Just in case someone is interested, this is a question based on this thread, but it's not necessary to read such discussion to understand and answer this question.

I'd like to know about the differences (if there is any) between the next statements, and to know which one is correct from the perspective of Early Buddhism:

"There is no self to be found"

"All phenomena are not-self"

So, basically, is there any difference between "no self" and "not-self"? And which one corresponds to "anattā"?

I'd appreciate any help.

Kind regards!


I can't easily tell a difference between "no self" and "not self" in English -- and if there is a difference (if you can construct a distinction in meaning) I think it's too fine a difference to be significant -- like if someone tells you something is "a mile away" and you get out your micrometer.

I mean, the "a" prefix in Pali is a negator, which appears on all sorts of words:

  • kalika ("time"), akalika ... how do you translate akalika? I say "timeless" because I think that happens to be a felicitous word in English, but equally be "without time, "outside time", "not subject to time" or "not controlled by time" or "nothing to do with time"
  • verena ("hatred"), averena ... how do you translate averena? I say ""non-hatred" (because I hope that's the most literal translation even if it isn't idiomatic English) but some translations say "loving-kindness" -- i.e. not just an absence of hatred, they substitute one of its "polar opposites"

Maybe "selfless" could be a translation, however in English that's an adjective used to describe "altruistic" behaviour (so that's not an appropriate translation).

anatta is grammatically a noun. I don't, I wouldn't, normally equate two nouns -- "a dog is a cat" for example doesn't make sense. So I usually read anatta as if it were an adjective ("a dog is hairy"), i.e. as if "form is anatta" is describing a property or characteristic of form. And lakkhaṇa (translated "characteristic") in Anattalakkhaṇasutta suggests that seeing anatta as a characteristic -- an adjective not a noun -- isn't bad.

One time is it appropriate to equate two nouns is when you're talking about categories -- "a dog is an animal". Perhaps anatta can be seen as a category of things, especially in phrases like Sabbe sankhara anatta.

I think of "self" as a verb in that kind of context ...

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Calvin and Hobbes - Verbing Weirds Language - by Bill Watterson for January 25, 1993

... i.e. "selfing" is an action, it's something you do to things -- you "take as 'self'" or "perceive as self" or "attach to as if it were self" -- and an anatta thing is something which you shouldn't "self" in that way, something which isn't fit to be selved.

Perhaps you can see that the Anattalakkhaṇasutta is about the five aggregates. The Dhammacakkappavattanasutta mentions aggregates too:

Rebirth is suffering; old age is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; association with the disliked is suffering; separation from the liked is suffering; not getting what you wish for is suffering. In brief, the five grasping aggregates are suffering.

jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ—saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.

So I think of "selfing" as "grasping" or "attaching" (especially to aggregates).

I think that colloquially the word atta had two meanings:

I think that informs the meaning too -- to say that the aggregates are anatta is to say that they shouldn't be regarded as "soul" or "permanent self", which fits in with such things being anicca (impermanent).

Since you're asking I don't think it goes so far as to say "there is no soul" or "there is no self" -- instead see e.g. How is it wrong to believe that a self exists, or that it doesn't? -- that would belong to the "thicket of wrong views" cited here.

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  • Hi Chris! Thanks for this wonderful answer. As I see it, I think of two ways to interpret "no self": a nihilistic way, where one says that there's nothing at all; and a empirical way, where one see and perceive the khandhas, but one does not find a reason to call them "a self". When I read the sutta about the "thicket of views", I see the "no self" of the first kind. But I see the second kind as an intermediate point between independent/permanent existence and absolute non-existence, i.e. physical and mental components which attribute an identity to "itself". Am I seeing this correctly? – Brian Díaz Flores May 15 '19 at 3:34
  • I don't know what "intermediate" means there. The "middle way" for example, at the start of SN 56.11, I wouldn't call that an "intermediate" between "indulgence in sensual pleasures" and "indulgence in self-mortification" -- I'd say it was "neither", it's neither extreme. I think that the sutta about the "thicket of wrong views" says that any kind of "view of self" at all -- including "I exist", "I don't exist", "I will", "I won't", "I used to", "I never did" -- it's all wrong view (and also known in that sutta as arising from "inappropriate attention"). – ChrisW May 15 '19 at 3:48
  • Another topic on this site, which I found helpful, was, How are 'conceit' and 'identity-view' not the same?. – ChrisW May 15 '19 at 3:49
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    Thanks! Note that I'm not saying that "I don't exist", which does not make sense, logically speaking. I'm saying the concept of "self" is an artificial construction, and nothing deserves to be called a "self"; so that's why I think one could say "there is no self". I think "self" is as artificial and conventional as "chariot" when we talk about a group of parts (like in the example given in SN 5:10) Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores May 15 '19 at 3:57
  • And about the use of the word "intermediate", in my native language it can be used as a synonym for "middle". I'm sorry about the wrong use of the word. – Brian Díaz Flores May 15 '19 at 3:59

The difference is significant.

To say: "This is not the self", is to point to some existing thing and having examined it with the criteria for what is worthy to consider the self (that is, that it is something that is under one's control) and finding it out of one's control, the statement is simply the expression of an observable, provable fact.

To say: "There is no self." is to express an opinion (point of view, diṭṭhi) as to all things throughout time and space, past, future, present. This is something that is beyond possibility, as even for Buddhas, for 'Incalculable is the beginning, brethren, of this faring on."

SN 2.15.9 http://buddhadust.net/dhamma-vinaya/pts/sn/02_nv/sn02.15.009.rhyc.pts.htm#p1

In other words, if it cannot be seen and proved, it is just an opinion.

The Dhamma is clear on the practice: opinions are something to be let go; identification with that which is not the self is something to be given up.

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  • Hi Mike! Thanks for that concise, insightful answer! Although I pick ChrisW answer as the one responding my question, it was your answer the one that allowed me to understand the subtler implications of the "thicket of wrong view" quoted by Chris. I'm really grateful for your knowledge. Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores May 15 '19 at 18:24

To add to ChrisW's answer, which I like.

To me, it sounds like "not-self" means - this body, this mind, these emotions, these memories, these impulses, this experience, this life - is not "I", nor is it "mine". - and this is exactly what the Buddha says in many places in the Canon.

while "No self" means - "self does not exist". To this the Buddha said:

Everything exists': That is one extreme. 'Everything does not exist': That is a second extreme. Avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Dhamma via the middle: From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness.... [etc.]

However, as per e.g. 19th century great Tibetan scholar Mipham Rinpoche's Beacon of Certainty: (I should find the actual quote and copy it here but paraphrasing from memory)


Do objects exist "conventionally" or should we say they do not exist at all?


We should say they do not exist at all. Even though it is not precise it has a better didactic effect. Saying objects exist conventionally would leave a trace of attachment in the student's mind. To say the objects (including self) do not exist has liberating effect. Consider the famous simile of the rope that's misinterpreted as snake. If we say "snake exists conventionally" we still have fear of snake, but if we say "snake does not exist, only the rope does" - that has a better liberating effect.

So, in one sense, self does not exists - just like the snake does not exist. In another sense, self does exist as a phenomenon of (confused, unenlightened) experience that evolves as described in the chain of D.O.

But certainly, as the Buddha said, nothing whatsoever is worthy of being considered "self", because that would be getting attached to a form, and forms are not just subject to change outside of our control, but more importantly are always "leaking abstractions" - therefore unreliable. Getting attached to a leaking abstraction always ends up as suffering.

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The way I understand the Pali term "Anatta" is translated as no-self or notself by some. There is a great debate about whether Anatta means notself or no-self. The only way you can get an answer to this question is only by realising Anatta or at least by eliminating Sakkaya Ditthi. (personality belief)

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The statement sabbe dhamma anatta means all phenomena is not self or everything is not self. A phenomena or thing (dhamma) refers to anything - the five aggregates, the body, the mind, nibbana, the teachings, the Buddha, thoughts etc.

It also means that there is no self in all phenomena or that there is no self in all things.

This means that when you dig deeper into anything, you won't be able to find anything like a self.

What it does not mean is that there is no self at all. Surely, there is a self, but it is an emergent phenomena, that is composed of other phenomena.

For e.g. when I lay out a lot of pebbles on the beach, so that it looks like a person's giant face from the sky, that's what you would see from a helicopter or a very tall building. But if you look closer, you won't see a face - you would only see pebbles.

Similarly, in all phenomena there is no self, and all phenomena is not self, but it's not right to say that there is no self at all.

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  • Hi Ruben! Following the example, if we analyze the pebbles on the beach, we can see that it LOOKS like a face, but no matter how much it seems like it, it is definitely not a face at all. Couldn't we say that it seems to us that there is a self, but it's actually an illusion coming from a distorted perception of things, and that instead of self there are aggregates that are subjugated to conditionality and D.O., and that we called it self (attā) just because of conventionality and ignorance? Kind regards! – Brian Díaz Flores May 20 '19 at 11:59

As I view this concept: "Not self", you are focusing on things other than "self", thus you are assuming "self" exists.

However, "no self" is something else. You conceptually recognize that "self" is fake. And you escaped from the "self" cage. Thus "no self" or "'Keine' self", you set the "self" variable as 0.

Hope it helps!

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Whichever way you say it 'no-self' or 'non-self' the wisdom from the epoch of Greek philosophy will ask you what is that self you predicate while claiming its non-existance?
Parmenides will rear out his head saying:

The only roads of inquiry there are to think of: one, that it is and that it is not possible for it not to be, this is the path of persuasion (for truth is its companion); the other, that it is not and that it must not be — this I say to you is a path wholly unknowable.

Me think only those who know the end which "is" can know the meaning of anattā

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