Does the Soul Really Exist?

On 27 May 2014, Geshe Sonam continued his teachings on ‘Insight’ or ‘The Realization of Emptiness’. To reach the lesser nirvana of liberation or the greater nirvana of enlightenment, an understanding of – and in fact a direct realization of – emptiness is necessary. So although it is a difficult topic we should make an effort now to understand the lack of inherent existence of all things.




Generating a Realization of Selflessness

  1. Stages of generating the two selflessnesses
  2. The way they are generated by stages
  3. Selflessness


First we grasp at the self of the phenomenon (the five aggregates), then we grasp at the self of the person.But in terms of understanding and realization, the order is reversed. Both graspings are rooted in the first of the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination: ignorance, innate grasping or ego clinging. Through ignorance, one sees a self-existent I and grasps at that I as the self of the person. There are two types of self-grasping: innate and intellectually acquired. To understand the difference we need to understand the difference between the Buddhists and non-Buddhists. 


Many of the great scholars refer to this difference between the two schools of thought, including Aryadeva, Shantarakshita, and Shantideva. How do non-Buddhists view the self? They posit a soul or atman that is permanent, partless and independent. But Buddhists posit a self that is selfless or in other words, anatman. It is selfless because it depends on other conditions and causes. It is empty of being independent and autonomous. The ‘self’ ends up being a mere nomination or label. Also, all Buddhist schools accept the Four Great Seals of Buddhism.


Four Great Seals of Buddhism

  1. All compounded things are impermanent. 
  2. All emotions are pain. 
  3. All things have no inherent existence. 
  4. Nirvana is beyond concepts.                  


Alternatives to Seal No. 2: 

All conditioned things are dukkha (suffering); 

All defiled or corrupted phenomena have the nature of the three sufferings; 

Everything that deteriorates is suffering


The Notion of Soul

The notion of soul comes from intellectual analysis; one comes to the conclusion that the soul is an autonomous entity, independent of the five aggregates. As an example, consider your body. It is not the same now as it was when you were in the womb, or a child, teenager or young adult. Our mind is different too. It now has much knowledge, and many experiences. Yet from a young age we have had the notion of my body, my mind. There is this instinctive notion of an unchangeable I, even though we can see that our body and mind have changed.That instinctive notion gives rise to the concept of ‘soul’. 


Some scholars take the logic further. They say that there is future life, but that the body is left behind and the soul goes on. That is the permanent unchangeable me. We grasp at this notion of a permeant self that doesn’t change moment by moment, that is a single entity, partless, and not dependent on causes and conditions.


Selflessness According to the Autonomous Middle Way School

But all the four buddhist schools (followers of sutra, of reason, mind only and middle way, or, Vaibhashika, Sautrantika, Cittamatra and Madhyamika) say we are selfless. However, the level of subtlety in the understanding of selflessness increases towards the Middle Way School. It itself is divided into the Autonomous Middle Way School (AMWS) and the Consequentialist Middle Way School (CMWS). The AMWS says that phenomena are inherently existent; something must exist from the side of the object and that something must be findable. Bhavaviveka says in the Blaze of Reasoning that since the mind or mental consciousness takes rebirth, it must be the self. So what’s wrong with that logic? Well, the self must be findable amongst the five aggregates that act as its base. 


Bhavaviveka: The Mind Must Exist Inherently

Now the self can’t be any of the first four aggregates of form, feelings, discrimination and composite factors, because these cease at death. Therefore the mental consciousness must be the self. Bhavaviveka asks the question: if you can’t find something on the conventional level, then how can it function? Therefore the mental consciousness must be the I. Consider the example of a wild animal seeing a mirage and believing there is water there. As it approaches it sees there is no water. Bhavaviveka argues that if there is nothing substantially existing from the side of the object, it doesn’t exist. So if the mind is empty of inherent existence, it doesn’t exist.

  1. Something must exist from the side of the object
  2. There must be a mind that labels that object


Selflessness According to The Consequentialist Middle Way School

The CMWS interprets the same experiences in an opposite way! The Consequentialists say that nothing exists absolutely, and all phenomena are mere nominations. 


From Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland:


Persons aren’t earth nor water

Aren’t fire, wind nor space

Aren’t consciousness.

If they are none of these

What could persons be other than that?


Since beings are composites of the six elements

They are not real.

And just like that

All elements are composites too

And therefore are not real either.


The first verse says what beings are not, including not the mind. Bhavaviveka is refuted by the last line: What could persons be other than that? The second verse says that beings are composites of the six elements. However, what is implied is that when you search you can’t find the being in any one of the elements or their collection. Yet at the same time we can’t find a self separate from the six elements. This is subtle point. We can’t find a person who is a composite of the elements nor one who is not. If you don’t search for the person one exists nominally or conventionally. So the conclusion is that that person is merely labelled a person on the basis of the six elements. 


Since the person is a composite of the six elements, they are not unitary and independent, therefore they can’t exist inherently. If you analyze the six elements you find that they themselves are composites, made of parts, and that they can’t exist inherently either. So the first verse is about the selflessness of persons and the second deals with the selflessness of phenomena. The elements are said to be comprised of parts, are part-possessors. Therefore they are not independent, existing from their side, inherent. 


Analyzing the Element of Earth

Consider the element of earth or solid things. A solid thing is composed of parts, and these can be analysed in terms of direction: N, S, E, and W. The smallest most subtle particle has to have a front and a back, because it moves. Scientists find that subatomic particles are in ceaseless motion. They are not partless; they are therefore dependent on their parts. Such an analysis in terms of directions, applies to earth, water, fire and wind. Space too can be analyzed in terms of its directions. However, consciousness does not have ‘form’ and so it can’t be analysed in terms of directions. In this case we use time, prior moments and present moments. The most subtle mind at this moment depends on the existence of a subtle mind in the prior moment, which depends on a previous moment and so on. Hence the mind is beginningless. 


What Goes to the Next Life?

What goes on to the next life? The mind that doesn’t exist inherently goes on to the next life. It is the most subtle level of mind that goes on. This is also called the fundamental clear light mind. Karmas exist as potencies or imprints on this mind and go to the next life with us. The mind acts as the basis for both samsara and nirvana. There is a ‘subject clear light’ and an ‘object clear light’. Both lack inherent existence. The object clear light is the emptiness of the mind. The fundamental clear light mind is the subject clear light. The continuum of the mind is continually changing but is never extinguished. Consider the eye consciousness.  Its external form is the eye organ; this is associated with the eye consciousness, which depends on a previous moment of consciousness. If you have a problem with your eye organ, you may not be able to perceive forms. On the other hand, the clear light mind cannot be affected by any of these external conditions. But it is impermanent and can be affected by karmic imprints. 


Meaning of a Person Being ‘Merely Labelled’

A person is merely labelled on then basis of the six elements. here, ‘mere’ is a negation of something existing from the side of the basis. It cuts the notion that the elements are real. The person functions, but is merely labelled. 


There are three qualifications for conventional things: 


  1. It can’t be harmed by conventional analysis, by a valid conventional cognition
  2. It can’t be harmed by ultimate analysis by an ultimate cognition
  3. It is merely labelled by conception and mind


The CMWS posits that no other valid cognition can harm this view of conventional things.

This entry was posted in Insight notes, Student Notes from Geshelas talks. Bookmark the permalink.