Doctrine of Non-Soul | Early Buddhism 3


1. The Doctrine of Non-Soul

We may well believe that the search after the nature and destiny of the soul was a craze of the time when the Buddha lived

and that the enquiry was not limited to the impediment to its ethical life and spiritual develop­ment but included also an investigation into its constitution and its rela­tion to the body.

Generally speaking, the body-mind relation was regarded as a negative one in the Upaniṣads out of which both the Vedanta and the Sāṁkhya took their rise, and so also in Jainism and Buddhism.

The loathsome character of the constituents and contents of the organism, the deceptive nature of bodily beauty, which is only skin-deep, the troublesomeness of the impulses proceeding from organic needs and temptations prompted by sense-feelings,

the necessity of getting the soul finally extricated from the prison-house of the body and, as a preparation thereto, the adoption of ascetic practices, indifference to bodily dis­comforts and even deliberate mortification of the flesh -

- were all emphasized to bring out this negative relation.

Enquiry into the nature of the soul brought out an astonishing variety of speculations—materialism and absolutism,

in both of which the finite self disappeared as a reality in different ways, and dualism in which it retained its independent existence, though not with the same attributes according to the different Schools of thought.

Between the two opposite viewpoints of eternalism (whether absolutistic or dualistic) and annihilation-ism lies the creed of the Buddha

that though there is no unchanging self (ātman), still it is not a function of matter and is not completely denuded of all causal efficacy when its particular bodily embodiment ceases to exist.

The negation of the soul (anātma-vāda) amounts only to this, that its entitative persistence is denied.

Vijñāna (consciousness), which operates in the mother's womb to form a new being (nāma-rūpa), is not a transmigratory soul, though like the latter it controls the assemblage of material elements, but a saṅkhāra which is changeable and unsubstantial in character.

In the famous dialogue between king Milinda (the Greek prince, Menander), and monk Nāgasena, known as Milinda-pañha, what is sought to be brought out is –

that just as the body is a complex of many parts or elements, so also what we call an individual (later on designated as jīva or pudgala) is a similar complex of physical and psychical elements and that both are ultimately liable to dissolution into their components.

The Five Aggregations

The number of factors that enter into individuality are five—these five skandhas or aggregates are comprised under two heads,

i.e. rūpa or physical form, composed ultimately of the four material elements (earth, water, air and fire),

and nāma or the psychical factor distributed into four types, namely:

sensation or feeling (vedanā), perception or idea (saṁjñā), conative disposition (saṁskāra) and discriminative intellection or reason (vijñāna, which is to be distinguished, however, from the vijñāna of the causal series)

- with slight variation of titles in different texts and with detailed subdivisions, running into nearly two hundred elements, all ephemeral.

Thus the Upaniṣadic nāma-rūpa or phenomenal existence takes a new meaning in Buddhism to indicate the group of experiences or elements (five aggregates).

The assemblage of presentations, repre­sentations and ideas, habits and dispositions, feelings and sentiments make up the entire texture of our personality,

and all these are changing constantly like a mass of foam or bubbles and are ultimately unreal like a mirage, the trunk of a plantain tree, a spectre or magical illusion, so that there is nothing abiding in our psychical life to which the term soul (ātman) might correspond.

The psychical contents form a stream (santāna, a term which played a notable part in later literature) in which individual states are instantaneous (kṣaṇika)

either absolutely, in the sense of dis­appearing at the moment of origination, or relatively, in the form of a specious present in which the three phases of origination, persistence and decay are logically inseparable.

Is there any permanent being behind these clear and obscure, simple and complex thoughts, pleasurable and painful feelings, impulses and tendencies, predispositions and residual impressions?

None at all, just as behind and beyond the various parts that make up a chariot there is" no additional substance called “chariot” which abides even in the absence of the component parts.

The soul cannot be regarded as identical with, or as possessing or as containing, or as residing in the material particles, sensations, ideas, propensities and thought.

It is quite likely that the concept underwent development in the mind of the Buddha and that while earlier in his teachings the self is not expressly denied and only its eternity was the problem discussed (e.g. in the Brahmajāla- sutta),

later on ātma- vāda was included within the heresies (Sakkāya-diṭṭhi, heresy of indivi­duality) as implying a kind of grasping (upādāna) and an approach towards Upaniṣadic absolutism and the ritualistic (Mimāṅsā) position, which Buddhism rejected (except perhaps in the Burden-sutta of the Sañyutta-Nikāya).

In the Anatta-lakkhaṇa-sutta it is the impermanence, changefulness and painfulness of the skandhas that are held up as being not consistent with their being identical with the self,

though this does not prevent the supposition that something opposite in nature might still be the self.

Consciousness being also a product cannot be abiding in character or be the vehicle of transmigration. A new life is generated from an old just as a new candle is lighted from an old one, namely, without the passage of any substance from the former to the latter.

Just as a burnt-out candle cannot ignite another, so the dissolution of the birth-producing aggre­gation stops the birth of a fresh grouping of the skandhas with which a new individuality is identified.

But the Buddha takes care to point out that if karma (merit or demerit) be the connecting link between one per­sonality and another, this karma cannot be killed by rigor discipline as Jainism and Ājīvikaism emphasized,

but must be combated with the triple purity (viśuddhi) of ethical action (śīla), mental training (samādhi) and complete knowledge or insight into the nature of the fourfold truth (prajñā),

and by cultivating universal friendliness and other sublime attitudes (Brahma-vihāra-bhāvanā) and, according to some accounts, by ascending the successive stages of mastery and release, which, by the way, were passed through by the Buddha himself just before his great decease (parinibbāna).

What prevents aggregation is the destruction of the āsavas (lust, desire for existence, ignorance or false views)

and the Buddha took care to point out that without discarding the three fetters of belief in a permanent individuality, doubt and belief in the efficacy of mere ethics and rituals, no one could even get into the stream of salvation (sotāpatti), the first stage of sanctification, much less attain nibbāna.

But for further progress in spirituality and to get into the second stage(sakadāgāmin, once-returner), one has to discard three poisons of the mind - passions (rāga), aversion (dveṣa) and delusion (moha).

Higher still are those who get into the third stage and never return (anāgāmin), but live out a diaphanous (opapātika, apparitional) existence in a higher plane (like the krama-muktas of the Vedānta);

and the highest are the Arhats who have destroyed the last vestige of the āsavas mentioned above and completed their sanctification and are free.

It is often emphasized in later literature that final liberation is possible only for a human being who has succeeded in killing the seeds of rebirth through the triple purity of conduct, concentration and insight.

The eightfold noble path (ārya āṣṭāṅgika mārga) includes, therefore:

right views, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

The successive individualities that replace their immediately antecedent form of embodiment are then neither identical with nor different from the latter

inasmuch as these individuals are not the successive manifestations of a single transmigrating self or soul, nor are they unaffected in their formation by the actions (karma) of a previous incarnation,

just as a light burning through the night is neither the same nor different at different moments of its existence, being fed on different parts of the oil and the wick and yet emitting a continuous flame which looks identical at all moments.

This continuity we mistake for the unchanging existence of a single entity.

In truth, nothing is identical with anything, but its own momentary state of being, or characterizable in terms of anything but itself (sarvam sva-lakṣaṇam),

as the philosophers added later, to the two other dicta, "All is suffering, suffering(sarvam duḥkham duḥkham) and "All is transitory, transitory(sarvam kṣaṇikam kṣaṇikam).

Thus anātmatā (essence-lessness), anityatā (transitoriness) and duḥkhatā (pain­fulness) mark all mundane processes.

That "Everything is void, void(sarvam śūnyam śūnyam) was a further corollary drawn in the Mahāyāna philosophy, but earlier thought was not so nihilistic.

The presentation of the Vaibhāṣikas, the representation of the Sautrāntikas, the idealism of the Yogācāras and the nihilism of the Mādhyamikas form a series of descent from the realistic position.

It is doubtful, however, whether the Buddha's own teachings went to the length of denying all substantiality,

although it is likely that he subscribed to the theory, as did the Indian philosophers in general, that whatever had an origin in time had also an end in time and as such all compounds were liable to dissolution.

As the body and the soul were each regarded as an assemblage, it logically followed that neither had any substantiality nor could a permanent individuality emerge out of their combination.

The Elements of Being

But individuality implied the coming together of certain elements (dhamma or dhātu) which, not being decomposable, were not subject to destruction.

The four physical elements—earth, water, fire, and air—and the psychical element (vijñāna) must combine to produce a temporary individuality.

These five and space (ākāśa), which is uncompounded (asamskṛta), constitute the six dhātus, and to these must be added deliber­ate destruction or liberation (pratisamkhya-nirodha, nirvana), as another non-compoundable (asamskṛta) element,

and also unplanned destruction (apratisamkhyā-nirodha), which means non-perception due to absence of necessary conditions or essential perishability of things.

Roughly speaking, the first philosophers of Buddhism—the Sthavira-vādins and the Sarvāsti- vādins—

acknowledged the reality of these four samskṛta (compounded), and three a-samskṛta (non-compounded) elements (dharma, dhātu) and only denied the reality of permanent individuality.

This is corroborated by the repeated assertion of Nāgārjuna in his Prajñā-paramitā that in Hīnayāna or Śrāvakayāna only puruṣa-śūnyatā (termed elsewhere as pudgala-nairātmya) is taught while Buddhayāna or Mahāyāna teaches also dharma-śūnyatā.

The Mahāsanghikas possibly initiated this denial of the reality of the elements in addition to that of the ego, and in this they were followed by the nihilists (śūnya-vādin)

who, however, developed a positive philosophy in their doctrines of suchness(tathatā or bhūta-tathatā) and law-body (dharma-kāya) of the Buddha, but approximating in differ­ent degrees to the Vedāntic conception of Brahman.

In the early Schools idealism and nihilism played a minor part as compared with the realistic tendency of thought. The world was originally a moral, and not an intellectual problem.