You are here

The Buddhist Denial of the Existence of the Self (atman)

The Lecture:

On February 17, 2012, Prof. Alex Watson, an eminent Oxford scholar of Indian philosophy, spoke to a packed conference room in Tibet House, on “The Buddhist Denial of the Existence of the Self (âtman)”.
Starting his lecture by comparing Buddhism to an enormous tree with many branches growing in diverse new directions, Dr Watson stated that Buddhism was taught and debated in India between 5th and 12th century AD. A key topic of discussion in this period was the existence of the self.

He began by asking the audience to shut their eyes and experience from all their senses. He explained how the Buddha taught about the self in the Pali canon denying that any of the five skandhas or the five constituents of human beings are a part of the self. He said that we are not the sensation or the thought, as these arise and leave by themselves; therefore they are different from the self.

Although in some passages the Buddha denies the self, in other passages he refuses to speak about it, or he denies both that there is a self and that there is not a self. Dr. Watson linked this with the Madhyamika attitude to the self, according to which the real nature of a thing is ungraspable and no concept can capture it. He then went on to look at how Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakosabhasya, followed by Dignaga, and Dharmakirti argued against the existence of the self. He described Dharmakirti (600-660 AD) as the most brilliant philosopher of his time, who influenced all subsequent Buddhist thought and consequently Hindu concepts.

Later schools of Buddhism all deny the existence of the self. Dr. Watson contrasted their view with the Hindu defenses of the existence of the self that are found in Vedanta, Nyaya and Sankhya. According to the Hindu point of view, there is a perceiver and that which is perceived. The observer is a still point observing the changes, so the self is constant and unaffected by what is experienced.

Dr. Watson went on to elucidate that Hinduism sees the self as a unitary essence and as unchanging, whereas Buddhism defines the self as being different at every different moment, so nothing exists for more than one moment. In Buddhist thought, at any given moment one is the five skandhas. The Buddhist schools of thought considered the concept of the self as harmful as it would be impossible to attain nirvana as long as one believed in the self. If one does not believe that the body or the mind is oneself, then one can observe it with equanimity.


The Speaker:


Dr Alex Watson is a specialist of Hindu and Buddhist Philosophy, and Sanskrit literature. His BA, in Philosophy and Psychology, and his PhD, in Indian Philosophy, were both from the University of Oxford. He will take up the post of Sanskrit Preceptor at Harvard in August.

His first book (2006) was about the debate between Buddhism and the Brahmanical Schools of philosophy about the existence or non-existence of the self. He is currently finishing a book on twenty different theories of enlightenment (mokṣa, nirvāṇa).

He has presented a variety of papers at conferences throughout the world, such as the 2008 Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Atlanta (“Ramakaṇṭha’s Elaboration of Self-Awareness (svasavedana), and how it differs from Dharmakirti’s Exposition of the Concept”), and the 2011 Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies in Taipei (“Light as a metaphor for consciousness in Buddhist Idealism”).

He has published articles (for example “Jayanta’s Refutation of the Yogācara Buddhist Doctrine of Vijñanavāda”) in journals such as the Journal of Indian Philosophy. He has taught at the Universities of Oxford and Vienna.


An Abstract:

One of the central points of Buddhist philosophy is the denial of the existence of a self. This talk will look at the way the Buddhist philosophers such as Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, and Dharmakīrti in his Pramāṇavārttika, argued for this view. It will first outline what the Hindu views were that they were opposing.


Topic: Buddhist denial of the existence of the self (atman)

Speaker: Prof. Alex Watson

Chairperson: Prof Badri Narayanan

Venue: Conference Hall, Tibet House

Date: February 17, 2012

Time: 06:00 pm