Buddhist views of human nature

March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

In traditional Indian thought, the soul, or atman, is an eternally existing spiritual substance or being and the abiding self that moves from one body to the next at rebirth. The Buddha rejected this concept. He taught that everything is impermanent (anicca), and this includes everything that we associate with being human: sensations, feelings, thoughts and consciousness. This is the doctrine of anatta, "no-soul," a central concept of Buddhism.

Human existence, in the Buddha's view, is nothing more than a composite of five aggregates (khandas):

  • Physical forms (rupa)
  • Feelings or sensations (vedana)
  • Ideations (sanna)
  • Mental formations or dispositions (sankhara)
  • Consciousness (vinnana)

These khandas come together at birth to form a human person. A person is a "self" in that he or she is a true subject of moral action and karmic accumulation, but not in the sense that he or she has an enduring or unchanging soul.

The doctrine of anatta, when combined with Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation and karma, presents an interesting difficulty. If humans have no soul or enduring self, what is it that reincarnates?

The Buddha was characteristically resistant to dwelling on such speculative matters, and early opponents of Buddhism were quick to point out this apparent vulnerability in Buddhist thought.

Buddhists explain the difficulty using the analogy of fire: When one candle is used to light another, the new flame is not the same as the old flame, and yet the first flame directly causes the second. In the same way, one human life, with its particular accumulation of karma, gives rise to the next life, even though no permanent soul passes from one to the other. {2}


  • Dhammapada.
  • "Buddhism." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).