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I have been listening to audiobooks on Buddhism and Hinduism (Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita, Heart Sutra, Upanishads, Rig Veda, etc.), and am stuck trying to imagine and/or understand how the infinite divine mind (the All, or whatever you want to call it, God, etc..), divides into individual life experiences which have "their own" perceptions and self-experience (atman), and are yet impermanent. And how this relates to the permanent anatman (non-self).

The way my mind imagines it, there is a ball like a balloon filled with tiny points/particles like grains of sand. Each grain of sand is the self-experiencer, but are all part of the whole ball (and yet where this metaphor breaks down is the grains of sand are actually distinct from the ball, but in the All case, they are but tiny aspects of the all or something like that).

In this sense, there is a finite number of grains of sand / selves, and no more and no less can be created. But in the All/anatman case, it seems to subdivide into an infinite number of experiences. So then it's like, afterlife/reincarnation. How does that work? When I die do I get subdivided into several lesser experiences (ranked according to evolution of spiritual development), or merged into a higher single experience composed of many other souls now integrated into one? Or how do more selves get created which have their own perceptions? Why can't we just magically create a self using some physics or biology experiments (which don't involve just having lifeforms reproduce)? Why can't we just "poof" and a new individual experiencer / soul is created out of a test tube of some sort of energy?

All those questions boil down to the fact that I don't understand how the permanent anatman, the divine infinite all/perfection (or if I'm mixing up concepts, let me know), divides into individuals which can have their own conscious awareness (like humans), or at least have their own independent life. There is a "spark" there, where does it come from and how does it perceive itself as independent of the whole? How are more individual selves created? Is there a fixed number of them?

This meme hits home the most, and yet I still don't get how individuals can have their "own" experience (at least from their own perspective), and how the infinite subdivides into these selves.

enter image description here

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  • Hindu Atman and Buddhist Atman do not have the same meaning, history or philosophical groundworks. I think you are conflating 2 different things....btw nice meme.
    – Desmon
    Commented May 2 at 5:33
  • Hindu Atman and Buddhist atta do not have the same meaning, history or philosophical groundworks. I think you & the Wikipedia author are conflating 2 different things....btw nice meme. Commented May 2 at 6:22
  • DD you got a strange humour! 😂
    – Desmon
    Commented May 2 at 6:42
  • Atta is not atman. There is no Buddhist atman Commented May 2 at 6:44
  • What you describe and the picture you attached, is more like Hindu Advaita Vedanta. It's not Buddhism.
    – ruben2020
    Commented May 2 at 8:55

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The Buddha used the word "atta", which merely & simply refers to the mind created "small self" or "ego". For example, as used in the Buddha's second sermon, "atta" is synonymous with the possessive notions of "I", "me" & "mine":

‘netaṁ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā

‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’

Sutta such as SN 22.81 clearly explain how the mind created "self" is merely a mental formation or mental conceptual fabrication:

Assumes form to be self (atta). That assumption is a fabrication. Now what is the cause, what is the origination, what is the birth, what is the coming-into-existence of that fabrication? To an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person, touched by that which is felt born of contact with ignorance, craving arises. That fabrication is born of that.

MN 64 says a new born & very young child has no notion of "self". MN 38 says the "birth" ("jati") of the notion of self only starts to arise in a young child's mind when:

When he grows up and his faculties mature still further, the youth enjoys himself provided and endowed with the five cords of sensual pleasure, with forms cognizable by the eye… sounds cognizable by the ear…odours cognizable by the nose… flavours cognizable by the tongue…tangibles cognizable by the body that are wished for, desired, agreeable and likeable, connected with sensual desire, and provocative of lust.

On seeing a form with the eye, he lusts after it if it is pleasing; he dislikes it if it is unpleasing. He abides with mindfulness of the body unestablished, with a limited mind, and he does not understand as it actually is the deliverance of mind and deliverance by wisdom wherein those evil unwholesome states cease without remainder. Engaged as he is in favouring and opposing, whatever feeling he feels—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—he delights in that feeling, welcomes it, and remains holding to it. As he does so, delight arises in him. Now delight in feelings is clinging. With his clinging as condition, being comes to be; with being as condition, birth; with birth as condition, ageing and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

The Pali term "anatta" does not mean "anātman". Wikipedia says:

The earliest use of the word Ātman in Indian texts is found in the Rig Veda (RV X.97.11). Yāska, the ancient Indian grammarian, commenting on this Rigvedic verse, accepts the following meanings of Ātman: the pervading principle, the organism in which other elements are united and the ultimate sentient principle.

In short, the Buddha's "anatta" is not a negation of any "unifying pervading principle". The Buddha's "anatta" simply explains there is no real internal self; there is no owner of life (the five aggregates). The Buddha taught anatta for two reasons:

  1. Anatta is (ontologically) true

  2. Anatta (phenomenologically) ends suffering (because possessive atta creates suffering).

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  • Please elaborate, it's hard to understand the text 😬
    – Lance
    Commented May 2 at 6:31
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    +1 for pointing out that the concept of self is an evolved notion.
    – Desmon
    Commented May 2 at 7:12
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Who are you If I remove your 6 Sense consciousness. Who are you If I remove your memory. most of the definition of Hindu Atman revolves around 'Knowledge of self' which is eternal. and how does this knowledge came. obviously by many many birth and death. There is a knowledge of Self which takes birth and dies eventually.

And this knowledge is not different from your knowledge of what you had in your dinner. There is no point in calling it higher knowledge.

Many a place buddha mentioned ,that by directing mind to past life a noble one recollects his past life. and Even scientist cant proves that our day to day memory(even memory of what you had in dinner) is in brain.

There is something outside this body(4 element). which has this information. you call it akashic record or just element of Akash/eather. you call it 5 Aggregates. you call it soul.

but akashik record is passive in nature. and thats why even after becoming arhant noble one can read that information. So who moves from body to body.?

The defilement which are deeply rooted in your body. wants to survive . wants continuity. and that continuity is provided by consciousness of every moment.

sankhara paccaya vinnana.

Once all defilement are eradicated by practice of witness. there is nothing left. Just the body which is pure 4 elements. and upon death these 4 element just disintegrates like any non living object.

What lefts after death of arhant? where arhant/buddha goes after death? buddha gives simile of a lamp . where the fire of lamp goes after death? nowhere.

does a Realized One exist after death
SN44.6 simile of drop in ocean.
MN72 simile of Fire.

If you brings theory of GOD. then you have to passify identity of GOD. GOD is just these 5 element nothing more then that. Or to look more mystical. just the element of akash is GOD. which has knowledge.

at list GOD is not an identity.If you agree with this definition of GOD. you can say arhat is not different from GOD before and after death.

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The shared historical and cultural heritage of Buddhism and Hinduism meant that many concepts appeared similar. The problem with this is that Hindus tend to see Buddhism through Hindu lens and vice-versa. However, this actually obscured the fact that both religions had very different philosophical underpinnings that causes different spiritual trajectories (and conclusions) with regards to concepts like karma, rebirth, self, non-self and enlightenment. Perhaps, an analogy of self (atta/atman) might help illuminate the differences.

Supposed in a village, a pillar (self) is erected for and owned by every newborn child. It is believed that this pillar declares the existence of its owner and without the pillar, misfortune will befall upon the owner. When the children come of age, they are taught how to take care, protect and enhance their pillars. The villagers learned to decorate, engrave and paint various artworks to beautify and glorify their own pillars (to attract good fortune). Furthermore, the villagers are taught that their individual pillars are all connected to a universal pillar that support the entire universe (Hinduism?).

Along came a man who questioned this practice. Instead of decorating and beautifying his own pillar, the man decided to shatter and destroy his pillar with a heave. After his pillar was gone, the man realized there is nothing...no calamities or fortune, good or bad. He then proceeded to teach his kinsmen about this truth. Now, liberated from having to care for his pillar, the man is free to go wherever he desires. (Buddhism?).

We are constantly beautifying and glorifying our pillar (self) to make ourselves more unique, different and outstanding than others; to be the centre of attention. But Buddhism’s approach is to let go of this self-concept and stop building this identity view.

House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again.

For a Hindu, rebirth is a soul being reincarnated from one life to another. For a Buddhist, rebirth is the process our karma is brought over from one life to manifest in another. It is like a mango seed that had left behind the fruits (possessions), leaves (memories), branches (beliefs), trunk (knowledge) and roots (habits) but is subsequently planted in new soil. In time, the seed will germinate but because of its mutated DNA (karma), it may grow into an apple tree instead. Eventually this apple tree dies and produces a seed which is again planted and germinate. This time round it might grow into an orange tree instead.

The Buddha observed the death and rebirths of various beings and realized that he could not identify one element, habit, belief, value, quality or whatever that remains constant, never changing, always the same as each of these beings go through the cycles of samsara. For this reason, he declared that there is nothing permanent i.e. no soul or permanent self.

Further elaborating on how the notion of “self” evolved as mentioned in Dhamma Dhatu’s answer. In child psychology, researchers learned that children start to exhibit reflective self-awareness (self-recognition) at around 18 months old (see this video). This self-awareness is what lets us know I am me and you are you, we are not the same. As this self-awareness develops, the toddler learns about ownership and all its complexities.

In sum, ownership is a complex and multi-faceted concept that develops over early childhood, but begins to appear in primitive form by age two.

Thus, the self-concept evolved gradually. Without it, the concept of ownership makes no sense. But with it, more abstract concepts such as soul (to explain reincarnation) arise. This is how I know your soul is different from mine and mine from yours. However, once the concept of individual soul emerges, their drawbacks and weaknesses are also apparent. What is the point of having individual souls when they are powerless against changes such as old age, illnesses and death. I believe this further enticed the rise of a Universal Soul/Atman that is all-powerful and beyond the reach of birth, death and thus karma. Then again, I might be wrong and the Universal Atman does exist. However, if a Buddhist is willing to give up their self, I suppose they won’t be too flustered about letting go of the Universal Self either.

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