On the No Soul doctrine and reincarnation

Panta rhei. All flows. Everything changes. No man ever steps in the same river twice.

You know where this comes from. It’s not Buddhist, but it could be. It is attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the early Greek philosophers – or physikoi, as Aristotle called them: ‘physicists’, after physis, i.e. ‘nature’. Aristotle gave them this epithet because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (‘theologians’), whose ‘philosophies’ were based on religious beliefs.

Heraclitus lived around the same time as the historical Buddha (i.e. in the 5th century BCE) and, just for the record, at that time, Ephesus was a major trading city on the Anatolian peninsula (i.e. Asia Minor), connecting the East and the West. In fact, even today it is one of the best-preserved ancient cities. Hence, it is quite possible that the historical Buddha, as a well-educated young prince (Siddhārta), knew about these Greek ‘physicists’ who, for all practical purposes, we’d call freethinkers and atheists today.

I like to think that the historical Buddha was a rebel-philosopher too: a social revolutionary who fell out with the Hindu priest class (Brahmins), and who intended to ‘set in motion the Wheel of Dharma’ to do away with religion, rather than creating a new religion with its own priest class and its own set of dogmas. In fact, what we know of Heraclitus’ philosophy strongly correlates with what, in Buddhist thought, is referred to as the three marks of existence:

  1. Anicca (impermanence),
  2. Dukkha (suffering), and
  3. Anattā (no-soul).

These three concepts – or doctrines, I should say – form a coherent whole, which is why I consider them to reflect the true ‘spirit’ of Buddhist thought. The following description of dukkha as ‘a permanent state of angst’ captures the idea:

“Over a web of desire and frustration hangs the presence of sickness, old age and death […], which casts a pall of anxiety over ourselves and all our relationships.” (Jo Durden Smith, The Essence of Buddhism, 2004)

The Four Noble Truths

We also have the Four Noble Truths. Let me quote them from the sutra on the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), which is part of the Buddhist Canon. I quote the ‘original’ just to make sure that a small mistake in the beginning does not become a big one in the end. 🙂

Here you go:

  1. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates [i.e. the skandhas] subject to clinging are suffering.
  2. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
  3. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
  4. Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

The Pāli Canon was written some 450 years after the death of the historical Buddha, and it was written in Sri Lanka, an island, some 1500 miles away from where he was born and lived. Hence, we should read the Buddhist Canon just like we would read the Bible or the Quran, i.e. with a pinch of salt, because we don’t know how accurate it is in terms of representing what the Gautama actually thought and taught. In fact, a priori, I would think that the New Testament and the Quran are likely to more accurately reflect the views of the historical Jesus and Mohammed respectively, because, unlike the Buddhist Canon, these texts were written relatively shortly after their death and, hence, there was less time to ‘canonize’ it all. Of course, Buddhists will point out that there is no reason to think that the oral transmission from the 5th century BCE to the first century BCE was somehow adulterated. However, that’s another discussion and it’s not relevant here because I actually have no issue whatsoever with these ‘truths’.

I do have an issue, however, with the doctrine of re-birth or reincarnation that Buddhist Canon associates with the second Noble Truth. I believe that, when we are dead, we are dead. We have no soul. That’s, in essence, what the Buddhist anattā doctrine is all about and, in my not so humble opinion, it’s not consistent with the doctrine of re-birth. Re-becoming and re-birth or reincarnation are not the same. So what is re-becoming?

Let me quickly get through the unavoidable pedantic remarks, if only to give you the impression that I know what I am talking about – which is an assumption which you should not take for granted.

1. Let me start with the mundane. If we’re going to use foreign words, the least we can do, is try to get the pronunciation right, isn’t it? As for the pronunciation of anattā (that’s Pāli: in Sanskrit it’s anātman), you can check it on the Web: the ā is basically a long a, and also marks where the stress is placed on the word.

2. The terms an-attā/an-ātman combine attā/ātman with the privative a– or an-, which negates or inverts. It’s the same privative in Ancient Greek (e.g. atypical or anarchy). In Latin, it’s in- (e.g. inactive) or im- (e.g. imperfect). In English and Germanic languages it’s un- (e.g. unknown).

3. This similarity leads me to a more general remark about these foreign languages. We’re lucky: Pāli and Sanskrit are, obviously, Indo-European languages and, hence, we can more or less trust that the attā/ātman concept and the ‘Western’ notion of a soul (however one would want to define it) are strongly correlated indeed. Correlations with terms used in Chinese or Japanese Buddhism, expressed in Sino-Tibetan or Japonic languages, may not be so strong.

4. I actually don’t like the excessive use of foreign terms because, for me, it’s pretty obvious that, to a great extent, Eastern thought appeals to us Westerners because we do not understand the language. Using foreign words allows us to load meaning onto strange words that may actually not have the meaning we, as non- or non-native speakers, associate with them. There is a Shangri-La or Lost Horizon effect here: Buddhism often attracts us Westerners as part of the exoticism or romanticism associated with Orientalism. [If you’re not convinced, think about why you like The Last Samurai movie: I am sure it’s not only because of Tom Cruise.]

5. Finally, I’ll be very pedantic and give you even more useless specifics about the languages involved here. Pāli is the language in which the early Buddhist canons have been preserved. It is a largely unattested language. Unattested means that the language is dead (so no one speaks it any more) and that no inscriptions or literature survived. Hence, to a large extent, Pāli has been reconstructed as a language. It’s close to Sanskrit, a more literary language which served as the lingua franca in the Indian cultural zone. While Pāli is said to be close (or even identical) to the language that the historical Buddha was using, who can know for sure? Therefore, the author of the Wikipedia article on Pāli simply concludes his article as follows: “Whatever the relationship of the Buddha’s speech to Pāli, the Canon was eventually transcribed and preserved entirely in it that language.”

OK. Sorry for all of the above. Let’s return to the real question. What about this ‘re-becoming’? What is it?

Frankly, I don’t know. Who knows what the Enlightened One had in mind? Let me quote Wikipedia on it:

There is no word corresponding exactly to the English terms “rebirth”, “metempsychosis”, “transmigration” or “reincarnation” in the traditional Buddhist languages of Pāli and Sanskrit: the entire process of change from one life to the next is called “becoming again”(Sanskrit: punarbhava, Pāli: punabbhava), or more briefly “becoming” (Pāli/Sanskrit: bhava), while the state one is born into, the individual process of being born or coming into the world in any way, is referred to simply as “birth” (Pāli/Sanskrit: jāti). The entire universal process of beings being reborn again and again is called “wandering about” (Pāli/Sanskrit: samsāra).

[…] I don’t think that is of much help. Let’s try to think about it for ourselves.

The soul in the West and the East

In order to discuss the Oriental No Soul and reincarnation doctrines, we should first explore the Western concept of the soul (and its supposed transmigration to some ‘life after this life’) somewhat more in depth, so let’s do that.

There is a philosophical as well as a religious dimension to that discussion, which we should – ideally – distinguish. However, the medieval European thinkers who reflected on all this were both physikoi as well as theologoi. Indeed, some of what we now regard as ‘religious beliefs’ (the existence of God, for example) were considered to be fundamental philosophical truths in those dark times. Hence, making a distinction between what’s philosophical and what’s religious is not always easy. But I am digressing too much. Let’s try to crack the nut I want to crack here.

Eminent writers on Buddhism (I introduced D.T. Suzuki in my previous post, and I’ll soon introduce Christmas Humphreys, the founder of the Buddhist Society in Britain) look down on all those medieval European intellectuals who were trying to defend and define the concept of a soul. They basically assert that all these philosophers/theologians did nothing but continue the Greek philosophers’ search for the ‘essence’ of things, which is supposed to have led to the so-called “Western obsession with dualism.” Thomas Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia (on Being and Essence) is often quoted in this regard as the example of where and why things went wrong in Western philosophy.

To some extent, these ’eminent authors’ are right. Let me just take one quote out of Aquinas’ little work:

“There is a distinction among separate substances according to their grade of potency and act such that the superior intelligences, which are nearer the first cause, have more act and less potency, and so on. This scale comes to an end with the human soul, which holds the lowest place among intellectual substances. The soul’s possible intellect is related to intelligible forms just as prime matter (which holds the lowest place in sensible existence) is related to sensible forms.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter IV)

I am sure you’re shaking your head now: Oh my God ! What nonsense ! And right you are. What nonsense !

To quote one of these ’eminent authors’ (Jo Durden Smith, The Essence of Buddhism (2004): the essence of man according to Aquinas and other medieval Christian thinkers is a “sort of soul-substance carried by a greedy machine-like body from which it has to be freed”, instead of “an organic unity in which physical and psychic forces each have their own parts to play.”

So Buddhist thought is supposed to be non-dualist, and to be looking at man as an ‘organic unity’. OK. […] Let me relativize this rather simplistic view of things by quoting yet another paragraph from Aquinas’ booklet – which is probably more relevant to what Aquinas actually tried to do, and that’s to arrive at a synthesis of what was around at that time in terms of ideas and intellectual constructs (remember: we’re talking the 13th century here, and the intellectual agenda at that time was to reconcile religion and philosophy):

“In composite substances we find form and matter, as in man there are soul and body. We cannot say, however, that either of these is the essence of the thing.” (Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Chapter II)

That doesn’t “smack of dualism”, does it? In fact, I don’t see anything that’s wrong with this statement. Where’s the supposed dualism here? Of course, it’s a statement which we may no longer regard as accurate in light of what we know now but, taking into account Aquinas wrote this around A.D. 1250, it’s pretty good, I would think.

In fact, I don’t hesitate to say that Aquinas’ philosophical distinction between form and matter, as exposed above, is not incompatible with what we know about the physical world today. As I’ve just spent a year trying to understand quantum mechanics, I cannot resist the temptation to provide you with a rough summary of it. So here we go.

The physical world consists of elementary ‘particles’ – because of their quantum-mechanical nature (they’re described by complex wave functions), some prefer the term ‘wavicles’ – that interact with each other through one of four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetics, the strong force (which holds a nucleus together) and, finally, the so-called weak force (which is responsible for nuclear decay). Now, it’s not all that difficult to tweak Aquinas’ conceptual framework and say that the math describing the interactions gives ‘form’ to the ‘matter’, which, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, consists of:

  1. Matter-particles: (a) leptons (electrons and neutrinos) and (b) quarks basically, which come in three so-called ‘generations’.
  2. Bosons: (a) photons, (b) gluons, (c) W/Z bosons (these are the so-called gauge bosons, which act as force-carriers for the electromagnetic, strong and weak force respectively), and then (d) the Higgs boson, which was, until very recently, only a theoretical ‘missing link’, but so the 2012 LHC experiments unambiguously confirmed its existence. The Higgs boson (or Higgs field I should say) explains why some fundamental particles have mass and others don’t.

Just so you know, the Standard Model actually does not look ‘nice‘. On the contrary. It is complex, very complex. The diagrams below give you some kind of idea how messy it actually is. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, and it would be even less so if I’d throw in its Langrangian or other math describing its specifics. I am talking from experience: I’ve been studying the Standard Model for over a year now and, hence, I am qualified enough to say that the atomic theory of the Greeks, Buddhist metaphysics, and even Aquinas’ metaphysics, are all much simpler, and very much so.

Standard_Model_of_Elementary_Particles Elementary_particle_interactions_in_the_Standard_Model

So why don’t we adopt the simpler theories? Well… Why would we stick to Greek or medieval theories when we know that the theories and concepts which are used in particle physics, neuroscience, social biology, evolutionary psychology and what have you are much more accurate in terms of describing the actual world we are living in? So, in short, I’d say: there’s nothing wrong with Thomas Aquinas. He makes for an interesting read (although I doubt you’d want to read him) but… Well… It’s just outdated stuff and his religion is no longer ours. In short, we should move on.

I obviously feel the same about Buddhist metaphysics, so let me get back to my little battle with those ’eminent Buddhist writers’.

I’d say the ‘obsession with duality’ they identify with Western thought is, in fact, not limited to European or Christian philosophy. Worse, I’d say that this perceived ‘obsession’ is less pathological than they suggest. Indeed, from what I know about Western philosophy (it’s not a lot but, just for the record, one of my degrees actually is a BPhil), I would actually conclude that European philosophers – including the ancient Greek – were very well aware of the ‘duality trap’, as evidenced by the early adoption of dialectics as a method of philosophical thinking in order to overcome both dualism as well as reductionism. [In case you wonder what I mean with ‘reductionism’, let me quickly define reductionism here by abusing one of my favorite Hegelian quotes: reductionism is a tendency to reduce all differences to “the night in which all cows are black.”]

Let me even more rebellious and bold: I am actually of the opinion that most Buddhist writings, including all those of the Western writers on Buddhism which I mention in this post, smack much more of dualism than any of the Western philosophies they are criticizing in this regard. For example, when I read Christmas Humphreys’ Zen – A way of Life, I am almost dumbstruck by the excessive use of meaningless oppositions, among which the opposition between ‘being’ versus ‘non-being’ probably stands out.

Of course, to be fair to Humphreys, and to Buddhists in general, I must mention that he notes, as all these writers do, that these ‘oppositions’ are ‘overcome’ when one attains Enlightenment. I don’t think one needs to attain Enlightenment or nirvana in order to overcome these ‘oppositions’: I overcome them by considering them as metaphysical nonsense in the first place.

Christmas Humphreys is not just anyone, of course. In fact, that’s why I quote him, rather than some lesser authority on Buddhism. Indeed, Humphreys was the best-known British convert to Buddhism during his time, and the founder of the Buddhist Society in the UK, so my sparring with him here is, I admit, quite haughty. So be it. Singling out Humphreys has the advantage that he, at the very least, he does not hesitate to clearly articulate the canonical Buddhist doctrines and positions. So, in one chapter of his Zen – A way of Life, he dwells on the No Soul doctrine, while, in the next, he unambiguously states that the doctrine of Re-birth is equally fundamental to understanding (Zen) Buddhism. In fact, he actually writes that “Zen training is only usefully attempted with the aid of this doctrine.

What nonsense ! How can he not be aware of the glaring contradiction between the two?

Humphreys would probably say I do not understand a iota of Buddhism. Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think it should be obvious, for any honest intellectual, that the doctrine of re-birth (or reincarnation, or ‘transmigration’ of some ‘soul’ – which is what it amounts to), is nothing but a remnant of Buddhism’s Hindu roots (see below also) and that, just like in Christian metaphysics, such doctrine also leads to nothing but dualist thinking.

Let me complete my sermon here by elaborating a bit.

As mentioned above, Pāli and Sanskrit is sufficiently close to English to argue that the Pāli/Sanskrit concept of attā/ātman actually does represent the idea of a subjective Soul (i.e. some Self) surviving the death of the body. Humphreys should not try to wiggle his way out of that. Now, that implies that, according to the Buddhist Canon, there is some kind of permanent Self indeed. However, the idea of a permanent Self is an idea which, in Buddhist metaphysics, is explicitly rejected ! Indeed, Buddhists are supposed to (also) believe that what is normally thought of as the ‘self’ is nothing but an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents, generally referred to as skandhas (literally: aggregates).

Humphreys himself summarizes the theory of skandhas as follows: “All the components of the personality, the five skandhas of body, feelings, perceptions, karmic impulses and consciousness, are found to contain no ‘Self’ which we can call our own, still less a Self which is immortal and permanent. The thing we call ‘I’ is an illusion […].”

This reminds me of the bundle theory of the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, which is a more ‘western’ expression of the theory of skandhas. In fact, I must assume that Humphreys, as a well-trained barrister and judge, was intimately familiar with Hume’s writings. David Hume’s bundle theory is an ontological theory about objecthood in which the object consists only of a collection (bundle) of properties and relations. According to bundle theory, an object consists of its properties and its relations to other objects, and nothing more, “thus neither can there be an object without properties nor can one even conceive of such an object.” For example, bundle theory claims that thinking of an apple compels one also to think of its color, its shape, the fact that it is a kind of fruit, its cells, its taste, or of one of its other properties. Thus, the theory asserts that the apple is no more than the collection of its properties. Hence, according to Hume, there is no substance (or ‘essence’) in which the properties inhere.

That bundle theory makes sense, you’ll say. Yes. It does. In fact, what I’d say about this is what I’d say about Aquinas: nothing wrong with it. It’s just… Well… It’s just outdated and, hence, simplistic stuff, and so let’s move on. The point is that any honest intellectual would have a lot of trouble to reconcile the Buddhist metaphysical or ontological theory of skandhas with the doctrine of reincarnation – except, of course, when contradictory statements are being accepted as ‘meaningful’, but so I don’t want to go there.

Again, I acknowledge that I am sparring with very eminent writers here, but then – Surprise Surprise ! – I am actually in pretty good company here. For example, if you read Herman Hesse’s wonderful Siddharta, it is clear that he fully shares my view.

In fact, now that we are here, I’d like to note that Hesse also rightly identifies yet another fundamental contradiction in the Dhamma in his wonderful fictional account of the Buddha’s life: it’s the contradiction between Buddhism’s ‘message of salvation’ and its strict belief in causality (as expressed in the law of karma). I would tend to agree with Hesse’s observation, even if, personally, I actually am buying the Buddhist message of salvation. For me, Buddhism’s message of salvation resides in its emphasis on the power of the mind: in my view, it’s the power of analysis and (self-)consciousness that brings us some kind of salvation indeed. However, I’ll come back to this later and, hence, not dwell on this too much here.

So, what about it then? Well, when everything is said and done, it’s hard to escape the conclusion I mentioned above already: the Buddhist doctrine of Re-birth is nothing but a remnant from Buddhism’s Hindu roots and, taking into account the delay between the birth and death of the historical Buddha and the writing of the Buddhist Canon, it may well be that the historical Buddha did actually not believe in re-birth. Frankly, if he was a physikoi, he would not have.

In fact, my own little theory is that the monks who ‘canonized’ Buddhist thought some 450 years after the death of the historical Buddha just re-inserted the reincarnation theory, for the same reason why Thomas Aquinas couldn’t doubt the existence of God: for them, it was, most probably, a premise you wouldn’t want to challenge. When we’re dead, we’re dead. That’s hard to swallow, I guess. And so that’s why I think the reincarnation theory is just there to soften the blow.

Sacrilege? Perhaps. So be it. But so that’s my view indeed. Let me summarize it:

  1. I accept that the contradiction between the no-soul doctrine and the doctrine of re-birth is fundamental and, hence, cannot be solved.
  2. Hence, I feel we should drop one of the two.
  3. I’ve dropped the second one because – however one wants to look at it – any doctrine of re-birth requires an irrational or unscientific belief in some ‘essence’ of an individual human being indeed, and so I think that’s rubbish or – to use a less derogatory term – not in line with what I perceive as the ‘spirit’ of the Buddhist teachings.

To anticipate criticism: if you are somewhat familiar with the Buddhist Canon, you will say that I am misrepresenting it. You will point out that the doctrine of Re-birth and the law of karma are one and the same and, hence, it’s the law of cause and effect, i.e. the accumulated karma (good or bad), that goes beyond death. Not some ‘soul’. I will not elaborate on this but I feel this ‘explanation’ also belongs to the ‘realm of meaningless metaphysical statements.’ I have no doubt whatsoever on the law of cause and effect (it’s not easy to argue against determinism); however, I do not believe there is any rational basis for believing in the transmigration of a ‘soul’, or anything that comes near to it, and anything that has ‘individuality’ comes ‘near to it’, and that also includes the concept of ‘accumulated karma’, no matter how hard you try to camouflage it.

Religion and morals

Let me advance another reason why those monks would have stuck to a theory of re-birth. There is a more general moral-philosophical issue here. Put simply, it’s hard to deny that all doctrines of re-birth or reincarnation, whether they be Christian (or Jewish or Muslim), Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever, obviously serve a moral purpose in society, just like the concepts of heaven and hell in Christianity or, more generally, the concept of a Judgment Day in all Abrahamic religions – be they Christian (Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant), Islamic or Judaic. According to some, it’s hard to see how one could firmly ‘ground’ moral theory and avoid hedonism without such doctrine. One author who clearly is of this opinion and articulates it very well is the above-quoted Jo Durden Smith (see The Essence of Buddhism (2004), p. 68), and so he actually uses this pragmatic argument to ‘justify’ or ‘explain’ the doctrine of Re-birth.

I think that this approach to ‘justifying’, ‘explaining’ or ‘accepting’ the doctrine of reincarnation amounts to admitting the intellectual weakness of the whole argument. Personally, I don’t think we need this ‘ladder’ to ground moral theory: more modern moral theories do not need reincarnation theories or divine last judgments. So, in short, while the No Soul doctrine makes a lot of sense, the doctrine of Re-birth (or reincarnation) doctrine does not – in my not so humble opinion that is.

The No Soul doctrine in meditation

You probably noticed by now that I am quite dismissive of all of the writings I quote above, and of religious or philosophical texts and books in general. Indeed, I prefer hard science. Indeed,  I am of the opinion that they are not very relevant in terms of helping us to lead a ‘good’ life: the basics are fine, but digging further is a waste of time.

Having said that, I do like to think that the anattā doctrine is one of the few philosophical positions with a direct practical relevance. Indeed, I believe one can effectively reduce personal suffering – (such as ‘heartache’, for example 🙂 – by meditating and accepting that there is no real ‘me’, no ‘I’ or ‘self’ that is suffering.

In this regard, I could digress on what I see as the three fundamental phases or stages in meditation:

  1. Relax: ‘let go’,
  2. Focus: ‘observe the mind’, and
  3. Lose your individuality: ‘let the self evaporate’.

However, I will not go into more detail at this moment. Otherwise, this post risks becoming a long article, which is not my intent. What I can’t resist, however, is to conclude this post with a one-line 17th century ‘poem’, written by Matsuo Basho. [If you’ve read anything about Zen, you’ve heard his name before.] I think it captures the ‘spirit’ of the No Soul doctrine most beautifully:

On this road with no traveler, autumn night falls.

To be fair, when he wrote this, Matsuo Basho was obviously inspired by a much older verse, which captures the same idea:

Nirvana is, but not the man that enters it; 

The path is, but no traveler on it is seen.”

This comes out of the Visuddhi−Magga (quoted in: Bhikkhu Khantipālo, Buddhism Explained, 3rd edition, p. 161), a treatise written by Buddhaghosa, a Srilankan Buddhist scholar and commentator who lived in the 5th century, and whose commentaries are generally considered as the ‘orthodox’ understanding of Theravāda Buddhism, which is generally considered to be the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism (Theravāda literally means ‘the Teaching of the Elders’). It is said to be closer to early Buddhism than other existing Buddhist traditions, but it also sticks to the doctrine of re-birth.

Well… I’ll leave you with this because this post has become much too long indeed. Too many words ! 🙂


3 thoughts on “On the No Soul doctrine and reincarnation

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