Full Moon Day: Buddhism: No God; No Soul

December 12, 2008

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rupa-snow1.

A couple of years ago we received a number of letters from a man seeking to give the beliefs in a creator god and a soul a home in Buddhist teaching. One of his arguments was that the available translations of Buddhist scriptures are not the ultimate reference and consequently there is room to interpret the original texts differently, i.e. to translate them in a way which validates the above mentioned beliefs.

I felt an obligation to respond to him in order to shed some light on the rather critical issues he raised. I was pleased, and admittedly surprised, when I recieved his reply: he thanked me for what I had to say.

Here is an overhauled version of the letter:

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Dear Mr …..


Thank you for your letter dated the 19th April. In this reply I will try to address issues you raise in both your first and most recent letters, and in the process briefly explain key Buddhist principles, hopefully demonstrating the correct place for the beliefs in a soul and creator god within Buddhist teaching. I quote from the Pali Canon when possible. This Canon is widely agreed to be the oldest and most reliable record of what the Buddha actually said.

One of the first points in your second letter concerns the fact that the translations of Buddhist texts may not be entirely accurate, and therefore there is a certain amount of room for different interpretations to be made. On this basis you claimed that the belief in a creator god and a permanent soul can be reconciled with Buddhsit teaching. You said: “However much we strive to create uniformity in the use of words for certain concepts, the diversity of these words will continue.” The point you make about there being scope for a variety of translations to be drawn from the original texts is, of course, correct. There are terms found in original Buddhist scriptures which translators render differently. But, this is only true to a limited and insignificant extent,  concerning words which have little or no bearing on core doctrines. Phrases which determine the central teachings are unambiguous, with all respectable translators rendering them similarly.  These central techings all unequivocally undermine the creator god and soul theories.

Let us examine the Pali word ‘anatta’ – a pivotal term in Buddhist teaching. At the time of the Buddha, Brahmanism – the early form of Hinduism – was the predominant religion of India. Central to the teachings of Brahmanism/Hinduism is the notion of Atman, that is: ‘the immortal element of man’, ‘the soul’, ‘the innermost essence of an individual’, etc. Now, we can see that translations of the term atman can differ in a trivial way from translator to translator. But we can also recognise quite easily that these various definitions all unequivocally point towards the permanent soul/entity theory. Atman is a Sanskrit term. The Pali equivalent of atman is ‘atta’. The Buddha taught ‘Sabbe dhamma anatta’. (Dhp 279; Vin V.86; SN III.133; IV.28, 401) The ‘an’ positioned before ‘atta’ is a negative prefix; therefore ‘anatta’ means ‘no self’/ ‘no soul’; ‘absence of self’/ ‘absence of soul’. “Sabbe dhamma anatta” means all things are without self, soul or a permanent entity. The Buddha is plainly rejecting the soul theory. This cannot be reasonably disputed.

It is understandable that some people find the doctrine of no-self/no-soul unpalatable. Unfortunately though, unable to accept that this is what the Buddha taught, and not content to agree to disagree, some (consciously or unconsciously) take this teaching in various philosophical directions until it even transforms into its antithesis. But this is one of the most fundamental principles in Buddhist teaching; the Buddha taught that it is by not comprehending this truth that we wander aimlessly through this round of rebirth, “hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving”. (SN 15.3)

As a general remark on the place of words within the actual practice of Buddhism, I agree that they are only beneficial to a certain extent; we as monks are often encouraged to leave the books alone, after all, true wisdom must be sought within. But, it is crucial that we don’t underestimate the importance of words with regard to where they lead us: they are powerful instruments which can determine whether we progress towards wisdom or fall further into delusion. Say there are two people directing you, one says “go left”, the other says “go right”. Going left you encounter dangerous terrain and strong winds; going right you encounter delightful meadows and a cool breeze. “Left” and “right” are just words, but see how they lead in opposing directions and how the destinations are fundamentally different? Whereas Hinduism/Christianity etc. teach the existence of an indestructible soul and the presence of a creator, Buddhism categorically denies all of this. It is pointing in a different direction.

Regarding the Buddha’s view on the creator god theme: let us look at what he said on the matter and then move on to see how accommodating his teachings are of such an idea. The Buddha explicitly stated that the idea of a creator god is a deluded one and he referred to subjects such as ‘creation’ as “…bestial topics of conversation.” (AN X.69) He also stated the following, alluding to the self-mortification of naked-ascetics: “If, monks, beings experience pain and happiness as a result of a god’s creation, then these naked ascetics must have been created by a wicked god, since they suffer such terrible pain.” (DN. I 11) It is also stated in the Jatakas (528), by the Bodhisatta, that if there exists some all powerful god, who is responsible for the happiness and suffering of beings, then that god is “stained with sin.”

So we have seen that the Buddha had little time for the creator idea. Now, as we spend a few moments looking at his teachings, we shall really see how the beliefs in question are like two pieces of a jigsaw that simply cannot fit into the puzzle of Buddhism, no matter which way we try to insert them. We’ll proceed to examine the first two of the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths lie at the heart of the Dhamma; they are the diamond of which all other teachings are facets. “I teach one thing and one only: suffering and the end of suffering.” (MN 1. 140)

The First Noble Truth of suffering (dukkha) exposes existence for what it is: that we live in the deep shadows of birth, illness, decay and death; that we depend on myriad conditions for our survival, where even one slight change can topple this house of cards. Look around: everywhere we see imperfection; we see countless living beings wandering aimlessly, all struggling with this burden we call life. The other day my attention was drawn to a small creature spinning round and round on the floor of my hut. It was a wasp whose body was failing and every time it attempted to upright itself it fell over. This went on and on until it curled up and died. This existential fact of Dukkha is inherently incompatible with the belief in an all-seeing, all-powerful and all-loving creator. 

Returning to the soul issue: we have all ready seen how the teaching on anatta directly states its falsity. To gain a fuller understanding of the teaching of anatta it will help to look at the Second Noble Truth – the Cause of Suffering – where we find the law of ‘Paticcasamuppada’: ‘Dependent Origination’. In brief, this is the law of cause and effect; it is the unifying theme running through the Buddha’s teachings. This doctrine lifts the veil off that which we refer to as an individual, revealing it to be the conditional arising of mental and physical factors, where no soul persists, where no permanent entity abides, where only empty phenomena roll on – one thing after another, one thing arising dependent on another. Think of setting a line of dominoes falling: nothing is transferred from one domino to the next, it is simply that one domino falls in dependence on one falling before it. In the same way no permanent entity persists through the mental and physical life of a living being.

And we cannot find a start to this vast law of causation. There is no first cause according to the Buddha: this round of rebirth “…is without discoverable beginning” (SN 15:5). So as well as Paticcasamuppada invalidating the idea of something permanent within, it also waves aside the creator idea.

No doer of the deeds is found,
No one who ever reaps their fruits;
Empty phenomena roll on:
This only is the correct view.

And while the deeds and their results
Roll on and on, conditioned all,
There is no first beginning found,
Just as it is with seed and tree…

No god, no Brahma, can be called
The maker of this wheel of life:
Empty phenomena roll on,
Dependent on conditions all.

(Vis.M. XIX)

That concludes this short essay. I hope that I have made it clear in a reasonable manner that in authentic Buddhist teaching there is no place for the beliefs in a creator and a soul. As a final comment I’d like to remind us that this Buddhist path to liberation from dukkha is not an easy one to follow: it is a titanic struggle against our defilements and polluted views. Being such, we need the signposts to freedom to be as clear as a full moon on a cloudless night, which they are, but so only as long as we don’t distort their meaning to suit our desires.

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The next teaching in Dhamma Diary will be on:
The New Moon Day, Friday, 26th December.

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One Response to “Full Moon Day: Buddhism: No God; No Soul”

  1. christer said

    very good reading! thank you

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