4. The Buddhist View of the "Soul"
When we talk about the Buddhist view on the human "soul", we need to be very careful because the beliefs of what has been called original Buddhism (原始佛教)(O-Buddhism) and those of popular Buddhism (民間佛教) ("P-Buddhism") may be quite different.
According to O-Buddhism, what is important is how we live whilst still on earth and it is not important whether there "really" exist what are popularly believed to be the human "body" and the so-called human "soul" and if so, how they may be related. The split between "body" and "soul" is a dualistic view which O-Buddhism does not accept. To the O-Buddhist, in the final analysis, both the so-called "body" and the so-called "soul" are "illusory" in the sense that neither of them is "stable" or "permanent" as both of them, in so far as they exist, are subject to constant changes. The O-Buddhist beliefs in samsara (輪迴), which was "adopted" by the Buddha from the then current Hindu religious beliefs and later modified by him for strategic reasons to encourage his followers to lead what he regarded as a suffering-free life, a strategy and a "belief" "adopted" by him merely as a "convenient" or "expedient" way ("方便法") of leading them towards what he regarded as the true way or path through the then current Hindu concept of good or bad "karma" or "karmic energy"( 業). For the sake of making it sound more comprehensible to the ordinary people, who are either unable to or do not bother to understand the fairly abstract principles of O-Buddhism, the "doctrine" of the samsara posits the existence of so-called "good" and "evil", the so-called "heaven"s and "hells", and so-called "karma" and to conform to "popular" beliefs about the existence of so-called "soul/spirit/ghosts", the Buddha worked on the existing beliefs but made suitable modifications and elaborations on them so that they would become more consistent with what he advocated.
When Buddhism entered China, probably for the same reasons, many Chinese monks infused into Chinese Buddhism popular Chinese beliefs in the existence of "soul" (魂) and "soul-manifestation" (魄) and the need of ancestral worship (拜祖) as a convenient method of inducting them into true Buddhist beliefs. In doing so, they were merely following in the footsteps of the Buddha who always tailored his teachings according to the ability of the relevant disciples and followers to comprehend what he was teaching (因才施教) and fitted his teaching to the relevant time and circumstances (因時濟宜).
In O-Buddhism, the way to "transcend" the mundane pleasures, joys, pains, suffering and miseries of this world and hence reach "nirvana/nibbana", a state of relatively permanent and stable "peace" and "calm" is to cease to make any dualistic distinction between conventional dualistic pairs, between life on earth and the so-called "next life" in the otherwise endless so-called cycle or "reincarnation" "as if" the so-called "spirit/soul" were the "owner" of the relevant "bodies" the way we "own" or "change" our houses or clothes in which the relevant "spirit/soul" occupies for the time being. Some of the Chinese monks e.g Master Wai Yuan (慧遠 (CE 334～416）of Lushan (廬山) in the Eastern Chun (東晉) Dynasty adapted the then Buddhist doctrine with the traditional Chinese concepts of the 5 elements (五行) by comparing the 'soul/spirit" which he thought would never cease to exist to "fire"(火) and the impermanent "body" to "tree/wood" (木) such that during samsara, a "soul/spirit" will burn in and thus give life to one "body" after another in a succession "reincarnations" or trans-migration of the "soul/spirit" until it attains nirvana/nibbana. Thus belief in the existence of some kind of "soul" is only confined to the followers of P-Buddhism. In fact, he caused a controversial storm of debates on whether the spirit is mortal or immortal (神滅不滅論爭).
When the great Buddha was asked whether man has a "soul/spirit" and "heaven/hell", he refused to make a commitment one way or another. (無記). His attitude can be compared to that of Confucius who, when asked about what would happen to man after death, replied " if we don't know about life, how can we be expected to know about death" (未知生, 焉知死) and advised his disciples to respect the "ghosts/spirits" but distance themselves from them. (敬鬼神而遠之).
Thus according to O-Buddhism, if a Buddhist firmly believes in the permanence of an indestructible "soul/spirit", he cannot be considered a right thinking Buddhist because according to the Buddhist doctrine of "Eight right paths" (八正道), an important right path is "right belief" (正信). To the right-thinking and right-believing Buddhist, there is only what they call "consciousness/awareness" (識) i.e. the activity of the "mind" and the purpose and aim of Buddhist practice is to transform troubled consciousness into pure wisdom (轉煩悔惱識成清淨智). When a Buddhist attains this, then he can be liberated from his troubles, his worries, his fears, his anger, his greed, his desires, his longings, his hopes, his despair, his pains, his suffering, his emotional ups and downs and live in a way which "transcends" even the boundaries between life and death.
(To be cont'd)