The layperson believes that whereas the Veda accepts the idea of the ātman (translated into English as “Self”), which is both immanent and transcendent, Buddhism does not. Indeed, in the popular imagination the Buddha promoted the doctrine of anātman or anatta, and he took the ground stuff of reality to be nothing, what came to be called śūnyatā or emptiness. Generally speaking, the recognition of the three doctrines of anatta, the absence of self, anicca (Skt. anitya, impermanence), and dukkha (suffering) as three characteristics of all existence (tri-lakṣaṇa), constitute “right understanding” in Buddhism.
The Self-Noself dichotomy means that the philosophical foundations of Hinduism and Buddhism are different. In Hinduism, consciousness (ātman) is primary and at the analytical level it is different from matter. In Buddhism, on the other hand, consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges on the ground of the body although it survives in the chain of influences it engenders. As an aside, both these doctrines are under consideration in modern science’s quest to define consciousness.
The Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, presents an exchange between the Buddha and a wandering ascetic named Śreṇika Vatsagotra (Pali: Senika Vacchagotta). The Buddha has taught there is rebirth but anātman, or no eternal Self. Śreṇika disagrees and asks the Buddha many questions, which the Buddha refuses to answer, calling his questions as indeterminate, indicating that any further response to the questions would entangle him in indefensible positions of Śāśvatavāda(eternalism) or Ucchedavāda (annihilationism). The Buddha uses the metaphor of Agni, stating that just like a fire when extinguished no longer exists, in the same way all skandha (aggregates) that constitute a person are extinguished upon death.
However, in another reference to the story in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra (MPNS) (महापरिनिर्वाणसूत्र), Śreṇika counters by comparing the physical body to a house whose owner is the eternal Self (ātman) who is outside when the fire burns it down.
Therefore, it will surprise many that this dichotomy of ātman versus anātman was declared false by the Buddha on his last day of life. He said:
“The Self (ātman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitya), the Self is virtue (guṇa), the Self is eternal (śāśvatā), the Self is stable (dhruva), and the Self is auspiciousness (śiva).”
Other adjectives used by the Buddha for the Self are “sovereign” (aiśvarya), “unchanging” (avipariṇāma), and “true” (satya).
These are precisely the “attributes” associated with the Self (ātman) in the Vedas. The attribute aiśvarya implies agency and brings to mind Īśvara, or Śiva. Īśvara is the free mind who has access to “transcendental knowing” or lokkottara-jñāna, which explains how Śiva-Maheśvara was integrated into worship in many parts of the Buddhist world.
Quite like the term āvaraṇa (covering) hiding the Self from the mind, the Buddha speaks of many kleśas (mental and moral afflictions) preventing one from seeing the Self.
He suggests that the doctrine of Noself was advanced by him as an upāya to get his followers off from attachment to old ideas. But now they were attached to impermanence and emptiness, and so before he left the world he wished to reveal the secret doctrine of the Self.
He gave the Self or the ātman the name tathāgatagarbha, “thus-arrived-nature” (svabhāva of beings), or the buddhadhātu, “ground-state-of-illumination”. Just as the Veda speaks of a churning between avidyā (world as materiality) and vidyā (world as cognition) to obtain deep knowledge of the Self, the Buddha spoke of a churning between emptiness and non-emptiness.
The need for both avidyā and vidyā for knowledge is most beautifully expressed in the Īśa Upaniṣad as follows:
विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस्तद्वेदोभयँ सह |
अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययाऽमृतमश्नुते ॥ ११॥ ईशोपनिषत्
vidyāṃ cāvidyāṃ ca yastadvedobhayaṃ saha |
avidyayā mṛtyuṃ tīrtvā vidyayā’mṛtamaśnute ||
He who knows both vidyā and avidyā together,|
crosses death through avidyā and through vidyā attains immortality. ||
It is significant that both elements are essential. Elsewhere, I have described intuition as the flight of the mind where the two wings are vidyā and avidyā.
The circumstances under which Śākyamuni Buddha died and his last sermon are described in the Pali Mahāparinibbāna-suttanta and the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra (or just the Nirvāṇa Sūtra), the latter of which is a much more substantial text in which the Buddha goes into the very heart of the teachings that had been taught earlier by him.
We find the eighty-year old Buddha unwell. He and his entourage are in transit to the town of Kuśinagara in the land of the Mallas, where in the outskirts he lays down between a pair of sal trees, announcing his impending death. Hearing of this, throngs assemble. Amongst them is Cunda, an artisan from the town. He and others get down on their right knees and address the Buddha entreating him to stay longer in this world. The Buddha reminds Cunda:
All created things
Have impermanent nature
Having come into existence, they do not last
Tranquil extinction is bliss
But Cunda presents many arguments why the teaching of emptiness was not going to give them comfort and words like nirvāṇa — or even the non-nirvāṇa — of the Tathāgata seemed contradictory and difficult to understand. This prompts the Buddha to eventually reveal the secret doctrine of the ātman.
The MPNS is one of the most important scriptures in the Buddhist canon and in the fifth century two translations based on two different Sanskrit texts were produced, one by the famed traveler Faxian (418CE); and the other longer “Northern version” by Dharmakṣema in 422 CE. There is also a later Tibetan version (c 790CE).
The Buddha had used emptiness to help his disciples separate themselves from earlier attachments. He explains the supersession of the Nonself doctrine by the Self doctrine with this parable:
Consider the story of mother whose infant son is ill. The physician gives her medicine for the boy with the instruction “After the child takes the medicine, do not give him your milk until he has fully digested the medicine.” The mother smears a bitter-tasting substance on her breasts and tells her young child that the breasts have poison on them. Having heard this, the child pulls away from her when he is hungry. But after the medicine has been ingested, the mother washes her breasts and calls out to her son, “Come and I shall give you milk.”
The Veda is the mother’s milk that the Buddha did not allow his disciples to partake until they had purified themselves with the austere message of emptiness.
Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra in China
I conclude with a last word on Dharmakṣema, the translator of MPNS into Chinese, who was a great celebrity of his times. He was born in Central India, and he received instruction from several teachers. This was the golden age of transmission of Buddhist texts to China, and to seek fame and fortune he went to Central Asia. At first he lived for several years in Dunhuang, busy with his work. But the city was conquered by the Northern Liang king Juqu Mengxun, who took Dharmakṣema with him to his capital Guzang in 421 and installed him as teacher, court advisor and translator of Sanskrit sutras.
By the mid-twenties, Juqu’s overlord Tuoba Tao, the emperor of Wei, having heard of Dharmakṣema’s fame wanted him, but Juqu resisted. To ease the pressure, Dharmakṣema was sent to India to acquire more texts. But when he returned after a couple of years, Tuoba Tao repeated his demand and threatened to invade Guzang.
But Juqu Mengxun did not want to give up Dharmakṣema, so as a way to solve this problem and appease his overlord Tuoba Tao, he decided to kill him. Dharmakṣema was murdered in 433, when he was forty-eight years old.