; on the contrary, he indirectly affirms it, in denying that which is falsely believed to be the atman. (Emphasis Bhattacharya’s.) 

The implication of this for the Wisdom Tradition is clear. Bhattacharya has provided substantial evidence, from exoteric Buddhist sources, that the Buddha did not deny the Upanishadic atman or self, a universal principle comparable to that taught in the Wisdom Tradition. Blavatsky has provided us with an esoteric Buddhist source that states this outright. She calls this “An Unpublished Discourse of Buddha.” It says:

 Said the All-Merciful: Blessed are ye, O Bhikshus, happy are ye who have understood the mystery of Being and Non-Being explained in Bas-pa [secret Dharma, doctrine], and have given preference to the latter, for ye are verily my Arhats . . . The elephant, who sees his form mirrored in the lake, looks at it, and then goes away, taking it for the real body of another elephant, is wiser than the man who beholds his face in the stream, and looking at it, says, “Here am I . . . I am I” — for the “I,” his Self, is not in the world of the twelve Nidanas and mutability, but in that of Non-Being, the only world beyond the snares of Maya . . .

That alone, which has neither cause nor author, which is self-existing, eternal, far beyond the reach of mutability, is the true “I” [Ego], the Self of the Universe . . . He who listens to my secret law, preached to my select Arhats, will arrive with its help at the knowledge of Self, and thence at perfection. 

Thus esoteric Buddhism does accept the true spiritual self or atman, as shown in this unpublished discourse of the Buddha. This is the position of the Wisdom Tradition. In a similar way, Bhattacharya describes the Upanishadic atman (the self) that is not denied by the Buddha, even using the same terms, being and non-being:

It is the Being in itself, one, all-encompassing, absolute. From the objective standpoint, as we have seen, it is a non-being. But it is this non-being which is the authentic Being, the ground of all beings.

The great value of Bhattacharya’s work for students of the Wisdom Tradition is that it shows the acceptance of the true spiritual self or atman from extant exoteric Buddhist sources. The Buddha’s fundamental doctrine of anatman or no-self is a denial of only the personal self, thereby leading one to the realization of the universal self. This universal atman is a principle that is in full agreement with the omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle of The Secret Doctrine, described in the Mandukya Upanishad as inconceivable and inexpressible. It is no wonder that the Buddha couldn’t speak about the true, spiritual atman.


Nancy Reigle, along with her husband, David, is coauthor of Blavatsky’s Secret Books: Twenty Years’ Research (1999), and of Studies in the Wisdom Tradition (2015). Much of their research may be found on their Web site: www.easterntradition.org.

The foregoing article was presented as part of the program “Theosophy’s Tibetan Connection” at the annual meeting of the Texas Federation of the Theosophical Society in America, San Antonio, April 18-20, 2008. This version has been edited to remove diacritical marks for the Sanskrit as well as references. For the full article, visit www.easterntradition.org/Atman_Anatman%20in%20Buddhism.pdf.


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