Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Thoughts on Lewis Richmond’s “The Buddha’s Teachings About the Soul”

See here for Lewis Richmond’s article on Huffpost Religion, which I responded to.  I should first note that the word translated here as “soul” or “self” is the Pali atta (Sanskrit atman).  In the context of the suttas the word means neither exactly the soul as Christians, Jews and Muslims conceive it, nor exactly the ego of Western pychology.  It partakes of both senses, but is also used reflexively in the manner of “my self” in conversational usage.  The discourses referenced here are from the Abyakatasamyutta (S.44.10) and the Aggivacchagotta Sutta (M.72). 

Lewis Richmond has completely misconstru­ed the Buddha’s silence. Mr. Richmond says: “In some sermons, the Buddha seems to acknowledg­e the existence of a soul.” This he most certainly did not do. The Buddha was silent [S.44.10] because any answer to Vaccha’s questions would have allowed that they were legitimate questions, which they were not. They were the questions of a putthujjan­a, a “commoner” or “worldling­,” one whose entire worldview is informed by notions of self and other. Questions asked from such a point of view (ditthi) are absurd from the beginning, and any answer which treats them as anything but absurd will itself be absurd. (The same goes for questions of God’s existence or non-existe­nce.) The Buddha clearly illustrate­s this when, in a later sermon [M.72], he asks Vaccha if he would know that a fire, burning in dependence on grass, was in fact burning. Vaccha says he would. The Buddha then queries if it would be meaningful to ask which direction-­-north, south, east or west–the fire went after it died out from lack of fuel. Vaccha says the question would be wrongly put. So, too, the Buddha concludes, is asking about the self–abou­t whether it is, isn’t, both, neither, or where it goes after death, etc. Far from keeping “noble silence” on account of the Dhamma’s alleged mysterious­ness or transcende­nce, the Buddha refused to address problems that were, of their very nature, insoluble because they have no intelligible or meaningful solution.

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