BuddhaSasana Home Page
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
Is there an Eternal Soul?
Belief in an eternal soul is a misconception of the human consciousness.
The Soul Theory
With regard to the soul theory, there are three kinds of teachers in the world:
- The first teacher teaches the existence of an eternal ego-entity that outlasts death: He is the eternalist.
- The second teacher teaches a temporary ego-entity which becomes annihilated at death: He is the materialist.
- The third teacher teaches neither an eternal nor a temporary ego-entity: He is the Buddha.
The Buddha teaches that what we call ego, self, soul, personality, etc., are merely conventional terms that do not refer to any real, independent entity. According to Buddhism there is no reason to believe that there is an eternal soul that comes from heaven or that is created by itself and that will transmigrate or proceed straight away either to heaven or hell after death. Buddhists cannot accept that there is anything either in this world or any other world that is eternal or unchangeable. We only cling to ourselves and hope to find something immortal. We are like children who wish to clasp a rainbow. To children, a rainbow is something vivid and real; but the grown-ups know that it is merely an illusion caused by certain rays of light and drops of water. The light is only a series of waves or undulations that have no more reality than the rainbow itself.
Man has done well without discovering the soul. He shows no signs of fatigue or degeneration for not having encountered any soul. No man has produced anything to promote mankind by postulating a soul and its imaginary working. Searching for a soul in man is like searching for something in a dark empty room. But the poor man will never realize that what he is searching for is not in the room. It is very difficult to make such a person understand the futility of his search.
Those who believe in the existence of a soul are not in a position to explain what and where it is. The Buddha's advice is not to waste our time over this unnecessary speculation and devote our time to strive for our salvation. When we have attained perfection then we will be able to realize whether there is a soul or not. A wandering ascetic named Vacchagotta asked the Buddha whether there was an Atman (self) or not. The story is as follows:
Vacchagotta comes to the Buddha and asks:
'Venerable Gotama, is there an Atman?
The Buddha is silent.
'Then Venerable Gotama, is there no Atman?
Again the Buddha is silent.
Vacchagotta gets up and goes away.After the ascetic has left, Ananda asks the Buddha why He did not answer Vacchagotta's question. The Buddha explains His position:
'Ananda, when asked by Vacchagotta, the Wanderer: 'Is there a Self?, if I had answered: 'There is a Self'. Then, Ananda, that would be siding with those recluses and brahmanas who hold the eternalist theory (sassata-vada).'
'And Ananda, when asked by the Wanderer: 'Is there no Self?, if I had answered: 'There is no Self', then that would be siding with those recluses and brahmanas who hold the annihilationist theory (uccedavada)'.
'Again, Ananda, when asked by Vacchagotta: 'Is there a Self? If I had answered: 'There is a Self', would that be in accordance with my knowledge that all dhammas are without Self?
'Surely not, Sir.'
'And again, Ananda, when asked by the Wanderer: 'Is there no Self?', if I had answered: 'There is no Self', then that would have created a greater confusion in the already confused Vacchagotta. For he would have thought: Formerly indeed I had an Atman (Self), but now I haven't got one.' (Samyutta Nikaya).
The Buddha regarded soul-speculation as useless and illusory. He once said, 'Only through ignorance and delusion do men indulge in the dream that their souls are separate and self-existing entities. Their heart still clings to Self. They are anxious about heaven and they seek the pleasure of Self in heaven. Thus they cannot see the bliss of righteousness and the immortality of truth.' Selfish ideas appear in man's mind due to his conception of Self and craving for existence.
Anatta: The Teaching of No-Soul
The Buddha countered all soul-theory and soul-speculation with His Anatta doctrine. Anatta is translated under various labels: No-soul, No-self, egolessness, and soullessness.
To understand the Anatta doctrine, one must understand that the eternal soul theory _ 'I have a soul' _ and the material theory _ 'I have no soul' _are both obstacles to self-realization or salvation. They arise from the misconception 'I AM'. Hence, to understand the Anatta doctrine, one must not cling to any opinion or views on soul-theory; rather, one must try to see things objectively as they are and without any mental projections. One must learn to see the so-called 'I' or Sour or Self for what it really is : merely a combination of changing forces. This requires some analytical explanation.
The Buddha taught that what we conceive as something eternal within us, is merely a combination of physical and mental aggregates or forces (pancakkhandha), made up of body or matter (rupakkhandha), sensation (vedanakkhandha), perception (sannakkhandha), mental formations (samkharakkhandha) and consciousness (vinnanakkhandha). These forces are working together in a flux of momentary change; they are never the same for two consecutive moments. They are the component forces of the psycho-physical life. When the Buddha analyzed the psycho-physical life, He found only these five aggregates or forces. He did not find any eternal soul. However, many people still have the misconception that the soul is the consciousness. The Buddha declared in unequivocal terms that consciousness depends on matter, sensation, perception and mental formations and that is cannot exist independently of them.
The Buddha said, 'The body, O monks, is not the Self. Sensation is not the Self. Perception is not the Self. The mental constructions are not the Self. And neither is consciousness the Self. Perceiving this, O monks, the disciple sets no value on the body, or on sensation, or on perception, or on mental constructions, or on consciousness. Setting no value of them, he becomes free of passions and he is liberated. The knowledge of liberation arises there within him. And then he knows that he has done what has to be done, that he has lived the holy life, that he is no longer becoming this or that, that his rebirth is destroyed.' (Anatta-Lakkhana Sutta).
The Anatta doctrine of the Buddha is over 2500 years old. Today the thought current of the modern scientific world is flowing towards the Buddha's Teaching of Anatta or No-Soul. In the eyes of the modern scientists, man is merely a bundle of ever-changing sensations. Modern physicists say that the apparently solid universe is not, in reality, composed of solid substance at all, but actually a flux of energy. The modern physicist sees the whole universe as a process of transformation of various forces of which man is a mere part. The Buddha was the first to realize this.
A prominent author, W.S. Wily, once said, 'The existence of the immortal in man is becoming increasingly discredited under the influence of the dominant schools of modern thought.' The belief in the immortality of the soul is a dogma that is contradicted by the most solid, empirical truth.
The mere belief in an immortal soul, or the conviction that something in us survives death, does not make us immortal unless we know what it is that survives and that we are capable of identifying ourselves with it. Most human beings choose death instead of immortality by identifying themselves with that which is perishable and impermanent by clinging stubbornly to the body or the momentary elements of the present personality, which they mistake for the soul or the essential form of life.
About those researches of modern scientists who are now more inclined to assert that the so-called 'Soul' is no more than a bundle of sensations, emotions, sentiments, all relating to the physical experiences, Prof. James says that the term 'Soul' is a mere figure of speech to which no reality corresponds.
It is the same Anatta doctrine of the Buddha that was introduced in the Mahayana school of Buddhism as Sunyata or voidness. Although this concept was elaborated by a great Mahayana scholar, Nagarjuna, by giving various interpretations, there is no extraordinary concept in Sunyata far different from the Buddha's original doctrine of Anatta.
The belief in soul or Self and the Creator God, is so strongly rooted in the minds of many people that they cannot imagine why the Buddha did not accept these two issues which are indispensable to many religions. In fact some people got a shock or became nervous and tried to show their emotion when they heard that the Buddha rejected these two concepts. That is the main reason why to many unbiased scholars and psychologists Buddhism stands unique when compared to all the other religions. At the same time, some other scholars who appreciate the various other aspects of Buddhism thought that Buddhism would be enriched by deliberately re-interpreting the Buddha word 'Atta' in order to introduce the concept of Soul and Self into Buddhism. The Buddha was aware of this unsatisfactoriness of man and the conceptual upheaval regarding this belief.
There is a parable in our Buddhist texts with regard to the belief in an eternal soul. A man, who mistook a moving rope for a snake, became terrified by that fear in his mind. Upon discovery that it was only a piece of rope, his fear subsided and his mind became peaceful. The belief in an eternal soul is equated to the rope of that man's imagination.
Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/
[Back to English Index]