Although some Buddhist traditions claim that Siddhārtha Gautama denied the existence of a soul, there is a conversation in the Nikayas, where Gotama clarifies his position. When asked by a wanderer whether or not there is a “self,” Gotama refrains from answering. Once the wanderer has gone, he has this exchange with his disciple Ananda.
“Ananda, if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer, if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those priests and contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism (the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul).
If I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer, if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those priests & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness].
If I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer, if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?
And if I, being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer, if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: ‘Does the self I used to have now not exist?'”
A practical example of these concepts is a change we all experience; the process of aging. As a human being matures from age four to age forty, virtually every cell and mental perception is transformed. The child who existed at four no longer exists, either physically or mentally. Even so, something remains constant— an unbroken line of consciousness that can be traced through each form.
Siddhārtha Gautama tried to introduce us to that element, that “light” or “soul” or “consciousness” or “source” or “true self,” unrelated to our perceptions, desires, physicality or thoughts, that essence which persists in every state of incarnation or dissolution. When discussing such a subtle point, we are limited by semantics and so Siddhārtha Gautama assiduously avoided saying anything to mislead us and instead, gave us a method to identify and break the bonds of the false self or ego.
Siddhārtha Gautama also left a map to guide us to the true self. And though the way is difficult and hard to grasp, the map is a reliable guide.
The following passage from the Buddha’s sermon at the bamboo grove at Rajagah is a more poetic glimpse of the source or essence which continues to exist from life to life in Samsara, the world of impermanent objects and patterns which burns around us, dazzling us and distracting us with its myriad forms of sensation and manifestations.
“There is, O monks, a state where there is neither earth,
nor water, nor heat, nor air;
neither infinity of space nor infinity of consciousness,
nor nothingness, nor perception nor non-perception;
neither this world nor that world, neither sun nor moon.
It is the uncreate.
“That, O monks, I term
neither coming nor going nor standing;
neither death nor birth.
It is without stability, without change;
it is the eternal which never originates
and never passes away.
There is the end of sorrow. — Siddhārtha Gautama