Atman, Brahman and Anatman
Dharma Talk on Atman, Brachman, and Anatman
Good morning everyone, so for today’s dharma talk I want to discuss three concepts that I think are important in understanding Buddhism. Those are Atman, Brachman, and Anatman. I will preface this discussion by admitting that I am no scholar of Buddhism or Hinduism. Given that, I will be discussing these concepts as they exist in my mind. By this, I mean to say that the concepts I will be presenting are simplified and aimed at promoting discussion and thought, as opposed to being able academic assertions concerned with being completely accurate presentations.
So, we shall start with Atman. A fitting translation for this would be soul. In most religious traditions, it is taken for granted that each human being is endowed with a soul. It is distinct, eternal, and immutable. In eastern traditions it is the thing that is reincarnated. In Western traditions, it is the thing that goes on after we die. Atman is the very core of our being, the thing we refer to when we think of the self
So what is Brachman? Brachman, as I understand it, can mean two different things. First, it can mean something like the summation of all things, the totality of all things that exist, has existed, and will exist. The universe as it is but also, somehow much more than that. I have seen it translated as the universe’s soul or the universal soul. A second interpretation, used in some contexts, for Brahman, refers to a supreme deity from which all things proceed out from. In this, Brahman can be understood to be God.
Atman, soul or self. Brahman, the universe or God. So why are these important to me. One formula that sits in my head from an intro to religions course is that, in Hinduism, Atman and Brachman are actually the same. Because of the delusion of separation, we misunderstand the fundamental reality of the universe and thus separate ourselves from the universal soul or God. Enlightenment then, is the full realization that there is no difference, no distinction between Atman and Brachman. Between the individual soul and the universal soul. Between us and God. Realizing this fully is the goal. It is what frees one from the cycle of samsara.
Now, why are Atman and Brachman important concepts in Buddhism? Que, the Buddha. During the Buddha’s life, these were important concepts floating around in Hindu philosophy and religious circles. What is the word for Hindu holy men? Brahmans. When the Buddha took his first steps toward pursuing enlightenment, this was the kind of enlightenment may have thought he was seeking. And he tried, really really hard to get there. To get to the realization that his Atman was identical to Brachman and thus be free of samsara. Some sutras state that the Buddha tried all the paths known to facilitate this revelation and found all of them wanting. He could’t get there.
But his search, his effort, led him to a realization that was altogether different from what he could have expected or what he though he wanted. What did he find?
He found Anatman. He found Anata. No soul, no self.
If you ever wondered if the Buddha was a radical, consider this. Not only did he reject that the key understandings of the dominant religion of his time, that liberation was found by realizing that Atman and Brachman were the same, he went one step further, he said rejected the concept of a soul. He rejected the concept of a separate self altogether. And you know what else, he said that believing that you had a soul or self was actually the illusion that kept you from reaching liberation. To state this as clearly as i can, he said that not only are you not a part of the universal soul, not a part of God, but the you that you think you.. that doesn’t exist either
Ataman is Brachman is Anatman. The individual soul that is not separate from the universal soul doesn’t exist. The soul that is not separate from God does not exist. The soul does not exist. The self does not exist. It is not the illusion that we are separate from God that keeps us from liberation. It is the illusion that we exist we have a self, that we have a soul, that keeps us from liberation.
Atman is Brachman is Anatman.
For me, in my youth, it was easy to be like F’yeah Buddha. Throw it all out. You may not have realized it at the time, but you are really sticking it to my religious contemporaries. What are the western religions if the soul doesn’t exist? Take that religions that i reject!
And yet, now in the middle of the years i may have, I am more hesitant to give up my Atman. At times, I year for Atman is Brachman to be true.
Before you misunderstand, I am not saying the Buddha was wrong. He was right then and he remains right now. I remain faithful in that. Yet, for me, I struggle with it. And so, that is what i offer you all today. My struggle. To reconcile what i want to be true with what i believe to be true. And in that, i hope to offer you some solace. What the Buddha gave us is not easy. It is not grounded in what we want to be true. It is grounded in what he saw. After trying everything. After failing. After giving up and starting again. Under the Bohdi tree he found it. But he struggled first, with what he thought was true, what he was taught to be true, what he wanted to be true. He did that first. His practice, his struggle, his dissapointment, his clinging, his attachment… they are all inseparable from his realization. And so is mine. So is yours. Good luck with the struggle.
Atman is. Brachman is.