Ātman (Buddhism)

Ātman (Buddhism)

Ātman ( _sa. आत्मन्) or Atta (Pāli) literally means "self", but is sometimes translated as "soul" or "ego". The word derives from the Indo-European root *ēt-men (breath) and is cognate with Old English æthm and German atem [ [http://www.yourdictionary.com/atman atman: definition, usage and pronunciation - YourDictionary.com ] ] In Buddhism, the misplaced or inappropriate belief in the existence of an unchanging ātman is the prime consequence of ignorance, which is itself the cause of all misery and the foundation of IAST|saṃsāra. Some Mahayana Buddhist sutras and tantras present other Buddhist teachings with positive language by strongly insisting upon the ultimate reality of the "atman" when it is equated with each being's inborn potential to become and the future status as a Buddha (Tathagatagarbha doctrine).

The need for Buddhists to understand ātman

Śāntideva (an 8th-century Indian Buddhist philosopher and practitioner) informs us that in order to be able to deny something, we first of all need to know what it is that we are denying. quote|Without contacting the entity that is imputed You will not apprehend the absence of that entity|"Bodhicaryāvatāra"

The definition of ātman in Buddhism

Candrakīrti contextualises ātman as follows:

In the IAST|Abhidharmapiṭaka (Pāli: IAST|Abhidhammapiṭaka), which deals with metaphysics, the prime doctrine which allows pure Buddhist philosophy to successfully explain all phenomena is that all things happen with cause. "Ātman" is a conceptual attachment to oneself that promotes a false belief that one is intrinsic and without incident. This attachment further diverges one's route from the path to enlightenment and hence IAST|nirvāṇa as all forms of attachment do.

The ontological status of ātman in Buddhism

As the belief in ātman is identified as a cause of IAST|saṃsāra, it is not merely cognate with the various concepts of ātman as found in Hindu philosophy, and indeed the specific identification of what ātman is, is an essential philosophical concept for the Buddhist meditator.

If no concept of ātman were to exist at all, then we would all be naturally free from IAST|saṃsāra. What this entails is that ātman is identified as existing as a concept - more specifically, as an afflictive misunderstanding; moreover, it is this specific affliction which is identified as being the root cause of all suffering.

So, when Buddhists claim that there is no ātman, they are not really saying that it does not exist, but that it exists solely as an affliction - an innate response to the world around us; and this deeply enmeshed affliction lies at the root of all misery.

The critique of atman in Buddhist metaphysics

With the doctrine of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman) Buddhism maintains that the concept of ātman is unnecessary and counterproductive as an explanatory device for analyzing action, causality, karma, and reincarnation in a Buddhist context. Buddhists account for these and other "self"-related phenomena by means such as pratitya-samutpāda, the skandhas, and, for some schools, a pudgala. Buddhists regard postulating the existence of ātman as undesirable, as they believe it provides the psychological basis for attachment and aversion. Buddhism sees the apparent self (our identification as souls) as a grasping after a self--i.e., inasmuch as we have a self, we have it only through a deluded attempt to shore it up.

Buddhism greatly influenced the development of the Hindu Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy. There too there the individual self is deconstructed. Advaita however postulates the existence of a monistic metaphysical "being in itself", i.e. Brahman or Paramatman as part of its interpretation of the absolutist Upanishads, while Buddhism does not.

Positive teachings on the Atman in Mahayana Buddhism

Within the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, there exists an important class of sutras (influential upon Ch'an and Zen Buddhism), generally known as Tathagatagarbha sutras ("Buddha-Matrix" or "Buddha-Embryo" sutras), a number of which affirm that, in contradistinction to the impermanent "mundane self" of the five "skandhas"(the physical and mental components of the mutable ego), there does exist an eternal True Self, which is in fact none other than the Buddha himself in his ultimate "Nirvanic" nature. This is the "true self" in the self of each being, the ideal personality, attainable by all beings due to their inborn potential for enlightenment. The "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of "sunyata" (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices; the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical. [Heng-Ching Shih, "The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' --A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata.'" http://zencomp.com/greatwisdom/ebud/ebdha191.htm.]

Prior to the period of the Tathagatagarbha genre, Mahayana metaphysics had been dominated by teachings on emptiness in the form of Madhyamaka philosophy. The language used by this approach is primarily negative, and the Tathagatagarbha genre of sutras can be seen as an attempt to state orthodox Buddhist teachings of dependent origination using positive language instead, to prevent people from being turned away from Buddhism by a false impression of nihilism. In these sutras the perfection of the wisdom of not-self is stated to be the true self; the ultimate goal of the path is then characterized using a range of positive language that had been used in Indian philosophy previously by essentialist philosophers, but which was now transmuted into a new Buddhist vocabulary to describe a being who has successfully completed the Buddhist path. [Sallie B. King, "The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature is impeccably Buddhist." [http://www.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/nlarc/pdf/Pruning%20the%20bodhi%20tree/Pruning%209.pdf] , pages 1-6.]

This True Self of the Buddha is indeed said to be pure, real and blissful, and to be attainable by anyone in the state of Mahaparinirvana. Furthermore, the essence of that Buddha — the Buddha-dhatu ("Buddha-nature", "Buddha principle"), or Dharmakaya, as it is termed — is present in all sentient beings and is described as "radiantly luminous". This Buddha-dhatu is said in the Nirvana Sutra to be the uncreated, immutable and immortal essence ("svabhava") of all beings, which can never be harmed or destroyed. The most extensive sutra promulgating this as an "ultimate teaching" (uttara-tantra) on the Buddhic essence of all creatures (animals included) is the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. There we read in words attributed to the Buddha: "... it is not the case that they [i.e. all phenomena] are devoid of the Self. What is this Self? Any phenomenon ["dharma"] that is true ["satya"] , real ["tattva"] , eternal ["nitya"] , sovereign/autonomous ["aishvarya"] and whose foundation is unchanging ["ashraya-aviparinama"] is termed 'the Self' [atman] ." (translated from Dharmakṣema's version of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra). This True Self — so the Buddha of such scriptures indicates — must never be confused with the ordinary, ever-changing, worldly ego, which, with all its emotional and moral taints and turmoil, conceals the True Self from view. Far from being possessed of the negative attributes of the mundane ego, the Buddhic or Nirvanic Self is proclaimed by the Buddha of the Nirvana Sutra to be characterised by "Great Loving-Kindness, Great Compassion, Great Sympathetic Joy, and Great Equanimity" (refer the Four Brahmaviharas).

In equating the Buddha-nature with practice, King argues that the author of the "Buddha-Nature Treatise" "undercuts anypossibility of conceiving Buddha nature as an entity of any kind, as a Hindu –like Ātman or even as a purely mental process." [King 1991:168, quoted from [www.lulu.com/items/volume_63/2864000/2864713/1/print/Microsoft_Word_-_Ron_Henshall__Dissertation__2007.pdf] , a master's thesis by a student of Peter Harvey.]

There are numerous references to the reality of this transcendental yet immanent Self of the Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which scripture the Buddha declares to embody the "uttarottara" (absolutely supreme) meaning of all Mahayana Buddhism. One of the features most frequently linked to this "Self-that-is-Buddha" is its great purity, which sets it apart from the illusory and tarnished mundane ego. The Buddha states in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra:

"To crush out the worldly notion of the Self and purity, the Tathagata speaks of the Self and Purity of true sense."

It would be erroneous to construe the Buddha's Self - sometimes called the Tathagatagarbha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra - as some tangible, worldly, changeable, personalised, desire-driven "ego" on a huge scale, similar to the "fictitious self" comprised of the five mundane skandhas (impermanent mental and physical constituents of the unawakened being). The Tathagatagarbha is indicated by the relevant sutras to be the ultimate, pure, ungraspable, irreducible, invulnerable, true and deathless quintessence of the Buddha's liberating being (kaya), the very core of his supreme Selfhood (dharmakaya or dhammakaya). In this same sutra the Buddha explains that he proclaims all beings to have Buddha-nature (which is used synonymously with tathagatagarbha in this sutra) in the sense that they will in the future become Buddhas:

Good son, there are three ways of having: first, to have in the future, Secondly, to have at present, and thirdly, to have in the past. All sentient beings will have in future ages the most perfect enlightenment, i.e., the Buddha nature. All sentient beings have at present bonds of defilements, and do not now possess the thirty-two marks and eighty noble characteristics of the Buddha. All sentient beings had in past ages deeds leading to the elimination of defilements and so can now perceive the Buddha nature as their future goal. For such reasons, I always proclaim that all sentient beings have the Buddha nature. [Heng-Ching Shih, "The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' --A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata.'" http://zencomp.com/greatwisdom/ebud/ebdha191.htm. ]
In the later Lankavatara Sutra it is said that the tathagatagarbha might be mistaken for a Self, which it is not. [Peter Harvey, "Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha." In Karel Werner, ed., "The Yogi and the Mystic." Curzon Press 1989, page 98.]

Some other Buddhist sutras and Tantras also speak affirmatively of the Self. For instance, the "Mahabheriharaka Sutra" insists: "... at the time one becomes a Tathagata, a Buddha, he is in nirvana, and is referred to as 'permanent', 'steadfast', 'calm', 'eternal', and 'Self' [atman] ." Similarly, the Srimala Sutra declares unequivocally: "When sentient beings have faith in the Tathagata [Buddha] and those sentient beings conceive [him] with permanence, pleasure, self, and purity, they do not go astray. Those sentient beings have the right view. Why so? Because the Dharmakaya [ultimate nature] of the Tathagata has the perfection of permanence, the perfection of pleasure, the perfection of self, the perfection of purity. Whatever sentient beings see the Dharmakaya of the Tathagata that way, see correctly." ("The Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala" , Motilal, Delhi 1974, tr. by A. and H. Wayman, p. 102). The early Buddhist Tantra, the "Guhyasamaja Tantra", declares: "The universal Self of entities sports by means of the illusory samadhi. It performs the deeds of a Buddha while stationed at the traditional post" (i.e. while never moving). The same Tantra also links the Self with radiant light (a common image): "The pure Self, adorned with all adornments, shines with a light of blazing diamond ..." ("Yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra" by Alex Wayman, Motilal Delhi, 1977, pp. 18 and 28). And the All-Creating King Tantra (the Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra, a scripture of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, also designated a sutra) has the primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra, state, "... the root of all things is nothing else but one Self … I am the place in which all existing things abide." ("The Sovereign All-Creating Mind", tr. by E.K. Neumaier-Dargyay, pp. 158-159).

Furthermore, the Tibetan Buddhist scripture entitled "The Expression of Manjushri's Ultimate Names" ("Mañjuśrī-nāma-saṅgīti"), as quoted by the Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa, applies the following terms to the Ultimate Buddhic Reality:

"the pervasive Lord" "the Supreme Guardian of the world"


"the beginningless Self"

"the Self of Thusness" "the Self of primordial purity"

"the Source of all"

"the Single Self"

"the Diamond Self"

"the Solid Self"

"the Holy, Immovable Self"

"the Supreme Self" "the Supreme Self of all creatures". (cf. "Mountain Doctrine: Tibet's Fundamental Treatise on Other-Emptiness and the Buddha-Matrix", Snow Lion, NY, 2006, tr. by Jeffrey Hopkins, pp.279-294)).

Moreover, with reference to one of Vasubandhu's commentarial works, Dolpopa affirms the reality of the Pure Self, which is not the worldly ego, in the following terms:

"... the uncontaminated element is the buddhas' supreme Self ... because buddhas have attained pure Self, they have become the Self of great Selfhood. Through this consideration, the uncontaminated is posited as the supreme Self of buddhas." (Mountain Doctrine, op. cit., pp. 133-134).


* "The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" in 12 volumes, Vol. 9 (Nirvana Publications, London, 2000), translated by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page.

See also

* Atman (Hinduism)
* Self (spirituality)
* anatta
* luminous mind
* Buddha-nature
* shunyata
* Brahman
* Brahma-viharas
* Mahaparinirvana Sutra
* Srimala Sutra
* Tathagatagarbha Sutra
*Angulimaliya Sutra
*Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra
* God in Buddhism
* DN: Digha Nikaya
* KN: Khuddaka Nikaya
* AN: Anguttara Nikaya
* SN: Samyutta Nikaya

External links

* [http://www.nirvanasutra.org.uk "Nirvana Sutra": full text of "Nirvana Sutra", plus appreciation of its teachings.]
* [http://www.webspawner.com/users/bodhisattva/index.html "Tathagatagarbha Buddhism": key sutras of the Tathagatagarbha Buddhist tradition]

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