Soul: Buddhist Concepts

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It is only slightly paradoxical to say that Buddhism has no concepts of the soul: Its most fundamental doctrine teaches that no such thing exists and that the realization of this truth is enlightenment. In The Buddha and His Teachings (Colombo, 1957), G. P. Malalasekera, a Sinhala statesman and lay Buddhist, states this position forcefully:

In its denial of any real permanent Soul or Self, Buddhism stands alone. This teaching presents the utmost difficulty to many people and often provokes even violent antagonism towards the whole religion. Yet this doctrine of No-soul or Anatta, is the bedrock of Buddhism and all the other teachings of the Buddha are intimately connected with it. The Buddha is quite categorical in its exposition and would have no compromise. In a famous passage He declares, "Whether Buddhas arise in this world or not, it always remains a fact that the constituent parts of a being are lacking in a Soul," the Pali word used for "Soul" being Atta. (pp. 3334)

Of course, one must be careful about what exactly is being denied here. The closest direct equivalent to "soul" in Sanskrit or Pali is jīva, from the verbal root jīv, meaning "to live." In Jainism, it denotes an individual, transmigrating, and eternal entity; and in the Vedānta school of Hinduism, the related term jīvātman denotes the individual (but not universal) form of the world soul, called ātman or brahman. In one context, Buddhism uses this term to deny the existence of the soul. The questions whether such a jīva is identical to, or different from, the body are two of a list of "unanswerable questions"unanswerable for the clear epistemological reason that since no jīva really exists, it cannot be identical to or different from anything. But in other contexts the word jīva and the closely related term jīvita are used uncontroversially to refer to animate life in contrast to inanimate objects or dead beings. One of the "constituent parts of a being," as Malalasekara called them, is termed jīvitendriya ("life faculty"), which has both physical and mental forms; its presence in a collection of such constituents is essential for that collection to be alive, or loosely for that "being" to "exist." What is denied by Buddhism is that any such collection contains or is equivalent to a permanent independent entity, whether individual or universal. The word standardly used in Buddhism to refer to such a (nonexistent) entity is ātman, or in Pali, attan (nominatives ātmā and attā respectively). In Indo-Aryan languages this (or related forms) often functions simply as the ordinary reflexive pronoun, used in the masculine singular for all numbers and genders. But since at least the time of the Upaniads it has also been used in religious and philosophical writing to refer to an eternal essence of humanity. By contrast, Buddhism is referred to as anātmavāda ("the teaching of not-self, or no-soul"). Other terms are used to refer to that whose ultimate reality Buddhism denies, but they can all, like jīva and ātman, also be used uncontroversially in other contexts. Examples are pudgala (puggala ) or their synonyms purua (purisa ), usually translated "person," and sattva (satta), "being." (Purua is the term for "soul" in the Sākhya school of Hinduism.) If Buddhism denies, then, the existence of any ultimately real self, soul, person, or being, how does it account for the existence of human beings, their identity, continuity, and ultimate religious goal?

It is never denied that at the level of "conventional truth," in the everyday transactional world, there are more or less stable persons, namable and humanly recognizable. At the level of "ultimate truth," however, this unity and stability of personhood is seen to be merely a matter of appearances. Ultimately (or in some schools of Buddhism, in fact, only penultimately) there exist only collections of impersonal and impermanent elements (dharma; Pali, dhamma ) arranged into temporary configurations by the moral force of past deeds (karman ) and by self-fulfilling but self-ruinous desire and selfishness (both cognitive and affective). There are different ways of analyzing the person in terms of these elements. One of the most ancient and frequent methods used is a list of five categories, aggregates, or constituents of personality (skandha s; Pali, khandha s), which are body, or material form, and the four mental categories, namely feelings, perceptions (or ideas), mental formations (a heterogeneous class, most of which are volitional or dispositional), and consciousness. Common also is a list of twelve sense-bases (yatanās ), comprising the six senses (the usual five plus mind, always regarded as a sense in Buddhism) and their six corresponding subjects or fields. There are also eighteen elements (dhātus ), which are the six senses, their objects, and the six resultant sense-consciousnesses. The various schools of Buddhism went on to produce many other lists, some involving quite large numbers, which develop and elaborate this basic idea. Whatever the list, the idea behind it is explained by this excerpt from the Pali commentary to a passage in the canon in which the Buddha speaks of "an ignorant person":

[The Buddha] uses conventional language [here]. Buddhas have two types of speech, conventional and ultimate. Thus "being," "man," "person," [the proper names] "Tissa," "Naga" are used as conventional speech. "Categories," "elements," and "sense-bases" are used as ultimate speech. The fully enlightened one, the best of speakers, declared two truths, the conventional and the ultimate; there is no third. Words [used by] mutual agreement are true because of worldly convention; words of ultimate meaning are true because of the existence of elements. (Saratthappakāsinī, vol. 2, p. 77)

This analysis of personhood is nontemporal; personal continuity is accounted for by a theory of temporal atomism in which what appears to be a continuing and identical person or self is held to be in fact a series of discrete elements in an objectively given time sequence. Each discrete temporal particle in the succession of mental and physical elements is called a "moment" (kaa; Pali, khaa ). Each of these moments is divided into phases or submoments, usually those of "arising," "presence," and "cessation." There is a frequent and conscious parallel in the texts between the ordinary, "conventional" events of birth, life, and death and the "ultimate" phases of each moment. The Buddha is alleged to have said, "Ultimately, as the constituents of personality are born and grow old, moment by moment, so you, monk, are born, grow old and die." Estimates of the length of these moments varied, some assuming a subliminal, even infinitesimal length, others seeing a moment as roughly the length of a perception or thought (and so resembling the notion of a sense-datum in Western philosophy). Whatever the postulated length, these moments are seen as discrete entities that are nevertheless held together in individual "streams" (a common Buddhist metaphor). This individuation is effected in two ways. First, it is effected by the simple fact of the body. Mental moments are necessarily associated in any one human lifetime with a material body (though there are in Buddhist mythology some nonhuman, nonmaterial worlds), and the body is assumed to be necessarily numerically self-identical. Second, there are held to be certain kinds of conditioning relations (loosely, "causal laws") in the process of karman, which explain mental continuity both within one lifetime and over a series of rebirths. Among these conditioning relations are such things as contiguity between adjacent moments in a successive series and qualitative similarity between earlier and later parts of one "stream."

The two closely related problems of how karmic streams are held together and of how an act and its result are connected in one (and only one) series of rebirths, given the instantaneous arising and ceasing of momentary elements, led to a great deal of debate among Buddhist thinkers and to a great deal of new theory. One school, for example, thought that a special element, called possession or acquisition (prāpti ), came into existence with each act in order to bind it to the stream in which it occurred, while another element, nonpossession or nonacquisition (aprāpti ), served to keep away elements and acts not belonging to the stream. Two metaphorical terms were used by most schools to depict the process of act and retribution: vāsanā ("perfuming, trace") and bīja ("seed"). These traces or seeds were deposited in the mind by actions and remained there until their karmic result occurred. This process was called vipāka ("maturation, ripening"), and the result was phala ("fruit"); indeed, in Indian thought, bīja and phala commonly mean simply cause and effect. Sometimes particular kinds of mind, or forms of consciousness, were designated as the locus or vehicle of these traces or seeds. One school spoke of a subtle mind (sūkma-citta ), another of a root-consciousness (mūla-vijñāna ), in which the seeds of karman were stored. From these sorts of speculation arose a notion that was to have great importance in the Mahāyāna tradition: that of the store- or receptacle-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna ). Like all forms of consciousness, this was thought to be impermanent, momentary, and characterized as not-self, but it was also thought to be the place from which there arose not only the karmic results of past acts but also, in the more idealist versions, the (illusory) experience of an objective world. Many opponents of this idea, both within and without the Buddhist fold, saw this idea as amounting to a soul-in-disguise. One tradition, which seems at one point to have been very widespread in India but for which scarcely any reliable sources remain (it is known only, with one exception, through the distorting lens of others' refutations), was called the Pudgalavāda, the Personalist school, since it actually used the taboo word pudgala to denote what continues through the process of rebirth.

In the Māyāyana tradition, particularly in Tibet and China, another very important idea, which was often associated with the concept of the store-consciousness, was the tathāgata-garbha ("embryo of the Enlightened One"). This concept provided a solution not to the problem of connecting acts and their results but to that of how a conditioned, unenlightened phenomenon (or rather, a collection of phenomena) such as a human could attain the unconditioned enlightenment of nirvāa. The embryo of the Enlightened One was said to exist, pure and untarnished, in all beings; the task was to discover it. Insofar as "soul" is taken to mean something like "that which is spiritually most valuable in human beings and which makes it possible for them to transcend their ordinary psychophysical conditions and attain the religiously ultimate goal," this may be called a Buddhist notion of the soul. Certainly, in some of the developments of the idea, particularly in China and Japan, where one reads (in English) of the "Buddha mind" or "Buddha nature" inherent in all beings, one seemsalthough only at first sightto have returned to the universal-essence view of ātman in the Upaniads, which the Buddha so trenchantly rejected.

Many of these ideas are technical, even scholastic, details, in the elaboration of basic Buddhist doctrine. But how does Buddhism address the question of self-consciousness, the linguistic and reflexive awareness of oneself that has led so many traditions of thought to see humans as possessing a "soul" different from the rudimentary consciousness of animals? (In Western philosophy the classic exposition of this is by Descartes.) In the philosophical schools of Mahāyāna, the conscept of svasavedanā was developed; this may be translated "self consciousness" or "reflexivity," but Buddhist thinkers held that it was not consciousness of a self, or the self, but merely the capacity of consciousness itself. That is, the internatl structure of consciousness is self-refelxive, but it cannot be concluded from this that it reflects a real self or soul that exists outside the momentary arising and cessation of the mind. Another kind of account of this, which gives more of a sense of the dynamics of Buddhist thought and practice than do the details of scholasticism or the abstract arguments of philosophy, can be seen in the way in which Buddhism supposes that one's sense of self developsand disappearsin the progression from ordinary unenlightened human to enlightened saint. The teaching of no-soul takes effet in two major ways, as one loses gradually the "fetters" that bind one to the wheel of truth.

First, on "entering the stream" bound for enlightenment, one of the fetters lost is satkāyadi (Pali, sakkayadihi ). Often translated as "personality belief," literally it means "the view of a really existing body," although "body" here does not denote simply the physical body but all the five constituents of personality seen as a group. "Personality belief" is the explicit view, or assumption, that what appears to be an individual person, the psychophysical conglomerate, represents or implies a real, permanent self or soul. It does not refer to the phenomenological or experiential sense of being a self, but to the use of this sense, however vaguely, as actual or potential evidence for a metaphysical theory. Losing this fetter thus constitutes a conscious allegiance to the Buddhist denial of self as a doctrine, without any immediate disappearance of the underlying subjective or "self-ish" pattern of experience.

Second, there is this underlying sense of self as the continuing subject of experience and agent of action, referred to in Buddhist thought by the term asmimāna, "the conceit 'I am.'" This fetter, which is necessarily part of consciousness for the unenlightened, is an experiential datum or reaction pattern that is lost at the time of enlightenment; indeed, its loss is precisely what enlightenment is. The term is made up of two parts: asmi is the first-person singular of the verb to be, thus "I am"; māna comes from a verbal root meaning to think, but it regularly has the connotations of proud or conceited thought. For this reason the translation "the conceit 'I am'" is useful, since not only can it point to the fact that the experiential datum of an "I" is taken in Buddhism to be a conception, something made up by a mental act, but also it suggests that this artificial mental construction is necessarily regarded with "conceited" pride and attachment. Thus not only is "the conceit 'I am'" a cognitive fact, or aspect of consciousness (for the unenlightened); it is also a moral (or rather immoral) event. The idea that the experiential datum of an "I" is in fact the result of an act of utterancean act performed automatically and unconsciously, but still an act because it is operative in the process of karman is embodied in the term ahakāra. This is most often explained, by Indian tradition as well as by Western scholarship, as I-making or I-constructionfrom aham, "I," and kāra (from the verbal root k ), "making." It can also, complementarily, be taken as "the utterance of 'I.'" Along with mamankāra, "the utterance of 'mine,'" the term describes one of the seven underlying tendencies operative in unenlightened consciousness. Thus, the Buddhist view is that through the act of uttering "I" or "I am," explicitly or implicitly, a self-positing and self-creating subjectivity is constructed, to which inevitably the person in whom it occurs is attached, and through which all his forms of "selfishness" (conceptual and moral) arise.

Two stories in the ancient texts illustrate this attitude and show both the conceptual and the psychological relation between the ideas or utterances "I" and "I am" and the impersonal elements that are the "ultimate" constituents of the human person. A king, enticed by the mellifluous sound of a lute, asks his servant to bring him the sound. They bring the lute, but the king exclaims, "Away with the lute, I want the sound!" The servants explain, "This thing called a lute is made up of a great number of parts. It makes a sound [the verb is vadati, literally, 'speaks'] because it is composed of a number of partsthat is, the box, strings." The king then takes the lute, breaks it up into smaller and smaller pieces, and finally throws it away. The moral is drawn: "In this way, monks, a monk investigates the constituents of personality. But for him there is no 'I,' 'mine,' or 'I am.'"

The story of the elder Khemaka is similar. On hearing that he "does not consider there to be a self or anything belonging to a self" in the five constituents of personality, some other monks exclaim, "Is he not then an arhat [an enlightened saint]?" Khemaka hears of this but tells them that he is not an arhat, because "with regard to the five constituents, I have a sense of 'I am,' but I do not see 'this is what I am'!" He explains by analogy with the scent of a flower: The smell is there, but it is impossible to say exactly from where it originates (whether from petals, colors, pollen or some other source). "Although, friends, a noble disciple has put away the five lower fetters (including personality belief), still there is a residue in the constituents of personality of the conceit of 'I am,' of the desire for 'I am,' of the underlying tendency to 'I am,' which is not finally destroyed." If one practices the life of meditation to the full, he says, these things (and with them all the higher fetters) will eventually disappear. When this happens, nirvāa is attained, and the teaching of no-soul has served its purpose.

See Also

Ālaya-vijñāna; Buddhist Philosophy; Dharma, article on Buddhist Dharma and Dharmas; Karman, article on Buddhist Concepts; Nirvāa; Pratītya-samutpāda; Sarvāstivāda; Sautrāntika; Tathāgata-garbha.


Translations of Buddhist texts directly relevant to this issue were mainly made into French in the first half of the century. These will be available in specialized libraries and remain by far the best source, since the translators provide many references to other texts and other useful information as well as giving direct access to the primary materials. Titles include Étienne Lamotte's Le traité de l'acte de Vasubandhu, Karma- siddhiprakaraa (Brussels, 1936); his translation of the Chinese text Dazhidulun, traditionally attributed to Nāgārjuna, as Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse, 5 vols. (Louvain, 19441980), is a treasury of scholarship on almost every aspect of Buddhism. Louis de La Vallée Poussin translated the Chinese version of the most important work of Buddhist scholasticism, L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu, 6 vols. (19231931; Brussels, 1971). The last section of this work, a discussion of the concept of the person between an "orthodox" Buddhist and a member of the Personalist school, was translated from the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions by Theodore Stcherbatsky, as The Soul Theory of the Buddhists (1920; Vāranāsi, 1970). The Pali version of this debate is included in the Kathīvatthu, translated by Shwe Zan Aung and Caroline Rhys Davids as Points of Controversy (London, 1915). Important texts of the Sanskrit and Tibetan traditions have been translated and discussed by Joe Wilson in Chandrakīrti's Sevenfold Reasoning: Meditation on the Selflessness of Persons (Dharamsala, 1980), and by Jeffrey Hopkins in Meditation on Emptiness (London, 1983).

Secondary sources include my Selfless Persons: Imagery and Thought in Theravada Buddhism (London, 1982), which discusses the doctrine of anattā as presented in the Pali texts; David S. Ruegg's La théorie du Tathāgatagarbha et du Gotra (Paris, 1969), which discusses the tathāgata-garbha theory, as presented in Sanskrit and Tibetan texts; and Paul Williams's Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London and New York, 1989), which treats these and other aspects of the Mahāyāna tradition in its entirety. Three older works, dated in some ways perhaps but still valuable, are Edward Conze's Buddhist Thought in India (1962; Ann Arbor, 1970), Arthur Berriedale Keith's Buddhist Philosophy in India and Ceylon (Oxford, 1923), and E. J. Thomas's The History of Buddhist Thought, 2d ed. (1951; New York, 1967). Buddhist notions of the soul, along with those from a number of different religious traditions, are discussed by the Christian theologian John Hick in Death and Eternal Life (London, 1976).

New Sources

Brown, B.E. The Buddha Nature: A Study of the Tathagatagarbha and Alayavijñana. Delhi, 1991.

Forman, R.K.C. The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy. New York, 1990.

Hamilton, S. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: the I of the Beholder. Richmond, 2000.

Lopez, D. S. Buddhism in Practice. Princeton, 1995.

Vasubandhu, and S. Anacker. Seven Works of Vasubandhu, The Buddhist Psychological Doctor. Delhi, 1984.

Williams, P. Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the Bodhicaryavatara. Richmond, 1998.

Williams, P. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. New York, 1989.

Steven Collins (1987)

Revised Bibliography