A core teaching of Buddhism is 'anatta' or 'not-self'.

Does the word 'atta' refer to both 'self' & 'soul' or can these two ideas (self & soul) be different in Buddhism to give them different meanings?

In other words, are the ideas 'self' & 'soul' (be they used in Buddhism or non-Buddhism) necessarily synonymous in Buddhism?

  • What is the goal of asking this question? What is it that you are trying to know? It would help if you put references / quotes about Soul in your question, as I am unaware of any in Buddhist writing.
    – user2341
    May 2, 2017 at 22:42

6 Answers 6


From as far as I could contemplate after reading some of the sutras and articles, the "self" and "soul" are different. In Buddhism, "self" is the result of polluted "manas-vijñāna"; while soul is a pure hypothesis resulted from the intellect (a theorem, conjecture in some religious systems).

As "self" is resulted from polluted "manas-vijñāna" the 7th vijñāna, it is real but it is not-true. Thus causes the karma and birth/death built upon this not-true "self", the polluted manas-vijñāna. Thus has the Buddhist teaching of not-self (anatta?) for end of suffering. However it is real since it produced effects. Like a dream is real when one is in the dream and all the dream scenes are with impacts, but a dream is not true when one awaken and realized (enlightenment). (眼識visual、耳識audio、鼻識nasal、舌識taste、身識touch(以上合稱五識these are the 5 vijñāna)、6.意識consciousness/intellect、7.末那識manas-vijñāna 及 8.阿賴耶識ādāna-vijñāna.)

I got the inspiration from reading this:

「浩浩三藏不可窮,淵深七浪境為風。受薰持種根身器,去後來先作主公。」 ── 玄奘法師 (Bhikkhu Xuanzang 602AD-664AD wikipedia)

Unfortunately I don't read or write Pali thus not sure if this is acceptable since the question tagged "pali, pali-canon". I try to offer what I know.

Do an experiment: If one uses a knife to cut himSELF, will his "self" feel the pain (definitely yes); or, will his "soul" feel the pain (probably not).

  • I asked the question, which must be tagged. The tag is not relevant to the question . Your answer was perfect. I have chosen it as the best answer. Thank you. Dec 20, 2016 at 20:01

You tagged this question .

The PTS dictionary does gives two meanings:

  1. The soul as postulated in etc.
  2. Oneself, himself, yourself. etc.

There is for example a chapter of the Dhammapada called Attavagga, whose verses include the word; for example:

Attana hi katam etc.

Verse 165: By oneself indeed is evil done and by oneself is one defiled; by oneself is evil not done and by oneself is one purified. Purity and impurity depend entirely on oneself; no one can purify another.

You could try to read/understand this as, "By the soul indeed is evil done", to see whether that makes more sense to you; but the conventional translation of it is, "By oneself is...".

I'm not sure that I should try to grasp this topic, for example because of the warning in the Sabbasava Sutta that questions like "what am I?" will result in various types of "views of self", a "thicket of views", a fetter -- and because I think it's an intellectual idea, which may be associated with "Mara".

According to the introduction of Piya Tan's Is There a Soul? one of the principle attributes of the alleged or Brahmanistic soul is that it's "eternal". I guess that "eternal" might contradict another of of the "three characteristics", i.e. impermanence.

I'm told that there is such a thing (a state) as nirvana and maybe timelessness; but I think that those are not maybe associated with a personal "self".

  • I agree that this has the makings of a Vexing Question. I have never read the word 'soul' being defined in Buddhism. So far as I know, it does not exist, is not defined or spoken of.
    – user2341
    May 2, 2017 at 22:34

"Does the word 'atta' refer to both 'self' & 'soul' or can these two ideas (self & soul) be different in Buddhism to give them different meanings?"

It seems atta was never directly defined in the texts. While non-canonical texts help inform it's translation, it's meaning is drawn from context and seems to range from simple "oneself" (reflexive pronoun) to something that is "unchanging / non-suffering / under one's control". The latter meaning is drawn from dialogues such as:

“Bhikkhus, form is anicca. What is anicca is dukkha. What is dukkha is anattā.

-- SN 22.15


“Bhikkhus, form is anatta. For if, bhikkhus, form were attā, this form would not lead to affliction, and it would be possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’

-- SN 22.59

Then, whether the second meaning can be translated as 'soul' or not, to me seems to be a a matter of 'soul' being understood to embody the characteristics of atta (e.g. from above: non-affliction, something we have power over as in "let it be thus / let it not be thus").

However, it may be misleading to translate this term as the upanishadic "universal soul". For a discussion of this term (though a little old, not sure if dated), see Vedanta and Buddhism A Comparative Study.

  • 1
    Thank you. You appear to have pointed out 'atta' can merely be simply a "reflex pronoun", i.e., mere words of "conventional speech" rather than anything real. This "atta" being mere words an arahant is forced to use when talking to others is explained in SN 1.25 accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn01/sn01.025.wlsh.html Dec 20, 2016 at 20:06

My answer:

Some Buddhist texts when discussing non-Buddhist views appear to use the term 'atta' for 'soul', reflecting the beliefs of non-Buddhists about an eternal soul or abiding essence, such as:

There are, bhikkhus, some recluses and brahmins who are eternalists, and who on four grounds proclaim the self/soul and the world to be eternal. DN 1

Other Buddhist texts refer to 'self' as merely a fleeting conceptual thought fabrication, such as:

He assumes form to be a 'self'. That assumption is a fabrication. Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That fabrication is born of that. SN 22.81

Therefore, it seems clear that 'self' & 'soul' are not synonyms in Buddhism.

  • The Buddha declares Eternalists to be incorrect (Nihilists also). Thus, Buddhism never asserts anything about 'soul' as far as I have seen. Two things that do not exist therefore cannot be synonyms, or have any other relationship. Please would you show a scripture that says anything substantive about 'soul'? Thank you.
    – user2341
    May 2, 2017 at 22:37
  • I agree there is nothing substantive about 'soul' from a Buddhist perspective. But Eternalism is not a creation of the Buddha. The Buddha did not create Eternalism as an 'enemy' to argue against in the way the CIA creates enemies to justify its existence. Eternalism reflects the beliefs of non-Buddhists, who believe in a "soul". May 2, 2017 at 23:40
  • Another reason why "atta" does not mean "soul" from the Buddhist view is because, if it did, the Buddha would have never taught in his 2nd sermon that the physical body was 'anatta' because most people do not believe the physical body is the soul. If anatta meant 'not-soul' there would be no need to teach the body is anatta. Regards May 2, 2017 at 23:53

The two ideas 'self' and 'soul' are not synonyms or different.

"Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, 'Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you that 'The cosmos is eternal,' or 'The cosmos is not eternal,' or 'The cosmos is finite,' or 'The cosmos is infinite,' or 'The soul & the body are the same,' or 'The soul is one thing and the body another,' or 'After death a Tathagata exists,' or 'After death a Tathagata does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist'?"

"No, lord."

"And did you ever say to me, 'Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One and [in return] he will declare to me that 'The cosmos is eternal,' or 'The cosmos is not eternal,' or 'The cosmos is finite,' or 'The cosmos is infinite,' or 'The soul & the body are the same,' or 'The soul is one thing and the body another,' or 'After death a Tathagata exists,' or 'After death a Tathagata does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist,' or 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist'?"

"No, lord."

"Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?
-- MN 63.3-6 (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

The Buddha is positionless:

"Vaccha, the position that 'the soul & the body are the same' [OR] 'the soul is one thing and the body another' [ETC] is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.

"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this:
'Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception... such are mental fabrications... such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.' Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsession with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released."
-- MN 72.1-15 (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

I think that this addresses the question sufficiently.


Saw this on a blog. Absolutely BRILLIANT. Not sure who wrote it:

The Unariyan Eightfold Ways on how to squirm and wiggle on the Soul

  1. There is no Soul because my teacher said so
  2. Because Atta is only conventional meaning such as yourself and doesn't designate anything really existing whatsoever.
  3. Because Venerable Puthujjana Thera translates this passage with the word "myself", a reflexive.
  4. Because the belief in a Soul is "Hinduism" not Buddhism.
  5. Because Mr. Rhys David's 1921 Pali-English Dictionary which is based entirely on Theravada-nihilism advice says that Atta has two meanings depending on the context, even though his wife C.A.F. Rhys Davids who was far more a prolific translator states outright that her husband erred on this point completely.
  6. Because Anatta means "no Soul" but Atta only means "yourself" (sick duplicity).
  7. Because I am bipolar depressive and often suicidal and the notion of there being no Soul whatsoever calms me mentally.
  8. Because ten million Theravada anti-foundationalist nihilistic sectarians cant be wrong!? Can they!?

The Eightfold no Soul Magga of the puthujjana

  1. No soul is bliss. Soul belief is the source of all suffering. The end of the belief that there is a Soul is no Soul bliss. There is a path to no Soul from the suffering of the Soul
  2. Wisdom is knowing that true Soul is no Soul. That which possesses true wisdom is no Soul.
  3. Soul is unreal and untrue, therefore what is real and true is no Soul. What is real and true is highest! What is highest is no Soul.
  4. What proclaims that there is no Soul is no Soul proclaiming it. What is no Soul is khandhas. Khandhas are Mara. Always listen to Mara!
  5. There is never a Soul but always what is other than a Soul which is no Soul. What is no Soul is never Soul. What is no Soul is all. What is no Soul is the true refuge!
  6. There is a path and no Soul reaps the fruit of it.
  7. What truly knows that there is no Soul is no Soul. No Soul knows what it truly is, which is no Soul. This is bliss of no Soul.
  8. There is an unborn, an unmade, an unmanifest and no Soul enters into it.

If you say there is no Soul, then you are aggregates. If you are the aggregates then you are Mara. Mara is the five aggregates. What is telling you there is no Soul must be the aggregates, which is Mara. Mara is the great deceiver. If you believe there is no Soul then you are none other than Mara, which is the great deceiver; therefore you deceive yourself into believing there is no Soul.

If your never Self, then your always other. If your always other, then your never Self. Therefore you can never be other than what you truly are which is always other and never Self

  • I'm reading this as an "argument by ridicule", which is an unusual form on this site. I'm not sure how useful it is; and it might be taken as contrary to the Be nice policy (which, I ask you to read; and which is kind of essential, on every Stack Exchange site not just this one). Or maybe it was an in-joke, a self-parody.
    – ChrisW
    Dec 20, 2016 at 16:48
  • Citta is an impermanent fleeting aggregate, as explained many times, as stated in SN 12.61. The aggregates are only Mara when they are objects of clinging. To quote SN 22.63 "If you cling to the body,... feelings,... perceptions,... mental formations,... consciousness, you are in bondage to Maara. If you do not cling, you are free of the Evil One.." Mara-Aggregate suttas are posted here: newbuddhist.com/discussion/10754/the-five-aggregates-and-mara Dec 20, 2016 at 20:19
  • 1
    The only Soul I have ever seen comes from Motown (as do I).
    – user2341
    May 2, 2017 at 22:40

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