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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Anatman

(Anātman, Pāli: Anātta). The doctrine that there is no permanent, unchanging Self (Sk. atman) and that the human experience of selfhood is composed of impermanent, constantly changing factors and hence is illusory. The anatman (or anatta) doctrine is a central tenet of Buddhism, which states that the sense of self is actually the result of the activity of five aggregates (Sk. skandhas; Pali khandhas), all of which are impermanent. They are form (rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (Sk. samjña; Pali sañña), latent tendencies or personality characteristics (Sk. samskaras; Pali sankaras), and conditioned consciousness (Sk. vijñana; Pali viññana). In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, however, the Buddha taught that there is an enduring Self (Atman) which is the Buddha- Nature (Buddha-dhatu) in all beings. Thus Buddhist literature teaches both the existence and non-existence of Self or Atman. By contrast, Hindu philosophy, especially Vedanta, postulates an unchanging atman as the true Self of each human being.

Theosophy states that there are two manifestations of self: the personal ego (usually termed jiva in Hindu philosophy) and the real Self (atman), which manifests as atma-buddhi. Theosophy clearly agrees with Buddhism that the personal ego is transitory, therefore is in some sense illusory. It has to be transcended. In her Voice of the Silence, Helena P. BLAVATSKY states that when the soul says “This is I,” it is caught in the web of the delusion of personality (called in Pali sakkayaditthi). In The MAHATMA LETTERS TO A. P. SINNETT, the Mahatma KOOT HOOMI similarly considers sakkayaditthi and the doctrine of a Self (atma-vada) as leading to illusion or maya. What brings this sense of selfhood about is called ahamkara or the “I-making” faculty, sometimes translated “egoity.”

As to the doctrine that atman is the real or “highest Self,” theosophical literature appears to affirm its existence. However, a deeper analysis of the Mahatma Letters and the writings of Blavatsky shows that this is not exactly the case. Blavatsky explains that atman is non-personal or non-individual. In the Key to Theosophy, she says that atman “is no individual property of any man, but is the Divine essence which has no body, no form, which is imponderable, invisible and indivisible, that which does not exist and yet is, as the Buddhists say of Nirvana” (Key, sect. 7). While atman is commonly assumed to be the human Spirit or Self, Blavatsky stressed in her writings that in fact atman cannot even be considered a human principle. She says that it “becomes the HIGHER-SELF of man only in conjunction with Buddhi, its vehicle. . . .” (idem.) Again,

We include Atma among the human “principles” in order not to create additional confusion. In reality it is no “human” but the universal absolute principle of which Buddhi, the Soul-Spirit, is the carrier. (Key, sect. 6, fn.)

The inclusion of atman as a seventh principle is, therefore, an exoteric classification. In a strict sense it is not a self (or a Self), not a unity of individuality, but rather is equivalent to the universal consciousness:

Atma, the “Higher Self,” is neither your Spirit nor mine, but like the sunlight shines on all. It is the universally diffused “divine principles,” and is inseparable from its one and absolute Meta-Spirit, as the sunbeam is inseparable from sunlight. (Key, sec. 8) For Atman or the “Higher Self” is really Brahma, the ABSOLUTE, and indistinguishable from it. . . . It is the God above, more than within us. (Key, sec. 9)

The Secret Doctrine further elucidates on this point based on “the Eastern Esoteric teaching,” quoting which, Blavatsky says:

“A Dhyani has to be an Atma-Buddhi; once the Buddhi-Manas breaks loose from its immortal Atma of which it (Buddhi) is the vehicle, Atman passes into NON-BEING, which is absolute Being.” This means [she continues] that the purely Nirvanic state is a passage of Spirit back to the ideal abstraction of Be-ness which has no relation to the plane on which our Universe is accomplishing its cycle. (SD I:193)

V.H.C.

 

 

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