The Buddhist Position on the “Soul” and the “Self”: Why They Not Exist

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Ondrelique Ouellette
04 December 2012

The Buddhist Position on the “Soul” and the “Self”: Why They Not Exist

Throughout history, man has been filled with existential questions. Perhaps the most common and puzzling of are those that revolve around the soul. What is the soul? Where is it housed? Where does it come from? Where does it go after one dies? Each society, each religion, has established an explanation. However, most prevalent religions and philosophies—be it Greek, Egyptian or Chinese philosophy, Christianity, Hinduism or Islam—share the idea that the soul is an entity. These philosophies view the soul as the “thinker of thoughts, feeler of sensations, and receiver of rewards and punishments for all its actions good and bad” (Walpola 51). It is considered to be lasting, the very essence of our identity, independent in its existence, viewed by some as permanent as it travels to the afterlife. Buddhism, however, is one of the few philosophies and the first religion to deny the existence of the soul through the concept of Anatta: “soul-lessness” or “ego-lessness.” According to the Buddhist doctrine, humans, as living beings, are comprised of the five components of mental and physical phenomena that Buddha outlined as the Five Skandhas—or Five Aggregates. The core of our existence, thoughts and morals is not the soul—as conventional religions and philosophies suggest—but the Five Aggregates. In fact, Buddha adamantly maintained that the “soul” or “self” does not exist. The Christian and Western concept of the soul is derived from ancient Greek philosophy. For a time, the Greeks remained uncertain as to what exactly the soul was, but many did regard the soul as the part of the human that survived death and proceeded to continue its existence in the Underworld. It was Socrates who solidified this idea of the soul as a permanent entity when he posed the question to another philosopher: “Haven't you realized that our soul is immortal and never destroyed?” (qtd. Lorenz). Socrates presented the idea that the soul was not only everlasting but separate from the body and the guider of our deeds. While the body was vulnerable and perishable, the soul was imperceptible, “exempt from destruction” and divine in the sense that it leads us through life and establishes our morality (Lorenz). From Socrates’s theory, and from subsequent Greek philosophers, Christians adopted belief in a body-soul dichotomy, associating the soul with the divine and immortal and the body with the ephemeral. The implications here about the classic concept of the soul are subtle to us, as these Greek, Christian and Western philosophies are deeply engrained in modern society to the point that, by the 15th century, the Classic concept of the soul had already become “embedded in ordinary language” (Lorenz). However, the main point of speculation when contemplating the “soul” is the idea that, when we refer to the “soul,” we are referring to not a mere idea but to the specific idea that Socrates and his philosophic successors presented: the idea of the soul as an entity. An entity is something “independent, separate, or self-contained existence,” “something that has separate and distinct existence and objective or conceptual reality” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). When our bias towards Western beliefs is removed, one realizes that saying that the soul is self-contained or an objective reality is a very serious claim. There is no proof, qualitative or quantitative, of the existence of this entity the soul. Herein lies the source of Buddhism’s disagreement with the soul theory, as Buddhism does not reject the raw idea of the self or soul but, instead, rejects the unsupported notion of the self as an entity. When Buddhism talks about egolessness or selflessness, it does not mean that ego as such does not exist at all, as an empirical thing. Of course it does. However, our almost instinctive feeling that says there is something called...
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