Monday, June 25, 2012

The Soul Question

Do We Have A Soul?

When Western students first learn about Buddhism, the “Soul Question” inevitably arises from their backgrounds in the Abrahamic faiths. The short answer to this question, “No. Buddhists don’t believe there is a soul.

That answer is predicated on a particular definition, a particular understanding of what the word “soul” means. What Buddhism means by soul is something that is static and never changes, an essence that is eternal; an essence that is not effected by anything else.

Also, a soul is “partless,” meaning that it is not made-up of a bunch of pieces, like a car or a dog.

Another characteristic is that a soul can exist separately from body and mind. It can comes and go from place to place, and of course, life to after life. It lives inside a person like an occupant lives a house.

Buddhist philosophy says that there is no such thing. Nothing is permanent, nothing is in and of itself. How it posits this is complicated, but simply put the Buddhist understanding arises from a fundamental believe that all things are impermanent and conditioned by other things.

What Buddhism posits in place of a soul is an ever-changing Self that has no beginning and no end. It has many parts, so it is not something findable. It cannot exist separately. With our moment to moment to moment mental activity, that “me,” that conventional Buddhist “Self,” is just an imputation. It is not something that you can find solidly inside each moment. Nonetheless we have a conventional way of putting together all these moments and labeling it “Me.”

Buddhism emphasizes over and over that we are a conditioned phenomenon. What moves from one moment to another is a subtle Self that is described by the Five Aggregates, not a soul.

On investigation, the soul turns out to be a simple fiction. Unfortunately, is it a fiction that leads to believing in a large, complex false reality that has been the source of suffering for vast numbers of people since ancient times. Why this is so is addressed in a variety of teachings–chiefly, The Four Characteristics of All Phenomena, Dependent Co-Arising, and Emptiness.

Believing in a soul requires a vast network of speculative ideas about other permanent things and places–gods and heavens and hells, for example–in order to form a moral code. What we learn from simple personal observation of our impermanent and ever-changing Self is that the meaning of life is found in our impermanent and therefore interconnected nature: in being of benefit to others. And the first rule of being of benefit is “Do not harm.”

How do we do no harm? We can start with this simple exercise: Every time you approach someone with whom you expect to interact, ask yourself (in your head, no out loud): “What can I do to be of benefit to this person, here, now.” If you’re alone, ask it of yourself.


  1. A very concise explanation. Thank you. How does one reconcile the concept of being of service to others in situations where that is not expected of you? For instance, if you are in an adversarial situation on behalf of a client at your place of business. It would seem you cannot be of service to both people without dissapointing your client? Or am I missing the point?

  2. Thanks Carl, I was just asking steve about this the other day:) Gail

  3. Thank you -- I have been wondering this lately too! It's interesting that the whole notion of emptiness is completely terrifying to me.... Thank you for helping us loosen our grip one finger at a time (though if you could hit me with that enlightenment stick, I'd really appreciate it!).