Anatman … the Buddhist teaching of “No-Self”

3,500 words

Those who are familiar with Buddhism are aware that Buddha taught that the “self” is an illusion. It has been called the core teaching of the Buddhist vision and forms the basis of its practice. The word for it in Sanskrit is anatman, and anatta in the Pali dialect.

While it is emphasized that Buddhist truths are not to be understood metaphysically but experientially, most observers believe that, whether intended or not, what we in the West call the human “soul,” conceived as a permanent, separately existing entity, the locus of thought and the individual human identity, intentionality and personality — a metaphysically real “thing,” — is exactly what the Buddhist teaching rejects. The position is that the Buddhist “No-Self,” which is claimed to be an undeniable fact of experience, would not be possible if there were a metaphysical “soul.”

Rather than debate potentially unsolvable metaphysical questions, Buddhists focus on what they believe really matters: the effectiveness of the No-Self teaching in directing and energizing the individual’s liberation from the cravings that create suffering.

The “soul,” the Fulcrum of Western culture

Western observers, however, are a different breed of cat. What No-Self means in the physical / metaphysical world may have been of no interest to Buddha’s followers, but we in the West come out of a tradition that has been centered for millennia on the doctrine of the spiritual soul, an “immaterial substance” (sic) that is capable of living without the body. The traditional western “soul” is immortal and its destiny is to exist for all eternity in another world where only spirits reside.  Naturally those who are still convinced of the ancient western tradition in this regard want to dispute the Buddha’s claims, for their view of the world depends on it.

The “soul” has been crucial in the West because it was the inner dynamic of all social construction.  If there is no soul during life, there also are no persons.  Persons are distinguishable in our tradition from other biological individuals because persons have souls and the others do not.  So the issue is relevant to our original question.  Is there actually a “soul” which really exists and bears the identity and eternal destiny of the human individual?  Everything social depends on recognition and respect for individual persons, from family patterns to legal systems, from business transactions to law enforcement and penitentiaries.

In addition, the “soul” is the basis of moral coercion.  If the soul does not survive as this individual person after death, there can be no judgment or punishment; and without fear of punishment there is no way to compel obedience to the moral law.  Of course, the down side is it tends to reduce human life to quid pro quo — a business transaction: moral behavior in exchange for an eternal life without suffering.

So the question: does the human being have an immortal soul?

You might be surprised to hear that Christianity has had a strange history in this regard. The earliest “theologians,” like Tatian and Athenagoras, known as “apologists,” who wrote in the second century, believed that the soul was the form of the body and when the body died its animating principle — the soul — disappeared with it. That the soul was naturally immortal and could live without the body they condemned as a pagan belief.[1] They argued that it would render the resurrection superfluous.  Immortality belonged only to the gods, not to humankind, and the overwhelming gift of God in Christ was that divine immortality was now shared with man, a completely undeserved supernatural donation, and that the recipient was not a disembodied soul, but the individual living human being.

But that changed.  By the third century Christian writers like Tertullian were declaring the soul to be naturally immortal.[2]  This change of perspective suggests there had been a “coup” in which educated upper-class converts to Christianity had taken over leadership in the Church and had begun to reshape doctrine to concur with their worldview.  The belief in the existence of the immortal soul was the centerpiece of the Platonism that was the accepted wisdom — the science — of the Greco-Roman educated classes in Late Antiquity.  It came to be considered an undeniable fact of nature.  That assumption lasted until the fourteenth century when William of Ockham showed it could not be proven by reason alone.  He relegated it to a matter of faith.  It was officially defined true as a matter of faith by the Catholic Church at the 5th Lateran Council in 1513.

That doesn’t prove there is a soul. But there’s also no way to disprove it. The Buddhists don’t even try. They claim that what is compelling for them is the way the doctrine of No-Self functions for the liberation of the individual and through that for the wellbeing of human society.  For the “self” asserts rights and makes demands that contribute to cravings to seek pleasure, avoid pain and aggrandize the ego that lead to entrapment in an unending cycle of demands and dissatisfactions that adversely impacts human society. And correlatively, when those cravings are starved they tend to shrivel and disappear, lending credence to the proposition that the “rights and demands” originally asserted by the “self” in their regard were fictional to begin with.  The individual survived and actually lived quite well without responding to them.  That, in turn, corroborates the Buddha’s insight that the “self,” the source of those demands, is itself an illusion.  The self has no rights and can make no demands because it is not really there.

So the Buddhists can always say to the westerner who demands proof of the teaching of No-Self that they have an indirect proof.  They can prove experientially that the human organism is malleable — changeable.  What appear to be its needs can be reduced to the point that they no longer assert themselves, calling into question the validity of those needs and the metaphysical ground claimed to be their origin.

The Metaphysical Question

But for us in the West, the question of the real existence of the soul deserves to be resolved — physically and metaphysically — in the same terms which have been used to support it for millennia.

First, by physical I refer to the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology. Do these disciplines with their specific tools ever encounter evidence that would compel one to conclude that the “soul” as traditionally believed actually exists? Can it be observed and measured in some way? Theories that a body weighed right before death and again immediately after showed a difference, were made in pursuit of exactly that kind of proof.

By metaphysical I refer to the rational examination of the conditions that accompany existence. Metaphysics determines what the minimum requirements are for something to be-here, to exist. Are those conditions present in the case of the soul?

I think it’s safe to say that there is no compelling physical evidence that the soul exists without the body. Claims of weight loss at death have been disproven. But there are other claims. For example, phenomena emanating from the human organism, specifically the ability to think, identify itself, observe itself thinking, etc., suggest capacities that go beyond what material reality was traditionally thought capable of. But none of those pheno­mena seem grounded in anything but the human material organism; and when the organs that serve as platforms for those activities are damaged or destroyed, the behavioral phenomena disappear or are altered beyond recognition. What have been traditionally adduced as materially transcendent activities, therefore, on closer examination appear to be completely dependent upon the material organism for their existence and character.

Besides, the growing acknowledgement among philosophers of a possible “mental dimension” to material reality, represented by the term “neutral monism,” suggests that projecting a separate spiritual substance outside and independent of matter is no longer necessary to explain the phenomena.[3]  Matter may contain within itself the explanation of what it is obviously capable of evolving into.  Human thought is the product of the human brain, a completely material organ, not an other-worldly ”soul.”

But the Buddhists’ argument for the No-Self is also telling in this regard.  The apparently identifiable permanent “self” experienced during life is thoroughly changeable (albeit not without difficulty) exactly as they claimThis seems to be similarly dependent upon the body, for those practices designed to reduce craving involve the imposition of self-denial on organic urges resulting in their quiescence.  The “self” changes because the body changes.  This provides more evidence for the absence of any permanent and substantive “self” even before death.  The “self” is a mental construct — a result of organic urges, it is not the source of those urges.

Then, when the organism dies, all activity of whatever kind  ceases. There is no indication of the existence after death of something containing the essence and identity of the deceased human individual any more than in the case of any other species of biological organism.  Like all human functions that go beyond the ordinary behavior of other biological entities, the identity function is dependent upon the human organism for its existence and normal operation.  When the brain deteriorates, even before death, self-coherence is also affected, sometimes drastically.  So in answer to the question about the metaphysical conditions for anything to exist, it appears that the first requirement is that it be matter; and when the organism’s matter decomposes or becomes diseased, the “self” disappears or becomes unrecognizable.  Even if the self is a “soul” it needs a corresponding and healthy material base to exist.

The atomic composition of the human organism

But there is another side to this question, and that is the nature of matter itself.  This impacts the unity and integrity of all things made of matter including the human being.  All things are comprised of the same material energy coalesced into various kinds of sub-atomic, atomic and molecular particles and corresponding force fields.  There is nothing that is not made of the very same matter, and that includes all living organisms at all levels of complexity and in all aspects of their form and function, even the neurological.  It is all the same matter.

The human being is a biological organism — a highly complex fully integrated combination of atomic elements and the fields associated with them.  These elements, in turn, all come from the material environment where the organism resides.  Oxygen, the element needed to combine with nutritional fuel for the metabolic combustion that occurs in living cells, is drawn into the organism continuously from the outside through respiration with every breath.  The waste products of cell metabolism, carbon dioxide and water, are similarly borne by blood returning to the lungs to be expelled outside into earth’s atmosphere where it becomes available to other organisms that use it for their own lives.

The water that makes up 70% of the human body is a chemical combination of hydrogen with oxygen forming a liquid.  It is, like air, taken in continuously from outside the body and, as the bearer of the waste products of metabolism, expelled outside.

All things share these elements that comprise the human body.  Hydrogen is the simplest element: one proton and one electron field.  Every other element of the more than 120 that make up the periodic table, represents a complexification of hydrogen, as nuclei gathered more protons and their accompanying electron fields.  Everything made of matter is a result of the evolution of hydrogen, combining and integrating with itself over eons of time, first in the super-hot furnaces at the heart of stars forming elements that later evolved into the life forms we are familiar with.  So that scientist and author Curt Stager can validly say to his readers: “Hydrogen has become you after billions of years of stellar fusion and countless dances of atoms in air, earth, fire and water” and in turn, “you bequeath them” … “to the many lives yet to come.”[4]

What is true of air and water can be said equally of everything that makes up the human organism and all its metabolic and behavioral functions.  They are constructed of the temporary possession of elements and their composites that exist in sufficient quantity in the surrounding environment to provide the organism with an uninterrupted existence.  I say “temporary possession” because every single atom of every organ or function in the body is replaced on the average of every seven years with atoms from the environment.  The atoms of the elements in the human body are exactly the same as those residing in other life forms and in the rocks, soil and water of the accessible surroundings.  All this suggests a continuous exchange of material elements between the individual human organism and the rest of the material universe. The homogeneity and the sharing of the matter possessed by all the entities, living and non-living, evokes for some observers like atomic physicist David Bohm the image of a single flowing river within which there develop waves and eddies and vortices (whirlpools) which give the appearance of being separate individuals but are all and only the river.[5]

There is nothing unique about any biological organism; it is all made of the same matter, and if the “soul” is defined as the coherence of this human body, it would seem to partake of the same homogeneity. So it should be no surprise that we recognize the characteristic functioning of the conatus in all other life forms.  Self-preservation, on display in self-defense, the flight from enemies, the search for food, the desire to reproduce and the need to gather with others for collective survival, is com­mon across all the phyla of living things.  The signs of its functioning are unmistakable, especially among animal forms, and creates the basis for our sense of compassion and companionship with them.  The very fact that despite vast differences in our organisms — like insects — we are able to recognize similar behavior driven by the same needs, suggests a homogeneity of the source.  We all act the same because we are made of the same clay — matter’s energy, and in its living forms we can see that matter is driven to exist, so we suspect it was driven to exist even before it was incorporated into a living organism.

Life, we conclude, is not something separate from the matter we encounter in the living forms that inhabit our planet as if injected from outside.  It was an intrinsic property of matter all along that only became perceptible when it came together in just the right way.  Similarly, with consciousness. The individual recognition that occurs between and among all species of animals reveals that the phenomenon exists across the various phyla of animal life.  We also suspect that the potential for consciousness — Strawson’s thesis — is an intrinsic property of matter that necessarily functions at all levels of evolved integration albeit with the capacity of range and depth allowable by the extent of the complexification.  Those familiar with farm animals know that chickens, goats, horses, pigs, dogs and cats can differentiate between human individuals even though they all do so at very different levels of ability.  We observe that consciousness is present according to various levels of complexity in all species of animals and therefore we extrapolate this potential to the substrate itself of which all these species are made.

Relativity and quantum mechanics

The 20th century saw two major breakthroughs in physics that have completely undermined the security we once had about the nature of matter.  The theories of relativity and quantum me­chanics have revealed matter to be a fundamentally mysterious quantization of an essentially homogeneous flow of energy through time that fills the universe.  This energy sometimes manifests itself as particles and sometimes as force fields or waves.  It calls into question the fundamental imagery we have had that matter and what is made of matter are dense impenetrable “things” that are all outside of one another.

Rather it appears that at the quantum level matter compenetrates other matter, exists in more than one behavioral state simultaneously and that in its wave form each particle extends through­out the universe and its presence where it integrates with others to form organisms can only be accounted for statistically, i.e., with a certain degree of probability, not with precision.

This indeterminacy has made it impossible to simultaneously fix the location and behavior of particles.  The observations themselves are revealed to be part of the phenomenon observed adding credence to the suspicion that the imagery of impenetrable masses that we have inherited from our traditional science is false.  The observer is not outside of what is observed.

… relativity and quantum theory agree, in that they both imply the need to look at the world as an undivided whole in which all parts of the universe, including the observer and his instruments, merge and unite in one totality.  In this totality the atomistic form of insight is a simplification and an abstraction, valid only in some limited context.[6]

The proposal for a new general form of insight is that all matter is of this nature: that is, there is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can only be known implicitly … . In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement.[7]

The human organism, in this scenario, is thus comprised of trillions and trillions of these sub-atomic components whose physical reality is commensurate with the totality of matter’s universal energy of which its presence here and now is a statistically determined resolution.  Our particles are the distillations of a homogeneous energy that suffuses and pervades the entire universe.  In this context the heretofore unchallenged claim that the human organism is “only itself” and exists radically independent of other material entities, suddenly becomes a highly questionable proposition.  How much more so does the claim that the “self” — which arises from the merger of the passing urges of the individual organism — is permanent and is capable of existing independently, lack credibility.

As we can see in Bohm’s propositions quoted above, science is beginning to speak in terms that are remarkably consistent with the worldview implicit in the Buddha’s recommendations for practice.

Relativity and quantum theory, in fact, provide excellent illustrations of this strange world [of the Buddha] so contrary to common sense.  In the Buddha’s universe a permanent, separate self is an illusion, just as substance is an illusion to the atomic physicist.  Distinctions between an “outside world” and an “inner realm” of the mind are arbitrary.  Everything in human experience takes place in one field of forces which comprises both matter and mind.  Thought and physical events act and react upon each other as naturally and inescapably as do matter and energy.  … As Einstein described matter and energy solely in terms of the geometry of space-time, the Buddha describes matter, energy and mental events as the structure of a fabric we can call consciousness. His universe is a process in continuous change — a seething sea of primordial energy of which the mind and the physical world are only different aspects.[8]

How does the “self” change?

While I believe it has become abundantly clear that there is no separately existing “immortal soul” as the western tradition has projected since Plato, the Buddhists have to acknowledge that the changeability of the “self” which they adduce as proof of its impermanence, is only possible because there is an agent of change that is resident in the same organism.  That agent represents the activation of human intelligence with its undeniable moral clarity, and of the conatus with its irrepressible drive to live, to bring the “self” to heel, and eventually to transform it, drop by drop, into a generous and compassionate moral force in a world of perishing beings.  What exactly is it, then, that changes the “self.”

It is the very same self, whose intelligence allows it to compenetrate itself from within, render itself totally transparent, and activate a potential derived from the living self-emptying energy of creative transcendent matter, LIFE, coiled in the conatus at the very center of its own life that effects this change.  There is only one “self,” and it is capable of doubling back on itself, assessing itself with its own resident resources and applying its intentionality — drop by drop — to the reduction of the unconscious self to obedience.  There are not two selves.  The belief that what effects change is an Absolute Self that is metaphysically distinct from the human self and exists alongside it is a fallacy.  There is a transcendence to the human self that might allow that projection to gain purchase.  But it is precisely the total compenetration of LIFE’s creative material energy resident at the core of the material human organism that is activated in the process of personal transformation.

Aquinas would say that “the Primary Cause only works through secondary causes.” The collaboration is seamless, and therefore the agencies are indistinguishable.


[1] Joroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, U. of Chicago Pr., 1971, Vol. 1 p. 30

[2] Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Translated by Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Ed. by Roberts et al. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;.

 [3] I am referring to authors like Galen Strawson who explores “panpsychism” in Mental Reality, MIT press, 1994.

[4] Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2014, p.246

[5] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge, London & NY, 1980, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., pp. 13-14. (emphasis in the original)

[7] Ibid., p. 14

[8] The Dhammapada, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, from the introduction, pp. 80-81


One comment on “Anatman … the Buddhist teaching of “No-Self”

  1. john morrison says:


    Finally a posting that breathes clarity throughout,
    without 50% if it going this way and that before
    coming to a clear conclusion.

    You have served up a magnificent summary of what
    you have been serving up piecemeal over the last
    few years.


    John Morrison

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