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The tathāgatagarbha doctrine of Mahāyāna Buddhism affirms the existence of some permanent, significant content of sentient beings that is of the same character as a Buddha. While this alone was an important innovation within Buddhist thought, some of its authors ventured further to deem this significant content an ātman: a ‘self’, in apparent contradiction to the central Buddhist teaching of the absence of self (anātman) in the constitution of all beings.
The aims of this thesis are two. Firstly, to examine usage of the term ātman in the Indian tathāgatagarbha sources which develop use of this expression. This entails a close reading of relevant sources (primarily Mahāyāna sūtra literature), and attention to how this term is used in the context of each. These sources present different perspectives on the tathāgatagarbha and its designation as a self; this study aims to examine significant differences between, and similarities across, these texts and their respective doctrines.
The second aim is to attempt an account of why authors of these texts ventured to designate the tathāgatagarbha with the term ātman, especially when some of our sources suggest that this innovation received some opposition, while others deem it in requirement of strong qualification, or to be simply inappropriate. It is not my objective to account for whether or not the tathāgatagarbha is or is not implicitly what we may deem ‘a self’ on the terms of Buddhist tradition; rather, I am concerned with the manner in which this expression itself was adopted, and – in light of clear difficulties raised by it – what may have motivated those authors responsible.I argue not only that we can trace the development of this designation across the tathāgatagarbha literature, but also that those authors responsible for its earliest usage adopted an attitude towards non-Buddhist discourses on the self that requires special attention. This, I believe, had its roots in an account of the Buddha and his influence that advances our understanding of one tradition of Mahāyāna Buddhology, and its ambition to affirm its superiority over other Indian religious traditions. (Source Accessed October 29, 2019)
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