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My understanding is Buddhism does not agree with an immutable soul and yet it talks about Karma and rebirth. I do not quite see how they are reconciled. I have an idea but am not sure if this is what Buddhists believe. I was wondering if someone can shed some light.

Buddhism grew in the backdrop of Hinduism which has the idea of an immutable self. This self reincarnates repeatedly till it reaches Nirvana. However, the idea is that all through the rebirths the self is deluded but otherwise immutable. When it realizes this it is deluded no more.

Is rebirth without soul in Buddhism to be understood as a mutable entity that undergoes rebirth but at some point, after all Karma has washed away, there is nothing left?

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  • I made an edit, hopefully clarifying the question. As you are probably aware you may roll this back if I misrepresented the question. I don't have an answer although I assume there are many kinds of Buddhism and there may be many different answers for this. Welcome to this SE! Sep 24, 2018 at 13:59
  • Buddhist concept is explained in Wikipedia, among other places, it is called anatman (literally, non-self). Buddhists compare "self" to a necklace without a thread, not just from birth to birth, but even from moment to moment, it is itself part of the delusion. For a more advanced discussion see SEP's Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy
    – Conifold
    Sep 24, 2018 at 17:59
  • Have a look at how Nagasena put it in The Questions of King Melinda, where he compared the transmigration of causes & conditions to one candle lighting another: 'Individuality vs rebirth' buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/15541/…
    – CriglCragl
    Dec 3, 2021 at 18:23

5 Answers 5

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The following excerpt from the Pāli Canon shows that reincarnation is actually not essential to Buddhism, so although Buddhism arose in a time when the prevailing mindset held reincarnation as a given, it is not intrinsic.

Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya

"So, Malunkyaputta, remember what is undeclared by me as undeclared, and what is declared by me as declared. And what is undeclared by me? 'The cosmos is eternal,' is undeclared by me. 'The cosmos is not eternal,' is undeclared by me. '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,' is undeclared by me.

"And why are they undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are undeclared by me.

You could quibble that a Tathagata is not a normal person, in that a normal person is supposed to reincarnate until they achieve Tathagatahood, and then "blow out", but I take this as metaphonical language. There are plenty of other clues pointing in the same direction. For example, in the Diamond Sutra of the Mahāyāna tradition.

III. Then the Bhagavat thus spoke to him: 'Any one, O Subhûti, who has entered here on the path of the Bodhisattvas must thus frame his thought: As many beings as there are in this world of beings, comprehended under the term of beings (either born of eggs, or from the womb, or from moisture, or miraculously), with form or without form, with name or without name, or neither with nor without name, as far as any known world of beings is known, all these must be delivered by me in the perfect world of Nirvâna. And yet, after I have thus delivered immeasurable beings, not one single being has been delivered. And why? If, O Subhûti, a Bodhisattva had any idea of (belief in) a being, he could not be called a Bodhisattva (one who is fit to become a Buddha). And why? Because, O Subhûti, no one is to be called a Bodhisattva, for whom there should exist the idea of a being, the idea of a living being, or the idea of a person.'

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  • That's very interesting. So the Buddha didn't declare one way or another and thought of the question itself to be 'useless'. If you concur with my interpretation could you share some reference to what his view on nirvana were then? I mean what is nirvana? Is it simply "disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding"? Sep 24, 2018 at 15:26
  • Buddhism, from its earliest days, has denied the existence of the "self, soul" in its core philosophical and ontological texts. In its soteriological themes, Buddhism has defined nirvana as that blissful state when a person, amongst other things, realizes that he or she has "no self, no soul".[5][129
    – drvrm
    Sep 24, 2018 at 15:52
  • In the Buddhist Suttas, though, literally everything is seen is non-Self, even Nirvana. When this is known, then liberation – Nirvana – is attained by total non-attachment. Thus both the Upanishads and the Buddhist Suttas see many things as not-Self, but the Suttas apply it, indeed non-Self, to everything.
    – drvrm
    Sep 24, 2018 at 15:55
  • My current reading, "Godhead & the Nothing" says this at the end of its preface, which sums it up for me: "So it is that an evocation of an absolute nothingness can be a way to an ultimate joy, one known both to a Buddhist and a Christian mysticism, and one strangely reborn in full modernity, but reborn only in the most revolutionary expressions of modernity." Sep 24, 2018 at 16:00
  • @ChrisDegnen This is related to your comment on the other answer as well that I replied to. Saying that the spirit is born again as opposed to a soul seems like word games to me if the difference of the spirit from the soul is not specified. Saying that a person has no self, no soul but has a spirit that is reborn also sounds meaningless without knowing how 'the person' and 'spirit' are defined, at least in opposition to soul if not in absolute terms. Sep 25, 2018 at 14:22
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An easy way to understand this concept is that the current existence is like a block stacked upon other blocks. There is no string that runs through the blocks to attach them to each other, yet the position of the block on top is dependent on the blocks below. Likewise, if you light a candle with another candle then the flame of the second arose from the first but is completely independent.

Also in the Buddha's second discourse, The Discourse on the Non-Self Characteristic, the Buddha speaks directly about the concept of soul. Since you cannot see it, taste it, touch it, etc., and because you can not command it to enter this or that body then even it if exists, one has no ownership over it.

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In a way your perception about the Non-existence of usual "Soul" in Buddhism is correct.

However, Buddha faced a popular religion 'Hinduism" around his environs which had Soul and reincarnation, with its inherent contradictions and could not get the answers to his prime investigations into human life.

Thereby he had an alternative pathway-described below:

In Buddhism, the term anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit) refers to the doctrine of "non-self", that there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul or essence in living beings.[1][2]

It is one of the seven beneficial perceptions in Buddhism,[3] and along with Dukkha (suffering) and Anicca (impermanence), it is one of three Right Understandings about the three marks of existence.[1][4]

The Buddhist concept of Anattā or Anātman is one of the fundamental differences between Buddhism and Hinduism, with the latter asserting that Atman (self, soul) exists.[5][6]

In Buddhism-related English literature, Anattā is rendered as "not-Self", but this translation expresses an incomplete meaning, states Peter Harvey; a more complete rendering is "non-Self" because from its earliest days, Anattā doctrine denies that there is anything called a 'Self' in any person or anything else, and that a belief in 'Self' is a source of Dukkha(suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness).[9][10][note 1]

It is also incorrect to translate Anattā simply as "ego-less", according to Peter Harvey, because the Indian concept of ātman and attā is different from the Freudian concept of ego.[14][note 2]

Anatta or Anatta-vada is also referred to as the "no-soul or no-self doctrine" of Buddhism.[16][17][18]

While the concept of soul in Hinduism (as atman) and Jainism (as jiva) is taken for granted,

which is different from the Buddhist concept of no-soul, each of the three religions believed in rebirth and emphasized moral responsibility in different ways in contrast to pre-Buddhist materialistic schools of Indian philosophies.[47][48][49]

The materialistic schools of Indian philosophies, such as Charvaka, are called annihilationist schools because they posited that death is the end, there is no afterlife, no soul, no rebirth, no karma, and death is that state where a living being is completely annihilated, dissolved.[50]

Buddha criticized the materialistic annihilationism view that denied rebirth and karma, states Damien Keown.[47]

Such beliefs are inappropriate and dangerous, stated Buddha because they encourage moral irresponsibility and material hedonism.[47]

Anatta does not mean there is no afterlife, no rebirth or no fruition of karma, and Buddhism contrasts itself to annihilationist schools.[47]

Buddhism also contrasts itself to other Indian religions that champion moral responsibility but posit eternalism with their premise that within each human being there is an essence or eternal soul, and this soul is part of the nature of a living being, existence and metaphysical reality.[51][52][53]

The Buddha emphasized both karma and anatta doctrines.[57]

The Buddha criticized the doctrine that posited an unchanging soul as a subject as the basis of rebirth and karmic moral responsibility, which he called "atthikavāda".

He also criticized the materialistic doctrine that denied the existence of both soul and rebirth, and thereby denied karmic moral responsibility, which he calls "natthikavāda".[58]

Instead, the Buddha asserted that there is no soul, but there is a rebirth for which karmic moral responsibility is a must.

In the Buddha's framework of karma, right view and right actions are necessary for liberation.[59][60]

Ref.-

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatta

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  • I followed the bulk of your response but didn't quite get "the Buddha asserted that there is no soul, but there is a rebirth". If there is no soul 'what' is undergoing rebirth? Sep 25, 2018 at 7:13
  • @BorunChowdhury How about your spirit? Sep 25, 2018 at 8:51
  • @BorunChowdhury-one can see -Damien Keown (2004). "Ucchedavāda, śāśvata-vāda, rebirth, in A Dictionary of Buddhism". Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-860560-7....for rebirth.
    – drvrm
    Sep 25, 2018 at 9:23
  • @ChrisDegnen How is spirit defined? How is it different from the Hindu soul? Sep 25, 2018 at 14:09
  • @BorunChowdhury Spirit: perhaps a burning quantum re-activity - e.g. philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/11396/5154 I don't know about the Hindu soul, but I envisage the tracks of one's soul written out in the history of one's decisions and actions. Sep 25, 2018 at 14:39
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In Buddhism, the idea of rebirth is not the idea of physical birth and death and say, the transmission of soul. This is only a caricature view of rebirth coming from the religions that actually believe in reincarnation. The Buddhist concept of rebirth is not limited to any such boundaries as the boundaries of physical life.

On the micro-level*, rebirth in Buddhism means that you are born every time you grasp on the Self. If you grasp on Self, you are reborn. To end the cycle of rebirth is to extinguish the Self and achieve nibbana. Buddha Gautama still lived physically long after he extinguished Self, and so did many Arhats. After extinguishing the Self, there is no karma anymore, because there is no Self, and there is no one that acts.

Rebirth takes place every moment, every instant. Every instant is death; every instant is birth. It’s a changing process: there’s nothing you can grasp onto; everything is changing. But there is some continuity, of course—the change is the continuity.

– Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

On the macro-level*, what you have karmically enacted (or planted) in the world while acting by grasping Self (bad karma), will cause more Self rebirths in the world. That is your continuation.

It’s like a cloud. Even when the cloud is not there, it continues always as snow or rain. The cloud does not need to have a soul in order to continue. There’s no beginning and no end. You don’t need to wait until the total dissolution of this body to continue—you continue in every moment.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

*- The distinction between micro and macro events is necessary because Buddha used numerous methods of presenting rebirth to his students. From The Truth of Rebirth And Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice:

because dependent co-arising operates on many scales — from the micro level of events in the mind, to the macro level of lifetimes across time in the cosmos — it shows how micro events can lead to rebirth on the macro scale, and, conversely, how the practice of training the mind can put an end to all forms of suffering — including rebirth — on every level.

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There are levels of subtlety to consider here...

People who are not yet steam-enterers — which at any given point in time is the bulk of the population — are deeply attached to the concept of 'self'. The concept of 'self' rules their lives: their actions are for their 'selves'; the idea of the end of the 'self' is deeply distressing; karma is understood entirely within egocentric 'self'-reference. The notion of the reincarnation of the self is entirely natural at that level, because the pre-steam-entry mind can only think in terms of the continuation or extinction of the 'self'. If we are talking with someone who has yet to achieve stream-entry we need to talk in terms of the 'self'; if we don't, we will be misunderstood and cause stress and anxiety for no proper purpose.

After steam-entry we start to realize that the concept of 'self' is vacuous, and begin to wrestle with the notion of impersonal karma: karma independent of any self that carries it forward. It isn't you or I that recur in the world; our thoughts, our intentions, our attitudes (as we express them consciously and unconsciously) are what recur, transmitted across time to our future 'self' and to connected 'others'. If you've heard of the Cycle of Violence, that is a coarse and unsophisticated attempt at capturing the principle.

It doesn't make much difference in the long run. The Buddhist problematic is the act of relieving karma through dharma. We all start thinking we are relieving ourselves of karma, and eventually work around to the idea that we are relieving karma from the world. The point is that even if you fail to achieve liberation in a lifetime, the work you do sets the stage for future liberation. It doesn't really matter — in fact, it doesn't make much sense to ask — whether that stage is set for your self's future liberation or some other being's. We set the stage, and let what actors as may be play the roles.

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  • Would you say that is the 'two truths' perspective? Because that is not universally accepted by all Buddhist denominations.
    – CriglCragl
    Dec 4, 2021 at 17:16
  • @CriglCragl: Do you mean this? It's not something I've really encountered before, though I suppose I see the merits in the (Nagarjuna) epistemological approach. I see it as stages of the development of understanding. Dec 4, 2021 at 20:00

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