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20121101

Belief in Buddha Nature Root of Transmigration

Sometimes I get asked, "Do Buddhists believe in an immortal soul?" by Christians.

As a Buddhist, "immortal soul" is like blasphemy. This is different from an afterlife in heaven eternally with Jesus. The eternal life Paul wrote of does not suggest an immortal soul. Rather, it appears to be a guarantee of living with Jesus in heaven eternally in the afterlife.

Except for the "eternal life" part, that afterlife is painted with similar elements in the Pure Land tradition.

Additionally, most Christians and all atheists find the tradition of Pure Land hard to swallow, because for Christians, the Pure Land is a benign Purgatory where every "soul" (a spark of Buddha Nature actually) is there to receive instructions before being reborn in the human realm. As for atheists, they cannot stomach religion, despite its influence on the body politic both now and in the past.

Yet the Buddhist heavens extend beyond a Buddha's Pure Land. In layman's terms, Pure Land refers to the state of mind a practitioner aspire towards, be it love, happiness, compassion, justified wrath, etc. Ergo, the Buddhas of Mahayana bring life to a Buddhist's emotions and feelings, and to the mind itself.

As I have written before on my blog, the word for God for most Buddhists is the Absolute. Some commentators mistake Heaven for it. Yet the Absolute too is a temporary thing. Most Buddhists believe that even their Buddhas have a finite lifespan, even in their respective Buddha worlds / Pure Land.

Indeed, the Buddhist afterlife extends from heaven down to hell. Our human realm (reality) is just one of those after-lives. This belief does not suggest the soul is immortal since that violates the non-self ideal i.e. self is impermanent with limited life span. A reborn "soul" evolves through successive life times. Ergo the original essence is but a part of the Buddha i.e. Buddha-essence. Thus, Buddha-essence replaces the soul for most Buddhists.

Buddha-essence is the sacred nature that is the inspiration for sentient beings becoming Buddhas. This is why Sokka Gokai call its members bodhisattvas, which means more than "angel". It also means "a person aspiring to be a Buddha".

Yet Buddha-essence has less to do with a soul and more to do with the nature of human consciousness and the means of spiritual awakening, i.e. becoming aware that one's purpose in life is to be of service to others.

To sum up, Buddhists do not believe in an immortal soul. They may have a belief in the Buddha-essence which is the fruit of the karma of the Buddha, freely given to all sentient beings at birth. Indeed, it is not the soul that transmigrates in a new incarnation, it is the karma that bears fruit in a new birth.

For all the actions of an infant's parents and their parents before them bear fruit in that child. As a Japanese person, this is important to me as my ancestors before me worshipped their ancestors, not due to pagan ideals, but out of respect to them. Thus ancestor worship is the ideal of respect for the dead.

Hopefully the gentle reader now knows that I do not believe in an immortal soul but in the Buddha-essence that incarnates first in a Pure Land and then returns to this human realm, despite being given the choice of the many heavens of Buddhist cosmology.

For Buddhists soon wish to be reborn in the human realm because it is the home of human suffering. Indeed, on this shiny blue planent is where we find the face before we, as bodhisattvas, were born.

1 comment:

Radha Santadharma said...

If a Buddhist layperson aspires to be a monk, then he can become a monk in this lifetime.

If a Buddhist monk stays true to Buddhist ethics, and aspires to be a bodhisattva, then thru many lifetimes, he evolves into a bodhisattva.

If a bodhisattva stays true to Buddhist ethics, and aspires to be a Buddha then thru many lifetimes, he evolves into a Buddha.

All it takes is to become a monk to evolve first into a bodhisattva and finally into a Buddha.