Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Anatman – Exploring the Non-self

Posted 21st of May, 2008 @ Vraja Journal.


The doctrine of anatman (Pali: anatta), a central concept in Buddhist philosophy, is sometimes juxtaposed with the Hindu belief in atman. The fundamentals on both sides of the debate deserve a good, careful look.

In an evident parallel with the Bhagavata – among countless other Hindu texts – in observing the illusory "I" and "mine", janasya moho 'yam aham mameti, the suttas (e.g. MN 8) assert three wrong views:

1. Etam mama – "This is mine." – arising from craving.
2. Eso aham asmi – "This I am." – arising from pride and conceit.
3. Eso me atta – "This is my self." – arising from fundamental misconception.

Thereby craving, pride and wrong view lead one to establish diverse self-related conceptions in relation to the five khandas, the five base categories of formation (sankhara). These are, for obvious reasons, states of delusion, for anicca vata sankhara -- all formations, aggregates, conglomerations, are temporary by their nature, unfit for being labeled either a lasting, enduring self or its accessories.

The non-selfness of the five khandas is noted, among other sources, in the Culasaccakasutta (MN 35):
"Material shape, monks, is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, the habitual tendencies are not self, consciousness is not self; all conditioned things are impermanent (sabbe sankhara anitya), all things are not self (sabbe dhamma anatta).”
The five-fold khandas are conditioned dhammas, or sankharas. Nibbana (nirvana) is an unconditioned dhamma (thing, principle). While nibbana is often described as deathless (amrita), steady (dhruva), unfalling (acyuta) and so forth, adjectives familiar to many from Hindu descriptions of atman, it is not admitted to as atman, for the concept of a self by its very nature implies the presence of context and condition. That is, for as long as we take it in referring to an individual self – which really is the only meaningful usage of the word – in indicating an identifiable unit as separate from other units, whether purushas, jivas or other such atman-candidates.

A person with a rudimentary understanding of Advaita-vedanta will know moksha or liberation to be the state where the atman is realized as non-different from the Brahman, leading to the dissolution of the individual self-conception in favor of an unconditioned, homogeneous state. The individual self turns out to be nothing but a temporary fabrication rooted in avidya, the perennial ignorance serving as the foundation of conditioned existence in Advaita and Buddhism both alike. The doctrine of anatman understood as the absence of a lasting individual self, do both systems in fact not subscribe to the same concept?

The Upanishads describe Brahman – not atman – as the ultimate reality: sarvam khalv idam brahma. The attainment of, or realization of this Brahman is the objective. The term “brahma” finds, interestingly, countless references in the Pali Suttas. The monks are often referred to as brahma-faring (brahma cariyam), the vimoksha or final liberation bringing about the state of brahma-bhuta, the brahma-attainment.

A more detailed study of this subject, along with the obvious extended theme of analyzing the concepts of Brahman and nirvana, is outside the scope of this text, and only possible with more time and library access. In the meantime, may we occupy ourselves with pursuit for the attainment of an unconditioned reality by means of wisdom (prajna), moral conduct (sila) and meditative absorption (samadhi).

No comments:

Post a Comment