How the notion of a soul or atman arose

At Geshe Sonam's Tuesday evening "Insight Teaching", he explained, among other things, how the notion of a soul (Christian traditions) or atman (Hindu traditions) probably arose. Then he compared that notion with the Buddhist view that an independent, permanent, unitary self or soul does not exist. He began, as usual with some comments on the prayer of refuge and bodhicitta.


Notes Taken by Len Warren on 17 June 2014

Refuge: Moral Discipline

Motivate before taking Refuge with a kind heart. The mind should not be going to distractions or negative objects. 


Do not commit any unwholesome action.

Enjoy accumulating perfect virtue.

And subdue your mind completely.

This is the teaching of the Buddha.


You must make an effort to perform virtuous actions and not to create negativities. The suffering that we don’t want and the happiness that we seek do not come about from no cause, or from a permanent cause, e.g. God. They arise from bad actions and good actions. There is no other way to get what we desire. Wholesome actions result in happiness. Not committing non-virtuous actions ensures freedom from suffering. When virtuous karmas are created, happiness follows. Perfected, they result in higher rebirths, liberation and enlightenment. On the other hand, negative actions destroy mental peace. An agitated, unhappy mind must have come from previous negative actions. That’s what defines a negative action. It harms both yourself and others. Since sentient beings cherish their life most of all, killing a sentient being is very heavy karma. The mind of ill-will has the objective of robbing the peace of another being or beings. Since that is the outcome, ill will must be negative. Buddha’s main concern was that we subdue our minds in order to create happiness. That’s our main job.


The Buddhist doctrine can be divided into:

  1. Scriptures
  2. Realizations


Under scripture comes the tripitaka of the vinaya, the sutras and manifest knowledge. In dependence on what is expressed in the tripitaka, we gain realizations. The mode of attaining the realizations is the three higher trainings: ethics, concentration and wisdom. Thoroughly subduing your mind refers to the ethics of restraint. Ethics is the heart of the vinaya. With this in mind, we take Refuge.


The Actual Generation of the Two Selflessnesses

First, we settle on the selflessness of persons.

  1. Identify what a person is
  2. See that person as lacking a self, or lacking inherent existence


From the perspective of a Buddhist in any of the four schools of tenet holders, the person, the I, and the self are the same. A person is that which is merely labelled on the basis of the five aggregates, and ‘person’ is the label given. This definition refutes the notion of a permanent self, an atman, which is an independent entity not dependent on the aggregates. The Buddhist view is thus clearly differentiated from non-Buddhist views. 


The Buddhist notion of selflessness varies from ‘gross’ to ‘subtle’, depending on the school. The Middle Way Consequentionalist School (MWCS) or Madyamaka Prasangika notion of  a person being merely labelled on the basis of the aggregates is the most subtle view. 


Definition of Persons and Arya Beings

A person is:

  1. A vessel full of negativities, ignorance, greed, attachment, hatred and so on, 
  2. Sure to fall to the lowest levels in their many rebirths


Persons are of six classes; the beings of the six realms of cyclic existence. Another classification of persons is into ordinary persons and arya beings. Again, persons can be thought of as accumulators of black and white karma, which directs their rebirths. Black karmas lead to rebirths in the lower three realms and great suffering. Persons experience all six realms as a result of their positive and negative actions. 


Those with the wisdom realizing emptiness are arya beings. These beings are ‘superior’ in the sense that they have seen the way things really are, unlike ordinary beings who believe in appearances, and haven’t seen the selflessness of beings and phenomena. Just as sick persons have no strength, aryas have made their negative karmas so ‘sick’ that they can no longer propel them into cyclic existence. And they do not accumulate any more throwing karma.


The View of Self as a ‘Fiendish Mind’

From the Commentary on the Entrance to the Middle Way:


This so-called ‘self’ is a fiendish mind and

You have come to hold this view.

The compositional aggregates are empty.

There is no sentient being here.


This sutra is saying that the person is merely labelled on the basis of the five aggregates. Ultimately, the person doesn’t exist. What doesn’t exist inherently must be selfless.  When a person first appears to us, we see an independent, inherently existing person, and we cling to that appearance. This is a ‘fiendish mind’. Fiends or maras are both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. The outer maras try to harm your life force. The inner maras are the four gross and subtle obscurations.


The gross obscurations are the aggregates, death, the kleshas, and distractions. There are 84,000 afflictive emotions or kleshas, the mara of afflictions. Unawareness is clinging to a self when there is none. The primary klesha is a fiendish mind that clings to a self that doesn’t exist. Attachment and aversion arise, followed by the other afflictions. The five afflictions are desirous attachment, pride, ignorance, anger and doubt. Awareness of the self comes a sense of the ‘other’. Where there is self, there is other. This is the power of innate clinging. We are attached to me and mine, and averse to others who are a threat to me and mine. Attachment to loved ones leads to mental fabrications that exaggerate the qualities of me and mine. We may even fight with others. The main point is that the mental afflictions destroy oneself: our happiness, higher rebirths, liberation. This comes from not abiding in the ten virtues. Out of ignorance we harm others, destroy our ethical discipline, and ourselves.


We have come to the the view of the fiendish mind, a mistaken view. Overpowered by ego clinging, we view ourselves as inherently existent. There are two types of self-clinging:

  1. Instinctual or innate clinging
  2. Intellectually acquired clinging.

Animals have innate but not intellectually acquired self-clinging. Religious or philosophical enquiry leads to a world view, and thus to intellectually acquired ego clinging. 


How the Notion of Soul or Atman Arose

The Dalai Lama thinks this may go back 6000 years to the early Hindus. It was observed that the body changes as we age: youth, adulthood, old age, sickness, death. But it feels to us that our inner self is always there, always the same, independent of the body. In the Hindu tradition, some people can recall previous lives, previous bodies. Therefore, they reason, that which is reborn must be the self, the atman, the soul, existing past, present and future. Whereas the body is a collection of MANY the atman is ONE. The body changes but the atman is permanent. This intellectually acquired grasping at a self is but a ‘facsimile of the truth’. The last sentence of the verse, “There is no sentient being here” means don’t mistake the basis for the person, or the appropriator for the appropriated. The third and fourth lines together refute the atman existing over and above the five aggregates.There is no person other than the aggregates and they are empty also.


Buddhist Views of the Self

Most Buddhists would say that you can find the self somewhere in the collection of body and mind. The person is labelled on the aggregates, body and mind, and you can ‘establish’ the person from that basis. The Middle Way Autonomous School (MWAS) hold the view that the mental consciousness is the self since that is what is reborn again and again. But Nagarjuna points to the error of this view: it implies that the mental consciousness and the person become ONE thing. When we say ‘My body, my mind,’ the sense is that there are two things, the mind labelling consciousness and the aggregate of body or mind. The appropriator and the appropriated can’t be one thing. The person and their meal are different, they can’t be the same thing. 


The person can’t be other than the aggregate and depends on the aggregate. When we say ‘I’m young, or I’m old or I’m sick’ we say this in dependence on the body. The self at that moment depends on the body at that moment. When we say ‘He’s ugly,’ we mean that the person themselves is ugly, the self is ugly, and we get this view from the appearance of the body.


Self-cherishing is not classified as a disturbing emotion or affliction.

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