Soul Denial and Nihilism

This is a condensed version of an interesting post I found online. I’m reposting it because I’d like to know what others think. If this is a wrong interpretation, I’m curious which points made are incorrect and why.


As far as im concerned this is pretty much a waste of time. It is clearly based on logic and language rather than practice insights, is mere speculation, and goes against how the Buddha taught. To know and see for oneself, as things really are, one MUST follow the Noble 8 fold Path, in order to condition perception to a place where one can go BEYOND logic and language!

Do yourself a favour, if you want to see results, if you want to access the knowing tbe Buddha was pointing to, then re-direct the effort that goes into analysing this kind of writting on Practice itself.


Anatta, meaning no Self is a true and completely revolutionary point in case Teaching and phenomena by the Buddha, and it is a completely true Teaching. It is so revolutionary that people misunderstand it. We can still say it also means “no Soul”, and it does; however what that truly means is that the Soul is Empty. I don’t exist, my Soul doesn’t exist, however here I am interacting with you. However the Revolutionary aspect of the Anatta Teaching is that the Self isn’t merely Empty or non-existent, but that though it is, it also does not arise in Dependant Origination, while the Soul can be perceived in DO, the Self truly cannot. The Skandhas are an illusion of that Self, but taught in an Expedient Means of Dependant Origination, so that there might be a guide for one trapped in illusion. Namaste.

When I glanced over the original quoted text the thought that came to mind was, “how about a nice metta retreat?”


To me, that post is a good example that if you really want to belive in the self, or some eternal persisting cosmic reality, no one can stop you. Not even the Buddha :slight_smile:


Those ideas seem mostly to be composed from various sources, in a mixture soup.

Their punch line is to make identical between Buddhism and Advaita Vendanta. This is totally incorrect.
You can refer to this post regarding criticism of Advaita Vendanta.

It seems that Ken Wheeler is probably the one who gathered from various sources and promoting such a soup. There are plenty of criticisms of Ken.

Note: About a month earlier, someone has already raised a flag about this Ken and the forum members have already given feedbacks.


There’s a lot in there that contradicts what is found in the suttas. One that stands out is how citta is being described, which the post says is “differentiated from the aggregates” and “not based on anything”. This couldn’t be more misleading. Perception and feeling (both aggregates) are cittasaṅkhāro, which is to say, they are inseparable from citta (mind). A lustful mind, for example, is apparent on account of both perception and feeling. That is the why the sign of the mind (cittanimitta) is available to picked up, and citta would not be apparent without both.

Furthermore, citta is not something that is said to be liberated on account of any separation, but on account being made bright, being tamed, and being made subordinate to the goal of the path. This is illustrated eloquently by Ven. Tālapuṭa:

…I’ll act as a master does: let whatever I get be enough for me. And that’s why I’ll make you as supple as a tireless worker makes a cat-skin bag.

I’ll act as a master does: let whatever I get be enough for me. I’ll control you with my energy, as a skilled trainer controls an elephant with a hook.

Now that you’re well-tamed and reliable, I can use you, like a trainer uses a straight-running horse, to practice the path so full of grace, cultivated by those who take care of their minds.

I shall strongly fasten you to a meditation subject, as an elephant is tied to a post with firm rope. You’ll be well-guarded by me, well-developed by mindfulness, and unattached to rebirth in all states of existence.

You’ll use understanding to cut the follower of the wrong path, curb them by practice, and settle them on the right path. And when you have seen the cause of suffering arise and pass away, you’ll be an heir to the greatest teacher.

Under the sway of the four distortions, mind, you dragged me around like a bull in a pit; but now you won’t associate with the great sage of compassion, the cutter of fetters and bonds?

Like a deer roaming free in the colorful forest, I’ll ascend the lovely mountain wreathed in cloud, and rejoice to be on that hill, free of folk—there is no doubt you’ll perish, mind.

The men and women who live under your will and command, whatever pleasure they experience, they are ignorant and fall under Māra’s control; loving life, they’re your disciples, mind. -Thag 19.1

So what about you, did you stop believing in your self?

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Don’t understand the question, sorry :slight_smile:

The point is that attavada cannot be so easily abandoned, even with the help of the Buddha, specially if one interpreted doctrine of anatta as the statement: there is no self.

Nanavira Thera:

On the question of anicca/dukkha/anattā it is necessary, I am afraid, to be dogmatic. The aniccatā or impermanence spoken of by the Buddha in the context of this triad is by no means simply the impermanence that everybody can see around him at any moment of his life; it is something very much more subtle. The puthujjana, it must be stated definitely, does not have aniccasaññā, does not have dukkhasaññā, does not have anattasaññā. These three things stand and fall together, and nobody who still has attavādupādāna (i.e. nobody short of the sotāpanna) perceives aniccatā in the essential sense of the term.

For this reason I consider that any ‘appreciation of Buddhism by nuclear physicists’ on the grounds of similarity of views about aniccatā to be a misconception. It is worth noting that Oppenheimer’s dictum,[2] which threatens to become celebrated, is based on a misunderstanding. The impossibility of making a definite assertion about an electron has nothing to do with the impossibility of making a definite assertion about ‘self’. The electron, in quantum theory, is defined in terms of probabilities, and a definite assertion about what is essentially indefinite (or rather, about an ‘indefiniteness’) cannot be made. But attā is not an indefiniteness; it is a deception, and a deception (a mirage, for example) can be as definite as you please—the only thing is, that it is not what one takes it for. To make any assertion, positive or negative, about attā is to accept the false coin at its face value. If you will re-read the Vacchagotta Sutta (Avyākata Samy. 8: iv,395-7), you will see that the Buddha refrains both from asserting and from denying the existence of attā for this very reason. (In this connection, your implication that the Buddha asserted that there is no self requires modification. What the Buddha said was ‘sabbe dhammā anattā’—no thing is self—, which is not quite the same. 'Sabbe dhammā anattā’ means ‘if you look for a self you will not find one’, which means ‘self is a mirage, a deception’. It does not mean that the mirage, as such, does not exist.)

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Now, separation from name-and-matter seems to be goal, which while leads to the cessation of consciousness, goes beyond the dialectic being and not being.

Nanamoli Thera:

Now while the D/O has the appearance of, and is, a complete description of the world (as we have defined it,) nevertheless, when nibbāna is treated of positively in any of its terms instead of, as its cessation, a paradox will appear. Atthi … abhūtam…, or sabbato pabhaṃ, describes as cognized, to be (by consciousness) in terms of being. What nibbāna is cognized by in terms of consciousness is anidassanaṃ: the act of cognizing without ‘showing,’ ‘making seen,’ any positive determined (saṅkhata) object. That this opposing of being and consciousness seems possible and not nonsense (the paradox) also indicates the ‘incompleteness’ of the ‘complete’ description.
636. (1) Citta = to know; (2) cetasika = to do; (3) rūpa = to be.
‘Rūpa’ appears as some definite form and as such is entirely positive. To the question, ‘What is this?’ the answer can be given at once: ‘It is what it is.’ But to be what it is it has to be determined as such, and this determining is the function of saṅkhārā (including vedanā and saññā as two special instances of saṅkhāra, which we are entitled to do). To the question ‘What is a determination?’, we define it as an act of showing or determining an appearance that a form perceived ‘is this form, not that form.’ The negation in determining is only implied by, or employed by, determination but does not constitute an element of its being. Of that determination too it can be replied to the question ‘what is I?’, that ‘it is what it is’ (saññā, vedanā, saṅkhārā, phassa, samudayā). That form can be and be determined is only possible in the presence of consciousness.
A peculiarity of consciousness at once appears introspectively in that it does not in itself appear positively as rūpa (form) and cetasikā do. Quote MN 109 & 38 … The capacity of negation appears to reside in consciousness which provides the “empty space” in which questions can be asked and “forms” (things) determined. If with the other two it constituted a plenum, there would be no questions and no acts of determining possible.
Consciousness, then, begins to appear as the questioning element and it can turn the questioning on itself: ‘If I am what I am.’

From Thinker’s Notebook

But neither the article nor anyone who criticized it mention the basic fundamental attitude which leads to the abandoning of attavada, with following it cessation of being and cessation of dependently arisen consciousness, namely : this is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.

I don’t think it’s this complicated. IMO, there are two types of reactions to the Buddha’s selflessness teachings:

  1. People who aren’t ready for it and convince themselves the Buddha didn’t really teach it or taught something else
  2. People who go like “dang, what if my assumptions about this body and mind are wrong? what if I’m perceiving or understanding this first person experience wrongly somehow?”

IMO, it’s not so much about how one interprets anatta, it’s whether one has the intellectual humility and curiosity to wrestle with an idea that can make you really uncomfortable.

Also, I think anyone who understands intellectually that they can’t be e.g. the carbon atoms in their body, can understand intellectually what non-self is. It’s the idea that the mental and physical things we take to be a self, aren’t.

Like, these essays defending the self (like in the OP) are always long and complicated. They have to be, because it’s necessary to escape the simplicity of anatta in order to reinterpret it as something else :slight_smile:


It is very strange (atleast to me) to speak of a notion of subjectivity apart from sanjanana, vijanana…etc activities.

When it is said ‘sabbe dhamma anatta’, is this an apophatic teaching given to the initiated? Personally i don’t think so.

Puthujjana is certain that he exist - conceit “I am” is present in his experience, also he is certain that he is the person (sakkaya) living in the world - holding idea of atta is inseparable with sakkayaditthi.

And so the doctrine of anatta contradicts direct experience of puthujjana. When he reflects, he sees himself, he doesn’t see that he is a victim of upadana.

In other words people are selfish, and most certainly they see something about which they can be selfish, taking their selves for granted. So idea “there is no self” is untrue and has no place in the Dhamma. What the Buddha says to puthujjana: you are a victim of wrong self-identification, taking as self what in fact is not-self.

On verbal level “all things are not-self” and “there is no self” are quite similar but on existential level they are quite different, the first one suggests to adopt the attitude of desidentification, the second is the wrong explanation of the Dhamma, and as a false explanation, not only contradicts reality of puthujjana experience, but also feeds his ignorance, giving him convinction that he understands the doctrine of anatta.

Faith is indispensable element of the Dhamma, “there is no self” idea simply contradicts puthujjana experience, without offering the solution of the problem of his suffering, while idea “all things are not self”, while also contradicts his direct experience of oneself, invite him to investigate:

This ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, which Saint Ignatius Loyola says is ‘so pleasing unto God’, is required also, incidentally, of the quantum physicist: he has to subscribe to the proposition that there are numbers that are not quantities . It is not, however, required of the follower of the Buddha, whose saddhā —trust or confidence—is something like that of the patient in his doctor. The patient accepts on trust that the doctor knows more about his complaint than he himself does, and he submits himself to the doctor’s treatment. So far, indeed, from saying to his disciples ‘You must accept on trust from me that black is white’, the Buddha actually says, in effect, ‘What you must accept on trust from me is that you yourselves are unwittingly assuming that black is white, and that this is the reason for your suffering’.

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What I think can be gathered from Ven. Tālapuṭa’s verses is that with the right kind of effort, the arbitrary and unpredictable preferences of the mind (citta) become subordinate to those required for liberation. Bearing in mind the simile of the cook in SN 47.8, it isn’t that the wise cook stops preparing food for his master, starves him, watches him die, and then takes over and becomes the master. Nor does the cook deliberately fail and get fired or imprisoned. No. The cook pays attention and learns what the master prefers, and uses that information for his own benefit. So, there is a distinction (as far as their roles are concerned), but there is also a relationship, and what constitutes being a skillful cook is knowing how to make the most it. This seems to accord with what Tālapuṭa initially recounts; with what happens when choice is based on preference, and there is no recognition of those preferences changing on their own, i.e. when the cook doesn’t necessarily learn the full scope of what the master wants, but is constantly trying to avoid displeasing him, failing to understand that his preference changes by the day, and what he wants one day, he may despise the next. For Tālapuṭa, when he still a layman, he was delighting in the prospect of being an ascetic in the forest, yet when he finally got there he was miserable. He was relying on consistency of preference, and authority over preference, as a benchmark to success, but that is not how the mind works. Once he realized the distinction between choice and preference - between cook and master - he realized he could tame the mind to prefer relinquishment and seclusion, because ultimately that delivers the best result.

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a separation, but a clarification of what it means when both roles are there together - of how to affect the mind wholesomely with certain choices. In a sense, it will separate the mind from what is not beneficial, but the relationship remains. That’s how I take those verses.

Always very interesting to read the thoughts of the British Ven. Nanamoli. He was a far deeper thinker than he is given credit for. Thank you for posting that.

It depends who make’s a value judgement. :pensive: And on what data the value judgement is made. Also we must understand difference between the phenomenological description and something which likely can be described as metaphysical speculation, which in fact can be a description of one’s own experience. Suttas are based on phenomenological description, so Dhamma is difficult to be attacked dialectically. In Christianity everything depends on God, once his existence is doubted, all collapsed.

But how to attack the Teaching if there are considerable doubts, what is the meaning of Teaching?

European literature on the history of Buddhism is now very exten-sive, and likewise on its literature and on its doctrines. The great measure of agreement achieved in the fields of history and literature, though, is still not reflected in that of doctrine. There have been, and are, numerous and various attempts made to prove that Buddhism teaches annihilation or eternal existence, that it is negativist, positivist, atheist, theist, or inconsistent, that it is a reformed Vednta, a humanism, pessimism, absolutism, pluralism, monism, that it is a philosophy, a religion, an ethical system, or indeed almost what you will.
Nevertheless, the words of the Russian scholar Theodore Stcherbatsky, written in the late 1920s, apply today: “Although a hundred years have elapsed since the scientific study of Buddhism has been initiated in Europe, we are nevertheless still in the dark about the fundamental teachings of this religion and its philosophy. Certainly no other religion has proved so refractory to clear formulation.”

Ven Nanamoli from the preface to The Life of The Buddha

@Tranquility. My view is that the author of the article you posted has put some serious thought into their work. Any attempt to negate their line of reasoning in good faith would require that the post be responded to point by point. It would also require that the definitions for various important words (e.g. soul) be explored in depth.

What I see so far, with many of the comments, are throw away one liners or disconnected paragraphs that ridicule the post but don’t really provide a solid basis for a counterargument. Just about every person has a word that triggers them, due to the emotion they associate to the word. Once triggered, any pretense at having a well reasoned discussion goes out the window. For Buddhists soul tends to be one such trigger word.

The devil is in the detail and, in my view, it all comes down to how you use and define the word soul.

1. The soul, identity and eternalists

In just about all non-Buddhist religions, soul and self are used interchangeably. This is even the case in Advaita, which claims that the aim of practice is to realise the Self (capital S). This Self is said to be devoid of any identifying characteristic.

To me, saying that the Self is devoid of any identifying characteristic is like saying water is not wet. In other words, the very notion of a self requires the assumption of an identity; ergo, the famous saying in Advaita THAT I am.

Advaita says the THAT has no characteristics, but then goes on to objectify it and create an I or self around it. Any attempt by Advaita to use non-self is purely for the purpose of discarding the false self to find the true Self. The assertion that this Self exists as a permanent and unchanging identity is what makes someone an eternalist.

Contrast this with Buddhism. Here, the purpose of using non-self is to overcome suffering, because assuming any kind of identity is stressful. The reason that, based on Buddhism, all identities are inconstant.

So, to the extent that the soul is equated to the self, Buddhism does not support the idea of an unchanging everlasting soul because it would be the same as supporting the idea of an unchanging everlasting identity.

2. The soul as the producer and consumer

Another way to get to the same conclusion is to examine the roots of atta, which the author of the article translates as soul.

The Pali word atta is commonly translated as both self and soul and its Sanskrit equivalent is atman. The root meaning of atman is breath. There are several ways that people likely conceptualised breath:

  • Breath is consumed by beings to live. (i.e. if you don’t breathe you die)
  • Living beings produce the breath. (i.e. beings engage in the physical act of breathing)

This conceptualisation then naturally leads to the idea of a soul which is both a producer and consumer; and therefore is self sustaining and empowers all activity. Further developed, it leads to the idea of a Soul (capital S) that sustains itself and all things in the universe. This is the definition we see in just about every nono-Buddhist religion, including Advaita. In all cases, such a Soul is taken to exist and be a desirable thing to attain to. A person never again has to suffer from lack because they awaken to the creative principle itself and can thus can create boundless sustenance. In cases like Christianity, a person gets to go to heaven where God (the Soul) gives them access to boundless sustenance.

In Buddhism, however, boundless sustenance is not seen as a good thing because any reliance on sustenance is considered stressful. This can be seen from the various suttas that talk about the drawbacks of nutriment. To the extent that you depend on sustenance, you are bound to suffer because all sustenance is inconstant.

So the aim of Buddhist practice is not to gain access to everlasting sustenance, but to overcome the need for it altogether.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is doubtful that you could sustain the production of boundless sustenance. Further, even if you could, the production and consumption of said sustenance would come with a measure of stress.

Strictly speaking, Buddhism doesn’t deny the Soul as the ultimate producer and consumer. It simply seeks to go beyond the producer / consumer paradigm that arises from trying to search for or attain to a Soul.

3. The soul as the everlasting

This is just (2) restated in another way. The only reason to wish for the soul to be everlasting is so that you can go on consuming and taking satisfaction in the best food forever.

4. The soul as the indestructible

If we exclude (1) though (3) from the definition of the soul, the soul is neither an identity, nor a producer, nor a consumer, nor is it self sustaining. So what does that leave? Not very much. But we can try and describe what remains:

  • The soul is not an object because it is not an identity.
  • The soul is not stressful, because it is not an identity and neither produces nor consumes.
  • The soul is not constrained, due to the same reason as the above.
  • The soul is independent of all conditioned phenomena, due to the same reason as above.
  • The soul is beyond time, as it is independent of all conditioned phenomena
  • The soul is not self reliant as it relies on nothing, not even itself.
  • The soul is neither born nor does it die, due to its independence from all conditioned phenomena.

If we explore the implications of the above, it should be clear that this newly defined soul has nothing to do with the soul described in other religions. Neither can it be described by means of the five aggregates. Since it can’t be described by means of the five aggregates, it can’t be conceived.

The suttas don’t reject this kind of soul. However, this kind of soul is so far removed from the kinds of soul that we are commonly used to conceiving, that even using the word soul seems inappropriate. Due to the difficulty in processing this idea, most people decide that it is a unicorn and doesn’t exist, or they mistakenly equate it the kinds of soul that are commonly spoken about in everyday religion.

The soul and annihilationists

When an annihilationist talks about the destruction of the atta, it must be within the context of the producer / consumer paradigm.

When a being is alive, the atta is deemed to exist because the act of production, consumption and the delighting in consumption are readily observable. When a being dies, these acts are no longer observable so the annihilationist concludes that the atta is destroyed.

The distinction between the teachings of an annihilationist and the Buddha is that:

  • The Buddha affirms that the act of production, consumption and delighting in consumption continue even after the death of the body. This is why rebirth occurs.
  • The Buddha ties the end of production and consumption to the ceasing of delighting in consumption, rather than the destruction of the atta. The ceasing of delighting in consumption is the final result of awakening, which is to be obtained through effort.

Some people say that an awakened being ceases exist when they die because the five aggregates go cold and they neither produce nor consume. But this is just annihilationism in disguise. Rather than the atta being destroyed after one lifetime, it is simply destroyed after many.

Other people say that there was no atta to begin with. But then what is it that sought and gained freedom? After all, the purpose of awakening is freedom from suffering.

Others, still, may say that the death of an awakened being leads to non-existence, and this very non-existence is freedom. But what is the nature of this non-existence? Is it the lack of any awareness whatsoever? A kind of permanent euthanisation? Sounds suspiciously like the post-death state that an annihilationist would describe.

Final thoughts

The author of that article has done some good work to support their points. However I fear that their arguments will generally be misconstrued due to the knee-jerk reaction against the use of the word soul. It is even possible that they misconstrue their own argument as proof that the Buddha supported the notion of the soul as commonly used and defined.

I would say for the large part, in the current environment, we have unapologetic eternalists in non-Buddhist camps and low-key annihilationists in Buddhist camps.

The idea that awakening doesn’t end in non-existence / euthanisation is not a radical one. Nothing in the suttas contradicts this idea. In some places, there is even support for it. The trouble is that the space for a correct view is as thin the razor edge of a mountain ridge. A step to the left and you fall into the eternalist camp and construct an eternal identity. A step to the right and you fall into the annihilationist camp and imagine a permanent state of euthanisation. Getting the balance is not easy.


Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I need to re-read it a few times to digest. I admit, I was feeling a bit surprised by the responses I was getting. Many seemed quite reactionary without really responding to the more nuanced points by the author. I believe someone even criticized me for asking such a question and told me to practice more :).

I agree that there low-key annihilationist camps within Theravada. What I found interesting was the author’s point about there being no continuous entity that moves from life to life within samsara. Rather, all things within samsara are dukkha, annica, anatta. At the same time, that which is beyond samsara is beyond the scope of logic.

To me, to definitely say that there is no self, full stop, and that paranibbana is non-existence, still feels like taking one side of the coin. It also creates a lot of confusion in the teaching. To say “be an island onto yourself, be your own refuge” suddenly loses its meaning. Certain questions naturally arise as well, such as: “what experiences Nibbana?”, or “why should I care about the here-after?”

I believe that the Buddha was very intentional in not taking a side for a reason, and that nibbana is perhaps beyond the notion of existence and non-existence.


I’ve yet to encounter anyone who has an idea about what zie is supposed to be awakening to, but it is certainly not metaphysical speculation.

This topic has been extensively discussed. Have a look at some of the discussions in the link below, which are full of detailed arguments and positions on the matter. This should provide much material to consider regarding many of the questions that you have.

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