Anatma, no Soul, Buddha Nature, Vedantins vs Buddhism

One of the toughest aspects of Buddhism, from a metaphysical perspective, is the ‘no soul’, ‘anatma’ (or anatta) doctrine. Buddha didn’t mean that we’re soulless machines or anything like that. What he meant was that there is nothing permanent in our consciousness that could be identified as ‘me’. He went one step further too: our whole cyclic existence is the result of the false sense of ‘I’ that we all have. (*)

Modern psychology and neurology agree with the Buddha on this one. Looking at our brain activity, they can’t find a central governing spot in the brain. There isn’t some sort of ‘God’ neuron. Somehow the brain does a lot, but the sense of unity, of ‘I do this’ is an illusion the brain produces so that it can think it understands what it’s doing. Or something.

Does this mean we’re machines without will or choice? The answer should be (but apparently isn’t) obvious: no, we’re not machines. We were born of a mother and we’re sentient beings. We feel, we act, we dance, we laugh, we choose… And when we THINK we’re not in control, that we don’t have a choice, we become less ethical. So the very thought that we’re merely machines has an effect and is unhelpful.

Buddhist philosophy is helpful in this debate because it finds the precise middle ground: there IS a continuity of consciousness that moves from one life to the next (reincarnation, karma), but this continuity of consciousness is not as unchanging as it seems. In fact, it’s very unstable in content. In this sense it is very paradoxical, and that is a charge usually leveled against Buddhism. However, as I showed above this paradox is essential to consciousness anyhow, so we might as well go with it.

On the one hand there is something that appears as consciousness: that’s a universal human experience. Buddhism agrees with most other religious philosophies that this consciousness is somewhat independent of the body. I say ‘somewhat’ because it also recognizes that while we’re embodied, the body clearly does impact the manifest mind. When we get ill, our consciousness changes. In dementia the body stops supporting memory. However, that does not mean that consciousness has no existence without a body, as Near Death Experiences testify.

Let’s go one deeper: consciousness is defined in Gelugpa philosophy as always having an object. In other words: consciousness without an object is meaningless.

Since consciousness without an object is meaningless, beyond experience in fact, it’s not hard to see that consciousness always changes. What changes is after all the object of consciousness. One moment I’m angry, the next I’m doing my daily puja.
So far my explanation of anatma has been roughly in line with all Buddhist schools. Learn more

In fact, as long as we stick to ordinary consciousness, even most of Hinduism agrees: in Advaita Vedanta (the main Hindu school of philosophy) it is recognized that the personality changes all the time and that what reincarnates isn’t the personality, but Atma plus karma. Roughly.

This is where the conflict between Buddhism and Hinduism comes in: in Hindu thought it is not stressed that even Atma changes and many people do come to the conclusion that it is permanent in the sense of unchanging. See also this evaluation of Karma and Anatta in Hinduism and Buddhism. However, since the OBJECT of consciousness does evidently change, Atma is Brahman after all and Brahman as containing the manifest universe also changes, Atma itself must change. But that’s cheating: I’m applying (Gelugpa) Buddhist philosophy to Hindu thought.

Let’s get back to basics: The difference between ‘Buddha nature’ or ‘Buddha consciousness’ and Atman really isn’t that big. Both stress that we have a usually untapped source of universal wisdom inside of us. Mahayana Buddhists call this Buddha Nature. Hindu’s call this Atma. As I said the only difference, a difference essential to the philosophical difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, is that in Hinduism the changing nature of the continuity of consciousness is not stressed.

In both cases what it means in practical terms is that we have something Divine in us as potential and that we can awaken this through living ethically, meditation and contemplation. Whether this divine something changes or not may not be essential. Logically however, it does change, because the object of that consciousness (the universe) changes.

One of the basic meditations in the Discovering Buddhism program is the continuity of consciousness meditation. For Westerners it’s a basic meditation to help get a feel for reincarnation. When you do this meditation you’re tapping into the common Indian thread in Hinduism and Buddhism: the sense that consciousness doesn’t start with the body, nor ends with it’s death.

To recap:

From the Gelugpa Buddhist perspective two things are important

  1. Consciousness continues as does karma, as in: ‘your’ continuity of consciousness will have to deal with the results of what ‘you’ do today.
  2. Consciousness changes as does everything else.

The first point is pan-Indian. The second seems pretty obvious when put that simply, but when it becomes a deep down realization it is the basis of Buddhist enlightenment and extends all the way up to Buddha Nature.

(*) This is most famously described in the Buddha’s Second Sermon.

A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.


Atma = The Divine Soul in Advaita Vedanta, one with Brahma. In theosophy the same. Atma can also be used in Sanskrit for ‘self’ or ‘I’.
Anatma = no-I (also anatta), the Buddhist doctrine that there is no permanent unchanging self. Derives from a broader use of the word ‘atma’ as self or personality.

11 thoughts on “Anatma, no Soul, Buddha Nature, Vedantins vs Buddhism”

  1. It is a trap, in case you realize it, as your mind cannot perceive consciousness to be simultaneously the subject and the object – the perception of the identity of the ‘knower’, the ‘knowable’ and the ‘knowledge’ being the same (non-different) is not within the inherent capability limits of the mind. That is why we, the ‘Advaitists’ in Hinduism, say that ‘knowing is being’ and ‘being is knowing’.
    Remember the famous quote from ‘Kathopnishad’, “It is not that can be perceived by the mind. It is that which perceives the mind.”

    In case you want to discuss further on anything metaphysical or about ‘Comparison of religions’, you may contact me through at my mentioned mail ID anytime. Let me also briefly introduce myself to be a common man whose actions are fully of any worldly man living in a city, however with a craving to be (i.e., know) the ‘Truth’ in this life or beyond. Though born a Brahmin, am beyond beliefs of casteism in Hindu society.
    I rarely write or respond on the net or elsewhere, am highly unsocial, but your writing has somehow hinted me that you may be the person who is worthy of exchanging ides and thoughts of Metaphysical nature. Do feel free to write to me.

    1. On the one hand I’m honored, on the other a bit puzzled.

      First you suggest that the inherent capacity of the mind is dualistic (first sentence), second (2nd sentence) that somehow in ‘being’ that duality disappears. Fortunately for me (argued from my present path) it’s hardly relevant as the end of this dualism is not the ‘goal’ of the Buddhist path as I currently understand it. After all: I’m neither a Vedantin nor a Chittamatrin. In other words: you’ve managed to talk about my topic while ignoring the basic point.

      Since I’m not looking for another teacher, nor have any reason to take you seriously as such (since being a Brahmin is hardly a qualification in itself), I won’t take you up on your offer. However, you are very welcome to continue commenting on my blog when you have something relevant to say.

  2. The ‘Jeevatma’ is the ‘Individual Soul’ perceived by itself due to ‘ignorance’. The Jeevatma, corresponding to varying degrees of ignorance, perceives itself to change during continuity (rebirths etc). The ‘Darshan’ (realization) dissolves its perception of its ownself as individual soul to make it perceive its ownself as the cosmic soul (paramatma’). This transformation is neither dependent on nor bound by space and time, which themselves lose their existence due to the realization. The Jeevatma realizes it has always been, is and shall remain the Paramatma. Though it can’t be a true simily, it is just like the realization of ‘content’ over ‘form’, say, the realization that the ‘ring’ (form) is gold (content). Pairs of opposites seize to exist, the cosciousness goes into ‘Tooriya’ state not to ‘de-perceive’ (probably the nearest term to perceive what I want to say here) again.

    Now, two questions naturally evolve here which I would try to answer later :
    1) ‘Why’ does Paramatma obscures its own perception to Jeevatma ? (having got an idea, i.e., ‘Dharana’, of ‘how’).
    2) ‘Hpw’ does the ‘Realization’ (‘Darshan’) happen ?

    There are many such questions which would keep on logically popping up on the path to try to use one’s mind as a means to understand ahead that which the mind cannot comprehend by itself….. happy journey !

  3. Katinka,

    I enjoyed this post. I am not very familiar with all the terms you present here since I haven’t studied them, but I like the basic ideas and questions you pose. I have often wondered about the soul from life to life. It seems to me that the Buddhist description is the more correct one. Since the self is ultimately and illusion, it is gone at death. But consciousness, which is unchanging and the only real permanence, continues in limited form with each new bodily experience as a continuation of the limitations before. Therefore the self that I refer to as “me” now will be no more, but the patterns and vibrations which made up what I would call “me” will be something different in another life simply because the soul becomes a culmination of everything it has been before. For example, in the New Testament John the Baptist is the culmination of Elijah the prophet and whoever else came before. The self is changed, but there is an influence that carries over.

    I hope I made sense. From a Biblical perspective, I see spirit as raw consciousness which is the potential expression of itself, and once manifested, comes to “be.”

    I’ll be returning to learn more. Thanks again.

  4. I sympathize with your remarks.
    some buddhists are very heavy into re-birth and Anatta as opposed to reincarnation and it can all get quite confusing……………..

  5. Thank you for this blog.
    Well, I do see all religions as well as all philosophies as having the same source of origin. Indeed, confronted with the complexity of the universe and the need to understand it, thoughts start to form. Therefore, there is no difference between religions, the difference between them exist only in words and the terminology they use or even in terms of convinience. Maybe the writers of dictionary and those people intersted in literature shouln`t have giving us so many words.
    The problem with spirituality and the writers is attempt to make us understand that there is a inner or a outter.
    For example, on this blog no explanation is given about what consciesness or soul is. Rather we are given the impression that is something misterious, here is what is written: “(there IS a continuity of consciousness that moves from one life to the next (reincarnation, karma), but this continuity of consciousness is not as unchanging as it seems. In fact, it’s very unstable in content)”. There is no dought about what the writer is trying to explain, is only the explanation that is questionable. Lets take the “content”, the content of consciousness is consciousness itself, and consciousness is its content. Consciousness are the things that we know and that we are, thats all. When I say that is my car, my car is myself. Off course this may be difficult to some, because this explanation reduce them to a simple bit of metter just like the car. Consciouness of all human is the same, it may be a bit modified due to the past history, which is tradition.

  6. Katinka,
    Thank you for taking the time to post this. If I may, I’d like to offer a short comment on the recap points – first, listing yours, followed by my comment. Please respond with your thoughts. Blessings.

    Consciousness continues as does karma, as in: ‘your’ continuity of consciousness will have to deal with the results of what ‘you’ do today.
    (This is a concept held within mind to re-enforce the idea of an “Individual Self” that has Karma – an “I” that can become free. That which you are is prior to the sense of “I”. You are aware of “Self” when it arises, thus, what you are must be prior to it When there is no “I” to be bound, who does karma return to?)

    Consciousness changes as does everything else…
    (…except That which is aware of it)

    Your thoughts…

  7. I tend to see anatman as we do have a soul which reincarnates, but that soul is empty of Self and dependant on causality like all other phenomena, i.e, empty.

    To take the analogy of the wave and the ocean a bit further than it normally is – the individual wave is never the same wave, it’s more of a process that only seems stable and fixed because the constant change integrates to make it seem so. Hence the term, ‘mind-stream’.

    Anyway, nice post. Namaste… 😀

  8. You have posted a unique article, unique in two ways:
    1. Few people research a post so thoroughly, and
    2. Few people think. Think about what they read, study and are taught.

    One key to understanding the anatma concept is to understand the Sanskrit roots of Pali. In Pali, it is Annata, in Sanskrit Anatma. The an before atma in the sanskrit indicates “not”, not “no.” In other words, Buddha’s real teaching is identical with Patanjali’s, which is what you have indicated, that all that we falsely identify with is “not” us, not the self, not that we have no self.

    By the way, I enjoyed your Squidoo article on humor in spirituality.

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