The Hindu concept of the Atman seems to resemble what Buddhism identifies as Buddha Nature, yet there is a distinction to be made. In this quick lesson, I consider this distinction.
Reincarnation and the Soul
First, it’s important to understand that reincarnation is not a particularly Buddhist concept. The belief in an Atman or eternal soul existed long before the Buddha was born. Hinduism teaches that this eternal soul continues to be reborn over and over again in order to complete its spiritual growth. A similar idea is prevalent in New Age philosophy today.
The Buddha, on the other hand, taught that there is no fixed, eternal Atman or soul. Yet, he did believe that we are reborn over and over again. He also asserted that we each are endowed with a wakeful presence, often called Buddha nature, which contains the full potential for everlasting peace and nirvanic happiness.
How the Atman and Buddha Nature are Different
At a surface level, it doesn’t sound like the Atman and Buddha Nature are all that different. However, there is a distinction being made.
One perspective envisions an eternal soul that deliberately and consciously takes birth over and over again, in order to learn and complete its spiritual growth. It’s like how some New Age camps might say that you choose your parents or the place you are born.
The Buddha didn’t believe we are quite so “in charge” of the process. He recognized that we are also subject to conditioning, karma, and interdependent origination — the law of cause and effect.
In other words, he taught that the ordinary, unevolved consciousness is still in process. Most of us still need to learn how to work with our basic conditioning in order to break free from the illusions that drive us before we can evolve consciously.
Buddhist Perspective on Consciousness and Death
That’s why the Buddha compared the death of an ordinary consciousness to a dead leaf blown about by the autumn wind. Where most of us land when we are reborn is primarily controlled by the winds of karma (the consequences of the choices we make when we’re alive). Only the consciousness of a true spiritual master can willfully direct the fulfillment of its evolution in the changeless sea of its luminous nature — as the concept of the Atman implies.
Therefore, from a Buddhist perspective, most of us still have a lot of growing to do before we actually have the kind of spiritual presence and determination that’s needed to direct our own rebirth. Yet, we’re not complete victims either. Because we are forever reaping what we sow, through the choices we make right now, we do have some control over our future lives.
As Lama Surya Das points out, Buddhist logic is always kind of playing both sides of a question in order to land somewhere in the middle.