HBV Newsletter – October 2020

Where Is the Soul?

Various religious groups zealously campaigning for followers, the Buddha’s society produced famous speakers and debaters. They address audiences and argued in public debates, highlighting the soundness of their views. Those who impressed the public most won members to their groups.

Succhka, a strong believer in the soul, was such a famous debater with many victories.  Opponents evaded him, fearing certain defeats. Saccaka’s strength in debates is evident in his own words about himself. Exaggerating his superior skills, he once said, “If I were to engage a senseless post in a debate, even that post would tremble, so what shall I say about a human being?”

One day Saccaka met Bhikkhu Assaji, one of the very first ordained disciples of the Buddha, while Bhikkhu Assaji was going for his alms. As both stopped for a brief, friendly conversation, Saccka inquired about the teachings of the Buddha. “How does your master train his students?” Saccaka asked. Bhikkhu Assaji replied that the Buddha’s training of monks was mainly based on the teaching of impermanence. He further said that the Buddha had accepted nothing permanent in the individual or the world.

That reply annoyed Saccaka considerably because the Buddha’s was an entirely different philosophy from his. “If what I have heard from you is actually what the Buddha teaches, his view is disagreeable, indeed,” Saccaka said. He then expressed his willingness to visit the Buddha one day and to “help the Buddha dispose of his evil view.”

Keeping his promise, Saccaka one day visited the Buddha with a group of about five-hundred people. Some in the group were Saccaka’s supporters while others were either admirers of the Buddha or just curious visitors.

It is interesting how the group behaved in the presence of the Buddha.  Some had a cordial chat with him; some others bowed down in front of him; several visitors just introduced themselves to the Buddha; many others remained silent. After the initial noisy but friendly behavior, everybody, including Saccaka, gradually settled down and sat for a serious conversation.

When total silence prevailed in the atmosphere, Saccaka began to speak. “Sir, I would like to ask you a certain question. Would you allow me permission to ask it?” he told the Buddha.

 “You may ask whatever you wish to,” the Buddha replied.

Saccaka first asked about the Buddha’s view with regard to the concept of the soul in an effort to verify what he heard from Assaji. After hearing from the Buddha that he refrained from accepting such a view, Saccaka challenged the Buddha’s point of view. He gave several speculative reasons to justify the theory of the soul.

The Buddha’s counterargument was based on the analysis of the human being. First, he separated “the human being” into five aggregates: material form of the body, feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. Next, he asked Saccaka which of them would be the permanent, unchanging entity. 

That question seems to have baffled Saccaka. He replied that each of the five aggregates is a part of the self. Looking at the enthusiastic audience of over five-hundred people, Saccaka then said, “This great multitude of people also thinks so.”

“What do these people have to do with you, Saccaka?  Present your own claim,” the Buddha replied assertively.

Saccaka then confirmed his assertion that all five aggregates represent the self.

The rest was easy for the Buddha. He argued that each of the five aggregates, including the consciousness, would be impermanent. When Saccaka eventually agreed with the Buddha’s claim that even human consciousness would be impermanent, the Buddha had already won the debate, for Saccaka would hardly defend a permanent entity in the ever-changing human consciousness.

The end of the debate is the most interesting part of the entire episode. Of course, Saccaka never became a follower of the Buddha, but he appreciated the Buddha’s wisdom by inviting the Buddha for lunch at Saccaka’s residence the following day. The Buddha accepted the invitation.

Majjhima Nikaya: 35; The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha:: 322-331