Is Anatta the same as Annihilationism?

Kenneth Leong
6 min readOct 12, 2023

Buddha taught the doctrine of Anatta (no-self; no-soul). Many Buddhists mistake this position for Annihilationism (Ucchedavāda). It should be noted that Buddha’s teaching of Anatta is NOT the same as Annihilationism even though the two concepts are similar.

Ucchedavāda is a Pali and Sanskrit word that means “the doctrine of the cutting-off (of the soul and the body)”. It can also be translated as “annihilationism” or “nihilism”. Ucchedavāda is the belief system that may include the following views:

  1. There is no afterlife in any form
  2. Personal identity perishes with the body at death
  3. Actions (karma) have no ethical consequences
  4. There is no rebirth

Ucchedavāda is also known as:

  • Uccheda-vada
  • Uccheda-dṛṣṭi
  • The view of annihilation
  • The belief in non-Being

The word uccheda comes from ud + chid, chind which means “breaking up, disintegration, perishing (of the soul)”. The suffix -vada is a Sanskrit or Pali root which indicates a certain thesis, argument or doctrine. Thus, the compound word means “the doctrine of annihilation or disintegration.”

Buddhist literature discusses two “extreme views” which were probably prominent schools of thought during Buddha’s time. One extreme is Ucchedavāda means “those who advocate cutting off,” that is annihilation rather than nihilism. It is the assertion that since the person ceases at death, there is no karma, not future lives, etc. The other extreme is Śaśvatavāda is the assertion that an entity, an atman, a world, etc., is permanent and undergoes no change, hence eternalism.

Buddha’s actual position in this matter is a nuanced one. But it can be clearly seen when Ananda asked him why he did not answer the wanderer Vacchagotta’s question of whether there is a self/soul. This incident is recorded in the Ananda Sutta (SN 44.10). First, Buddha declared his opposition to Eternalism. He said:

Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives(ascetics/hermits) who are exponents of…

--

--

Kenneth Leong

Author, Zen teacher, scientific mystic, professor, photographer, philosopher, social commentator, socially engaged human