It's a difficult thing to imagine, but according to Buddhist ideology, the you that you think of when you think of yourself -- the you reading this article right now -- doesn't really exist. Unlike almost every other religious faith or spiritual practice, in Buddhism, there is no concept of a "soul," eternal or otherwise. Instead, Buddhists believe that the soul, or "self" is only a temporary composite of matter, sensations, perceptions, thought and consciousness that dissipates and ceases to exist at death.
Comparing Concepts in Other Religions
Most religions have some concept of a soul as a permanent, incorporeal entity that is independent of the body, and may exist eternally. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, the soul is largely synonymous with consciousness, and survives the demise of the body. In contrast, Buddhists believe the self, or the soul, to be an illusion -- merely the product of an impermanent mind, perception, sensation and ego. Because the mind, perception, emotion and consciousness are constantly changing, the self is ephemeral and cannot be considered an abiding entity.
The Four Noble Truths
At the core of the Buddhist belief system are the Four Noble Truths: 1. Life means suffering. 2. The origin of suffering is attachment. 3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. 4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.
The spiritual goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering through enlightenment, which is achieved by following the Eight-Fold Path -- instructions on ethical and mental development that can result in enlightenment and an end to suffering. Buddhists believe achieving this goal can take many lifetimes, and that progress can be measured by the gradual disappearance of cravings, ignorance and delusion. Once enlightened, the individual can attain nirvana, or a "oneness with all things," and cease to be reborn, or he can opt to remain in the circle of birth and rebirth as a bodhisattva -- an enlightened being who chooses to serve as a teacher and guide to others on the path.
The Doctrine of No-Self
Buddhists believe that it was the Buddha, in his teachings, who denied the concept of a self, declaring the soul to be a "false belief" created by man out of the lower, less evolved state of ego, or self-importance. Buddha taught that there is no distinction between the "I" and the "you" in reality -- that all beings are really one entity, and that enlightenment simply allows us to recognize and return to the universal "oneness." This doctrine, often referred to as the Doctrine of No-self, is called anatta. Because it is so difficult to comprehend even for advanced Buddhists, there remains much internal debate how anatta can be applied in a Buddhist spiritual practice.
Reincarnation and the Non-Self
Because Buddhism has its roots in Hinduism, the two religions share many of the same ideas. In Hinduism, however, the atman is an eternal self that exists in a continuous cycle of rebirth called samsara. The type of life one is born into -- animal or human, rich or poor -- is a direct result of the karma accumulated over previous lives. While Buddhists also believe in both karma and in reincarnation, they do not share the notion of the transmigration of the soul. In Buddhism, there is no such thing as a permanent, individual soul.
- Arrow River Forest Hermitage: Is There a Soul in Buddhism?
- Buddhanet: The Four Nobel Truths
- MBS: What Buddha Taught
- Buddhist Teachings of Totality: The Philosphy of Hwa Yen Buddhism; Garma C. C. Chang
- Under the Tree: The Buddhist Paradox; Greg Stone
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