Denial of the Atman – The Alagaddupama Sutta

The Alagaddupama Sutta is one of the few suttas in the Pali Canon in which Reverend Gotama appears to explicitly deny the atta (Pali) or atman (Sanskrit) as the Great Soul of the Upanishads. Richard Gombrich, Oxford Pali and Sanskrit scholar, Boden Professor of Sanskrit Emeritus, and who chairs the Trustee Board of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, writes “The most explicit passage in which he (Gotama) denies the existence of the atman is in the Alagadddupama Sutta. Perhaps the most famous of all Upanisadic dicta is tat tvam asi (Chandogya Upanisad 6, 8, 7, etc.), ‘Thou are that’ – identifying the individual self / essence with the world self/essence. The transposition of this statement into the first person – ‘I am this’ – in Pali gives eso ‘ham asmi, and this is said in several texts to be false. To be precise, the full false statement is etam mama, eso ‘ham asmi, eso me atta: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self/essence.’ While this set of three clauses is often mentioned as a wrong view, it is in the Alagaddupama Sutta that it is most clearly amplified (at MN I, 135-6), and in terms which contain other obvious verbal echoes of surviving Upanisadic passages. . . .In sum, the passage denies that one’s self is the same as the world and that one will become the world self at death.The Buddha tells the monks that people worry about something that is non-existent externally (bahiddha asati) and non-existent internally (ajjhattam asati); he is referring respectively to the soul/essence of the world and of the individual.”

Let’s take a closer look at this sutta. The sutta appears in the Majjhima Nikaya, starting on Page 130 of the first book of the Pali Text Society (PTS) edition. It is listed as Sutta 22 in Part One of the Wisdom Publications English translation.The Pali text of the entire sutta is available from the PTS and it is compiled in the Chatta Sangayana Tipitaka 4.0. There are two English translations of the entire sutta on the Access to Insite web site, one translated by Thanissaro Bikkhu (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.than.html) and the other translated by Nyanaponika Thera (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.022.nypo.html). The Thanissaro Bikkhu translation also includes a translator’s introduction. There is also a charming translation of the sutta with commentaries by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thich Nhat Hanh, Thundering Silence, Parallax Press.)

The sutta states that the events described in it took place in Savatthi, at the Jeta Grove. This garden was given to Gotama by the wealthy householder Anathapindika. Savatthi (now Shravasti) is in Northern India, and was the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, which had absorbed Gotama’s Sakyan homeland into its domains. Anathapindika purchased it for Gotama and his followers (at a discount!) from Pasenadi, the King of Kosala. In this place Gotama and his followers spent the rainy season for each of the last twenty years of Gotama’s life.

The sutta starts with a story about a monk who had acquired the view that the sexual act was not an obstruction on the path to being an Arahant. This view is brought to the attention of Gotama, who forcefully rebukes it. He then goes on to compare this view to the case of grasping a poisonous snake wrongly, by the tail instead of behind the head. For if one grasps the snake wrongly, one could suffer grievous harm or death from the snake’s bite. Gotama then goes on to present the famous simile of the raft. Here the Dhamma is likened to a raft that must be grasped rightly while in use, but after its purpose has been fulfilled, it should be released.

Now the way is prepared for discussion of the main matter of the sutta – the nature of human life, the khandhas, and their relation to the world and the self, loko and atta. The background for this view would be the view of Advaita (“not two”, monism) which “sees the soul within each living entity as being fully identical with Brahman – the all-pervading soul of the universe.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atman_Hinduism)  The uninstructed, run of the mill person is said to embrace the view that the khandhas are atta and to harbor the Upanishad view that the world and atta are identical and that after death he will be eternal. The well-instructed monk, however, assumes that the khandhas are anatta, not my self. He is “not agitated over what is not present.” He then considers the cases of “agitation over what is externally present” or “not present” and cases of “agitation over what is internally present” or “not present.” He tells them that he doesn’t see a world which is eternal, which is not present externally, denying the Upanishad view of an eternal cosmos. He follows this by saying that he does not see a clinging to a doctrine of atta, denying what is not present internally. Both of these forms of clinging he says will lead to suffering. Furthermore he says that the Upanishad view that the world and self is permanent (nicco) is a fool’s teaching. Seeing that the five khandas; whether past, future, present, internal or external, blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near, etc.; all of these are “not mine. . .not my self. . .not what I am,” he then says that, seeing this, the monk becomes dispassionate and fully released using the same words as those used in the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta. In subsequent passages he says that he has been misrepresented as claiming the Annihilationist position. Having denied the Eternalist position of the Upanisads and its opposite, the Annhiliationist position, he states what he has declared: the Four Noble Truths.

Here we see that Gotama rejects both the Upanishad doctrine that the Soul and the World are identical and eternal (monist) and the contrary view that the Soul and the World are distinct (dualist). The former is similar to the the view of the Eternalists and the latter the view of the Annihilationists, described in the Brahmajala Sutta; both of these views are rejected. This rejection is along similar lines to the discussion in the Brahmajala Sutta. The core of the sutta presents an elaboration of the teaching first developed in the second discourse, the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta. The doctrine that the khandhas are self is here proclaimed to be false view; specifically the view that form, perception, feeling, mental formations, and consciousness should be described by the phrases ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self’. The well-instructed monk is advised to not take this view. The listing of the khandhas is the same as the listing in the Anatta Lakkhana.

It would seem that this sutta makes clear that Gotama rejects the view that the soul and the universe are one and eternal. There are other locations where this is done (the Brahmajala, Potthapada, the Mahanidana Suttas in the Digha Nikaya, for example) but the current sutta is one which makes this rejection the centerpiece of its discussion of Gotama’s Dhamma and where he identifies both the world and the self as “non-existant.”

A key point in the sutta comes when a follower asks Gotama, “Venerable sir, can there be agitation about what is non-existent externally” [‘‘siyā nu kho (indeed), bhante, bahiddhā (outside) asati (asanto – not existing) paritassanā (fear, hesitation)’’ti?] and later about what is “not-existent internally” [“Siyā nu kho, bhante, ajjhattaṃ (Relating to the individual, within the individual, internally, subjectively) asati paritassanā’’ti.] Bhikkhu Bodhi’s notes to the Wisdom Publications translation indicate that “what is non-existent externally refers to the wordling’s despair over the loss of non-acquisition of possessions; agitation about what is non-existent internally to the eternalists despair when he misinterprets the Buddhas teaching on Nibanna as a doctrine of annihilation” Maybe, but to this reader, it seems that Gotama is clearly referring to the doctrine that the world (loco – outside) and the self (atta – inside) are eternal (sassato) and permanent (nicco). And to this reader, he is clearly saying that this doctrine leads to sorrow and despair for anyone who clings to it.

A few paragraphs after this point in the sutta, Gotama goes on to say that the doctrine that the world and the self are eternal is a “fool’s teaching”. Lets look at a this passage. Below I have provided the Pali text with a word by word reference to the corresponding English translation from the Chatta Sangayana Tipitaka dictionary.

‘‘Attani (locative case of attan, about the soul) ca (and), bhikkhave, attaniye (attaniyo – belonging to oneself, own)  ca staccato (sacco – truth) thetato (theto – firm, trustworthy) anupalabbhamāne ( receive, get, obtain, to find, make out), yampi (yamam –  pair) taṃ (thou) diṭṭhiṭṭhānaṃ (ditthi – Sight, view, the eye; religious belief, doctrine; false doctrine, heresy; ṭhānaṃ – Standing, stopping, halting; place, spot, situation; station, state, condition; place, post, office, appointment; rank, dignity; point, matter, subject, topic, proposition, thesis, thing; basis, source, origin, cause, reason) – ‘so (own) loko (world) so attā (Self, body, person, individuality; life, mind soul; in a non-buddhist sense the paramātman or Universal Soul), so pecca (pecca – having departed after death) bhavissāmi (I will be) nicco (permanent) dhuvo (Firm, stable; continual, permanent; fixed, certain) sassato (eternal) avipariṇāmadhammo (a – not; vipariṇāmo – Change, reverse), sassatisamaṃ tatheva (tatha- so, thus, eva – only) ṭhassāmī (tiṭṭhati To stand; to stand aside, be excepted or omitted, remain behind; to stay, stop, remain; to dwell, continue, abide, last, endure, remain constant, live, exist, be)’ti (end quote)– nanāyaṃ [na ca khoyaṃ (ka.)], bhikkhave, kevalo (Only, mere, alone, exclusive; all, entire, whole, complete) paripūro (paripurati – To be completely full; to be fulfilled, to become perfect) bāladhammo (bālo – Young; ignorant, foolish)’’’ti?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of this is as follows:

“Monks, where a self or what belongs to self are not pinned down as a truth or reality, then the view-position — ‘This cosmos is the self. After death this I will be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity’ — Isn’t it utterly & completely a fool’s teaching?”

The writer has here emphasized treatment of the self and the world in this sutta. Gotama has here denied an eternal soul and world and their identity, the view that would become Vedanta and Advaita. But that is not the end of this sutta. Let me close with a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary, “The Buddha teaches impermanence, no-self, emptiness, and nirvana not as theories, but as skillful means to help us in our practice. If we take these and use them as theories, we will be trapped.” Or in other words, grasp the wrong end of the snake.

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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2 Responses to Denial of the Atman – The Alagaddupama Sutta

  1. Hi Randal,

    I took a quick second look at this sutta, and while it actually seems clear to me that the Buddha is talking about fear of losing wealth and possessions (pariggahaṃ) — possibly even including wives as possessions (which would tie back to the setting’s framing issue that seem to be about whether sex is no hindrance to awakening) — I would note that a common paradigm from the time was, as mentioned in this sutta, seeing self as the world and the world as the self, inseparable, so that our concerns about the self and our concerns about the world we make for ourselves of our possessions are one and the same, really. It seems to me the Buddha plays off of this pairing with great frequency, and here he is reflecting the one with the other — I had possessions! Alas! I have lost them now! — I had a self! But Alas! You say I will have it no more! — when the Buddha’s position would be that we never *had* either.

    We find another way of putting this clearly stated by Ananda (and approved by the Buddha) in SN 35.116 (p 1190 in Wisdom Pubs, PTS SN iv 95) when he gives a longer treatment to one of the Buddha’s mysterious short statements about how the end of the world cannot be seen or reached by traveling, but the end of the world must be reached to end suffering. When asked by the bhikkhus, Ananda explains that the world in this definition is what we perceive and conceive it to be through our senses.

    We struggle to build a world in which we feel fulfilled through our senses — gross to fine (I’d update that as “from hedonism to feeling good about doing Good Deeds”) and defend it as if it were our very being. So while I’m suggesting that the Buddha is talking about what’s external as possessions, I’d also say that it is always and ever about the world-as-self.

    • Linda,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I confess that these posts were written over a year ago and when my mind was full of the thought of refuting metaphysical interpretations of Gotama’s teachings. I think I have that (mostly) out of my system now. You offer a refreshing alternative view. But it seems to me that “it is always and ever about the world-as-self” has itself an air of metaphysics about it. The Gotama that I see takes the sceptical view of the great metaphysical issues and sticks to his four truths. In any case, I will take a look at the SN bit. Thanks again for commenting.

      Randal

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