This article will be very similar to the previous one. Philosophically it's just a minor variation on it. I considered combining the two into one, but then decided not to. One long quote that I had intended to include in the last post, upon reflection, appeared more appropriate for this one. The two articles are similar, but not exactly the same—hence I'm writing this instead of just copying the last one over again. I'm in a groove. Please be patient.
I can't remember a Western Buddhist ever mentioning the subject to me, but several times now, in Myanmar and Bali, Asian Buddhists, upon the topic of Hinduism coming up, have told me, essentially, "Oh, the Hindus believe in self; they have atta-diṭṭhi." They say it rather dismissively, as though implying that Hinduism may be nice and all that, it may be wise and admirable in certain respects, but nevertheless it endorses this wrong view that prevents its adherents from really understanding the Truth. Thus, it is a limited system.
However, the word "self" is never actually defined by anyone making these statements to me; and undefined terms are rarely, if ever, conducive to clear thinking, or even to reasonable disagreement. The only ways the judgement "Hindus believe in self, and thus are following a deficient system" could be true would be if 1) any belief is indicative of a deficient system, which apparently is not intended, as Buddhists have beliefs also, or 2) self is false regardless of its definition—which actually seems to be the implication. "Self," no matter how it is defined, is wrong; while other terms, such as "view," "formation," "consciousness," etc., may be valid and right. That seems to be the attitude.
But what if we define "self" as, say, consciousness, or Nirvana? Then if consciousness or Nirvana exists, self also exists. But the Buddhists say that neither consciousness nor Nirvana can possibly be a self. In fact, nothing at all can be a self. "Self" seems necessarily to imply a sheer impossibility, a kind of self-contradiction, regardless of how it is interpreted. Or else the Buddhists insist that "self" has to mean whatever they say it means, with any other interpretation of the word being invalid and wrong. If this latter scenario applies, then the Buddhists, particularly the Theravada ones, would be somewhat like premodern geometers who insist that parallel lines can never meet, due to the necessary qualities of points, lines, and planes. Then some wiseguy Vedantist geometer heretic comes along who says that planes are spherical, that a single point is located in two positions, on opposite sides of such a sphere, and that lines are great circles—and thus parallel lines necessarily meet. The Euclidean Buddhists say No, that's impossible, because points, lines, and planes aren't defined like that at all—but definitions of terms are decided by human minds, not by some metaphysical necessity.
I acquired some insight into the troubles of using ill-defined terms from my desire to wear brown robes in Burma. According to English-Burmese dictionaries, the Burmese word for brown is "anyo"; and according to Burmese-English dictionaries, the English word for anyo is "brown." It took me years fully to appreciate the fact that, although they mostly overlap, brown and anyo do not represent exactly the same range of colors. Finally I developed to the point where I could point at something the color of a raspberry, something in the neighborhood of magenta, and say, "OK, I grant that that's anyo, even though it's not brown." But if a Burmese person who spoke some English were present he might retort, "Oh no, that's brown all right." Because, of course, "brown" means anyo. Supposedly. I've argued the other way, too, trying to tell a Burmese person who grew up with his language since infancy that a certain shade of cranberry-purple was not anyo. But he knew full well that it was anyo. It just wasn't brown; and I was hung up on the idea that anyo is brown, always, in all cases. Similar issues may arise with attā, atman, and "self."
Without wading through various possible definitions of the word that Hindus believe in but Buddhists don't, I will point out that the usual definition of the term, somewhat along the lines of "a distinct, separate, individual being," is disbelieved by Hindus at least as much as by Buddhists. The Buddhists and Hindus are in harmonious agreement that what most people call "self" does not exist.
But at this point I suppose I should define the term "Hindu" for the purpose of this essay (or "article," or "post," or "hogwash," or whatever term one prefers to apply to it). Hinduism encompasses many different schools teaching very divergent philosophies, with one of the most profound and advanced of them, in my opinion, being Vedanta, and especially Advaita Vedanta; and since this school of Hinduism is also probably the one I am most familiar with, for the sake of convenience I will be using "Vedanta" pretty much interchangeably with "Hinduism." Vedanta, the End of the Veda, is a kind of culmination, or "highest teaching."
Vedanta is based primarily upon the Upanishads; and one of the central themes of the Upanishads is that our world, and every possible world, is a manifestation of an absolute, formless Ultimate Reality called Brahman, and furthermore that what we truly are in the deepest and truest sense—our self—is this very same Brahman. Tat tvam asi: "Thou art That." So what these Hindus are saying is that what we are in the truest sense is a nondualistic Ultimate Reality, and that every being in the entire Universe shares this same "self." And so, in a sense, the Vedantists could be said to have less "self view" than orthodox Theravadins, considering that orthodox Theravada endorses Abhidhamma, the third Pitaka, which is pluralistic and posits the ultimately real existence of infinitely many separated individualities. Each quantum of earth element, for example, would be a separate individuality, a tiny, ephemeral "self." (But the Theravadins would assert that that kind of distinct individuality is not a self.)
Reading the Upanishads, it is very easy for me to assume that what the ancient Hindu sages were calling Brahman is the same unthinkable Absolute or Void that the ancient Buddhist sages were calling Nibbāna or Nirvana. However, ancient Buddhist theorists made special efforts to debunk such an identification of the two. For example, the Great Mahā-Brahma, the deified personification of Ultimate Reality, was converted by the Buddhists into a not particularly great being occupying a heaven realm more than halfway down from the top, with the mystical state required for the attainment of his realm being only first jhāna, a state beyond what most meditators attain yet still not very exalted. Also, texts like the Alagaddūpama Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (M22) list six kinds of self view: the first five being one's false identification with with any of the five aggregates of which "we" are composed (form, feeling, perception, volition, cognition), with the last apparently aimed at followers of the Upanishads—the view that "As the world, so the self (so loko, so attā); after death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change; I will exist for as long as eternity." Clinging to this view leads to suffering; although of course clinging to any view leads to suffering, including the view of no-self, and including so-called Right View.
The Buddhist approximation to an Upanishadic view of self quoted above appears not to be a particularly accurate approximation of what Vedanta really teaches, and it represents, as ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi has pointed out, "a full-fledged eternalist view." But atman/Brahman, like Nibbāna or Nirvana, is not eternal, but timeless. There is a difference. Brahman, like Nirvana, is completely Off the Scale; it is not contained within the context of Māya/Samsāra, and thus is not within the context of time and space. Time and space as we perceive them are relative constructs, and are not ultimately real. So atman, Brahman, and Nirvana are not eternal, but timeless in the sense that, if we can say anything of them at all, then they are in a constant state of NOW.
If atman is defined as a nondualistic Absolute, then to say that it doesn't exist is just as wrong as to say that it does! It's like the question in Buddhist logic, "Does an enlightened being exist after death?" To say "yes" is invalid; to say "no" is invalid; to say "yes and no" is invalid; and to say "neither yes nor no" is also invalid. So we'd do well not to pick on a wise Hindu's atman. Or his God either, for that matter. They're untouchable (and not in a Hindu sense).
OK, here is a quote that I chose not to include in last week's post. It's from Nāgārjuna's Philosophy, by K. Venkata Ramanan (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1993):
The distinction of saguṇabrahman and nirguṇabrahman is basic to the philosophy of Śaṅkara. Saguṅabrahman, brahman with māyā, which is his own power of creation, is the ground of the universe. This brahman is spoken of in terms of a personal god, Īśvara. He is the creator of the universe; he is its material, as well as its efficient cause. He is the all-knowing, all-powerful, the free, eternal being. The entire world proceeds from Him. Although Śaṅkara does accept a personal god, Īśvara, as the lord and creator of the universe, the culmination of his thought did not lie there. For him the account of creation was only a means of realizing the ultimate reality, the brahman, as the true nature of all beings as well as of the entire world. Ātman is brahman; but by this "ātman" he did not mean the ātman of the Vaiśeṣikas and the Mīmāṁsakas or even of the Sāṅkhyas; for him it meant the true nature, the essential nature (pāramārthikasvarūpa) of the individual.
Here we have the meeting point of the Mādhyamika [Mahayana Buddhists] and the Advaita Vedānta [Hindus], viz., in regard to the ultimate truth, not only in regard to its being devoid of all determinations but in being the very real, essential, nature, the ultimately true nature of all things and of all individuals. The Mādhyamika as well as the Advaita Vedānta speaks of the immanence of the real in man as well as of its transcendence. In regard to the ultimacy of the unconditioned, which is the basic conception of absolutism, there is hardly any difference between the two. In this regard, one can say that the one accepts or denies ātman as much as the other; both deny ātman as a separate substantial entity inhabiting the body of each individual, and both accept ātman in the sense of the essential nature, the svarūpa or the svabhāva, of the individual as well as of all things. There should be no difficulty in appreciating this, provided one makes a deference for the differences in the traditional usage of these terms. So in regard to the ultimacy of the unconditioned, which is what even the equation, ātman=brahman means, there is hardly any difference between the two. (pp.319-20)
Here is a little more, from the next paragraph:
Silence is the highest truth. Nāgārjuna does not give us a system of constructive metaphysics; but he lays bare the possibility of different formulations of the basic truth, each of which could function as a basis for a specific conceptual system.
That last quote hints at the idea that any attempt to explain Reality in words and concepts is bound to be free-floating and without an ultimate foundation—which I admit is really pushing it for modern people who cling to the views of Scientism as their form of enlightenment. Oh well.