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The Buddha's Teachings about the Soul

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Old 30-May-2011, 07:59 AM
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The Buddha's Teachings about the Soul

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by Lewis Richmond

Vacchagotta -- Vaccha for short -- was one of the many religious wanderers whose spiritual dialogue with Gautama the Buddha is recorded in Buddhist scripture (the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta). Vaccha was full of questions, particularly about the soul. The soul -- or atman in the language of ancient India -- was thought at the time to be the eternal aspect of the human personality, one that would transmigrate and be reincarnated lifetime after lifetime.

Vaccha had other metaphysical questions, too. He wanted to know whether the universe was finite or infinite, whether it was eternal or not eternal, whether an enlightened person like the Buddha would be reborn or not, and especially whether the soul existed or did not exist. To each of Vaccha's questions the Buddha would not give a definitive answer. Whatever Vaccha asked, the Buddha would reply, "No," or "That does not fit the case, Vaccha." As the dialogue proceeded, Vaccha became more and more irritated, finally asking, "Well, has the Venerable Gautama any opinion on anything?"

To this the Buddha replied, "The term 'opinion,' Vaccha, has been discarded by [me]." He went on to explain that he understood the soul, or atman, not through logic or opinion, but through his direct experience of meditation. From this experience he concluded that the seemingly singular, permanent self or soul was actually composed of five ever-changing components, which he called skandhas, or "heaps." These five aggregations are form (the material world of the senses), feelings, perceptions, emotions and consciousness. Together, these five create the illusion of a fixed identity and continuous self. It is our clinging to this fixed self that creates all our unnecessary suffering this world. That is what the Buddha taught.

This is basic Buddhist doctrine, explained in detail in many Buddhist textbooks, such as Walpola Rahula's "What The Buddha Taught," or the more contemporary "A Path With Heart" by Jack Kornfield. But the full complexity and subtlety of how the Buddha taught is not so easily understood. In some sermons, the Buddha seems to acknowledge the existence of a soul. In others, he seems to deny the soul. And still others (as here in his replies to Vaccha), he declines to say one way or the other. In reading through all the many sermons of the Buddha, it seems that he adjusted his teachings to the needs and capacities of his listeners.

The translation of the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta which I am using here is from "The Buddha: His Life Retold" by Robert Allen Mitchell -- a book with its own compelling story. Mitchell (1917-1964) studied graduate astronomy at Harvard, but due to the early death of his father he could not pursue a career as a scientist. Later on he became fascinated with the teaching of the Buddha, taught himself Pali (the language spoken in the Buddha's lifetime) and set about translating Buddhist texts -- a solitary avocation that he practiced for the rest of his life. The manuscript of "The Buddha: His Life Retold" was found in his attic after his death and published in 1989; it is one of the best summations of the Buddha's basic teachings that I know. It is now technically out of print, but not too hard to find.

The dialogue between Buddha and Vaccha continues on the subject of the soul and its purported rebirth:

Vaccha asks, "But Reverend Gautama, where is the person ... reborn?"
"To say that he is reborn¸Vaccha, does not fit the case," replied the Buddha.

"Then he is not reborn?"

"To say that he is not reborn does not fit the case."

"Then he is neither reborn or not reborn?"

"To say that, Vacchagotta, does not fit the case."

In the same way the Buddha continues to reply "that does not fit the case" to each of Vaccha's queries.

Finally, in complete exasperation, Vaccha said, "Venerable Gautama, have you nothing to say about the existence of the soul? Does the soul exist?"

At these words Gautama was silent.

"How is it, Venerable Gautama? Is there no such thing as the soul?"

Gautama was again silent.

What are we to make of this teaching? Why won't the Buddha say one way or the other? How can we trust a religious teacher who won't answer our questions, who remains silent when we implore him to respond? Do we, like Vaccha, walk away in confusion and bewilderment?

As Vaccha turns to go, the Buddha calls out to him, "Vaccha, this teaching ... is profound, subtle, hard to see, hard to comprehend, beyond the sphere of mere logic, to be understood only by the wise."

Indeed. This sermon about Vacchagotta is the precursor of many later strains of Buddhist teaching, including the Middle Way school of Nagarjuna (a key component and source of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy), as well as Zen.

Throughout Buddhist history, there are many recorded dialogues like the one between Buddha and Vaccha. Students of Zen will be familiar with the story ("Blue Cliff Record" Case 55) of Master Tao Wu and his disciple Chien Yuan. Master and student were paying a condolence call to the family of a recently deceased person when Chien Yuan suddenly rapped on the coffin and exclaimed, "Alive or dead?"

The master calmly replied, just as the Buddha did to Vaccha, "I won't say."

All the way home Chien Yuan kept after his teacher. "Alive or dead?" he kept repeating.

The teacher's answer was always the same: "I won't say."

Those not familiar with the Buddhist world-view may find this story, like the previous one about Vaccha, confusing and frustrating. They may think, "Why won't the teacher say? The corpse is obviously dead. He should just say so!"

But the whole truth is not so simple. At the heart of the Buddha's teaching is something not graspable by intellect alone, not expressible in words alone, not comprehensible by logic alone. This "something" Buddhists called prajna, or "transcendent wisdom," and it is the beating heart of the Buddhist Path -- the inner source of compassion and the Buddha's message of liberation from suffering.
Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/buddhism/35538-the-buddhas-teachings-about-the-soul.html

And why should it be otherwise? Many of the most important aspects of our life cannot be grasped by the intellect or put into words. Consider love. We can say "I love you," but those are mere placeholder words for something we can't really describe or explain. And yet our love for spouse, partner or children may be our greatest treasure. We don't know love through books or words, or by asking people to define what love is. As Forrest Gump says, "I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is." We apprehend love directly. When we love, we just know.
Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=35538

And so it is with Buddhist wisdom teachings. When Buddha said to Vaccha, "That does not fit the case," or when Tao Wu said to Chien Yuan, "I won't say," these answers are not actually designed to obfuscate, confuse or conceal. They are just honest responses pointing to a deep truth that -- like love -- lies deep in the inexpressible core of the human heart.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lewis-..._b_866474.html



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Old 31-May-2011, 06:06 AM
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Re: The Buddha's Teachings about the Soul

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At first I thought to give a detailed comment, but now I’ve decided to provide the original discourse itself so that people here can read and judge for themselves, if whether the author of the above essay was correct or not, in his conclusions.


Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta: To Vacchagotta on Fire
translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: "How is it, Master Gotama, does Master Gotama hold the view: 'The cosmos is eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'The cosmos is not eternal: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'The cosmos is finite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'The cosmos is infinite: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'The soul & the body are the same: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'The soul is one thing and the body another: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'After death a Tathagata exists: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'After death a Tathagata does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."
Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=35538

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'After death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"Then does Master Gotama hold the view: 'After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless'?"

"...no..."

"How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if he holds the view 'the cosmos is eternal...'... 'after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist: only this is true, anything otherwise is worthless,' he says '...no...' in each case. Seeing what drawback, then, is Master Gotama thus entirely dissociated from each of these ten positions?"

"Vaccha, the position that 'the cosmos is eternal' is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding.

"The position that 'the cosmos is not eternal'...

"...'the cosmos is finite'...

"...'the cosmos is infinite'...

"...'the soul & the body are the same'...

"...'the soul is one thing and the body another'...

"...'after death a Tathagata exists'...

"...'after death a Tathagata does not exist'...

"...'after death a Tathagata both exists & does not exist'...

"...'after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist'... does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening, Unbinding."

"Does Master Gotama have any position at all?"

"A 'position,' Vaccha, is something that a Tathagata has done away with. What a Tathagata sees is this: 'Such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception... such are mental fabrications... such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance.' Because of this, I say, a Tathagata — with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, & relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making & mine-making & obsession with conceit — is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released."

"But, Master Gotama, the monk whose mind is thus released: Where does he reappear?"

"'Reappear,' Vaccha, doesn't apply."

"In that case, Master Gotama, he does not reappear."

"'Does not reappear,' Vaccha, doesn't apply."

"...both does & does not reappear."

"...doesn't apply."

"...neither does nor does not reappear."

"...doesn't apply."

"How is it, Master Gotama, when Master Gotama is asked if the monk reappears... does not reappear... both does & does not reappear... neither does nor does not reappear, he says, '...doesn't apply' in each case. At this point, Master Gotama, I am befuddled; at this point, confused. The modicum of clarity coming to me from your earlier conversation is now obscured."

"Of course you're befuddled, Vaccha. Of course you're confused. Deep, Vaccha, is this phenomenon, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. For those with other views, other practices, other satisfactions, other aims, other teachers, it is difficult to know. That being the case, I will now put some questions to you. Answer as you see fit. What do you think, Vaccha: If a fire were burning in front of you, would you know that, 'This fire is burning in front of me'?"

"...yes..."

Reference:: Sikh Philosophy Network http://www.sikhphilosophy.net/showthread.php?t=35538
"And suppose someone were to ask you, Vaccha, 'This fire burning in front of you, dependent on what is it burning?' Thus asked, how would you reply?"

"...I would reply, 'This fire burning in front of me is burning dependent on grass & timber as its sustenance.'"

"If the fire burning in front of you were to go out, would you know that, 'This fire burning in front of me has gone out'?"

"...yes..."

"And suppose someone were to ask you, 'This fire that has gone out in front of you, in which direction from here has it gone? East? West? North? Or south?' Thus asked, how would you reply?"

"That doesn't apply, Master Gotama. Any fire burning dependent on a sustenance of grass and timber, being unnourished — from having consumed that sustenance and not being offered any other — is classified simply as 'out' (unbound)."

"Even so, Vaccha, any physical form by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. 'Reappears' doesn't apply. 'Does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Both does & does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Neither reappears nor does not reappear' doesn't apply.

"Any feeling... Any perception... Any mental fabrication...

"Any consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata would describe him: That the Tathagata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of consciousness, Vaccha, the Tathagata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea. 'Reappears' doesn't apply. 'Does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Both does & does not reappear' doesn't apply. 'Neither reappears nor does not reappear' doesn't apply."

When this was said, the wanderer Vacchagotta said to the Blessed One: "Master Gotama, it is as if there were a great sala tree not far from a village or town: From inconstancy, its branches and leaves would wear away, its bark would wear away, its sapwood would wear away, so that on a later occasion — divested of branches, leaves, bark, & sapwood — it would stand as pure heartwood. In the same way, Master Gotama's words are divested of branches, leaves, bark, & sapwood and stand as pure heartwood.

"Magnificent, Master Gotama! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or were to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has Master Gotama — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear. I go to Master Gotama for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Sangha of monks. May Master Gotama remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life."
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