Which sutta explicitly states that there is no substantial eternal soul?

Hi

Doing a search of the site topics, it seems that in general people agree that the Buddha denied the existence of an eternal substantial soul, but there is disagreement regarding the idea that the Buddha completely denied the idea of Self.

However, from memory, I don’t remember reading the Buddha explicitly deny the idea of a substantial eternal soul.

I know he says that nama rupa is not a Self, I know he says he calls the “All” the 6 senses, I know he says that eternalism is not consistent with holy life, and that any attachment to a doctrine of the Self leads to suffering. But I don’t remember him saying explicitly, in black and white, that there is no such thing as an eternal substantial soul.

Is there such a sutta?
It may be a silly question, but I confess I’m a bit confused by it (especially when discussing with other religions saying that Buddha never denied soul).

Thanks in advance

May the Sangha be revered for a long time

Well, Buddha denied the eternal, independent Self.

If there is something like A substantial eternal soul, how can it be that it is not a Self, or can be identified as a Self?

Therefore it does not exist.

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Please, is there a sutta where he says this explicitly, i.e. in black and white?

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SN 44.10, the Ānandasutta, declares “all phenomena are nonself.”

In first-order logic, this can be translated to:
∀x[¬Self(x)].

Here ∀ is the logical symbol meaning “for all,” and ¬ is the logical symbol for negation. So the above reads:
“For all x, it is not the case that x is a self.”

Using one of De Morgan’s Laws for quantifiers, this can be converted into:

¬∃x[Self(x)],
where ∃ is the logical symbol meaning “there exists.” So the above reads:

“It is not the case that there exists an x, such that x is a self,” or more succintly “there is no self.”

In other words, the statement made is logically equivalent to an explicit black and white statement that there is no such thing as a self (much less an eternal substantial soul).

To play devil’s (mara’s?) advocate, some like to make the point that he defines the “All” as the 6 senses. So, you might to wish to translate the first statement as

∀x[¬[x ∈ {6 senses} ∧ Self(x)]]
¬∃x[x ∈ {6 senses} ∧ Self(x)]

where ∈ is the mathematical symbol for set inclusion, and brackets {…} indicate a set. So the above reads, “for all x, it is not the case that x is an element of the 6 senses, and that x is a self.” This gets translated to “it is not the case that there exists an x, such that x is an element of the 6 senses and x is a self.”

More succintly:
∀(x ∈ {6 senses})[¬Self(x)]
“For all x in the 6 senses, it is not the case that x is a self.”
¬∃(x ∈ {6 senses})[Self(x)] "
“It is not the case that there exists an x in the 6 senses which is a self.”

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None.

The Buddha said that thinking either that there was a soul or that there wasn’t were both foolish ways of thinking that would only detract from the path.

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Wow thank you very much!
I really appreciate the fact that you give the definition of symbols, as I am not familiar with them, it helped me to understand. And I appreciated the fact that each time you gave the “translation” of a formal proposition into ordinary language. What’s more, you use my exact words to be rigorous!
Formal language tends to intimidate me lol, but with your explanation it’s very clear thank you.

However, I disagree. The proposition “all that exists is non-self” (abbreviated “P1”) is not an explicit assertion that “there is no such thing as a substantial eternal soul” (abbreviated “P2”).
We can say that P1 logically implies the truth of P2, but we cannot say that P2 is phenomenologically included in P1 : that is, at the moment when in my head I say to myself “P1 is true”, my mental state is not directly thinking and conceptualizing an “eternal substantial soul”, but is only aiming at the more general category “everything that exists”, so that since P1 is not necessarily accompanied by a mental perception of an “eternal insubstantial soul”, it cannot be said to explicitly affirm the non-existence of such a soul. To understand this, imagine someone who has never heard of the idea of an “eternal insubstantial soul”, and imagine this person saying to himself “P1 is true”; would it be fair to say that this person explicitly affirms that P2 is true? In my opinion, no, because she doesn’t even have the mental content “eternal insubstantial soul”. Well, in the same way, I think that even someone who has already heard of the idea of the “eternal substantial soul” may well, at a given moment, affirm that “P1 is true” without, however, at that moment recalling the mental content “eternal substantial soul”, so that he cannot be said to be explicitly affirming P2.

You might find your answer in MN22

Mendicants, it would make sense to be possessive about something that’s permanent, everlasting, eternal, imperishable, and will last forever and ever. But do you see any such possession?”

“No, sir.”

“Good, mendicants! I also can’t see any such possession.

It would make sense to grasp at a doctrine of self that didn’t give rise to sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. But do you see any such doctrine of self?”

“No, sir.”

“Good, mendicants! I also can’t see any such doctrine of self.

Mendicants, were a self to exist, would there be the thought, ‘Belonging to my self’?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Were what belongs to a self to exist, would there be the thought, ‘My self’?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But since a self and what belongs to a self are not actually found, is not the following a totally foolish teaching: .‘The cosmos and the self are one and the same. After death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, imperishable, and will last forever and ever’?”

“How could it not, sir? It’s a totally foolish teaching.”


P.S The pali word being translated here as ‘Self’ is Atta - the properties of which are given in SN22.59 etc.

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You are very welcome. It is one of my favorite subjects, and I believe it is much more intimidating than it looks. I find that learning it helps to clarify my regular thinking too. Given the nature of this forum though, I should warn you that it is a passion and delight at the sixth (mind) sense! :laughing:

However, I disagree. The proposition “all that exists is non-self” (abbreviated “P1”) is not an explicit assertion that “there is no such thing as a substantial eternal soul” (abbreviated “P2”).
We can say that P1 logically implies the truth of P2, but we cannot say that P2 is phenomenologically included in P1 : that is, at the moment when in my head I say to myself “P1 is true”, my mental state is not directly thinking and conceptualizing an “eternal substantial soul”, but is only aiming at the more general category “everything that exists”, so that since P1 is not necessarily accompanied by a mental perception of an “eternal insubstantial soul”, it cannot be said to explicitly affirm the non-existence of such a soul. To understand this, imagine someone who has never heard of the idea of an “eternal insubstantial soul”, and imagine this person saying to himself “P1 is true”; would it be fair to say that this person explicitly affirms that P2 is true? In my opinion, no, because she doesn’t even have the mental content “eternal insubstantial soul”. Well, in the same way, I think that even someone who has already heard of the idea of the “eternal substantial soul” may well, at a given moment, affirm that “P1 is true” without, however, at that moment recalling the mental content “eternal substantial soul”, so that he cannot be said to be explicitly affirming P2.

Well, I think I see what you are saying here, but let me try to summarize to make sure I understand and that we are both in agreement. I am going to switch what you defined P2 as.

  • Define the proposition P1 as follows:
    P1 ≡ “All that exists is nonself”
    (The three bar equal sign ≡ is often used to indicate a definition)
  • Define the proposition P2 as follows:
    P2 ≡ “There does not exist a self”
  • Define the proposition P3 as follows:
    P3 ≡ “There does not exist an eternal substantial soul”

Claim: It is possible for a person to believe a proposition A which is logically equivalent to proposition B, but not believe proposition B. This may happen for several reasons:

  1. The deduction to go from A to B is complex and not understood. This happens in mathematics. You may agree to a list of axioms A1, A2, A3, … , and these axioms might imply the truth of B, but you do not know the proof. (You might have experienced this if you took a proof-based geometry class in high school).

  2. The deduction to go from A to B might be simple enough, and would be easy to see, but the person simply has not considered or brought B to mind. (In your words, the mental content of B has not occured to the person.)

  3. Whether or not A implies B might be a matter of definitions and how the terms in B are defined.

  4. The person is irrational, or they might understand the deduction from A to B, but distrust logical deduction

  5. Or more

Now, we have shown that P1 is logically equivalent to P2. We have not shown that P3 is logically equivalent to either of P1 or P2 because the terms in P3 have not been defined. There are several questions then:

  1. Are P1 and P2 logically equivalent to P3?

  2. The Buddha declared P1. But did he believe P2? Did he believe P3?

Is this a good attempt to summarize what you mean?

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Thanks for the summary, you’re right to take the time to check that we understand the same thing.

Yes, I think you know what I mean.
To repeat my point in another way: when I affirm P1, I have a certain “mental feeling” (which precisely constitutes the belief in P1) that appears, and, when I affirm P2, I have another certain “mental feeling” (which precisely constitutes the belief in P2) that appears. The two feelings are different. So asserting P1 is not the same as explicitly asserting P2.

However, I think it’s reasonable to say that P1 and P2 imply P3.

(in this post, by “P1” and “P2”, I meant the same thing as in my previous post)

The Soul is not a Self neither is your hand or your head.

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In general people are wrong.

This is why you get faulty reqsoning like this:

What the buddha actually said is that they DID NOT HOLD THE VIEW that “there is an eternal soul”.

However they also actually said that they DID NOT HOLD THE VIEW “there is not an eternal soul”.

In DN1 it is explained that any such views are mistaken and dependent on “contact” with “phenomena” which ultimately cannot coherently be understood by appeal to the kind of temporal and merelogical logic that people naively assumed (eternal, momentary, infinite, finite).

This gets lost by those who rely on SN and AN without fully understanding DN and MN.

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