The Buddha affirms the Upaniṣadic ātman?


I would like to have your opinion on this paper: Ātman/Anātman in Buddhism and Its Implication for the Wisdom Tradition.

Which summarizes the arguments put forward by Kamaleswar Bhattacharya in his book: L’Ātman-Brahman dans le Bouddhisme ancien.

While reading I couldn’t help but notice that it reminded me of what Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu could say, when he denied the “hard anattā” and identified Nibbāna as a “consciousness without surface”. Could this be the Upaniṣadic ātman of which the text speaks?

Thank you,

With mettā. :pray:


What is the “Wisdom Tradition” mentioned in the paper?

EDIT: nvm, it’s Theosophy. I read further.


If Theosophists wish to be helped by the Buddhadharma, more power to them for seeking it out, but if you need to reinvent something to understand it, have you ever really understood it at all?


Theosophy. I’m not really interested in it, but I came across this paper while reading on The book of Dyzan.

The paper summarizes the arguments of Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, who is not a theosophist.

Note the first quotation:

Buddho bodhiµ vidadhyåd vo yena nairåtmyadar≈anam |
viruddhasyåpi sådhüktaµ sådhanaµ paramåtmana˙ || 9
The concept of paramåtman [the highest self] is in contradiction (viruddha) with the doctrine of nairåtmya [non-self]; nevertheless, the Buddha taught that same doctrine [of non-self] as a
means (sådhana) of attaining to paramåtman [the highest self]! 10

The copy-paste from the document is horrendous, but readers can find it at page 2 of the link in the OP.

We have to be careful when dealing with ancient inscriptions from Southeast Asia. Just because the area is currently Theravadin, does not mean it was in the past. The above inscription is almost definitely Tantric IMO, right down to the sort of language used. I’m not a betting man, but I’d bet a fair amount on it if I were. So the inscription is not quite like other ancient Buddhist inscriptions, like those of King Ashoka, etc.

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It’s a difficult question with many aspects, because the EBT are not consistent and feature texts from different centuries. The vast majority of suttas don’t know the early Upanisads at all. There are exceptions but it’s difficult to say what they mean - if they came from the earliest times or were later additions. It’s more probable that the EBT refer not to the Upanisads but the earlier Brahmanas.

But to start with your premise: What is supposed to be the “Upanisadic atman”? This in itself is a concept of us readers, a simplification which pre-supposes a consistent ‘Brahmin’ philosophy and a consistent ‘Buddhist’ philosophy. Much more probably Brahmins were struggling for conceptual supremacy and had many a views of what ‘atman’ actually is.

A bit more specifically, I think that Bhattacharya is a bit too underrated in the ‘Buddhist atman’ debate, but it’s also no coincidence that his view has only rarely been referenced.


The theory is anti-historical, as the author does not attempt to understand the late texts they cite in the context of Buddhist philosophy as a whole. Philosophy is dialectic, and we cannot understand it by taking bits and pieces from texts separated by thousands of years and thousands of kilometers, divorcing them from their context, and making no attempt to understand what they were saying in their time and place.

It is well known that some Mahayana texts embrace the idea of the “self”, and whether this is meant as a mere rhetorical strategy or a genuine metaphysical stance is a subtle matter, which I explore a little more below.

The basic logical problem, which is found commonly among Buddhist authors, too, is the assumption that the five aggregates are primarily an empirical description of the person. Once we define them as empirical realities, we have by definition excluded a “metaphysical” self, and anyone statements about the aggregates unsurprisingly can be read as not applying to a metaphysical self.

But the aggregates were primarily a classification scheme for theories of self. When the suttas are saying the aggregates are not self, they are not saying, “These things, which we all know are empirical realities, are not-self”. They are saying: “These things, which you take in a metaphysical way as a self, are in fact conditioned empirical realities”. It becomes obvious that “consciousness is not self” is specifically referring to the Upanishadic doctrine (i.e. that of Yajnavalkya).

Such arguments are not new or unusual. They have been made constantly for the last hundred years or more, and indeed, for a few decades in the mid-century they gripped the Pali Text Society and hence became mainstream modern Pali scholarship. The Theosophical Society has been a mainstay of these ideas since its founding.

It’s curious that such arguments make such a fuss about the fact that they can’t find the specific phrasing of the doctrine they want to find, i.e. that the Buddha didn’t say “there is no self”. Yet the absence of their own doctrine is passed over.

The Buddha did not say, “There are two kinds of self, a metaphysical and an empirical.” He did not say, “My highest teaching is pretty much similar to what the brahmans are saying”. He did not say, “The idea of Nibbana as extinction is really just a way of pointing to an eternal absolute.”

Why not? Well, presumably because he thought he had it pretty well covered when he said, “all things are not-self”. Instead of taking the plain and oft-repeated statements of the Suttas on face value, they seek out obscurities and odd phrasings that they can read to their will.

Rather than expecting ancient scriptures to say exactly what we want in exactly the form that we want it, we should look at what they actually do say, and sympathetically ask, what does this mean in its time and place? It becomes clear that many of the stock phrases dealing with not-self are meant in an Upanishadic context. The phrasing eso hamasmi is essentially identical with the Upanishadic tad tvam asi and must be an version of it. Moreover, phrases such as so attā so loko can only mean something like the Upanishadic doctrine (“the self is identical to the cosmos”).

I have discussed these matters in more detail in my essay on the Khandha Samyutta:

Many translations in the essay are incorrect. For example, the quoted passage from the Mahayanasutralankara includes the epithet of the Buddha, “Plan Without-Outflowing", which is is strange to say the least; but in fact it is a rendering of ānāsrave dhātau “in the undefiled element”. This kind of mistake in a very basic term does not inspire confidence that the author is capable of handling subtle and profound matters.

For those interested, the Mahayanasutralankara passage is found in several languages (but not English) here:

And its commentary here:

Running the French through Google translate, and referring back to the Sanskrit, the commentarial interpretation makes clear that this is intended as a play on ideas, relying on the Nagarjunian idea of the notions of self (ātman) and individual nature (svabhāva), for which you can refer previous discussions on this forum.

One thing that it is often overlooked is that the Mahayana writers were constantly trying to twist things, to play with words, to look for a new or unexpected angle. This kind of semi-playful speech can’t be read outside of its context. The authors were not making definitive and absolute statements, they were poking their audiences expectations to get a rise out of them.

Let’s say the most outrageous thing we can. Ooh I know, let’s say the Buddha taught the Highest Self! Hilarious! Then when they’re all worked up, we’ll show that what we really meant was not-self all along! :laughing:

It’s the kind of thing that Dhamma teachers do all the time. Well I do it, anyway! We can trace this playful treatment of Brahmanical terminology all the way back to the Suttas (AN 8.11):

“Master Gotama lacks taste.”

“There is, brahmin, a sense in which you could rightly say that I lack taste. For the Realized One has given up taste for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. It’s cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future. In this sense you could rightly say that I lack taste. But that’s not what you’re talking about.”

This kind of interplay is a known feature of such texts, the most famous example being Vasubandhu (Asanga’s brother) in his Abhidharmakosa. He wrote the text to appear as if confirming the Sarvastivada doctrine, then when they asked him to write his own commentary on it, his explanations supported the Sautrantikas. The Sarvastivadins were not impressed.

Returning to the Mahayanasutralankara, the text says roughly that the Buddhas, through the path of not-self and pure emptiness, obtain the pure self, the higher self of the self. This is a challenging moment, a point where the sleepy students at the back of the class are meant to wake up.

The commentary then explains that the highest and purest not-self is the Buddhas’ “self”, i.e. their true nature (svabhāva). In other words, the essence of Buddhahood is the absence of defilements (ānāsrave dhātau), and this state of purity and emptiness is what is being referred to here as “the highest self”.

Thus the commentary is deliberately playing with these historically-charged ideas, assuming a sophisticated audience familiar with the EBTs and their teaching of not-self; with the works of Nagarjuna who equated ātman and svabhāva; and with the then-modern Hindu scholars such as Śaṅkarācārya who introduced terms such as paramātman.

Mahayana philosophy is highly anti-essentialist, and this applies not just to metaphysics, but to the meanings of words as well. By training students in wit and word-play, they sharpen their minds and prepare them for philosophical discussions. And they do so, very cleverly, by drawing on the same rhetorical techniques that were found in the Suttas themselves.

This drawback of these approaches is that, outside of these literate and sophisticated circles, it is easy to read the texts over-literally and draw the opposite conclusion. Such is the fate, alas, of anyone in religion who has a sense of humor.

A further comment is required, I think, on the political nature of these sayings. The original quote in the article is an inscription from the Khmer empire, which was a syncretic Hindo-Buddhist culture. Such synthesis was common throughout the Indic sphere in one way or another.

Clearly, from a political viewpoint it is expedient to emphasize teachings that allow for a reconciliation between the major religious groups in one’s realm. We find a similar thing in modern Indonesia, and it is safe to assume that it was quite common. It would not be the first time that a religious doctrine was taken in one way by the philosophers, another way by the populace, and yet another by the politicians.


This reminded me of Venerable Bhavaviveka’s oddest and most contrarian passage, Bhante:

ajātatā hi bhāvānāṃ svabhāvo’kṛtrimatvataḥ
anapāyitvataścāsāv ātmetyapi nigadyate
eko’sāv ekarūpatvād bhāvabhede’pyabhedataḥ
sarvagaḥ sarvadharmatvān nityaścāpyavināśataḥ
ajātatvād ajāto’yam ata evājarāmaraḥ
acyutaścyutabhāvāc ca prakarṣatvāt paraṃ matam
na rūpaśabdagandhādir na bhūmyagnijalānilāḥ
nākāśaśaśisūryādir na manojñānalakṣaṇaḥ
sarvaścāsau svabhāvatvān na sarvaṃ cānāśataḥ
tatra kleśādyanutpatteḥ śuddho’sau śānta eva ca
sa kalpanāsamāropād vāyo’vācyas tu tattvataḥ
sarvathā cāpyavācyatvā ukta eṣa nirañjanaḥ

Because it is unborn, imperishable, and independent,
‎the intrinsic nature of existence is called the self.
Because it is of one form and undifferentiated,
‎it is one, even when differentiated.
Because it is the very nature of all things, it is all-pervasive.
‎Because it is imperishable, it is eternal.
Because it is uncreated, it is unborn.
‎Therefore, it is vacant of age and death.
Because it is devoid of destruction, it is indestructible.
Because it is excellent, ‎it is called the highest.
It is neither form, sound, smell, and so forth,
nor is it earth, fire, water, or wind,
nor is it space, the moon, the sun, and so forth,
nor is it characterized by mind or knowledge.
Because it is the intrinsic nature, it is every entity,
and because it is indestructible, it is not every entity.
Since wickedness does not arise in it,
it is pure and utterly quiescent.
Expressed through the superimposition of imagination,
‎in essence it is inexpressible.
Because it is inexpressible in every respect,
it is called the unmanifest.

(Venerable Bhāvaviveka on “Suchness,” Vedāntatattvaniścayaparivarta , Madhyamakahṛdayakārikā, translation Olle Qvarnström)


Right, they loved that stuff! It’s so beautiful, evoking that sense of wonder and awe. And you can see how it evolved, in a much less wordy way, to the koan.

The problem is, once you know the rhetorical tricks, the “paradoxes” are much less fun.


I hope you don’t mind, but I think you might have made a mistake between the French and English here. The French “Plan” is translating “dhatu” in a sense similar to the Chinese 界. French “Plan” is cognate with English “Plane,” specifically in the sense of “a level of existence, thought, or development.”


Ah, nvm. You are citing a translation from the OP paper. I don’t know why I thought you were reading the French directly.


But I assume, yes, that “plan” in the OP paper was a mistake for “plane”.



My feelings precisely regarding Nagarjuna and the early Prajnaparamita… and much else in Indian Buddhism to be honest. Perhaps the Theravada’s total humorlessness has been to its historical advantage… :thinking:

This sounds like a good story I haven’t heard! Have a citation to a good retelling of it? :pray:


It’s hilarious, actually.

I can’t recall the source. It may be the story comes from the rather excellent book by Stefan Anacker, Seven Works of Vasubandhu. But the gist as I recall is as follows. Don’t quote me!

Sanghabhadra was the senior Sarvastivadin teacher at the time, and we are to imagine him as a grim, pedantic scholastic. He was impressed by the brilliance shown by the young student Vasubandhu. He invited Vasubandhu to make a skeleton outline of the whole Abhidharma system (according to the Sarvastivadins). Now, it should be borne in mind that Vasubandhu was regarded as so brilliant that he even outshone his own brother Asanga, himself one of the greats.

Vassubandhu, however, was not a dogmatist, but rather an eager learner who was on a rather rapid growth curve. He was doubting many aspects of the Sarvastivada theory, and leaning towards the Sautrantika views. But he completed his commission and submitted the Abhidharmakosa to rave reviews. To this day it remains the foundation for Abhidharma studies in Tibet and China.

Sanghabhadra, though pleased, felt that the text was too condensed for students. The normal system, of course, was that a summary text was explained in the classroom via commentary. But he asked Vasubandhu to write his own auto-commentary on his book. That he did, but he used the Sautrantika perspective to critique the Sarvastivada.

I’m not sure to what extent Vasubandhu did this deliberately. Was he just trolling the Sarvastivadins? I suspect that it is a little more complex than that, and that his own views were evolving at the time. By showing that a text can be commented from a different perspective, he was doing more than taking sides; he was showing how the different sides worked from the same material to different ends.

Sanghabhadra was furious, and said that Vasubandhu’s work had “all the coherence of a mad deaf-mute in a fever dream”. Vasubandhu, for his part, remarked that Sanghabhadra, while doubtless very learned, lacked deep wisdom.

Vasubandhu’s Dhamma journey was far from complete, however. It was only after this that he wrote his most original and incisive works, the Viṃśatikā and Triṃśikā, where he turned from the more ontological perspective of the Abhidharma towards epistemological and phenomenological inquiry. These works reward a careful study, and remain among the crowning achievements of ancient philosophy.


I love the english translation of Thanissaro Bhikkhu ‘Not-self’ (anatta) more accurate than ‘Nonself’ as the latter often end up in annihilation. Not-self is simply not-identification with five aggregates. Self (atman) of conventional reality is arising from identification with nama-rupa, vedana, sanna, sankhara and vijnana (consciousness). He says:

“The Buddha divided all questions into four classes: those that deserve a categorical (straight yes or no) answer; those that deserve an analytical answer, defining and qualifying the terms of the question; those that deserve a counter-question, putting the ball back in the questioner’s court; and those that deserve to be put aside. The last class of question consists of those that don’t lead to the end of suffering and stress. The first duty of a teacher, when asked a question, is to figure out which class the question belongs to, and then to respond in the appropriate way. You don’t, for example, say yes or no to a question that should be put aside. If you are the person asking the question and you get an answer, you should then determine how far the answer should be interpreted. The Buddha said that there are two types of people who misrepresent him: those who draw inferences from statements that shouldn’t have inferences drawn from them, and those who don’t draw inferences from those that should.”

The upanishadic ‘atman’ and ‘Buddhist’ ‘anatta’ may non-conceptually point to same thing as unattached ‘selflessness’ or ‘egolessness’. This is why Buddha said in Dhammapada, a true Brahmin in an Arahat’; both are seekers of Truth (Dhamma).

This is a standard rendering, not a special feature of Thanissaro’s work. It is found, for example in Ven Nyanamoli’s Majjhima Nikaya translation of around 1960.

Just for fun, I went back to the even older Chalmers translation of MN (1927), and found at least one place where he uses “non-self”, although I am not aware of any modern translators doing so.

The idea, however, that there is any substantive difference between the two has no linguistic grounding. “Non-self” and “not-self” are both perfectly happy being used in the normal way of the Suttas, eg. in Chalmers the passage is, “the eye, its sense-objects and ocular perception are all three non-Self.”

Citation required.

This has nothing to do with the question of a “supreme self”, an idea the Buddha rejected out of hand. The Buddha frequently re-purposed existing terminology, taking current words and ideas and reframing them within his own framework. If you read the chapter in question, you’ll see that it doesn’t even refer to the topic of “self”, but rather to being unattached, letting go of desires, and becoming free from rebirth in any form: all standard Buddhism.

Again, this is a misreading of the text. An arahant is a perfected one, who has already realized the truth: they are not seeking anything. That’s the point. Anyway, an “arahant” and a “brahmin” are not two different people. Brahmin is simply a term that the Buddha repurposed as an epithet for an arahant. Instead of defining a brahmin by membership in a caste, he changed it to mean one who has found inner purity. It is a critique of brahmanism.


@sujato Without wanting to express a view either way in this discussion with respect to self, Bhante, when you say the “supreme self” is

I am moved to ask what your views are on the Buddha saying,

Tasmā hi attakāmena,
Saddhammo garukātabbo,
saraṃ buddhāna sāsanan”ti.

Is mahattaṃ in line 2 at all a reference a “supreme self”? If so, what is it’s significance? as you see it.

It’s a colloquial phrase, in the same way we say in english that someone is a “good soul” or has a “warm heart”.


I can accept that, but what does it signify here?