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Is Brahman found in the early Buddhist suttas?

Wiki: Brahman (ब्रह्म) connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe.
Atman and Brahman are the two most important key words and widely discussed in Upanishads.
In the early suttas, the Buddha sometimes talked about the Self, but he never talked about the Brahman.
For example, if you search “Brahman” in Suttanipata, you could basically only find 3 things: Brahma(god), Brahmaloka(Brahma world), and Brahmacharya(Brahma practice).
This is like, when someone talked about the sea, he mentioned seamen, sea locations, and how to sail in the sea ---- but not a word on the sea itself!
I checked some theses on both sides but found nothing.
Can anyone give me a hint on this issue? Thanks!

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Thank you for the new sutta to read. :slight_smile:

The Simile of the Ladder in DN13 struck me at first as a bit odd:

Mister, are you building a ladder for a longhouse that you’ve never even known or seen?’

This being so, doesn’t that man’s statement turn out to have no demonstrable basis?

In the modern world, ALL the ladders are built for houses that the ladder-builders have never even known or seen. Because of the industrial revolution and mass production, all ladders are built to lengths, not to houses. This bothered me for a while until I realized that staircases are always custom-built and that the Buddha meant “a ladder that fits a house exactly”.

It’s also interesting how DN13 concludes by teaching the path to Brahmā, whose destination is presumably:

the gods of Brahmā’s Group. This is the first pleasant rebirth. --DN33

It is interesting because the destination of DN13 is only the second plane of consciousness. There are seven planes of consciousness. And a dimension of neither perception nor non-perception. Therefore DN13 provides the way out of non-experiential paths. It provides the first step on a longer ladder.

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Sometimes birth in the company of Brahmā seems like it’s described something like the yogic union of ātman and brahman, but it seems this focus was either a later preoccupation of Vedic/Brahmanical thought and practice or it was not deemed important enough to go into detail about when Buddhists critiqued the Brahmin religion. IMO

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Actually DN13 strongly hints at , what the ancient rishis experienced as union with brahman was actually attainment of jhana by using any one of the brahmaviharas.

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Interesting observation - different explanations for essentially the same experience?

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Just to check, does Brahma = Brahman in DN13?

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AFAIK according to them everything is a manifestation of brahman. You, me, trees etc. It’s just that veils of maya of conceal this from us.
Supposedly brahman can manifest it self as brahma to instruct advanced meditators.

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Thank you for your reference!

Firstly, in the same Wiki page I’ve quoted above:

Buddhist understanding of Brahman[edit]

Buddhism rejects the Upanishadic doctrine of Brahman and Atman (soul, permanent self, essence).[note 6] According to Damien Keown, “the Buddha said he could find no evidence for the existence of either the personal soul ( atman ) or its cosmic counterpart ( brahman )”.[116] The metaphysics of Buddhism rejects Brahman (ultimate being), Brahman-like essence, soul and anything metaphysically equivalent through its Anatta doctrine.


It is great that we have Damien Keown’s book in China, so I took 2 photos on the 2 related paragraphs:


Professor Keown said that the Buddha said he could find no evidence for the existence of cosmic counterpart/brahman, but personally I don’t remember the Buddha ever said that in any sutta, and he didn’t give the related references in his book.

And logically, if the Buddha admited the existence of the Brahmā(god), Brahmaloka(Brahma world), and Brahmacharya(Brahma practice), like what he said in DN13 above or Snp 2.7:
https://staging.suttacentral.net/snp2.7/en/mills

It means, the Buddha would also admit the concept of Brahman, which is the foundation of the Brahmā(god), Brahmaloka(Brahma world), and Brahmacharya(Brahma practice).

It’s like, someone agrees that the seamen, sea locations and sailing in the sea exist, he would have to agree the existence of the sea itself.
Or if there’s a dragon slayer, then he must have a dragon to slay!

Imagine, if several Bramana youngsters came to the Buddha, and asked him about the secrets of Brahmā and Brahman.
And the Buddha answered: sorry, kids. There’s Brahmā, he was with me last night, but there’s no Brahman, the thing that made him. So why the Brahmā called himself “Brahmā” but there’s no Brahman to make him? You ask him!

The different terms into which aspect of ‘brahm’ went into are not as close as you might think. Supra-cosmic ‘brahman’ is quite different from the god Brahma. And, brahmacariya is quite common as a designation for the Buddhist spiritual path as proclaimed in the suttas.

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In DN 1 The Buddha refuted concept of Brahma as a creator god, isn’t it he indirectly refuted the concept of Brahman?

Wiki: Brahma, along with other deities, is sometimes viewed as a form (saguna) of the otherwise formless (nirguna) Brahman, the ultimate metaphysical reality in Vedantic Hinduism.

In fact, the formless Brahman came first, and the formed god Brhamā came later, as the incarnation of Brahman. If people already discussed the Brhamā, they would definitely know the concept of Brahman.

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Unless the notion of an abstracted Brahma(n) preceding the first born of the world-system Brahma itself is the later notion.

It’s possible.

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The logic here would be: if the Buddha refused the existence of Brahmā, then he would also refuse the existence of Brahman.
But if he only refuted the concept of Brahma as a creator god, that didn’t mean he refuted the concept of Brahman.

That might be the case. But in the current Upanishads, the formless Brahman came first, and the formed Brahma came later. But the Upanishads might be revised several times.

Excellent observation!

I’m too busy to check, but might you know if the BAU or CU reference to “Brahma becomes Sarvam” was to the neuter or masculine?

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Wikipedia is nice, but maybe not necessarily the most accurate for scholarly purposes. At least Gonda (p. 37) concludes:

So the places where a Vedic author wavers between Bráhman and Brahmä are very few in number and do not furnish sufficient evidence to prove the correctness of the opinion which seems to have been current for a long time - that Brahmä, the ‘god’, is nothing but a personification of Bráhman “the world-power out of which he emerged” (Hopkins) - a thesis which implies the chronological priority of the latter concept. […] the data found in the ancient texts do not enable us to establish the probability of this assumption.

Gonda, J. (1989). Prajapati’s Relations with Brahman, Brhaspati and Brahma. Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Letterkunde , 138 , 1-78.

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Thank you for the reference, I am not very familiar with Brahmanism.
In that case, the Brahman was widely discussed in the time of Upanishads, but 1-2 centuries later, people are all focus on the new god Brahma.

Another possibility is that, due to caste system in ancient India, the Brahmin class did not bother to debate with sramanas such as the Buddha or Mahavira. In the suttas we have seen today, the Brahmins talking with the Buddha are like fools (DN4, DN13, etc.), none of them are as eloquent as the guys in Upanishads (BAU, CU, etc.) at all.

For example, in DN4, when Soṇadaṇḍa Brahmin was asked by the Buddha, which one of Brahmin’s 5 characters could be abandoned, he answered that the Brahmin holy books could be abandoned! Did he lose his mind? the Vedas are the apocalypses of Gods, which are the bases of wisdom and disciplines.

Brahmins abandon Vedas, just like Christians abandon the Bible, could not happen to a normal believer. No holy books, only wisdom and sila, that sounds very much Buddhist to me, and should not came out from a Brahmin’s mouth.

On the question of whether the personified or abstract concept of brahma came first: normally one would think that the personal idea of deity is simpler, more animist, and hence likely to be earlier, and that the sophisticated abstract philosophy would emerge later, as the theologists became dissatisfied with the limitations of a personal conception of divinity. Such is, at least, the case in the West, where the transpersonal concept of deity became popular only as Christianity waned.

But the matter is a little more complex than this. It is common in tribal societies to have a more or less abstract concept of an energy or force, call it “mana” or “taboo” or “magic”, which imbues things with energy, gives life, and may be more or less controlled. Such concepts emerge in a complex relation with personified forms of religion. Indeed, within Christianity, for example, you could see the notion of the Holy Ghost as being a continuation of this aspect, subsumed within the predominantly personal concept of deity.

I believe that brahman originally signified something similar. The root probably means “power, life, magic, taboo, spirit”, and was felt as an immanent force in nature. When out of balance it manifests as earthquake, lightning, drought, or eclipse; and when in balance, as life, abundance, growth, and strength.

Such a concept could evolve in relation with the notion of personal deity, such that a personalized god was conceived as the embodiment of such a force, a being who attained such stature due to being “in tune” with the fabric of power that underlies the world of phenomena.

The EBTs show a curious relation with the impersonal brahman: on the one hand, many passages clearly show familiarity with the concept (so attā so loko), yet the term brahman does not appear in them. I suspect this is a rhetorical choice: by treating Brahma as purely personal, he is more susceptible to being either satirized or invoked as a Buddhist supporter. Meanwhile the impersonal concept can be dealt with in other terms.

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Actually, as Gonda in ‘Notes on Brahman’ (pp. 62-66) shows with sources, no actual chronology can be worked out regarding the personal and the impersonal. We have in the oldest sources a few impersonal and many personal principles of brahma/brahman at the same time.

Some scholars say that these different aspects were used according to context. I can also imagine that there were certain followers who preferred the one or the other.

The personal brahma was sometimes synonymous to Prajapati, sometimes they were seen as different. Maybe this is a similar problem as ‘adonai’ and ‘elohim’ in the Old Testament.

We also have to consider the parallel movements of elite and folk reception, both influencing each other in different ways.

Another factor is regional differences - so maybe Prajapati (appearing a few times in the Suttas) represents a deity concept of a certain region. And maybe the abstract brahman was conceived and spread further to the west - or it was more of an elite brahmin philosophy and the interlocutors of the Buddha were brahmins not so much concerned with it.

Or, there was originally more notion of brahman in the suttas and the compilers subsumed it under the notion of atman, that is not so different after all, in order to not to confuse the recipients who might have no familiarity with the abstract brahman at all.

It would be nice if we could decipher all this, but I’m afraid it’s difficult. Anyhow I think it’s not possible to deduce clear principles based on the sources available to us.

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