Buddhism — Soul, Self and No-Self
This article discusses Buddhism in general, but specifically the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (anatta), in relation to the Hindu concept of Atman (or self), and the Western concept of the soul. The latter two are broadly equivalent. In the Chāndogya Upanishad the teacher explains to his pupil: “This finest essence — the whole universe has it as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are, Śvetaketu”¹. This can be compared to the first chapter of Genesis, where humankind is made in the image or likeness of God. In both cases the individual self (soul) is of the same nature or essence as the universal Self. Buddhism, on the other hand, or so it is frequently claimed, denies that the individual self exists, thus that it is illusory. This would seem to be a significant difference.
On the other hand, the Perennial Philosophy, otherwise known as Traditionalism, believes that at their core all religions are saying the same thing, despite any superficial differences. (This is an idea with which I am in broad agreement.) If that is true, it suggests that Hinduism and Buddhism must really be saying the same thing, and any apparent differences are not really worth getting excited about.
So here I will consider the questions:
- does Buddhism actually deny the existence of the self, thus is this something that the Buddha himself believed?
- does it really matter? Does it make any meaningful difference to one’s spiritual practice? Therefore, is it worth making a big fuss about this question?
Someone who clearly does think that it is worth making a fuss is Kenneth Leong who, in this recent article on Medium asked the question “why do we hold on to the illusion of the self?”, and hopes that “one day we will be ready to toss the idea of ‘self’ into the dustbin of history”. I’ve always thought that, in order to achieve enlightenment or nirvana, one of the central teachings of Buddhism is non-attachment. This doesn’t seem to be a lesson that Mr. Leong has learned; he seems incredibly attached to the idea of no-self. Let’s examine his arguments.
One of my major complaints is that he claims that his viewpoint is supported by science, thus the supposed owner of the heart, hands etc. “is nowhere to be found. It is definitely not a scientific fact”. Also “modern science informs us that such a center of perception and control cannot be found”. However, when neuroscientists claim that the self doesn’t exist, they mean something very different from when a Buddhist uses those words. Because neuroscientists tend to believe that consciousness is a manifestation of brain activity, and that they cannot see the self, or any possible source of it, when they do a brain scan, they therefore claim that the self, sometimes even that consciousness itself, is an illusion. Buddhists, however, do not believe in the ‘real’ existence of the brain, thinking that the whole material world is part of the great illusion of maya. When they say that the individual self is illusory, this is because it is ultimately part of a universal ocean of consciousness. These two understandings should not be confused.
In addition to the illusion of ownership just mentioned, Leong lists four others, and again his arguments seem weak to me.
1. The illusion of control. He cites the effects of alcohol and hormone surges as evidence of this. It’s not clear what his point is. Agreed it would be very hard for the ‘self’ to resist and annul these effects; they can’t be controlled. I don’t understand, however, why this is considered evidence for the non-existence of the self. Who or what exactly is noticing and experiencing the effect of alcohol? And is there not some aspect of our being which can choose whether or not to drink alcohol in the first place? That is what his argument should be focused on.
He continues: “If someone is afflicted with cancer where the cancerous cells are multiplying out of control, the person may also say that such cancerous cells are not himself or herself, because such cells are out of his/her conscious control. But why are the cancerous cells not of oneself? They certainly originate from one’s own body. The boundary between self and not-self seems very artificial and arbitrary here”. Again I don’t understand what his argument is. He is describing an individual consciousness which experiences itself as being independent of and different from the body. Self or soul might be very appropriate terms to describe this.
He even uses the expression ‘one’s own body’, which contradicts his first illusion, that of ownership. Who or what is this mysterious ‘one’ that he refers to?
2. The illusion of free will and originality — Leong would have been better off, if he had chosen the standard neuroscientific argument, that we have no free will because what we perceive as our choices are predetermined by the brain. He chooses, however, to go off into strange territory: “It is commonly recognized that the great men are products of their times… their immediate social environment and culture”, for example Newton, Einstein and Darwin. Here he is trying to deny the existence of “a self that has its own will, independent of its social environment and social conditioning”. We can agree perhaps that the time was ripe, and that the world was ready, for these men’s achievements, but this is hardly evidence that their selves did not exist. Who or what exactly was doing the thinking, and coming up with these new theories. Did the social environment write the Principia Mathematica? And if originality is an illusion, who or what came up with the Theory of General Relativity before Einstein?
3. The illusion of permanence. Leong says that “there is no permanence in anything… All is changing, all the time”. There is nothing essentially wrong with this statement, although one might wonder about the nature of who or what is observing all this change. But why this is considered to be evidence for no-self is not clear. Why can we not have a self that is constantly changing?
His next argument against the existence of the self could just as easily be used as an argument for it. As is well known, all the body’s cells periodically replace themselves. He therefore asks: “So, where is the self?… Clearly, the constancy of the self is an abstraction and an illusion”. On the contrary, good evidence for the self would be the fact that consciousness experiences itself as continuous despite every cell of the body being replaced, and not even noticing that this process is going on. There is a strong suggestion here that the self might be a continuous entity independent of the body; it is certainly not conclusive evidence for no-self.
4. The illusion of the homunculus. Now things are getting really silly. “Historically, a common explanation of how we can see, hear and perceive other things is to hypothesize the existence of a homunculus — a little person who lives inside our body”. The clue here is the word ‘historically’. At some point in the past, before modern scientific developments, some naïve people may have believed something like this. It’s hard to believe that any educated person thinks this nowadays, yet belief in the self persists. So who exactly is Leong arguing against?
Following all these arguments, he states with great confidence: “In all these considerations, the conclusion is that there is no self”. I’m afraid that he’ll have to provide better arguments than these, if he wants to convince me.
The next question to consider is whether no-self was actually a teaching of the Buddha himself, is therefore an essential ingredient of Buddhism. Leong asserts this categorically: “Buddha knew this. Our scientists today are confirming what Buddha taught”. In this interesting article, however, Vasuman Ravichandran claims that the Buddha “was a pragmatist concerned with ending suffering and less prone to engaging in dialectical reasoning”. He says that the question of self or no-self emerged later, and was a debate between different schools of Buddhism. The question was put in these terms: are essences real entities? Are “the fundamental constituents of experience like consciousness, thoughts and physical forms, real entities or just useful — but ultimately fictitious — conceptual constructs?”.
Those who believed that essences were real were an early Buddhist sect, the Sarvastivadins: they “held that dharmas were eternal and unchanging, permanently existing in all periods: past, present, and future. But only dharmas in the present time had productive effects”. This view appears to be in agreement with Western spiritual and esoteric traditions, that there is an eternal soul or essence existing outside space-time, which incarnates into the body and manifests as a personality. Opposing this view was the Madhyamaka school of Nagarjuna, which claimed that “all dharmas are empty of any intrinsic nature and also that the apparent emptiness is empty itself”.
Ravichandran is clearly much more knowledgeable about this than I am, and it’s possible that I have oversimplified his argument. However, he makes several more statements which seem to support what I’m arguing here. So, if I have understood him correctly, then we should not say that no-self is a fundamental Buddhist teaching, rather that Nagarjuna’s school at some point was considered to have won the argument, and that this teaching was adopted. That is important because any argument can be later revisited, which is my purpose here.
Buddhism seems to stand alone among the major spiritual traditions. Because it contains no Creator God, it is sometimes described as an atheistic philosophy rather than a religion. This possibly explains its appeal, especially to Westerners. How true is this portrayal, however? In order to answer this question, I’m going to discuss Ananda Coomaraswamy’s book Hinduism and Buddhism².
This online description makes the essential point: “As it has often been assumed by western outsiders that Buddhism can be reduced to an atheistic philosophy and a mere nihilism, it is refuted by Coomaraswamy, and he shows how Buddhism is a genuine expression of the eternal religion with the same true essence as in all true religions”.
An anonymous preface to the book, written presumably by the publisher, goes into more detail: “In this work he sets forth his ideas with his usual depth and insight to discard the wrong notions about the divergence in the basic philosophies of these two major religions that have been propounded by European scholars and by Indians trained in our modern sceptical and evolutionary modes of thought. Coomaraswamy has tried to show that the essentials of these religions are the same and form what may be called as the Philosophia Perennis or the Eternal Philosophy. His contention is that Hinduism and Buddhism are not contradictory but the one is a development out of the massive foundation of the other. It is only to those who have made a superficial study that Buddhism seems different from Brahmanism; the more profound is the study, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish Buddhism from Brahmanism”. “He shows that in essentials (Buddhism) was the same as Hinduism and that Buddha did not strive ‘to establish a new order to restore an older form’. In sum, the basic philosophy of great religions is drawn from a common fount and the new religions are but the recognition of a common thought manifested under different forms”.
If that is the case, what does Coomaraswamy have to say about the supposed major difference between Hinduism with its belief in a permanent self (atman), and Buddhism with its doctrine of no-self (anatta)? He concludes that the idea of no-self is a misunderstanding.
He begins by quoting some authors who have made this mistake:
- Winifred Stephens: “Buddhism in its purity ignored the existence of a God; it denied the existence of a soul; it was not so much a religion as a code of ethics” (p 48). He comments: “We can understand the appeal of this on the one hand to the rationalist and on the other to the sentimentalist. Unfortunately for these, all three statements are untrue… It is with another Buddhism than this that we are in sympathy and are able to agree; and that is the Buddhism of the texts as they stand”.
- M. V. Bhattacharya, who maintained that the Buddha taught that “there is no Self, or Ātman”
- an unnamed Buddhist scholar, contributing to a dictionary: “The soul… is described in the Upanishads as a small creature in shape like a man… Buddhism repudiated all such theories” (both quotes, p 76).
He comments that such statements “still survive in all popular accounts of ‘Buddhism’. It is of course true that the Buddha denied the existence of a ‘soul’ or ‘self’ in the narrow sense of the word, but this is not what our writers (i.e. those just quoted) mean to say, or are understood by their readers to say; what they mean to say is that the Buddha denied the immortal, unborn and Supreme Self of the Upanishads. And that is palpably false. For he frequently speaks of this Self or Spirit, and nowhere more clearly than in the repeated formula na me so attā, “That is not my Self”, excluding body and the components of empirical consciousness, a statement to which the words of Sankara are peculiarly apposite, “Whenever we deny something unreal, it is with reference to something real” (Br. Sūtra III.2.22); as remarked by Mrs. Rhys Davids, “so, ‘this one’, is used in the Suttas for utmost emphasis in questions of personal identity. It was not for the Buddha, but for the natthika, to deny this Self! And as to ‘ignoring God’ (it is often pretended that Buddhism is ‘atheistic’), one might as well argue that Meister Eckhart ‘ignored God’ in saying ‘niht, daz ist gote gelich, wande beide niht sind’ ”. (Unfortunately this is medieval German, and even a German friend of mine is unable to make sense of it. Coomaraswamy’s point is clear, however. Eckhart would never deny God, and likewise the Buddha never said anything that could be considered atheistic.)
The doctrine of no-self seems therefore to be not a teaching of the Buddha; it is either a teaching of a later Buddhist school, or a misunderstanding by later Buddhists and other commentators, or a combination of the two. Coomaraswamy is only one voice, and one might argue, given that he was a Traditionalist subscribing to the Perennial Philosophy, that he would be bound to arrive at these conclusions. He was, however, an extremely knowledgeable scholar of great distinction, a significant authority in matters of religion. If anyone can find fault in what he says, point it out. Then we can have a proper debate.
In any case, does this question have any practical relevance? Both Hindus and Buddhists are seeking to meditate their way to enlightenment. Does it really make any difference whether the entity doing this is illusory or not?
If interested in this debate, please see also the illuminating response to this article by StillJustJames. See also the critical response by John Driggs.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Hindu Scriptures, Dominic Goodall, Phoenix, 1996, p139
2. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996