Orthodox Chinese Buddhism

Do Buddhists Believe in the Existence of the Soul?

No, Buddhists do not believe in the existence of an eternal, unchanging soul.
Someone who believes in the reality of an eternal soul is not truly a Buddhist, but rather an outer-path adherent maintaining the existence of the self (shenwo waidao). Most people except materialists believe that everyone has an eternal, immutable soul.
In America and Europe, the recently popular Theosophical Society also investigates the soul. Such soul-belief is also more or less prevalent in Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Daoism. These religions claim that when one dies, one will be judged for his good or bad deeds by God or King Yama, and will be sent to heaven or hell based on his behavior. Belief in the soul is even more deeply rooted in popular Chinese culture. There is a grossly wrong belief that upon one's death one's soul becomes a ghost. “Soul” and “ghost” are inseparably entangled in Chinese folklore. More ridiculously, because some ghosts possess minor supernormal powers, some people think the soul is composed of three distinct “cloudsouls” (hun) and seven distinct “whitesouls” (po).
Actually, though, ghosts just constitute one of the six destinies in samsāra, as do humans. And just like humans, ghosts are born and also die. (Humans are born from a womb, whereas ghosts come to existence through spontaneous birth.) As discussed before, when someone dies, she does not automatically become a ghost. There are many ideas about the soul (linghun) in Chinese folk belief. The soul is often conceived as bridging one life and the next. In this view, “birth” occurs when the soul enters an embryo, and “death” occurs when the soul leaves behind a corporeal body. So the body and soul are analogous to a house and its owner: when the house gets old, the owner moves to a new one. The houses can be changed frequently, but the person living in them is the same. Put differently, a person is a soul plus an external body; the corporeal body is changeable, but the soul is immutable. In this view, the soul is the entity that experiences various births and deaths.
This concept of the soul is not an orthodox Buddhist concept because it contradicts the doctrine of dependent origination and extinction. From an understanding of impermanence, we know that phenomena are constantly arising and passing away, and that nothing, whether physical or mental, is everlasting. Observed with the naked eye, things present us with the illusion that they do not change. But if we examine them with precision instruments, we see that nothing remains still for even a split second. The process of “production and reproduction” discussed in the Classic of Changes also implies the phenomenon of “continual destruction,” which in essence means that everything is in a state of constant change and transformation.
While physical phenomena undergo an endless succession of change, it is even easier to observe the transience of mental states. Psychological changes engender mental states, which bring about good or bad actions. Actions, in turn, influence our mental inclinations. Our future is actually shaped by this circular interaction of mental states and behavior. If this is the case, is it possible for an eternal, never-changing soul to exist? Of course it is impossible. A fixed soul doesn't even exist when we are alive, not to mention after we die: our bodies and minds exist in a state of incessant change. So if Buddhists don't believe in a soul, what is the fundamental substance that transmigrates among the six destinies and can transcend mundane existence? The answer to this question exemplifies the exquisite nature of Buddhist philosophy in de-emphasizing the value of a permanent self, but at the same time recognizing the value of self-improvement and self-transformation. Buddhists believe that “phenomena arise dependent on conditions” and “things inherently lack self-nature.”
In accordance with this view, the physical world exists dependent on causes and conditions, as does the spiritual [mental] domain. Things arise when the right causes and conditions are present, and they disintegrate and disappear when causes and conditions disperse. Something as large as a celestial body or even the whole universe, or as small as a blade of grass, a particle, or a single atom, all exist because of the right combination of an internal cause and external conditions. Without causes and conditions, nothing would exist. Thus, in a sense, we can say that nothing really exists.
Scientists studying physics and chemistry can easily support this observation. And what of the spiritual domain? Although Buddhists do not believe in a soul, they are by no means materialists. Buddhists describe the spiritual domain with the term “consciousness.” In Nikāya Buddhism, six consciousnesses are discussed, with the sixth consciousness serving as the entity that integrates the life process. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, two more consciousnesses are mentioned, for a total of eight consciousnesses. The eighth consciousness is the entity that integrates the life process [providing coherence and continuity within one life and between lives].
I will use the Mahāyāna tradition rather than the Nikāya tradition to describe consciousness, below.
The first six consciousnesses in the Mahāyāna tradition have the same names as the six consciousnesses in the Nikāya tradition. In the Mahāyāna tradition, however, the functions of the sixth consciousness are further analyzed and broken into three parts which are labeled the sixth, seventh, and eighth consciousness. All the eight consciousnesses are actually one entity: they are given different names in accordance with their eight different functions.
Residue from all the activities of the first seven consciousnesses, good or evil, is deposited and registered in the eighth consciousness, which serves as the depository of all karmic seeds. The supervisor of this warehouse is the seventh consciousness, and the sixth consciousness works like a warehouse clerk handling the in and out of inventory.
The first five consciousnesses execute actions. So the function of the eighth consciousness is storage. But the storage is not that of a one-way depository. It takes deposits from outside and makes withdrawals from inside. What is deposited is the psychological residue of behavior, which is imprinted on the field of consciousness and called karmic impressions or seeds; what is withdrawn are psychological impulses that later develop into behavior and the results of behavior, called karmic fruits or active dharmas.
In this manner, things move in and out, out and in, seeds becoming active dharmas, and active dharmas leaving behind more seeds. The same pattern is repeated throughout this life, the next life, and infinite future lives. The flow of cause and effect from seed to active dharma and active dharma to seed goes on and on, from countless lives in the past until countless lives in the future. This flow of causality comprises the coherence we experience in one life and the continuity between different lives. Because seeds and active dharmas incessantly move in and out of consciousness, the eighth consciousness itself is ceaselessly changing. This consciousness is qualitatively different not only between two lives, but even between two fleeting thoughts. Exactly because thoughts arise and pass away moment to moment, and every thought is different from all other thoughts, we are capable either of sinking and rising in the sea of samsāra or of going beyond it. The eighth consciousness, therefore, exists in the continuum of momentarily changing karmic seeds and fruits.
Besides this changing continuum of karmic seeds and fruits, there is no such thing as the eighth consciousness itself. An analogy to a current of water is illustrative. A current of water is nothing but water flowing in continuous motion. Besides the flowing water, there is no such thing as a current itself. The objective of Buddhist practice toward liberation is to disrupt this current of birth and death induced by karmic seeds and fruits. When the function of the eighth consciousness ceases, that is, when nothing is deposited and nothing is withdrawn, that is the complete realization of emptiness. In Buddhism, this process is called “transforming the (defiled) consciousness into (purified) wisdom,” after which one will not be dominated by birth and death and will be free within the domain of birth and death.
From the above discussion, we see that the eighth consciousness is not equivalent to an eternal soul. If an eternal soul did exist, then the transformation of an ordinary person into a noble one, that is, liberation from the cycle of birth and death, would be impossible. Buddhists reject the concept of an eternal soul, and their ultimate goal is to negate the eighth consciousness altogether. Only after the defiled, delusionridden, provisionally-manifest eighth consciousness is negated is complete liberation attained. After the negation of the eighth consciousness, however, it does not mean that nothing exists. Instead, one experiences the illuminating wisdom of “neither emptiness nor inherent existence” (feikong feiyou) rather than the entanglements of ignorance and vexations.



Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, Do Buddhists Believe in the Existence of the Soul?, p.34-38

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