Even in great Buddhist countries like Thailand a quiet revolutionary movement goes on below the public’s radar. It is concerned with the place of self or, in Pali attâ (in Sanskrit, âtman). The typical Western Buddhist doesn’t pay attention to this, despite its boat-rocking significance and lasting implications. I know I have blogged this before, but permit me to bring this again to the reader’s attention.
From the book of Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism (pp., 125–28), in 1939 the Samgharaja (lit., ruler of the Sangha) of Thailand, who is 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 (âtman), 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 Citing an unpublished dissertation by P. Cholvijarn, Nibbana as Self or No Self (2007) Williams quotes the following from Cholvijarn’s dissertation:
“[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.”
This is very pithy stuff. The Samgharaja helped to shed light on the notion of no-self/anattâ. We should reject what is not the self, for example, the aggregates (pañca-khandas/skandhas)—never the self. He realized that the Buddha taught his awakening to his followers from the standpoint of attained self or attâ, in particular, that conditioned things or dhammas are not the self/attâ, this lack of self in Pali being anattâ. For the Samgharaja, I am guessing, this was a Buddhist version of the Copernican revolution that the German philosopher Kant described in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft.
How much easier to explain Buddhism if we assume that the teaching of the Buddha revolves around the self and, at the same time, woe unto those who, in their ignorance, seek the self in the conditioned or deny it completely (e.g., the annihilationists/materialists).
Without such a revolution no real spiritual progress can be made in Buddhism since adherence to the doctrine of anattâ or no-self, only includes the conditioned—not the unconditioned which marks nirvana. How we get from the conditioned no-self to unconditioned nirvana has thus far not been adequately explained by the proponents of anattâ doctrine.