Powered by Bravenet Bravenet Blog

Subscribe to Journal

November 16, 2016

10:50 AM

Critique of the Buddhist Five Skandhas Doctrine, sections 3 and 4

© Copyright Avi Sion, 2016. All rights reserved


3. The metaphysical aspects

The Encyclopaedia Britannica[1] defines the skandhas as “the five elements that sum up the whole of an individual’s mental and physical existence.” It lists them as “(1) matter, or body, the manifest form of the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water; (2) sensations, or feelings; (3) perceptions of sense objects; (4) mental formations; and (5) awareness, or consciousness, of the other three mental aggregates [i.e. items 2-4].”

In most accounts I have seen, this theory is presented as descriptive of what constitutes a person. Some accounts I have seen, however, apply it more broadly, viewing the five skandhas as the constituents of the phenomenal world. In any case, this theory clearly contains an ontological thesis, insofar as it acknowledges two kinds of phenomena, the material (the first skandha) and the mental (the other four skandhas)[2]. Moreover, note in passing, since the above definition mentions the ‘four elements’, it includes a physical theory, one admittedly very vague and by today’s standards rather useless[3]. Secondly, the skandhas doctrine has some epistemological implications, in that it identifies sensations or feelings, perception of sense objects, and so on – implying our ability to know of such things, presumably by introspection.

Furthermore, the said source (EB) explains that “The self (or soul) cannot be identified with any one of the parts, nor is it the total of the parts. All individuals are subject to constant change, as the elements of consciousness are never the same, and man may be compared to a river, which retains an identity, though the drops of water that make it up are different from one moment to the next.” This statement is the metaphysical element in the skandhas doctrine, since it involves important claims regarding the ultimate nature of individuals (i.e. persons, people).

This explanation reminds us that the philosophical motive of the skandhas doctrine is to buttress the Buddhist claim that we have no self or soul (anatta). According to this doctrine, we are only clusters of the listed five material and mental phenomena, which are in constant flux, unfolding as a succession of events, each new event being caused by those before it and causing those after it. It is stressed that none of the skandhas is the self, and neither is their sum the self. The self is not something apart from them, either. What we call the self is a mere illusion, due to our conflating these ongoing, causally-linked events and giving them a name.

The no-self idea is usually expressed by saying that the human being is ‘empty of self’. This is presented as one aspect of a wider metaphysical doctrine of ultimate ‘emptiness’ (shunyata), applicable to all things in the phenomenal world. Initially, I suggest, Buddhist thought sought to replace the self we all naturally assume we have with the five skandhas. Since the doctrine of ultimate emptiness needed to be applied to the apparent self, an explanation of apparent selfhood was provided through the doctrine of the five skandhas. The self does not really exist; it is only made to appear to exist due to the play and interplay of the five skandhas. However, consistency required that the five skandhas be empty too. This was later acknowledged, for instance, in The Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, which stated:

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form… The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.”[4]

Here, the five skandhas, thanks to which the self seems to us to exist even though it is in fact empty, are affirmed to be empty too, note well. All phenomenal existents are empty, and this includes the skandhas too. The question might then well be asked (by me, at least): if the skandhas are equally empty, what ideological need have we of them? Why can we not just as well admit the existence of the self or soul, and call it ‘empty’ too, directly? This is of course a significant flaw in the doctrine of the skandhas – it shows the idea of them to be logically redundant. If the motive behind it was to explain the emptiness of self, it was not only unnecessary but useless, since the emptiness of skandhas also had to be admitted! Logically, far from simplifying things, the skandhas hypothesis complicated them.

In other words, the Heart Sutra could equally well have stated: “self is emptiness, and emptiness is self;” or even: “soul is emptiness, and emptiness is soul.” And indeed, it could be argued that soul, being more insubstantial (less phenomenal) than the skandhas, is closer to emptiness than the skandhas are. There are obviously two concepts here to clarify – (a) soul and (b) emptiness. Additionally, we must (c) examine their interrelation.


(a) The term soul refers to an entity of spiritual substance, i.e. of a substance other than the substances that material or mental things seem to have. Soul has no phenomenal characteristics – no shape or color, no sound, no flavor, no odor, no hardness or softness, no heat or cold, etc. That is to say, it cannot be cognized by external perception (using the five sense organs) or by internal perception (using the proverbial mind’s eye, and its analogues, the mind’s ear, etc.). This does not mean it cannot be cognized by some other, appropriate means – which we can refer to as apperception or intuition.

Just because the soul is not phenomenal, it does not follow that it does not exist. Buddhists apparently cannot understand this line of reasoning. In the West, David Hume (Scotland, 1711-76) evidently had the same problem. Looking into himself, he could only perceive images and thoughts, but no soul. Obviously, if you look for something in the wrong place or in the wrong way, you won’t find it. If you look for something non-phenomenal in a field of phenomena, you won’t find it. If you look for color with your ears or for sound with your nose, you won’t find them. To look for the soul, you just need to be intuitively aware. All of us are constantly self-aware, even though we cannot precisely pinpoint where that self is. There is no need for advanced meditation methods to be aware of one’s soul – it is a common, routine occurrence.

Note well that I am not affirming like René Descartes (France, 1596-1650) that soul is known through some sort of inference, namely the famous cogito ergo sum, i.e. “I think therefore I am.” We obviously can and do know about the soul through such rational means, i.e. through abstract theorizing – but our primary and main source of knowledge of the soul is through direct personal experience, which may be referred to as apperception or intuition. So, my approach is not exclusively rationalist, but largely empiricist. In this, note well, my doctrine of the soul differs radically from the Cartesian – as well as from the Buddhist.

According to Buddhist dogma, one cannot perceive the soul in meditation; if one observes attentively one only finds various mental phenomena (the five skandhas, to be exact). But I reply that the soul is manifestly a non-phenomenal object and should not be conflated with such overt phenomena. We all have a more or less distinct ‘sense of self’ most if not all of the time, without need of meditation.

This is obvious from the very fact that everyone understands the word ‘self’. Buddhism admits this sense of self, but absurdly – quite dogmatically – takes it to be ‘illusory’. Having at the outset dismissed this significant ‘sense’ (intuition) as irrelevant, it is not surprising that it cannot find the soul (i.e. the human self) in the midst of the phenomena of mind (the five skandhas)! Note this well – Buddhism has no credible argument to back its no-soul thesis. It begs the question, calling the sense of self illusory because it believes there is no self, and claiming that it knows by introspection that there is no self while rejecting offhand the ordinary experience of self we all have. As a result of this manifest error of reasoning, if not outright doctrinaire dishonesty, Buddhism becomes embroiled in many logical absurdities.

To understand how the soul can exist apparently in midst of the body and mind (i.e. of bodily and mental phenomena) and yet be invisible, inaudible, etc. (i.e. non-phenomenal), just imagine a three-dimensional space (see illustration below). Say that two dimensions represent matter and mind and the third applies to spirit. Obviously, the phenomena of mind will not be found in the matter dimension, or vice versa. Similarly, the soul cannot be found in the dimensions of matter and/or mind, irrespective of how much you look for it there. Why? Simply because its place is elsewhere – in the spiritual dimension, which is perpendicular to the other two. Thus, it is quite legitimate to claim awareness of the soul even while admitting that it has no phenomenal (matter-mind) characteristics.

Note well that the above illustration of the spiritual as located in another dimension is intended as merely figurative, and not to be taken literally, because the concept of dimensions is itself a material-mental concept based on the perception of space. Even the idea of time as a fourth dimension relative to the three dimensions of space is mere analogy; all the more so, the idea of spirit as a further dimension (or maybe a set of dimensions) is somewhat artificial. The simple truth is that spirit cannot really or fully be expressed in material or mental terms, being so very different, truly sui generis. We might likewise object to the image of mind as a distinct dimension (or set of them) in comparison to matter, but mind does have some phenomenal characteristics in common with matter whereas spirit cannot be said to be at all phenomenal. So, to repeat, the above analysis of these three domains with reference to dimensions is merely a convenient metaphor.

Furthermore, it would be epistemologically quite legitimate to claim the existence of soul on purely abstract, conceptual grounds. This is justifiable with reference to the principles of adduction. One can hypothesize an entity, if such assumption serves to explain various observable concrete phenomena. In the case of soul, the ‘phenomena’ involved are our commonplace experiences of cognition, volition and valuation. These experiences are largely intuitive too, but they make their manifest mark in the fields of mind and body. We experience cognition whenever we perceive or conceive anything. We experience volition whenever we think or do anything. We experience valuation whenever we like or dislike anything. Soul explains all these experiences by means of a central entity. This is akin to, say, in astronomy, discovering a planet invisible to our telescopes by observing the displacement of other celestial bodies around it. This is inductive logic.

But in truth, soul is not a mere abstraction; it is a concrete (though spiritual) thing that can be cognized directly using our inner faculty of intuition, to repeat. One error Buddhists make is to confuse entity and essence. The claim of a soul is not a claim of essence, but of entity. The soul is not the essence of the body, or even of the body-mind complex – it is a distinct entity that resides, somehow, in the midst of these phenomena, and affects them and is influenced (and perhaps also affected) by them, but does not have the same nature as them. It is a substance, but a very different and insubstantial substance, as already pointed out. Indeed, to call soul an entity or substance is really just metaphor – analogical thinking. In truth, soul is so different from the other constituents of the world that it can only be described by means of analogy – it cannot really be reduced to anything else we know of.

We can see the said philosophical error made, for instance, in the Milinda-panha, a non-canonical but orthodox Theravada (Pali) text[5]. Here, Milinda questions Nagasena, after the latter claims not to really exist. He asks him very pertinent questions such as who, then, is it that eats, engages in spiritual practices, keeps morality, gains merit, etc. The latter replies by giving the example of a chariot, pointing out that no part of the chariot can be considered as the chariot, nor even the combination of all the parts. Milinda, whose questions were excellent, is very easily taken in by Nagasena’s answers. But (to my mind) we need not be.

For a start, a chariot cannot be considered as analogous to a person. We do not look upon a chariot as like a person, for the simple reason that it does not have capacities of cognition, volition and valuation. To look for the analogue of a soul in a chariot is to commit the red herring fallacy. Moreover, while it is true that a chariot contains no ‘core entity’ which can be so called, and it is true that no one part or combination of its parts can be used to define it, it still has an ‘essence’. A chariot, as a man-made object, is defined by means of its purpose or utility – as a horse-drawn carriage, used for transport and travel, especially in war or hunting or racing. Its essence is an abstraction, not a concrete entity. Certainly all the required parts must be there to form a functioning chariot, but these parts can be changed at will. The one constant in it is the said abstract purpose or utility.[6]

The same reasoning does not apply to persons, obviously. So, Nagasena’s argument was in fact beside the point. As already mentioned, a soul is not an essence, but a core (spiritual) entity. It therefore cannot be viewed as one of the five skandhas, nor as the sum of those skandhas, as the Buddhists rightly insist. It can, however, contrary to Buddhist dogma, be viewed as one of the parts of the complete person, namely the spiritual part; but more precisely, it should be viewed as the core entity, i.e. as the specific part that exclusively gives the whole a personality, or selfhood. This is especially true if we start wondering where our soul came from when we were born, whether it continues to exist after we die, where it goes if it does endure, whether it is perishable, and so forth.

This brings us to the question as to whether the soul is eternal or temporary, or (in more Western terminology) whether the soul is immortal or mortal. Eternal would mean that it has existed since the beginning of time and will exist till the end of time. Temporary would mean any shorter period of time, though it may be very long indeed. Temporary could mean as long as the current body lives, or it could mean for many lifetimes – and that with or without physical bodies.

It seems that Indian philosophy had no place for temporary souls, only eternal souls or no-souls – with regard to soul, it was all or nothing. However, this disjunction is philosophically untenable. It is conceivable that the soul is an epiphenomenon of the living human (and more broadly animal, or at least higher animal) body, which comes into existence with it and ceases to exist when it does. Or it may be that this temporary soul lasts longer, transmigrating from body to body or maybe existing without a body. We do not know (at least, I don’t); but what is sure is that these are conceptual possibilities that cannot be ignored. Certainly non-Buddhist humanity has found them conceivable, since many religions are based on such alternative beliefs.

As regards the eternal soul, the question is whether such a soul can or cannot be liberated from the (alleged) cycle of birth and death. Does eternity of the soul logically imply its eternal imprisonment in suffering? I do not see why. It is conceivable that the eternal soul was once happy, then somehow fell into suffering, but can still pull itself out of its predicament through spiritual practices. It may well be, even, that its liberation depends on a spiritual program like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; i.e. on realizing that it is in a vicious circle of suffering, that this suffering is caused by attachment and can be cured by non-attachment, and that such non-attachment can be cultivated through the Noble Eightfold Path. So, there is nothing inherently contradictory to Buddhism in the assertion of an eternal soul. I am not advocating this, only pointing out that it can consistently be advocated contrary to established dogma.

What is sure, in any case, is that the no-soul idea is logically untenable. Buddhists have never squarely faced the logical problems it raises and honestly tried to solve them. They are always inhibited by the fear of being regarded by their peers as heretical holders of ‘false views’; so they keep repeating the no-soul catechism and keep trying to justify it (using absurd means such as the tetralemma, which puts forward the nutty idea that something can both be and not-be, or that something can both not-be and not-not-be). The use of the five skandhas doctrine as an explanation of the (alleged) illusion of selfhood simply does not convince any honest observer, as above shown. Buddhist preachers say that individuals should not take Buddhism on faith, but try and think the issues through for themselves, and they will see the logic of it. But when someone does so, and comes to a different conclusion and rejects one of their clichés, they are nonplussed if not hostile.

The truth is that it is impossible to formulate a credible theory of the human psyche without admitting the existence of a soul at its center. Someone has to be suffering and wanting to escape from suffering. A machine-like entity cannot suffer and cannot engage in spiritual practices to overcome suffering. Spiritual practice means, and can only mean, practice by a spiritual entity, i.e. a soul with powers of cognition, volition and valuation. These powers cannot be equated electrical signals in the brain, or to events in the skandhas. They are sui generis, very miraculous and mysterious things, not reducible to mechanical processes. Cognition without consciousness by a subject (a cognizing entity) is a contradiction in terms; volition without a freely willing agent (an actor or doer) is a contradiction in terms; valuation without someone at risk (who stands to gain or lose something) is a contradiction in terms. This is not mere grammar; it is logic.

An important question as regards the soul is whether it is the same throughout its existence, or alternatively it spiritually changes (for better or worse) over time. This issue is important as it could affect responsibility, and reward or punishment (karma, in Buddhism). Granting that the soul is responsible for its acts of will at the time of such actions, is it just for the soul to receive the consequences of such actions at a later time? Should I pay in my old age for the vices of my youth that I no longer indulge in, or get the belated rewards for my youthful virtues even if I no longer have them? If the soul is unchanging through time, the answer would obviously be yes. But if the soul does evolve or devolve over time, the answer might at first sight seem negative. Can it still be said that the same person involved in such case?

Different solutions to this problem might be proposed. First, we should emphasize that much of the karmic load (for good or bad) of our lives is placed in our mental and bodily dimensions, our mind and body. The question here posed is whether some of the karmic load is placed in our spiritual dimension, our soul. If we say that the soul is constant, we must place all apparent spiritual changes related to it in its mental and physical environment. Thus, the same soul as a baby has more limited powers of walking, talking, etc.; as an adult, his intellectual and bodily powers reach their peak; in old age, they gradually deteriorate.

Moreover, if one thinks and acts in a saintly manner, one is likely to have a pleasant inner life and probably outer life too; whereas, if one thinks and acts in a depraved manner, one is likely to have an unpleasant inner life and probably outer life too. But what of in some supposed afterlife, when the soul is without body or mind? The choices a person makes at any given time reflect its total circumstances at that time. If I am the same across time, then in principle if I were put back in the same circumstances I would react the same way to them. This would seem contrary to the principle of free will, which is that whatever the surrounding influences the soul remains free to choose – and is therefore ultimately unpredictable. 

A better position to adopt may be that proposed by Buddhism in the context of the five skandhas doctrine. I am referring to ‘the Burden Sutra’ expounded by Vasubandhu[7]:

“The processes which have taken place in the past cause suffering in those which succeed them. The preceding Skandhas are therefore called the ‘burden’, the subsequent ones its ‘bearer’ [of the burden].”

We could adapt the same idea to the soul (instead of the skandhas), and say that since its present existence is caused by its past existence, it is in a real sense at all times a continuation of its past, carrying on not only its existence but also its good and bad karma. In this way, even if the soul (the ‘bearer’) has undergone inner changes, it remains responsible for its past deeds (the ‘burden’). The past becomes cumulatively imbedded in the present and future. In that case, we must ask the question: what changes are possible within a soul? Is it not a unitary thing? Can it conceivably have parts? This would seem to take us back full circle to a psychological description, such as the one proposed in the five skandhas theory!

However, I would suggest that such questions are not appropriate in the spiritual realm, which is not quite comparable to the material and mental realms. The soul, being non-phenomenal, cannot be thought of as having size or shape or even exact location, or as increasing or decreasing in content – these concepts and others like them being drawn from the phenomenal realms. We should rather accept that we cannot describe the soul, any more than we can truly fathom its ultimate workings. Just as cognition, volition and valuation are sui generis world-events, so is the soul too special to fit into any simplistic analogies.

It should be added that the view of the soul here proposed is not very far, in many respects, from the Buddhist notion of Buddha-nature. Consider the following statements by Son Master Chinul[8]:

“The material body is temporal, having birth and death. The real mind is like space, unending and unchanging….

The material body is a compound of four elements, earth water, fire, and air. Their substance is insentient; how can they perceive or cognize? That which can perceive and cognize has to be your Buddha-nature….

In the eyes, it is called seeing. In the ears, it is called hearing…. In the hands, it grabs and holds. In the feet, it walks and runs…. Perceptives [sic] know this is the Buddha-nature, the essence of enlightenment. Those who do not know call it the soul….

Since it has no form, could it have size? Since it has no size, could it have bounds? Because it has no bounds, it has no inside or outside. Having no inside or outside, it has no far or near. With no far or near, there is no there or here. Since there is no there or here, there is no going or coming. Because there is no going or coming, there is no birth or death. Having no birth or death, it has no past or present….”[9]

Clearly, the “real mind” which is “like space,” the “Buddha-nature” which alone can “perceive and cognize,” that which sees and hears and grabs and walks, i.e. that which is the Subject of acts of consciousness and the Author of volitional acts, corresponds to what we commonly call the soul, even if the said writer refuses to “call it the soul.” It is noteworthy that, despite the Buddhist dogma that cognitive and volitional acts do not imply a self, this writer seems to advocate that they do (even while virtuously denying selfhood). Is then the difference between these concepts merely verbal? I would say not. The idea of the soul suggests individuation (in some realistic sense), whereas that of Buddha-nature has a more universal connotation (with apparent individuality regarded as wholly illusory).


(b) Let us now examine the Buddhist concept of Emptiness. Note at the outset that I make no claim to higher consciousness, and have no interest in engaging in fanciful metaphysical speculations using big words. I write as a logical philosopher, an honest ordinary man intent on finding the truth without frills. By ‘emptiness’, most Buddhists do not mean literal vacuity, or a void (non-existence). It may be that some Hinayana thinkers understood the term that way, but I gather Mahayana thinkers viewed it more positively (or ambiguously) as referring to ‘neither existence nor non-existence’. The latter expression is meant to reject both excessive belief in the existence of the phenomenal world (Eternalism) and excessive belief in the non-existence of the phenomenal world (Nihilism). It is intended as a golden mean – a ‘middle way’.

However, as regards this concept of ‘middle way’, it is inaccurate (quite muddle-headed, in fact) to say, as Buddhists do, that this emptiness is ‘non-dualistic’, suggesting that it literally includes all opposites, i.e. allows of effective contradiction. All that can be said is that emptiness comprises everything that is positively actual, whether in the past, present or future. Just as actuals are never contradictory, i.e. just as contradiction never occurs in reality at any time or place (not even, upon reflection, in the mind), so emptiness does not admit of contradictions. Contradiction is certainly illusory, and any claim to it is necessarily false. ‘Non-dualistic’ must be taken to mean (more accurately) unitary, undifferentiated. It refers to the actual positive, not to any imagined negative.

Often, it is implied that Emptiness corresponds to the Absolute, the Infinite, Ultimate Reality, the Original ground of Being (or of Mind), the One, Nothingness, the Noumenon, and so forth. This concept, and some of the terminology used for it, are of course not entirely foreign to other philosophies and religions.

From its Pre-Socratic beginnings, Greek philosophy has sought for the underlying unity of the many, what lies beneath the variegated phenomenal world, the common ground of all things we commonly experience, from whence things presumably come and to which they presumably go (as it were). Comparable notions are also found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and of course in other Indian religions, notably Hinduism – especially in their respective more mystical undercurrents. Greek philosophy has of course influenced these various religions, and they have also demonstrably influenced each other, in this respect. There has also no doubt been influences from and to Buddhism, as the above mentioned Milinda-panha attests, being a dialogue between a Greek king and a Buddhist monk.

With regard to our bodies, or to matter in general, it is often argued that though they appear varyingly ‘substantial’ (including gases and liquids with solids), if we go deeper into their composition, as we nowadays can, we shall find mostly empty space, with only very rare particles of mass, which are just pockets of energy anyway, connected by insubstantial fields of force. But the obvious reply to that is that this would still not be total void; i.e. even if matter is not as full and substantial as it at first appears, that does not mean that there is nothing in it at all.

Nevertheless, I do not think that the Buddhist concept of emptiness applied to matter refers to this empty space with very rare substantiality. Rather, I think, that it refers to the assumed universal and unitary common ground of all things, which is conceivable as pure existence, prior to any differentiation into distinct entities, characteristics or events. This root existent cannot be described or localized, because to do so would be to ascribe to it some specific character or location to the exclusion of another.

With regard to mental phenomena, by which I mean the stuff of memories and derived phantasms, which apparently occur our heads, they seem much less substantial than material ones, but nevertheless they are phenomenal insofar as we perceive them as having colors, shapes, sounds, and perhaps also (though I can’t say I am sure of it) also odors, flavors and feelings of touch. We must also in this context pay attention to concrete feelings and emotions which appear to occur in our bodies or heads, which we would collectively classify as touch-sensations.

It is worth noting the importance touch-sensations play in our view of matter: the ‘solidity’ we ascribe to matter is defined in terms of the resistance we experience when we push it, pull it or squeeze it, as well as with regard to the evident relative duration of the object at hand. No matter how much empty interspace matter may in fact contain, the experience of solidity (to various degrees) remains, and strongly determines our sense of ‘materiality’. Mental phenomena, in this context, appear far less ‘solid’ than material ones, being able to dissolve more quickly and to be relatively more malleable (and in some respects less so). The Buddhist adjective ‘empty’ should not be taken to mean ‘devoid of solidity’, for solidity (as just explained) is a phenomenological given and therefore cannot be denied.

Additionally, in my view, we must take into consideration, as mental ‘phenomena’ in an expanded sense (more precisely, ‘appearances’), objects of intuition like self, consciousness, volition and valuation, even though they are quite non-phenomenal, i.e. devoid of color, shape, sound, etc. All these existents can also, and all the more so, be regarded as empty, if we understand the concept correctly as above suggested.

According to Buddhism, this root and foundation of all existence, which is somewhat immanent as well as transcendental, can be known through meditation, or at any rate when such meditation attains its goal of enlightenment. In this, Buddhism differs from Kantian philosophy, which views the noumenal realm as in principle unattainable by the human cognitive apparatus (even though Kant[10] evidently claimed, merely by formulating his theory, quite paradoxically, to at least know of it).

Nevertheless, the two agree on many points, such as the characterization of the phenomenal realm as illusory while the noumenal is real. What is clear is that emptiness refers to a universal and unitary substratum, which is eminently calm and quiet, and yet somehow houses and even produces all the multiplicity and motion we perceive on our superficial plane. The world of phenomena rides on the noumenal like ocean waves ride on the ocean. Water and waves are essentially one and the same, yet they are distinguishable by abstraction; likewise, with regard to the noumenal and phenomenal.

Mention should be made here of the Buddhist theory of the codependence or interdependence of all dharmas. According to this theory, everything is caused by everything else; nothing is capable of standing alone. That precisely is why everything (i.e. all things in the world of phenomena) may be said to be empty – because it has no ‘own being’ (svabhaha). This means that not only we humans, and all sentient beings, are empty of self, but even plants and inanimate entities are empty. This may sound conceivable at first blush, but the notion of interdependence does not stand serious logical scrutiny. The claim that everything is a cause of everything is a claim that there is at least a partial, contingent causative relation between literally any two things. But such causative relation must needs be somewhat exclusive to exist at all[11]. So the idea put forward by Buddhist philosophers is in fact fallacious, a ‘stolen concept’.

It should also be said that the term ‘emptiness’, insofar as it is intended negatively, i.e. as indicative of privation of existence, is necessarily conceptual. We can say that being comes from and returns to non-being, but it must be acknowledged that this is something that cannot be known by direct experience, whether ordinary or meditative, but only by conceptual insight. The simple reason for this is that negation cannot be an object of perception or intuition, but can only be known by inductive inference from an unsuccessful search for something positive[12]. Only positives can be experienced. All negative terms are, logically, necessarily conceptual; indeed, negation is one of the foundations of conceptual thought. Thus, any claim that one has purely experienced, in the most profound levels of contemplation, the Nothingness at the root of Existence, is not credible: reasoning (even if wordless) was surely involved.

For Buddhism, the original ground is something impersonal, though some might view it as a sort of pantheism. For the above mentioned major religions, the original ground is identified with God. In my opinion, such identification is more credible, because I do not see how the conscious, willful, and valuing individual soul could emerge from something greater that is not itself essentially conscious, willful, and valuing. These faculties being higher than impersonal nature, their ultimate source must potentially have them too. In Jewish kabbalah, for instance, the human soul is viewed as a spark of the Divine Soul (a chip off the old block as it were). We are in God’s image and likeness in that, like Him, we have soul, cognition, volition and valuation, although to an infinitesimal degree in comparison to His omniscience, omnipotence and all-goodness. But in any case, it is clear that there is some considerable agreement between the various philosophies and religions.


(c) Let us now consider soul in the context of emptiness. Is the concept of self or soul logically compatible, or (as the Buddhists claim) incompatible, with that of emptiness? Can a soul find liberation from its limitations and suffering, or is it necessarily stuck in eternal bondage to birth and death, deluded by endless grasping and clinging to things of naught? Is liberation only possible by giving up our belief the soul? If the answer to these questions is in accord with Buddhism, the five skandhas doctrine would seem to be useful; but if a soul can (through whatever heroic efforts of spiritual practice) extricate itself from the phenomenal and reach the noumenal, then that doctrine would seem to be, at best, redundant, if not ridiculous.

Consider, first, a temporary soul (whether its existence is limited to one lifetime or it spans several lifetimes, either in a body or disembodied). Such a soul, necessarily, like all other impermanent existents that have a beginning and an end, has come from emptiness and will return to emptiness; it is created and conditioned, by the uncreated and unconditioned One. Moreover, a temporary soul might even be regarded as eternal in the sense that it has a share in eternity, not only when it temporarily exists manifestly as a distinct entity, but even before its creation and after its apparent destruction, when it is still or again an undifferentiated part of the original ground. So, no problem there, other than finding out precisely how to indeed liberate it (no mean feat, of course).

A problem might rather be found with regard to an eternal soul, and this is no doubt what caused Buddhists to be leery of the very idea of self (which they regarded as necessarily eternal, remember). The problem is: if the individual soul (or anything else, for that matter) stands side by side with the ultimate reality throughout eternity, then how can it ever merge with it? No way to liberation would seem conceivable for a soul by definition eternally separate from emptiness. But even here, we could argue that the separation of the distinct soul from the universal unitary matrix is only illusory; i.e. that all through eternity this indestructible soul is in fact a constant emanation from the abyss and really always imbedded in it. What makes an illusion (e.g. a mirage or a reflection) illusory is not how long it lasts (a split second or a billion years), but its relativity (a mirage is due to refraction of light from an oasis, a mirror image of the moon is due to reflection of light from the moon). So, in truth, even an eternal soul can conceivably be reconciled with emptiness. I am not affirming the soul is necessarily eternal in that sense, but only pointing out that it conceivably could be so.

In conclusion, the skandhas idea serves no purpose with regard to the requirement of emptiness. Indeed, it is highly misleading, since it is based on false assumptions concerning other doctrinal possibilities. Buddhists cling to this idea for dear life, but without true justification. Clearly, the position taken here by me is that logically we can well claim that people have a soul, and reject the orthodox Buddhist belief that what we call our self is nothing but a cluster of passing impersonal events, without giving up on the more metaphysical doctrine that at the root of spiritual (i.e. every soul’s) existence there is ‘emptiness’ as here understood.

Just as we can say that apparently substantial material, or concrete mental, phenomena are ultimately empty, so we can say that the soul each of us consists of is ‘substantial’ in its own rarified, spiritual way and at the same time ultimately empty, i.e. at root just part of the universal and unitary ground of all being. In other words, contrary to what Buddhist philosophers imagined, it is not necessary to deny the existence of the soul in order to affirm its ‘emptiness’, any more than it is necessary to deny the existence of the body or mind in order to affirm their ‘emptiness’. That is to say, there is no logical necessity to adopt the five skandhas idea, if the purpose of such position is simply to affirm ‘emptiness’.


4. In conclusion

The fact of the matter is that the no-soul thesis is riddled with contradictions. We are told by Buddhists that we can find liberation, but at the same time that we don’t even exist. We are told to be conscious, but at the same time we are denied the power of cognition – i.e. that the soul is the subject of cognitive events. We are told to make the effort to find liberation, but at the same time we are denied possession of volition – i.e. that the soul is the free agent of acts of will. We are told to make the wise choices in life, but at the same time we are denied the privilege of value-judgment – i.e. that the soul is capable of independent and objective valuation.

The no-soul thesis is upheld in spite of these paradoxes, which were well-known to Buddhist philosophers from the start. What is the meaning of spirituality without a spirit (soul, self)? Who can be liberated if there is no one to liberate? Why and how engage in spiritual practice if we not only do not exist, but also have no power of consciousness, volition or valuation? Why bother to find release from suffering if we do not really suffer? Who is writing all this and who is reading it? The no-soul thesis simply cannot be upheld. The soul can well be claimed to be ultimately ‘empty’ in the aforesaid sense, but the thesis of five skandhas instead of a soul is logically untenable.

We have seen that the five skandhas doctrine cannot be regarded as an accurate description of the human psyche in its entirety. It is not a thorough phenomenological account, since it ignores mankind’s major higher faculties – intelligence, rationality and freewill. It focuses exclusively on some petty aspects of human psychology, the five skandhas, without openly acknowledging the more noble side of humanity, which makes liberation from such pettiness possible. It has metaphysical pretensions, with ontological and epistemological implications – notably, the idea that we are empty of soul, devoid of personality – but it turns out that this idea does not stand up to logical scrutiny, being based on circular arguments and foregone conclusions.

Thus, whereas the five skandhas thesis may have at first seemed like an important observation and idea, which applied and buttressed the more general Buddhist thesis of emptiness, and at the same time provided a spiritually useful description of human psychology, it turns out to be a rather limited and not very well thought-out creed. This does not mean that it has no worth at all, but it does mean that it is far less important than it is made out to be.

This being said, I hasten to add that the present criticism of this one doctrine within Buddhist psychology and philosophy is not intended as a blanket belittling or rejection of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. Certainly, Buddhist psychology and philosophy have a great deal more to offer the seeker after wisdom than this one doctrine. It is rich in profound insights into the human psyche and condition, which every human being can benefit from. This is evident already in the opening salvo of Buddhist thought, the Four Noble Truths, which acknowledge the human condition of suffering and identify the psychological source of such suffering in clinging to all sorts of vain things, and which declare the possibility of relief from suffering through a set program of spiritual practices.

In the Buddhist conception of human life, our minds are poisoned by numerous cognitive and volitional and emotional problems. At the root of human suffering lies a mass of ignorance and delusion about oneself and the world one suddenly and inexplicably finds oneself in. These give rise to all sorts of unwise desires, including greed (for food, for material possessions) and lust (for sexual gratification, for power), and aversions (fears, hatreds). The latter impel people to act with selfishness (in the more pathological sense of the term), and in some cases with dishonesty or even violence (coldness and cruelty), and generally with stupidity. But Buddhism proposes ways to cure these diseases, so its outlook is essentially positive.

Clearly, Buddhism has a particularly ‘psychological’ approach to life. It is also distinguished by its businesslike, ‘no blame’ approach to spirituality, which is no doubt why many people in the West nowadays are attracted to it. Unlike most of the other major religions, notably Judaism and its Christian and Islamic offshoots, it does not try to make people feel guilty for their sins, but rather encourages them to deal with their problems out of rational self-interest. It is thus less emotional and more rational in many ways.

Judaism too, for instance, includes psychological teachings, although perhaps to a lesser extent. One of the main features of Judaic psychology is the idea that humans have two innate tendencies – a good inclination (yetzer tov) and a bad inclination (yetzer ra’). These two inclinations influence a person for good or for bad in the course of life (physical life and spiritual life), but they never control one, for human beings are graced with freewill. This means that come what may, a man or woman is always (at least, once adult) responsible for his or her choices. This ethical belief is present in Judaism since its inception, as the following Biblical verse makes clear: “Sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Knowing this, that one indeed has freedom of choice, one can overcome all bad influences and forge ahead towards the eternal life.

In Buddhism, we may discern a similar possibility of taking full responsibility for one’s life in the very first chapter of the Dhammapada (1:1-2). “If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows… If a man acts with a pure mind, joy follows.” Although the five skandhas doctrine gives people the impression (as shown above) that they are not responsible for their deeds, we see here that this is not really the message of Buddhism, which generally enjoins strong spiritual effort in the direction of self-liberation and thence of liberation for all sentient beings.



[1]              Deluxe Edition 2004 CD-Rom. Henceforth, EB.

[2]              I assume that the Yogacara, Mind-Only, school would advocate that matter is a sort of mental phenomenon. In that case, they would presumably advocate that the skandhas theory concerns not only personality but the whole phenomenal world.

[3]              It is worth noting, of course, that the fact that this simplistic, though ancient and widespread, theory of physics (with reference to the ‘elements’ of earth, air, fire and water, or similar concepts) is advocated by Buddhism is proof that this doctrine is not the product of any ‘omniscience’. If the Buddha indeed formulated it or accepted it, he cannot be said to have been ‘omniscient’ since this is not an accurate account of the physical world. This being the case, it is permitted to also doubt he was ‘omniscient’ in his understanding of the mental or spiritual world. Of course, it could be argued that he appealed to the four elements theory only because it was commonly accepted in his day, in the way of a ‘skillful means’, without intending to endorse it.

[4]              Given in full in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding (Berkeley, Ca.: Parallax Press, 1988).

[5]              See Conze, pp. 147-151. The dialogue is given in full here. Milinda (Gk. Menander) was the “Greek ruler of a large Indo-Greek empire [namely Bactria] in the late 2nd century BC.” Nagasena was a senior Buddhist monk. The text was, according to EB, “composed in northern India in perhaps the 1st or 2nd century AD (and p

0 Comment(s).

There are no comments to this entry.