Anātman

Application of Locke and Parfit to Buddhist views

Among the most potentially confusing doctrines in Buddhism is that of anātman. The term literally means “non-self.” But what exactly does the Buddha mean by “self”? What exactly is being negated? Buddhist scholars and teachers who have talked about this doctrine in English have offered a variety of translations for “ātman”, such as “ego,” “soul,” “person,” “identity,“ and “self.” So the negation “anātman” has been explained as “egolessness,” “soullessness,” “impersonality,” “identitylessness” and “selfessness.” One author has suggested that the Buddha’s teaching of anātman is an invitation to stop being narcissistic, so presumably the translation of “anātman” would then be “narcissismlessness.” Each of these translations is misleading in some way. To see why, it may be helpful to look at what is supposed to be one of the Buddha’s first discussions with the five ascetics who eventually became his first disciples.

In that discussion the Buddha says simply that the body is neither the ātman nor one’s property. If it were, he says, then one would have more control or mastery (svāmitā) over it. One would, for example, be able to prevent it from being ill, from getting old, from dying and so forth. The same observations are made, with suitable changes, about consciousness and its associated factors. If one were to paraphrase all the Buddha says into contemporary terminology, he would be saying that one’s ātman is neither the body nor the mind. It is not one’s personality or temperament or character. It is none of these things, because all of these things can and do change. That change is a key consideration is reflected in this passage from the Saṃyutta-nikāya:

Better it would be to consider the body as the ātman rather than the mind. And why? Because this body may last for 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50 years, even for 100 years and more. But that which is called “mind,” “consciousness,” “thinking,” arises continuously, during day and night, as one thing, and as something different again it vanishes. (SN 12.61)1

In the many discussions of the ātman (atta) in the early canonical works, it is said that instead of speaking of an ātman, the Buddha speaks of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda). In the passage just cited, for example, the Buddha then goes on to say this:

Now, here the learned and noble disciple considers thoroughly the Dependent Origination: If this is, then that becomes. Through the arising of this, that comes to arise; through the extinction of this, that becomes extinguished, namely: Through ignorance conditioned arise the karma-formations; through the karma-formations, consciousness (in next life); through consciousness, corporeality and mind;… through the extinction of ignorance, the karma-formations become extinguished; through the extinction of the karma-formations, consciousness… etc.

What this suggests is that rather than speaking of something that has a fixed nature, as one would expect an ātman to have, one should speak of a process. It will be recalled that one of the issues that Amélie Rorty said that Western philosophers have discussed is the question “What are the criteria for establishing that an individual is the same individual in different contexts, or under different descriptions or at different times?” Put in another way, this question might be rephrased “What remains stable in a person when other aspects of the person are changing?” The Buddhist answer to that question is: nothing. Nothing remains absolutely stable, for everything is involved in the process. All we can say is that some things change faster than others; the most stable of the many things we may think of as a self is the body, since it changes the least rapidly.

Let us now explore some of the hazards involved in translating “ātman” in various ways. One standard translation is “self.” This makes a good deal of sense as a translation, since “ātman” like “self” is a reflexive word and can be used as an equivalent of such English reflexive pronouns as “myself,” “himself” and so on. We must be cautious, however, to distinguish between this kind of self and the kind that John Locke spoke of when he wrote

Self is that conscious thinking thing…which is sensible or conscious of pleasure and pain, capable of happiness or misery, and so is concerned for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.

Clearly, the Buddha would want to say that we do have that kind of self, although it might be denied that this conscious thinking thing that cares about its own happiness and misery is a simple entity rather than a number of functions bundled together and thought of as a single thing.

Some have rendered “ātman” as “person,” which has the advantage of making sense when it is negated as “impersonal.” It does seem to be the point of the Buddhist teachings that discontent arises when we take our experiences too personally. Here, too, one should be aware of how Locke, and those influence by him think of the person. Recall that Locke wrote:

Person, as I take it, is a name for this self. Wherever a man finds what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same person. It is a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit, and so belongs only to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and unhappiness and misery.

What the Buddhist tradition would wish to add is that there is a process of actions being followed by the natural consequences, but there is nothing doing the actions or experiencing the rewards. The Buddha is reported as responding to the question “But who, Venerable One, is it that feels?” as follows:

“This question is not proper,” said the Exalted One. “I do not teach that there is one who feels. If however the question is put thus: ‘Conditioned through what, does feeling arise?’ then the answer will be: ‘Through sense-impression is feeling conditioned… through feeling, craving; through craving, clinging…’”

And yet, there is much to be said for Locke’s observation that “person” is a forensic term. Its cash value is its use in legal contexts, where it is important to determine whether a human being qualifies as an owner of a piece of property, or as the perpetrator of a crime, or as someone who has entered into a contractual agreement. So long as the word “person” is regarded as merely an indispensable legal and social fiction, then the Buddhist tradition would not wish to deny its utility. In any case, it is clearly not that sense of a person that the Buddhist wishes to negate by using the term “anātman.”

Given the centrality of the question of what remains the same in a person when other aspects change, some have preferred to translate “ātman” as “identity,” since the Latin root of the English word means “sameness.” Here again, one would have to be aware of Locke’s use of personal identity when he says that personal identity is the foundation of all concepts of rights, justice, rewards and punishments. Here again, the point is that it is a legal fiction but one that society could not easily function without. It is not this kind of personal identity that the Buddhist seeks to negate by using the term “anātman.” Moreover, if the question of this module were asked, “How can there be personal identity through one or more lifetimes?”, both Locke and the Buddha would probably say “Personal identity is not in most systems of law something that endures through many lifetimes. It stops existing at death, and even if there is some kind of continuity of something from a person’s life into the future, that continuity does not have the same legal rights and responsibilities as the person who was alive.”

What survives the death of the physical body?


  1. The translation is that of Nyanatiloka, except that I have replaced the word “ātman” in place of his translation “ego”. His translation can be found on line at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/various/wheel202.html#extracts ↩︎

Work cited

  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser. New York: Dover, 1959.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.