Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera
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 second teacher
teaches a temporary ego-entity which becomes annihilated at death: He is
- 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.
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
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
Vacchagotta gets up and
After the ascetic
has left, Ananda asks the Buddha why He did not answer Vacchagotta's
question. The Buddha explains His position:
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).'
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)'.
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?
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.'
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
All conditioned things
All conditioned things are Dukka -- Suffering,
All conditioned or unconditioned things
are soulless or selfless. (Dhammapada 277, 278, 279)
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