Buddhism and the Soul: Part 1

Missed Opportunities

Originally posted February 2013

A year ago a friend gave me a book titled Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying—An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama,, edited and narrated by Francisco Varela, Ph. D. published in 1997. It is a narration of one of the first times His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) met and dialogued with Western scientists and researchers. The group included philosophers, psychologists, ecologists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists. Because HHDL was not only knowledgeable both intellectually and experientially with the Tibetan teaching systems but also open to listen and question, I found this an unusual opportunity for a dialogue and true investigation that crossed the boundaries of both religions and research areas. And it was clear that the Western researchers came prepared.

Dreams, Lucid Dreaming, Sleep

dreams lucid dreaming sleep

Reading the book, I found the topics interesting. The discussions were mostly about dreams, lucid dreaming and its practices, sleep in its varieties both in the Tibetan Buddhist perspective and Western science, and death and dying. Given the topics covered, a great deal of time was spent on the nature of consciousness and awareness. I found almost all of the discussions interesting and satisfying. But I was left feeling that on two significant occasions an opportunity was missed for an even greater delving into the interface between Tibetan Buddhism and Western thought.

In the Chapter on Dreams and the Unconscious, the discussion centered on the nature of consciousness and the self, especially on what accounts for the continuity of experience and consciousness. The discussion became interesting particularly because the Tibetans believe there is a continuity between various lives of different incarnations, at the same time they do not believe in the existence of a self that abides or a soul that can survive death. HHDL first explains the Prasangika Madhyamika view—coming from the Sutra not the Tantra division—of how the continuity of self or person is understood in conventional terms:

“The validity of the person’s continuity is explained conventionally: in conventional terms, you can validly say that I had a previous experience at a particular time which has resulted in my present behavior. That is, you can maintain that this person, ‘I’ who is experiencing the consequence now is ‘same person’ as the person who had the earlier experience.” p. 93.

The idea is that we can see and say such things but that upon investigation we cannot find such a person or “I”. There is experiential continuity but no ontological basis for it. This is the most common Buddhist view of how we seem to have a continuity of experiencing ourselves.

Continuum of consciousness

Continuum of consciousness

The interesting thing is what HHDL said after that. It is something I have heard and read many times as expressed in some of the higher tantras of Tibetan Buddhism, but I have not seen or heard of any Westerner seeing the implications of it in terms of our Western notions.

He goes on to say: “The tantra, or Vajrayana, perspective is perfectly compatible with the Prasangika view, but also posits something further, namely a continuum of a very subtle mind, and a continuum of very subtle vital energy, which is of the same nature as that subtle mind.”

This topic actually arose in the discussion several times in the days that the Western researchers dialogued with HHDL, but not even once did any of them grasp its import as it relates to Western concepts of person or “I”, or if anyone did, nothing was said about it.

The main point is the following: “This twofold continuum is forever unbroken, from beginningless time to endless future; and this is the subtle basis of designation for self. So the self can be designated on the basis of gross physical and mental aggregates, and also on the basis of these very subtle phenomena.” p. 93

HHDL continues to explain that even though there is such a subtle consciousness that continues through life and death—through all of life and through many incarnations—it ultimately has no inherent existence. He also defines the gross continuum as that of the ordinary emotions and thoughts, and the subtle continuum as that of the nature of clear light. But also that the latter carries the former, and the former tends to obscure the latter, that is, the clear light nature of the continuum.

In other words, the continuity of experience for any person is explained by a continuum of consciousness that has two levels:

  • one gross consisting of ordinary emotions and thoughts
  • one subtle that is the nature of clear light

The individual soul

individual soul consciousness

When I was reading that, I was wondering what more did HHDL have to say in order for someone to realize he was talking about the individual soul as described in Western religious and philosophical traditions. Without saying the word, HHDL was actually saying, as many of the texts of the higher tantras clearly and repeatedly indicate, that there is a soul—that each individual is a soul that continues throughout life and after life.

“Not so fast,” some might say. “You must not forget that HHDL made sure to state that the subtle continuum of clear light does not have an ultimate inherent existence. Clear light is empty of inherent existence.” Yet, we need to remember that Buddhism denies such inherent existence to any and all things. It denies it to the body, to the mountains, to Buddha, to everything. So the continuum of awareness is not singled out here; it, like everything else, is characterized ontologically by nonbeing—in other words, its being is inseparable from its nonbeing. This has been an invaluable contribution that Buddhism has brought to spirituality, that regardless of how ordinary or sublime, everything is empty of ultimate or inherent existence.

Yet, we each are this continuum, experience ourselves as it and cannot have any experience without it. In other words, the continuity of experience is due to the fact that we are each a continuum of consciousness, awareness, or clear light, that carries the ordinary experiences of emotions, thoughts and images.

This, in a nut shell, is actually the definition of soul in Western thought.

I am bringing this up because Buddhism continues to insist that there is no self or soul. This is what sets Buddhism apart, not only from the atman concept of the Hindu schools, but from the Western traditions that adhere to the view of soul. Had I been in that discussion, I would have politely said: “Your holiness, you are here talking about what we in the West call soul. You are, in effect, agreeing with our philosophy and religions that hold that each of us is a soul that continues even after death!”

This is the opportunity that was lost…

Buddhism continuum of self

…the opportunity to see that there are common threads between Western thought and Tibetan teachings about a continuum that is the basis for the concept of self. It would have been an opportunity to show that there is not as big a gulf as most people think between Buddhist thought and Judeao-Christian-Islamic thought. That the notion of soul as a continuity of experience that has at its heart a real consciousness, a true clear awareness, corresponds to the underlying continuum of consciousness of many Buddhist tantras, a continuum that the Tibetan Buddhists believe has the nature of clear light. It would have been a real dialogue, and a fruitful one at that, in bringing the various faiths closer together.

The soul is not a reified entity

soul reified entity

Then again, there are some who might object that soul in the Western tradition is a reified entity, which is exactly what Buddhism wants to deconstruct. On the face of it, this is a valid objection for most ordinary people in the West use the notion of soul in a reified way. However, this is not how the soul is understood in the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, nor in the Hindu traditions that Buddhism tends to debate. We can easily find references in all these mystical traditions to soul as a flow of consciousness, as a dynamic continuum of consciousness. Many understand that this flow is actually not a flow in time, but a dynamic unfoldment from the unseen world to the world of actuality. It is an upwelling that possesses a continuity, just like the flow of water from a fountain. In fact, in many of these teachings, as in some of the major philosophical traditions of the West such as Plotinus or Whitehead, there is a great care not to reify the soul and make it into a rigid or fixed entity.

I spent the first 200 pages of my major work, The Inner Journey Home, on a discussion of what soul is and how we tend to experience it as our ordinary self. In the book, I stated that once clarified of our ordinary or gross experiences and identifications, the soul reveals itself to be a flow of consciousness—a continuum of awareness that is aware of itself. Also, when its emptiness is finally recognized, the soul has the character of what the Sufis call the “clear soul,” the seventh and last of their stages of the development of the soul. I think HHDL would have been delighted to hear of this, even though it might have put him to wondering about the age-old Buddhist position that there is no soul.

Buddhism and the Soul: Part 2>>

3 thoughts on “Buddhism and the Soul: Part 1”

  1. Functional mysticism? That is, being capable of (truly) merging out of actualization, realization, rather than escapism. In which case, the inherent existence of the soul is acknowledged?..appreciated?
    In other words (for example, romantic love)..when two souls truly and fully merge, they’re not losing themselves in each other, but finding themselves.
    I don’t think I’m getting this, though, because the Buddha’s journey was all about going through all the pain and hard work..
    At any rate, I find all of this remarkably freeing..

  2. P.S. It seems so clear there IS an inherent existence to the soul–I feel HHDL is playing the laughing Buddha card~~as in, so many people equate soul with ego.

  3. Isabelle schuurman

    In my experience soul is rather a matter of Being then a matter of no Being. Nevertheless my experience is indeed that soul can indeed partly be seen as ‘no self’ in the sense of no ego self. And yes, this is often my experience: Being as inseparable from its nonbeing. For me conscious experience implies this kind of openness and potentiality so to speak (in contrast to our ego self at moments that a lack of openness is rather implied).

    And this might actually be a common experience for many of us, the openness, direct experience in a conscious way, our soul qualities shimmering…. A beautiful laugh, a spontaneous generosity, a sudden understanding, a moment of compassion, a moment of deep passionate love, a helpful gesture, or a conscious emotion, being conscious of attachment, being aware of our identifications or however.

    And I suppose that defining soul as a continuity of experience does imply a continuity of consciousness or clear awareness at least indeed. In the Diamond Approach teachings we are referring to kath and nous centre, respectively heart of belly and heart of mind. They could function in good cooperation with each other eventually I would say? This is at least often my conscious experience.

    Otherwise, without consciousness or clear awareness, we would be talking about ego in my eyes, our blind identifications, our rigid convictions based on hear say or superego assumptions or however. Without consciousness it would just be about our mental structures, in the sense of living a life in the world of images the way we might be conditioned: ‘I and other’, ‘you’re just like my mother’, or ‘me and my things’, ‘I want you to carry my load’, ‘I love you so much, since I want something from you’ and so on?

    We would then rather be talking about experiences at the plane of egoic identifications, which is rather unconscious ‘experience’, rather our unconsciousness, also called sleepwalking? Which sounds familiar to me and probably for many of us, dependent on the moment. And the measure of consciousness might be dependent on the measure of openness?

    And-to put it in an extreme way, for the sake of contrast and clarity – without consciousness of what it is we’re experiencing we would just ‘be’ egoboundaries around a core of soulpotential? No Essential qualities yet? And this soulpotential -no being, no soul yet- might rather be a kind of emptiness? Oops. It’s more like a mix of course normally.

    And within those egoboundaries we might also find our suppressed stuff (the unresolved issues), the stuff that isn’t digested yet I suppose. And this id -the suppressed stuff- can be seen as part of the ego constellation in my view. (superego-ego-id as our ego structures) The stuff that’s seen as the potential wealth in the Diamond Approach, despite the fact that many of us would rather give it to someone else, the unbearable stuff?

    Hameed (A.H.Almaas) writes in the blog above that ‘the continuity of experience is due to the fact that we are each a continuum of consciousness, awareness, or clear light, that carries the ordinary experiences of emotions, thoughts and images’. So each of us has this so called ‘underlying ground’ of consciousness or clear light, within, at soul level?

    Soul is described by Hameed as a continuity of experience with a nature of clear light. Soul with at its heart a real consciousness, a clear awareness.

    While Hameed is mentioning that HHDL speaks of ‘a continuum of a very subtle mind’. This true clear awareness is spoken of in many Buddhist tantras as a continuum that has the nature of clear light, he states.

    I quote from Hameed’s blog: ‘HHDL speaks of ‘a continuum of a very subtle mind’ and ‘HHDL continues to explain that even though there is such a subtle consciousness that continues through life and death—through all of life and through many incarnations—it ultimately has no inherent existence.’

    And talking about soul and existence, the question arises whether we start at the level of EXPERIENCE at the surface, with a nature of real consciousness, which is clear light? So soul as our conscious experience? Or do we see soul as the level of very subtle MIND with a nature of clear light?

    This might just be a conceptual distinction, while experientially soul as very subtle mind with a nature of conscious light that HHDL speaks about or soul as the continuity of experience with a nature of real consciousness that Hameed is mentioning could be equated? Which then would be our belly and mind capacities in good cooperation as I was mentioning above.

    I do recognize Hameed’s definition of soul experientially myself. Direct experience is direct knowledge as Hameed said somewhere. Brilliant really, this little sentence! And then our so called ordinary knowledge can be integrated as well… So both consciousness, and our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, and experience, both direct experience and life experience integrated in our unique ways.

    At the moments that we happen to be (more or less) conscious of what we experience we do realize our soul potential in my view? As far as clarity for example, or discriminating awareness are seen as a realization of our soulpotential? And if clarity, our conscious experience, our subtle self, our discriminating awareness or our critical awareness, our openness, or our Presence, isn’t seen or recognized as soul ‘yet’, for whatever reason, this is at least the source, the condition, for our realization at the level of soul I would think?

    We could of course continue with the divine marriage between heart and mind or in whatever way that we are called to develop our very unique soul potential as individuals in our own way. Ha!

    In other words: do we start with ‘a continuum of very subtle mind’ as soul, as the kernel, as HHDL is mentioning, with a nature of clear light as he says (which then might actually rather be at the level of what’s called a point in the Diamond Approach? I’m not sure)?

    Or do we start with our more or less conscious personal experiences as our unique soul level? Whatever our experience might be: spiritual experiences, insights, tender feelings, thoughts, creative idea’s, conscious relating, feeling care, emotions, physical sensations, essential states, images, memories, plans for the future, all as experiences in the now.

    Another way to put this question according to soul could be: do we start at the end of spirit mind, or at the end of conscious experience?

    So questions are arising about the kind of heart we are talking about.

    In the terminology of the Diamond Approach we could ask which heart are we talking about: belly heart -our so called kath centre, our conscious experience- or other centres that might be involved when we refer to soul or soulpotential.

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