On Western Buddhists(?) Who Insist That They Have an Immortal Soul
Sabbe sankhārā aniccā. (All conditioned things are inconstant.)
Sabbe sankhārā dukkhā. (All conditioned things are unease, or conducive to unease.)
Sabbe dhammā anattā. (All states, conditioned or otherwise, are without self or soul.)
I’ve mentioned before that the doctrine of No Self is one of the most amazingly contentious teachings of Buddhism in the west. In the east, as a general rule, it’s accepted without much fuss—partly I suppose because Asian Buddhists are more dogmatic and less inclined to reject fundamental aspects of a religious system into which they were born. But in the west there are people who profess Buddhism who vehemently reject this one central tenet of Buddhism. In fact I had one commentator on this blog who was so worked up over the subject that he literally accused me of being a servant of Māra—essentially a devil worshipper—for endorsing, with some qualifications, the doctrine of anatta. Recently Ken Wheeler, who insists that he’s the world’s leading authority on the “original” Buddhism, when told in a comment on one of his livestreams that I had interviewed a Neoplatonist, began mocking and laughing about “soul-denying nihilists,” and insisting that when it comes to understanding the soul in Buddhism he is “God.” The thing is, though, that these people really do not understand the Buddhist doctrine of No Self as it was originally promoted. I’ve tried to explain it on numerous occasions, and even people who read the explanations STILL can’t stand it and insist that the historical Gotama Buddha taught the existence of an immortal soul. Well, he didn’t.
Probably the most common argument in favor of the Buddha teaching an immortal soul is essentially that the Buddha taught that none of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volitional action, individual consciousness) are self…leaving the door open somehow to something else being our self, or rather our immortal soul. Never mind that there are passages in the suttas explicitly asserting that the entire cosmos is composed of these five aggregates, because the soul presumably is not of this cosmos. Never mind that some suttas, including the first sutta in the entire Pali Tipitaka, the Brahmajala Sutta, rejects all possibilities with regard to the soul. (For example, rejected are notions that the soul is material, immaterial, both, neither, finite, infinite, both, neither, changeless, not changeless, both, neither, happy, unhappy, both, and neither.) With regard to the Brahmajala, that fellow who was getting hysterical on me and accused me of being a Mara-ist simply asserted that the first sutta in the Pali Tipitaka was a forgery.
In ancient times, even before the advent of Mahayana, Buddhism split into a largish number of sects in India, all of which rejected the intrinsically real existence of a self. There was a sect called Pudgalavada, or the Doctrine of the Individual, which asserted the existence of a pudgala or individual being…but even they did not dare to go so far as to assert the existence of an attā or atman, because even two hundred years after the time of the Buddha it was well established that in Buddhism there is no soul.
Now, I freely admit that early Buddhism underwent a fairly explosive century or two or three of rapid mutation, much as early Christianity did. But even so, the doctrine of No Self appears to go all the way back to the Buddha himself, and simply rejecting whatever parts of the Buddhist texts that one doesn’t like, for no better reason than the fact that one doesn’t like them, is not exactly a valid and reliable technique for arriving at truth. According to tradition, a very old tradition, the Buddha’s second formal discourse after his enlightenment, the Anattalakkhana Sutta, which caused his first five disciples to become fully enlightened, was on the subject of No Self. But, he simply asserted that none of the five aggregates is the self…which according to the Soul Affirmers indicates that he tacitly left the door wide open to something transcendental which IS the soul, yet which he didn’t mention. He never affirms the existence of a soul by the way, but the fact that a loophole can be teased out of the words in the texts seems to count as an affirmation.
Ken Wheeler, while laughing at and mocking the “soul-denying nihilists” of modern Buddhism, claimed to be quoting Pali texts affirming the existence of a soul, but although he insinuates, or even flat-out claims, that he is the only accurate translator of Pali into English in the world, ever, he seems to botch his translations, or at best gives a pro-soul spin to passages that can easily be rendered differently, as orthodox tradition renders them differently. For example he quotes a passage as “The soul is your savior,” when it could more validly be interpreted along the lines of “You must save yourself”—the point being that you must save yourself because nobody else is going to do it, with “self” being an example of vohāra-desanā, or worldly speech used as a makeshift just to get a point across in the worldly language of the Matrix, of Samsara.
But let’s consider the accusation that Buddhists are soul-denying nihilists. Well, throughout the suttas, in many places, two extreme views are rejected, with Buddhism adopting a middle way between these extremes. One extreme is nihilism (there’s no soul that survives death and when you’re dead you’re dead), and the other extreme is eternalism (there is an eternal soul that survives death). So even orthodox Theravada rejects out of hand nihilism as well as eternalism. The answer to the riddle is Dependent Co-arising which, however, almost nobody understands. But I will try to explain how nihilism is rejected along with non-nihilism before I’m done.
Although there is a wide variety of arguments against an eternal soul in the texts, with loopholes detectable only by those hell-bent on detecting them, the clincher for me is the standard formula of the three marks of existence, with which this essay begins. The formula is also found in many places throughout the Pali texts, and it makes the situation obviously dire for the eternalists who somehow prefer Buddhism to something more up their alley like, say, Vedanta. The formula uses the term sankhārā for the first two statements about inconstancy/impermanence and unease, indicating that anything samsaric is inconstant and unsatisfying, but allowing that Nibbana/Nirvana is NOT inconstant and conducive to unease. But the third statement, sabbe dhammā anattā, closes all doors even to what is transcendental, since dhammā includes even what is unconditioned. Even Nirvana is not a self or soul, and is without a self or soul.
So we have a few western Buddhists, and a few more western “experts” on Buddhism, vehemently denying that the Buddha taught No Self…mainly, I presume, because people have an intense desire to remain in existence, and also an ego that they cherish, and so the doctrine of No Self coming from a sage like Gotama Buddha is like a flat denial of all that they hold dear. But again, remember that, according to ancient texts, annihilationism or nihilism is also rejected as a view just as extreme as the belief that we possess an eternal soul, or that the soul possesses us.
In the Atthakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta, a document that I consider to be probably the most ancient large fragment of “archaic,” pre-Theravada Buddhism in existence, and thereby possibly the most important Buddhist text in existence, there is a statement that for a monk there should be no atta and no niratta. Literally this means a monk should have nothing gained and nothing lost, nothing acquired and nothing rejected, atta here being a past participle of ādadāti, to take, and niratta being a past participle of the verb nirassati, meaning to discard. But the Atthakavagga abounds with puns and other plays on words, adding depth and dimension to the text by saying more than one thing at a time, and atta/niratta can also mean self and no self. So it could be argued that one of the most ancient Buddhist texts in existence, a text older than Theravadin orthodoxy, says that for a sage there is no belief in self OR in not-self.
And this really is what the situation boils down to, not only with soul but with regard to many other issues in early Buddhism. Is the world eternal? Is it not eternal? Is it finite? Is it infinite? Does an enlightened being continue to exist after death? Questions such as these were dismissed by the Buddha, not really because they are irrelevant to enlightenment, much less because the Buddha didn’t know, but because the answer is indeterminate—that is, the answers to such questions, and the nature of reality itself, cannot be expressed in words, and clinging to a yes or a no, clinging to any attempt at a verbal description of ultimate reality, is invalid and futile. The truth of the matter is simply Off the Scale. The Buddha was not a skeptic, nor was he simply admitting to ignorance on such subjects, but rather he was, in my opinion, an apophatic mystic: a person who realizes that highest truth cannot be put into words, and so he discourages verbal answers to metaphysical questions. Mr. Wheeler’s YouTube channel is called Theoria Apophasis, yet he evidently does not appreciate apophasis applied to the matter of our own underlying ultimate reality. Or maybe I’m just misunderstanding his continual mockery of the Buddhist doctrine of No Self, including No Soul. If he rejects the affirmation of a soul also, then I suppose he’s doing all right from an early Buddhist perspective…but he seems to imply, repeatedly and smugly, that the Buddha DID teach the existence of an eternal soul.
The thing is, that human languages are dualistic in nature. The human mind works in dichotomies of is and isn’t, same as and different from, yes and no. This appears to be basic human nature—very basic. So for the sake of vohāra-desanā, for the sake of communicating in words that are by their very nature incapable of conveying truth and inadequate, we have to choose one invalid extreme or another, at least for the sake of convenience. Most spiritual systems go with the extreme of is/yes and generally postulate an eternal God as well as a soul; but Buddhism, partly for cultural reasons and partly due to the Buddha’s own reasons, goes with the extreme of isn’t/no and denies a Creator God as well as an eternal soul. Considering that yes and no are both invalid, as well as both and neither, it does make sense to go with no, negation, apophasis, rather than with a facile affirmation that is sure to be misunderstood by even more people than those who misunderstand negation.
Anyway, I’ve explained this sticky issue several times before, and will probably continue to explain it, because the human mind simply cannot wrap itself around what is logically indeterminate. People insist on understanding things intellectually, and the intellect cannot grasp the highest reality, not even the highest reality of a grain of sand. We wind up with the Cloud of Unknowing, the Luminous Darkness, what Buddhists call Void or Emptiness, which is not so much a negation or nihilism as an acceptance of the plain fact that our thinking mind just cannot know the highest truth.
In conclusion I would like to put it out there that I’ve been wanting to debate someone on this very issue, on video. So if any of you are Buddhists or authorities on Buddhism who really believe that the Buddha taught that we have an eternal soul, feel free to contact me and we can make the video happen. And I hope we can remain friendly till the end.