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September 4, 2023

The idea of ‘no-self’: A comparative study of Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism

The concept of 'no-self' has remained a central theme in various schools of philosophy throughout time. Notably, both ancient Buddhist philosophers and the 20th-century French thinker Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) have espoused this concept, albeit from distinct philosophical and cultural perspectives. Buddhism elucidates the absence of a fixed 'self' primarily through its doctrine of interdependence or 'dependent origination' (Zhang 110), while Sartre portrays the self as in a perpetual state of flux, emphasising human freedom and agency. In this comparative study, we investigate the intersections and divergences between the Buddhist notion of 'no-self' and Sartre’s conception of the self.

The Buddhist idea of ‘no-self’

Buddhism, originating over two millennia ago in India, delves into the concept of “no-self” (anatman) with the purpose of liberating individuals from worldly suffering. Buddhists maintain that there exists no enduring self, advocating instead for the self’s impermanence as a consequence of the intricate interdependence between all phenomena, known as dhárma, which arise from the constituent elements comprising both animate and inanimate facets of the world. Zhang (110) aptly contends that all dhármas, while empirically valid, lack self-nature and self-identity, as their very existence is contingent upon external factors. In other words, the absence of a permanent self is immanent because the meaning of something “forever depends on factors other than itself” (Das 3). The recognition and acceptance of this transient nature of the self lead to emancipation from afflictions borne out of attachment, culminating in the attainment of enlightenment.


Sartre’s idea of ‘no-self’

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), a preeminent existentialist philosopher of the preceding era, espouses a somewhat congruent perspective on the self in seminal works such as Being and Nothingness (1943), Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), and Nausea (1938). Analogous to Buddhists, he expounds upon the impermanence of the self. He labels humans as ‘being-for-itself’, signifying free consciousness. Human awareness continually shifts from one object to another, rendering their consciousness ephemeral and autonomous. Sartre, therefore, posits an indistinct demarcation between consciousness and human existence, thereby endowing humans with freedom. This freedom perpetually preserves the realm of choice, as external circumstances remain beyond one’s control. In every circumstance, individuals must select their course of action, which inevitably shapes their essence. Consequently, humans exist devoid of a fixed self. Sartre’s conception of ‘no-self’ emanates from his examination of the temporal nature of ‘being-for-itself’, signifying that individuals are in a perpetual state of becoming, unbound by pre-established identities.


Comparison and contrast between the two views

Despite the shared rejection of an immutable, essential self, Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism diverge considerably in their motives and methodologies. Buddhism seeks solace from worldly tribulations through the comprehension of the self’s transience, ultimately leading to enlightenment. Conversely, Sartre’s objective is to underscore human freedom by advancing the notion of an impermanent self. Unlike Buddhism, Sartre’s concept of ‘no-self’ does not culminate in enlightenment, but rather exposes the reality that the self is fundamentally a product of one’s autonomous actions.

Moreover, the two philosophical schools diverge in their perspectives regarding the self’s relationship with other individuals and the world. Buddhism accentuates mutual dependence and compassion as pivotal factors shaping the self’s essence. Through the realisation of their interconnectedness with all beings, practitioners cultivate empathy for the world, dismantling barriers between themselves and others. This profound realisation leads to enlightenment, unveiling that the self, as perceived, is merely a phenomenal construct contingent upon all other entities in the world. Such insight liberates individuals from suffering by dispelling their sense of ‘I’ and harmonising them with all sentient and insentient beings.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical perspective, contrarily, centres predominantly on an individual’s freely chosen actions as the constituents of their selfhood. However, he astutely acknowledges the substantial role that others play in forming one’s identity. Sartre contends that individuals are perceived and, to a degree, ‘defined’ by others through the lens of their consciousness. Nevertheless, this definition remains firmly rooted in the perceiving individual’s consciousness, leaving the person perceived with no direct influence over it. Consequently, the image others hold of an individual seldom aligns with the individual’s self-assessment, resulting in a persistent discord regarding the determination of one’s identity.

Furthermore, this discord extends beyond interpersonal relations to encompass the broader external world. The ever-evolving circumstances of the world necessitate a recurrent reassessment of one’s identity. In contradistinction to the tenets of Buddhist philosophy, which elucidate the notion of an inherently mutable self through the prism of interdependence and a compassionate outlook toward all beings, Sartrean philosophy sheds light upon the intrinsic absence of an immutable self by bringing to the forefront the disjunction between an individual’s self-perception, the perceptions held by others, and the ever-evolving nature of the external milieu. In the Sartrean framework, the amalgamation of these elements serves to underscore the fluid and contingent character inherent to personal identity.



In summary, the examination of Buddhist and Sartrean perspectives on the concept of ‘no-self’ uncovers both shared principles and significant disparities. Both philosophical traditions contest the conventional understanding of a stable, unchanging self, strongly emphasising the transient nature of human identity. Nevertheless, their underlying motives and methodological approaches exhibit significant divergence.



Das, B (2021) Self as no-self: A brief sketch of the Buddhist notion of Śūnyatā, Academia Letters, Article 2662.

Sartre, J P (2013) Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.

(2023) Awakening to the interconnectedness of life. [online] World Tribune.

Zhang, E Y (2011) Śūnyata-Speech: Derridan Dénégation with Buddhist Negation, in Park, J Y (ed) Buddhisms and Deconstructions. New Delhi: MLBD Publications, pp. 109–22.

Written By

Biswarup Das
University of North Bengal

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