Can similarities be found in western philosophy with the eastern concept of self (no-self) in Buddhism?

In Buddhism the no-self is called anatman. Buddha spoke about the emptiness of the form, in the sense that the form is the physical body, and the human being is just impermanence. There is no soul and no-self. This is a central concept to Buddhism and the very nature of enlightenment, of 'Buddha nature', resides in the full realization of this emptiness.

"In the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week. (...) We all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is. It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not." (Ron Crouch, Psychological Self vs. No-Self)

In what concerns western thought, self is seen very differently, being even the main focus of human rights and freedom. Yet neurosciences couldn't have hoped to "find" where the self is located in the brain until now. Does anyone know about any philosophers, maybe contemporary, speaking from the position of the inexistence of the self?

  • See my answer here for a Hindu view of the relationship - hinduism.stackexchange.com/questions/6758/… Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 11:28
  • As mentioned by others Hume's bundle theory comes close to Buddhist no-self. The conflict between Western Empiricists vs Rationalists has a strong parallel with the conflict between Buddhist vs Hindu philosophers. Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 9:27

6 Answers 6


anatman is a concatanation of the privative an, meaning no or not, and atman, which is sometimes translated as soul or self, for example, Tagore named Gandhi mahatma meaning great (maha) soul (atma).

However, the word soul, though having religous and sacred overtones, and relating to inner essence, is bound up with the Christian tradition which makes it for some, unsuitable; and so the the word self is used. But this is also problematic, as in ordinary English usage its closely tied with the word selfish and myself, which are not the right associations to use.

One might after all these considerations prefer to stay with the term atma as a technical term in Buddhist philosophy.

The central concept, at least as Nagarjuna (the pre-eminent Buddhist philosopher) sees it, is that of sunyata, or emptiness. This is not pure emptiness, or non-existence (abhava); but the emptiness of something, and this something is named svabhava - the rough (technical) correlative to this idea in western philosophy is that of substance or essence; etymologically it means own (sva) nature or ground (bhava). To say that svabhava has sunyata means the lack of autonomous existence (nhsvabhava).

Not only things but persons have svabhava - atma; but since Nagarjuna argues for the sunyata of svabhava in general, this means atma is empty, that is of substantial reality - atma is then a process; but also that it lacks autonomous existence - that is one persons atma is not self-sufficient depends on other atmas. But atmas are embodied, and this means by the same argument, that they are depedent on other bodies.

Thus, one can say in a sense, nothing is autonomous - all depends on all.

  • 3
    This answer is almost enlightening—I need some help. :-) (1) How does the idea of detachment figure into "all depends on all"? (2) Western philosophy has much to say about particulars and universals. Does Hinduism do away with particulars?
    – labreuer
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 2:17
  • A note about detachment: If one pursues detachment, that person can make it another form of attachment, which is exactly the same thing. Attachment is to grig and to hold - a self-centered activity, exactly the opposite of being all one / no separation.
    – Di Ana
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 13:38
  • 2
    @labreuer Yes, the Hindu Advaita philosophy does away with particulars. There is a very good book which compares the various non-dual philosophies as well as those of the West that touch on it also. It is called "Non-Duality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy" by David Loy Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 11:43

I've noticed similarities e.g. in Derek Parfit's (1942–) Reasons and Persons, in David Hume's (1711–1776) bundle theory, and in Michel de Montaigne's (1533–1592) Essays.

Parfit is active at a time when the West has obviously become aware of Buddhism (and Indian philosophy in general). He showed surprise when resemblances between the Buddhist and his view of the self were pointed out to him. If memory serves, there is evidence that Hume has been at least partly aware of Buddhism via Jesuits at the Royal College of La Flèche. Montaigne was an approximate contemporary of the Jesuits' founder (first Jesuit mission to China in 1552), but in his case I have not heard of a similar link. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that La Flèche is not too far away from Montaigne's home town Bordeaux.


Can similarities be found in western philosophy with the eastern concept of self (no-self) in Buddhism?

Yes. A striking parallelism to Buddha's view of no-soul is expanded by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. "A Treatise on Human Nature" contains a whole section "Of Personal Identity" (Book 1, Part IV, Section VI). Hume writes:

But setting aside some metaphysiciens of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.

Apparently these perceptions cohere. According to Hume, the principles of coherence are:

  • Similarity
  • neighbourhoud referring to time and space and
  • causality.

This coherence takes place in our memory:

Had we no memory, we never should have any notion of causation, nor consequently of that chain of causes and effects, which constitute our self or person. (1.IV.VI)

Buddha lived in a society influenced by the ancient Brahmin traditions of the vedas. He was well aware of the oldest Upanishads like the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Buddha argues against texts like these. Because he considers it a misconception to consider the self (atman) a substance. In his worldview, not permanence but impermanence is the principle, which dominates everything.

The similarities between the conceptions of Buddha and Hume on the topic "soul - no soul" has also been touched in "Richard Gombrich: What the Buddha Thought. 2009". But he puts them aside when explaining Buddhas teaching. Because Gombrich always strives to keep the historical context when explaining the teachings of Buddha.

By the way, I consider Gombrich's book one of the best introductions to Buddhism written by a Western scholar.


Dr. Susan Blackmore writes about anatta/anatman with a very modern take, via memetics.

E.g. Waking from the Meme Dream

There is a long history, in spiritual and religious traditions, of the idea that normal waking life is a dream or illusion. This makes no sense to someone who looks around and is convinced there is a real world out there and a self who perceives it. However, there are many clues that this ordinary view is false.

Some clues come from spontaneous mystical experiences ...

Other clues come from spiritual practice. ...

Finally clues come from science. The most obvious (and scary) conclusion from modern neuroscience is that there is simply no one inside the brain. The more we learn about the way the brain functions the less it seems to need a central controller, a little person inside, a decider of decisions or an experiencer of experiences. These are just fictions - part of the story the brain tells itself about a self within (Churchland and Sejnowski, 1992; Dennett, 1991).


I'm only adding another answer here, because I immediately thought of a two philosophers that no one else has mentioned.


"A person is not a Thing, not a substance, not an object"

A quote from your question:

"We all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere."

For Heidegger, this is not so. Some of his philosophy could be summarized as saying - There is Being and Being is unconcealed in a particular fashion in accordance with certain phenomenological constructs. For example, 'Being and Time', perhaps his magnum opus, attempts to understand Being in terms of the relationship between Being and Time. Throughout his work, Being can never be found as having some SELF that exists independently of the relationship between Being and the clearing that provides a context for Being to occur as it does. In some ways this is similar to Dependent Origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) in Buddhism.

In addition, per Wikipedia:

Heidegger's "Dialogue on Language", has a Japanese friend (Tezuka Tomio) state that "to us [Japanese] emptiness is the loftiest name for what you mean to say with the word ‘Being’”


From the same Wikipedia article as the Heidegger quote

Nietzsche (as well as Buddha) accepted that all is change and becoming, and both sought to create an ethics which was not based on a God or an Absolutist Being.

and further ...

The similarity between Nietzsche's view of the Ego as flux and the Buddhist concept of anatta is also noted

While Buddha proposed the rejection of cravings - the triumph over desire as it were - as a path to the cessation of suffering - a path to cutting off 'the endless cycle of birth and death (Samsara)', Nietzsche offered up the myth of Eternal Return in The Gay Science, saying:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'

In what is perhaps an inversion of the Buddhist doctrine of rejection, Nietzsche proposes:

My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it.

Though on a surface level, the parallels are subtle, after investigation, it becomes clear that the idea of no-self is embedded in both Samsara and Eternal Return equally. In both instances, there is an experience subject to past actions ( when are past actions created? ), and that experience repeats eternally. There is no self experiencing Samsara that is separate from Samsara. The illusion of Samsara is perpetuated by desire as an endless cycle of grasping and rejecting; of becoming and termination. In as much as one is at odds with the present moment - either by craving or suffering the consequences of previous actions - one experiences the self as an entity separate from the flow.

The cessation of desire is achieved in Buddhism by cutting off desire through negation ( though negation is but one method in Buddhism ), and with Nietzsche, by amor fati. With amor fati one is not afflicted by desire as one loves their fate and embraces the circumstances of a given situation regardless of how bad it is; as such, they wish to change nothing. In that space, one simply is - and as such, that is-ness is not separate from the flow. Nirvana is Samsara.


Yes, there are.

Contemporary views

J.D. Velleman argues in his works that the (analytic) metaphysics of time, especially endurantism and presentism, are severely inconsistent. He explicitely introduces the Buddhist thought of no-self as an interesting concept that shows us how time could and should be understood, illustrating his own (again, analytic) theory of time. He even talks about not only self and time, but suffering as well, as examples of mere illusions.

He further points out that while the works of Derek Parfit mentioned by @Drux point in the correct direction (and indeed contain thoughts similar to Buddhist philosophy), he himself did not make this link and therefore missed some interesting features of his model of self regarding the theory of time as a whole.

These thoughts are summarised in the lecture 'So it goes' (2006), freely available as part of the Amherst Lectures (which are always worth a look by the way).

Quoting the abstract:

Buddhists believe that the existence of an enduring self is an illusion and that this illusion is the root of the suffering inherent in the human condition. I want to explore whether this particular Buddhist thought can be understood in terms familiar to analytic philosophy. How might the illusion of an enduring self lie at the root of human suffering? After explaining the sense in which the enduring self is indeed an illusion, I argue that this illusion goes hand-in-hand with another — namely, the illusion of the passage of time. Seeming to be an enduring self, even though one is not, is what makes time seem to pass, even though it does not. And the appearance that time passes, I argue, is the source of the suffering that is alleviated when both illusions are dispelled.

Older examples (not mentioned by @Drux)

Friedrich Hölderlin in his short fragment Judgement and Being presents a view where there is original being that is separated by the original judgement that sperarates into object and subject (The German term for judgement - Urteil - may be interpreted as meaning 'the archetype of seperation' - Ur-Teilung, which is quite a nice word-play). That obviously relates to some Buddhist thoughts about the illusion of our privileging of the self. But, contrary to Buddhists, he rejects the possibility of accessing the original being (i.e. there is no Buddhist's Enlightenment possible in his view).

There may be readings of Heraclitus (I try to defend that position in an assignment) that are near to Buddhist philosophy as they emphasise the deceptive aspects of judgements in perception, resulting in paradoxical views on change and persistence as well as contradictory points of view in perception as well as logic.

Another example not mentioned by @Drux would clearly be the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher who learnt Sanscrit (autodidactically!) in order to read the Vedas in original. He developed a philosophy very similar to Buddhist thoughts in The World as Will and Representation (1819)


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