The Ātman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism

By David Reigle on April 29, 2015 at 1:08 am

The long-awaited English translation of Kamaleswar Bhattacharya’s 1973 French book, L’Ātman-Brahman dans le Bouddhisme ancien, has just been published, and is now available at Amazon.com. As stated in the book’s description:

“The thesis of this book is nothing less than epoch-making. While no one doubts that the Buddha denied the ātman, the self, the question is: Which ātman? Buddhism, as a religion, has long taken this to be the universal ātman taught in the Hindu Upaniṣads, equivalent to brahman. What we find in the Buddha’s words as recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, however, is only a denial of any permanent self in the ever-changing aggregates that form a person. In decades of teaching, the Buddha had many opportunities to clearly deny the universal ātman if that was his intention. He did not do so. Kamaleswar Bhattacharya’s research is the most important study of this fundamentally important question to have appeared. Other studies of this question exist, coming to the same conclusion, but in general they have not been taken seriously. Bhattacharya’s research, because of the high level of his scholarship, has to be taken seriously. One may disagree with it, but it cannot be dismissed or ignored.”

Professor Bhattacharya’s thesis, as stated in his Preface, is: “the Buddha does not deny the Upaniṣadic ātman; on the contrary, he indirectly affirms it, in denying that which is falsely believed to be the ātman.”

How, one may wonder, could such a fundamental teaching be misunderstood for so long? He writes in his Preface:

“The one request I would make of such eminent scholars as have devoted their lives to the study of Buddhism is that they adopt a genuinely Buddhist attitude and read this book before saying, ‘That is impossible.’”

Category: Noteworthy Books | 4 comments

  • Robert Hütwohl says:

    I had hoped to get these comments in before this 2015 pūrṇimā or full moon of May [Sanskrit: Vaiśākha; Pāli: Vesākha] honoring Gautama Buddha’s Nirvāṇa and Pari-nirvāṇa but we are still in the seven-day full moon cycle. Having received early copies of Nancy Reigle's Review (Ātman/Anātman in Buddhism and Its Implication for the Wisdom Tradition, Nancy Reigle 2015) and the book (Ātman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism. Kamaleswar Bhattacharya. Canon Publications, Cotopaxi, Colorado, 2015), I felt gratitude to post some comments, herewith, though late due to unforeseen circumstances. [Registrierung dieses Website erfordert eine Google-NSA Pakt mit dem Teufel, den ich nicht zustimmen.]I wish to extend a heartfelt thanks to David and Nancy Reigle.Due to the untiring efforts of the Reigles, the extensive research of the late Kamaleswar Bhattacharya has been more easily brought before the public, as we now have before us, convincing and incontrovertible evidence, based on a well-thought out study, that Gautama Buddha taught an ātman doctrine much akin to that taught in the ancient Hindu systems such as in the Upaniṣads, and as given out by the original Śaṅkarācārya of 510 b.c.e.* We can see, how, down through the ages, most Buddhist and Hindu commentators have misrepresented the original doctrine, although I believe most was not deliberate. Hence the need, always, for a vigilant resurgence and clarification of the Ancient Wisdom doctrine before the onset of decay, even if the decay is gradual. A distortion and materialization of the original esoteric teachings ever requires reignition. Although many of us in the theosophical-community have known about the ātman doctrine in Buddhism for quite some time, we now have a very convincing study which should help further the idea throughout the world.* Not by the later Śaṅkara-s who have misconstrued and distorted the original Ādi-Śaṅkara, which is hardly worthy of the name or office-holder of: Śaṅkara. The original Śaṅkara texts, except for a few, have been corrupted by being rewritten.Fortunately, David and Nancy Reigle and K. Bhattacharya have insightfully and significantly contributed to that reignition. The Reigles and Mr. Bhattacharya have secured the courage to break the impasse regarding the ātman or Soul doctrine in Buddhism. Bhattacharya’s study is no fantastical fictional writing. It is backed up by facts, and uses the logic of the age-old Hindu tradition of Nyāyā or Logic processes and an abundance of texts to support his thesis. No doubt, it will be exclaimed that logic deals only with the lower mind. But logic, tinged with the mystical or intuitional or higher mind can make for better preparation of the soil of the mind for the inception of the seeds of wisdom. But by breaking this impasse, we can now use a mental magnifying glass to more fully understand the traditions which prevented the truth from being revealed in a more balanced approach.This is a very auspicious release of an immensely important study on the ātmā concept in Buddhism. Hopefully, this will change the future course of events regarding passing down to successive generations, the original ideas of the Buddha, as there is still a very long time before the incarnation of the next Buddha, Maitreya.In particular, many know anathema was decreed against Dolpopa and the Jonangpa sect. But as David Reigle has pointed out in his study, Tsongkhapa and the Teachings of the Wisdom Tradition, the insightful Mipham, a major teacher of the non-sectarian Ri-mé movement has indicated: “. . . the approach of the Jonangpa position is to emphasize the positive aspect by the strategy of establishing nirvāṇa, the intended goal, while the approach of the Gelugpa position is to emphasize the negative aspect by the strategy of eliminating saṃsāra, our worldly existence, in order to reach the same intended goal of nirvāṇa, the state of enlightenment. The one approach is to establish what is; the other approach is to eliminate what is not.” I agree with this viewpoint. However, for me, it would not be confusing to have a more balanced or complete view of the truth whereby both the Jonang and Gelug positions can be presented concurrently. A difficult task nevertheless.Perhaps the Bhattacharya study will contribute even more to resolving the apparent differences and help us to understand Tsong-kha-pa’s intentions for the reformation of Buddhism and his founding of the Gelug sect and how Buddhism had decayed leading up to his incarnation. It must have been severe for the Buddha to have reincarnated again.The students of the Ancient Wisdom and Buddhism of all persuasions may want to take a more serious look at the teachings of Dolpopa and his Great Madhyamika interpretation and his controversial Emptiness-of-other or Shentong [Tib., gZan stong] teachings of the Jonang-pas and a deeper understanding of Emptiness. Dolpopa needs to be brought out of hiding. It is essential that we transmit the correct, untainted teachings down for future generations of humanity. Although many will continue to cling to old, worn-out, distorted teachings, many will go on to see the Buddha’s teachings in accordance with the Ancient Wisdom which has been passed down through the ages, in some form or another. Although there is, and always will be, much work to be done (such as locating the commentaries by Nāgārjuna to his Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, and the full, remaining Kālacakra-tantra texts by Dolpopa), the raw material must be fully restored so that future generations will have the untainted texts in order to fully understand the teachings of the Buddha and of Theosophy. Add to this, the importance of the five Maitreya corpus texts, which incorporate the ratnagotra concept. Importantly, the prajñāpāramitā teachings can be more fully understood now. A deep understanding of svabhāva is also needed, as this is a pari passu occult doctrine within Theosophy and Buddhism.As the Review article says: “The eminent Buddhist scholar, La Vallée Poussin, commenting on a passage from the Majjhima-Nikāya, corroborates Bhattacharya’s thesis when he says:“In the light of this text, which really is quite straightforward, we may understand several sermons, and notably the sermon of Benares, not as the negation of the ātman as do the Buddhists— but as the affirmation of an ātman distinct from the skandhas.”Many Buddhist writers, down through the centuries, either conveniently ignored, forgot, or overlooked this major issue. For, as the Review article points out: “And in another place he [Bhattacharya] [says]: ‘. . . The Buddha’s Absolute is the same as that of [the] Upaniṣads; the gulf was created later, by the scholastic interpretations.’” Although the book has predominantly used Hīnayāna Buddhism textual material, Kamaleswar has consulted or utilized Maitreya material as well, such as the Mahāyāna-sūtrālamkāra and works by Vasubandhu and Vedic texts.Nancy’s review article has used valuable sources which Kamaleswar Bhattacharya did not use and so I consider her review essential in addition to her survey of main points from the book. But the notes in the book take up an extensive portion and are thus vital as they supplement the author’s essential argument, though not necessary for the scope of the book’s argument, but they certainly add depth.  A large portion of the book consists of notes. In a note on page 47, there are some particularly interesting Secret Doctrine-sounding statements: “Note that the ‘unborn, unproduced, uncreated, unformed’ (ajāta, abhūta, akata, asaṃkhata), in a word, the Unconditioned, is not another world, situated beyond the ‘born, produced, created, formed’ (jāta, bhūta, kata, saṃkhata). It is in us, is our very selves: it is our essential nature. It must, then, be discovered in the depths of our being, by transcending our phenomenal existence.”

  • David Reigle says:

    Thanks for your comments, Stef. I have now posted the original French book here. Yes, he did write “Some thoughts on Early Buddhism with special reference to its Relation to the Upaniṣads.” That 31-page booklet and ten other articles are listed in the bibliography of Nancy’s article, also now posted here. I will be posting scans of these articles here shortly.

  • stef says:

    I believe he also wrote “Some thoughts on Early Buddhism with special reference to its Relation to the Upaniṣads.” Acharya Dharmananda Kosambi Memorial Lectures at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institue, Poona, 1997.

  • stef says:

    Thank you very much David, I will try to find this book in French.


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