Hello Buddhists namaste!

Would it be wrong of me to suppose the anatta means at least partly, the following two theses?

  1. No explanation of a conscious thought is complete: mind is not absolutely transparent to itself.

  2. Consciousness is only explicable by way of an explanation of some particular conscious thought.

IMHO that would make the "hard" problem, disappear :)

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    I don't understand why 'anatta' partly means (1.); and, I don't understand what connection you see between (2.) and the Hard Problem. Therefore IMO your question is unclear. Also, is it true that you're not simply asking for a Buddhist definition of anatta and of consciousness, unless the answer includes an understanding of your argument?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 12:15
  • Dunno why people downvoted you. Maybe because it's kind of an ugly question and you put "hard". Which was in quotes anyway and referring to your article.
    – Ahmed
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:23
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    You're a new user, so I'm not downvoting. But this seems like a question about philosophy of mind, not about Buddhism, your mention of "anatta" notwithstanding. Could you modify it to bring it more into the heart of Buddhist questioning? Failing that, maybe you should ask it here. I would recommend, however, tightening it up a bit first. Those guys will be well aware of Chalmers's "hard problem" and will eat you alive if you go in without a bit of preparation. And, FWIW, no I don't think your two theses solve it.
    – tkp
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 18:00
  • Also, specifically on the meaning of anatta, I got a very good answer from @Yuttadhammo on that very question here
    – tkp
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 18:05

4 Answers 4


A good question. But hampered, as are many such discussions by mismatched terminology. There is no Buddhist concept that quite matches the idea of "consciousness". We don't really notice this because the early translators used quite imprecise terminology and we're stuck with it. If there is one thing that vijñāna is not, it is "consciousness".

Another factor that one must take into account is that what ancient Buddhists meant by "mind" and what modern philosophers, like David "The Hard problem Chalmers mean by it are two different things. Buddhists for example make no categorical distinction between thought and emotion. There is no word for emotion in either Pāḷi or Sanskrit. See Emotions in Buddhism. Emotion is a kind of citta, as it thought, or perception. And yet the distinction between thoughts and emotions is critical to modern philosophy.

Nor is there any notion of the mind as a container for experience. The metaphor of the "theatre of consciousness" is entirely absent from Buddhist thought. See The 'Mind as Container' Metaphor.

The early Buddhists never claimed to fully explain conscious thought. The project would not have interested them. They were trying to understand dukkha - unenlightened experience. They were interested in the intoxication (pamāda) of ordinary people with sense experience and how to sober up. However as I understand it they would probably have agreed that because experience arises in dependence on sense object, sense faculty and sense cognition, and that most of us proceed without pause to proliferation, that a complete explanation of a conscious thought would be difficult. But I don't think anattā has anything to do with this.

On the other hand experience of samādhi changes the ball game. One can get a kind of insight into the arising of cittas that are as yet not incorporated into the modern theories of mind.

Consciousness is only explicable by way of an explanation of some particular conscious thought.

The trouble is that what you are calling "consciousness" is almost certainly ruled out in Buddhist thought by anattā. From the early Buddhist point of view there is no such thing as "consciousness" in the sense that, say, David Chalmers uses it. There's just conscious experience. Chalmers own solution that "consciousness" must be different from matter is also ruled out - if something is not accessible to the senses then we can have no knowledge of it. And this is the most important implication of anattā.

It does leave open the question of the Hard Problem though, because there is still something that it is like to have an experience. It's just that solving this problem would not tell us anything interesting about why we suffer. We suffer because we have an aberrant relationship to pleasure/pain.

So it seems to me that you're barking up the wrong philosophical tree with this question. However, it's worth asking because it helps to clarify the distinctions between Buddhism and philosophy.


Anatta, in the Buddhist context, means you have not control over the aggregates or anything else to be considered as self, me or mine. Also there is no core which is unchanging or everlasting which you can consider Atman. It does not relate to the concepts given in your question.

Viññāṇa is also Anatta as this has the above properties too. Mind content is also has the above properties hence Anatta.

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    Yes, Suminda states: "It does not relate to the concepts given in your question". He's politely suggesting that you seem to have your own unique idea of how Buddhist terms are used, and he's also explaining what the conventional usage of the terminology is.
    – Anthony
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 15:53
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    If you call some one say my grand father. Can you ensure he does not die at some point? Can you say he become young. This is no control. You are calling him my grand father with a notion of permanence in the reference. There is nothing worthy of calling self, me or mine. Anatta mainly means no core and no control. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:48
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    @Ahmed I think that Suminda's saying, "we have no control over the aggregates" is a paraphrase of e.g. Anatta-lakkhana Sutta. Also, maybe using the first-person pronoun we in "we are influencing" might imply an identity-view? But yes, "no control" might be a nihilist extreme (the opposite of "total control"), whereas "some control" or maybe "apparent control" (or 'temporary' control etc.) might be more accurate -- maybe that's a subject for a different or new question/topic.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:48
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    Partly what I meant. But we can have other entity view regarding external entities who we relate to. We cannot even control their aggregates. Also any formation which we call mine. Say my car. Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 16:51
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    Partial control yeah youre right. And isnt it paradoxical how as one comes closer to Buddhahood and realizes the lack of control and self.. One gains more control and more actual self substance.. A discussion for another question :)
    – Ahmed
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 17:04

I think that Anatta means that there are only correlated processes instead of the (thinking of perceived) subject (self, Atman). So Anatta does not imply that understanding of consciousness or mind is incomplete. Conversely, Anatta suggests not to introduce additional entities into this doctrines. Yes, our mind is not perfectly transparent to itself, but this is due to defilements, not due to Anatta. And, of course, Anatta does not mean that materialistic theories does not explain the conscious and thinking soul or mind. Concerning Hard Problem I think that all its verifications also are mental or perception processes, so they cannot bring us additional evidence.

  1. Yes, no explanation of thought is complete without dependency on some other phenomena. Everything is interdependent, nothing is itself without anything else. (But not necessarily "transparent".)
  2. No! Consciousness is the 5th aggregate/skandha. It is at an even more root level than thought itself! (which is the 3rd aggregate/skandha) You can perceive consciousness (without thought) through the usage of prajna wisdom. There is also a jhana that is pure consciousness, no thought (one of the four formless skandhas).

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