Against a Mahāyāna Absolute: Why Absolutism Need Not Be a Conclusion of Mahāyāna Philosophy

Dissertation, University of Liverpool (2018)
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This work will argue that Mahāyāna philosophy need not result in endorsement of some cosmic Absolute in the vein of the Advaitin ātman-Brahman. Scholars such as Bhattacharya, Albahari and Murti argue that the Buddha at no point denied the existence of a cosmic ātman, and instead only denied a localised, individual ātman (what amounts to a jīva). The idea behind this, then, is that the Buddha was in effect an Advaitin, analysing experience and advocating liberation in an Advaitin sense: through a rejection of the individual ātman and knowledge (jñāna) of and immersion into the universal ātman-Brahman. I will explore how different religious traditions define and shape the Absolute according to their own religious convictions, illustrating a divergence in conception from the very start, before exploring key differences between the Advaitin conception of the Absolute as put forth by Śaṅkara and as defended by Bhattacharya in The Ātman-Brahman in Ancient Buddhism. I then challenge Bhattacharya’s claims that prajñāpāramitā literature necessarily endorses the ātman-Brahman and that Mahāyāna philosophies reorientate Buddhists towards the truth of the ātman-Brahman. I do this by arguing that there are viable interpretations of Vasubandhu’s Yogācāra and Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka that do not advocate such a belief, that prajñāpāramitā literature can be viewed as a project in episteme rather than ontology, and that we need not find a ground of the same sort as the ātman-Brahman in the Buddhist flux of experience. I conclude by showing that whilst Absolutism is a theme in some schools of Buddhism, it need not be – contra Bhattacharya – the conclusion of two major Mahāyāna philosophies.

Author's Profile

Gary Donnelly
University of Manchester


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