Buddhism's an-athman is a necessary consequence of the acknowledgement of athman's deficit. For athman is not the soul as acting subject, the soul that constitutes the person and the conscience. Athman is not therefore the person through whom God acts, nor is it the conscience as the reality that acknowledges good and evil. Neither of these is represented by athman, since athman is not an acting subject but is over and above all difference.
An-athman simply means that there is nobody at home. As in Homer's Odyssey, it is a question of "Nobody"! Of course this is a language question, as is all religion down to its details. But here the language is plain and clear. In an-athman the end is a cul-de-sac, that is, emptiness, nothingness, sunyatha, since athman by definition does not function and is not active.
Thus we can see that just as athman contains brahman, so must an-athman contain no-brahman. If there is no soul, there can be no divine reality. And if there is no innermost subject, then there is no outermost, ultimate subject. Conversely it is also true that if there is sunyatha instead of God, then of necessity there is an-athman. For nothing rhymes with nothing.
Similarly God rhymes with soul. It is possible to reach unity between the soul and God. God and the soul belong together, and if they are apart, it is a sin for the soul. This is the point: only what is sin for the soul separates it from God. It is not God who separates himself from the soul, and even sin cannot separate God from the soul, only the soul from God. God alone can overcome this schism by forgiving the sin. This can only happen through a reconciliation, which comes solely through an atonement. But that has happened.
So the soul and God are in fact united. It is only a fiction and an illusion that separates the soul from God - that the sin is not forgiven, redeemed, atoned. Faith is acknowledgement and confession to this ultimate truth.
How can we now speak of the transmigration of the soul when there is no soul? In Buddhism, that is, not in Hinduism. The answer is plain and simple: the only thing that binds life and existence to previous and future lives and existences is karma, alias samskaras. It is causality at work. There is no identity between the twice nothing.
But this is not the real truth. For Truth is therapeutic if it is Buddhist. It is perfectly logical: To recognise that neither athman nor brahman exist means that souls cannot transmigrate. To recognise that the Hindu brahman-athman identification is a fiction means that the goal is achieved. The Nirvana involved is precisely the stopping of the fiction by perceiving that it is an illusion.
It is not so much suffering that is an illusion as it is the lack of awareness of the cessation of suffering, which is a fiction that is already realised by perceiving its illusionary character. It does not need to be brought to cessation, for it has ceased when one realizes that it was and is fictive.
Again we ask: How can we speak of the transmigration of the soul when there is no soul? Buddhists do not use the word "transmigration" when they are in the state of enlightenment where they realise that transmigration of the soul is the uttermost suffering and thus the uttermost illusion. Endless suffering in the circle of existence is just as fictive, indeed more so, than the many earthly sufferings that every Buddhist knows to be an illusion. But only those who realise that the uttermost illusion is the uttermost suffering and vice versa have already passed over from something to nothing and are free, that is freed not by a saviour and a liberator but by an awareness of the illusion that one is not free, that is, samsara.
Buddhism is thus salvation from the transmigration found in Hinduism. Also today true Buddhism is salvation from the illusion of transmigration. In this regard Buddhism and Christianity actually stand together against Hinduism. Both agree that the transmigration of souls is a nightmare, a fiction, an illusion that one must see through and be released from.
The tantric insight (in Hinduism and Buddhism) is both simple and unnerving: Samsara is Nirvana, and Nirvana is Samsara until you wake up to the realisation that Nirvana is of course just as much an illusion as samsara. Liberation from Samsara is therefore also liberation from Nirvana and vice versa. This is clear and consistent.
Nirvana means precisely that one awakes from the nightmare in which one is tortured by Samsara and longs with suffering and pain for Nirvana. One awakes, one is awakened. But one is not enlightened! That is a misunderstanding. Nirvana does not mean enlightenment: it means (verbatim) to blow out the light, to "extinguish" it so that all emptiness and nothingness are acknowledged.
If it is only Samsara that is illusion, one is only half liberated, only half out of the dark. But when everything - including salvation - is seen as an illusion, then darkness is finally overcome and liberation realised.
It is clear that this cannot happen in popular Buddhism and Hinduism. It is part of the nature of Hinduism and Buddhism that popular Buddhism is a continuation of Hinduism, though with significant differences. But in Tantrism both are fulfilled and overcome analogously.
Nirvana in popular Buddhism and Samadhi in popular Hinduism are transformed into paradises - in the plural, for there are a number of them. They represent the expectation of salvation for the ordinary Buddhist and Hindu, salvation from the many hells.
Paradise is the goal of the longing for salvation among the Buddhist laity. It is reached with the aid of merit, achievement and good deeds. The same is more or less true of the expectation of paradise in Hinduism.
Nirvana from a Buddhist point of view means the ultimate death, corresponding closely to Nirvikalpa Samadhi in Hinduism, which means death "without any form", the full extinction. Nirvana means the full "awakening", but is often translated strangely enough as the full "enlightenment", a peculiar word when one realises that "Nirvana" means to "extinguish the light", extinction. The translation "enlightenment" is best avoided for it is misleading.
The explanation for the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism is to be found in particular in the two truths. In both religions there is a difference between the meritorious, mythological beliefs of the laity and the gnostic, yogic beliefs of the monks and yogis.
In both religions there are two quite different attitudes towards those with knowledge and those without it.
Ultimately there is one single truth, relatively there is quite another truth, and this is balanced from situation to situation. It often serves as a means to explain away something. One shifts the weight on one's legs, so to speak, according to circumstances.
One speaks of God, for instance. The Dalai Lama often does this, even though God is naturally understood as being relative. For ultimately there is no God, only gods, who are merely superhumans. This is true of both Hinduism and Buddhism.
Buddhism even speaks of the soul, but again this is only understood relatively. It speaks of the transmigration of souls, knowing full well that ultimately there are no souls that transmigrate.
In both religions it is the link between the ultimate and the relative that makes understanding difficult, more so in Buddhism where the concept of Nirvana is in the foreground, whereas for the most part Nirvikalpa Samadhi concerns only a small circle of Hindu yogis.
A comprehensive occultisation has long taken place in Hinduism, which has meant that the ultimate world of the gurus has been invaded and largely conquered by popular Hinduism's relative world with the emphasis on power and success. There are still gurus who are not wrapped up in sex and money, but they are few and far between. In numerous Hindu ashrams there is a growth in occultism that clearly does the trick and more than manages to pay its way. Such gurus are frowned upon by critical Hindus.
The same is now happening in Buddhism. There are still Buddhist masters who have not sold their souls - the souls that ultimately they do not possess - but there are a great number of them who are no better than the worst gurus as regards sex and money, fraud, repression and exploitation.
This occultisation is in principle of the same kind as the occultisation of Hinduism and is the result of a direct influence. It led the patriarch of Thailand to refuse visas to Indian participants in a recent Hindu conference. This of course happened through his influence rather than his intervention, but it must be seen as an attempt to avoid the identification of Buddhism with Hinduism, despite an awareness of the link between them.
In Buddhism there is a possibility of control from above that is barely available in India in relation to the dominant popular religion. In Thai Buddhism, for instance, there is a joint leadership that can function as a corrective and can exercise discipline in relation, say, to certain Buddhist monks known for their activities with the opposite sex.
On the other hand the patriarch will not even speak to the reformers who directly oppose popular Buddhism's occult businesses peddling amulets and other forms of magic. This is protected by official state Buddhism, since it constitutes the popular and financial basis for real Buddhism.
The situation is quite different in Taiwan. Here there is no patriarch, and as far as is known, no common structure for Buddhists. Here therefore occultisation is well-advanced and out of control.
Many Taiwanese masters - women and especially men - are outside the Buddhist tradition and simply follow the laws of power, sexuality and money. This may lead to the total destruction of Buddhism in Taiwan, but for the time being the population are not apparently troubled to any great degree.
The situation in Japan is harder to depict. We know that Aum Shinri Kyo prospered and still functions as a totally occultised religion that is Buddhist in name only but otherwise builds on a cocktail of all manner of religious flotsam. By all accounts it is rarely criticised publicly by the other Buddhist communities. Its master Ashahara also received royal treatment at the hands of no less than the Dalai Lama, until the whole world was made to realize that he was rotten to the core.
Buddhists in Japan have no system to protect them from corruption. Their religion exists in almost total isolation between its various constituent parts.However, there are signs of change. In the latest number of their periodical Kadjyapa Danish Buddhists take issue with the secrecy surrounding the numerous examples of sex abuse by Buddhist masters; this is only a modest beginning in relation to what is happening in reality.