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I've heard a lot of questions like, "who is there to enlighten if there is no self?"

Is that kind of question based on ignorance on the difference between Soul and Self? Or does Buddhism deny the existence of both Soul and Self?

I think I understand Buddhists saying that 'Soul' doesn't exist. I understand the word atman meaning Soul in Vedic languages: and it is different from the concept of Self. While nobody can deny the fact that a person exists, the existence of a soul is not proven.

Just curious about the concept of soul and self in Buddhism.

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    What's the question? – Sankha Kulathantille Mar 9 '15 at 8:30
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    If we experience moment by moment we have no place to build concepts like self or soul and in tha – Lowbrow Mar 9 '15 at 16:16
  • soon we can see this if we watch things momment by momment ,millisecond by millisecond...to understand anatta practice mindfulness. – Lowbrow Mar 9 '15 at 16:35
  • good question. no i don't think so cos a) enlightenment is eternal and unconditioned etc, ! – user2512 Mar 10 '15 at 22:34

12 Answers 12

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You have to look at which reality you are dealing with.

If you are dealing with sammuti-sacca which is the conventional reality then one can say that a soul, self, spirit, being etc. exists. Why? Because conventional reality is dealing with concepts. A soul is a concept. A self is a concept. If you try to search for them through the method of insight meditation you will not find a lasting, permanent, indestructible entity anywhere.

Instead you will come to see that the false idea of a self is merely a mental formation belonging to the 4th aggregate.

If you deal with paramattha-sacca which is ultimate reality then concepts do not exist and there is no problem with a soul/self to begin with.

The thing is that things work fine without the need for a self. By adding a self to the equation one is enforcing and strengthening the suffering by identifying and taking ownership of it. There is a profound difference in saying "i am angry" and "anger has arisen in the mind".

There is also a build-in problem in the way language is used. We are forced to speak about e.g. consciousness by using nouns which can imply that there is something there. But there is not. Consciousness is not a thing. Its a knowing.

What we normally think is consciousness is really a series of cittas (momentary acts of consciousness) that are happening in rapid succession.

The Buddha once said that its okay to use conventional language but do not be fooled thereby.

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    +1 for "built-in problem" due to language. When people realize that there is a built-in problem due to point-of-view giving rise to ego, everyone will be free. (Disregarding that they didn't exist in the first place and so were never bound...) – user2341 Mar 23 '15 at 11:34
  • Thank you. And yes the language can often be a barrier when discussing such profound stuff as the Dhamma. Although if one is aware of it misunderstanding can be mitigated. – user2424 Mar 23 '15 at 11:58
  • I am curious on where was the table taken from. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Mar 24 '15 at 16:58
  • Hi Suminda. Unfortunately i cannot remember where i got it from. I tried to search at a website with Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi talks since i remember i got it from there but i could not locate it. So now i have no idea. If i ever find out where its from i will post a link to the website in this answer. – user2424 Mar 24 '15 at 17:46
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    I managed to find the following copy in case some one else is interested: dhammatalks.net/bhikkhu_bodhi/majjhima_nikaya/courses/MN/Tables/… – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Mar 25 '15 at 2:29
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The Gotama Buddha taught us that this is not an essential. Our mission in life is to comprehend and experience the Four Noble Truths. Our Teacher, the Buddha, was a pragmatic man. What do we need to know to understand "becoming"? We need to know and experience dukkah. We need to comprehend and experience the causes of dukkah. We need to comprehend and understand the wisdom of freedom (nibbana) from dukkah. Finally we need to experience that freedom (nibbana) from dukkah. All such notions of "soul", "self", inherent eternal being or "immortal other" become obstacles. They become dispositions which individuals form emotional attachments to and become objects we grasp onto and hinder our development into a fully actualized living being. This is what separates the teaching of the Gotama Buddha from all others.

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  • Very well put; the issue here isn't how people interpret soul/self, but that they get fixated on this stuff rather than keeping their eye on the prize, so to speak. – R. Barzell Mar 9 '15 at 15:10
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Yes. In Buddhism, especially in the Theravada tradition, a transmigrating soul doesn't exist (see Milindapanha 3.5.5).

However, the self exists though it is not permanent and is dependent on the inter-working of the senses, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness.

The self is just a thought, an idea - "I am the thinker." (Snp 4.14)

Also, please see this answer for the question "What is the precise meaning of anatta?". It discusses the analogy of the lute from the Vina Sutta. And also this answer.

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Soul

I think you're right about Soul.

According to Wikipedia the word should be understood in contrast with atman:

The ancient Indian word for self or essence is attā (Pāli) or ātman (Sanskrit), and is often thought to be an eternal substance that persists despite death. Hence the term anatta is often interpreted as referring to the denial of a self or essence. Anatta is used in the early Buddhist texts, as a strategy to view the perception of self as conditioned processes (or even an action), instead of seeing it as an entity or an essence.

IMO the doctrine is something like, "All conditioned things are impermanent. There is no Soul (permanent essence) in any conditioned thing."

My explanation / understanding of this doctrine is non-standard because it's coloured by someone having tried to teach me Platonic Idealism, but my understanding is something like:

  • There, in front of me, is (for example) a table.
  • Plato suggests there's an actual table (physical object) and an ideal table.
  • Buddhism suggests that it's wrong to see that actual table as containing the soul of table, the essence of table, as being the manifestation of an ideal/permanent/godly table, for two reasons:

    • The table itself is impermanent. Its atoms will reused for something else, will take another form, e.g. within a few hundred years at most.
    • My view of the table is impermanent (e.g. because thoughts are impermanent).

Note that here I'm trying to apply atman-versus-anatman reasoning to the description of a 'table'.

However I think that atman is, instead of being used to describe essence of 'table', more usually used to describe a hypothetical essence of 'self', i.e. what's also known as 'soul': and perhaps that is why people get confused about whether anatman means 'no soul' or 'no self'.

Self

So far as I know there are three important things to know about the Self:

  • People i.e. sentient beings can be analyzed/described/perceived as Skandhas
  • Views about self for example "this is me" and/or "this is mine" lead to suffering
  • Self view is a 'fetter' which must be abandoned on the way towards enlightenment
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  • Platonic view of a form is diametrically opposed to Buddhist anatman. Plato's forms are essence of things from which the actual thing is built. (e.g a real horse is built/moulded from an ideal horse essence). But in Buddhism, there is no essence, but rather, things are moulded by mental formations and other aggregates. – Prahlad Yeri Mar 10 '15 at 3:24
  • @PrahladYeri I think you're right, and I tried to say that: that Plato claims there's an ideal/eternal/essence of table from which actual table is manifest; whereas Buddhism says that the actual table isn't ideal and that the idea of table is temporary too. It's because those views are "diametrically opposed" that they're related in my mind: i.e. I cannot tell the difference between Plato's description and the description of atman (so if I try to describe atman, my description of it is non-standard, influenced or corrupted by my having been taught a bit a about Platonism). – ChrisW Mar 10 '15 at 11:33
  • I guess that a more standard use of atman would be to describe the self (i.e. some soul, or essence of self); but I find it easier to apply the atman/anatman reasoning to other compound things, e.g. to a 'table' in my example or to 'horses' in your/Plato's example. – ChrisW Mar 10 '15 at 12:41
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The Buddha responded in silence to the questions 'is there a soul?' And 'is there no soul?'. What he said was that the 5 clinging aggregates cannot be considered the soul, for you cannot will them to be something other than what they are I.e. they are not in one's control as a soul should, at least theoretically should be. To speak of anatta in the absence of the 5 aggregates will lead to abstract concepts.

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Every phenomena pertaining to the mind matter process is in a flux of charge, thus there is no core which is unchanging, controllable by oneself or higher power thus there is nothing worthy of identifying as oneself or your soul.

Also the view on self is based on perception. With the cessation of perception this view also disappears. With no perception of self or self identification you can say there is no self.

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The word "atta" in the reported teachings of the Buddha obviously means "self" rather than "soul". Refer to SN 22.59, which says "not-self" means to regard everything as "This is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself". The meaning of "atta" here is obviously not "soul".

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Anatta/Anatman viewed as no existing self or soul is one of the biggest misconceptions of Buddhism. And, the same goes for the view that Buddha believed that the "self" did not exist.

Part of the problem is that the Buddha did try to get his monks to a state of selflessness.

What is Anatta trying to explain:

  1. all things are an aggregation, even those things we think are an essence; and
  2. all things are influenced by causality, even those things we think are an essence.

What does this mean: things are complicated, they will have several component parts, and each part is subject to causality.

Now, What Buddha has been trying to teach his monks was to evolve to the point where "YOU" are Selfless in your thoughts actions, and speech. So, after you have found "your-self", lose "your-self" in all the good you do.

So just do good as "selfless acts", these acts will bring "you" closer and closer to nirvana, a state of total selflessness - in "your" thoughts, actions, and speech.

Oh yes, you do still exist, just not driven by selfishness, to the extent that "you" will not even be driven by self-interest.

And yes, on a gross level, others see you as selfless; but at the subtle levels only you can know when self-centeredness arises in you.

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It is the most simplest thing yet most difficult to understand. Before you ask such question always ask what is self ? Is it body ? No it can’t be because it changes , perishes and generates suffering. Does that which generates suffering, is worthy of being called Self or soul? No. Is Self feelings ? No it can’t be for the same reason as above... Is Self or Soul perception ? No it can’t be for the same reason as above... Is Self or soul choices or volition? No it can’t be for the same reason as above .,,, Is Self or soul consciousness ? No it can’t be for the same reason as above ....

Does that mean there is no self ? If there is no self how can there be feelings...can feelings arise if there is no self ? No

So what is the answer ? The answer is that the question is invalid. Depending upon ignorance volition arises ...depending upon volition consciousness arises ...depending upon consciousness name and form arises ....depending upon name and form six sense arises .... depending upon six senses contact arises ... depending upon contact feeling arises ... depending upon feeling ... craving arises .... depending upon craving clinging arises.... depending upon clinging attachment arises ... depending on attachment whole mass of suffering arises...

Thus we see that ultimately what we find is Dukkha and nothing ( however it can be cured by removing ignorance)

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I always found the relative confusion regarding the doctrine of anatta and atman, a but confusing itself.

Theravada Buddhists claim that there is no abiding self, and that thereby there is no sense in calling any moment of becoming "me" or "mine". That doesn't mean that in a causal series an experience at one time does not become another, only that the change is wholesale enough for "me" "self" and "soul": to be misnomers.

Mahayana Buddhists deny becoming, but in the process post a type of self. This is arguably not something that is the same at any two moments, and quite how to think about it is going to be moot without direct apprehension late on in the Buddhist path. Probably better to accept it as a small mystery, for now.

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Your question sounds similar to the Koan of "Who's reciting mantra?" and the answer was similarly described here in Vajira Sutta. Vajira Sutta teaches there's only suffering coming and ceasing, others are all nominal reified names (concepts) which act as content of suffering...

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What we feel as self or soul is the heap of experience we have collected in our mind. Supreme Buddha has preached in Loka Awaboda Suththa(coprehending the world) that What we see from the eye What we heard from the ear What we tasted from thr toung.... Is the world that should be comprehended. Only a heap of data Metaly suffering.

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