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Atman in Buddhism

By Gaurav Manandhar at
Atman in Buddhism

Atman in Buddhism

In Buddhism, Atman is the concept of self. The other words for Atman are Atta or Attan. In most of the Buddhist traditions and texts, the concept of Atman as the premise of permanent and unchanging is rejected while there are some Buddhist schools, sutras, and tantras which present the notion of an Atman as a permanent. There are also sources which refer Atman to an absolute and not to personal self.

Atman in early Buddhism

In early Buddhism, Atman appears as all dhammas are an-Atta or not self. Here, Atta refers to a metaphysical Self. This concept is quite similar to the pre-Buddhist Upanishads of Hinduism. In this concept, a person is viewed as having a lower self and a higher or greater self. The lower self is regarded as the impermanent body while higher or greater self is regarded as real permanent self. The early Buddhist literature also explores the validity of the Upanishadic concepts of self. They share that every living being has an impermanent self and there is no being with real higher self.

In early Buddhist literature, Rhys David and William Stede confirms that Atuma and Attan are also written in place of Atman. It is also recorded that in Buddhist canons, Atman and Atta are related to the terms like Niratta (meaning soulless), and Attaniya (meaning belonging to the soul, or having a soul).

The Nikaya texts of Buddhism denies the concept of Atman. This idea distinguished Buddhism from the Brahmanical traditions.

The Buddha also agrees that Atman are not permanent and we cannot find one. He also mentioned that all the condition and phenomena are subject to change till it becomes an unchanging self.

Buddha nature

Buddha nature is the central thought in the east-Asian Mahayana thought. It refers to several words but mainly, Tathagatagarbha and Buddha-dhatu. Here, tathagatagarbha refers to enlightened one while buddha dhatu means Buddha - realm or Buddha - substrate.

It has seen that many of the Buddhist work refers to the Tathagatagarbha or Buddha-dhatu as an Atman but those texts also contain warning against a literal interpretation.

The sutras based on Buddha nature also explains about the Atman, below listed are few sutras.

Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra

This Sutra uses positive language to denote absolute reality. As Paul Williams mentions, the sutra teaches an underlying essence of self of Atman. This true self is the Buddha nature or Tathagatagarbha which is realized only by the awakened ones.

There is also discussion that this sutra were written to promote Buddhism to non-Buddhists. This is because, the texts contradicts with the Anatta doctrines and also asserts an essential nature that is equivalent to Self.

Ratnagotravibhaga

This is another text which was composed in the first half of 1st millennium CE. This Ratnagotravibhaga Sutra is also known as Uttara Tantra Sutra which was translated into Chinese in 511 CE. This sutra mainly points that the teaching of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine was more focused on winning sentient beings over to abandoning self-love.

Current disputes regarding Atman and an-Atta

Throughout the history of Buddhism, there existed the disputed regarding what is self and not self in the Buddhist doctrines. We can see some modern Buddhist scholars believes that nirvana is the true self while other Buddhist disagrees this statement.

Dhammakaya Movement in Thailand focuses on the face that nirvana is the true self. But this focus has been criticized by Ven. Payutto, a well-known scholar monk. He believed that nirvana is the stage where we learned to become non-self.

Even several notable scholars of the Thai Forest Tradition have presented various ideas regarding the concept Atman. Ajahn Maha Bua also confirms the true self, and non self is just a perception that is used to pry one away from infatuation with the concept of a self. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American monk associated with the Thai Forest Tradition also confirms that non-self is just a path to awakening rather than a universal truth.

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