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The Buddha's Teachings About the Soul

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BUDDHA SOUL
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Vacchagotta -- Vaccha for short -- was one of the many religious wanderers whose spiritual dialogue with Gautama the Buddha is recorded in Buddhist scripture (the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta). Vaccha was full of questions, particularly about the soul. The soul -- or atman in the language of ancient India -- was thought at the time to be the eternal aspect of the human personality, one that would transmigrate and be reincarnated lifetime after lifetime.

Vaccha had other metaphysical questions, too. He wanted to know whether the universe was finite or infinite, whether it was eternal or not eternal, whether an enlightened person like the Buddha would be reborn or not, and especially whether the soul existed or did not exist. To each of Vaccha's questions the Buddha would not give a definitive answer. Whatever Vaccha asked, the Buddha would reply, "No," or "That does not fit the case, Vaccha." As the dialogue proceeded, Vaccha became more and more irritated, finally asking, "Well, has the Venerable Gautama any opinion on anything?"

To this the Buddha replied, "The term 'opinion,' Vaccha, has been discarded by [me]." He went on to explain that he understood the soul, or atman, not through logic or opinion, but through his direct experience of meditation. From this experience he concluded that the seemingly singular, permanent self or soul was actually composed of five ever-changing components, which he called skandhas, or "heaps." These five aggregations are form (the material world of the senses), feelings, perceptions, emotions and consciousness. Together, these five create the illusion of a fixed identity and continuous self. It is our clinging to this fixed self that creates all our unnecessary suffering this world. That is what the Buddha taught.

This is basic Buddhist doctrine, explained in detail in many Buddhist textbooks, such as Walpola Rahula's "What The Buddha Taught," or the more contemporary "A Path With Heart" by Jack Kornfield. But the full complexity and subtlety of how the Buddha taught is not so easily understood. In some sermons, the Buddha seems to acknowledge the existence of a soul. In others, he seems to deny the soul. And still others (as here in his replies to Vaccha), he declines to say one way or the other. In reading through all the many sermons of the Buddha, it seems that he adjusted his teachings to the needs and capacities of his listeners.

The translation of the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta which I am using here is from "The Buddha: His Life Retold" by Robert Allen Mitchell -- a book with its own compelling story. Mitchell (1917-1964) studied graduate astronomy at Harvard, but due to the early death of his father he could not pursue a career as a scientist. Later on he became fascinated with the teaching of the Buddha, taught himself Pali (the language spoken in the Buddha's lifetime) and set about translating Buddhist texts -- a solitary avocation that he practiced for the rest of his life. The manuscript of "The Buddha: His Life Retold" was found in his attic after his death and published in 1989; it is one of the best summations of the Buddha's basic teachings that I know. It is now technically out of print, but not too hard to find.

The dialogue between Buddha and Vaccha continues on the subject of the soul and its purported rebirth:

Vaccha asks, "But Reverend Gautama, where is the person ... reborn?"

"To say that he is reborn¸Vaccha, does not fit the case," replied the Buddha.

"Then he is not reborn?"

"To say that he is not reborn does not fit the case."

"Then he is neither reborn or not reborn?"

"To say that, Vacchagotta, does not fit the case."

In the same way the Buddha continues to reply "that does not fit the case" to each of Vaccha's queries.

Finally, in complete exasperation, Vaccha said, "Venerable Gautama, have you nothing to say about the existence of the soul? Does the soul exist?"

At these words Gautama was silent.

"How is it, Venerable Gautama? Is there no such thing as the soul?"

Gautama was again silent.

What are we to make of this teaching? Why won't the Buddha say one way or the other? How can we trust a religious teacher who won't answer our questions, who remains silent when we implore him to respond? Do we, like Vaccha, walk away in confusion and bewilderment?

As Vaccha turns to go, the Buddha calls out to him, "Vaccha, this teaching ... is profound, subtle, hard to see, hard to comprehend, beyond the sphere of mere logic, to be understood only by the wise."

Indeed. This sermon about Vacchagotta is the precursor of many later strains of Buddhist teaching, including the Middle Way school of Nagarjuna (a key component and source of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy), as well as Zen.

Throughout Buddhist history, there are many recorded dialogues like the one between Buddha and Vaccha. Students of Zen will be familiar with the story ("Blue Cliff Record" Case 55) of Master Tao Wu and his disciple Chien Yuan. Master and student were paying a condolence call to the family of a recently deceased person when Chien Yuan suddenly rapped on the coffin and exclaimed, "Alive or dead?"

The master calmly replied, just as the Buddha did to Vaccha, "I won't say."

All the way home Chien Yuan kept after his teacher. "Alive or dead?" he kept repeating.

The teacher's answer was always the same: "I won't say."

Those not familiar with the Buddhist world-view may find this story, like the previous one about Vaccha, confusing and frustrating. They may think, "Why won't the teacher say? The corpse is obviously dead. He should just say so!"

But the whole truth is not so simple. At the heart of the Buddha's teaching is something not graspable by intellect alone, not expressible in words alone, not comprehensible by logic alone. This "something" Buddhists called prajna, or "transcendent wisdom," and it is the beating heart of the Buddhist Path -- the inner source of compassion and the Buddha's message of liberation from suffering.

And why should it be otherwise? Many of the most important aspects of our life cannot be grasped by the intellect or put into words. Consider love. We can say "I love you," but those are mere placeholder words for something we can't really describe or explain. And yet our love for spouse, partner or children may be our greatest treasure. We don't know love through books or words, or by asking people to define what love is. As Forrest Gump says, "I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is." We apprehend love directly. When we love, we just know.

And so it is with Buddhist wisdom teachings. When Buddha said to Vaccha, "That does not fit the case," or when Tao Wu said to Chien Yuan, "I won't say," these answers are not actually designed to obfuscate, confuse or conceal. They are just honest responses pointing to a deep truth that -- like love -- lies deep in the inexpressible core of the human heart.

Around the Web

Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Soul - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Soul in Buddhism

The Skandhas - The Five Skandhas or Aggregates of Buddhism