Ātman (Buddhism)

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The word Ātman (Sanskrit: आत्मन्) or Atta (Pāli) refers to a self. Occasionally the terms "soul" or "ego" are also used. The words ātman and atta derive from the Indo-European root *ēt-men (breath) and are cognate with Old English æthm, German Atem, and Greek atmo-.[1]

Whereas Buddhism generally stresses the non-Self teachings of the Buddha, some Mahāyāna Buddhist sutras and tantras present cataphatic Buddhist teachings with positive language by asserting the ultimate reality of an atman [Self], which is equated with the essential, ultimate nature of mind (Dalai Lama — see relevant section below). This doctrine, also known as Tathāgatagarbha, is also seen as the inborn potential to become a Buddha.

The Theravāda Dhammakaya Movement of Thailand also asserts the reality of the atman, which it equates with nirvana.

Need for Buddhists to understand ātman[edit]

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.[2]

Without contacting the entity that is imputed
You will not apprehend the absence of that entity. (Bodhicaryāvatāra)

Definition of ātman in Buddhism[edit]

Candrakīrti contextualises ātman as follows:[3][4]

Ātman is an essence of things that does not depend on others; it is an intrinsic nature. The non-existence of that is selflessness.

In the Abhidharmapiṭaka[which?] (Pāli: Abhidhammapiṭaka), a treatise on 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 belief that one is intrinsic and without incident. This attachment further diverges one's route from the path to enlightenment and hence nirvāṇa as all forms of attachment do.[citation needed]

Critique of ātman in Buddhist metaphysics[edit]

With the doctrine of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman) Buddhism maintains[who?] that the concept of ātman is unnecessary and counterproductive as an explanatory device for analyzing action, causality, karma, and rebirth. Buddhists account for these and other self-related phenomena by means such as pratitya-samutpāda, the skandhas, and, for some schools, a pudgala. Buddhists[who?] 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.[original research?]

Developing the self[edit]

While the suttas strongly attack notions of an eternal, unchanging Self, they "see an enlightened person as one whose empirical self is highly developed."[5] One with great self has a mind which is not at the mercy of outside stimuli or its own moods, but is imbued with self-control and self-contained.[6] The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or I-identification.[7] One can transform one's self from an "insignificant self" into a "great self" through practices such as loving-kindness and mindfulness (sati).[8] The suttas portray one disciple who has developed his mind through loving-kindness saying: "Formerly this mind of mine was limited, but now my mind is immeasurable."[8]

At the culmination of the path is the arahant, described as "one of developed self" (bhāvit-atto), who has carried the process of personal development and self-reliance to its perfection.[7] Such a person has developed all the good aspects of their personality.[9] An arahant is described as "one with a mind like a diamond", it can "cut" anything and is itself uncuttable; nothing can affect it.[10] The suttas portray "one of developed self" in the following ways:

  • Virtue, wisdom, and the meditative and other spiritual faculties are well-developed;
  • Body is "developed" and "steadfast";
  • Mind is "developed", "steadfast", "well-released" and without ill-will;
  • When confronted with objects of the six senses, he or she has equanimity and is not confused, seeing only what is seen, and hearing only what is heard, not mental projections and elaborations such as attachment, desire, and aversion;
  • The six senses are "controlled" and "guarded";
  • He or she is "self-controlled" (atta-danto) and "with a well-controlled self" (attanā sudantena); and is
  • "Unlimited, great, deep, immeasurable, hard to fathom, with much treasure, arisen (like the) ocean."[11]

Thai Dhammakaya movement’s teachings on non-self and self[edit]

Over the past several decades (dating back to at least 1939),[12] a movement of monks and meditation masters, later called the "Dhammakaya Movement", has developed in Thailand. The Dhammakaya Movement teaches that it is erroneous to subsume nirvana under the rubric of anatta (non-self); instead, nirvana is claimed to be the "true self" or dhammakaya. This teaching is strikingly similar to that of the tathāgatagarbha sutras. Paul Williams[13] explains the views of this movement:

[Dhammakaya] meditations involve the realization, when the mind reaches its purest state, of an unconditioned “Dhamma Body” (dhammakaya) in the form of a luminous, radiant and clear Buddha figure free of all defilements and situated within the body of the meditator. Nirvana is the true Self, and this is also the dhammakaya.

The bulk of Thai Theravāda Buddhism rejects this teaching and insists upon non-self as a universal fact. As against this, Phra Rajyanvisith of the Dhammakaya Movement (which does not see itself as Mahāyānist but as modern Theravāda) argues that it tends to be scholars who hold the view of absolute non-self, rather than Buddhist meditators. Also, according to him, only the compounded and conditioned is non-self - not nirvana. Williams summarises Phra Rajyanvisith’s views, and adds his own comment at the end: [14]

[Scholars] incline towards a not-Self perspective. But only scholars hold that view. By way of contrast, Phra Rajyanvisith mentions in particular the realizations of several distinguished forest hermit monks. Moreover, he argues, impermanence, suffering and not-Self go together. Anything which is not-Self is also impermanent and suffering. But, it is argued, nirvana is not suffering, nor is it impermanent. It is not possible to have something which is permanent, not suffering (i.e. is happiness) and yet for it still to be not-Self. Hence it is not not-Self either. It is thus (true, or transcendental) Self … These ways of reading Buddhism in terms of a true Self certainly seem to have been congenial in the East Asian environment, and hence flourished in that context where for complex reasons Mahayana too found a ready home.

Williams sees the Dhammakaya Movement of Thailand as having developed independently of the Mahayana tathāgatagarbha tradition but as achieving some remarkably similar results in their understanding of Buddhism.[15]

Positive teachings on the ātman in Mahāyāna Buddhism[edit]

Within the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism, there exists an important class of sutras (influential upon Ch'an and Zen Buddhism), generally known as Buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha) sutras (also: "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 Buddha nature does not represent a substantial self (ātman); rather, it is a positive language and expression of emptiness (śūnyatā) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices; the intention of the teaching of Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical.[16]

Prior to the period of the tathāgatagarbha genre, Mahāyāna 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 tathāgatagarbha 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.[17]

Not all Buddhists and scholars share this interpretation of the doctrine of self in the tathāgatagarbha sutras. Kosho Yamamoto, who translated the entire Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra into English, tells of how the Buddha speaks in that scripture of doctrines previously not articulated. Now, in order to correct people’s misunderstanding of the Dharma, the Buddha - according to Yamamoto - tells of how He speaks of the positive qualities of nirvana, which includes the self:

He [i.e. the Buddha] says that he is now ready to speak about the undisclosed teachings. Men abide in upside-down thoughts. So he will now speak of the affirmative attributes of Nirvana, which are none other than the Eternal, Bliss, the Self and the Pure.[18]

The Zen Buddhist master, Sekkei Harada, likewise speaks of a true Self in his explications of Zen Buddhism. This true Self is found when one "forgets the ego-self".[19] Harada states that the doctrine of "no-self" really means awakening to a self that is without any limits and thus invisible: "No-self means to awaken to a Self that is so vast and limitless that it cannot be seen."[20] Harada concludes his reflections on Zen Buddhism by speaking of the need for an almost passionate encounter with the "person" of the essential True Self:

… in our lifetime there is only one person we must encounter, one person we must meet as though we were passionately in love. That person is the essential Self, the true Self. As long as you don’t meet this Self, it will be impossible to find true satisfaction in your heart …[21]

Analogously, Michael Zimmermann, a specialist on the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, writes: "the existence of an eternal, imperishable self, that is, buddhahood, is definitely the basic point of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra".[22] Zimmermann also declares: "[The compilers of the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra] did not hesitate to attribute an obviously substantialist notion to the buddha-nature of living beings"[23] and notes the evident total lack of interest in this sutra for any ideas of non-substantialism or "emptiness" (śūnyatā): "Throughout the whole Tathagatagarbha Sutra the term śūnyatā does not even appear once, nor does the general drift of the TGS somehow imply the notion of śūnyatā as its hidden foundation. On the contrary, the sutra uses very positive and substantialist terms to describe the nature of living beings."[24]

Jamie Hubbard writes on the diverse ways in which the tathāgatagarbha texts (which on occasion speak of the self) are viewed by various scholars, some seeing an absolutist monism in them, others not. Hubbard comments:

Matsumoto [calls] attention to the similarity between the extremely positive language and causal structure of enlightenment found in the tathagatagarbha literature and that of the substantial monism found in the atman/Brahman tradition. Matsumoto, of course, is not the only one to have noted this resemblance. Takasaki Jikido, for example, the preeminent scholar of the tathagatagarbha tradition, sees monism in the doctrine of the tathagatagarbha and the Mahayana in general … Obermiller wedded this notion of a monistic Absolute to the tathagatagarbha literature in his translation and comments to the Ratnagotra, which he aptly subtitled “A Manual of Buddhist Monism” … Lamotte and Frauwallner have seen the tathagatagarbha doctrine as diametrically opposed to the Madhyamika and representing something akin to the monism of the atman/Brahman strain, while yet others such as Nagao, Seyfort Ruegg, and Johnston (the editor of the Ratnagotra) simply voice their doubts and state that it seems similar to post-Vedic forms of monism. Yet another camp, represented by Yamaguchi Susumu and his student Ogawa Ichijo, is able to understand tathagatagarbha thought without recourse to Vedic notions by putting it squarely within the Buddhist tradition of conditioned causality and emptiness, which, of course, explicitly rejects monism of any sort. Obviously, the question of the monist or absolutist nature of the tathagatagarbha and Buddha-nature traditions is complex.[25]

Hubbard concludes his investigation into the notion of tathāgatagarbha with the words:

the teaching of the tathagatagarbha has always been debatable, for it is fundamentally an affirmative approach to truth and wisdom, offering descriptions of reality not in negative terms of what it is lacking or empty of (apophatic description, typical of the Pefection of Wisdom corpus and the Madhyhamika school) but rather in positive terms of what it is (cataphatic description, more typical of the devotional, tantric, Mahaparinirvana and Lotus Sutra traditions, and, it should be noted, the monistic terms of the orthodox Brahmanic systems)[26]

The true self of the Buddha is indeed said to be pure, real and blissful, and to be attainable by anyone in the state of mahāparinirvāṇa. Furthermore, the essence of that Buddha — the Buddha-dhātu ("Buddha-nature", "Buddha principle"), or Dharmakāya, as it is termed — is present in all sentient beings and is described as "radiantly luminous". This Buddha-dhātu is said in the Nirvāṇa Sūtra to be the uncreated, immutable and immortal essence (svabhāva) 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 Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra. 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 Nirvāṇa Sūtra to be characterised by "great loving-kindness, great compassion, great sympathetic joy, and great equanimity" (see: the four Brahmavihāras).

In equating the Buddha-nature with practice, King argues that the author of the Buddha-Nature Treatise "undercuts any possibility of conceiving Buddha nature as an entity of any kind, as a Hindu–like Ātman or even as a purely mental process."[27]

In the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra the Buddha is portrayed explaining that he proclaims all beings to have Buddha-nature 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.[16]

In the later Lankāvatāra Sūtra it is said that the tathāgatagarbha might be mistaken for a self, which it is not.[28] In the 'Sagathakam' section of that same sutra, however, the Tathagatagarbha as the Self is not denied, but affirmed: 'The Atma [Self] characterised with purity is the state of self-realization; this is the Tathagata's Womb (garbha), which does not belong to the realm of the theorisers'.[29]

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 Śrīmālā Sūtra 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."[30] An early Buddhist tantra, the Guhyasamājā Tantra, declares: "The universal Self of entities sports by means of the illusory samādhi. It performs the deeds of a Buddha while stationed at the traditional post" (i.e. while never moving). The same tantra also imbues the self with radiant light (a common image): "The pure Self, adorned with all adornments, shines with a light of blazing diamond ..." [31] 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."[32]

Furthermore, the Tibetan Buddhist scripture entitled The Expression of Manjushri's Ultimate Names (Mañjuśrī-nāma-saṅgīti), as quoted by the Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa,[33] applies the following terms to the Ultimate Buddhic Reality:

  • "Pervasive Lord"
  • "Supreme Guardian of the world"
  • "Buddha-Self"
  • "Beginningless Self"
  • "Self of Thusness"
  • "Self of primordial purity"
  • "Source of all"
  • "Single Self"
  • "Diamond Self"
  • "Solid Self"
  • "Holy, Immovable Self"
  • "Supreme Self"
  • "Supreme Self of All Creatures".

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:[34]

... 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.

The 14th Dalai Lama on the "subtle person or self"[edit]

In 2005, commenting on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text in the highest yoga tantra, the 14th Dalai Lama explained how this tantra conceives both of a temporary person, and a subtle person or self, which it links to the Buddha nature. He writes:

… when we look at [the] interdependence of mental and physical constituents from the perspective of Highest Yoga Tantra, there are two concepts of a person. One is the temporary person or self, that is as we exist at the moment, and this is labeled on the basis of our coarse or gross physical body and conditioned mind, and, at the same time, there is a subtle person or self which is designated in dependence on the subtle body and subtle mind. This subtle body and subtle mind are seen as a single entity that has two facets. The aspect which has the quality of awareness, which can reflect and has the power of cognition, is the subtle mind. Simultaneously, there is its energy, the force that activates the mind towards its object – this is the subtle body or subtle wind. These two inextricably conjoined qualities are regarded, in Highest Yoga Tantra, as the ultimate nature of a person and are identified as buddha nature, the essential or actual nature of mind.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ atman: definition, usage and pronunciation - YourDictionary.com
  2. ^ Tsong-khapa's Final Exposition of Wisdom, Trans: Jeffrey Hopkins, Snow Lion Publications, 2008. ISBN 978-1-55939-297-6; Chapter titled "Importance of identifying the object of negation" pp183-187
  3. ^ Bodhisattvayogacaryācatuḥśatakaṭikā 256.1.7
  4. ^ Translations from "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment", Vol. 3 by Tsong-Kha-Pa, Snow Lion Publications ISBN 1-55939-166-9; p213. Detailed reasoning pp204-223
  5. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 54.
  6. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 55.
  7. ^ a b Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 63.
  8. ^ a b Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 57.
  9. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, page 58.
  10. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, pages 58.
  11. ^ Peter Harvey, "The Selfless Mind." Curzon Press, 1995, pages 57-58.
  12. ^ Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, London, 2nd Edition, 2009, p. 125
  13. ^ Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, London, 2009, p. 126
  14. ^ P. Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, London, 2009, pp. 127-128.
  15. ^ Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, Routledge, 2009, p. 128
  16. ^ a b Heng-Ching Shih,The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' -- A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'
  17. ^ Sallie B. King (1997),The Doctrine of Buddha Nature is Impeccably Buddhist. In: Jamie Hubbard (ed.), Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm Over Critical Buddhism, Univ of Hawaii Press 1997, pp. 174-192. ISBN 0824819497
  18. ^ Dr. Kosho Yamamoto, Mahayanism: A Critical Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Karinbunko, Ube City, Japan, 1975, pp. 141, 142
  19. ^ Sekkei Harada, The Essence of Zen: Dharma Talks Given in Europe and America, Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, London, 1993, p. 63
  20. ^ Sekkei Harada, The Essence of Zen, Kodansha International, 1993, p. 63
  21. ^ Sekkei Harada, The Essence of Zen, Kodansha International, 1993, p. 191
  22. ^ Zimmermann, Michael (2002), A Buddha Within: The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Biblotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica VI, The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, p. 82
  23. ^ Zimmermann, Michael (2002), A Buddha Within: The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Biblotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica VI, The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, p. 64
  24. ^ Zimmermann, Michael (2002), A Buddha Within: The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Biblotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica VI, The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University, p. 81.
  25. ^ Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood,University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 99-100
  26. ^ Dr. Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood,University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 120-121
  27. ^ King 1991:168, quoted from Henshall, Ron (2007),The Unborn and Emancipation from the Born[1], a master's thesis by a student of Peter Harvey.
  28. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 98.
  29. ^ Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, The Lankavatara Sutra, Prajna Press, Boulder, 1978, p. 282
  30. ^ The Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala, Motilal, Delhi 1974, tr. by A. and H. Wayman, p. 102
  31. ^ Yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra by Alex Wayman, Motilal Delhi, 1977, pp. 18 and 28
  32. ^ The Sovereign All-Creating Mind, tr. by E.K. Neumaier-Dargyay, pp. 158-159
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ Mountain Doctrine, op. cit., pp. 133-134
  35. ^ 14th Dalai Lama, Introductory Commentary, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Gyurme Dorje, edited by Graham Coleman and Thuuten Jinpa, Penguin Classics, London, 2005, p. xvi

Further reading[edit]

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