A fundamental belief in many religions is the idea of a permanent, personal soul. This soul is the basis of your identity; your actions in this life will determine its eternal fate. Buddhism does not have this belief. What then is at the core of our individual existence?
The prevailing belief during the time of Shakyamuni Buddha was the idea of atman, the Hindu version of personal soul. This soul would migrate through many lifetimes, rising or falling based on the merit of each lifetime. Your individual karma determined the social class into which you were reborn. The ultimate goal was to achieve a perfection that ended this cycle of rebirth. Shakyamuni rejected this idea of personal soul and the caste system it supported. Instead, he presented the idea of anatman, no permanent self.
Does no self mean we do not have an individual identity? This is obviously absurd as it is apparent that each person is different in some way from others. If we have no soul, no permanent self, then what is the basis of this individuality? Rev. Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903) addressed this question in his work The Skeleton of Philosophy of Religion, an English translation of which was presented at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In this, he uses the Japanese word ‘reikon’ as the equivalent of soul. One literal translation of this is “ghost spirit”. This ‘ghost spirit’ is the underlying reality in which all actions affecting the individual synthesize, resulting in what we call “the self”. However, since this “self” is the result of myriad internal and external circumstances, it is constantly changing.
We like to think we know who we are, but really, who are we? Are you the same person you were as a child, as a teenager, or even the same person you were a year ago? Since you are none of these, how can we think that we know who we will be in the future? The best we can hope for is to be aware of who we are in this moment. To try to cling to one permanent self is an exercise in futility. Better to embrace this ‘reikon’ and free ourselves from this attachment to self.
For those with a belief in an eternal soul, this life is spent try to live in a way that leads to eternal salvation. The lack of a permanent, eternal soul in the Buddhist belief does not mean we can do whatever we want regardless of the consequences. Buddhism stresses that our thoughts, words and actions should have one purpose, to help overcome the suffering of all sentient beings. Even though we may not have a personal eternal existence, our lives will have an everlasting impact. Buddhism does not focus on individual salvation; rather it speaks of liberation, the liberation of all beings from suffering. Our mortal lives are finite; our existence is infinite. Live in this moment; eternity is now.