In Buddha's teachings, all mind-related entities are "not-self" i.e.:

  • uncontrollable (opposite of controllable = when I want it I can make it happen, I can turn it on and off as I desire)
  • unmanageable (opposite of manageable = I can make it details how it happen and how it behave)
  • not possess-able (opposite of possess-able = I own it, it is with me all the time, I can keep it, I can store it in somewhere I want it to be at)
  • temporary (opposite of permanent/eternal/long-lasting/with one's whole life).

This not-self attribute also applied to will or/and volition.

I found sexual desire has it own physical limitation. It is difficult for me to keep sexual desire and sexual pleasure(effect of sexual desire) to last a single day, two days, three days, four days,... up to seven days (even if I use medical supplementary to keep my will/volition/desire). And another thing I found is sexual desire is not primitive will of man, it usually comes around/after puberty, sexual education, physical development in teenage ages. So if I had never learnt what sexual intercourse is (or I am autism child who does not have any chance to learn/understand sexual education in my whole life) I doubt there will be sexual desire/will happen in my mind.

So I was looking for more self-ness will/volition or desire and I found another will/desire, Gastronomic. This may seem primitive to me since I had breastfeed to bottle-feed since I was born. But even without any physical limitation imposted (I haven't had any food so many hours), sometimes I lost my appetite. I found gastronomic will is also uncontrollable and unmanageable too here. It seems like chemical, environmental and other factors governed gastronomic will/desire. It may seem primitive but I have doubt that I can find self-ness in here.

And I searched for more will/desire which can be self and found a weak will of survival. Everyone want to survive so as mine will and it seem primitive, closer to self to me. (You can tell there are some people who end their life by taking poison to death, yes but I am not looking for universal self, I am just looking for self to me, self to my life, self to individual being.) But on careful consideration, sometimes I crossed the street and nearly to die hitting by a car. If the idea of will to survive is controllable, manageable I can avoid those events by power of will. There should not be other things or will or desire to overcome one will or desire.

So here is my question, is there any will/volition/desire that is controllable, manageable, self (at least for a person whole life if we cannot find eternal, indefinite period of time). If you have personal experience about it, I am glad to hear if it exists. If it is written in somewhere I like to get a reference.

5 Answers 5


I guess this question relate to the discussion we had with regards to free will here, or at any rate, there are some overlap.

I think the answer to your question is given in Attakārī Sutta

So, brahmin, when there is the element of endeavoring, endeavoring beings are clearly discerned; of such beings, this is the self-doer, this, the other-doer. I have not, brahmin, seen or heard such a doctrine, such a view as yours. How, indeed, could one — moving forward by himself, moving back by himself — say ‘There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer’?*

Also reads on the notes:

Although the Buddha taught that there is no permanent, eternal, immutable, independently-existing core “self” (attā), he also taught that there is “action” or “doing”, and that it is therefore meaningful to speak of one who intends, initiates, sustains and completes actions and deeds, and who is therefore an ethically responsible and culpable being.

If only will/volition/desire direct to the path to Nibbana are controllable, all other volition including all bad volition are uncontrolled, and to say this is not wise because it offers a free licence for unaccountability.


The Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta refers to 'uncontrollability' only in relation to the five (conditioned) aggregates. In other words, it does say to the path to (the unconditioned) Nibbana is uncontrollable.

Experiencing Nibbana has the giving up of desire as its primary condition. Therefore, the will/volition/desire that is controllable is the will/volition/desire to give up will/volition/desire.

However, this will/volition/desire that gives up will/volition/desire is not-self (anatta) because it is only a mental phenomena rather than a self-phenomena.

Although the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta equates 'uncontrollability' with 'not-self', it is an error of logic to equate all 'not-self' with 'uncontrollability' or to equate 'controllability' with 'self'.

All dogs are animals but not all animals are dogs. Similarly, all uncontrollable things are not-self but all not-self things are not uncontrollable things.

The path to Nibbana is controllable but is not-self (anatta).

  • I'm not able to contemplate this "uncontrollability" attributed to the 5 aggregates and Anatta. From Sutras I studies and Dharmas Iearnt (in Chinese) I never have this problem. My insight is many of the English translations borrowed concepts from Christianity (the older translation) and some (recent translation) are borrowed existing convenient English terms therefore produced questions like this. I've not really sit down and read a complete version of Eng works thus I'm afraid my rash opinion may be mistaken. Jan 5, 2017 at 5:47
  • After I read your answer the 2nd time I start to gain insight to your "uncontrollability". I think you are talking about 無自性. This maybe is the equal term to "uncontrollability". In Chinese this three words: 無=no/empty 自=self 性=nature/attribute/property. Thus it makes sense now that the 5 aggregates and the self is without-self-nature. WSN is not "uncontrollable", it is relational/dependent. Thus this whole issue is not really an issue if the original Pali/Sanskrit word is not translated to "uncontrollability", I think. Jan 5, 2017 at 6:01
  • "Experiencing Nibbana has the giving up of desire as its primary condition." By the way it phased it seemed this has some misunderstanding in the teaching. Nibbana is not an experience to be experienced, it is a NOT-experience, but a BE. To really be free from desire is not giving up desire, but reach the "emptiness". In emptiness it's all and it's empty, therefore you don't need anything any more. (Desire is a lack therefore created a need). Jan 5, 2017 at 6:10
  • Nibbana is a conscious "experience" according to the Pali suttas. However, Nibbana is not "being" or to "be" as you seem to have said. Also, Nibbana is defined as the destruction of craving. Self or non-emptiness is born from craving therefore the destruction of craving is supreme according to Pali Buddhism. The point of this forum is not to debate with comments as you are doing. This is not a debating forum. Regards Jan 5, 2017 at 10:33
  • As I regard you a serious practicioner thus I tried to provide something I learnt that maybe useful, what I offered could be inaccurate/partial/"different school of thoughts" depend on my wisdom and skill. If this gives you wrong impression of debate I appologize. From what I get from the sutras, Nirvana is not an experience, Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment said: 善男子!一切如來妙 T17n0842_p0915c20║圓覺心本無菩提及與涅槃,亦無成佛及不 T17n0842_p0915c21║成佛,無妄輪迴及非輪迴 [l]tripitaka.cbeta.org/T17n0842_001 [/l] it is the "original-condition" 本來/如來, not "somewhere" that need to take a "voyage" thus an "experience". Jan 5, 2017 at 11:27

From what I have learned,(sexual)desire(s) comes with human, in other words, if you don't have it, you won't come to this world/ become a human (in the case of a sentient being).

I think realise what's 'true self' would help you, and it comes with practice.

Here is a link of a sutra (you can download the PDF version): The Diamond of Perfect Wisdom Sutra

In The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra:

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, While deeply immersed in prajna paramita, Clearly perceived the empty nature of the five skandhas, And transcended all suffering. Shariputral! Form is not different from emptiness, Emptiness is not different from form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. So it is with feeling, conception, volition, and consciousness.

(You can also download the PDF, it's wih annotation)

Best wishes.

  • How does that sutra, or which part of that sutra, helps to answer this question?
    – ChrisW
    Jan 3, 2017 at 22:44
  • It guides people to realise what 'ture self' is, and so does The Surangama Sutra. I can't say which part or explain it because I'm not that high-level. What I can do it's provide the name of the sutras and the link.
    – EXL
    Jan 3, 2017 at 23:07
  • @EmmaXL Could you please kindly quote where the "true self" is mentioned in the linked sutra? Thank you Jan 3, 2017 at 23:42
  • The exact word is not in the diamond of perfect wisdom sutra as I recall, I'm using it only to answer this question. What's also related to this question is The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, I will add it in my answer. @Dhammadhatu
    – EXL
    Jan 3, 2017 at 23:58
  • @EmmaXL I'm afraid "true self" is an incorrect, or not accurate translation. I think you refer to 如來藏/ 自性. This is, technically speaking, emptiness. "True self" cannot have the intrinsic value of emptiness, right? Jan 5, 2017 at 5:27

Whatever is dependently arisen and Nirvana is not self / non self, i.e., all dhamma is not self / non self.

Volition is dependently arisen hence not self / non self. Volition being dependently arisen it is not entirely controllable as arising and passing of volition appears when a conducive condition is present and disappears when the cause ceases.

Volition is not entirely out of our control also. When you experience something pleasant or unpleasant you can react with craving or aversion which is the general pre conditioned response or you can be equanimous and be aware of its arising and passing nature.


At the 1st sight I'm completely lost in reading the content. After I read and commented on Dhammadhatu's, I begin to understand what this question is about. I think the question resulted is because there is a Buddhist concept being translated to "not-self", since it's "not-self" therefore it's "uncontrollable", thus "I" can't exercise my volition. Would it be Niḥsvabhāva (sanskrit)? Svabhava

If this is as I inferred, then

In Buddha's teachings, all mind-related entities are "not-self" i.e.: ...uncontrollable ...unmanageable ...not possess-able ...temporary

is incorrect. It is not "not-self", it is Niḥsvabhāva 無自性 - without-self-nature. That means these are relational and dependent-origin.

Is there any volition or will that I can manage or control?

Volition and will has already the intrinsic value of control.

The 3 examples you listed: sexual desire, eating, survival that you said in them you have a "self" therefore it's not "not-self" therefore you can exercise your volition/will/control? It is not as you understood. It is because the 7th Vijnana conjectured the "self", with information collected in the 8th Vijnana called Ālayavijñāna over eons of lives/time, with the interplay of the 5 aggregates and the 6th Vijnana, to give rise all these activities.

The main point is about all things (not just "all mind-related entities") are Niḥsvabhāva 無自性 - without-self-nature. It is Sunyata 空 empty, thus emptiness is all phenomena/forms 色. (Don't be into my words, since this is a very sophisticated concept which can't be conveyed accurately with language.)

This Niḥsvabhāva and Sunyata doesn't harm your "self" :) In fact you do have a "self", and you are not able to escape from your "self", even you killed yourself, unless you are enlightened. Thus you can exercise your volition/will to any acts, not only 3, but all, e.g., you can be angry with someone who do good, likewise you can be kind to a bad person. This "self" is like a dust on a perfect mirror, therefore every image in the mirror is tinted. This "self" is also the root of suffering and samsara. This "self" is empty too, since all things are empty; thus Anatta, not-self.


Remarks added:

The 3 examples you listed: sexual desire, eating, survival that you said in them you have a "self" therefore it's not "not-self" therefore you can exercise your volition/will/control?

My misunderstanding of your examples. It's the other way, that these 3 you regarded with the "uncontrollability", thus "not-self"? No. One can choose not to engage in sexual activity; likewise one can over-done with it and die. It's not as purely mechanic/instinct as you described. One can refuse to eat even dying from hunger; one can go burst of over-eating. And what about those who commit suicide? When a car is approaching and hitting does one not have an attempt/idea to escape?


Additional Remarks:

After reading Dhammadhatu's comment I read the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta attentively, not just once, since I really want to know what this issue is about. However, maybe because of English is not my mother tongue thus I can't make sense out of it. I then googled and found a Chinese translation that is the same Sutra:

(三四)如是我聞。一時。 T02n0099_p0007c14(08)║佛住波羅奈國仙人住處鹿野苑中。爾時。世尊告餘五比丘。 T02n0099_p0007c15(01)║色非有我。若色有我者。於色不應病.苦生。 T02n0099_p0007c16(00)║亦不得於色欲令如是.不令如是。 T02n0099_p0007c17(02)║以色無我故。於色有病.有苦生。 T02n0099_p0007c18(05)║亦得於色欲令如是.不令如是。受.想.行.識亦復如是。 T02n0099_p0007c19(00)║比丘。於意云何。色為是常.為無常耶。 T02n0099_p0007c20(01)║比丘白佛。無常。世尊。比丘。若無常者。是苦耶 T02n0099_p0007c21(00)║比丘白佛。是苦。世尊。比丘。若無常.苦。 T02n0099_p0007c22(02)║是變易法。多聞聖弟子寧於中見是我.異我. T02n0099_p0007c23(01)║相在不。比丘白佛。不也。世尊。受.想.行. T02n0099_p0007c24(02)║識亦復如是。是故。比丘。諸所有色。若過去. T02n0099_p0007c25(02)║若未來.若現在。若內.若外。若麤.若細。若好.若醜。 T02n0099_p0007c26(00)║若遠.若近。彼一切非我.非我所。如實觀察。 T02n0099_p0007c27(00)║受.想.行.識亦復如是。比丘。 T02n0099_p0007c28(06)║多聞聖弟子於此五受陰見非我.非我所。如是觀察。 T02n0099_p0007c29(02)║於諸世間都無所取。無所取故無所著。 T02n0099_p0008a01(02)║無所著故自覺涅槃。我生已盡。梵行已立。 T02n0099_p0008a02(01)║所作已作。自知不受後有。佛說此經已。 T02n0099_p0008a03(01)║餘五比丘不起諸漏。心得解脫。 T02n0099_p0008a04(04)║佛說此經已。諸比丘聞佛所說。歡喜奉行 雜阿含經卷第二(三四)

My attempted translation to English:

As I heard, at a time, Buddha was staying in The Deer Park of Benares where the deva/sage dwelt. Then, Bhagavam told rest of the five Bhikṣu(s) {如是我聞。一時。佛住波羅奈國仙人住處鹿野苑中。爾時。世尊告餘五比丘}: "Form has no Self (Atman/Atta) {色非有我}. If form has Self, in form should there not be illness、suffering arose {若色有我者。於色不應病.苦生}; also in form can't it be able to intend to make-this, not to make-this {亦不得於色欲令如是.不令如是}. Because form is not-Self (Anātman/Anatta), in form there is illness、suffering arose {以色無我故。於色有病.有苦生}; also in form it is able to intend to make-this, not to make-this {亦得於色欲令如是.不令如是}. Same is for feeling (Vedana), cognition (Saṃjñā/Sañña), doing (Saṃskāra/Saṅkhāra), consciousness (Vijñāna/Viññāṇa)" {受.想.行.識亦復如是}. "Bhiksu, What does it mean? Is form constant, is inconstant (anitya/ anicca)?" {比丘。於意云何。色為是常.為無常耶}. Bhiksu answered the Buddha: "Inconstant, Bhagavam." {比丘白佛。無常。世尊}. "Bhiksu, if inconstant, it is suffering, is [subject to] the law of change." {比丘。若無常.苦。是變易法}. "Well-learnt venerable disciple can he from this take into that this is me, non-me, any quality (lakṣana) in it?" {多聞聖弟子寧於中見是我.異我.相在不}. Bhiksu answered the Buddha: "No, Bhagavam." {比丘白佛。不也。世尊}. "Same is for feeling, cognition, doing, consciousness." {受.想.行.識亦復如是}. "Therefore, Bhiksu, all those forms, as in the past, as in the future, as at now; as the internal or external; as coarse or fine, as good or bad; as far or near, those all are not-me, not my-dwelling. Observes as it is. Same is for feeling, cognition, doing, consciousness." {是故。比丘。諸所有色。若過去.若未來.若現在。若內.若外。若麤.若細。若好.若醜。若遠.若近。彼一切非我.非我所。如實觀察。受.想.行.識亦復如是}. "Bhiksu, Well-learnt venerable disciple in these five aggregations realize the not-me, not my-dwelling, observes as it is, in this world not take-in anything, because not take-in therefore not attached." {比丘。多聞聖弟子於此五受陰見非我.非我所。如是觀察。於諸世間都無所取。無所取故無所著}. "Not attached therefore self-awaken and nirvana-ed. My life is complete, Pure-doing (brahmacaryā/ brahmacariya) established, to-do has been done, I myself know that there is no cause to return to life [rebirth]." {無所著故自覺涅槃。我生已盡。梵行已立。所作已作。自知不受後有} The rest of the five Bhiksu(s) did not arise any fetters, the mind (citta) was freed. After the Buddha had said this sutra, those Bhiksu(s) heard Buddha's words, happily followed suit. {餘五比丘不起諸漏。心得解脫。佛說此經已。諸比丘聞佛所說。歡喜奉行}

This is more for my own exercise. I can't ensure the correctness of my English grammar. I notice that in the Chinese version there are:

  • 有我 = has Self
  • 非有我 = not has Self
  • 無我 = not-Self/ non-Self
  • 是我 = is me
  • 異我 = non-me/ others (異 means different)
  • 非我.非我所 = not-me. not my dwelling (非 means no, antonym of 是 yes)

With these words and the syntax, this sutra seems now making more sense to me. However, I'm still stuck that why this sutra will lead to the issue about "controllability". Maybe it is here (my translation from the Chinese version of this sutra):

Because form is not-Self (Anātman/Anatta), in form there is illness、suffering arose {以色無我故。於色有病.有苦生}; also in form it is able to intend to make-this, not to make-this {亦得於色欲令如是.不令如是}. Same is for feeling (Vedana), cognition (Saṃjñā/Sañña), doing (Saṃskāra/Saṅkhāra), consciousness (Vijñāna/Viññāṇa)" {受.想.行.識亦復如是}.

This paragraph in fact denotes that because form is not-Self, therefore "it is able to intend to make-this, not to make-this {亦得於色欲令如是.不令如是}". Is this not the act of volition/will? Why is the issue with "controllability"? A volition/will is the freedom to act, but it doesn't imply the control of outcome, isn't it?

Then I notice that these are phased differently in the Chinese when checked against the Pali-English version. Chinese-English version:

  • If form has Self, in form should there not be illness、suffering arose; also in form can't it be able to intend to make-this, not to make-this {亦不得於色欲令如是.不令如是}
  • Because form is not-Self, in form there is illness、suffering arose; also in form it is able to intend to make-this, not to make-this {亦於色欲令如是.不令如是}

However, the Pali translated English sutra phased:

  • if form were self, then form would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding form: 'May my form be thus, may my form not be thus
  • since form is not-self, therefore form leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding form: 'May my form be thus, may my form not be thus

If as the Pali-English version phased, the meaning of the sentence is in contradictory because: A) form = self, what is more to be obtained for the self from the form then? It has already declared "form would not lead to affliction". If form does change because "May my form be thus, may my form not be thus" then this self also changes due to "obtain" and since "form were self", then is it still the "self"? Likewise, B) form x= self (unfortunately I can't make sense out of this paragraph in the Pali-English version).

The Chinese version was translated by: 宋天竺三藏求那跋陀羅譯 (Guṇabhadra) It was translated in the Song Dynasty (about 1500 years ago), by an Indian Monk who traveled and stayed in China for the rest half of his life.

  • 1
    The question about uncontrollability is based in the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta, where it begins: "Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to disease, and one could have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus'...form is not-self...none can have it of form: 'Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.' Jan 5, 2017 at 10:30
  • @Dhammadhatu I read the Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta, found the Chinese version and discovered that there is a key paragraph that is translated completely in the opposite way. Read my "Additional Remarks" if you are interested. Jan 5, 2017 at 18:20
  • Another translation: "Bhikkhus, form is nonself. For if, bhikkhus, form were self, this form would not lead to affliction (illness; disease), and it would be possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.’ But because form is nonself, form leads to affliction, and it is not possible to have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus; let my form not be thus.'" suttacentral.net/en/sn22.59 Jan 5, 2017 at 19:06
  • Chinese is here: suttacentral.net/zh/sn22.59 Jan 5, 2017 at 19:07
  • You can join this discussion forum and discuss the Chinese version here: discourse.suttacentral.net Jan 5, 2017 at 19:09

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