Does the Lanka Deny the Ātman?

There is a familiar passage from the Lankavatara Sutra (Chapter two, XXVIII) that differentiates between the Tathagata-garbha and the ātman as taught by non-Buddhists. Once again the question needs to be addressed, “which ātman” is it referring to? The following is the translation from Suzuki followed by Bhattacharya’s own translation which will be copied out in full from his book. Notice how Suzkui uses “ego” as self while Bhattacharya has ātman:

Is not this Tathagata-garbha taught by the Blessed One the same as the ego-substance taught by the philosophers? The ego as taught in the systems of the philosophers is an eternal creator, unqualified, omnipresent, and imperishable.

The Blessed One replied: No, Mahamati, my Tathagata-garbha is not the same as the ego taught by the philosophers; for what the Tathagatas teach is the Tathagata-garbha in the sense, Mahamati, that it is emptiness, reality-limit, Nirvana, being unborn, unqualified, and devoid of will-effort; the reason why the Tathagatas who are Arhats and Fully-Enlightened Ones, teach the doctrine pointing to the Tathagata-garbha is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear while they listen to the teaching of egolessness and to have them realize the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness. I also wish, Mahamati, that the Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas of the present and future would not attach themselves to the idea of an ego—imagining it to be a soul. Mahamati, it is like a potter who manufactures various vessels out of a mass of clay of one sort by his own manual skill and labor combined with a rod, water, and thread, Mahamati, that the Tathagatas preach the egolessness of things which removes all traces of discrimination by various skillful means issuing from their transcendental wisdom, that is, sometimes by the doctrine of the Tathagata-garbha, sometimes by that of egolessness, and, like a potter, by means of various terms, expressions, and synonyms. For this reason, Mahamati, the philosophers’ doctrine of an ego-substance is not the same as the teaching of the Tathagata-garbha.

Thus, Mahamati, the doctrine of the Tathagata-garbha is disclosed in order to awaken the philosophers from their clinging to the idea of the ego, so that those minds that have fallen into the views imagining the non-existent ego as real, and also the notion that the triple emancipation is final, may rapidly be awakened to the state of supreme enlightenment. Accordingly, Mahamati, the Tathagatas who are Arhats and Fully-Enlightened Ones disclose the doctrine of the Tathagata-garbha which is thus not to be known as identical with the philosopher’s notion of an ego-substance. Therefore, Mahamati, in order to abandon the misconception cherished by the philosophers, you must strive after the teaching of egolessness and the Tathagata-garbha.


Lord, is not this doctrine of the Tathagātagarbha similar to the ātman professed by the tīrthakaras? The tīrthakaras (teachers of another doctrine), also Lord, teach that the ātman is permanent, agent, without qualities, omnipresent, imperishable.

Bhagavant said: No, Mahāmati, my teaching concerning the Tathāgatagarbha is not similar to the doctrine of the ātman professed by the tīrthakaras.The Tathāgatas teach, by way of Tathāgatagarbha, things such as śūnyatā, bhūtakoi, nirvāa, anutpāda, ānimmita and apraihita. It is so to avoid the terror that the doctrine of nairātmya inspires in children (bāla) that the Tathāgatas, who are Arhants and perfectly awakened, teach as being the Tathāgatagarbha, [the Absolute] whose domain surpasses all thought and imagery. O, Mahāmati, the Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas, present and future, should not see the ātman here. Just as a potter, Mahāmati, fashions different vessels out of a single mass of clay, by the skill of his hands, the rod, the water and the effort he puts into it, in the same way, Mahāmati, the Tathāgatas, applying diversely their skillfulness in means, issued from the Supreme Wisdom, teach the same dharmanairātmya, which is devoid of all sign of thought, in making use of various expressions: now the Tathāgatagarbha, now as nairātmya. That is why, Mahāmati, the teaching relative to the Tathāgatagarbha is not similar to that of the tīrthakaras as regards the doctrine of the ātman.

‘Thus, Mahāmati, [the Tathāgatas] teach the doctrine of the Tathāgatagarbha in order to win over the tīrthakaras, who cling to their doctrine of the ātman. [Their compassionate thought goes out to them:] “They have fallen into the view of the ātman. How will they manage to concentrate their thought on that which is accessible only to the three vimpkas (or samādhis), and rapidly attain thereby the Supreme Awakening? It is to this end, Mahāmati, that the Tathāgatas, who are Arhants and perfectly awakened, teach the Tathāgatagarbha. This teaching is thus not similar to the doctrine of the ātman professed by the tīrthakaras. Consequently, Mahāmati, you must conform to to [the idea of] the Embryo of the Tathāgata, which consists of nairātmya (tathāgata-nairātmyagarbha), to the end renouncing the point of view of the tīrthakaras.’ (Kamaleswar Bhattacharya, The Ātman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism, pg.194-195)

The garbha-seed is, of course, potentially inherent in everyone. This is what is equated with the Absolute Ātman, not the “personal” variety. Hence, as quoted from the above passages, Bhattacharya stipulates that the ātman in this instance is that of the personal “doer”, i.e., the one who creates, ect. The Lanka then makes the distinction between the Tathāgatagarbha from the “personal ātman” as extrapolated by the non-Buddhists and thus in no way is indicative of the “impersonal universal ātman” that the Advaita Vedānta would later teach.

At bottom, though, what is this ātman, if not the negation of the empirical ātman, which people generally take to be the authentic ātman? As the Lankavatara-Sutra itself puts it, the Tathāgatagarbha is, in fact, none other than the tathāgata-nairātmya-garbha (and not the tathāgatātmagarbha, if by ātman is meant empirical individuality). There is no conflict here between the Upaniṣadic doctrine and that of the Lankavatara-Sutra. (ibid, pg. 196)

I prefer Suzuki’s translation as the ego-self, or the bundle of skandhic operatives. Much easier to equate with that empirical component and not mistake it as Tathāta. Bhattacharya also utilizes another Tathāgatagarbha text, the Ratnagotravibhāga commentary, to further support his contention.

The Tathāgata [Buddha], on the other hand, by virtue of his absolute knowledge (yathābhūtajñānena), has gained perfect intuition of the Impersonality [nairātmya] of all separate elements.

This Impersonality [nairātmya] accords, from every point of view (yathā-darśanam), with the characteristics of the ātman. It is thus always regarded as ātman, because it is Impersonality [nairātmya] which is ātman (nairātmyam evātmeti kṛtvā). (ibid)

The Ratna series further embellishes this joint construction by instituting it as the two-fold Dharmakaya:


The first three illustrations, Buddha, honey and kernel of grain, represent the Tathagatagarbha in its identification with the Dharmakaya. This Dharmakaya itself is represented by two levels—the Absolute and the Empirical.

The Absolute Body is to be known in 2 aspects,
[One] is the Absolute Entity which is perfectly immaculate,
[The other] is its natural outflow, the teaching
Of the profound [truth] and of the diverse guidance.
Thus, Absolute Dharmakāya is the Immaculate Dharmadhātu and its function is known as:

{Takasaki} the natural outflow of the perfectly pure Absolute Entity (dharmadhātu—nisyanda) as the cause for its attainment, which produces the communication among other living beings according to their faculties in discipline. And this is to be known in the reference to the Truth as the doctrine to be taught (deśanā—dharma).

Dharmakaya Buddha is unfathomable in the sense of an ordinary construction, hence It is represented by the Buddha in the faded-lotus.

Relative (Empirical) Dharmakaya is conventional and hence is represented by the ordinary taste of honey.

What all this boils down to is that through the ongoing transcendence of the [nonself], one can reach the heights of the highest self (paramātman). Mystically this translates as emptying the skandhic personality (empirical component) thereby preparing the mindground for the ascent to the Real Self (absolute component).

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