One of the more challenging concepts to address for a Christian practicing Buddhism is the answer to the question “is there a soul if there is ‘no self’?” I believe there is an answer, but can I provide it without writing a very long book? Let’s see if I can make the argument!
I attempted to answer, “Can there Be A God in Buddhism?” and now I ask “Can you have a Buddhist soul?” The very first challenge is that we need to define the word “soul.” You see a soul is word we take for granted. We all just think we intuitively know what it means and what it is in Western society, but in reality it is a very rarely explored answer.
WHAT IS THE SOUL
The “soul” is often given a scientific and theological definition. In psychology the soul is the concept of mind and self. It is synonymous with psyche and identity. This is a corporeal understanding of a soul: a consciousness. Nevertheless, in Christian understanding, the soul is something separate from the body. It is a sentient spirit. St. Augustine believes that the soul was the “rider” of the horse (aka the body) and was the true person when not tainted with the temptations of the flesh. Can we find this theological definition in scripture?
In the Old Testament, the word that is used is nephesh (“breathing creature”). The translation of the word soul in English can’t be made because it doesn’t exist in Hebrew. This is why the Jewish faith doesn’t have the concept of the eternal soul and the Christian concept of heaven and hell.
Genesis 2:7 “ God formed man from the dust and breathed life into him to become a living soul” Genesis 1:24 “ God said let the Earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping things and beast of the Earth after his kind and it was so.”Ezekiel 18:4 “Behold all souls are mind; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine. The soul that sinneth shall die.”
All of these passages in the English read different, but in the original Aramaic, the word for living creature and living soul are both naphesh. So in the Hebrew understanding, the soul is the living essence of a human being. Not immortal by their understanding. So how does Christianity make that paradigm shift in an immortal soul?
In the New Testament the dialogue changes. With Greek philosophical influences that mirror those of St. Augustine, we now hear about the life after death experience for the soul. The New Testament was written in Greek and the Greek word used was a variant of “psyche” for soul. At the time, this was a synonym for naphesh, but as since taken on different understanding throughout history.
John 3:15 “Whosoever hate his brother is a murderer; and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”John 6:40 “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
As you can see, the dialectic of the New Testament lends itself to a new conversation of the promise of an afterlife. What was just a consciousness is now an identity that continues on after death. The soul then is promised to be immortal in a heaven where life continues forever.
THE BUDDHA AND THE SOUL
The Buddha was once directly asked whether there was a soul. He did not answer. When asked by his monks why and his response was that to answer in the affirmative or negative distracted from the practice of Right View.
The three core truths of Buddhism are annica (impermanence), anatta (no self) and dukkha (distress or dissatisfaction). Anatta is often given the term “no soul,” which is a poor translation. That is because the word anatta does not have a simple one or two-word translation.
The Buddha says that there is no self, because the idea of a permanent identity does not make sense. If we were permanent and unchanging then we would be no different today than we were ten years ago, or when we were born. As we travel through time, we are forever changing.
Heraclitus said, “No man steps in the same river twice.” That is because while the river is identified as the experience in front of us, it is forever changing it shape, it material, its reality. Our identities are like a river, continually changing. So if we are not who we were a moment ago, then how can we say we are “I” or “self?” We can’t.
“And why do you call it ‘consciousness’? Because it cognizes, thus it is called consciousness. What does it cognize? It cognizes what is sour, bitter, pungent, sweet, alkaline, non-alkaline, salty, & unsalty. Because it cognizes, it is called consciousness.” — SN 22.79
Nevertheless, the Buddha does acknowledge that there is an awareness of being. Something that is separate from the thought machine, smelling, touching, seeing, hearing tasting entity we associate with our identity. It is this core essence that continues on after death like a candle that passes a flame to another candle. Not the same but continuity: much the same way the river was a continuity metaphor during our life.
This could be—by original definition of the Hebrew or Greek be given to the idea of naphesh and psyche. It could be considered a soul by an academic standard. And since a soul doesn’t have to be eternal (the Bible does talk about the ability to extinguish the soul)—a soul living forever is determined by the quality of the soul. The passage of the soul to another existence is also determined by the life lived in the world today. There are even talks about heavens and hells that are possible (although to many these are metaphorical heavens and hells).
THE CHRISTIAN WHO PRACTICES BUDDHISM
One of the great things about the Buddha is that he all he asks is to try his practice of enlightenment. In the Kalama Sutta, when asked why they should follow Buddha instead of others, he (in short) said “try it” and if you did not find truth in the practice discard it.
Not every Buddhist is working towards finding enlightenment in a single lifetime. And not every practitioner of Buddhism is a Buddhist. Other than those who are taking vows for higher practice (such as anagarikas, monks and ministers) no one has to pronounce themselves Buddhist. It is a practice that is meant to enrich the quality of your life.
To be a Christian, there needs to be that acceptance that Jehovah created the Universe, which Jesus is God manifested as man, that his life became a conduit to allow humans to ascend to a heavenly existence.
For some, it is impossible to allow both faiths to exist. To acknowledge one is to betray the loyalty to another. Nevertheless, there are many who do not see the conflict of using Buddhist practices to enrich their Christian faith. And with a deeper understanding and exploration into the question and possibilities of the idea of “the soul” and “anatta” we can create a more enlightened experience in this life, regardless of what exists after death.