This is a brief attempt to show that the anatman perspective given by the Buddha does not conflict with my understanding of the atman in Sanatana Dharma/Hinduism. Please bear with the interchange of Sanskrit and Pāli words. It should also be noted that I am primarily expressing the Buddha’s teaching from the Theravada sect, hence the use of Pāli terms.
In Hinduism, the concept of atman is the personal soul or self. The prevalent Buddhist understanding is that the Buddha clearly departed from the Hindu understanding of atman. In describing the process of life or the nature of existence, the Buddha gave the three characteristics: not self (anatman), impermanence of all being and suffering.
Argument and contradiction arise from conceptualizing. True understanding can’t be approached intellectually. This is profoundly pointed out in the Mahabharata by King Yudisthira: ‘Argument alone has no solid foundation. The scriptures contradict each other. No one is considered a sage without having expressed an individual opinion. Real understanding is concealed in the heart. Thus, the only true path is the one that has been followed by fully awakened beings.’
To experience the freedom of true understanding, one has to let go of everything one thinks they know and start to experience what is. When everything you think you are dissipates and goes away, you remain. That can be considered the atman, and the everything else is anatman. That can only be understood by experience, not by concept. Our language and concepts are limited by the three dimensional perceptual field of the mind and senses. However, even modern science has shown that there are ten dimensions.
The Buddha’s teaching is not meant to contradict the teaching of the atman in Hinduism. The Buddha was only interested in giving a non-doctrinal prescription for the release of suffering by providing a means to clearly experience, on a level beyond perception, the impersonal (anatman) life process of dependent arising (paṭiccasamuppāda). In many of the suttas dependent arising has 12 links in one cycle. This can vary depending on one’s own experience. These 12 links are:
||(Pali: Saṅkhāra Sanskrit: Saṃskāra)
|4. Mentality – Materiality
|5. The six sense bases
|10. Habitual behavior
|11. Birth of action
|12. All the sufferings
||(Pali: Jarāmaraṇa soka parideva dukkha domanass’upāyāsā
It should be noted that the Buddha was quite clear in his teaching of dependent arising that consciousness (viññāṇa) dependently arises from formations (sānkhāra), and therefore consciousness is not part of the life continuum (atman). This is explicitly pointed out in the Mahātaṇhāsankhaya Sutta. However, consciousness has many meanings in modern English. It can easily be argued that consciousness in this usage is referring to what has been defined by Ned Block as phenomenal consciousness or simply raw experience.
In the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, the Buddha says to Daṇḍapāni the Sakyan: ‘Friend, I assert and proclaim [my teaching] in such a way that one does not argue with anyone in the world with its gods, its Māras, and its Brahmās, in this generation with its recluses and brahmins, its princes and its people; in such a way that perceptions no more underlie that brahmin who abides detached from sensual pleasures, without perplexity, worry free, free from craving for any kind of being.’
This freedom naturally comes about as a result of skillfully following the Noble Eight-fold Path. The teaching of dependent arising is the foundation for harmonious perspective (sāmma-diṭṭhi), the first element of the Noble Eight-fold Path.
In many of the suttas on dependent arising there is a great deal of repetition. Hearing this repetition is a drill that helps us to become familiar enough to let go of trying to comprehend conceptually. Here is a brief excerpt from the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta where Mahā Kaccāna goes through the following drill for each of the five senses and the mind: ‘When there is the eye, a form, and eye-consciousness, it is possible to point out the manifestation of contact. When there is the manifestation of contact, it is possible to point out the manifestation of feeling. When there is the manifestation of feeling, it is possible to point out the manifestation of perception. When there is the manifestation of perception, it is possible to point out the manifestation of thinking. When there is the manifestation of thinking, it is possible to point out the manifestation of besetment by perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation… When there is no eye, no form, and no eye-consciousness, it is impossible to point out the manifestation of contact. When there is no manifestation of contact, it is impossible to point out the manifestation of feeling. When there is no manifestation of feeling, it is impossible to point out the manifestation of perception. When there is no manifestation of perception, it is impossible to point out the manifestation of thinking. When there is no manifestation of thinking, it is impossible to point out the manifestation of besetment by perceptions and notions [born of] mental proliferation.’
The implication of this is that our perceptions, thoughts and opinions are conditionally arisen and impersonal. Why take them seriously? Seeing the irrelevancy of our perceptions, thoughts and opinions allows us to open up to what is. This is harmonious perspective or right view.
At a quantum level many of the cycles of dependent origination can be extremely rapid e.g., 10,000 per second. This begs the question: what is the life continuum that allows memory of past events in this life, let alone past lives? As the Buddha did before his attainment of Nibbāna, those who remember thousands of past lives will say that this memory is not coming from the conscious mind but from the essence of the life force that continues. All life force continues. It never goes away. It just changes form. Energy never dissipates. It just changes form. This essence of the life force that continues is the atman.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism utilize the understanding of karma. Karma is not something you do in the past that you’re paying for in the present. Karma is something that happens to you in the past that you’re still reacting to in the present. We can choose to let it go and not continually react in the same way to the conditions wrought by past events. By not being caught up with our past, we can make positive changes in our life.
The Buddha gave the Noble Eight-fold Path to lead one out the suffering that can arise by this ignorance. By skillfully following the Noble Eight-fold Path, one has mental development and eventually comes to experience Nibbāna. In the Culavedella Sutta, the bhikkhunī: Dhammadinnā explains how to achieve Nibbāna via the path of mental development. At a certain point in mental development, one can cultivate a balanced and tranquil unification of mind (jhāna). Cultivation and understanding of jhāna is done by our feeling not by our intellect. With the cultivation and understanding of jhāna, one has the potential to fall into the state of the cessation of perception, feeling and consciousness. When going deeper into this state, one experiences an unconditional state that is indescribable. From that unconditional state one eventually experiences the arising of the mental, body and verbal formations. One clearly sees and experiences the impersonal (anatman) process of dependent arising beyond the level of perception. The attainment of this experience is Nibbāna.
There are different levels of Nibbāna based on the clarity of this experience. One observable result of this experience is being released from the five hindrances (pañca nīvaraṇāni ). The deeper the level of Nibbāna, the more one is free from these hindrances and the myriad of suffering that arise from these hindrances. The five hindrances are:
- Sensory desire (kāmacchanda): the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.
- Ill-will (vyāpāda; also spelled byāpāda): all kinds of thought related to wanting to reject, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.
- Sloth-torpor (thīna-middha): heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.
- Restlessness-worry (uddhacca-kukkucca): the inability to calm the mind.
- Doubt (vicikicchā): lack of conviction or trust.
In conclusion, the controversy of atman vs anatman comes down to our human language which is limited to the three dimensional perception of the mind in expressing what is the life continuum and the whole process of life. The life continuum is there and the ‘you’ that experiences this can be considered the atman. The whole process of life is beyond our conceptual understanding and beyond our control, and can therefore be seen as anatman.
As an addendum, please consider that this understanding of atman can imply that any experience of Nibbāna is not self annihilation including the dissolution of the skandhas in Parinibbāna.