Buddhism and the Soul: Part 4

Soul is a stream of consciousness

Soul is a stream of consciousness

We need to hold different views simultaneously to have a more thorough understanding of individual consciousness. We need to hold the nondual or unitive view, but we also need to hold the individual view, and possibly more views. In the Diamond Approach, we have a quite detailed understanding of the individual consciousness. I refer to it as soul, but there is the recognition that it is not an individual entity, but rather a stream of consciousness, a flow of experience. There is no claim that the Diamond Approach has a complete understanding of individual consciousness, rather there is the recognition that many teachings have a good understanding sufficient for the particular teaching. Each teaching has its own understanding and knowledge of the soul, frequently overlapping with other teachings, but each has a unique contribution and flavor. The Sufis have the seven stages of the soul, as the seven stages of the Nafs, culminating in the clarified and pure soul. The Kabbalah has the different levels of soul, like nevesh, ruah, neshama and so on. But these are the outlines of these teachings about soul and obviously there is a great deal of knowledge in each of these traditions about the states and conditions of the soul. The same with the Christian tradition, where soul is quite significant, and the inner journey is explicitly stated as the journey of the soul. I think each of these traditions gives a wonderful understanding of the soul, and it will be a mistake to take any of them as complete on its own, or using it to negate the others.

The knowledge of the soul is infinite and, hence, no teaching can encompass it.

These ancient and established Western mystical traditions tend not to focus on pointing out the importance of the soul because it is taken for granted, and the audience of these teaching had taken it for granted, at least in older times. Our times are different, especially for the more secular segments of the population. Eastern teachings are much more known and available, and their views sometimes become so prevalent that they drown out the knowledge of the soul by the Western traditions, at least in the minds of many people.

I had written in the contemplation how the Buddhist tradition participates in contributing to the understanding of the soul, but refers to it as a continuum of subtle consciousness or awareness. Buddhism is wary about taking such a continuum as an individual entity, which I believe is a justifiable caution. Developing the view of a stream of consciousness, and then that of a subtle continuum of clear light, began with the Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism, and became much more established in the higher tantras of Vajrayana. Many of the tantric methods utilize this knowledge in their practices, and it is implicit in the teaching of the Bardo Thodel about after death stream of experiences.

Yet, we can ask about other Buddhist schools. How does Zen deal with this question, and also how does Theravada in its various streams view it?

Many of the Hindu schools contain a knowledge of the soul, sometimes referred to as jiva, jivatman, or atman, depending on the school. But some of the nondual schools tend to think of it only as an individual entity, which is seen as a delusion. For instance, some of the Vedanta nondual schools think of the soul, or individual consciousness, as a convenient illusion needed for the boundless pure consciousness to experience life.

I wonder why does something as sublime as pure transcendent consciousness require an illusion for it to experience and live life?

The nature of the stream or continuum of consciousness

stream continuum of consciousness

It is a stream, a flow, and hence not an individual self-existing entity. It is not separate from the boundless consciousness or pure awareness but an expression of it, an expression of it that is privileged by the capacity to function as an organ of experience for the formless or boundless consciousness. There is a great deal of subtlety here, for even when we say it is not an entity but a stream, we can reify it and also reify other concepts in the process. The notion of stream or continuum conjures up the notion of time. We tend to think of a stream of experience as moving from past to present to future. The stream of consciousness can dispose us to view it as a river flowing in a riverbed, the riverbed of time.

The question of time is important

death time soul

So the question of time is important here, and it is not a simple matter to understand. Nondual experience, or realization of the Dharmakaya, that seems to transcend time, does not fully address the question of time, and hence does not fully penetrate the secrets of individual consciousness. A better approximation than a stream is to think of individual consciousness as a fountain of consciousness, coming up with a continuity of experience. Better still, we can think of it as an unfolding consciousness whose unfoldment is the various perceptions we have, whether dual, nondual or otherwise.

The question of the nature of time is important also for understanding what happens after death. Does the sense of time continue the way we experience it in physical life? And to think there is only timelessness does not address the fact that there is perception, and a flow of perception, and how to account for that.

Unilocal, nonlocal realization

unilocal nonlocal realization

There is also nonlocal realization, different from nondual and dual realization of reality. By nonlocal, which I usually refer to as unilocal, I mean the experiential recognition that each point of time and space contains all points of time and space. Reality is more of a hologram than simply the radiance of awareness. Radiance of awareness is not negated, but what dominates the realization is the mystery of how each particular is related to other particulars, including the relation to the awareness or its emptiness.

Our sense of time is stretched here, and our notion of a stream of consciousness or continuum of awareness will need to be revaluated. What is individual consciousness from the perspective of nonlocal realization, and does it still have a meaning? I am positing this question only to emphasize that there is a great deal to understand before we believe we have gotten what reality is, or what individual consciousness is. I can bring up other modes of realization to stretch our horizons, but I think it is clear that the main idea is that openness to the mysteries of reality is more of a virtue than certainty about knowing it – and not to forget that the knowledge of the soul is infinite, and hence inexhaustible.


Added 5/29/2014: 

I have given the view of totality as it has developed in the Diamond Approach, but not as the answer to the question about what the ultimate is. It is simply one contribution to the contemplation. It is my wish that others will contribute their findings, their insights. I have shown one way of answering the question about ultimates, but I don’t see it as the only possible answer. I am interested in seeing what the reader thinks of the proposal I have given and also interested in hearing what the reader proposes as a solution. I would like to invite readers from the various teachings, to see what other teachings do with such a question. I am also interested in independent researchers and their findings regarding this question of ultimates.

Maybe there are responses and views similar to what I proposed, or very different. In either case, the discussion and dialogue is what interests me, not a final answer.

2 thoughts on “Buddhism and the Soul: Part 4”

  1. Isabelle schuurman


    Anatta | Buddhism | Britannica http://www.britannica.com
    Anatta, (Pali: “non-self” or “substanceless”) Sanskrit anatman, in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul. Instead, the individual is compounded of five factors (Pali khandha; Sanskrit skandha) that are constantly changing.


    See dialogue between Hameed Ali (A.H.Almaas) and Robert Thurman at SAND 2019. Robert Thurman is a famous Buddhist scholar acquinted with the Dalai Lama.

    For me an interesting and important part was their discussion about the existence of soul/self in Buddhism.
    (after ± one hour and 22 minutes)

    Because as Hameed is pointing out: the meaning and understanding of the Buddhist term ‘anatma’ is normally understood as ‘no self’.. ….

    Hameed’s question was whether Soul does exist in Buddhism. Robert Thurman said: ‘Yes, of course soul exists!’ He’s adding: ‘relative soul, not absolute soul’. Hameed agreed: ‘no, not fixated, not unchanging’. Earlier they discussed how self, the human being is always changing… So Hameed’s question to Robert Thurman was: ‘what do Buddhists mean by ‘Self’?’

    1.21,59 Hameed (A.H.Almaas): “You know, An interesting thing, Bob, I listened to you earlier, when you gave your talk, and now you bring it up again: I noticed you use the word ‘soul” Thurman: ‘yes!’ Hameed: ‘in the context of Buddhism.’ Thurman: ‘yes. The Dalai Lama does too!’ Hameed: ‘I thought the Buddhists don’t believe in soul?!’ Thurman: ‘noo…’ Hameed: ‘Why is it then, that when Buddhists use the term ‘Anatma’ it’s translated as ‘no soul’? …

    A.H.Almaas: So there is soul in Buddhism?
    Robert Thurman: ‘Yes! Of course! The Dalai Lama thinks so too’, he’s adding.

    A.H.Almaas: ‘Why is it that ‘anatma’ is translated as ‘no soul’? “So there is soul in Buddhism?” Thurman: Yes, it’s a continuum.. it’s not a rigid fixed intrinsic identity’ (‘like a bardo’, he adds…)

    A funny sweet interaction between the two as well in between…

    1.23 A.H.Almaas: ‘And I’m so happy that you tell me that you tell me that Buddhism believes in soul!’
    Thurman: ‘of course!’ A.H.Almaas: because most Buddhists say: ‘no’… most Buddhists say: ‘there is no soul’ ….’ And they equate soul with ego!’
    Thurman: ‘Yeah, I know. human beings are desperate to run away from their own sensitivity..’ … ‘the whole point of Buddhism is that it’s very important for the human being to feel beloved’…

    1.25.20 Hameed to Maurizio: “You need to put this on record: Buddhism believes in soul!” Maurizio: “And we’ll make him sign!” A.H.Almaas: “this is very important..”

    They agree about the soul, the self, not being fixed and unchanging of course, and yes, the soul, soul being, which isn’t the ego, does exist!

    Very nice how despite the way many Buddhists are translating or understanding the concept ‘anatma’ as ‘no self’; while assuming that ‘no self’ is the ‘ultimate reality’ in some kind of fixed and unchanging way, which then is normally contrasted to ego self, A.H.Almaas and Bob Thurman did actually agree about the existence of soul, which is the self as a continuum as Robert Thurman said, in Buddhism!

    I could only find the whole video of the dialogue between A.H.Almaas and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman at SAND (Science and non duality conference) 2019 on: https://www.diamondapproach.org/almaas

  2. For me, it clarifies that it’s not so much about failing one’s destiny, but about realizing one’s destiny. It frees one out of judgment and into the Power of Now (in the words of Eckhart Tolle).
    (Destiny, in and of itself, is a time concept, and can either be liberating or constraining.)
    (I only wish I’d come to more realization when I was younger and my whole life was ahead of me–but I guess it’s never too late.) Even after passing..

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