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Brahma-Bhutam is Not Become-Brahman – The Buddha’s Rejection of the Impersonal Absolute

taṃ bhāvitattaññataraṃ, brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ.

paṭhamarāgasuttaṃ (KN 4.68)

In recent years, the above quote from the Itivuttaka has been misappropriated by revisionists in order to misidentify the Tathāgata (the Buddha) with Brahman (the Impersonal Absolute) – namely by mistranslating “brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ” as “Become-Brahman is the meaning of Tathāgata.”

This bogus translation originates from various Hindu websites with obvious biases in favor of Hindu ideas. Not only does this mistranslation clearly misrepresent the Buddha, it also leads to immense confusion for the people who cling to it out of craving for identification and attachment to the notion of Brahman as Impersonal Godhead. Such confusion arising out of false views (micchā diṭṭhi) amounts to delusion (avijjā), which the Buddha shattered by transcending all identification.

“And so, Anuradha — when you can’t pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, ‘Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death’?”

“No, lord.”

“Very good, Anuradha. Very good. Both formerly & now, it is only stress that I describe, and the cessation of stress.”

Anuradha Sutta (SN 44.2)

Thus, the mistranslation of “brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ” as “Become-Brahman is the meaning of Tathāgata” is problematic from the outset.

Firstly, the grammatical structure of “brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ” contains no such phrase as “is the meaning of.” The two terms present are brahmabhūtaṃ and tathāgataṃ. No where is the linking formula “is the meaning of” found.

The only other instances (four times total in the upwards of 10,000 discourses in the Pāḷi Canon) the term “brahmabhūtaṃ” occurs in the suttas is in reference to overcoming Māra, the personification of evil qualities.

brahmabhūtaṃ atitulaṃ, mārasenappamaddanaṃ.

Become Maha Brahma have destroyed the army of Death.

selasuttaṃ (KN 5.33)
selattheragāthā (KN 8.253)
selasuttaṃ (MN 92.1)

Here, “brahmabhūtaṃ” clearly does not refer to merging with the Impersonal Godhead. It means overcoming Māra, reaching the Deathless that is Nibbāna, becoming sublime.

The actual sutta reads:

This was said by the Blessed One, said by the Arahant, so I have heard: “Anyone whose passion is unabandoned, whose aversion is unabandoned, whose delusion is unabandoned is said to have gone over to Mara’s camp, has come under Mara’s power. The Evil One can do with that person as he likes. But anyone whose passion is abandoned, whose aversion is abandoned, whose delusion is abandoned is said not to have gone over to Mara’s camp, has thrown off Mara’s power. With that person, the Evil One cannot do as he likes.”

One whose passion, aversion, & ignorance
are washed away,
is said to be
composed in mind,
Brahma-become,
awakened, Tathagata,
one for whom fear & hostility
are past,
one who’s abandoned
the All.

Pathamaraga Sutta (KN 4.68, Iti 56) – 68. {Iti 3.19; Iti 56}

The original Pāḷi is preserved thus:

vuttañhetaṃ bhagavatā, vuttamarahatāti me sutaṃ —

“yassa kassaci, bhikkhave, rāgo appahīno, doso appahīno, moho appahīno — ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ‘baddho mārassa paṭimukkassa mārapāso yathākāmakaraṇīyo pāpimato’. yassa kassaci, bhikkhave, rāgo pahīno, doso pahīno, moho pahīno — ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ‘abaddho mārassa omukkassa mārapāso na yathā kāmakaraṇīyo pāpimato’”ti. etamatthaṃ bhagavā avoca. tatthetaṃ iti vuccati —

“yassa rāgo ca doso ca, avijjā ca virājitā.

taṃ bhāvitattaññataraṃ, brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ.

buddhaṃ verabhayātītaṃ, āhu sabbappahāyinan”ti.

ayampi attho vutto bhagavatā, iti me sutanti. navamaṃ.

paṭhamarāgasuttaṃ (KN 4.68)

Let’s take another look at the phrase in question:

taṃ bhāvitattaññataraṃ, brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ.

paṭhamarāgasuttaṃ (KN 4.68)

Here, the term “brahma” does not refer to the Impersonal Godhead (Brahman) as some would like to imagine. Rather, given a careful examination of the context of the sutta and the broader context of the Buddha’s teachings, “brahma” in this sutta means sublime, just as in “brahmavihāra,” where “brahma” means sublime and “vihāra” means abode. The sublime abodes are also known as the four immeasurables (appamaññā). They are sublime, immeasurable qualities of the mind and heart to be cultivated, not metaphysical states or attributes of God.

Still, “brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ” is somehow mistakenly equated with “aham brahmāsmi.

In reality, “brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ” means “become-sublime, the Tathāgata (Buddha).”

The Buddha never declared “aham brahmāsmi” as was declared in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, a non-Buddhist Indian text.

In fact, in response to every single claim of “esohamasmi” – “this I am” – the Buddha consistently and firmly replied:

netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na me so attā

“This is not me, this is not I, this is not my self.”

A grammatical breakdown of the Buddha’s response of “nesohamasmi” to the false assertion of an ātman (eternal selfhood) or Brahman (Impersonal Godhead) can be seen below.

nesohamasmi

n-eso-ham-asmi

na eso aham asmi

na | eso | aham | asmi

not | this | I | am

I am not this

This is not I

Contrast this with the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, the non-Buddhist Indian text referenced above, which states:

aham brahmāsmi

aham | brahmā | asmi

I | brahman | am

I am Brahman

These two phrases are in complete opposition to one another. No where does the Buddha declare himself to be Brahman. To believe so is absurd.

Instead, the phrase “brahmabhūtaṃ tathāgataṃ” means “become-sublime, the Tathāgata (Buddha),” which respects that the Buddha is non-identifiable with any identity whatsoever, be it ātman (eternal selfhood), Brahman (Impersonal Godhead), or otherwise. The Tathāgata is untraceable, incapable of being pinned down or identified with anything, beyond all classification.

Ultimately, the Tathāgata is liberated from “the All,” all identities, all clinging, all suffering.

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