What the Buddha Never Taught

By Khantichayo Bhikkhu

There have been many misguided attempts by so-called academics of Indology to place the Brahmanical doctrine of ‘Átman’ ~ Brahman/Absolute (Páli ~ attan) into the teachings of the Buddha.

One example is found in the book ‘The Living Thoughts of Gotama The Buddha’ by the authors Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and I. B. Horner. Coomaraswamy's strategy is, at best, proceeding from a long lineage of Vedic academics who have sought to assimilate the Buddha's teachings into Vedic ideologies, the most notorious of these is to portray the Buddha as just another incarnation of the god Vishnu. Coomaraswamy’s approach is rather like that of the early 20th century Theosophist’s of oriental studies, who claimed to have uncovered the very oldest of Buddhist doctrines, then arbitrarily interpreting the true meaning of the Buddha's words and actual intentions, all the while ignoring completely the interpretations of later Buddhist thinkers. These theorists make claims that diminish the unique social reforms and doctrinal discoveries of the Buddha as being merely a product of Indian thought and religious philosophy contemporary to his time. However, Coomaraswamy’s greatest concern is doctrinal, focusing mainly on one of the key tenets of Buddhist doctrine, without which the entire doctrine of Buddhism is impracticable, that of “anattá”, not-self characteristic.

The essential doctrinal differences between the Brahmanical and that of Early Buddhism on the concepts of self and liberation should be discussed here.

For background, the main tenets of Vedántic thought can be briefly stated as follows:

The Sanskrit word ‘átman’ is found in the earliest of Vedic hymns although the origin of its meaning in uncertain. Variously derived, it can mean ‘to breathe’ or ‘the breath’ (of life) or in the Brahmaical sense; the ‘soul’ which is similar to the Greek psyche. It is in this reasoning that the sun is called the átman of all that moves or stands still, and the soma drink is called the átman of the Vedic sacrifices. Átman is also used as a reflexive (or genitive, possessive) pronoun, to mean “himself”, “myself” or “yourself”. And, because the person and body are considered as a whole, the átman can refer to the body and mind. Because of its reference as the ‘breath of life’ the átman was thought of as an animating force, described in the Upanishads as a small creature shaped like a man that could escape the body, in sleep or in trance, to later return and animate it again. Likewise, the atman escapes from the body at death, continuing on its journey of transmigration (samsára). Thus the ‘manas’ (mind) in this connection is a synonym and a usage that developed into the concepts of Self and Soul we find in the Upanishads.

The fundamental attribute of Reality, the All, Eternal, the Absolute, is expressed in the word Brahman. The Brahman is sometimes personified and called Brahmá, which can mean God or Great Self. Brahman is ‘Sat, Cit, Ánanda’ ~ Absolute Being, Absolute Consciousness and Absolute Bliss. Every human being possesses a part of Brahman, which is called átman or the little Self. Brahman and átman are one, and it is only because of ignorance (avidya) that one is prevented from realizing this truth. Liberation (moksha) consists in removing the veil of ignorance and realizing this oneness of the átman with the Brahman. This idea is expressed in the famous quote ‘tat tvam asi’ ~ ‘that thou art’. Thus the átman can be thought of as an eternal immutable substance, free from the hardships attendant to change and decay.

In Pali-Buddhism, the word ‘attan’ has two main uses, similar to the Sanskrit átman; as a reflexive (or in the genitive, possessive) pronoun it means “himself”, “myself”, “yourself” etc. And in various contexts it can refer to the body or the mind. And as a noun it means the “soul” in the Brahmanical sense. Contrary to the Brahmanical theories of his time, the Buddha chose not to assume the existence of an eternal self or soul, although he would refer to the existence of the self or person subjective to conditional phenomena and responsible for ones actions in that sense.

In distinct contrast to the Vedic theories of the ‘Átman’ contemporary to his time, the Buddha rejected these in one clean sweep in the doctrine of anattá; Reality, all phenomena, is analyzed as nothing more than a perpetual rearranging of psychophysical events, summarized in the pañca-khandha (Skt. ~ skandha) lit. ‘five bases’; 1) Matter/Corporeality ~ Rúpa, 2) Sensation/Feeling ~ Vedaná, 3) Perception/Intuitive Cognition ~ Saññá ,4) Mental Formations ~ Sankhára, 5) Consciousness/Life-Force ~ Viññána. The interaction of these factors manifest as the experience of life, and are detailed in the Law of Cause and Effect ~ kamma (Skt. karma ~ 'action') and ‘Dependant Genesis’ ~ Paticca-samuppáda , demonstrating that all events are dependant on a cause. The ‘person’ regenerates itself, conditioned by illusory self-identification with the arising of events in the present moment from previous actions (kammakkhaya), which in their decline are conditioned by present action, continuing on to likewise manifest in the next moment. This 'person' or witness of these manifestations and extinctions is likewise nothing more than an evolution of natural elements with latent tendencies of consciousness, held together by a thread of memory running through an ever-changing experience of reality, i.e. there can be no individuality outside the arrangement of components, and the arrangement of the components in one moment is different from the next, hence the impossibility of a continuous, unchanging, self or 'person'. This cycle is perpetuated by ignorance ~ avijjá of Truth ‘produced from restraint, seeing things as they truly are’ ~ yatábhúta-ñánadassana, craving/desire ~ tanhá and clinging ~ upadáná, resulting in suffering ~ dukkha which begins the process over again, ad-infinitum.

The way to liberation taught by the Buddha is summarized in the Four Noble Truths & The Noble Eightfold Path [*], the latter consisting of three sections: Virtue ~ Síla, Concentration ~ Samádhi and Wisdom ~ Paññya. Virtue frees the mind from worry and guilt, Concentration is the contemplative work based on the above analysis of all phenomena in terms of three characteristics ~ ti-lakkhana[1]; 1) Impermanence ~ Anicca, 2) Suffering or misery due to ignorance, craving & clinging ~ Dukkha, and 3) Not-Self; realising that because all things are inconstant, there likewise is no constant “I” or “Mine”, eternal self or witness of the experience ~ Anattá. This gives rise to wisdom ~ paññya and realization of Truth ~ ‘seeing things as they truly are’ ~ ñánadassana, leading to an un-prompted release of the burden of desire and self-illusion, resulting in an experience of voidness ~ suññatá (peace), which with continued effort leads to supreme voidness ~ paramam-suññam (Supreme Peace), Nibbána.

Coomaraswamy claimed that the Buddha never taught non-existence of an eternal self. This claim is literally true in the case of the paribbájako Vacchagotta who directly asked the Buddha “Is there a self” ~ “Is there not a self?” whereupon the Buddha remained silent. [2] When Ánanda later asked about his silence, the Buddha said that to affirm or deny the existence of an eternal self would have sided with secular theories and have disturbed Vacchagotta even more. It must be pointed out that Vacchagotta had repeatedly come to the Buddha with questions such as these, and although he seriously was trying to understand, he was troubled over this matter, to the point where the Buddha was perhaps silent in this case out of compassion. However, the Buddha did teach anattá throughout his career… not in a negative, nihilistic way of 'non-reality', but rather by showing 'why it is' and how to see it integrated positively in the law of kamma ~ cause and effect, directing the contemplative ~ “When you see with detachment, All fabrications are inconstant…” naturally leads one to the wisdom that “...All fabrications are suffering…” ~ because of unawareness and attachment resulting in self-identification with the changing events, realization of which leads the mind to release of attachment through restraint, leading to pure awareness, seeing that ~ “...All Phenomena are not-self...” , the direct realization of the impossibility of an everlasting anything, self or witness.

However, the denial of the Buddha’s doctrine of ‘anattá’ is in no way unique. Coomaraswamy and Horner, like the many western Indological scholars of the 19th and early 20th century, looked for any way of making this seemingly nihilistic doctrine more harmonious with the Christian belief in an eternal soul. To make this claim stick they began by stating, “the Buddhist point of view is exactly the same as the Brahmanical.” even though the number of passages in the Pali Canon dealing with Upanishadic doctrines is quite small. To safeguard this theory they altered the translation of Pali texts to demonstrate that the Buddha affirmed the existence of ‘attan’ (Skt. ‘Átman’ ~ Brahman/Absolute). Where the Pali texts refer to ‘anattá’, translated as ‘not-self’, they insert the awkward translation of “un-Selfishness” and argue that although the Buddha did claim that the five-bases of all cognizable phenomena are without permanent self, that he never directly denied the existence of ‘attan’, the ‘Brahman/Absolute’ lying outside of conditional and thus cognizable phenomena.

George Grimm, is his book “The Doctrine of the Buddha” made an identical claim with his “Great Syllogism” as follows: “Everything is not my I, not my true essence, is Anattá.” ... “But those things which alone are cognizable, he (the Buddha) has seen correctly, perfectly apprehending them as being mere objects for us, and precisely therefore, not our true I (anattá)”. From this reasoning, Grimm surmises that there must be an eternal essential “Self”, free from conditionality and consequential suffering, and above all cognoscibility. This is as if to say that although the Buddha denied the pañca-khandha as possessing a permanent self, that the Buddha implied something apart from this that we can call the Absolute-'I', to be inferred simply by his silence on the matter.

To prove this, these theorists often refer to a favored selection of texts found in the Pali canon. One example is found in a section of the Dhammapada [3]that consists of a series of admonitions from the Buddha to contemplatives, ranging from guarding ‘oneself’ against improper conduct or ‘practicing what one preaches’, to being vigilant and confidant in ones practice of the doctrine to attain the goal. Coomaraswamy and Horner preferred to extract the following out of context: “Attá hi attano nátho” which they mistranslate and interpret for us to read, “Self is the lord of self.” They imply that it means that ‘Self’ or ‘attan’ (‘Atmán’) is the lord of the little self or conditioned personality.

But they are incorrect from the start. In the philosophical context of this line ‘Attá’ does not mean Self/soul in the Brahmanical sense, but rather in the common usage as a reflexive pronoun to mean ‘oneself’. Also, ‘nátho’ does not mean ‘lord’ but as ‘protector’, ‘refuge’ or ‘support’ instead. Thus translating “Attá hi attano nátho” as “One indeed is the protector of oneself” or “One indeed is ones own support”, which is followed by, “ko hi nátho paro siyá?” meaning, “who else could the protector (support) be?”. Finally, the last line of this verse confirms the intended meaning of the whole: “attaná hi sudantena, nátham labhati dullabham.” which means, “With oneself fully controlled (sudantena), one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.”, Dhammapada 12 represents a standard theme found throughout Buddhist doctrine; The Buddha often admonished people to rely on themselves, on their own effort in terms of their contemplative practice.

Another passage altered with the same reasoning by Coomaraswamy and Horner is from the Digha Nikaya [4]: “Tasmátihánanda, attadípá viharatha attasaraná anaññasaraná,” which they again mistranslate and interpret for us to read, “Therefore, Ánanda, Self is the light of the self (attadípá)...taking Self as a refuge...” (attasaraná). However, ‘dípa’ in this context should not be translated as lamp or light but as “double-watered” into island or refuge instead. Thus making the actual translation as, “Therefore, Ánanda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge…” ('atta' again, is the common usage as a reflexive pronoun to mean ‘yourself’), clarified further in the next line, “dhammadípá dhammasaraná anaññasaraná.” which means, “Dwell with the Dhamma (doctrine) as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.”

The setting of the ‘Mahaparinibbana Sutta’ is about facts concerning the Buddha’s last days, including his final instructions to his followers. Here he is admonishing them to rely on their own effort, to ‘strive on’ and apply the doctrine in their lives. The inference of ‘atta’ as ‘Brahman/Absolute’ is completely foreign to this passage, which is borne out when the Buddha went on to say, “Kathañcánanda, bhikkhu attadípo viharati attasarano anaññasarano, dhammadípo dhammasarano anaññasarano?” “And how, Ánanda, is a bhikkhu an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?” The Buddha then went on to describe the Satipatthána, the four foundations of mindfulness; contemplation of the body, feelings, mind, and meditation objects, a theme the Buddha often taught on. Here he is saying to make the Dhamma (doctrine) of Satipatthána as one’s refuge, again no mention of ‘attán’ ~ ‘Brahman/Absolute’ as refuge. Furthermore, it is in the last line of this passage where the Buddha describes the result of Dhamma (doctrine) as refuge: “Those bhikkhus of mine, Ánanda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves,…‘it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn." ("tamatagge me te, ánanda, bhikkhu bhavissanti ye keci sikkhákámá'ti.”) Here the Pali word ‘Tamatagge’ = “the highest”, having cut every bondage of darkness, those bhikkhus will be on the very summit (ati-agge). Again there is no mention of attán ~ Self as refuge.

In Majjhima Nikaya, Vacchagotta the wanderer asks the Buddha, “Does the Master Gotama hold any speculative view at all?” The Buddha replied, “Vaccha, ‘speculative view’ (ditthigata lit. ‘theories’) is something that the Tathágata has put away. For the Tathágata, Vaccha, has seen this: Such is the material form, such its origin, such its disappearance;...'such is feeling... 'such is perception… such are mental formations… such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.’ Therefore, I say, with the destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up and relinquishing of all conceiving, all excogitations, all I-making, all mine-making, and the underlying tendency to conceit, the Tathágata is liberated through not clinging.” [5]

But in response to the above and many similar statements by the Buddha, Coomaraswamy and Horner, just as George Grimm in his above mentioned “Great Syllogism”, insist that the Buddha’s denial of ‘atta’ intrinsic to the khandhas is really an affirmation of the mahá-atmán ~ “Great Self”. They argue that although the Buddha stated that the five-bases are not ‘attá’, that he never specifically denied the ‘Átman’. They claim that Buddha was only directing us to see the real Self behind the personal ego, a view identical to that found in the Upanishads, reasoning that Buddha’s denial of the khandhas possessing an everlasting ‘atta’ indicates that He affirmed the true ‘Átman’ by default, i.e. when Buddha said, ‘form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness is not-self’ these scholars make the following argument: “But a moment’s consideration of the logic of the words will show that they (the listeners) assume the reality of a Self that is not any one or all of the ‘things’ that are denied of it.” With regard to this claim the following statements by the Buddha, found in the Dhammapada [6] should be considered:

The Three Characteristics (tilakkhana): ~ Dhp. 22.277-279

277. “Sabbe sankhárá aniccá”ti, yadá paññáya passati; atha nibbindati dukkhe, esa maggo visuddhiyá.
“ When you see with discernment, ‘All conditioned things are impermanent’; you grow disenchanted with stress. This is the path to purity.
278. “Sabbe sankhárá dukkhá”ti, yadá paññáya passati; atha nibbindati dukkhe, esa maggo visuddhiyá.
“ When you see with discernment, ‘All conditioned things are suffering’; you grow disenchanted with stress. This is the path to purity.
279. “Sabbe dhammá anattá”ti, yadá paññáya passati; atha nibbindati dukkhe, esa maggo visuddhiyá.
“ When you see with discernment, ‘All things, manifest or un-manifest, are not-self’; you grow disenchanted with stress. This is the path to purity.”

The first line states, “All conditioned things (sankhárá) are impermanent…” The second line, “All conditioned things are suffering…” The third line, however, is different. Here, the Buddha does not use the word ‘sankhárá’ (formations, ‘conditioned things’) but ‘dhammá’ instead. The definition of ‘dhammá’ covers a broad range, from Doctrine or Law to nature and all phenomena. Here it is referring to 'all phenomenal reality', both tangible and evanescent ~ dhamma-nijjívatá , i.e. everything cognizable and hidden, translating this line as, “All things, (manifest or un-manifest), are not-self…” This means that even ‘Nibbána’, which is ‘asankhárá’ ~ unconditioned, is also anattá ~ without permanant self. This statement unequivocally denies the ‘attá’ ~ self or Self/Absolute of any kind, even in enlightenment, even in Nibbána.

The Buddha's teaching states clearly that ‘personality-belief’ ~ sakkáya-ditthi, or ‘ego-illusion’ ~ atta-ditthi, is wrong-view ~ miccha-ditthi, that will lead to craving, vexation and suffering, and that wrong views must be rejected because they are a source of corrupted aspirations and conduct.

In the Brahmajala Sutta (also called Ditthijala, ‘net of views’), the Buddha discusses at length 62 categories of wrong views pertaining to speculation of the past, future, both past and future and beliefs adhering or relating to these, one of which is the belief that there exists an eternal self or soul:

“ …Thus, bhikkhus, when those ascetics and Brahmins who are Eternalists (sassata-váda) proclaim the eternity of the self ‘attan’ and the world ‘loka’ in the four ways, that is merely the feeling of those who do not know and see, the worry and vacillation of those immersed in craving.” [7]

Furthermore, The Buddha stated that if there existed any amount of permanent self-existence ~ attabháva, that his Doctrine would be impracticable:

“...Monk, there is no materiality whatsoever, no feeling…no perception…no formations of the mind…no consciousness whatsoever that is permanent, everlasting, eternal, unchanging or identically abiding for eternity.

Then the Bleesed One took up a bit of cowdung in his hand and said to that monk: “Monk, there is not even this much of permanent, everlasting, eternal, unchanging individual self-existence (attabháva), identically abiding for eternity. If even this much of permanent, everlasting, eternal, unchanging individual self-existence, identically abiding for eternity could be found, then this living the renounced life for the eradication of suffering would not be conceivable. But because there is not even this much of permanent, everlasting, eternal, unchanging individual self-existence, identically abiding for eternity, this living the renounced life for the eradication of suffering is conceivable...” [8]


One fact we may take as a given with any record of history is the deterioration of time. The information that is clearest is that at the moment of its origin. And the ‘clearest’ only in the mind sympathetically disposed at that time. Typically, things go downhill from there, religious doctrines notwithstanding. Even though the Buddhist faithful and many scholars, Buddhist and secular, regard the Pali canon as the earliest detailed record of the Buddha’s teachings, it is still vacuously challenged with controversy over its authenticity. However, the Buddha’s teaching provides the contemplative of any time in the doctrines history with a safeguard against controversies that would otherwise leave one overwhelmed with doubt; that of knowing the truth for oneself.

In the Buddha’s discourse to the Kalamas he cautions against belief in hearsay: “Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher...” [9] he then details clearly that the Dhamma is understood only by knowing and abandoning what is unskillful and following what is skillful, testing this for oneself in the mind and checking the results against the opinions of the wise with direct personal effort.



1) Dhp.20: 277-279, 'The Path'

2) SN.5:44, 10, 'Ananda Sutta'

3) Dhp.12.157-166 Attavaggo, ‘The Self’

4) DN.16:2.25-26, 'Mahaparinibbana Sutta'

5) MN.72, 'Aggivacchagottasuttam'

6) Dhp. 22.277-279, 'Maggavaggo'

7) DN. 1:105 'Brahmajala Sutta'

8) SN. 22.96 'A lump of Cowdung'

9) (AN, 3:65)

The Four Noble Truths ~ “Cattári ariya saccáni”

1) The Noble Truth of Suffering ~ Dukkham Ariyasaccam: Which is to be comprehended. Because of continuous change, all things are in a condition of stress. Indeed, everything cognizable that we experience is stressful, even happiness is stressful due to its temporal nature.

2) The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering ~ Dukkhasamudayo Ariyasaccam: Which is to be abandoned. The cause of suffering is craving (tanhá) for sensuality, for states of becoming, and states of non-becoming. Contact with phenomena gives rise to identification with it, making it ‘personal’, leading to craving, attachment to and aversion from it. Continuing this process ad-infinitum.

3) The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering ~ Dukkhanirodho Ariyasaccam: Which is to be directly experienced. The experience of suffering ends with the relinquishment of that craving through the cultivation of mindfulness, restraint and detachment. With the mind stable, one can passively watch the processes of all phenomena, see its true nature; that it arises from a cause, evolves along its natural course and then dissolves of its own. This leads one naturally to dispassion and release.

4) The Noble Truth of the Way leading to the cessation of Suffering ~ Dukkhanirodhagáminípatipadá áriyasaccam: The Noble Eightfold Path or 'Middle Way'. Which is to be developed. The Buddha gave more than simply a moral code to live by and allusions to what liberation is like, he taught a strategy which leads to liberation, realized through direct knowledge:

The Noble Eightfold Path ~ Ariya-atthangika-magga: or ‘Middle Way’ could be summarized in the Three Positive Aggregates as follows: Virtue (síla): 1) Right speech (sammá-vácá), 2) Right action (sammá-kammanta), and 3) Right livelihood (sammá-ájivo). Concentration (samádhi): 4) Right effort (sammá-váyáma), 5) Right mindfulness (sammá-sati), and 6) Right concentration (sammá-samádhi). Wisdom (paññya), discernment: 7) Right view (sammá-ditthi) and 8) Right resolve (sammá-sankappa).