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Atman (Buddhism)

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Atman (Buddhism)

Although the Buddha argued that no permanent, unchanging "self" can be found, some Buddhist schools, sutras and tantras present the notion of an atman () 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-[1] derive from the Indo-European root *ēt-men (breath).

Ātman and atta refer to a person's "true self", a person's permanent inner nature.[2] Occasionally the terms "soul" or "ego" are also used.

Early Buddhism

"Atman" in early Buddhism may simply refer to the sense of "I am",[3][4] similar to the pre-Buddhist Upanishads of Hinduism, which link the feeling "I am" to a permanent "Self".[5] Contrary to this the Buddha argued that no permanent, unchanging "self" can be found.[6][7] All conditioned phenomena are subject to change, and therefore can't be taken to be an unchanging "self".[7] Instead, the Buddha explains the perceived continuity of the human personality by describing it as composed of five skandhas, without a permanent entity.[8][9] This analysis makes it possible to avoid attachment, and is supportive for attaining liberation.[10][11]


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.[9]


Buddha-nature is a central notion of east-Asian (Chinese) Mahayana thought.[12] 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.[15]

Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra

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".[16] This "true Self" is the Buddha-nature, which is present in all sentient beings, and realized by the awakened ones.

According to Sallie B. King, the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra does not represent a major innovation.[17] Its most important innovation is the linking of the term buddhadhatu with tathagatagarbha.[17] According to King, the sutra is rather unsystematic,[17] 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".[17] 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.[17] 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].[18]

In the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra the Buddha also speaks of the "affirmative attributes" of nirvana, "the Eternal, Bliss, the Self and the Pure."[19] The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra explains:

The Self ’ signifies the Buddha; ’the Eternal’ signifies the Dharmakaya; ’Bliss’ signifies Nirvana, and ’the Pure’ signifies Dharma.[20]

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.[21]


According to Paul Wiliams, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra uses the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics. He quotes from the sutra:[22]

The Buddha-nature is in fact not the self. For the sake of [guiding] sentient beings, I describe it as the self.[23]

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."[24]

In the later Lankāvatāra Sūtra it is said that the tathāgatagarbha might be mistaken for a self, which it is not.[25]

Rang stong and shentong

The dominant Tibetan school, Gelugpa, favours Prasangika (rang stong) Madhyamaka philosophy over Yogacara and Buddha-nature thought.[26] Rang stong, "self-empty" refers to sunyata, empty of a self or essence.[26]

Other Tibetan schools have tended to accept the shentong (gzhan tong), "other-empty", point of view, which discerns an "inherently existing Absolute".[27] This Absolute "is empty of adventious defilements which are intrinsically other than it, but is not empty of its own inherent existence".[28] This understanding and interpretation of the tathagatagarbha-teachings has been a matter of intensive debates in Tibet.[29]

The Rimé movement is an eucumenical movement in Tibet which started as an attempt to reconcile the various Tibetan schools in the 19th century. The Rimé movement also supports shen tong.[27]

Thai Dhammakaya movement

The Dhammakaya Movement in Thailand 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. According to Paul Williams, this teaching echoes the tathāgatagarbha sutras.[30]

See also


  1. ^ Buddha-dhatu, mind, tathagatagarbha, Dharma-dhatu, suchness (tathata).[13]
  2. ^ Sanskrit; Jp. Busshō, "Buddha-nature".
  3. ^ Kevin Trainor: "a sacred nature that is the basis for [beings'] becoming buddhas."[14]


  1. ^ atman: definition, usage and pronunciation -
  2. ^ Harvey 1995, p. 51.
  3. ^ Wayman 1997, p. 531.
  4. ^ Harvey 1995-b, p. 17.
  5. ^ Harvey 1995-b, p. 34.
  6. ^ Kalupahana 1994, p. 68.
  7. ^ a b Harvey 1995, p. 52.
  8. ^ Kalupahana 1994, p. 69-72.
  9. ^ a b Fischer-Schreiber, Ehrhard & Diener 2008, p. 27.
  10. ^ Harvey 1995.
  11. ^ Kalupahana 1994.
  12. ^ Lusthaus 1998, p. 83.
  13. ^ Lusthaus 1998, p. 84.
  14. ^ Kevin Trainor, Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 207
  15. ^ Jamie Hubbard, Absolute Delusion, Perfect Buddhahood,University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2001, pp. 99-100
  16. ^ Williams 1994, p. 98-99.
  17. ^ a b c d e King 1991, p. 14.
  18. ^ Yamamoto & Page 2007 (1973), p. 32.
  19. ^ Dr. Kosho Yamamoto, Mahayanism: A Critical Exposition of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Karinbunko, Ube City, Japan, 1975, pp. 141, 142
  20. ^ Yamamoto & Page 2007 (1973), p. 29.
  21. ^ Edward Conze, The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1994, p. xix
  22. ^ Paul Williams, Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations.Taylor & Francis, 1989, page 100. "... it refers to the Buddha using the term "Self" in order to win over non-Buddhist ascetics."
  23. ^ Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking. Routledge, 2003, page 58.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Peter Harvey, Consciousness Mysticism in the Discourses of the Buddha. In Karel Werner, ed., The Yogi and the Mystic. Curzon Press 1989, page 98.
  26. ^ a b Williams 1994, p. 107-108.
  27. ^ a b Williams 1994, p. 107.
  28. ^ Williams 1994, p. 108.
  29. ^ Williams 1994, p. 105-109.
  30. ^ Paul Williams (2009), Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd edition. Routledge, London. p. 126


  • Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid; Ehrhard, Franz-Karl; Diener, Michael S. (2008), Lexicon Boeddhisme. Wijsbegeerte, religie, psychologie, mystiek, cultuur an literatuur, Asoka 
  • Harvey, Peter (1995), An introduction to Buddhism. Teachings, history and practices, Cambridge University Press 
  • Harvey, Peter (1995-b), 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 
  • 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 

Further reading

  • Hodge, Stephen (2009 & 2012). "The Textual Transmission of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana-sutra", lecture at the University of Hamburg
  • Wynn, Alexander (2010). "The atman and its negation". Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 33 (1-2): 103–171. 
  • Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.), Page, Tony (ed) (1999–2000).The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 volumes. London: Nirvana Publications.

External links

  • "Nirvana Sutra": full text of "Nirvana Sutra", plus appreciation of its teachings.
  • "Tathagatagarbha Buddhism": key sutras of the Tathagatagarbha Buddhist tradition
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