Is the best translation of Anatta "non-self" or "there is nothing that you can take as me, mine, self or non-changing everlasting controllable part which can be identified as me, mine or everlasting core" or something else based on the interpretation of different lineages?

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    possible duplicate of What is the precise meaning of anatta?
    – user611
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 5:15
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    This is about the rendering of the word in English as it is generally translated as non self which I feel is imperfect. Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 6:31
  • I voted to code but i think with this additional information i would retract that vote (i don't think i can though). I'd like it to stay open now. Actually I can retract which I've done Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 8:01
  • a choice of translation is closely related to word's meaning, so the two questions are very much connected...
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 11:41
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    Based on the question title, I think it's a reasonable additional question. I asked the possible duplicate but I was talking specifically about the meaning (of the concept), whereas he's asking about translation (of the word), so I think it's a reasonable additional question. For example, the question as to the meaning of the French "désir" is different from the question as to its best English translation. HOWEVER, based on the question content it definitely is a duplicate and is a candidate for closure. (In other words, the title doesn't match the content.)
    – tkp
    Commented Aug 6, 2014 at 14:17

1 Answer 1



Before we can pick a translation we must understand what it is that we are translating.

  1. Prefix an- is a simple negation.

  2. Hindu concept of Atman should not be confused with Aham (the simple reflexive "I", "ego" or "self") nor with Jiva (the vitality that makes an animate being an animate being). Atman means "inner spirit" or "core" and refers to what is supposedly the unchanging subject of experience, also known as "The Knower of the Field" (Purusha), and the source of its own activity. Basically, Atman is that fictitious little boss that sits in our head, looks through our eyes and decides what to do.

  3. Pali ending of -tta often corresponds to English -ness:

-tta: expresses the state, nature or quality of being that which is denoted by the adj. or noun: puthujjana, a common man +tta=puthujjanattaṃ, the state of being a common man; buddha, a buddha +tta=buddhattaṃ, Buddhahood; atthi he is +tta=atthittaṃ the state of "he is", existence.

From these three, the word can be translated as no-spirit-ness, or in proper English spirit-less-ness -- but such rendering is misleading. First, because in English "spiritless" has connotations of weak, demotivated and barely alive. And second, because Buddhism does not exactly deny "spirit" as an abstract aspect of relationships and interactions.

Another option is to take Atman as "subject" and render anatta as subjectlessness. This choice sounds true to the original meaning, but directly contradicts the western understanding of experience as comprised of subject and object.

A philosophically more correct option IMO would be core-less-ness. This matches both a simple understanding of anatta as an absence of substantial independent self in sentient beings, but also the wider Madhyamika philosophy which postulates that all entities are contextually defined imputations lacking any kind of self-identical ontologically existing core.

P.S. In western philosophy the notion of corelessness is sometimes identified with Bundle Theory of David Hume. Also, the relationship between observation and delineation of entities is one of the major topics of Hierarchy Theory.

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