Varieties of the Soul: why Buddhists reject them all
by R. Chandrasoma
He distinguished between ‘extended substance’ - meaning ordinary matter - and ‘cognitive substance’ that interacted with matter but was God-like in its extra-corporeality. The latter was the stuff of souls. Unlike animals (that Descartes regarded as mere automata) each human had a soul mysteriously linked to the pineal gland of the brain and this surrogate of the Almighty One directed the rational thoughts of the bearer like a pilot in the cockpit of an aircraft. At death, the ‘craft’ disintegrates but the ‘pilot’ flies off to unite with its Great Congener.
Needless to say, this romantic story has no resonance in Buddhism. Indeed, it is resolutely rejected as a delusory, Belief arising from ‘attachment’ (paramasa) which is seen by Buddhists as the great corrupter of the vision required to see things as they truly are - the impermanence, soullessness and misery (Trilakkhana) of the flux of samsara
Let us turn to religions closer home - Hinduism (as in the metaphysically elaborate philosophy of Sankara) and Jainism. In the former, the primal basis of the world - the Godhead, if you like - is a mind-stuff that is indivisible and holistic. Each human has this mind-stuff at the core of his being and the true spiritual awakening is the realization that one’s innermost essence is none other than the universal mind. The word ‘soul’ is used to designate the indwelling divinity that is our link with the Godhead. The Pre-Christian philosopher Plotinus held very similar views and an echo of this exhilarating view of man’s position vis-a-vis the Cosmos is also found in the writings of the famous pantheist Spinoza.
Whatever the merits (or demerits) of this concept of the soul, it is clear to all who care to study - even cursorily - the texts that Buddhists have no truck with indwelling divinities, Great Minds and souls longing for release. Let us glance briefly, then, at the concept of the soul in Jainism. The living world is seen as a collegium of souls striving to throw off the dross of a karmic accumulation that prevents them from reaching their rightful stratum above this sorry plane of existence. The renowned pacifism of the Jains stems from their belief that the meanest life-form incarcerates a soul that struggles to be free.
Again, whatever the poetic merits of this Jainist version of things, Buddhist must find this ontology of struggling souls both false and misleading. It remains to be seen whether there is some other route to the concept of the soul that Buddhists may find congenial. The question acquires a degree of urgency given that a long line of skeptics and nay-sayers have found the Anatta (soullessness) doctrine of the Theravada School riven by a fundamental contradiction. The well-known scholar Mrs. Rhys Davids was among them. Not quite on the same plane is Mr. Amarasiri Weeraratna who is an arch foe of Theravada Buddhism as practised in Sri Lanka and is contemptuous in his dismissal of its basic teachings. He writes as a Buddhist but his hatred for the entire corpus of Buddhist writing in South Asia is only very thinly veiled. Indeed, he faults our Sublime Teacher for glaring lapses in logic and finds the teachings attributed to him raddled with inconsistencies.
Be that as it may, the key argument advanced by AW is that a clutch of aggregates (the five skandhas) coursing through time cannot be moral agents and that the concept of causative justice (hetu-phala) is meaningless without an enduring receiver of such justice. If this is conceded (argues AW) there must be a ‘structural invariant’ that can be called the ‘soul’ that straddles the flux of aggregates. At death, it is this elusive entity that seeks another habitation. Abandoning the vain theorizing of ‘corrupters’ in the Theravada school, he quotes the work done in Parapsychology, ‘Out of Body Experiences’, Paranormal Phenomena, Recollections of Previous Lives etc. to buttress his claim that a kind of ‘soul’ survives death and is embodied again to recommence the painful round of samsara. He believes in metempsychosis and is a distant follower of Pythagoras.
What AW has failed to grasp is that Buddhist ontology is based on process - an unceasing flux of ‘dharmas’ that are shaped here and there to be the world-lines of individuals. The term world-line is borrowed from General Relativity where it denotes the history of an object in space and time visualized geometrically as a ‘trace’ or ‘trajectory’. Adopting this terminology, we can say that the Aggregates cohere and carve a ‘track’ in time that is distinctive for each individual. The latter is identified not by a soul but by its characteristic passage in time based on its minute-by-minute interactions with its milieu.
A physical illustration might help. There is a kind of wave called a ‘soliton’ that passes mysteriously over bodies of water. It is a mere hump and its constitution in terms of the particles of water is always changing - it has no soul - but it has a characteristic history and a distinctive appearance at all times. We can regard the ‘person’ as a soliton in the sea of dharmas. This is all very good - the critics will say - but where does moral responsibility fit into this scheme of things? Here we must accept that a process can be corrupted, just as signals passing through a communication-channel can be corrupted. The flux of aggregates is blighted as a process by the three infirmities - soullessness, impermanence and misery. The extinction of these - which is tantamount to the extinction of the flux - is achieved through an internal reworking of the process by right views and right action. No soul is involved.
Let us candidly admit that this doctrine is profoundly difficult to grasp. However, to dismiss all this as the lucubrations of scholar-monks is a huge mistake. It shows an incapacity for radical thinking and a lamentable ignorance of the latest developments in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. It is now widely accepted in neuroscience that the ‘person’ is a functional fiction generated by minute-by-minute integration of the massively parallel processors of the brain. Nobody gives even thought to that ancient fiction called the ‘soul’.
Let me conclude by referring to AW’s trump-card - the vast body of anecdotal rubbish on ESP, paranormal phenomena, out-of-body experiences, village tales of previous lives, Jungian analysis etc. There is no doubt that these tales are widely believed - we have ‘mediums’ appearing on the Larry King Show and speaking earnestly to the dead and the departed. What is less well known is that no reputable Journal of Neuroscience, of Cognitive or Experimental Psychology has ever published anything on these dubious matters. Professor Susan Blackmore has shown that out-of body experiences are generated as hallucinations of the anoxic temporal lobe of the brain in a dying person. The outrageous claim that some ‘fine copy’ - the naked soul - flies out of a dying body is a puerile fancy and an insult to Buddhist thinking. Certainly, lives are linked as expounded in the famous doctrine of dependent origination, but this linking or catenation (not rebirth - a vulgar corruption) is a hereditary process involving the transmission of karmic information by means which, alas, have no satisfactory explanation in terms of today’s science. The notion of ‘entangled systems’ in quantum mechanics may have some relevance here but it is best to confess ignorance when the inscrutability of the human condition demands it.
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