The early Buddhist affirmation of self (ātman) in the logic, parables and imagery of the Pāli nikāyas (1983)
AuthorsWells, Arthur Russellshow all
The aim of this study is to defend the view of a small but increasing minority of scholars that Gotama did not deny but affirmed the self, or 'ātman'. The Buddhist tradition assumes that he denied it when he taught that we should not say of the various aspects of our personality which we recognize to be impermanent and involved in suffering: 'This belongs to me, this I am, this is my self’. But the saying is ambiguous. If Gotama believed (which he nowhere says that he did) that the perishable aspects of personality are all that we are, it follows that he denied the self of the mystics, the ātman. If, however, his analysis was intended only to identify what is perishable as not the essential self, the reality of the ātman is implied. Buddhism would no longer be an anomaly. Gotama’s utterances would be seen to belong with other Indian expressions of apophatic mysticism, like the 'neti! neti!' of the Upanisads (although they cannot simply be equated since deep philosophical and sociological differences separate the traditions). The study has three parts: 1. A survey of Western scholarly views over the last 150 years, evaluating the handling of textual evidence and the way in which scholars have taken sides over the meanings of anattā and nibbāna. 2. A survey of Theravādin views, ancient and modern, seeking reasons for the misunderstanding of Gotama's utterances in the period of dogmatic consolidation and loyal literalism after the early preaching. 3. A reassessment of the Pāli Nikāyas, examining especially the figures of speech, parables and imagery relating to the self. It is argued that Gotama affirmed the self elliptically to discourage speculation and focus on the practical nature of the path. It is concluded that there has indeed been a two thousand-year misunderstanding of Gotama's teaching about the self, but the tradition compensated for it by shifting onto the concept of nirvāna all of the significance that at first was shared with the atman. The view still held by some scholars that nirvāna at first meant simple extinction collapses entirely.