Saturday, February 10, 2007

Is the doctrine of Bodhisattvas consistent with the doctrine of anatta?

According to Buddhism, there are three central facts of life that must be faced. 1) anicca, which is impermanence, 2) anatta, which is that there is no permanent identity such as the soul or self, and 3) dukkha, which is translated suffering. Although these three aspects of reality are identified by different terms there are, as it were, three sides of the same thing.

As best as I have been able to tell, Buddhists hold a modified doctrine of reincarnation. There is samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, but that which goes to the next incarnation is not the identical person that lived before.

The "official" teaching of the Buddha, (unless he secretly gave Mahayana doctrine to some disciples) is that devotion to anyone is useless in the pursuit of Nirvana. Either the being you wish to devote yourself to has achieved Nirvana, in which case the relevant being has no more desires, and hence no desire to help you, or else that being hasn't made it yet, in which case that being doesn't merit devotion.

Mahayana doctrine modifies this position by saying that some beings of great power have chosen not to enter Nirvana, but rather delay their entry in to nirvana in order to help everyone else make it. In so doing, they allow themselves to go through Samsara (being continually reborn), so that others can be helped.

The question I have is whether Mahayanists, in accepting this understanding of Bodhisattvas, also have to modify their understanding of anatta as well. A Bodhisattva like Guanyin, for example, is presumably the same being each time she reincarnates. Has this issue ever been raised by Buddhist scholars?


The Uncredible Hallq said...

I suspect the Bodhisattvas have a place in Buddhism equivalent to the quasi-deified Catholic saints in Christianity. Makes for a popular religion that the people will gobble up, even if it doesn't make sense theologically.

Anonymous said...


I don't think you are anywhere near being able to to understand Buddhism in anyway. Hallq is in a similar position or he wouldn't refer to Mahayana Buddhism as a popular religion for the ignorant masses.

To understand the anatta or anatman doctrine you have requires knowledge of the views of the atta (Pali) or atman (Sanskrit) before and during the Buddha's time. You cannot assume it is simply "soul or self" as you as a modern christian take those terms.