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The Christian 'self' in response to the Buddhist 'no-self'


Providing a sensitive response to the doctrine of no self, first requires an overview of the Christian understanding of the self, and some exposition of the Buddhist Doctrine. The writings of the apostle Paul provide a useful backdrop to the question as does the philosophical study the Church has historically undertaken around monism, dichotomy, and trichotomy viewpoints of the self. There are points were the Buddhist worldview and Christian worldview align, but there is also significant departure.

Understanding the Doctrine of ‘no self’

It is important to recognise that the doctrine arose in a specific historical context; its origin is in response to a multitude of theories concerning ‘notions of the self’, held by the people living in the North of India in the 5th century BCE. Evidence from sources in Brahmanism and Jainism, alongside those from Buddhism, indicate that people have long been concerned with the ultimate nature of the individual.[1]

The ‘anatman/anatta’ is considered the universal principle which is the subject of experiential phenomena: it is the contradictory idea of the ‘nothing’ that experiences ‘everything’. However, it is not so simple; the Mahayana treatise, Maha Prajnaparamita, tells us that emptiness is form and form is emptiness, therefore, it is wise to avoid discourse that places the principles of self and no-self in opposition. In Buddhism, all things are interwoven:

'As all things are buddha dharma, there is delusion, realization, practice, birth [life] and death, buddhas and sentient beings. As myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The buddha way, in essence, is leaping clear of abundance and lack; thus, there is birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.'[2]

Buddhism considers this interwoven, underlying, unchanging, metaphysical ‘self’ to be unbound by suffering; it is an aggregate construction, formed from parts known as the Five Skandhas:

1. Form (Rupa)

2. Pleasant, unpleasant, and indifferent feelings (Vedana)

3. Recognition (Samjna/sanna)

4. Volitional forces: desire, wish, tendencies, formations (samskara/samkhara)

5. Basic self-consciousness or awareness (vijnana/vinnana)

To clarify, in response to any external experience or stimuli, bodily phenomena will experience feelings that are recognised, whilst a simultaneous resolution occurs; this immediately gives rise to a conscious awareness of the same stimuli. The reality of the experienced stimuli is therefore contingent on this grouped response: no single ‘I’ can exist as the ‘permanent experiencer’ ergo there is no self. Consider a Venn diagram: where the five circles overlap, the anatman will be found. Gethin summarises the benefit to this approach: “it cannot be denied that there is a complex of experiences going on: this can be conveniently analysed by way of the five aggregates.”[3] Before we consider the Christian response to the idea of ‘no self’, we must first address the impact it has on Buddhism itself, specifically the doctrine of rebirth.

Why dharma and theodicy matter to the ‘self’

If there is no self, what then continues the cycle of death and rebirth? It cannot be only an amalgam of the Five Skandhas, as they cannot exist in a permanent state, and are entirely contingent; yet something must be carried forward into the new reality of being. Buddhism does not have a homogenous approach to the doctrine of rebirth, and it would be unfair to treat it as such; there is a spectrum of belief within the various strands, from a deterministic approach to a more nihilistic one. However, for all Buddhists, it is not a problem of epistemology but of praxis: a pattern of events is continually occurring which is predicated on dependent arisings; it is to the benefit of the individual to recognise this pattern, and to reconcile with it, to cease suffering. Thus, both the atman and anatman become a conditioned response to suffering: to a follower of Buddhism, self and suffering exist in perpetual symbiosis; both are immaterial yet observable, traversing the space between physical and metaphysical reality.

In both the Christian and Buddhist worldview, causation and cessation of suffering has a deep soteriological significance. Understanding the ‘self’ therefore becomes an important factor in the ontological conundrum of life, or as the Buddhist calls it: dharma. Where a Buddhist would practice skills and follow an eightfold path to become harmonious with the dharma stream, a Christian would practise faith, and follow the simplified tenfold path laid out by Jesus. Christians believe that their immaterial self will spend time with God, before a time of renewal, and bodily resurrection. The impact of God’s grace, and of His revelation, therefore, have repercussions for the human ‘self’; it is through this lens that Christians view the theodicy that Buddhists call dharma.

Trichotomy, Dichotomy, and Monism

Justification for the immaterial self is first found in Gen 2:7: after God created man, He imbued him with the breath of life, which only then made him into a living soul (nephesh). In Hebraic thought the nephesh denotes the whole self, this is known as monism, where scriptural terms soul and spirit become nothing more than synonyms and expressions for the ‘self’.[4] However, it is important to note that although the Hebraic understanding of ‘self’ points to a unified ‘one’, it is not made ontologically possible without first the metaphysical element originating from God.

Regarding the Christian view of the ‘self’, it is widely agreed in academia that platonic dualism influenced Hellenistic thinkers and early Christians; but there remains a scriptural basis, even in the Hebrew scriptures, indicating a separation of soul/spirit and body; in Gen 35:18, we find “and as her soul was departing (for she was dying)” and Psalm 31:5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit”. Examples of this dichotomist view is prevalent throughout the New Testament[5], and as Grudem states, it is the more commonly held view throughout the history of the church and among evangelical scholars.[6]

The view that man is made of three parts is called trichotomy; the three parts are body, soul, and spirit.[7] Although the latter two are separate parts, the soul and the spirit are intrinsically linked. Delitzsch defines it in the following way:

“The soul is the external aspect of the spirit, and the spirit is the internal aspect of the soul; and the most internal nature of man is his Ego, which is distinct from spirit, soul, and body”[8]

In this sense, a person’s soul includes their intellect, their emotions, and their will; it is the spirit, upon becoming a Christian, that directly relates and grows with God. Scriptural basis for a trichotomist position all come from the writings of saint Paul.[9] Interwoven throughout Paul’s developed theology, is his view of anthropology. There are three paired aspects that make up the individual.

Dunn eloquently summarises the contesting views between the Hebrew approach and the Hellenistic approach, particularly considering the apostle Paul’s theology:

“There is indeed a distinction in broad terms which has some merit and value. That is, in simplified terms, while Greek thought tended to regard the human being as made up of distinct parts, Hebrew thought saw the human being more as a whole person existing on different dimensions. As we might say, it was more characteristically Greek to conceive of the human person ‘partitively’, whereas it was more characteristically Hebrew to conceive of the human person ‘aspectively’.”[10]

The Christian ‘self’ according to Apostle Paul

Paul’s conception of the human being is vital to his theology; the reality of God and the reality of man are interdependent; Paul was first and foremost a missionary and pastor; therefore, his theology was always dispensed in a practical, relational manner.[11] Bultmann famously wrote:

“Every assertion about God is simultaneously an assertion about man and vice versa. For this reason and in this sense Paul’s theology is, at the same time, anthropology.”[12]

The six constituent parts of ‘self’ used in Paul’s theology are as follows:

1. Σωμα (soma-body)

2. Σάρξ (sark-flesh)

3. Voῦς (nous-mind)

4. Καρδια (kardia-heart)

5. Ψυχή (psyche-soul)

6. Πνεῦμα (pneuma-spirit)

This composition of ‘self’ draws a parallel with the Five Skandhas in a sense, but it also draws a stark contrast: the composition is not possible without first a composer. For both the Hebraic and Hellenistic thinkers, this was of course God. As previously noted, the Five Skadhas provide an excellent methodology in which to analyse an experience of reality, but they are no use as a method of interpreting their own existence, asking the questions of the Buddhist: what is the origin of the Five Skadhas? Why is there form, feelings, recognition, and forces?

Of the Five Skandhas, no single element is given primacy, whereas in Pauline theology, σωμα takes on a significance. Dunn is clear to note that σωμα should not be solely understood as the physical body; he offers the alternative definition of embodiment, noting in Paul’s usage it always indicates a relation quality:

‘It denotes the person embodiment in a particular environment. It is the means in which the person relates to the environment, and vice versa…. But σωομα as embodiment means more than my physical body: it is the embodied “me”, the means by which “I” and the world can act upon each other’.[13]

This subjective ‘self’ therefore becomes reliant upon the two great works of God, the two underlying parts to the meta-narrative within Christian Holy Scripture: community and creation; that is the people and the world they inhabit, by God’s grace and providence.

Paul’s second emphasis falls on σαρξ; perhaps we can say that it is this vessel we find the same negative force and truth that Buddhists call suffering; it is in flesh (εν σαρκι) we find the subject of suffering, and according to flesh (κατα σαρκα) we find the reason for suffering. For Paul, it is the flesh that is defective, disqualifying, and destructive; it is the source of corruption and hostility towards God that must be denied, the antithesis of the spirit, which comes from God, and is the part that should be turned to God: the flesh’s way of thinking is death, but the spirit’s way of thinking is life and peace (Rom 8:6).

Denying the flesh and ‘no self’

To some extent, and as I have outlined, both Christianity and Buddhism are motivated to achieve the same end goal, but there is also clear distinction. In a simplified notion we see two enemies at work: for Buddhism it is suffering, for Christians it is sin; are these constituents of misery viewed as cosmic forces that need to be overcome, or as inevitabilities of the human condition? For the worldview of both religions, it is advantageous to ask that question. Resigning oneself to accept both as truths, provides the framework to mitigate the effects. For a Buddhist to realise there is no self, then there is no subject for suffering to take dominion over; for the Christian to deny the flesh is to deny the subject and the architect of sin. In both cases the agent of soteriological obstruction is diminished.

In Philippian’s chapter 2, Paul implores the Christian to humility by asking them to empty themselves as Christ did, to become a servant. It is here we find the similarity to the Buddhist approach. Sin and suffering become insurmountable challenges, until the individual accepts that they are not subject to them.


The way Buddhism perceives the nature of all things as interwoven, meant that in providing a sensitive Christian response, the focus of this essay was shifted to understanding the self, before understanding the no self. It was illustrated that, like Buddhism, Christianity has no single orthodox approach to notions of the self; the writings of St. Paul provide a useful dogmatism in which to begin the discussion. However, Delitzsch in his defence of the trichotomy approach to understanding the self provides this quote:

“Everything which pertains to man’s essential condition and his inborn individuality, he posses without his own agency.”[14]

Where the early Jew and Christian would recognise their dependency on God, the Buddhist could read this statement as a validation of the anatman doctrine. A Buddhist does not deny the essential condition of man, but he does not place it as a conditional response to God. Inborn individuality remains a universalism which cannot be denied.

[1] Gethin. R, The Foundations of Buddhism, (Oxford: OUP, 1998) [2]Actualizing the Fundamental Point' Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, ed Kazuaki Tanahashi, (Boston: Shambhala, 2013) pp123 [3] Gethin. R, The Foundations of Buddhism, [4] Grudem. W, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (London: IVP 2020) p601 [5] Lk 23:43-46; Acts 7:59; Phil 1:23-24; 2Cor 5:8; Heb 12:23; Rev 6:9 & 20:4 [6] Grudem. W, Systematic Theology p601 [7] Grudem. W, Systematic Theology p601 [8] Delitzsch.F, A System of Biblical Psychology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966) p179 [9] 1Thes 5:23; Heb 4:12; 1Cor 2:14-3:4; 1Cor 14:14 [10] Dunn. James D.G., The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) p54 [11] Dunn. James D.G., The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark,1998) p53 [12] Bultmann R, Theology of the New Testament I, (London: SCM/New York: Scribner, 1952) p191 [13] Dunn, James D.G, The Theology of Paul, p56 [14] Delitzsch.F, A System of Biblical Psychology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966) p180

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