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Atman (Buddhism)

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Although the Buddha argued that no permanent, unchanging "self" can be found, so
me Buddhist schools, sutras and tantras present the notion of an atman (/'??tm?n
/) or permanent "Self", although mostly referring to an Absolute and not to a pe
rsonal self.
Contents [hide]
1 Etymology
2 Early Buddhism
3 Pudgalavada
4 Buddha-nature
4.1 Mahayana Mahaparinirva?a Sutra
4.2 Cautions
4.3 Rang stong and shentong
5 Thai Dhammakaya movement
6 See also
7 Notes
8 References
9 Sources
10 Further reading
11 External links
Cognates (Sanskrit: ??????) atman, (Pali) atta, Old English thm, German Atem, and
Greek atmo-[1] derive from the Indo-European root *et-men (breath).
Atman and atta refer to a person's "true self", a person's permanent inner natur
e.[2] Occasionally the terms "soul" or "ego" are also used.
Early Buddhism[edit]
"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, uncha
nging "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 Buddh
a explains the perceived continuity of the human personality by describing it as
composed of five skandhas, without a permanent entity.[8][9] This analysis make
s it possible to avoid attachment, and is supportive for attaining liberation.[1
Of the early Indian Buddhist schools, only the Pudgalavada-school diverged from
this basic teaching. The Pudgalavadins asserted that, while there is no atman, t
here is a pudgala or "person", which is neither the same as nor different from t
he skandhas.[9]

Main article: Buddha-nature
Buddha-nature is a central notion of east-Asian (Chinese) Mahayana thought.[12]
It refers to several related terms,[note 1] most notably Tathagatagarbha and Bud
dha-dhatu.[note 2] Tathagatagarbha means "the womb of the thus-gone" (c.q. enlig
htened one), while Buddha-dhatu literally means "Buddha-realm" or "Buddha-substr
ate".[note 3] Several key texts refer to the tathagatagarbha or Buddha-dhatu as
"atman", self or essence, though those texts also contain warnings against a lit
eral interpretation. Several scholars have noted similarities between tathagatag
arbha texts and the substantial monism found in the atman/Brahman tradition.[15]
Mahayana Mahaparinirva?a Sutra[edit]
In contrast to the madhyamika-tradition, the Mahaparinirva?a Sutra uses "positiv
e language" to denote "absolute reality". According to Paul Williams, the Mahaya
na Mahaparinirva?a Sutra 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 Mahayana Mahaparinirva?a Sutra does not represe
nt a major innovation.[17] Its most important innovation is the linking of the t
erm buddhadhatu with tathagatagarbha.[17] According to King, the sutra is rather
unsystematic,[17] which made it "a fruitful one for later students and commenta
tors, 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 sch
olars 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 ? A
ny phenomenon [dharma] that is true [satya], real [tattva], eternal [nitya], sov
ereign/ autonomous/ self-governing [aisvarya], and whose ground/ foundation is u
nchanging [asraya-aviparinama], is termed the Self
In the Mahaparinirva?a Sutra the Buddha also speaks of the "affirmative attribut
es" of nirvana, "the Eternal, Bliss, the Self and the Pure."[19] The Mahayana Ma
haparinirva?a Sutra explains:
The Self signifies the Buddha; the Eternal signifies the Dharmakaya;
Nirvana, and the Pure signifies Dharma.[20]


Edward Conze connotatively links the term tathagata itself (the designation whic
h 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 ord
er 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 be
ings, 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 ki
nd, as a Hindu like Atman or even as a purely mental process."[24]


In the later Lankavatara Sutra it is said that the tathagatagarbha might be mist
aken for a self, which it is not.[25]
Rang stong and shentong[edit]
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-em
pty", 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 d
ebates in Tibet.[29]
The Rim movement is an eucumenical movement in Tibet which started as an attempt
to reconcile the various Tibetan schools in the 19th century. The Rim movement al
so supports shen tong.[27]
Thai Dhammakaya movement[edit]
The Dhammakaya Movement in Thailand teaches that it is erroneous to subsume nirv
ana 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
tathagatagarbha sutras.[30]
"Tathagatagarbha Buddhism": key sutras of the Tathagatagarbha Buddhist tradition
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