One of the toughest aspects of Buddhism, from a metaphysical perspective, is the ‘no soul’, ‘anatma’ (or anatta) doctrine. Buddha didn’t mean that we’re soulless machines or anything like that. What he meant was that there is nothing permanent in our consciousness that could be identified as ‘me’. He went one step further too: our whole cyclic existence is the result of the false sense of ‘I’ that we all have. (*)
Modern psychology and neurology agree with the Buddha on this one. Looking at our brain activity, they can’t find a central governing spot in the brain. There isn’t some sort of ‘God’ neuron. Somehow the brain does a lot, but the sense of unity, of ‘I do this’ is an illusion the brain produces so that it can think it understands what it’s doing. Or something.
Does this mean we’re machines without will or choice? The answer should be (but apparently isn’t) obvious: no, we’re not machines. We were born of a mother and we’re sentient beings. We feel, we act, we dance, we laugh, we choose… And when we THINK we’re not in control, that we don’t have a choice, we become less ethical. So the very thought that we’re merely machines has an effect and is unhelpful.
Buddhist philosophy is helpful in this debate because it finds the precise middle ground: there IS a continuity of consciousness that moves from one life to the next (reincarnation, karma), but this continuity of consciousness is not as unchanging as it seems. In fact, it’s very unstable in content. In this sense it is very paradoxical, and that is a charge usually leveled against Buddhism. However, as I showed above this paradox is essential to consciousness anyhow, so we might as well go with it.
On the one hand there is something that appears as consciousness: that’s a universal human experience. Buddhism agrees with most other religious philosophies that this consciousness is somewhat independent of the body. I say ‘somewhat’ because it also recognizes that while we’re embodied, the body clearly does impact the manifest mind. When we get ill, our consciousness changes. In dementia the body stops supporting memory. However, that does not mean that consciousness has no existence without a body, as Near Death Experiences testify.
Let’s go one deeper: consciousness is defined in Gelugpa philosophy as always having an object. In other words: consciousness without an object is meaningless.
Since consciousness without an object is meaningless, beyond experience in fact, it’s not hard to see that consciousness always changes. What changes is after all the object of consciousness. One moment I’m angry, the next I’m doing my daily puja.
So far my explanation of anatma has been roughly in line with all Buddhist schools. Learn more
In fact, as long as we stick to ordinary consciousness, even most of Hinduism agrees: in Advaita Vedanta (the main Hindu school of philosophy) it is recognized that the personality changes all the time and that what reincarnates isn’t the personality, but Atma plus karma. Roughly.
This is where the conflict between Buddhism and Hinduism comes in: in Hindu thought it is not stressed that even Atma changes and many people do come to the conclusion that it is permanent in the sense of unchanging. See also this evaluation of Karma and Anatta in Hinduism and Buddhism. However, since the OBJECT of consciousness does evidently change, Atma is Brahman after all and Brahman as containing the manifest universe also changes, Atma itself must change. But that’s cheating: I’m applying (Gelugpa) Buddhist philosophy to Hindu thought.
Let’s get back to basics: The difference between ‘Buddha nature’ or ‘Buddha consciousness’ and Atman really isn’t that big. Both stress that we have a usually untapped source of universal wisdom inside of us. Mahayana Buddhists call this Buddha Nature. Hindu’s call this Atma. As I said the only difference, a difference essential to the philosophical difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, is that in Hinduism the changing nature of the continuity of consciousness is not stressed.
In both cases what it means in practical terms is that we have something Divine in us as potential and that we can awaken this through living ethically, meditation and contemplation. Whether this divine something changes or not may not be essential. Logically however, it does change, because the object of that consciousness (the universe) changes.
One of the basic meditations in the Discovering Buddhism program is the continuity of consciousness meditation. For Westerners it’s a basic meditation to help get a feel for reincarnation. When you do this meditation you’re tapping into the common Indian thread in Hinduism and Buddhism: the sense that consciousness doesn’t start with the body, nor ends with it’s death.
From the Gelugpa Buddhist perspective two things are important
- Consciousness continues as does karma, as in: ‘your’ continuity of consciousness will have to deal with the results of what ‘you’ do today.
- Consciousness changes as does everything else.
The first point is pan-Indian. The second seems pretty obvious when put that simply, but when it becomes a deep down realization it is the basis of Buddhist enlightenment and extends all the way up to Buddha Nature.
(*) This is most famously described in the Buddha’s Second Sermon.
A version of this post appears in my book Essays on Karma.
Atma = The Divine Soul in Advaita Vedanta, one with Brahma. In theosophy the same. Atma can also be used in Sanskrit for ‘self’ or ‘I’.
Anatma = no-I (also anatta), the Buddhist doctrine that there is no permanent unchanging self. Derives from a broader use of the word ‘atma’ as self or personality.