Bhante Dhammika: If there is no self, soul, or spirit what passes from one life to the next?


I found this interesting essay/dhamma talk on Facebook on the BSWA Group and wondered how this view of not-self relates to the EBTs. It has interesting ideas of “self” and “no self”. I don’t know the monk who supposedly said it, but perhaps someone does.


“The problem is more apparent than real. The Buddha did not teach that there is no self as such; he taught that there is no permanent, unchanging, metaphysical self. In Buddhism as in contemporary psychology, the self is understood to be the constantly evolving cluster of impressions and memories, traits and dispositions that together form consciousness. When one identifies with this it gives the feeling of being autonomous and separate from others and of persisting through time. This empirical self clearly exists in that it is a real experience, although it is in a constant state of flux. It is this “self” that passes from one life to the next.

“Imagine three billiard balls in a line, each touching the other and a fourth billiard ball some distance from the three and aligned to them. Now imagine that a man hits the fourth ball with his cue and it speeds across the table and hits the first ball in the line. The moving ball will come to an immediate halt, it and second balls will remain stationary while the third ball, the last in the row, will speed across the table and into the pocket. What has happened? The energy in the fourth ball has passed through the first and second balls in the row, then into the third ball, activating it so that it moves across the table. In a similar way, the mental energy that makes up what we can conveniently call the self, moves from one body to another. Indeed, the very thing that allows it to pass through a medium and animate another object is its changeability (anicca). It is not this, but the idea that a soul or spirit can go from one location or dimension to another without changing that is difficult to explain.

“Following from this is the question of identity. If the consciousness that makes up the self is indeed constantly changing, is it legitimate to consider the individual who is reborn the same as the one who died? And if the individual who is reborn is different from the one who died, is it legitimate to say that one can experience the results of kamma done in the former life in the present life? Interestingly, the Buddha addressed these very questions. He said that to say that the one who acts is the same as the one who experiences its result would be extreme, but to say that they were entirely different would be extreme too. He then proceeded to reiterate his position that the individual is a conditioned, constantly evolving flow of interconnected psycho-physical factors giving the “impression” of a self.

“Using an analogy might help clarify what the Buddha meant. Think of a football team which has been going for 60 years. During that time scores of players have joined the team, played with it for five or ten years, left and been replaced by other players. Even though not one of the original players is still in the team and the earliest ones are not even alive, it is still valid to say that “the team” exists. Its identity is recognizable despite the continual change. The players are hard, solid entities but what is the team identity made up of? In part of the players, but also its name, memories of its past achievements, the feelings that the players and the supporters have towards it, its esprit de corps, etc.

“Similarly, a mother might take out the family photo album and show her children photos of herself when she was a child. Science tells us that not one molecule in her body is the same as when she was young. Her thoughts, ideas and beliefs are all different from when she was a child. Even her facial features when young, although vaguely similar, are hardly recognisable to her children. Even so, when the curious children ask their mother: “Is that you mummy?”, and she answers “Yes”, no one would accuse her of lying. Despite the fact that both body and mind are continually changing, it is still valid to say that the person who is reborn is a continuation of the person who died – not because any unchanging self has passed from one to another, but because identity persists in memories, dispositions, traits, mental habits and psychological tendencies. Thus it is valid to say that an individual passes from one life to another and that one can experience in this life the vipāka of kamma done in the previous life.”
— Bhante Dhammika

Source is here.



Bhante Dhammika is a senior Australian Buddhist monk with over 40 rains, and prolific scholar with many books translated into dozens of languages.

You can learn more about him here:

And see his index page for a list of his writings.


Thank you Venerable. :anjal:
He seems like an intriguing scholar after digging through some of his essays on his website. I’ll have to do more digging since he has some neat ideas to consider.