‘Asoulity’ as Translation of Anattā: Absence, not Negation
Posted on August 31st, 2012

Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri (Canada)

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ AnattƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha (Anattalakkhana sutta, S.3.66), identified as one of the three characteristics of sentience, along with aniccƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”impermananceƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ and dukkhƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”sufferingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. In seeking to communicate the idea of anattƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ in English, scholars have come up with several terms, the most in use among them ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”no-selfƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”non-selfƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”selflessƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, as e.g., in CollinsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ Selfless Persons (1982).

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ In a paper in the latest issue of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist StudiesƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  (# 7), ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ IƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  offer an alternative translation, contrasting the Brahmanic concepts of anƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚tman and ƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚tman ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ with the concepts of anattƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ and attƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ in the Buddhadhamma. Pointing out that the prefix a- in anattƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ is used by the Buddha in the sense of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”absenceƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ rather than ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”negationƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, the term ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”asoulityƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ is proposed as best capturing the sense of the term, in the contexts of both sentience and dhammƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ (phenomena). ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”AsoulicƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ (cf symbol > symbolic) is suggested as the adjectival form. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

In the paper, the topic is approached primarily from a Communicative Linguistics point of view. In a theoretical thrust, ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ a linguistic concept, zero-seme is introduced.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ In the context of this study, ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ two related questions are raised as well.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Unlike ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ early scholars such as ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Rhys Davids, why does contemporary western scholarship steer ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ away ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ from any association of anattƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚ with the Brahmanic (and Judeo-Christian), concept of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”soulƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢?

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The second relates to ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ the seeming penchantƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ of ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ theƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Academy to use ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Sanskrit as opposed to Pali ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ in Buddhist scholarship. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ We may never know exactly what language the Buddha spoke, but it is beyond doubt that it was not Sanskrit, though probably a form of Prakrit, of which Pali, of course, is a rendition. So the question is asked, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-If the Buddha chose not to use Sanskrit, why do contemporary scholars opt for it?ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ One possible answer, I note, ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ may be that many North American scholars came to Buddhism by way of Mahayana, given that it was Zen (since the 1850ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s) and Tibetan Buddhism (since the 1960ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s) that were the first to arrive in North America. So is it a bias in favour of Mahayana Buddhism, perhaps even buying into its claim of superiority, ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ without perhaps intending to do so? Or is it a bias against early Buddhism (ƒÆ’†’ƒ”š‚¢diyƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚na as it has been called elsewhere by this writer, replacing the pejorative Hinayana), preserved not in the land of origin but in the land of its adoption, Sri Lanka? Or is it a bias indeed against Sri Lanka itself, ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ dwarfed by the giant India, and home of two world religions, Brahmanism and Buddhism? Or is it indeed an elitism on the part of the Western scholar who, having learned Sanskrit as part of oneƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s study, is (like the writer himself) enamoured ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ of the robustly healthy, far more developed and far more difficult Sanskrit? Or perhaps it is a natural attraction to the language in the Indic Languages branch that holds the parallel position of Greek and Latin in the Germanic and Romance branches, each tracing its history to a common source, proto-Indo-European?

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ I conclude with the words, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Whatever the reason, they all seem to speak to a bias in the academy, unexamined as it may be, though perhaps never attended to. Would Sanskrit replace Chinese or Tibetan, e.g., in studies on Chinese or Tibetan Buddhism?ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The use of the word ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”karumeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ by the average Sinhala Buddhist in the Hindu sense of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”helpless destinyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ is given as an example of a worldview ushered in by language, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”karumeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ being derived from the Sanskrit karma. Would a Sinhala derivative of the Pali kamma help bring back the Buddhist worldview of a modifiable inheritance through the actions of the here-life?

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The full article may be downloaded free at http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/cjbs (where youƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ll have full access to every issue of Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies).

NOTE

To access it (or any CJBS article), simply login into the journalƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s website, or create a login, ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ by following the instructions at

http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/cjbs/user/register. Then click on ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-ArchivesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚, and select the issue and specific article you wish to read.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  When the article opens in your browser window, youƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ll have the option to download it or view it on fullscree

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ (ForƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  a Profile of the author, a Linguist, please ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Google Sugunasiri Wikipedia.)

2 Responses to “‘Asoulity’ as Translation of Anattā: Absence, not Negation”

  1. purohithaa Says:

    You are another who has a “License” to talk & write “Nonsense”.

    Buddhist texts were written thus far by Westerners and various ethnic Monks, among them are Most Venerable Naradha, Piyadassi Theros naming the bear minimum. All these authors intentionally or not refrained from using the word “Soul” for “Athma” therefore “Self”, Non-Self” was used. I believe the earlier Authors were quite capable if they wanted a new word in English for “Athma” & “Anathma”, hence they were satisfied with “Self & “Nonself” as they delivered the required meaning, so they were not “Pedantic”.

    Like in Buddhas time he didn’t want the Suttas written or chanted in Sanskrit, sane Monks didn’t even try to write “Chantings” in Sinhalese or any language other than Pali. Had they done it, the results would have been disastrous.

    You may have tried first “Asoul” then you may have realized it could have the disastrous result it could be pronounced as “arsole”, to avoid that you may have created “Asoulity”. The usage of “Self & Non-Self” is adequate as it delivers the desired meaning in simple English. Besides “Soul” is completely different to the meaning “Self” furthermore, words like “Sermon, soul, Priest” have the Christian flavor whereas” Dhamma Talk, Self & Monk” are Buddhist words!

    My advice is not to abuse your “License” to introduce crap to Buddhist teachings!

  2. Kamal1 Says:

    Buddha’s teachings are in pali as it said by buddha. Sinhala also evolved with pali, thus sinhala is the best language to understand buddhism next to pali. English language has made there where is spreading the great superficial Myth of god in the world & not the truth.
    So buddhism can teach only at some extent in english & don’t need to worry about that.
    We can suggest more words to mean anatta as follows too;
    ex-soul, ex-self, out of soul/self or nil-self/soul,.. etc, but a real studious one can see the genuine meaning of it with other words told by buddha as follows;
    The buddha said that, the world is empty (sunyo loko/සුඤ්ඤො ලොකො) & that means, the world is EMPTY of self or soul & possesses or owns. So it’s well understood that anatta means EMPTINESS of self/soul. This’s why buddha didn’t use only one sutta to explain dhamma & used 1000s of suttas.
    So, we must be STUDIOUS & searching dhamma than be hurry to create more confusions in dhamma while lacking in learning.!

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