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Buddhists Have No Souls

Yes, I'm serious. Buddhists have no souls. Or permanent ones at least. That's really what Buddha taught.

Okay, end of column.


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?