Is there no self? Or is there Free Will?… in Buddhism

There is this concept in Buddhism called Anatta:
– Atta has been translated as self or soul (“Self” is a better translation).
– So An-atta means not-self.
The problem is that instead of being not-self, people are mistakenly thinking that the Buddha said that “There is no self” or “There is no soul”.

But guess what?  As noted by both Bhikkhu Thanissaro and Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Buddha NEVER said that there was no self. The Buddha NEVER said that there is no soul.

If we read the Suttas careful, this is what we will find. Instead of saying “There is no self”, what we will find is that the Buddha said this – “The 5 skandhas are not self”.

So if we actually read the Suttas instead of relying on interpretations of the Suttas, we actually find this to be a recurring theme – that whenever the Buddha talks about anatta – he will consistently, time and time again will describe anatta with respect to the 5 Skandhas.  That each of these 5 skandhas are not to be regarded as me, not to be regarded as mine, not to be regarded as my self.

The 5 skandhas are – the body, feelings, perceptions, habits and intellect – the Buddha said that it’s these things are not self, not the real you. This is what he said in the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta
– The body is not self
– Feelings are not self
– Perceptions are not self
– Habitual formations are not self
– Intellectual consciousness is not self
He never said that there is no self, he never said that you don’t exist (called annihilationism – not Buddhism). So the Buddha only said that these 5 things are not the real you (even though we may “think” that they are us or a part of us) – he never said that a real you doesn’t exist!

The Attakari Sutta – The Self-Doer

In the Attakari Sutta, a Brahman came to the Buddha to say:
“I hold the view that “There is no self-doer, there is no other-doer”.

The Buddha rebuked him, saying, “I have never heard of such a view. How can you say that?!

How can you say that when:
– moving forward by himself
– moving backwards by himself
say that there is no self-doer, no other doer?”

The Buddha then asks:
“If something has an element of initiation, is there also someone initiating it?”

The Brahman replies that “Yes, there is”.

In the same way, the Buddha explained:
– If there is an element of intention – there is also an exerter exerting that intention
– If there is an element of effort – there is also an applyer applying that effort
– If there is an element of being determined – there is also determiner being determined
– If there is an element of being persistent – there is also someone being persistent
– If there is an element of endeavouring – there is also an endeavourer making that endeavour

In other words, there is a self behind all these types of intentional action.  There is a do-er – there is a self, doing these things.

Now some Buddhists these days are arguing that everything is conditioned by something else. This means that something comes before which gives rise to something after and this continually repeats itself on and on and on. And they mistakenly think that this is what the Buddha taught – this is NOT what the Buddha taught.   That is fatalism (pre-determined by fate), that is determinism (pre-determined by conditions) – it’s NOT Buddhism.

If everything is pre-determined only by conditions – then you would not be able to use your own effort to change things.  You wouldn’t be able to put your hand in mid-stream and change the direction of the stream with this attitude.  Life would then be relegated to just putting up with what life throws at you.

Examples would be thinking like:

  • It was fated to be that way
  • It’s God’s will
  • It’s karma
  • It’s Allah’s will
  • It’s the will of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
  • It was in the stars

Well, up and to that point, maybe it could be any, all or none of these things giving us our current circumstances:

  • If it’s good conditions that life gives us, then we would be happy to accept it.
  • But if life is throwing us some bad conditions – it doesn’t mean that we should just give up and give in to those circumstances and take the full brunt of the hit.

Depending on the circumstances, we can choose whatever response we might deem most appropriate for the situation:

  • We may choose to endure it
  • We may choose to side step it
  • We may choose to try to mend it
  • We may choose to try to re-direct it
  • We can try to use the energy it gives us as motivation to help us overcome it

So we can put our own intention, we can put our own effort in to whatever conditions life throws at us – to change the conditions!  You don’t have to just take your lot in life as final – you don’t have to be at the mercy of conditions – you can change them!  If it is to be, it’s up to me!

Example 1

We stand in front of a path:

  • We can choose whether to walk it now
  • We can choose to walk it later
  • We can choose to turn back
  • We can choose to walk sideways along it
  • We can choose to not cross it
  • We can even choose to stand still

There is nothing forcing us to cross it or not cross it.  We are free to choose however we want to cross it, if we even want to cross it at all!

So we can choose whatever we want to do, however we want to do it, when we want to do it, if indeed we want to do it at all.

Example 2

Let’s suppose that someone is sick.  Do we just give up on them, saying – that’s his bad karma, why did God do this to him, why did the Buddha allow this?… thinking that because it’s karma or fate or the Buddha/God’s will that you can’t do anything about it.  Of course not!

We take them to the best doctor that we can to get it treated.  We do our best to help them get well.  So we put our own efforts in to try to change the situation of sickness back to that of health.

Maybe it is fate, karma, the Will of God, Allah or the Buddha that got them to be sick – who knows.  Maybe it’s just life.  The point is, life throws us these challenges – it’s up to us as to how we respond to them.  We can choose our response to whatever life throws at us.

However we “choose” to do things – we just need to take responsibility for our actions!  So we use our own wisdom, our own judgement to assess and evaluate the situation – to see which solution would be best – we don’t just mindlessly do things because of our conditioned reactions!

Reacting vs Responding

  • Reactions are conditioned – they are based on habits or things we have done repeatedly to condition that reaction.
  • Responses on the other hand can be carefully thought out and planned, weighing up the situation to see what the best course of action would be.

Responses are done with intention – you insert your intention in to solve the situation.  Reactions are not.

If you say that everything is conditioned by what happened before it – then life would just be a series of pure chain reactions in the same way that inanimate objects would react to each other with no ability to change things – like dominoes falling one after the other.  But the crucial difference is that we are not the dominoes that have no choice in the matter.  Rather, we are more like the creator of how the dominoes formations are shaped, we are the creator of how far apart the dominoes are from each other, we are the creator of when the first domino falls – if we want them to fall at all – so we have all these freedoms!

So we have our own free will, we make our own choices. We are not inanimate things which have no free will – and so, they have no choice but to follow the course of what came before it.  For us, we can be influenced by something, but we are not bound to follow along with that influence.

We do have a choice.  We have sentience.  We have the freedom to choose each and everything that we do.  This freedom to choose comes from the self.


Here is the list of the Suttas where the Buddha talks about anatta – notice how he teaches anatta as being “the 5 skandhas are not self” consistently:

Here, the Buddha teaches anatta in terms of the 6 senses (i.e., the body through which we experience the world) are not self:

10 thoughts on “Is there no self? Or is there Free Will?… in Buddhism

    • Having a look at the Brahmajala Sutta, what I’m seeing is the Buddha outlining all the different types of wrong views about the self. But is not an absolute refutation of a self.

      Otherwise, he would’ve just come out and said, “There is no self”, which he refused to do.

  1. I know this is an old Post, and perhaps your view has since changed, but I thought it important to point out, saying “there is a self” is also something the Buddha didn’t do. To say there isn’t, or there is, or both, or neither are all considered extremes to be avoided. Otherwise, very nice article, thank you! Amituofo!

  2. Please don’t confuse determinism with fatalism; they are not the same thing.

    Determinism: The future is set in stone BECAUSE of what we do; our actions matter.
    Fatalism: The future is set in stone REGARDLESS of what we do; our actions don’t matter.

    And please spare a thought for Compatibilism- the philosophy that free will and determinism are compatible because “free will” is best defined as freedom from the will of other people and institutions, NOT as freedom from deterministic cause-and-effect, since the former definition is what we all really care about anyway.

    • By your name and the way you’re commenting, I take it that you’re either Sam Harris or a fan of his.

      I’m less interested in this theory vs that theory. I’m more interested in what is true.

      For example, in the phenomenal world that we perceive via sensory perception – the world of space and time, cause and effect operate. This is called the conditioned world – where:
      – Certain causes have certain effects.
      – Different causes have different effects.

      So obviously if you CHOOSE a different action (i.e., a different cause), you will have a different effect (i.e., a different future) – and having a different future means that it’s not set in stone.

      Like approaching a forked path where each path leads to a different place and different adventures depending on which particular path you choose to take.

      Plant water melon seeds – you get watermelons. As is the cause, so is the effect. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

      If you choose instead to plant pumpkin seeds – will you get watermelons? Of course not – you’ll get pumpkins instead.

      The cause/action is different to the effect/future. So different actions produce different futures.

      The other observation that we can make directly that is observable for ALL conditioned phenomena is that they are anicca, i.e., uncertain. This is Buddhism 101 and is directly observable.

      The future is NOT set in stone (that’s just an assumption that you can’t really prove). Rather, it is uncertain. There are probabilities of things more likely to occur – but not absolute fixed certainties. Plus you can do things to increase probabilities of a better future for yourself – like studying, working hard, avoiding unwholesome behaviours. The future is not fixed, but rather, dependent on what you do.

      Further, the Buddha taught that there is:
      – The conditioned realm (which has causes and effects) and
      – The unconditioned realm – which has no cause and no beginning – this realm is not bound by cause and effect and is the realm of the Buddha Nature or Bodhi or Nirvana (synonyms for the same thing) and is responsible for our awareness. See, the mind is not necessarily part of the realm of cause and effect – for example – in our dreams – we dream of all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff – but our dream adventures do not necessarily follow the cause effect laws of physics in our waking world. Same with our imagination – you can think up all sorts of weird and wonderful things that don’t follow the cause and effect of the everyday world.

      So, I agree with you that our actions matter – but different actions produce different effects – and so different futures – this is directly observable.

      Finally, personally, I’ve found this particular attitude helpful:
      – We can not control what happens to us – the circumstances that have been thrust upon us through previous causes and effects to give us our current conditions that we’re experiencing in life.
      – However, we can choose our response to it (rather than just react out of habit through previous conditioning)
      This was used by Victor Frankl when he was in the Nazi Concentration camps to be able to survive the horrific suffering that they endured.

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