Ātman (Buddhism)

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For other uses, see Atman (disambiguation).

Ātman, attā or attan in Buddhism refers to the concept of self, and is found in Buddhist literature's discussion of the concept of non-self (Anatta).[1]

Although the Buddha argued that no permanent, unchanging "self" can be found, some Buddhist schools, sutras and tantras present the notion of an atman (/ˈɑːtmən/) or permanent "Self", although mostly referring to an Absolute and not to a personal self.


Cognates (Sanskrit: आत्मन्) ātman, (Pāli) atta, Old English æthm, German Atem, and Greek atmo-[2] derive from the Indo-European root *ēt-men (breath). The word means "essence, breath, soul."[3]

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.[4][5] 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".[6] 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).[7]

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".[8] This concept refers to the pre-Buddhist Upanishads of Hinduism , where man is viewed as having a lower self (impermanent body, personality) and a Higher or Greater Self (real permanent Self, soul, atman, atta).[9][10][11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

The Buddha argued that no permanent, unchanging "self" can be found.[14][15] In Buddha's view, states Wayman, "eso me atta, or this is my self, is to be in the grip of wrong view".[16] All conditioned phenomena are subject to change, and therefore can't be taken to be an unchanging "self".[15] 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).[17][18]


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.[18]


Main article: Buddha-nature

Buddha-nature is a central notion of east-Asian (Chinese) Mahayana thought.[19] 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.q. 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 one of the defects by 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] In Thai Theravada Buddhism, for example, states Paul Williams, some modern era Buddhist scholars have claimed that "nirvana is indeed the true Self", while other Thai Buddhists disagree.[44]

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.[45] Similar interpretations have been put forth by the then Thai Sangharaja in 1939. According to scholar Paul Williams, the Sangharaja's interpretation echoes the tathāgatagarbha sutras.[46]

The Dhammakaya Movement teaching that nirvana is atta in 1999, has been criticized as heretical in Buddhism by Ven. Payutto, a well-known scholar monk, who added that 'Buddha taught nibbana as being non-self".[47] This dispute on the nature of teachings about 'self' and 'non-self' in Buddhism has led to arrest warrants, attacks and threats.[48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Buddha-dhatu, mind, Tathagatagarbha, Dharma-dhatu, suchness (tathata).[20]
  2. ^ Sanskrit; Jp. Busshō, "Buddha-nature".
  3. ^ Kevin Trainor: "a sacred nature that is the basis for [beings'] becoming buddhas."[21]
  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. ^ atman: definition, usage and pronunciation - YourDictionary.com
  3. ^ Atman Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper (2012)
  4. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 51.
  5. ^ Steven Collins (1990). Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism. Cambridge University Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-521-39726-1. 
  6. ^ Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 22–23, 305, 503. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7. 
  7. ^ Thomas William Rhys Davids; William Stede (1921). Pali-English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 23, 284 (Jiva), 369, 503. ISBN 978-81-208-1144-7. 
  8. ^ Harvey 1995b, p. 17.
  9. ^ Harvey 1995b, pp. 17-19.
  10. ^ Charles Johnston (2014). The Mukhya Upanishads. Kshetra Books (Reprint), Original: OUP (1931). pp. 706–717. ISBN 978-1-4959-4653-0. 
  11. ^ [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. 
  12. ^ Harvey 1995b, pp. 17-28.
  13. ^ Peter Harvey (2013). The Selfless Mind: Personality, Consciousness and Nirvana in Early Buddhism. Routledge. p. 1-2, 34-40, 224-225. ISBN 978-1-136-78336-4. 
  14. ^ Kalupahana 1994, p. 68.
  15. ^ a b Harvey 1995, p. 52.
  16. ^ Wayman 1997, p. 531.
  17. ^ Kalupahana 1994, p. 69-72.
  18. ^ a b Fischer-Schreiber, Ehrhard & Diener 2008, p. 27.
  19. ^ Lusthaus 1998, p. 83.
  20. ^ Lusthaus 1998, p. 84.
  21. ^ Kevin Trainor, Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 207
  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, p. 98-99.
  25. ^ Williams 1989, p. 107.
  26. ^ Williams 1989, p. 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. Motilal Banarsidass. pp. 99 with footnote 12. 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, page 58.
  37. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 98.
  38. ^ Williams 1989, p. 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. ^ Williams 2008, pp. 125–7.
  45. ^ Mackenzie 2007, pp. 100–5, 110.
  46. ^ Williams 2008, p. 126.
  47. ^ Mackenzie 2007, p. 51.
  48. ^ Mackenzie 2007, p. 51–2.


  • 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 
  • Wayman, Alex (1997), The 'No-self' of Buddhism. In: Alex Wayman, "Untying the Knots in Buddhism: Selected Essays", Motilal Banarsidass Publ. 
  • Yamamoto; Page, Tony (2007) [1973], The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra (PDF) 
  • Williams, Paul (1989), Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, ISBN 9781134250561 

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