The term anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to the doctrine of "non-self", that there is no unchanging, permanent soul in living beings.

If this is the case, then what exactly is being carried over from one life to the next in the cycle of reincarnation? And against which entity are Karma points being increased or decreased?

  • 2
    I think is a duplicate of other question tagged anatman+rebirth, isn't it? Or of this question?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 20:27
  • 1
    Seems very close to "If there is no soul, how can there be rebirth?" but that one doesn't mention Karma. Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 19:02
  • Good question. Maybe there's something - call it 'energy' or 'information' - that outlasts the body. That doesn't necessarily mean it's some permanent 'soul'. Why can't it be subject to causality and impermanence like any other phenomenon.
    – user8619
    Commented Jul 1, 2018 at 2:56

7 Answers 7


When you light a candle with another candle, nothing transferred from first candle to the second candle. When you copy a CD nothing physical transferred from first CD to the second CD. In cell division nothing physically transferred from first cell to the new cell.

The same way when one life end another life is crated. Depend on the first the second is crated.

  • A candle must have a "living body" (i.e., wax & wick) to transfer a flame that is dependent upon the wax & wick. Therefore, the candle analogy always fails. Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 22:40
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    No what I am saying is how the fire transfer from first candle to the second.
    – SarathW
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 6:35
  • You are not saying anything that is logical or realistic. The candle can only transfer flame while the candle is whole or complete. Your analogy can only be true if a living five aggregates transfers atman or consciousness while it is living. A dead candle cannot transfer a living flame because the living flame depends on the fuel of the candle. Refer to MN 140, where the Lord Master Only Bhante Buddha states: "Just as an oil lamp burns in dependence on oil & wick; and from the termination of the oil & wick — and from not being provided any other fuel — it goes out unnourished..." Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 8:42
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    I am not talking about Nibbana here. I am talking about re-birth.-)
    – SarathW
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 9:09
  • The only "rebirth" the Buddha taught is the rebirth of self-view. "Birth" or "jati" refers to the production of the view of "beings" ("satta"). Please refer to SN 22.81, SN 5.10, SN 23.3, SN 12,2, etc. The kind of rebirth you are inferring is materialism and not the Dhamma. The Dhamma the Lord Only Bhante Buddha said was visible here-&-now, inviting inspection & verifiable by insight. Kind regards. Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 10:57

The Buddha generally did not teach 'not-self' together with teachings about 'karmic inheritance'.

The teachings about karmic inheritance are based on the view of self. That is why both good & bad kamma remain outside the sphere of enlightenment.

'Good kamma' always results in the mind believing: "My actions have brought me happiness" & 'bad kamma' always results in the mind believing: "My actions have brought me unhappiness"

If self-view ends (i.e., 'not-self' is realised), then kammic inheritance also ends, which is why AN 6.63 states:

Just this noble eightfold path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration — is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma.

AN 6.63

In summary, ideas about reincarnation are completely incompatible with not-self. They are completely different teachings.

'Not-self' is for enlightenment & reincarnation is a teaching to keep ordinary people (puthujjana) moral. These two teachings & their purpose are clearly delineated in MN 117, which states:

Right view, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [of becoming]; there is right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

To teach 'not-self' things are reincarnated destroys the personal incentive to do good karma. This is why the analogy about "nothing" is transferred from first candle to the second candle is heresy or adhamma in Buddhism because the teachings in Buddhism that infer 'reincarnation' are always personal so to provide personal incentive for ordinary people to do good kamma. Here, MN 60, a teaching for puthujjana householders, states:

The observant as a person of good habits & right view: one who holds to a doctrine of existence. If there really is an other world, then this venerable person has made a good throw twice, in that he is praised by the observant here-&-now; and in that — with the breakup of the body, after death — he will reappear in a good destination, a heavenly world. Thus this safe-bet teaching, when well grasped & adopted by him, covers both sides and leaves behind the possibility of the unskillful.


A corollary question might be, "How is the doctrine of no-self compatible with reincarnation in this very life?"

Consider... if no-self is true, then what is it that continues from moment to moment in this very life? If there is something that continues from moment to moment in this very life, then can that something be understood in a compatible way with anatman? If so, then why couldn't it also be compatible with that something that continues from life to life??

On the contrary, it seems to me that believing that anatman is compatible with conventional understanding of self in this very life, but is somehow incompatible with a conventional understanding of self from life to life just betrays that anatman hasn't really been understood at all! Rather, someone who thinks this necessarily believes that a true self exists in this very life from moment to moment and then is utterly annihilated upon the breakup of the body. But that is clearly not compatible with the doctrine of no-self.

If you think about it carefully I think you'll find that the very question you are posing reveals an incorrect or insufficient understanding of anatman :)


What the Buddha has taught is:

  • there is no permanent or continuous core (everything is impermanent)
  • there is not absolute controler internally or externally (God)
  • there is nothing worth identifying as self as nothing can bring absolute pleasure (there is nothing you can call satisfactory)

Essentially what this does is Buddhism rejects an entity view on a being but says a being is a creation of being through causality process / Dependent Arising (DA). This is not continuous but happen as one set of states arise and pass a way followed by other in quantum (Kalapa). When DA is broken there is no self. Otherwise both there is a self and there is no self is extreme view. Also see: Sutta references which Discuss Self and Not Self under Different Contexts

Karma is what drives, fuels or turns DA process. So there need not be an entity which is the self who own's the Karma of external (God) who is the law giver. Karma works independent of any entity / continuous core.


"All cittas and cetasikas are collectively classified as name. The life force or life principle of name is called jivitindriya. All cittas and cetasikas can function actively because of this life force or principle. If this jivitindriya is absent, mind cannot function at all. In short it is jivitindriya that prompts cittas and cetasika to continue arising according to kamma. There is also a living part called rupa jivitindriya in the material element. The vital force of mind and matter therefore termed nama jivitindriya and rupa jivintindriya respectively. These two in combination forms the “life” of a being. Apart from this two, there is no such thing as eternal soul, or ego. There is no attá (self) at all"

~ Cited from: Jivitendriya, one of the seven universal mental factors

As far as I understand, nothing goes from one life to the next. There is no soul. It's just the mind stream continues with the help of the universal mental factor, Jivitindriya (Nama Jivitindriya). If the flow of the Rupa Jivitindriya stops we call it "death". After the last consciousness (cuti citta) of one's life, the first consciousness of the next life (patisandhi citta) will arise. There is no gap between these cittas which connect two lives. Consciousness does not travel across the space from one place to another at rebirth. The originated consciousness/mind dissolves at the same place.

"Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found. Actions exist, but no doer of actions is there. Nirvana exists, but no one who enters it. The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen."

"There is no doer of a deed
Or one who reaps the deed’s result;
Phenomena alone flow on—
No other view than this is right.

And so, while kamma and result
Thus causally maintain their round,
As seed and tree succeed in turn,
No first beginning can be shown.

Nor in the future round of births
Can they be shown not to occur:
Sectarians, not knowing this,
Have failed to gain self-mastery.

They assume a being, see it as
Eternal or annihilated.
Adopt the sixty-two wrong views,
Each contradicting one another.

The stream of craving bears them on
Caught in the meshes of their views:
And as the stream thus bears them on
They are not freed from suffering.

A monk, disciple of the Buddha,
With direct knowledge of this fact
Can penetrate this deep and subtle
Void conditionality.

There is no kamma in result,
Nor does result exist in kamma;
Though they are void of one another,
There is no fruit without the kamma.

As fire does not exist inside
The sun, a gem, cow-dung, nor yet
Outside them, but is brought to be
By means of its component parts,

So neither can result be found
Within the kamma, nor without;
Nor does the kamma still persist
[In the result it has produced].

The kamma of its fruit is void;
No fruit exists yet in the kamma;
And still the fruit is born from it,
Wholly depending on the kamma.

For here there is no Brahmá God,
Creator of the round of births,
Phenomena alone flow on—
Cause and component their condition.

~ Cited from Path to Purification (English translation of Visuddhimagga)

“Cetanaham bhikkawe kamman wadami."

which means,

"Intention, I tell you, is kamma."

~ Cited from: Nibbedhika Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya, Tipitaka

Cetana (Intention) is a universal mental factor which can be seen in every consciousness/mind. But not all Cetana becomes kamma. Cetana which can be seen in 12 Unwholesome Consciousness (Akusala Citta) and 17 Mundane Wholesome Consciousness (Laukika Kusala Citta) become kamma.


It's no different from your smartphone.

You have SMSes, chat history, photos, videos, notes etc.

Now let's say you have bought a new phone, so, you can manually or automatically (using a cloud-based service), transfer all the contents to a new phone, and sign in using your various accounts.

The phone doesn't need a soul or self for that.

Similarly, old karma (SN 35.146) can be inherited as genes and information from our parents, schools, books, media, neighbours, teachers, peers etc. Also please see 'Why are they called "old kamma"?'.

This is also explained by Milindapanha's oil lamp flame transfer analogy in Miln 3.5.5.


The Dalai Lama gave a very good answer to this conundrum


In Buddhism, what we call as the 'self' designated as the combination of body and mind

At the subtle level, body and mind has no beginning and no end, thus it cannot 'die'

Upon death, subtle mind separates from the body and is what is carried over to the next body, including whatever karmic imprints have been accumulated in this body.

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