Summing up, the Buddhist views and interpretations of Anatta we find that all three 'schools' deny the existence of an 'individual self'. In Theravadan thought there is no 'absolute-self' and questions about an 'absolute reality' are not fully answered. I am sure that Theravadans would deny the existence of any such 'absolute reality' but in view of the Buddha's comments about the 'nibbanic domain' which is beyond all manifestation and phenomena, and the supposition that nibbana is a real state (or experience?) which can be attained, the question is still left unanswered. When we come to the Mahayanist Tibetan school they would probably deny the existence of an 'absolute-self' but certainly hold that there is an 'absolute' reality above and beyond the 'empty' world of phenomena, which they call Rigpa.
Finally, in Zen thought there exists 'Zen Mind' or 'Universal Mind' which is 'ultimate truth' and is the source of (or beyond) 'small mind', the normal functioning mind. Combine this with the mention of 'the Sacred Self' and 'true self' and I maintain that Zen does accept the existence of an 'absolute self' even if Zen Buddhists would not particularly like this terminology. However even if we do not use this term then 'Zen Mind' can be equated with an 'absolute reality.'
So to the comparison of the various streams of Hindu and Buddhist thought. Samkhya, Visishtadvaita and Dvaita all equate Atman with an 'individual self' whereas all Buddhist schools interpret Anatta as denying an 'individual self', so we can safely say that in these cases the concepts of Atman and Anatta are in fact in direct opposition. This leaves advaita which denies the 'individual self'' and equates Atman with the 'absolute self'. So how does this compare with the 'absolute' hinted at by Theravada and affirmed by Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Firstly let me make the point that ultimately 'absolute self' and 'absolute reality' or 'absolute truth' all mean exactly the same thing. In the upaniShad-s 'brahman' and 'Self' are synonymous with the 'absolute reality'. However the Buddha was concerned with the mechanics of overcoming suffering and this was based on the elimination of 'I conceit' or 'self-grasping' which leads to the end of 'clinging', 'grasping' and 'craving'. Thus any consideration of a 'self' could only be counter-productive as he asserted that all who contemplate 'the self' actually identify this with the five aggregates ... As far as answering questions on the 'absolute' he regarded all such questions as being unconnected with the goal of overcoming suffering and achieving nibbana. In his famous discourse with the sage Malunkyaputta he likened this to a man who, being pierced with an arrow, spend this time questioning the type, make, source and firer of the arrow, rather than just pulling it out!
However the Buddha's utterance of the 'domain where there is no earth, water, fire, air, wind, sun, moon, etc., which is the end of suffering' is echoed in many of the UpaniShad-s for example:
'Beyond the unmanifested... is brahman, the all pervading, the unconditioned, knowing whom one attains to freedom. None can behold him for he is without form. His words cannot reveal, mind cannot reach, eyes cannot see.'
Also Buddha's contention that those who contemplate 'the self' are identifying with the 'five aggregates' is directly contradicted by the Taittirya Upanisad which says 'Beyond all sheaths (physical, sensual, mental, intellectual and ego) is the Self.'
Alan Watts makes an interesting contribution to the whole debate:
The anatman doctrine is not quite the bald assertion that there is no real Self at the basis of our consciousness. The point is rather that there is no Self, or basic reality, which may be grasped either by direct experience or by concepts. Apparently the Buddha felt that the doctrine of the Atman in the UpaniShad-s lent itself too easily to a fatal misinterpretation. It became an object of belief, a desideratum, a goal to be reached, something to which the mind could cling as its one final abode of safety in the flux of life ...The upaniShad-s distinguish between the Atman, the true Self, and the jIvatman, or individual soul, and the Buddha's anatman doctrine agrees with them in denying the reality of the latter. It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences ... Any attempt to cling to the ego or make it an effective source of action is doomed to frustration.
It is also worth bearing in mind the historical context of the Buddha who lived before many of the upaniShad-s were written. Williams states that 'the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya UpaniShad-s were in all likelihood pre-Buddhists; placing them in the seventh to sixth centuries BCE may be reasonable.' Thus it is likely that later upaniShad-s were influenced by Buddhist thought, as was Sankara some thirteen centuries later. Sankara contrasted Anatta with Atman as the difference between the illusory, ephemeral, body/mind which was composed of the five sheaths ( Anatta), with the true Self, brahman or Atman. Thus in this definition of body/mind, or the five sheaths, as Anatta he agrees with Buddha who equates the body/mind composed of the five aggregates with Anatta. The major difference is that where Sankara posits Atman or 'brahman' Buddha remains silent.
Moving on to Tibetan Buddhism we find Rigpa described as primordial, pure, pristine awareness that is at once intelligent, cognizant, radiant, always awake and the nature of everything. In the Isha upaniShad we find brahman, or The Self, defined as bright, formless, omnipresent, self-existent awareness. In this regard, the two concepts of Rigpa and brahman, or Atman, are very similar. brahman is also posited to have manifested itself as the universe and thus is the essence of everything, which equates with the Rigpa being the nature of everything. Although I am sure that differences can be found, I maintain that the concepts of brahman and Rigpa are very similar, as will be seen by the marked similarity to two modern day approaches based on advaita and Tibetan Buddhism which is given later.
Similarly with Zen Buddhism, Zen (or Universal) Mind is described as watching (aware), always present, our true nature, the source of all things and ultimate truth. Thus this is also very similar to the concept of brahman and Rigpa. This is not surprising when one considers that these descriptions are attempts at describing the same indescribable ineffable Truth, or Ultimate Reality, which is revealed on the attainment of mokSha or nibbana. Once again this is validation of that old saying that there are 'many paths to the same goal.'
In this spirit I would now like to discuss two modern, popular and powerful approaches to this Truth based on advaita and Tibetan Buddhism which evolved completely independently and yet have striking similarities. The first of these is a simple meditation practice based on 'self-enquiry' a technique championed by the Advaitist sage Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). The basic approach is to sit quietly and using the inquiry 'Who am I?' discover that which is deeper than body or mind, the source of all existence. When perfected the 'Who am I?' inquiry reveals that there is no separate individual self but only something that can be described as 'pure radiant awareness'. This is defined by Sankara in the 'Vivekachudamani' as the 'self-effulgent witness of all' about which Ramana said 'effortless, choiceless awareness is your real state.' Here is the meditation practice, revealed to a follower of this school, stemming directly from self-inquiry:
If you sit quietly you can easily notice that:
There is effortless awareness of every thought.
There is effortless awareness of every sound.
There is effortless awareness of every sight.
There is effortless awareness of every taste.
There is effortless awareness of every smell.
There is effortless awareness of every feeling.
There is effortless awareness of every touch.
This awareness encompasses every mind/body experience, for they appear in it.
Deeper than thoughts (mind) and sensory experiences (body) you are this awareness.
This awareness is effortless and choiceless as it requires no effort and it is choicelessly present.
This awareness is omnipresent. If you investigate you will find that it is (and has been) always present wherever you are. Even during sleep there is awareness of dreams, and of the quality of that sleep.
This awareness is absolutely still as it is aware of the slightest movement of body/mind.
This awareness is utterly silent as it is aware of the smallest sound, the slightest thought.
This awareness is absolutely radiant for it illuminates everything that appears in it.
Every mind/body experience arises in this awareness, exists in this awareness and subsides back into this awareness.
At the deepest level you are this pure, radiant, still, silent, boundless, changeless awareness.
As this awareness there is nothing to achieve, for how can you achieve what you already are?
As this awareness there is nothing to find, for how can you find what you cannot lose?
As this awareness there is nothing to desire, long for or get, for how can you get what you already have?
The second is another very simple meditation practice from the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism. Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of 'The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is from this lineage and he has been teaching, in the West, since 1974. About meditation he said: 'The purpose of meditation is to awaken in us the sky-like nature of mind, and to introduce us to that which we really are, our unchanging pure awareness, which underlies the whole of life and death.' Here is the practice, from a follower of this school, that was posted on the internet:
Dzogchen awareness practice
Get comfortable and let mind and body really relax - no need to sit in any strict meditation position - relaxed in a comfy chair is fine.
Locate awareness in space and then put attention on the breath flowing in and out quite naturally.
After a few minutes, cease to focus on any particular object and practice 'choiceless awareness', simply observing whatever objects arise and pass in Awareness. Notice the following about each object:
It is impermanent
It has no existence apart from Awareness, Itself.
Being a form of Awareness, it is transparent to it.
1. Without fixing attention on anything, just consider:
Is there awareness of sights? Is there awareness of sounds? Is there awareness of sensations? Is there awareness of thoughts? Is there awareness of feelings? Tastes? Etc. This very Awareness which is right here now, IS that eternal, self luminous Reality that you have been striving to realize all along. Since this Awareness is already here, your striving is unnecessary.
2. Abandon all concepts about experience and simply observe.
See how appearances arise in Awareness. Since whatever appears is already present, how can it be avoided?
See how appearances pass in Awareness. Since whatever has passed is no longer present, how can it be grasped?
See how everything appears in Awareness without the least obstruction.
Since nothing obstructs appearances, there are no obstacles to be removed.
See how everything passes in Awareness without the least hindrance.
Since everything is self-liberating, there is nothing to be set free.
Relax into this effortless contemplation of how things actually are.
3. Without making any adjustments, continue to observe:
Although you say, 'forms arise in Awareness,' can you really separate
Awareness from its forms? Is not Awareness like an ocean and forms its waves?
Because Awareness and forms are ultimately inseparable, duality never existed. How then can it be transcended?
Although you say, 'I am aware of such and such object,' can you truly distinguish between yourself and the object? Where does 'self' end and 'object' begin?
Because subject and object are, in reality, indistinguishable, delusion never originated. How then can it be dispelled?
4. Look! Reality is staring you in the face:
You say you cannot eliminate your 'self' but there is no self to eliminate.
You say you have not attained 'Enlightenment' but there is not the slightest thing to attain.
You say, 'I am ignorant of my true identity' but how can this be? What else is there besides this infinite, eternal, non dual field of Awareness-and-form which is already present, right here and
now....and now...and now.....
Therefore, surrender all desire for attainment and just be what you are, Awareness, Itself!
So comparing the two we can see that they both agree that our natural effortless awareness of thoughts and sensations is 'that eternal self-luminous reality' in which forms arise, exist and subside, and that in essence we are that awareness. They both agree that there is nothing to attain, i.e. all striving is unnecessary; also that there is nothing to desire, grasp or get. There is also agreement that this effortless awareness is here and now. So all that ultimately exists is this 'Pure, radiant, omnipresent field, of effortless choiceless awareness' in which everything arises, appears to exist, and subsides without ever any separation or duality. Thus here we have two 'schools' one of which posits Atman and the other Anatta (through sunyata) arriving at almost exactly the same conclusion without any collusion!
Summing up I have considered the concepts of Atman and Anatta as interpreted by various philosophical schools of Hinduism and Buddhism. Those Hindu schools where Atman is interpreted as an 'individual self' are in complete opposition to the concept of Anatta which denies the existence of an 'individual self' in all Buddhist schools. However in the case of advaita , which posits an 'absolute self' which is the same as an 'Absolute reality' the situation is less clear. The Theravadan school would probably posit that they were in direct opposition to the idea of an 'absolute self' but they do not totally discount the possibility of an 'Absolute reality', leaving the question of its existence or non-existence unanswered. In the case of the two Mahayanist schools considered here, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, it can be shown that their concepts of Rigpa and 'Zen Mind' have many things in common with the 'Absolute reality', brahman, of advaita. I have illustrated this point with two strikingly similar meditation practices, which evolved independently through the 'Self-Inquiry' school of advaita and the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism. This is not surprising for the 'Ultimate Truth' which is revealed to adepts and mystics of all religions (and their various schools) in their inquiry, contemplation, or meditation, is the same.
Part 1, Part 2
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