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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 5.2 (2022): 256–264;

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C. V. Jones. The Buddhist Self. On Tathāgatagarbha and Ātman. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2021. xvii + 296 pp.

Ghent University

Buddhist teachings about the self and not-self are part of a struggle to articulate what it is that endures across the life (and over the successive lives) of a sentient being, when Buddhism generally teaches that all things are impermanent (anitya), and that nothing should be considered a stable, unchanging core of one’s own identity. (2)

With this statement, the introductory chapter (Chapter One) to the present work articulates one of the essential questions of Buddhist thinking, a question that has been debated within Śrāvakayāna and Bodhisattvayāna (Mahāyāna) schools alike, and that goes back to the following fundamental statement by Śākyamuni Buddha that is, among others, included in the Mahāvagga of the Pāli canon:

‘Material form, monks, is not self. […] inasmuch, monks, as material form is not self, therefore material form tends to sickness […]. Feeling is not self […]. Perception is not self […]. Consciousness is not self […]. What do you think about this, monks? Is material form permanent or impermanent?’
‘Impermanent, Lord.’
‘But is that which is impermanent painful or pleasurable?’
‘Painful, Lord’
‘But is it fit to consider that which is impermanent, painful, of a nature to change, as ‘This is mine, this am I, this is my Self’?’
‘It is not Lord’.
rūpaṃ bhikkhave anatta […] yasmā ca kho bhikkhave rūpaṃ anatta, tasmā rūpaṃ ābādhāya saṃvattati […] yasmā ca kho bhikkhave vedanā anatta […] saññā anatta […] viññāṇaṃ anatta […] taṃ kiṃ maññatha bhikkhave, rūpaṃ niccaṃ vā aniccaṃ vā ’ti. aniccaṃ bhante. yaṃ panāniccaṃ, dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā ’ti. dukkhaṃ bhante. yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukhaṃ viparināmadhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ etaṃ mama, eso ’ham asmi, eso me attā ’ti. no h’etaṃ bhante.

Against the background of other Indian traditions that advocated the existence of an enduring self (ātman), the gist of this statement explains why theories of a ‘self’ were brought into the Buddhist doctrine. It is also explained by the continued doubt that existed concerning the question of the existence of something called a ‘self’, caused by the Buddha’s reluctance to give any definite answer to this question as one of the so-called avyākṛtavastus. Already in early Buddhism, in a context in which Buddhist authors had ‘developed a terminology that accounts for transmigration without recourse to the notion of an enduring, unchanging subject’ (4), the Pudgalavādins, ‘adherents of the doctrine that there is a person’, e.g., concluded that the person (pudgala) belongs to a special category of neither caused nor uncaused dharmas. Their doctrinal position can be understood as ‘an attempt not to completely break off contact with everyday reality. It is the person who makes mistakes, whose activities evoke retribution, and who ultimately keeps the cycle of reincarnation going’. This position is in line with the remark made by Stephen Collins quoted in the Introduction to the present work (6) that the early Buddhist model is ‘a kind of pragmatic agnosticism, in which the self is not so much denied as declared inconceivable’. It is in the same doctrinal context of doubt about the true nature of personhood and the question how, when a present factor (dharma) disappears, it becomes connected to the next moment of an ‘individual’s’ life-stream, that the Sarvāstivādins also formulated their peculiar interpretations of the workings of karmic activity (kāritra) and its relation to personhood. Also, the development of the tathāgatagarbha theory, the theory to which the present excellently researched and philologically substantiated book is dedicated, is part of this fundamental debate.


About the Author: Bart Dessein (Ph.D. 1994) is full professor at the department of Languages and Cultures of Ghent University, where he is member of the Ghent Centre for Buddhist Studies. His research focuses on early Buddhist philosophy and school formation. He has mainly published on Sarvastivada and Mahasamghika philosophy.


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