(written for Coursera’s Buddhism and Modern Psychology Course)
Buddhism teaches that all things on this plane are impermanent (Anicca). While it initially makes sense that all material things reach an end, we may hold that we continue on in some form after death. According to Buddha, there is no such thing as a soul, all we are, or consider ourselves to be is extinguished at death. This contrasts with many other religious systems including Hinduism, which teach that there is a part of us that continues on in an individual form after death.
In Buddhist teachings, he was challenged on his theory of anatta, or not self, by Aggivessana and Buddha explained it in his second sermon. Understanding the concept of not-self requires us to understand what exactly is defined as the self. The self is and was commonly thought of an internal thing that is somewhat permanent, in control, and non-clinging to earthly things. Hinduism and Jainism teach that the self is what continues on after death, to be reborn into a higher or lower birth dependent on the individual’s moral responsibility in their lifetime.
Assuming that the idea of the self is true, what part of our known parts make up the self? Buddha says that we can be broken down into five aggregates of clinging: mental formations (emotions), consciousness, form (body), and perceptions; none of these fit the criteria for self, he says, because none of these things are permanent, in control of the entire system, and all of these things cling to earthly pleasures. Therefore, he deconstructs the definable parts of a human, and challenges the idea that there is an invisible seat of our being.
I find this interpretation of this teaching to be self-contradictory. If we are extinguished at death, what is reborn into another being? What is being delivered from dukkha (suffering) by good behavior? There needs to be something that exists outside of the five aggregates to make the concept of moral responsibility in Buddhism work. If we die and meet no form of reckoning for our behavior, there is no reason to live a good or responsible life beyond meeting your own individual morality. Another interpretation, which is not standard teaching like the former interpretation, is that the self is the thing that acts and mediates the aggregates of clinging.
I’m unsure what is and what is not completely true in any form of theology, but I’m prone to agree with the non-standard variation of Buddha’s teaching. There is a thing that continues beyond our existence, I believe, but many parts of us aren’t really “us”, but rather demonstrations of interrelated things like our DNA, chemistry, ancestry, experience, and social conditioning.
The theory of reincarnation and eventual deliverance makes the most sense to me out of the religious theories that I’ve heard. All matter is preserved in this universe, it merely transfers from one form of being to another. Therefore, it follows to me that if there is a divine aspect to us, which I lean toward believing, it must be conserved beyond one use until it is eventually refined enough to move out of being.