In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The “Personalist” Controversy
  • Vasubandhu’s “Treatise on the Refutation of the Person”
  • Later Indian Buddhism
  • Responses from Non-Buddhist Philosophies
  • Self and Selflessness in Central and East Asian Buddhism
  • Contemporary Philosophical Interpretation

Buddhism Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
Matthew Kapstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0147


The precise nature of the Buddha’s doctrine, as he himself may have taught it, is subject to many difficulties of interpretation. Did the Buddha in fact teach a well-formed “doctrine” at all, or was he a practical teacher of ethics and meditation, for whom doctrine was an unnecessary intellectual distraction? Are the doctrines attributed to him perhaps the inventions of the schools that followed and not the formulations of the founder himself? Or was he, as certain scriptures present him, actively engaged in disputations with the leading ascetic teachers of his time, so that he must have sought, in his turn, to refine the content and consistency of his message? However we may seek to answer these and similar questions, many early Buddhist scriptures unmistakably call into question the notion that each one of us possesses a unique and persisting self. Though it has been suggested that the Buddha may have only intended an ethically uplifting conception of selflessness, or perhaps wished to awaken us to the possibility of a higher Self, the attribution to him of a metaphysical assertion of “non-self” (Pali anatta, Skt. anātman) became established as a hallmark of his teaching among the mainstream of his successors early on. From the conflicting interpretations about this that arose in the generations following the founder’s passing, and later from their disputes with the non-Buddhist schools of Indian thought, there evolved in scholastic circles a rich array of increasingly rigorous arguments to support the conclusion that the “self” (ātman) or “person” (pudgala), conceived as an enduring entity that somehow individuates an otherwise fragmented continuum of mental and physical events, simply does not exist. We are continuums (santāna), not persisting selves. The conception of the person that seemed entailed here gave rise to numerous puzzles that later Buddhist thinkers endeavored to resolve. Certain of the teachings that became current were suspected of seeking tacitly to reaffirm the existence of a substantial self. One such doctrine, that of the “Personalists” (pudgalavādin), is surveyed below; others, notably the conceptions of a “ground consciousness” (ālayavijñāna) and of buddha-nature (buddhadhātu, tathāgatagarbha), are treated in other entries. As the history and development of Buddhist thought have become better known, some contemporary scholars have called attention to apparent parallels between Western and Buddhist approaches to the puzzles of the self and personal identity. Recent explorations of these conceptual connections are examined in the final section of this entry.

General Overviews

Buddhist theories of the self and personal identity must be studied in relation to their background in early Indian thought. Horsch 1956 surveys the relevant material, though Steven Collins (see Studies) does this very thoroughly as well. A detailed historical treatment of early Buddhism may be found in Lamotte 1976. Conze 1967 may be recommended as providing valuable introductions to early Buddhist thought more generally, in which the theory of non-self figures prominently. Kapstein 2001 also examines Buddhist views in relation to other aspects of early Indian thought. Selections in Edelglass and Garfield 2009 serve to introduce a broad range of Buddhist philosophical reflections on the self from several periods and traditions. A superb philosophical investigation of the self in early Indian traditions, including Buddhism, is found in Ganeri 2007.

  • Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967.

    Dated but not yet surpassed, Conze’s survey of Indian Buddhist doctrinal developments takes up the teaching of non-self at several junctures.

  • Edelglass, William, and Jay L. Garfield, eds. Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A useful compilation of philosophical extracts, translated and presented by various scholars. Part 4, “Philosophy of Mind and the Person,” includes nine selections relating to the present subject matter, drawn from diverse Buddhist traditions, including early Theravada, the writings of Vasubandhu, Madhyamaka philosophers, and later East Asian thinkers.

  • Ganeri, Jonardon. The Concealed Art of the Self: Theories of Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A superb philosophical meditation engaging conceptions of the self in several Indian traditions, with much attention to Buddhism.

  • Horsch, Paul. “Le principe d’individuation dans la philosophie Indienne.” Asiatische Studien 10 (1956): 60–78.

    The first of a series of three articles providing a useful overview of the treatment of individuation in several of the major traditions of Indian thought. Continued in Asiatische Studien 11 (1957–1958): 29–41, 121–142.

  • Kapstein, Matthew T. Reason’s Traces: Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Thought. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.

    The essays in Part 1 take up various issues relating to the self and personal identity. Chapter 14 offers translations of Vasubandhu’s “Treatise on the Refutation of the Person” and selected Nyāya works criticizing the Buddhist non-self teaching.

  • Lamotte, Étienne. Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien. Louvain, Belgium: Institut Orientaliste, 1976.

    Despite advances in the field, this is still the preeminent synthesis of our knowledge of early Buddhist history. The section dealing with the development of the Abhidharma (chapter VI.II.2) takes up the question of non-self and related issues. Translated into English by Sara Boin-Webb as History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, 1988).

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