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Anatta ( Pali ) or Anātman ( Sanskrit अनात्मन् anātman ) means "not-self", "not I" or "impersonality", and is a key term in Buddhist teaching. By this it is roughly meant that no existence has a fixed, immutable, independent self. With the Anatta doctrine, Buddha primarily positioned himself against the Ātman doctrine of Hindu character.


The Buddhist doctrine of Anatta ( Pāli ) describes the absence of a permanent and unchangeable self, a fixed essence or a soul ( Atta means "that which has been accepted"). What is normally viewed as “self” is therefore a collection of constantly changing physical and psychological components (“ skandhas ”). By holding on to the idea that the temporary state experienced in each case forms a kind of immutable and permanent soul, suffering arises. The teaching of "Anatta" seeks to encourage practitioners to break away from improper clinging to what is considered to be core. Because only then - supported by ethical behavior and meditation - can the path to complete liberation (“ nirvana ”) be successfully trodden.

Another understanding of this doctrine - as it is explained in the Tathagatagarbha scriptures of the Mahayana as being proclaimed by the Buddha - implies that the five " skandhas " have no fixed selves, for they are subject to change and decay, but are beyond it nor the eternal Buddha principle, or Buddha nature ("Buddha-dhatu"). Accordingly, the transcendent and imperishable true self is deeply hidden in every being - but its full perception can only be achieved through enlightenment .

In Buddhist teaching, anatta, together with dukkha and anicca, form the three characteristics of dependent existence. After recognizing the most important teaching of Buddhism, Dependent Origination , you see these three essentials. The Buddha is therefore also referred to as anatta-vadi , as the herald of the not-self.

There is only suffering, but there is no suffering.
There are only acts, but no perpetrator can be found.
There is salvation, but not the redeemed man.
There is a path, but no hiker can be seen there.
Lasting, beauty, happiness, personality
The first and the second truth are empty,
The deathless area empty of selfhood,
And without duration, happiness and I the path.


Buddhist teaching declares that everything in life is subject to continuous change and that everything that exists exists subject to conditions ( pratitya-samutpada ). These are not permanent. Hence, the idea is considered ignorant and illusory that anything has a permanent self or soul.

The acceptance of a permanent and stable self is one of the main causes of human suffering from a Buddhist point of view. Buddha taught that by knowing dependent origination we come to a perception of the dependent existence of the self. This happens because the individually arising and passing events are seen and it is recognized that there is no self. So we can let go of our worldly desires and grow beyond suffering. The Buddha has often emphasized that all clinging to the idea of ​​a solid self is based on ignorance of the four noble truths with their three characteristics and twelve constituent parts . His new teaching thus contrasted with the prevailing teachings of the Upanishads at the time , which taught the existence of a solid soul.

The Buddha's teachings are based on direct knowledge of the truth and therefore do not contain any concept of a self that could be created by birth, imagination, speculation, metaphysical study or self-identification. The five skandhas (body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness) are very important in this context because an individual forms a desire, attachment , upadana ( Sanskrit उपादान, upādāna ) to these skandhas and identifies with them. When a practitioner has overcome his craving for all five skandhas through meditative insight, he experiences the joy of non-attachment and abides in wisdom. The Buddha clearly stated that all five skandhas are impermanent, just as a burning flame is impermanent and subject to constant change.

In contrast, a minority within the Mahayana tradition relates the Buddhist teachings of Anatta only to the short-lived elements of the five skandhas of a being, but not to the hidden and immortal Buddha-nature. According to the Mahayana teachings, Buddha-nature exists in the depths of the mind of every being (see the section "Anatta in the Tathagatagarba Sutras").

The question of what happens to a Buddha (fully enlightened being) after death was viewed by Buddha Shakyamuni ( Siddhartha Gautama ) as speculative and not answered.


Students of Buddhism sometimes face the intellectual dilemma that the teaching of Anatta and the teaching of rebirth seem to be mutually exclusive. If there is no self, no enduring essence of a person, then what is being reborn? Buddha discussed this in a conversation with a Brahmin named Kutadanta (Kūtadanta Sutta, 5th discourse in the Dígha Nikaya ). It is therefore only the karmic impulse that establishes the connection between the individual lives. There is no substance that is transmitted. As with a burning candle that runs out of wax, the moment it is extinguished, a new candle is lit by the flame. So the flame remains, the fuel is a new one.

Some Buddhists say that understanding how "I" can die and be reborn is no more difficult than understanding how "I" can be exactly the same person that she was a few minutes ago. For advanced students in Buddhist mind training there is no identity between the current self and the self that existed a few minutes ago; nor is there an identity of the self that exists right now with the self that existed a few lifetimes ago. They are only connected by a continuity of change, but not by a solid substance. Like a flowing river that is a different one a minute later.

Another difficulty in understanding the teaching of Anatta is that it contradicts the idea of ​​the Buddha's teaching as a path of practice. From the teaching of Anatta one can deduce that it cannot be possible for anyone to free themselves from attachment. Since there is no self, the self cannot liberate a self. So one 'just' frees oneself from the perception of the self.

Anatta (Anātman) in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras

The understanding of “not-self” (here called Anatman in Sanskrit ) in the Mahayana scriptures of the “Tathagatagarbha” sutras differs from other interpretations and is therefore remarkable: the teaching presented by the Buddha in these texts clarifies that it is only the transitory elements ( skandhas ) of a sentient being that represent the “not-self” (“anatman”), while the actual reality, the innate essence ( svabhava ) of the being is no less than the Buddha principle ( "Buddha-dhatu" - "Buddha principle" or " Buddha nature "): self, pure and deathless. In the “Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra” this inherent, immortal Buddha element is referred to as the “true self”. It is not affected by rebirth, is always perfectly flawless, radiantly pure, and awaits discovery in the depths of the polluted everyday consciousness of every being. In the "Tathagatagarbha Sutra" the Buddha explains that with his Buddha eye he can see this hidden Buddha jewel in every being. The Buddha: “Hidden in the klesas (mental defilements) of greed, hatred and delusion sits sublime and immobile the wisdom of the Tathagata (the Buddha), the perception of the Tathagata and the body of the Tathagata [...] all beings, although in where all forms of mental defilements can be found, have a Tathagatagarbha (a Buddha essence) which is perfectly pure for all times, and which is saturated with virtues no different from my virtues ” (Lopez, 1995, p. 96). Consequently, the doctrine of "not-self" gets a controversial exposition in the Tathagatagarbha sutras, in which it is presented as a relative fact rather than absolute truth.


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  1. Possibly, however, the concept of the Upanishads ( Hinduism ) lies with the Atman , for example according to the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, where the Atman is seen as identical with the absolute self ( Brahman , "world soul"), i.e. the true self of man, which remains unchanged in all perceptions, thoughts and feelings and the Buddhist Anatman teaching is not so far apart. Because the Atman is not to be equated with the individual “I” (“Ego”) and thus remains identical with the Buddhist “Not I”; for Buddhism denies the existence of an eternal, immortal individual soul as "ego". See Werner Scholz: Hinduism. A crash course. Dumont, Cologne 2008, ISBN 978-3-8321-9070-5 , p. 47.
  3. Hermann Oldenberg : Speeches of the Buddha. Teaching, verses, narratives. Herder im Breisgau publishing house 1993, ISBN 3-451-04112-X , page 163.