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Thread: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

  1. A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

    Okay, hello everyone i am new here and this is my first thread, I pretty much created my account here simply to try and clear up this point and to seek the opinions of any Buddhists who might be willing to discuss this, therefore while I welcome the input of anyone from any other faiths/sects, this thread is primarily aimed at Buddhists.

    Ok, so.. recently I attended an S.N Goenka ten day Vipassana meditation course. I hadn't ever really looked at Buddhism or thought about the Buddha before but after finding the course massively beneficial to my spiritual progress my fascination was sparked, I did a little research into the Buddha and His teachings and found it all, for the most part, entirely in line with Sanatana Dharma and with my own faith. Something did however, begin to trouble me as I delved deeper into Buddhism, and that was the doctrine of no-soul, no-atman or Brahman, this made me question where Vipassana Meditation was going to take me if I continued practicing it and so I referred to The Gita and to The Upanisads. (I had to believe that Krishna as the Supersoul had led me to Vipassana Meditation, because the Supersoul is the guide and friend of all.)

    Now, what I was taught on the course was essentially these three:

    Anicca; Impermanence: That everything in the world is transient and impermanent, arising, staying for a while, passing away, repeat repeat ad infinitum, something I found entirely backed up by the Gita and Upanisads. I will give just one example which is handy just now:

    Katha Upanisad


    Verse 26:

    These pleasures last but until tomorrow,
    And they wear out the vital powers of life.
    How fleeting is all life on earth!

    As it can be seen here and in many other places in The Scriptures, it is a primary teaching of Sanatana Dharma that everything in the material world is impermanent. Therefore I did not find this teaching of Anicca to be in conflict with what I know to be true and have seen through my own experience.

    Dukkha; Suffering: That since all things are transitory then happiness can never be found in the world, happiness cannot be found in what arises and passes away, therefore Dukkha; Misery, is the condition of the world. Again, I found this backed up by The Scriptures. Again I will give an example from the same section of The Katha, since it is open in front of me:

    Katha Upanisad


    Verse 27:

    Never can mortals be made happy by wealth.
    How can we be desirous of wealth when we see your face
    And know we cannot live while you are here?

    Now personally I believe in the factual historical truth of every part of the scriptures, but I am also aware of the fact that there is a metaphorical/allegorical nature to them, and I believe, since they come from God and are God, that this is a reflection of the Nature of Brahman, both Immanent and Transcendent. Point being that I think Nachiketa is not only speaking to and about Yama, Lord of Death, but also to Siva, the world destroyer, the engulfer. Now when it was said at the course that everything in the world arises, stays for a period, and then passes away, I thought instantly of Brahma (arising) Vishnu (staying for a period, sustained) and Siva (passing away) who are present everywhere and govern this process. Nachiketa is saying that happiness can never be had in transitory things because they are always passing away, Lord Siva engulfs all. And therefore the state of the world is in misery because of attachment to transitory things, which are always falling into the mouth of Siva. This is the same as Dukkha, suffering because of Anicca, and so again, I did not find this doctrine in conflict with my own beliefs in any way.

    Now we come to the point of this thread, because this is where I feel that the major discrepancy between Buddhism and Hindu Dharma has arisen; the third principle we were taught was this:

    Anatta: Non-self, that what we call ourself, our body, mind, ego etc are impermanent, just like the rest of creation. Of course I already knew this, but it was when i did more research that I realised that they are also denying Atman, the eternal Self, the non-different Self of all creatures and all things, the almighty Ground of Existence. Now, this is the part for any Buddhists who are proponents of this belief. Here I present my argument and it is to prove that this Buddhist reaction to the Hindu Dharma concept of Atman or (S)elf (not (s)elf) by denying the existence of it is based on a complete misunderstanding of what the actual teaching is. I will quote from Buddhist websites and from the Katha to support this:

    So, when I approached the Teacher at the camp and asked about this: would continuing Vipassana Meditation lead me to this conception of No-Self, would i not find the ultimate ground of existence at the conclusion of this meditation? He replied in essentially the same way, there IS no ground of existence, it is based on nothingness, emptiness and it is eternally transitory, therefore the Nirvana of Buddhism is the factual realisation through direct personal experience of this fact that everything is impermanent, even what you call yourself. This was where it first struck me, he didnt understand what I was saying, I wasnt talking about self, I was talking about Atman, Self with a capital S.

    This is my refutal and my request to Buddhists that, while you have every right not to believe in Atman, please try and understand the true nature of the teachings of Hindu Dharma:

    To begin my refutal proper, I will quote from this website:

    "Atman, the Sanskrit expression of Soul, Self, or Ego, is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, which is the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world. --

    -- Buddhism denies the existence of such a thought. The idea of Atman is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality. It is this belief of Atman where all the "me", "mine", selfish desire, craving, attachment, etc. comes from and where the evil begins."

    Here is what the Katha Upanisad has to say (One of my favourite parts of any scripture) :

    Katha Upanisad

    Part 3

    Verse 1:

    In the secret cave of the heart,
    Two are seated by life's fountain.
    The seperate ego drinks of the sweet and bitter stuff,
    Liking the sweet, disliking the bitter,
    While the Supreme Self drinks sweet and bitter
    Neither liking this nor disliking that.
    The ego gropes in darkness, while the Self lives in Light.

    Now if we refer to the above: "It is this belief of Atman where all the "me", "mine", selfish desire, craving, attachment, etc. comes from and where the evil begins"

    Craving and aversion, and attachment to the satisfaction of these i.e liking the sweet disliking the bitter, are what cause the illusory idea of "Me" and "Mine" and this what causes the formation of the idea of self, or the seperate ego "Liking the sweet, disliking the bitter" "Selfish desire, craving, attachment" There is NO disagreement here between Buddhist and Hindu Dharma. However, the Buddhists have confused something very important, in the original Sanskrit texts, two different words are used when speaking of the two who are seated by lifes fountain. To denote the Supreme Self, who drinks both sweet and bitter but feels not seperation and therefore not craving nor attachment nor aversion to what is already present within its own being (something i'll get to) the word Atman is used, to denote the seperate ego, the one who is subject to craving and attachment, who is selfish and is selfishness itself, the word Aham is used. One of the primary teachings (if not THE primary teaching) of Hindu Dharma and in particular Advaita Vedanta is that Aham is entirely and completely illusory and our true Self is Atman. Here is a description of Aham from this website:

    "From a spiritual perspective, ego (aham) means considering oneself to be distinct from others and God due to identification with the physical body and impressions (sanskārs) in various centres of the subtle body. In short, ego is leading our life as per the thinking that our existence is limited to our five senses, mind and intellect, and identifying ourselves with them to various degrees. In layman's terms one can define ego as pride about oneself."

    It now becomes apparent that when there is such rancor in many Buddhists against the concept of Atman, it is because they are confusing Atman with Aham. From the above:

    "Atman, the Sanskrit expression of Soul, Self, or Ego, is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, which is the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world."

    See, they are confused, they are correct in saying that it is our conception of Self and Soul, but not of transitory, impermanent Ego and from this example, it seems that they deny Atman because they think that our scriptures are saying that the transitory Ego, that which is selfish and attached to pleasure and pain, sweet and bitter, i.e Aham they think we are saying that it is THAT self which is the eternal ground of existence. This is a HUGE misunderstanding of Vedanta and of Hinduism as a whole.

    Therefore this Buddhist denial of Atman is actually a denial of Aham, which is a denial that both religions are trying to practice, the denial of Atman however, is a denial of something which Buddhism is actually trying to achieve, i.e detachment from pleasure and pain. The ability to endure both pleasure and pain without being engulfed in the net of Samsara, to drink sweet and bitter "Neither liking this nor disliking that" to become the Supreme Self, Atman, united with Brahman. How can this be possible for a Buddhist, who denies the existence of an Eternal Self (even though they think that Eternal Self is the same as Aham of Ego) ?

    Well, now I will return to my conundrum with Vipassana Meditation. On the one hand I found that it had helped me a lot, on the other I was worried as to whether it would lead me to a state of what is essentially, atheism. I went back to scan the reading materials that the course haad provided and noticed something:

    "Vipassana is a meditation technique which was lost to India for thousands of years and was REDISCOVERED by Gautama The Buddha just over 2500 years ago" This made me wonder, so again I returned to the scriptures.

    Now, in Vipassana Meditation you essentially move your awareness from the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet and from the bottoms of your feet to the top of your head over and over again, you try and 'feel' every part of your body and you begin to feel a plethora of sensations cropping up all over it, some pleasant, some unpleasant and the practice is to not move, and remain entirely non reactive to anything that you feel, in a state of equanimity, something I like to call 'Joy Regardless' but at all times deepening your awareness of the sensations, this strenthens the understanding of Anicca, impermanence, because every sensation, whether pleasant or unpleasant eventually dissapears and this lessens your attachment to them because you see factually that they are transitory. If you allow yourself to, for example, react to a painful feeling, then you are miserable, and inclined to seek a pleasant sensation, but this also passes and you mourn its passing, but if you remain non reactive, detached, then you are affected by neither. This strengthens the understanding of Dukkha, suffering due to attachment, finally you see that every sensation is representative of a biochemical change within the body and you see that nothing in the body (and eventually also the mind and the subtle self) ever stops moving, it is all constant change, and therefore there is no permanent self, no ego, you see Anatta non-self, that body, mind and subtle are all impermanent and illusory.

    I referred to the scriptures and sure enough i found a description which almost matched this, although I cant remember if it was the Gita or a Upanisad and I can find it just now, but I remember it clear as day:

    "In order to know the Self,
    First you must know what is not Self.
    Turn the mind and senses within and observe the impermanent,
    When the impermanent is identified then the Yogi knows Brahman, for Brahman is what remains eternal"

    I think its fair to say that this sounds VERY similar to the process of Vipassana Meditation, and let us not forget that even the course recognised that Buddha only RE-discovered Vipassana, and that depending of who you believe, Sanatana Dharma dates back to tens of thousands of years before the Buddha, so it is reasonable to assume that it was forgotten and since the time of the Vedas and The Mahabharata War etc and rediscovered in 500 B.C By one Siddhartha Gautama The Buddha.

    I continued using Vipassana because i realised that it is That Which Observes the impermanent that is permanent. That which scans up and down the body observing in equanimity all the sensations, and the more we practice this the more we become one with the Supreme Self, the one who drinks both sweet and bitter, neither liking this nor disliking that, detached, pure, in Joy Regardless. The Self is called The Silent Observer, and that is what you do in Vipassana, observe the body, the mind, and the subtle until all is identified as impermanent, impersonal, and transitory, but what is left after all that is discarded, is pure detached awareness, the faculty of observation, pure consciousness, with nothing left to know but itself, shining in its own light i.e The dissolution of Aham and the final realisation of Atman as Brahman: Moksha. How the Buddhists have failed to see this is beyond me, because Vipassana would not even be possible if it were not for the presence of Atman in order to realise the impermanence of Aham. Now, I am aware of the Buddhist conception of Nama and Rupa (Mind and Matter) and the explanation that during meditation it is one part of Nama that observes the rest of Nama and also Rupa but this is impossible because A) mind does not produce consciousness but only channels it and B) if both mind and matter are transitory then the part of the mind that observes during meditation would dissolve before the final realisation, but this final realisation is made possible by the simultaneos union and dissolution of Nama and Rupa in pure Consciousness which is detached from both and also the source of both.

    Again, this is one of the major confusions of Buddhism, this is my final point:


    Nama and rupa serve two functions in our moment-to-moment experience: 1) the function of knowing, and 2) the function of being known.
    The faculty that knows is nama, the mind. It is aware of something. Let's call it the "knower" (but this "knower" should not be equated with a self; it is impersonal, anatta.) The x being known is called the "object." An object by very definition lacks awareness.
    Rupas, material forms, are always objects, not knowers. Rupa is not conscious.

    Now, this is ignorant of some very basic facts of science, the mind is the brain, it is an object, therefore it is not conscious as the concept of Rupa itself admits that objects are not conscious. The mind is essentially made up of 2 components, electrical currents, and chemicals called neurotransmitters i.e matter and energy, but of course we know that E = MC2 therefore matter is the same as energy. Neither parts of the brain are conscious within themselves, but the mind is a vehicle for consciousness, consciousness functions within it, and it is the functioning of the mind that is confused as being the self, thoughts, feelings etc etc but the true self is actually that which enters and functions through the mind just like signals enter and function through the object of a television set. Therefore the true knower is seperate from the mind, otherwise how would it be possible to also identify the functions of mind like thoughts, desires etc as being transient and illusory if the very thing which identifies that fact is also transient and illusory. Therefore mind cannot be the knower, but part of what is known, mind is also Rupa, an object, not conscious itself, but consciousness is in it, just as consciousness is in the body. Consciousness only resides in mind and body because of the false illusion that mind and body ARE the self, but when all these are known as transient and therefore not The Eternal Brahman/Atman then consciousness rejects body and mind and enters into Samadhi, unison, this seems obvious since all these, mind body etc are observed in an ascending path all the way to the Self which is consciousness being known by consciousness without any material medium such as mind or matter. Therefore the process of meditation is simply the detachment and disidentification from increasingly more subtle forms of material change: Matter, Body, Mind, Senses, Intellect until all these are known as being illusory and only that which knows, i.e pure consciousness, Brahman/Atman is left, aware of itself.. Self-Awareness.

    Of course Lord Sri Krishna The Almighty Personality of Godhead already explains this in The Bhagavad Gita Chapter 13 Verse 1-6:

    1The body is called a field, Arjuna; the one who knows it is called the Knower of the field. This is the knowledge of those who know.2I am the Knower of the field in everyone, Arjuna. Knowledge of the field and its Knower is true knowledge.

    3Listen and I will explain the nature of the field and how change takes place within it. I will also describe the Knower of the field and his power. 4These truths have been sung by great sages in a variety of ways, and expounded in precise arguments concerning Brahman.

    5The field, Arjuna is made up of the following: the five areas of sense perceptions; the five elements; the five sense organs and the five organs of action; the three components of mind: manas, buddhi, and ahamkara; and the undifferentiated energy from which all these evolved. 6In this field arise desire and aversion, pleasure and pain, the body, intelligence, and will.

    So it is seen, even intelligence, will, and manas, buddhi and ahamkara are all part of the field, which are subject to pleasure and pain, even the mind and its aspects are known by the Knower of the field, Lord Krishna/Brahman/Atman.

    And there you have it folks, I welcome your feedback and discussion
    Last edited by Servant of Krishna; 09 June 2014 at 11:29 AM. Reason: typo

  2. #2
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    Re: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

    Interesting post. It seems you are interested in the Theravada tradition, I think you should take a look at the teachings of Ajahn Maha Boowa about the "Citta".
    Here some "Dhamma Talks" from Maha Boowa's disciple Ajahn Martin Piyadhammo, from 2006 to 2014:
    Last edited by ale84; 01 July 2014 at 03:16 PM.

  3. #3

    Re: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

    Pranams Servant of Krishna,

    Firstly let me thank you for such a well written post, and a very interesting subject.

    I have been studying Buddhism and Vedic practices for about 25 years. I have done vipassana and many other forms of meditation retreats with Buddhists over the years.

    It has been a great journey for me to compare the teachings of Buddha Dharma and The Vedas and other forms of philosophy that came from India, and globally for that matter. In fact one could spend 100's of life times in a very interesting study, but I will tell you where I am with this subject as of now after some consideration, but it will be almost impossible in one or two posts.

    Firstly we need to understand the purpose and life of Siddharta, his practices before enlightenment and his current environment.

    Siddharta practiced for many years with many different teachers but was closest to the sramana tradition, they were not considered part of the Vedic mainstream sect and practice, but many of their practices and teachings were in sync with Veda.

    Sramana practice is very close to yogic practice of Dhyana and mediation, with fasting and extreme austerity, some sources say they are the founders of dhyana yoga, or at least they maintain that tradition, and other forms of non classical vedic philosphy.

    The Brahmins who represent the Veda at that time were not very qualified and misinterpreted the shastra and especially the doctrine of atma. Even in astrology this period was a particular degraded part of Bharata's timeline.

    Atma in sanskrit can mean body, mind or soul, its used in different ways depending on context, so atma just means self, self is divided into the categories of mind, body and soul, so atma is often used in contextual language, atman is a convention in language, just like we sometimes call this body as me, my experiences are part of me part of self.

    So for me personally I do not get to caught up with the context of the way atma is being used.

    There is one way to approach knowledge through investigation, and that is to first find the simplest solution, so we grade the world self and atma according to the context. Body is not self, mind is not self soul is not self.

    If we follow the vedic model and hear soul is not self we may think that there is some contradiction.

    Nothing could be further from the truth, it is very easy by logic to know that mind and body is not self, as they are in constant change, the body is not a fixed entity, the mind has no fixed state, mind states change in accordance to dependant arising, which then leads to the problem of rebirth.

    But how can the soul be not self, this is where logic ends and introspection through meditation takes over, and we have to apply new rules and laws to understand aspect of the teachings of anatta.

    There are some very important considerations in regards to the Buddhist teaching. Firstly he was opposed to the interpretation of the brahmins notion of the self, especially in regards to animal sacrifice, where the doctrine of the self was justified to slaughter innocent animals. Then there is the consideration of the core teaching of Buddha, and this needs to be approached from an introspective standpoint, exactly as the Buddha teachings were intended to be taught. The Buddha did not teach any ultimate state, Nirvana being the closest, nirvana, means cessation, nirvana is simply the moment when attachment and craving is extinguished, its switching off the power to our habitual association with phenomena, which is empty of any self inherent existence. Existence is causal in the phenomenal world, consciousness is affected by phenomena, with our present senses we are only aware of phenomena, phenomena is not self, there is not self in phenomena, no self in causality.

    The Buddha taught that there is not an atma that transmigrates from one body to another, or at least he saying that the soul does not reincarnate, the term rebirth is more accurate. This is backed up in Gita 2.9, for the soul there is neither birth or death.

    Its not the soul that is in reincarnation, its the phenomena that is trapping consciousness that is subject to dependant arises, nothing in phenomena is self.

    Its very subtle, and we have to take into deep consideration that many of the teachings are not related to a belief system, The Buddha had a more pragmatic approach, deal with the defilements, understand the nature of phenomena. Even the most subtle refined states of mind in the nine stages of Jhanas are still products of subtle variations of phenomena, they are not in the strictest sense spiritual or transcendental.

    The Buddha was asked many metaphysical questions, about the soul and the existence of god, if there is a principle that survives death, is it all over when we experience death, and the vast majority of the time he remained silent and considered it not important to his teachings.
    Last edited by markandeya 108 dasa; 02 July 2014 at 04:02 PM.

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    Re: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

    Namaste Servant of Krishna,

    It was nice to see your sincere efforts to get to the root of problems (doubts) faced by you. Doubts always arise when one is on the path (let it be any path) to say "self-realisation" or when one is still a sadhak.

    It would have been great if you continued the practice of Vipassana till the experience of "Total Dissolution" was achieved. The greatness of vipassana lies in teaching you not through the books or lectures but by experience.
    For example- we would tell a child not to go near fire as it would cause burn/harm, the child may or may not listen for various reasons- one of them could be lack of faith, but a child who has already burned his fingers (Had a direct experience of fire resulting in painful burn) need not be convinced that going near fire is dangerous.
    Similarly had you experienced "Total Dissolution" and also you mentioned were literate in Vedic knowledge (Upanishads), I can guarantee you this doubt would have never aroused.

    Since I do not consider this platform appropriate to discuss personal experiences, for further clarification you may "PM" me.

    Continue any practice that you take till you reach the end (goal) of it, it would solve all of your problems.


    Jo sahaj hai, saral hai, wohi satya hai!

  5. #5

    Re: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham


    I agree that on experiential level there is no difference in Buddhist "Nothingness" and Hindu "Brahman" (Brahm).

    Infact, in the RgVeda the word "brahm" is kept a secret, as a theonym. Even when it occurs (and occurs with a richer variety of import than in the Vedantic writings), it means:
    The silent Ritvija priest of Yagya,
    Praise, creation, etc.

    That is, Brahm is on purpose not mentioned as a theonym (but only indicated indirectly as in: "the Brahma priest is the highest level of vāc", etc).

    It is only in Vedantic paradigms that we see the use of Brahm at such huge discounts (so every other person, including atheists, today is an Advaitin).

    Then there is also a race, within Hinduism, to "uplift" sectarian Gods of respective traditions to the status of Brahm.

    However, I am a Kali bhakta, and I don't worship Her as Brahm, because Brahm is a different "deity" in my eyes. And still, my worship is not for any material gain or some spiritual siddhis.

    Just to add a minor point, even in Buddhism we have a form of Kali Ma as Devi Tara. So there is more than meets the eye.

    Shri Ram.
    Things to remember:

    1. Life = yajña
    2. Depth of Āstika knowledge is directly proportional
    to the richness of Sanskrit it is written in
    3. Āstika = Bhārata ("east") / Ārya ("west")
    4. Varṇa = tripartite division of Vedic polity
    5. r = c. x²
    r = realisation
    constant c = intelligence
    variable x = bhakti

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    Re: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

    Namaste All,

    It's quiet natural to have doubts queries during various stages of sadhna and it is most appropriate to approach one's Guru or senior sadhak (in the absence of guru) for clarification. IMHO one should continue the sadhna with utmost faith till the milestone is reached, one should carefully avoid getting into words of play, which is nothing but Maya, obstructions in the path to enlightenment.
    Once the ladder is climbed sadhak will realize there is no difference in all the preachings (offered by different religions/ sects), they all teach the same thing, it's just they are showcased differently.



    Jo sahaj hai, saral hai, wohi satya hai!

  7. #7

    Re: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

    Buddhism denies any kind of eternal, permanent self.

  8. #8

    Thumbs Up Re: A Buddhist Confusion, Atman and Aham

    There are 2 academic books which compare and contrast Hindu and Buddhist philosophy:

    Early Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism by Richard King

    The Method of Early Advaita Vedānta by Michael Comans

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