What is Soul, or the Self? Does Soul Exist? Buddhist View on Soul, Self

The soul takes an important part in religious and philosophical discussions. From Socrates in the Hellenic world, Confucius and Lao Tse in China to the Buddha and Lord Krishna in Indian subcontinent, everyone talked about the self.

Some of the world’s major religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam do not speak of soul or self, however, the questions like “Does soul exists?” “What are the properties of soul?” take important place in the religious discussions in the east, mostly in the Indian sub-continent. The religions that originated and developed in the Indian subcontinent, for instant, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, extensively elaborate on the concept of soul. A large portion of text in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism are devoted on what is soul, nature of the soul, cycle of soul and such more. The theologies in eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) even discuss whether soul exists or not, if it exists, how can it be proved etc.

Human beings move in the cycle of birth and rebirth. The soul continues to seek a new body until it is put to rest by liberating it. In Hinduism, liberation is achieved by worshiping deities, by practicing meditation, performing Yoga, or doing rituals. In Buddhism, liberation is achieved through meditation and esoteric rituals.

The word for liberation in Hinduism is Mokshya and in Buddhism it is called Nirvana.

What is Soul? What Are the Properties of the Soul?

The notion of a person is simplified into two basic categories: the matter and the mind. The matter implies the concrete substance, i. e. the physical body; mind means the abstract realities, which includes sensation, perception, intellect and consciousness. However, soul is very different from what the person is. Soul is not matter (the physical body). Soul, sometimes also called self, is like energy.

Energy is neither created nor destroyed, but simply changed from one form to another form. Similarly, soul is eternal and immortal, it is never born and it never dies. Soul lives in human bodies, however, when the body dies, soul abandons the dead body and seeks another host. As long as soul is inside the body, an individual is alive, as soon as soul leaves the body, the person is dead. Sometimes soul is also called self because soul has consciousness. What kind of life a person lives depends on what kind of karma is attached to soul.

The Nature of the Soul (Self)

So, what is soul?

Buddhist monk Nagasena in Milindapanha, The Questions of Milinda, gives the most comprehensible explanation of nature of the self and age of the self. The Questions of Milinda, which is attributed to Nagasena, is non- canonical Buddhist literature written about 1st or 2nd century Common Era. It is in question and answer format between Nagasena and King Milinda, a Greek king.

Here is an excerpt from Milindapanha, The Questions of Milinda.

The Nature of the Self

Milinda: Who are you, what is your name?

Nagasena: People call me Nagasena, though this Nagasena does not exist.

Milinda: You say Nagasena does not exist, then who is this person that wears robes, who is this person that meditates, practices Eight-fold Path, etc.

Then Nagasena uses the example of chariot to illustrate the king’s question. He says: chariot is nothing more than a word for an axle, wheels, chariot body, pole, and other parts that are placed in a certain order. If we examine the individual parts, we don’t find the chariot. Thus is the nature of the self. Our hair, hands, legs etc. make our body, which is called by our names.

The Age of the Self

Milinda: How old are you?

Nagasena: I’m seven years old.

Milinda: What is this seven? Are you seven or the count is seven?

Nagasena: Your shadow is cast on the ground. Are you the king or this shadow is the king?

Milinda: I’m the king, not this shadow. However, this shadow is there because of me.

Nagasena: The years count is seven and I’m not seven. The years are counted because of me very like your shadow.
Buddhist View on Soul

The Buddha is a historical figure and the founder of Buddhism. However, more than a religious figure, the Buddha is a philosopher. He propagated and elaborated on:

The chain of birth and rebirth

Karma is the actions we perform, samsara is the world we live in; the chain of birth and rebirth means after we die, we will be born again. The Buddha talked about suffering in his four noble truth, that there is suffering in the world, and in order to get away from suffering we should purse Nirvana. Nirvana can be achieved by following eightfold path.

The Buddha talked about everything that is related to the life and living. Nevertheless…

The Buddha did not talk about self, soul, person

Yes, the Buddha did not talk about the self. There is no reference to soul in the Buddhist canonical literature (the three Tipitaka, the most authoritative Buddhist scripture). Since the Buddha never spoke of soul, some people say that Buddhism negates the existence of soul; however, the Buddha spoke about the endless cycle of birth and death, which means he believed that soul exist. Many Buddhist monks and the Bodhisattvas have spoken and written extensively on the self.

Properties of the Self, Soul or Person

Based on what the Buddhist monks and the Bodhisattvas have explained, soul can be characterized by four core properties.

It is an entity distinct from both the body and the psychological state. The soul is not the same as the body but is what the body has. Similarly, soul is what has sensations, thoughts, beliefs, desires and so forth.

It is essentially unchanging. It is the same self that is present in the elderly individual now and in the boy he was sixty years ago.

The soul is unifier. It integrates diverse sensory information, beliefs, and desires in a way as to allow us to make decisions and to act on the basis of them.

The soul is an agent. It is permanent core which makes decision that shapes our lives. The result of these decisions may then in turn influence the soul, but there is little doubt that it is the soul not the decisions, which occupy the driver’s seat. This concept of the soul appears to be relatively accurate description of our intuitive, everyday belief of what we are.

Why the Discussion on Soul is Important

It is rational to show concern for future stages of our selves, so that for example we buy an umbrella today so that we don’t get wet tomorrow. Similarly arguments built around the notion of karma presupposes in the same way that we should care about what happens to us in the future.

The notion of a soul by the early Buddhists was substantially influenced by the Samkhya and Vaisesika concept of Atma (soul/self) in Hindu philosophy.

Viewing ourselves as a soul, a subject, and a responsible agent, appears to be indispensable for our conception of what we are. It provides the focal point of our cognitive life, the place where the disconcertingly diverse array of different experiences come together and is unified in a view of the world from a unique perspective.

Do you believe in soul?

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