The `renowned' Theravada materialist Nyanatiloka has said: "Thus with this doctrine of Selflessness, or anatta, stands or falls the ENTIRE structure of Buddhism".
Rightly so, all of Theravada fears and protects the meaning and `interpretation' of anatta like a pack of rabid dogs protect their fresh kill. They fear and protect the meaning of anatta more so than Christians protect their position that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus `arose from the dead'. More than Nyanatiloka have stated the obvious, ALL of Theravada would fall, upon the exposure of the genuine meaning become accepted and widely known as regards anatta, not however would "fall Buddhism", but Theravada and others misconceptions of same, nothing more. Theravada, a great portion of Vajrayana, and much of Zen fear the soul like a pious monk fears the devil to sneak up upon him, in any event they have heaped upon the definition more sophistry and ages of sectarian fecal matter to make Buddhism appear to be nothing more than the most base form of materialism, that only a very rare few independent scholars who delve deep into the presectarian Nikayan Pali texts can see that Buddhism has not, nor ever denied the atman, and that anatta no more denies the atman, nor is a `doctrine' (i.e. doctrine of anatta, as so often coined by the Theras), that the Upanishads themselves in so saying the "atman is not this, nor that (neti net)".
The more superficially one studies Buddhism, the more it seems to differ from the Brahmanism in which it originated; the more profound our study, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish Buddhism from Brahmanism, or to say in what respects, if any, Buddhism is really unorthodox. The outstanding distinction lies in the fact that Buddhist doctrine is propounded by an apparently historical founder, understood to have lived and taught in the sixth century B.C. Beyond this there are only broad distinctions of emphasis. It is taken almost for granted that one must have abandoned the world if the Way is to be followed and the doctrine understood.
We can only suppose that Buddhism has been so much admired mainly for what it is not. A well known modern writer on the subject has remarked that "Buddhism in its purity ignored the existence of a God; it denied the existence of a soul; it was not so much a religion as a code of ethics"( Winifred Stephens, Legends of Indian Buddhism, 1911, p. 7.). Similarly M.V Bhattacharya maintains that the Buddha taught that "there is no Self, or Atman" (Cultural Heritage of India, p. 259). Even in 1925 a Buddhist scholar could write "The soul . . . is described in the Upanishads as a small creature in shape like a man . . . Buddhism repudiated all such theories" (PTS Dictionary, s.v. attan). It would be as reasonable to say that Christianity is materialistic because it speaks of an "inner man". Few scholars would write in this manner today, but ridiculous as such statements may appear, (and it is as much an ignorance of Christian doctrine as it is of Brahmanism that is involved), they still survive in all popular accounts of "Buddhism"; such as (. Th. Scherbatsky Buddhist Logic 1. 1932, p. 2) saying Buddhism "denied a God, it denied the Soul, it denied Eternity"! Scherbatsky's The Doctrine of the Buddha (BSOS, V1. 867L) provides a good critique of Keith's demand to "lay aside our natural desire to find reason prevailing in a barbarous age", in his `Buddhist philosophy, p. 29'.
It is of course, true that the Buddha denied the existence of a "soul" or "self "in the narrow sense of the word (one might say, in accordance with the command, deneget seipsum (deny himself ), (Mark, VIII.341) but this is not what our writers mean to say, or are understood by their readers to say; what three mean to say is that the Buddha denied the immortal, unborn and Supreme Self of the Upanishads. And that is palpably false. For he frequently speaks of this Self or Spirit, and nowhere more clearly than in the repeated formula `na me so atta', "That is not my Self ", excluding body and the components of empirical consciousness, a statement to which the words of Sankaracharya are peculiarly apposite, "Whenever we deny something unreal, it is with reference to something real" (neti-neti Brahma Sutra III.2.22); as remarked by Mrs. Rhys Davids, "so, 'this one', is used in the Suttas for utmost emphasis in questions of personal identity" (Minor Anthologies, I, p. 7, note 2). `Na me so atta' is no more a denial of the Self than Socrates' "the body is not the man" , is a denial of the Man"!
One of the `great' books thumped by the ignorant manyfolk calling themselves Buddhists today and of which deny the atman, is "Selfless Persons" by Steven Collins, in which he himself in his book never makes the conclusion for the denial of the Atman in Buddhist doctrine, in so saying himself, albeit unintelligently, "Buddhist metaphysics could be reduced to a kind of pragmatic agnosticism in which the self is not so much denied as declared inconceivable. Anatta then simply advises against uselessly trying to conceive it (the Self)." [Page 10, Selfless Persons, Steven Collins]. More laughable than can be imagined, the entire book, large though it is, only contains three pages under the heading of "proof for anatta" (i.e. Souls denial), and yet these same three pages contain absolutely no doctrinal evidences whatsoever.
The Theras and others fear the inevitable slippery slope Buddhism (theirs) will fall into upon acceptance of the genuine meaning of anatta, whereupon "if anatta doesn't deny the atman, than how is Buddhism any different than Vedanta, by and large?" The answer is of course none whatsoever. They protect anatta like their very own baby in the cradle, they will surrender its meaning and definition with their life, like no other word in pali they propagate a lie which is now running on 1700 years old. The only reason they have been unable to crush opposition, is that the Nikayas were recorded and propagated long long before Sarvastivada (Theravada) came into existence to exterminate it.
So what's the difference between Buddhism and Vedanta if Buddhism doesn't deny Atman? Does Buddhism deny Atman?