Pro self (atta) in Thailand
September 06, 2009
For the last couple of days I’ve been looking over the discussion background of Wikipedia’s treatment of Anatta (non-self) and Atman (Buddhism) (it’s the most interesting part of Wikipedia in my book). All in all, there is much that is missing which might shed a better neutral light on anatta and atman in Buddhism coming closer to what Pande said in 1957.
- “The doctrine [of an-atman] denies that there is in the physical or mental realms anything which may properly be called one’s “self” since everywhere within them impermanence and dependence rule. This of itself does not mean the denial of all “self” whatever, but only of the phenomenality of the “Self”. What is usually denied is that any of the khandhas may be the Attâ [self], not the existence of the Attâ as such. Even in the more positive later literature, the Attâ that is denied is often conceived purely phenomenally” (Pande, Origins of Buddhism, 499).
This about sums up anatta and atman in a neutral way if one has bothered to read the Pali Nikayas and not just read what is on the Internet—or purposely refuse to understand.
Now, what I want to say is the problem of anatta and atman is not unique to Western shores. At least not in Thailand which is a very ancient Buddhist country.
Based on Paul Williams book, Mahayana Buddhism (2008), in 1939 the Samgharaja of Thailand, the head of the national Samgha, gave up the accepted Theravada Buddhist notion of Non-Self (anatta) and switched to the doctrine of the Self (atman), insisting nirvana (P., nibbana) is the true Self. Citing an unpublished dissertation by P. Cholvijarn, Nibbana as Self or No Self (2007), Williams quotes the following from Cholvijarn who summarizes Samgharaja's argument:
- "[T]he uniqueness of the Buddhist doctrine of anattâ [not-Self] is realised once attâ [the Self] has been attained. The Buddha discovered that nibbana is attâ and only by doing so, was able to say that the five aggregates are anattâ. The anattâ doctrine of the Buddha is the doctrine of only Buddhism because the Buddha realised attâ that is different from conditioned dhammas. Nibbana is the purity of an object, it is void of defilements [cf. the tathagatagarbha] and once it is reached there is no more clinging. As purity, it must [be] situate[d] within an object. That object is self. Anattâ is a tool that the Buddha uses for [his] disciples to reject the conditioned dhamma and to accept nibbana. If nibbana is anattâ, then, nibbana is to be rejected and there would be no purpose in practising the Noble Eightfold Path."
Perhaps even more important in moving Thai Buddhism out of the doldrums of Non-Self doctrine was the legendary Buddhist monk Phra Mongkolthepmuni (1884–1959). In 1916 he founded the Dhammakaya Foundation which has grown immensely since then with presently millions of members.
It would not be wrong to say Phra Mongkolthepmuni was responsible for the recrudescence of Buddhism in Thailand giving it new meaning and vitality. Unique in Phra Mongkolthepmuni's understanding of Buddhism was his realization that nirvana is the true Self which is also the Dhammakaya (i.e., the Buddha’s true body).
The Dharmakaya is, according to Phra Monkolthepmuni, niccam (permanent), sukham (blissful), and atta (self). But perhaps even more important and central, the Dhammakaya is a reality anyone, through study and meditation, can apperceive.
Trying to encapsulate Phra Mongkolthepmuni’s meditation, which by no measure is exhaustive on my part, it must be first accepted that meditation for Phra Mongkolthepmuni was the necessary means of awakening (sambodhi)—and only by awakening do we learn and verify what the Buddha actually taught. Explaining his own awakening in 1916, to see the Buddha’s real and true body, the Dhammakaya, he was able to reduce all thinking (mental interference) to a single point. In this way he transcended it (i.e., the thinking). As a result, what comes to exist is the mind, itself. If thinking is not transcended by this means, the mind won’t be seen, according to Phra Mongkolthepmuni. It should be added, that before his awakening, Phra Mongkolthepmuni was a highly skilled meditator, having studied many different forms of meditation under many different teachers.
For Phra Mongkolthepmuni, his particular practice of meditation enabled him to see and to actualize the Buddha’s ultimate body which, like Buddha-nature, is something real within us but owing to our ignorance, we are unable to comprehend it.
But his pro-Self stance, which was verified by his awakening, nevertheless drew criticism from the old guard who believed the Buddha fundamentally taught the doctrine of Non-Self (anattavada). The Dhammakaya Foundation addressing such criticism holds that accomplished practitioners of meditation understand that nirvana is the same as the true Self and it is only scholars who have never had profound realizations who argue there is no Self.
If this sounds like a strange counter argument, consider if one during a period of deep meditation apperceives a state of being that is unaffected by the psychophysical body (i.e., the Five Aggregates). What are we to call this? Calling it void would be wrong because there is something apperceived—a sheer fullness. We could say, however, it is the Self since it is itself and not other. And were someone to insist that we might be deluded, we could justifiably laugh at them. (Speaking only for myself there are states one can reach during meditation that do in fact verify what the Buddha taught and make his teaching—I hate to say this—easy to grasp.)
The enormous growth of the Dhammakaya Foundation is testimony to the longing people have to find what is permanent, blissful, and substantial (atman). It is quite evident that the majority of Buddhists in Thailand are not satisfied with just the Buddha’s negative diagnosis of all conditioned things that they are impermanent, painful, and insubstantial. They also want the cure he promised and taught which is nirvana; which is the true Self.