Continuing the discourse the Buddha said in the same
'O bhikkhus, when neither self nor anything pertaining to self
can truly and really be found, this speculative view: " Th e
universe is that Atman (Soul); I shall be that after death, per-
manent, abiding, ever-lasting, unchanging, and I shall exist as
such for eternity"—is it not wholly and completely foolish?'
Here the Buddha explicitly states that an Atman, or Soul, or
Self, is nowhere to be found in reality, and it is foolish to believe
that there is such a thing.
Those who seek a self in the Buddha's teaching quote a few
examples which they first translate wrongly, and then misinterpret.
One of them is the well-known line
Atta hi attano natho
(XII, 4, or verse 160), which is translated as 'Self
is the lord of self', and then interpreted to mean that the big Self
is the lord of the small self.
First of all, this translation is incorrect.
here does not mean
self in the sense of soul. In Pali the word
is generally used
as a reflexive or indefinite pronoun, except in a few cases
where it specifically and philosophically refers to the soul-theory,
as we have seen above. But in general usage, as in the XII
chapter in the
where this line occurs, and in many
other places, it is used as a reflexive or indefinite pronoun meaning
'myself', 'yourself', 'himself', 'one', 'oneself', etc.
Next, the word
does not mean 'lord', but 'refuge',
'support', 'help', 'protection'.
Atta hi attano natho
Ibid., p. 138. Referring to this passage, S. Radbakrishnan (Indian Philosophy,
Vol. I, London, 1940, p. 485), says: 'It is the false view that clamours for the
perpetual continuance of the small self that Buddha refutes'. We cannot agree with
this remark. On the contrary, the Buddha, in fact, refutes here the Universal Atman
or soul. As we saw just now, in the earlier passage, the Buddha did not accept any
self, great or small. In his view, all theories of Atman were false, mental projections.
In his article 'Vedanta and Buddhism' (The Middle Way, February, 1957), H.
von Glasenapp explains this point clearly.
The commentary on the Dhp. says: Natho'ti patittha 'Natho means support,
(refuge, help, protection),' (Dhp. A III (PTS), p. 148.) The old Sinhalese Sannaya of
the Dhp. paraphrases the word natho as pihifa vanneya 'is a support (refuge, help)'.
(Dhammapada Purdnasannaya, Colombo, 1926, p. 77). If we take the negative form
of natho, this meaning becomes further confirmed: Anatha does not mean 'without
a lord' or 'lordless', but it means 'helpless', 'supportless', 'unprotected', 'poor'.
Even the PTS Pali Dictionary explains the word natha as 'protector', 'refuge',
'help', but not as 'lord'. The translation of the word Lokanatha (s.v.) by 'Saviour of
the world', just using a popular Christian expression, is not quite correct, because the
Buddha is not a saviour. This epithet really means 'Refuge of the World'.
really means 'One is one's own refuge' or 'One is one's own help'
or 'support'. It has nothing to do with any metaphysical soul or
self. It simply means that you have to rely on yourself, and not on
Another example of the attempt to introduce the idea of self into
the Buddha's teaching is in the well-known words
viharatha, attasarana anannasarana,
which are taken out of context
1 This phrase literally means: 'Dwell
making yourselves your island (support), making yourselves your
refuge, and not anyone else as your refuge.'
Those who wish to
see a self in Buddhism interpret the words
'taking self as a lamp', 'taking self as a refuge'.
We cannot understand the full meaning and significance of the
advice of the Buddha to Ananda, unless we take into considera-
tion the background and the context in which these words were
The Buddha was at the time staying at a village called Beluva.
It was just three months before his death,
At this time
he was eighty years old, and was suffering from a very serious
illness, almost dying
But he thought it was not
proper for him to die without breaking it to his disciples who were
near and dear to him. So with courage and determination he bore
all his pains, got the better of his illness, and recovered. But his
health was still poor. After his recovery, he was seated one day in
the shade outside his residence. Ananda, the most devoted atten-
dant of the Buddha, went to his beloved Master, sat near him, and
said: 'Sir, I have looked after the health of the Blessed One, I
have looked after him in his illness. But at the sight of the illness
of the Blessed One the horizon became dim to me, and my
faculties were no longer clear. Yet there was one little consolation:
D II (Colombo, 1929), p. 62.
Rhys Davids (Digha-nikaya Translation II, p. 108) 'Be ye lamps unto yourselves.
Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge.'
Dipa here does not mean lamp, but it definitely means 'island'. The Digha-nikaya
Commentary (DA Colombo ed. p. 380), commenting on the word dipa here says:
Mahasamuddagatam dipam viya attanam dipam patit/ham katvd viharatha. 'Dwell making
yourselves an island, a support (resting place) even as an island in the great ocean.'
Samsdra, the continuity of existence, is usually compared to an ocean, samsara-
sdgara, and what is required in the ocean for safety is an island, a solid land, and not
I thought that the Blessed One would not pass away until he had
left instructions touching the Order of the Sangha.'
Then the Buddha, full of compassion and human feeling,
gently spoke to his devoted and beloved attendant: 'Ananda,
what does the Order of the Sangha expect from me ? I have taught
(Truth) without making any distinction as exoteric
and esoteric. With regard to the truth, the Tathagata has nothing
like the closed fist of a teacher
if there is anyone who thinks that he will lead the Sangha, and
that the Sangha should depend on him, let him set down his
instructions. But the Tathagata has no such idea. Why should he
then leave instructions concerning the Sangha? I am now old,
Ananda, eighty years old. As a worn-out cart has to be kept going
by repairs, so, it seems to me, the body of the Tathagata can only
be kept going by repairs.
Therefore, Ananda, dwell makingyourselves
your island (support), making yourselves, not anyone else, your refuge;
making the Dhamma your island (support), the Dhamma your refuge,
nothing else your refuge.
What the Buddha wanted to convey to Ananda is quite clear.
The latter was sad and depressed. He thought that they would all
be lonely, helpless, without a refuge, without a leader after their
great Teacher's death. So the Buddha gave him consolation,
courage, and confidence, saying that they should depend on them-
selves, and on the
he taught, and not on anyone else, or
on anything else. Here the question of a metaphysical Atman, or
Self, is quite beside the point.
Further, the Buddha explained to Ananda how one could be
one's own island or refuge, how one could make the
one's own island or refuge: through the cultivation of mindful-
ness or awareness of the body, sensations, mind and mind-objects
2 There is no talk at all here about an
Atman or Self.
Another reference, oft-quoted, is used by those who try to
find Atman in the Buddha's teaching. The Buddha was once
seated under a tree in a forest on the way to Uruvela from
Benares. On that day, thirty friends all of them young princes,
D II (Colombo, 1929), pp. 61-62. Only the last sentence is literally translated.
The rest of the story is given briefly according to the Mahaparinibbana-sutta.
Ibid., p. 62. For Satipa/thdna see Chapter VII on Meditation.
went out on a picnic with their young wives into the same forest.
One of the princes who was unmarried brought a prosdtute with
him. While the others were amusing themselves, she purloined
some objects of value and disappeared. In their search for her in
the forest, they saw the Buddha seated under a tree and asked
him whether he had seen a woman. He enquired what was the
matter. When they explained, the Buddha asked them: 'What do
you think, young men ? Which is better for you ? To search after
a woman, or to search after yourselves P'
Here again it is a simple and natural question, and there is no
justification for introducing far-fetched ideas of a metaphysical
or Self into the business. They answered that it was
better for them to search after themselves. Th e Buddha then
asked them to sit down and explained the
to them. In
the available account, in the original text of what he preached to
them, not a word is mentioned about an
Much has been written on the subject of the Buddha's silence
when a certain Parivrajaka (Wanderer) named Vacchagotta asked
him whether there was an
or not. The story is as follows:
Vacchagotta comes to the Buddha and asks:
'Venerable Gotama, is there an
The Buddha is silent.
'Then Venerable Gotama, is there no
Again the Buddha is silent.
Vacchagotta gets up and goes away.
After the Parivrajaka had left,
asks the Buddha why he
did not answer Vacchagotta's quesdon. The Buddha explains his
when asked by Vacchagotta the Wanderer: " Is there
a self?", if I had answered: "There is a self", then,
would be siding with those recluses and brahmanas wh o hold the
when asked by the Wanderer: " Is there no self? "
if I h a d answered: "There is no self", then that would be siding
with those recluses and brahmanas who hold the annihilationist
(Alutgama, 1929), pp. 21-22.
On another occasion the Buddha had told this same Vacchagotta that the Tatha-
gata had no theories, because he had seen the nature of things. (M I (PTS), p. 486.)
Here too he does not want to associate himself with any theorists.
'Again, Ananda, when asked by Vacchagotta: " Is there a
self?", if I had answered: "There is a self", would that be in
accordance with my knowledge that all
are without self?'
'Surely not, Sir.'
'And again, Ananda, when asked by the Wanderer: "Is there
no self?", if I had answered: " Th ere is no self", then that would
have been a greater confusion to the already confused Vaccha-
For he would have thought: Formerly indeed I had an
(self), but now I haven't got one.'
It should now be quite clear why the Buddha was silent. But it
will be still clearer if we take into consideration the whole back-
ground, and the way the Buddha treated questions and questioners
—which is altogether ignored by those wh o have discussed this
The Buddha was not a computing machine giving answers to
whatever questions were put to him by anyone at all, without any
consideration. He was a practical teacher, full of compassion and
wisdom. He did not answer questions to show his knowledge and
intelligence, but to help the questioner on the way to realization.
He always spoke to people bearing in mind their standard of
development, their tendencies, their mental make-up, their
character, their capacity to understand a particular question.
Sabbe dhamma anatta. (Exactly the same words as in the first line of Dhp. XX, 7
which we discussed above.) Woodward's translation of these words by 'all things
are impermanent' (Kindred Sayings IV, p. 282) is completely wrong, probably
due to an oversight. But this is a very serious mistake. This, perhaps, is one of the
reasons for so much unnecessary talk on the Buddha's silence. The most important
word in this context, anatta 'without a self', has been translated as 'impermanent'.
The English translations of Pali texts contain major and minor errors of this kind—
some due to carelessness or oversight, some to lack of proficiency in the original
language. Whatever the cause may be, it is useful to mention here, with the deference
due to those great pioneers in this field, that these errors have been responsible for a
number of wrong ideas about Buddhism among people who have no access to the
original texts. It is good to know therefore that Miss I. B. Horner, the Secretary of
the Pali Text Society, plans to bring out revised and new translations.
In fact on another occasion, evidently earlier, when the Buddha had explained a
certain deep and subtle question—the question as to what happened to an Arahant
after death—Vacchagotta said: 'Venerable Gotama, here I fall into ignorance, I
get into confusion. Whatever little faith I had at the beginning of this conversation
with the Venerable Gotama, that too is gone now.' (M I (PTS), p. 487). So the
Buddha did not want to confuse him again.
S IV (PTS), pp. 400-401.
This knowledge of the Buddha is called Indriyaparopariyattaiiana. MI (PTS), p. 70;
Vibh. (PTS), p. 340.
According to the Buddha, there are four ways of treating
questions: (i) Some should be answered directly; ( z ) others
should be answered by way of analysing them; (3) yet others
should be answered by counter-questions; (4) and lastly, there are
questions which should be put aside.
There may be several ways of putting aside a question. One is
to say that a particular question is not answered or explained, as
the Buddha had told this very same Vacchagotta on more than
one occasion, when those famous questions whether the universe
is eternal or not, etc., were put to him.
In the same way he had
replied to Malunkyaputta and others. But he could not say the
same thing with regard to the question whether there is an
(Self) or not, because he had always discussed and
explained it. He could not say 'there is self', because it is contrary
to his knowledge that 'all
are without self'. Then he did
not want to say 'there is no self', because that would unnecessarily,
without any purpose, have confused and disturbed poor Vaccha-
gotta who was already confused on a similar question, as he had
himself admitted earlier.
He was not yet in a position to under-
stand the idea of
Therefore, to put aside this quesdon by
silence was the wisest thing in this particular case.
We must not forget too that the Buddha had known Vaccha-
gotta quite well for a long time. This was not the first occasion on
which this inquiring Wanderer had come to see him. The wise and
compassionate Teacher gave much thought and showed great
consideration for this confused seeker. There are many references
in the Pali texts to this same Vacchagotta the Wanderer, his going
round quite often to see the Buddha and his disciples and putting
the same kind of question again and again, evidently very much
worried, almost obsessed by these problems.
silence seems to have had much more effect on Vacchagotta than
any eloquent answer or discussion.
A (Colombo, 1929), p. 216.
E.g., S IV (PTS), pp. 593, 395; M I (PTS), p. 484.
See p. 63 n. 2.
E.g., see S III (PTS), pp. 257-263; IV pp. 391 f., 395 f., 398 f., 400; M I, pp. 481 f.,
483 f., 489 f-, A V p. 193.
For, we see that after some time Vacchagotta came again to see the Buddha, but
this time did not ask any questions as usual, but said: "It is long since I had a talk with
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