From the prepublications at the South Asia Seminar, 2000 at The University of Texas at Austin

Atman in Sunyata and the Sunyata of Atman

An attempt to reconcile the alleged difference between Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta on the nature of the Self

by Bijoy H. Boruah (1)

Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism are at loggerheads with one another on the metaphysical issue of the self or soul. Whereas the former school of thought is credited with the belief in the existence of the Atmanor the soul as the core reality of the human individual, the latter school is famous for the theory of Anatman or denial of the existence of any self or soul substance. In contemporary philosophical parlance, the Advaita Vedantin would be a realist about the self and the Buddhist an anti-realist about the same thing. This is surely a radical ontological antinomy. But what is surprising is that despite such an ontological antinomy the two systems of thought have a more or less common "metaphysic of transcendence" or a transformative teleology. They each believe in the possibility of ultimate human liberation or enlightenment. The ultimate liberation (Moksa) of Advaita Vedanta and the ultimate enlightenment (Nirvana) of Buddhism are in essence similar notions of attainment of salvation or final freedom from the quagmire of human bondage. How would one reconcile the fact that the two systems share a basically similar metaphysic of salvation with the fact that they are arch opponents on the issue of the ontology of the self?

What I have posed as a perplexing problem should be clear once it is realized that the question of the self is crucially related to the issue of ultimate liberation. If liberation is attained in the form of self-realization or self-transformation, then whether one affirms or denies the existence of the self would seem to make a corresponding difference in respect of the possibility of ultimate liberation understood as self-liberation.The perplexity is that both an anti-realist (Buddhism) and a realist (Vedanta) about the self are nonetheless convergent on the idea of the possibility of ultimate, self-transformative liberation. Indeed, to converge on a common salvific teleology while the two parties hold onto the radically divergent ontological positions of self-denial and self-affirmation is to open up a curious philosophical situation that demands closer scrutiny. 

The Buddhist position is intriguing precisely because it claims the possibility of emancipation without admitting that there is any self-same, enduring bearer of the emancipatory experience. Ironically, self-extinction rather than self-existence is said to be a necessary condition for the possibility of emancipation. But we may pause here to reconsider the meaning of the concept of self inquestion. Does the sense of perplexity rest on an ambiguity of the word "self" as used by the opposing parties?

Apparently, it would be absurd to profess total self-denial while admitting ultimate liberation because the experience of liberation, being enduring as well as unitary, presupposes an experiencer of some sort. We would do well not to short-circuit the Buddhist position into plain absurdity and examine whether there really is no sense of self-affirmation in the overall metaphysical stance of Buddhism.

On the other hand, the Vedantic position on self-affirmation also needs to be subjected to a closer scrutiny in relation to its Buddhist opponent. What needs to be examined closely is what really is affirmed when the Vedantin affirms the existence of the self. What is the content of the self involved in Vedantic self-liberation?

Why have I moved the matter towards a discussion of the content of theVedantic self in relation to the no-self thesis of Buddhism? I have done so in view of the alleged dichotomy between the two systems of thought described in terms of positive ontology (Vedanta) and negative ontology (Buddhism). Vedanta is metaphysically Being-oriented, specifically the Being of Atman or the true individual self, which is ultimately identical with Brahman or the Absolute Reality. Buddhism is metaphysically oriented to Nothingness or Emptiness, known as Sunyata, so much so that Absolute Reality is identified with Absolute Nothingness. What I wonder is whether there can really be any substantive difference of specific content between a metaphysic of Being and a metaphysic of Nothingness, when both systems subscribe to an ultimate reality conceived in equally metaphysically absolutist terms. The metaphysical "sphere" of absolute Being may coincide with that of absolute Nothingness, and there may not be "internal" content-specific difference between the two.

In keeping with the speculative remark I just made, I would now like to take up the Buddhist notion of Sunyata for a careful analysis. Buddhists are arch anti-realists when it comes to the existence of anything that can be individuated. Sheer impermanence and transitoriness of everything characterizes reality for them. There is no thing and no self in such a reality of ceaseless flux. Hence, according to Buddhism, a right understanding of the world and us in it would be not to reify anything into enduring individual entities or selves. This is what gets expressed as the no-self or Anatman view. One is therefore advised to empty oneself of the illusory representation of oneself as an enduring and distinct self. Everything is devoid of any substantive essence. In a sense, everything in reality is empty.

It might be helpful to think of emptiness or Sunyata, understood as Absolute Nothingness, as a cosmic "field," and reality ultimately identified with this field. Anything in reality would then be absolutely non-substantial, which implies that there would be no non-illusory substantive self-representation in this field. Consciousness, which is the content of the so-called self and experience (and may be the content of the cosmic field as such), would be absolutely empty of any ego-centric self-representation. It would be "pure" consciousness, or consciousness per se.

Contrast this picture of Buddhism with the Vedantic depictionof reality. Phenomenal reality, which is what appears as the world of sensible apprehension in all its multiplicity, is held to be a false projection of cosmic illusion, of Maya or Avidya. All relationality amongst distinct individuals, the whole world as it appears to be distinct from oneself as subject in all its multifariousness, is unreal from the transcendental standpoint of Brahman. True reality is Brahman, which is One, indeterminate, and all that there is. Brahman simply is. We, the so-called individual selves, are each essentially an atman. Being an Atman, each of us is not really distinct from other individual selves (or from anything else whatsoever). As Atman, we are ultimately one with Brahman, which is tantamount to being one with reality as such.

Accordingto Vedanta, not to realize this oneness with Brahman, via the realization of our true essence as Atman, is to remain spiritually blinded by Avidya. Liberation as self-realization is the realization of our ultimate identity with Brahman. Short of our understanding of our Atman-essence we are each a Jiva, an individual ego distinct from other similarly "unrealized" individuals. As Atman, none of us is really an individual self, but a universal self merging with the absolute universality of Brahman. To come to have this realization is to attain Moksa.

As it stands, the Vedantic metaphysics is realist, i.e. realist about the self as Atman. It is the "being" of the self, rather than nothingness or emptiness, which is clearly affirmed. The Atman is regarded to be the truest, and only enduring, reality. Vedanta therefore strikes us as a reality-affirming ontology in contrast to the reality-negating ontology of Buddhism. For Vedanta, there is a reality with its positive identity once the illusory projection of a phenomenal world is transcended. There is Atman-identical-with-Brahman to constitute Reality. By contrast, the Reality of Buddhism is seemingly gratuitous because sheer emptiness is supposed to be coterminous with Reality. Lacking in any positive content or identity, the Reality depicted by Buddhism would seem to make no room for the possibility of an enduring experience to count as an experience of emancipation.

When Buddhism and Vedanta are thus juxtaposed in a comparative perspective, the two systems present themselves in the form of a mutually exclusive relation. An affirmation of the existence of Atman would presuppose a negation of the reality of Sunyata. Conversely, identifying reality with the field of Sunyata would entail a denial of the existence of Atman. So, either it is Atman without Sunyata, or it is Sunyata without Atman.

We must recall the earlier discussion that both Buddhism and Vedanta with their opposing ontological commitments nevertheless converge on the issue of salvation. This means that Sunyatais no impediment to ultimate liberation. And if the reality of Sunyata leaves no room for Atman, then it follows, by implication, that the non-existence of Atmanis also no impediment to ultimate liberation. One might say here (with a mildly reactive temperament) that the metaphysics of ultimate liberation is severely underdetermined by the ontology of the self. But is the question of the self---its existence or non-existence---so very neutral with respect to the possibility of liberation?

At this stage I would argue in the direction of justifying a negative answer to the above question. I would claim that self-reality is intimately connected to the reality of ultimate liberation. But in claiming this I would in no way imply that the Buddhist way of conceiving of the possibility of liberation is fictitious. Instead, my conclusion would be that true liberation or emancipation is as much grounded in a metaphysic of Sunyata as it is founded upon its counterpart metaphysic of Atman. But, then, I shall have to disentangle the knotty problem of the antinomy between Buddhism and Vedanta discussed in the beginning of this essay.

I think that a reconciliatory philosophical reconsideration of the ancient debate between Buddhism and Vedanta would yield a picture in which the two systems would be seen as being complementary to each other. With this intent I shall start from the Vedantic angle to show that the concept of Atman is compatible with that of Sunyata.

Granted the reality or existence of Atman, exactly in what form does it exist? Can we say that it exists as an individual entity of some sort? To so exist, it must satisfy certain criteria of individuation. But, admittedly, there are no such criteria. Not being Jiva, it is not an individual existing in relation to other individual entities. This is tantamount to saying that Atman is not really an individual at all. It has no relationality except its relation to Brahman, which is, after all, a relation of identity characterizing the non-duality between the two.

Can the Atman be described in terms of any attribute apart from its most general characterization as something of the nature of pure consciousness? And qua pure consciousness---consciousness without any specific features---Atman is better grasped as attributeless. It is as though we can get a grip on the concept of Atman by subtracting from the "content-laden" concept of consciousness all contingent specificities attached to the concept. Atman is consciousness absolutely purged of all factual specificities---everything that consciousness accumulates during its involvement with the empirical world or Samsara.

If Atman is attributively free pure consciousness, and attribute-free consciousness entails consciousness not centred on any ego-specific point of view, then it is a "decentred"self inhabitating a "centreless" world. Consciousness decentred is also consciousness universalized, and a self nourished by universalized, perspectiveless consciousness is evidently empty of all inner encumbrances that accrue to a self of centred consciousness. At least, part of attaining ultimate liberation is this freedom from the contingencies of ego-centred consciousness. One could say that one meaning of the Buddhist concept of emptiness is the idea of the self's emptying itself of accumulations of inner traits born of ego-specific consciousness.

Once we conceive of the idea of a decentred self as having its life in a centreless world of ego-neutral consciousness, we get closer to the idea of Atman as identical with the universal consciousness of Brahman. We may even think of the self's progressive decentering of itself culminating in a form of transcendental subjectivity which is the perfection of centrelessness. Such a perfectly decentred consciousness would then be a mirror image of Atman. But a perfectly centreless consciousness would have to be absolutely devoid of perspectival partialities of ego-centric consciousness steeped in the "push and pull" of Samsara. It would be emptied of the delimiting attributes of finitude to the extent of experiencing the intimations of infinity. It would undergo a transformation of consciousness from its ego-specifically substantial mode to an ego-neutrally "insubstantial" mode of Nothingness.

We now have a picture of Atman that depicts the self as consciousness without any substantive content of empirically delimiting attributes. This picture also seems to be akin to the Buddhist idea of nothingness or Sunyata. Atman-consciousness is a kind of consciousness-as-nothingness in asmuch as it is empty of the attributes of ego-specific subjectivity. Transcendence from the life of a Jiva to that of Atman requires that the self render itself into emptiness (Sunyata) as far as the perspectival subjectivity of the former mode of life is concerned. It would therefore be no travesty of Vedantic truth to say that there is a great deal of Sunyata in the inner constitution of Atman. The Vedantic self is nourished by metaphysical nothingness. It is therefore no wonder that Samkara, the greatest protagonist of Advaita Vedanta, has been described as the Buddha in disguise.

Of course, one must not underplay the positive ontological connotation of Atman in a bid to overplay the metaphysical nothingness of Atman-consciousness. While the Vedantic self must negate all its ego-specific substantiality and transform into consciousness-as-nothingness, it is precisely the fulfillment of this negation that the true affirmation of the positive existence or substantiality of the self as Atman consists in. Nothingness therefore is one side of the coin of the Vedantic self, of which the other side is its ego-neutral or centreless substantiality. Indeed, the substantiality of Atman is at its most pronounced in its potentiality to attain moksa.

What, on the other hand, about the alleged non-substantiality of ultimate reality as Nothingness or Sunyata? I think it would be equally wrong to overplay the negative connotation of the metaphysic of Sunyata to the point of losing sight of any affirmative connotation concealed behind that metaphysic. For one thing, the admission of the potentiality to attain and experience Nirvana is a clear indication of the substantiality of Sunyata-based existence. In this sense Sunyata evidently has an ontic import; and it even suggests an ontology of self akin to that of Vedanta. Buddhistic ultimate liberation---the attainment of Nirvana---is a substantial unitary transition from the unenlightened condition to the state of enlightenment. The possibility of this transition bespeaks of the substantial presence of a shadowy self in the metaphysical vacuum of Sunyata.

Furthermore, Sunyata is not abhava or non-existence, but held to be the ultimate ground of everything, the utmost original condition of reality prior to all conceptualization and phenomenal distortion. It is characterized as pregnant emptiness, vibrant void. Cast in terms of consciousness, Sunyata is a state of pure consciousness that one would revert to if one were able to empty oneself of any illusory constructions or impressions of an unchanging or permanent reality,whether of things or persons. This reversal to original subjectivity, which also has an ethical import, may be interpreted as one's "becoming" Sunya or empty. But "becoming" Sunya does not mean going out of existence. Rather, one can truly be oneself, or become trulyself-aware, only by "becoming" Sunya. Otherwise, one continues to be in an unawakened state---to be under the spell of Avidya.

Can we not say, now, that the Buddhist awakening in "the field of Sunyata" is most akin to the Vedantic realization of the ultimate identity of Atman with Brahman? And is not Brahman---the absolutely indeterminate (Nirguna) Ultimate Reality---itself more like a "field of Sunyata," the original ground of everything? It seems to me that these speculations about the "complementarity" between Vedanta and Buddhism are on the right track. For such a reading of these two systems of thought helps us make more coherent sense of either position than what they seem to mean individually. What, then, is the complementary light of Buddhism on our understanding of Vedanta? It is essentially this: Sunyata is the only ground reality for the life of Atman. Atman without Sunyata would be like motion without energy.

In a similar vein, it can also be said that "becoming" Sunya or being in (the field of) Sunyata is virtually the same thing as being or "becoming" Atman. It is important that we recognize the negative overtone of Sunyata and its cognate Anatman has, as its counterpoint, an affirmative undertone. There is the negation of the unawakened self---the self centred in an individualized field of consciousness and shackled to the perspectives tied to it. This negation forms the basis for a spontaneous affirmation of becoming awakened or enlightened---becoming a decentred self. In essence, consciousness-as-Sunyata manifests itself in the form of consciousness-as-Atman.

What transpires from the above discussions is a thesis that is better characterized in terms of convergence of Buddhism and Vedanta than in terms of their complementarity to one another. Of course each is a complementary perspective to the other in so far as our making coherent sense of either position is concerned. What we gain from such a complementary understanding of the allegedly incompatible juxtaposition of these two ancient systems of thought is that their apparent difference betrays a profound underlying unity. We have intimations of a "hidden" Atman of Buddhism on the one hand, and of the "silent" Sunyata in Vedanta on the other. A deeper study of the Vedantic Atman-theory results in making the otherwise silent metaphysics of emptiness resonate with a persuasive explanatory voice, much as a scrutinizing look at the Buddhistic Sunyata-theory manages to get a glimpse of the shadowy presence of a full-fledged Atman that explains the possibility of enlightenment.

It is a welcome sign in contemporary scholarship to find Japanese Buddhism (especially the Kyoto school of Zen Buddhism) professing views that reflect the compatibility of Buddhist ideology with that of Vedanta. Nishitani Keiji, a distinguished scholar of this school of thought, is emphatic on affirming the intimacy of the relation between Sunyata and the self. Emptiness is said to be the "absolute nearside" of us. Sunyata is the field of ecstatic transcendence and the "absolute nearside where emptiness is self." We are said to become truly ourselves when we are empty, i.e. when we become decentred selves in the field of nothingness. There is thus a pronounced self-assertion set against Sunyata.

Interestingly, Nishitani turns to "The I-Thou Relation in Zen Buddhism" and analyzes the nature of this relation in a manner which is strikingly Vedantic. He talks about this relation as "non-differentiated", and adds that this "absolute non-differentiation belongs to the I itself , and it is the same for the Thou." The implication is that, once the self is in Sunyata, which is said to be its "home ground," it truly becomes itself and then enters into the "I-Thou" relation with the distinctive attitude of "absolute non-differentiation." This is clearly indicative of the Advaita or non-dualism of Vedanta. The non-duality of the I-Thou relation is emblematic of the ultimate non-duality of Reality.

In contemporary Indian philosophy we witness a neo-Vedantic portrayal of the I-Thou relation in a significantly different light. Ramchandra Gandhi presents a highly interesting version of the I-Thou relation in the communicative framework of the addresser-addressee relation. There is something uniquely sacrosanct about my addressing someone by using the personal pronoun You. In being so addressed by me, you are called forth as just yourself, in your pure and simple personal identity, "untouched" by any contingent or de facto attributes which happen to be true of you. To be identified as an addressee is, for Gandhi, to be regarded as a person per se, when the person is not conceived under any predicative-attributive frame of mind.

What Gandhi wants to show on the basis of the idea of a non-attributive, non-predicative mode of person-identification is the availability of the religious idea of a soul. When any one is called forth pronominally, the person (addressee) is picked out by the caller (addresser) with an attitude of mind which is characterized as an attitude towards a soul. Hence the idea of a soul is implicit in the attributeless mode of thought in which the I relates itself to the Thou. What it is to be a soul is thus articulated through a serious exploratory analysis of the communicative concept of personal pronominal designation.

The Gandhian idea of a soul defined in terms of non-attributive person-identification can now be profitably linked with both Sunyata and Atman. The addressee as a soul is very much modeled on what it is to be Atman. For you to be addressed by me entirely non-attributively is to be thought of as a pure personal subject, much as for me to adopt the non-predicative stance towards you is to act as a decentred self. One might say that this formulation of the I-Thou relation is a variation on the idea of inter-relations between Vedantic selves. But it is also a variation on Buddhist Sunyata : for me to adopt thenon-attributive stance towards you is to place myself (as well as you) in the field of nothingness. Unless I "become" empty or Sunya, I cannot absolve myself of my usual attributive-predicative mode of viewing you or anybody else, including myself.

What we are presented with here is a very fundamental human situation, a situation of human communion in its most primary modality: addressing. I and Thou coexist in the unitary field of Sunyata, which is the attitudinal locus of non-attributive inter-personal regard. When we both partake of the infinite field of absolute nothingness, there is no duality of I and Thou. There is "virtual identity" instead, which means the relation is truly expressed as "I am Thou."

1) Bijoy H. Boruah 
Professor of Philosophy
Department of Humanities & Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur 208016