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Ātman (Buddhism)

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Ātman (/ˈɑːtmən/), attā or attan in Buddhism is the concept of self, and is found in Buddhist literature's discussion of the concept of non-self (Anatta).[1] Most Buddhist traditions and texts reject the premise of a permanent, unchanging atman (self, soul).[2][3]


Cognates (Sanskrit: आत्मन्) ātman, (Pāli) atta, Old English æthm, and German Atem derive from the Indo-European root *ēt-men (breath). The word means "essence, breath, soul."[4]

Ātman and atta refer to a person's "true self", a person's permanent self, absolute within, the "thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations" separate from and beyond the changing phenomenal world.[5][6] The term Ātman is synonymous with Tuma, Atuma and Attan in early Buddhist literature, state Rhys David and William Stede, all in the sense of "self, soul".[7] The Atman and Atta are related, in Buddhist canons, to terms such as Niratta (Nir+attan, soulless) and Attaniya (belonging to the soul, having a soul, of the nature of soul).[8]

Early Buddhism[edit]

"Atman" in early Buddhism appears as "all dhammas are not-Self (an-atta)", where atta (atman) refers to a metaphysical Self, states Peter Harvey, that is a "permanent, substantial, autonomous self or I".[9] This concept refers to the pre-Buddhist Upanishads of Hinduism, where a distinction is made between the personal self, jivatman (impermanent body, personality) and the Real Self, Atman.[10][11][12] The early Buddhist literature explores the validity of the Upanishadic concepts of self and Self, then asserts that every living being has an impermanent self but there is no real Higher Self.[13] The Nikaya texts of Buddhism deny that there is anything called Ātman that is the substantial absolute or essence of a living being, an idea that distinguishes Buddhism from the Brahmanical (proto-Hindu) traditions.[14]

The Buddha argued that no permanent, unchanging "Self" can be found.[15][16] In Buddha's view, states Wayman, "eso me atta, or this is my Self, is to be in the grip of wrong view".[17] All conditioned phenomena are subject to change, and therefore can't be taken to be an unchanging "Self".[16] Instead, the Buddha explains the perceived continuity of the human personality by describing it as composed of five skandhas, without a permanent entity (Self, soul).[18][19]


Of the early Indian Buddhist schools, only the Pudgalavada-school diverged from this basic teaching. The Pudgalavādins asserted that, while there is no ātman, there is a pudgala or "person", which is neither the same as nor different from the skandhas.[19]


Buddha-nature is a central notion of east-Asian (Chinese) Mahayana thought.[20] It refers to several related terms,[note 1] most notably Tathāgatagarbha and Buddha-dhātu.[note 2] Tathāgatagarbha means "the womb of the thus-gone" (c.f. enlightened one), while Buddha-dhātu literally means "Buddha-realm" or "Buddha-substrate".[note 3] Several key texts refer to the tathāgatagarbha or Buddha-dhātu as "atman", Self or essence, though those texts also contain warnings against a literal interpretation. Several scholars have noted similarities between tathāgatagarbha texts and the substantial monism found in the atman/Brahman tradition.[22]

The Tathagatagarbha doctrine, at its earliest, probably appeared about the later part of the 3rd century CE, and is verifiable in Chinese translations of 1st millennium CE.[23]

Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra[edit]

In contrast to the madhyamika-tradition, the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra uses "positive language" to denote "absolute reality". According to Paul Williams, the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra teaches an underlying essence, "Self", or "atman".[24] This "true Self" is the Buddha-nature (Tathagatagarbha), which is present in all sentient beings, and realized by the awakened ones. Most scholars consider the Tathagatagarbha doctrine in Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra asserting an 'essential nature' in every living being is equivalent to 'Self',[note 4] and it contradicts the Anatta doctrines in a vast majority of Buddhist texts, leading scholars to posit that the Tathagatagarbha Sutras were written to promote Buddhism to non-Buddhists.[26][27]

According to Sallie B. King, the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra does not represent a major innovation.[28] Its most important innovation is the linking of the term buddhadhatu with tathagatagarbha.[28] According to King, the sutra is rather unsystematic,[28] which made it "a fruitful one for later students and commentators, who were obliged to create their own order and bring it to the text".[28] The sutra speaks about Buddha-nature in so many different ways, that Chinese scholars created a list of types of Buddha-nature that could be found in the text.[28] One of those statements is:

Even though he has said that all phenomena [dharmas] are devoid of the Self, it is not that they are completely/ truly devoid of the Self. What is this Self ? Any phenomenon [dharma] that is true [satya], real [tattva], eternal [nitya], sovereign/ autonomous/ self-governing [aisvarya], and whose ground/ foundation is unchanging [asraya-aviparinama], is termed ’the Self ’ [atman].[29]

In the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra the Buddha also speaks of the "affirmative attributes" of nirvana, "the Eternal, Bliss, the Self and the Pure."[30] The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra explains:

The Self ’ signifies the Buddha; ’the Eternal’ signifies the Dharmakaya; ’Bliss’ signifies Nirvana, and ’the Pure’ signifies Dharma.[31]

Edward Conze connotatively links the term tathagata itself (the designation which the Buddha applied to himself) with the notion of a real, true self:

Just as tathata designates true reality in general, so the word which developed into Tathagata designated the true self, the true reality within man.[32]

It is possible, states Johannes Bronkhorst, that "original Buddhism did not deny the existence of the soul [Ātman, Attan]", even though a firm Buddhist tradition has maintained that the Buddha avoided talking about the soul or even denied it existence.[33] While there may be ambivalence on the existence or non-existence of self in early Buddhist literature, adds Bronkhorst, it is clear from these texts that seeking self-knowledge is not the Buddhist path for liberation, and turning away from self-knowledge is.[34] This is a reverse position to the Vedic traditions which recognized the knowledge of the self as "the principal means to achieving liberation".[34]

"Self" as a teaching method[edit]

According to Paul Wiliams, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra uses the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics. He quotes from the sutra:[35]

The Buddha-nature is in fact not the self. For the sake of [guiding] sentient beings, I describe it as the self.[36]

In the later Lankāvatāra Sūtra it is said that the tathāgatagarbha might be mistaken for a self, which it is not.[37]


The Ratnagotravibhāga (also known as Uttaratantra), another text composed in the first half of 1st millennium CE and translated into Chinese in 511 CE, points out that the teaching of the Tathagatagarbha doctrine is intended to win sentient beings over to abandoning "self-love" (atma-sneha) – considered to be a moral defect in Buddhism.[38][39] The 6th-century Chinese Tathagatagarbha translation states that "Buddha has shiwo (True Self) which is beyond being and nonbeing".[40] However, the Ratnagotravibhāga asserts that the "Self" implied in Tathagatagarbha doctrine is actually "not-Self".[41][42]

Current disputes[edit]

The dispute about "self" and "not-self" doctrines has continued throughout the history of Buddhism.[43] According to Johannes Bronkhorst, it is possible that "original Buddhism did not deny the existence of the soul", even though a firm Buddhist tradition has maintained that the Buddha avoided talking about the soul or even denied its existence.[44] French religion writer André Migot also states that original Buddhism may not have taught a complete absence of self, pointing to evidence presented by Buddhist and Pali scholars Jean Przyluski and Caroline Rhys Davids that early Buddhism generally believed in a self, making Buddhist schools that admit an existence of a "self" not heretical, but conservative, adhering to ancient beliefs.[45] While there may be ambivalence on the existence or non-existence of self in early Buddhist literature, Bronkhorst suggests that these texts clearly indicate that the Buddhist path of liberation consists not in seeking self-knowledge, but in turning away from what might erroneously be regarded as the self.[46] This is a reverse position to the Vedic traditions which recognized the knowledge of the self as "the principal means to achieving liberation."[46]

In Thai Theravada Buddhism, for example, states Paul Williams, some modern era Buddhist scholars have said that "nirvana is indeed the true Self", [This quote needs a citation] while other Thai Buddhists disagree.[47] For instance, the Dhammakaya Movement in Thailand teaches that it is erroneous to subsume nirvana under the rubric of anatta (non-self); instead, nirvana is taught to be the "true self" or dhammakaya.[48] The Dhammakaya Movement teaching that nirvana is atta, or true self, was criticized as heretical in Buddhism in 1994 by Ven. Payutto, a well-known scholar monk, who stated that 'Buddha taught nibbana as being non-self".[49][50] The abbot of one major temple in the Dhammakaya Movement, Luang Por Sermchai of Wat Luang Por Sodh Dhammakayaram, argues that it tends to be scholars who hold the view of absolute non-self, rather than Buddhist meditation practitioners. He points to the experiences of prominent forest hermit monks such as Luang Pu Sodh and Ajahn Mun to support the notion of a "true self".[50][51] Similar interpretations on the "true self" were put forth earlier by the 12th Supreme Patriarch of Thailand in 1939. According to Williams, the Supreme Patriarch's interpretation echoes the tathāgatagarbha sutras.[52]

Several notable teachers of the Thai Forest Tradition have also described ideas in contrast to absolute non-self. Ajahn Maha Bua, a well known meditation master, described the citta (mind) as being an indestructible reality that does not fall under anattā.[53] He has stated that not-self is merely a perception that is used to pry one away from infatuation with the concept of a self, and that once this infatuation is gone the idea of not-self must be dropped as well.[54] American monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu of the Thai Forest Tradition describes the Buddha's statements on non-self as a path to awakening rather than a universal truth.[55] Thanissaro Bhikkhu states that the Buddha intentionally set aside the question of whether or not there is a self as a useless question, and that clinging to the idea that there is no self at all would actually prevent enlightenment.[56] Bhikkhu Bodhi authored a rejoinder to Thanissaro, writing that "The reason the teaching of anatta can serve as a strategy of liberation is precisely because it serves to rectify a misconception about the nature of being, hence an ontological error."[57]

Buddhist scholars Richard Gombrich and Alexander Wynne argue that the Buddha's descriptions of non-self in early Buddhist texts do not deny that there is a self. Gethin writes that anatta is often mistranslated as meaning "not having a self", but in reality meant "not the self".[58] Wynne say that early Buddhist texts such as the Anattalakkhana Sutta do not deny that there is a self, stating that the five aggregates that are described as not self are not descriptions of a human being but descriptions of the human experience.[59] Wynne and Gombrich both argue that the Buddha's statements on anattā were originally a "not-self" teaching that developed into a "no-self" teaching in later Buddhist thought.[59][58] Thanissaro Bhikkhu points to the Ananda Sutta (SN 44.10), where the Buddha stays silent when asked whether there is a 'self' or not,[60] as a major cause of the dispute.[61]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Buddha-dhatu, mind, Tathagatagarbha, Dharma-dhatu, suchness (tathata).[21]
  2. ^ Sanskrit; Jp. Busshō, "Buddha-nature".
  3. ^ Trainor 2004, p. 207: "a sacred nature that is the basis for [beings'] becoming buddhas."
  4. ^ Wayman and Wayman have disagreed with this view, and they state that the Tathagatagarbha is neither self nor sentient being, nor soul, nor personality.[25]


  1. ^ Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 22. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
  2. ^ John C. Plott et al (2000), Global History of Philosophy: The Axial Age, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120801585, p. 63, Quote: "The Buddhist schools reject any Ātman concept. As we have already observed, this is the basic and ineradicable distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism".
  3. ^ [a] Anatta Archived 2015-12-10 at the Wayback Machine, Encyclopædia Britannica (2013), Quote: "Anatta in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying soul. The concept of anatta, or anatman, is a departure from the Hindu belief in atman (“the self”).";
    [b] Steven Collins (1994), Religion and Practical Reason (Editors: Frank Reynolds, David Tracy), State Univ of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-2217-5, p. 64; Quote: "Central to Buddhist soteriology is the doctrine of not-self (Pali: anattā, Sanskrit: anātman, the opposed doctrine of ātman is central to Brahmanical thought). Put very briefly, this is the [Buddhist] doctrine that human beings have no soul, no self, no unchanging essence.";
    [c] Dae-Sook Suh (1994), Korean Studies: New Pacific Currents, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0824815981, p. 171;
    [d] Katie Javanaud (2013), Is The Buddhist ‘No-Self’ Doctrine Compatible With Pursuing Nirvana? Which is “Boundless”Archived 2015-02-06 at the Wayback Machine, Philosophy Now;
    [e] David Loy (1982), Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta: Are Nirvana and Moksha the Same?, International Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp. 65–74;
    [f] KN Jayatilleke (2010), Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge, ISBN 978-8120806191, pp. 246–249, from note 385 onwards;
    [g] Bruno Nagel (2000), Roy Perrett (editor), Philosophy of Religion: Indian Philosophy, Routledge, ISBN 978-0815336112, p. 33
  4. ^ Atman Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper (2012)
  5. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 51.
  6. ^ Steven Collins (1990). Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-521-39726-1.
  7. ^ Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 22–23, 305, 503. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
  8. ^ Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 23, 284 (Jiva), 369, 503. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7.
  9. ^ Harvey 1995b, p. 17.
  10. ^ Harvey 1995b, pp. 17–19.
  11. ^ Charles Johnston (2014). The Mukhya Upanishads. Kshetra Books (Reprint), Original: OUP (1931). pp. 706–717. ISBN 978-1-4959-4653-0.
  12. ^ [a] Michael Daniels (2013). Harris L. Friedman (ed.). The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology. Glenn Hartelius. John Wiley & Sons. p. 26. ISBN 978-1-118-59131-4., Quote: "In working with the higher consciousness, and in learning to understand one's higher nature and purpose, Assagioli (1991, 1993) believes that a person contacts and expresses the Higher Self (Transpersonal Self or Spiritual Self) equivalent to the Atman (universal Self or Soul of the Hindu Upanishads).";
    [b] Eugene F. Gorski (2008). Theology of Religions: A Sourcebook for Interreligious Study. Paulist Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-8091-4533-1.;
    [c] Forrest E. Baird (2006). Classics of Asian Thought. Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-13-352329-4.
  13. ^ Harvey 1995b, pp. 17–28.
  14. ^ Peter Harvey (2013). The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. Routledge. pp. 1–2, 34–40, 224–225. ISBN 978-1-136-78336-4.
  15. ^ Kalupahana 1994, p. 68.
  16. ^ a b Harvey 1995, p. 52.
  17. ^ Wayman 1997, p. 531.
  18. ^ Kalupahana 1994, pp. 69–72.
  19. ^ a b Fischer-Schreiber, Ehrhard & Diener 2008, p. 27.
  20. ^ Lusthaus 1998, p. 83.
  21. ^ Lusthaus 1998, p. 84.
  22. ^ Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 99–100
  23. ^ Williams 1989, p. 104.
  24. ^ Williams 1989, pp. 98–99.
  25. ^ Williams 1989, p. 107.
  26. ^ Williams 1989, pp. 104–105, 108.
  27. ^ Merv Fowler (1999). Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices. Sussex Academic Press. pp. 101–102. ISBN 978-1-898723-66-0., Quote: "Some texts of the tathagatagarbha literature, such as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra actually refer to an atman, though other texts are careful to avoid the term. This would be in direct opposition to the general teachings of Buddhism on anatta. Indeed, the distinctions between the general Indian concept of atman and the popular Buddhist concept of Buddha-nature are often blurred to the point that writers consider them to be synonymous."
  28. ^ a b c d e King 1991, p. 14.
  29. ^ Yamamoto & Page 2007, p. 32.
  30. ^ Dr. Kosho Yamamoto, Mahayanism: A Critical Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Karinbunko, Ube City, Japan, 1975, pp. 141, 142
  31. ^ Yamamoto & Page 2007, p. 29.
  32. ^ Edward Conze, The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1994, p. xix
  33. ^ Johannes Bronkhorst (1993). The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India (PDF). Motilal Banarsidass. p. 74, Footnote 187. ISBN 978-81-208-1114-0.
  34. ^ a b Johannes Bronkhorst (2009). Buddhist Teaching in India. Wisdom Publications. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-86171-811-5.
  35. ^ Williams 1989, p. 100.
  36. ^ Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking. Routledge, 2003, p. 58.
  37. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, p. 98.
  38. ^ Williams 1989, pp. 109–112.
  39. ^ Christopher Bartley (2015). An Introduction to Indian Philosophy: Hindu and Buddhist Ideas from Original Sources. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 105. ISBN 978-1-4725-2437-9.
  40. ^ Williams 1989, p. 102.
  41. ^ Williams 1989, p. 112.
  42. ^ S. K. Hookham (1991). The Buddha Within: Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga. State University of New York Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-7914-0357-0.
  43. ^ Potprecha Cholvijarn. Nibbāna as True Reality beyond the Debate. Wat Luang Phor Sodh. p. 45. ISBN 978-974-350-263-7.
  44. ^ Johannes Bronkhorst (1993). The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 99 with footnote 12. ISBN 978-81-208-1114-0.
  45. ^ Migot, André (1954). "XV. Un grand disciple du Buddha : Sâriputra. Son rôle dans l'histoire du bouddhisme et dans le développement de l'Abhidharma". Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. 46 (2): 492. doi:10.3406/befeo.1954.5607.
  46. ^ a b Johannes Bronkhorst (2009). Buddhist Teaching in India. Wisdom Publications. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-86171-811-5.
  47. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 125–7.
  48. ^ Mackenzie 2007, pp. 100–5, 110.
  49. ^ Mackenzie 2007, p. 51.
  50. ^ a b Williams 2008, p. 127-128.
  51. ^ Seeger 2009, pp. 13 footnote 40.
  52. ^ Williams 2008, p. 126.
  53. ^ pp. 101–103 Maha Boowa, Arahattamagga, Arahattaphala: the Path to Arahantship – A Compilation of Venerable Acariya Maha Boowa’s Dhamma Talks about His Path of Practice, translated by Bhikkhu Silaratano, 2005, http://www.forestdhammabooks.com/book/3/Arahattamagga.pdf Archived 2009-03-27 at the Wayback Machine (consulted 16 March 2009)
  54. ^ UWE STOES (2015-04-22), Thanassaro Bhikkhu, archived from the original on 2021-12-21, retrieved 2017-09-30
  55. ^ "Selves & Not-self: The Buddhist Teaching on Anatta", by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/selvesnotself.html Archived 2013-02-04 at the Wayback Machine
  56. ^ Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. ""There is no self."". Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Archived from the original on 2018-08-19. Retrieved 2018-08-19.
  57. ^ Bodhi, Bhikkhu (January 2017), "Anatta as Strategy and Ontonology", Investigating the Dhamma, Buddhist Publication Society, p. 25, ISBN 978-1-68172-068-5
  58. ^ a b Gombrich, Richard Francis (2009). What the Buddha thought (PDF). Equinox Pub. pp. 69–70. ISBN 978-1845536145.
  59. ^ a b Wynne, Alexander (2009). "Early Evidence for the 'no self' doctrine?" (PDF). Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies: 59–63, 76–77. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-06-02. Retrieved 2017-04-23.
  60. ^ "Ananda Sutta: To Ananda". www.accesstoinsight.org. Archived from the original on 2017-05-10. Retrieved 2017-05-14.
  61. ^ "Introduction to the Avyakata Samyutta: (Undeclared-connected)". www.accesstoinsight.org. Archived from the original on 2017-05-08. Retrieved 2017-05-14.

Works cited[edit]

  • Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid; Ehrhard, Franz-Karl; Diener, Michael S. (2008), Lexicon Boeddhisme. Wijsbegeerte, religie, psychologie, mystiek, cultuur en literatuur, Asoka
  • Harvey, Peter (1995), An introduction to Buddhism. Teachings, history and practices, Cambridge University Press
  • Harvey, Peter (1995b), The Selfless Mind, Curzon Press
  • Kalupahana, David J. (1994), A history of Buddhist philosophy, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited
  • King, Sallie B. (1991), Buddha Nature, SUNY Press
  • Lusthaus, Dan (1998), Buddhist Philosophy, Chinese. In: Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Index, Taylor & Francis
  • Mackenzie, Rory (2007), New Buddhist Movements in Thailand: Towards an Understanding of Wat Phra Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke, Routledge, ISBN 978-1-134-13262-1
  • Seeger, Martin (2009), "Phra Payutto and Debates 'On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon' in Thai Buddhism", Buddhist Studies Review, 26 (1): 1–31, doi:10.1558/bsrv.v26i1.1
  • Trainor, Kevin (2004), Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, Oxford University Press
  • Wayman, Alex (1997), The 'No-self' of Buddhism. In: Alex Wayman, "Untying the Knots in Buddhism: Selected Essays", Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
  • Williams, Paul (1989), Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, ISBN 9781134250561
  • Williams, Paul (2008), Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, ISBN 978-1-134-25056-1
  • Yamamoto, Kosho; Page, Tony (2007) [1973], The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (PDF)

Further reading[edit]