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Buddhists Have No Souls

Gone, gone, gone beyond. So what went?

by
Charlie Martin

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July 28, 2013 - 5:00 pm
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Yes, I’m serious. Buddhists have no souls. Or permanent ones at least. That’s really what Buddha taught.

Okay, end of column.

Ven_lama_Tharchin_rinpoche

Well, no.

Let’s talk about souls first. What is this “soul” thing we’re talking about? The ever-convenient Mac built-in dictionary says the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.”

The common conception of the soul in the West is the immortal part of us, the thing that goes to Heaven — or doesn’t — when we die. There’s a whole lot of Western Christian philosophy about the soul that I’m not going to try to go into in depth, but certainly that’s the basic idea: an eternal, undying part that just “wears” the body, like clothes that it takes off and leaves behind. There’s a living, breathing entity there that’s “alive,” and then the breath stops and something is gone.

In fact, the Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese words that correspond to “soul” all have roots in “breath.” (I just looked up the etymology of “soul,” which is of Germanic origin, and it turns out to be pretty much perfectly obscure; it appears that early missionaries into Northern Europe picked it up to translate the Greek word psyche.)

In any case, the Sanskrit word is atman, and one of the Buddha’s basic teachings was the doctrine of an-atman (an- being a negative), or in other words, the doctrine of the non-existence of a permanent soul.

This was a radical revision of the Hindu idea that appears in, for example, the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (That’s from Prabhupada’s translation, the one the Hare Krishnas used to sell in airports. Another thing we lost after 9/11.)

Basically, what Buddha was pointing out was that anything that was “us,” was our “identity”, was inherently changing from day to day, instant to instant, and so necessarily couldn’t be “eternal.” So there is no permanent Self, no soul, no spirit that exists forever.

This is probably the thing that is least understood in Buddhism, and this time I don’t mean in the West; I mean everyone. That illusion of Self is persistent and very very stubborn, because it’s a necessary illusion in day-to-day life — if there’s no Self and no others, then who’s going to write the columns? Who’s going to cash the checks?

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Top Rated Comments   
Lack of a permanent self is a prominent conclusion of David Hume's extremely skeptical philosophy as well. It's one of the bleaker aspects of Buddhism and other Eastern religions, not to mention materialist and atheistic dogmas here in the West.

Of course, adherents to these philosophies and religions tend to prefer not to follow them to their logical conclusions, such as: lack of self and soul means having no real rights whatsoever. The truths our founding fathers stated to be "self-evident" about being endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are actually lies based on the delusions of temporary electrochemical breakaways from nature's collective whole. That's why the East and, for that matter, our own Pagan ancestors never produced anything like our Constitution and Bill of Rights. In ancient times, every last idea promoted in those documents would have been laughed out of the forums and possibly punished with death.

Indirectly, it's also the reason why science and the scientific method initially never quite caught on anywhere but Christendom; Aristotle had pioneered an early form of it and Islamic cultures had embraced his writings as the words of the Philosopher with a capital P, but David Hume's philosophy is highly skeptical of cause and effect, as is the cyclical thinking of Buddhism and all those ancient Pagan ancestors. Islam, for its part, made a false start on science, ultimately concluding that nature's causes and effects were the inscrutable mysteries of Allah.

Atheists like to think of our savage ancestors as merely unenlightened and of modern (and post-modern) skepticism as some kind of evolutionary culmination of human philosophy, but the fact is that such skepticism is actually a regression to our ancestors' cyclical way of thinking, in which all achievements (culminations) are merely temporary and therefore all striving for achievement is in vain. That's why skepticism and Buddhism get along so very well: the former takes its adherents right back to where the philosophies of the latter have always been.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (56)
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I gotta say: Buddhism's eightfold path includes some very valuable, very wise basic human psychology.

Where the metaphysics are concerned, however, my ongoing impression is that Siddhārtha Gautama was pretty much just bouncing a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish.

Hence the past-life stories coupled with the vagueness of whether there could be such a thing as past lives.

But then I'd argue that apart from divine revelation from an active and intentional (that is, a capable-of-having-intentions-and-acting-on-them) divinity, one has no option of speaking informedly about such matters. Natural observation can provide some conclusions about God, but not immunity to error when drawing the conclusions; and thus not certainty; moreover, some aspects of God could not possibly become known except through revelation. Siddhārtha Gautama either lacked that revelation, or what revelation he had did not include information about such matters. So when asked, he got a Tribble and some chewing gum, sealed the warp-core breach, and moved on.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Truly now, The 4 beasts before the Throne of God singing 24 hours a day Holy Holy Holy is The Lord will not mind a little girl like the Deval Primal from entering and sing her pretty songs and try not to frighten little girl with your beast faces that wolf man frighten anyone so it seems
As it say in Isaiah 11 the child will lead all the beast in peace for God so loved the world and GOD ID LOVE o step aside beasts and let little girl sing her pretty songs and who know like David comfort Saul with his songs she bring peace and comfort to your hearts too and look forward to coming back whenever after you do your missions for God
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d63COahIpVM
What a great gift from heaven she is
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Dude, what *are* you on? Did you bring enough toshare?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm wondering the same thing. I think waxwing's sharing whatever Jon Anderson of Yes was having when he did the "enhanced CD" computer content for the Talk album; I don't suppose many folks have ever heard it, but it's...extreme. The parts of your computer come from the earth mother and therefore "the computer is -- yes, you've got it -- God."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If I have lived before, I don't remember it. And don't think I want to. In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner complained, people who believe in reincarnation are always someone famous; no one ever says they were Joe Schmoe. But of course lots of people say they were Joe Schmoe in a past life. Or Jane Schmoe. So it occurred to me; no one ever says they were Benedict Arnold in a past life. Or Jack the Ripper. And I bet no one will ever say they were once Bill Buckner either.

But one day someone might say they were Adolf Hitler in a past life. Look at how Oliver Stone, for instance, has been making excuses for Hitler as a misunderstood, great socialist. Because as far as I know, all Zens are socialists (i have no idea if Stone is a Zen). Or most are. And Zen is the most popular religion amoung the left. Besides Islam.

But something else strikes me. In the book What God Wants, author Neal Donald Walsch (who also wrote the Conversations With God books. and may, or may not be a Zen) reveals, God wants nothing from us. Absolutely nothing. Everything is cool with God. So, there is no reason why we can not be promiscuous hedonists. Join the orgy. And share the wealth. And get the Jews out of Israel because they stole the land from the Palestinians. Imagine! God wants nothing. Nothing to live or die for. No more religion, or war. No more wealth, or Israel.

So Zen is what I call "oneness theory." Because Zen says, ultimately, we are all one. Whose political expression is usually socialism. So there is no reason, again, not to join the orgy and have some fun. And spread the wealth (even though money is evil). And get the Jews out of Israel. Because children, there are no ultimate consequences. God is cool. Because God Wants Nothing.

What's more, lately Zen has been inbreeding. Though it is possible this one is not new. But, not only have we been both sexes in past lives (not that there's anything wrong with that. and there's not, i think), we could have been the wife of our current father too! Yes, in past lives you may have banged your father, or sister, or cousin, or mother. Now there's a sexy idea, isn't there? (no offense to my family. especially my dad. or yours)

And that's why I think of Zen as oneness theory. And as inbreeding. Like socialism itself (which never temped me). Not to mention Hinduism, and Islam. So while I once was more intrigued by the idea of reincarnation (at least in this life), I don't like what the rest of it seems to imply. Or says directly.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And I realize, I didn't get into the question of soul, or identity. But if there is none, it seems to me, one should not use the word "I". I happen to know, for instance, there are primitive tribes who have no word for "I". They only say "we", for "I". Or "they", and so forth. That is where Ayn Rand got the idea for Anthem. It's about a socialist America where there is no word "I". Even using the word once is punishable by death. So, if we want to be fully Zen, there is no such thing as "we" either, is there? If I do not exist, we do not exist either.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
One more. I can't source this right now. And I don't know who to link. But I read once, the real Buddha was a greedy warlord. A real bastard. Just like the Dalai Lama. Yes. That happy, smiling. bald guy. He ruled Tibet with an iron fist. So let's hope he never gets back into power.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It also doesn't help that the Dalai Lama actually referred to himself as a Marxist. Yes, he actually did say that. Look here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304186404576389523194617398.html
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
No one knows enough about Siddhartha to say that -- they can't even place exactly when he was born.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You forgot to credit XKCD for the cartoon (xkcd.com), although everyone should recognize that source by now.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Slayer of demons, Conquerer of worlds, Swallowing entire habitat to free a soul and then to sit with the vessel to transition such demons, worlds habitates, souls to the Sun guarding by Mary Magdelane to the water guarded by the Queen of Sheba , to the earth guarding by holy Lilith as they deliver to Holy Mary mother of God and then father Son and Holy ghost put everything to where it now belongs and what a relief I find to hold hands again with saint Faustina
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aifSjuyeE5M
The Immortal soul who has seen ? then you have something to write about
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Buddha's teachings as vast and complex as they may seem, have just one purpose and that is to recognize Intrinsic Awareness. Studying the teachings, contemplating them and then meditating so that the mind can experience its nature are essential. And what remains is Awareness, because that is what we really are, and that has no beginning or end.

It is always helpful to study the original texts:

From Samantabhadra:

Everything - appearance and existence, samsara and nirvana -
Has a single Ground, yet two paths and two fruitions,
And magically displays as Awareness or unawareness.

The Ground of all is uncompounded,
And the self-arising Great Expanse, beyond expression,
Has neither the name "samsara" nor "nirvana."
Realizing just this, you are a Buddha;
Not realizing this, you are a being wandering in samsara.


From the Surangama Sutra:

At that time, Ananda and the rest of the great assembly, having received the subtle and wondrous instruction given by the Buddha, the Thus-Come One, felt that their bodies and minds were emptied and hardly seemed to exist. They were free of all concerns and impediments. All in the assembly became aware that their minds pervaded the ten directions and that they could see everything throughout space in all ten directions as clearly as one might see an object such as a leaf in the palm of one's hand. They saw that all things in all worlds are the wondrous, fundamental, enlightened, luminous mind that understands, and that this mind, pure, all-pervading, and perfect, contains the entire universe. They looked back upon their own bodies born of their parents and saw them to be like minute particles of dust drifting about everywhere in the air, arising and perishing, or like solitary bubbles floating on vast, calm seas, appearing and then vanishing without a trace. They fully understood that the fundamental, wondrous mind is everlasting and does not perish.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Nice quote, thanks!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It may help to first wrap one's head around the concept of maya and the fact that, to the Buddhist, all existence is maya or illusion. Time does not exist. All else follows. Be here now.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
No offense, I think you interpret it wrong, seriously. Most things I read is people analyzing, theorizing through the Western Judeo Christian lenses.

>>> So there is no permanent Self, no soul, no spirit that exists forever.

That does not mean the Buddhist teaching says ‘we’ do not have souls. Just that, it is not in a permanent FIXED state. Even upon/after your death. There is always "an afterwards" to continue to improving.

BTW, the chance of either you or I achieving the final cessation to become a Buddha is nil, so why worry about the final Parinirvana state? That is your Western mindset trying to analyze every detail.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Um, so so much for the doctrine of anatman?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yeah, it's the same flame. All fire is the same flame. Even in the Crab Nebula.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There's been a lot of theorizing that Buddhist philosophy equates to modern-day physics, particularly the quantum kind. I prefer to think of the soul as a quantum phenomenon of the universe (however physics might describe it) that doesn't disappear when our physical bodies die. And there is the fact that our genes get passed to the next generation (whether our own children, or the children of other relaitives), so that's one theory of the soul.

In any case, as I told my grandchildren: "You are the latest in a very long line of survivors. Keep it going."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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