The Uncertainty Of Buddhist Souls

Buddhist souls are a confused lot. They are not certain where to go or if they should even exist.

There are the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism — non-self, impermanence, suffering — and according to the concept of anatman (non-self), souls do not possess an eternal substantive essence. It is an illusion to think otherwise. Based on the numerous memorial rites and practices of ancestor veneration at local Buddhist temples to appease the dead, however, it is clear not many of the lingering spirits are aware of this.

From the Buddhist point of view, what is thought of as the soul, or self, is an amalgamation of physical and psychological components — a combination of ever-changing material and mental forces or energies (skandhas). When one component changes, the self is no longer the same self. Indeed, science tells us that the cells in our bodies are in a process of constant change and renewal, and as a result, every seven years or so our bodies are replaced. (See photographs of yourself seven years ago for evidence of this.)

Intimately connected to the principle of non-self is the teaching of anicca (impermanence), which states that nothing has any real, lasting, permanent, inherent nature. Everything is transient. Even the most ardent religious practitioner will admit that one’s faith does not remain the same. Those who fail to realize this characteristic of existence cling to ideas, things, people and gods, investing themselves in their attachments and are chained to them in return. Frustration and misery are the by-products of clinging to things that don’t last. This condition marks the third characteristic of existence: the reality of suffering (dukkha).

The Buddha taught that there are several kinds of suffering, the most profound of which is caused by failing to understand anatman and anicca and being attached to illusion as a consequence. Imaginary and false beliefs produce craving, selfish desire and attachment. Where is the soul in all this? Does it grasp and cling to us or we to it?

When the Buddha was asked whether or not there was a self, whether or not there was existence before birth, and whether or not there is existence after death, the Buddha refused to answer. The questions are products of extreme views, and engaging in such discussions results in and is the result of attachment to the self.

The Buddha’s refusal to respond may have unwittingly produced an incompatibility between the fundamental Buddhist concept of impermanence on the one hand, with discourses and practices stressing the continued existence of the spirits of the deceased on the other.

Temples and priests try to manage this tension, upholding the teaching of non-permanent self, all the while performing rites for an ever-present soul. Is there a contradiction here between the impermanent existence of the self and permanent nonexistence of the soul? In Buddhist discussions regarding orthodoxy, one side of the equation often is cited and used as a standard of authenticity to judge the other side.

The result is an unclear understanding of what the spirit is and where it exists.

The rituals imply the souls are still here when the teachings say they should be someplace else; they just don’t know where.

Are they in the Pure Land of eternal bliss of Amitabha Buddha, or do they reside in local graves or in memorial tablets placed on temple and home altars? Have they reached the ultimate state of nirvana? Are they enlightened? Why, then, must they return every summer for Obon? Why must they go anywhere? Indeed, does their very presence contradict the Buddha’s teachings?

The three characteristics of existence — non-self, impermanence, suffering — do not apply to beings that don’t exist. The dead don’t exist. Yet the nonexistent can be real and powerful. Just ask any person of faith. In this way, the spirits of the deceased continue to be present among the living. Life may be impermanent, but death is not.

If, after all this, Buddhist spirits are still unclear about where to go and seek a more definitive answer, they might consider asking the followers of Allah or Christ. They are almost certain to receive an unambiguous response there.