No Self, No Soul
“…the Buddhist’s concern (in a charitable act) is not for the welfare of the recipient, but for the liberation of the giver from the burden of self.
…not even the Buddhist notion of self is compatible with Christian belief. Just as there is no permanent soul, there is also no “self” because it’s very existence is denied.
In Buddhist teaching, the individual man is made up of five Skandhas or “heaps”: the Body, the Feelings, the Perceptions, the Impulses and Emotions, and the Acts of Consciousness.
“Each person is not someone endowed with these five “heaps”; he is these ‘heaps,’ the bundle of these Skandhas but without any permanent substratum or soul. In fact, there is no individuality at all. Individuality is only an invented belief, a product of gratuitous imagination, a grand delusion. The aim of the Dharma and the goal of the Middle Way is the extinguishing of belief in an individuality. When the individual ceases to exist, the result is ‘extinction’, Nirvana.”101
Nirvana, then, is actually a negative concept because it means the extinction of the self, the end of the processes of karma and rebirth.
The belief that individuality is an invented concept is radically dissimilar to Christian belief in the innate dignity of the human person.
As Pope St. John Paul II writes, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are.”102
The dramatic differences between the Buddhist and Christian concept of soul and self is perhaps most obvious when we consider the eastern belief in reincarnation, a process by which a person continually dies and is reborn until reaching a state of nirvana or the extinction of the self.
Even though its followers embrace this concept, this total annihilation of self is not the most palatable teaching to some Buddhists.
For example, Paul Williams, professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy at the University of Bristol in the UK who converted to Catholicism from Buddhism, says he was always unsettled by this teaching and the many facets of reincarnation that just didn’t add up in his mind.
“[B]uddhists claim, there is no chronological first beginning to the series of past lives. We haveall of us been reborn an infinite number of times. No God is needed to start the series off — for there simply was no first beginning. Things have been around (somewhere) for all eternity,” Williams writes. He uses a hypothetical situation of a man being told that he will be executed in the morning; however, the man should not be terrified because he is going to come back as a cockroach in South America.
“My point is this: What is so terrifying about my being executed at dawn and reborn as a cockroach is that it is simply, quite straightforwardly, the end of me. I cannot imagine being reborn as a cockroach because there is nothing to imagine. I quite simply would not be there at all. If rebirth is true, neither I nor any of my loved ones survive death. With rebirth, for me — the actual person I am — the story really is over.”103
Some Buddhists argue against this conclusion, claiming that the person is made up of thoughts, feelings and perceptions, all of which interact with the body in constantly changing ways. At death this stream of mental energy simply re-establishes itself in a new body.104
This does little to relieve Williams’ discomfort. “There may be another being living its life in some sort of causal connection with the life that was me (influenced by my karma), but for me there is no more. That is it — the end of it. There is no more to be said about me.”
Even though he does not believe this means the Buddhist position is wrong, it simply means that if it’s correct then death is the end, a conclusion he finds to be utterly hopeless.
Reincarnation versus Resurrection
Regardless of this inherently hopeless teaching, recent studies have found a quarter of Americans believe in reincarnation, a number that certainly includes many Christians.105
One reason given by some Catholic believers in rebirth is that the Church has never officially condemned reincarnation. They believe this means reincarnation may one day be reconciled to the Christian concept of death and the afterlife.
However, as Cardinal Christoph Schonborn explains, the reason why the Church never condemned reincarnation is not because she may one day accept it as doctrine but “because reincarnation so obviously contradicts the very principles of this faith that a condemnation has never seemed necessary.”106
Church teaching on this subject is quite clear. “Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny. When ‘the single course of our earthly life’ is completed, we shall not return to other earthly lives: ‘It is appointed for men to die once.’ There is no ‘reincarnation’ after death.”107
This teaching comes straight from Scripture in the Letter to the Hebrews, which responds to the question of whether or not there is more than one lifetime. It clearly states that it is “appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment.”108
Thus, Catholics believe that “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven —through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.”109
In order to fully comprehend the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, however, one must also come to understand the belief in karma.
Karma is the law of moral causation, or cause and effect, which is based upon the idea that nothing happens by accident to a person. Fundamental to both Hinduism and Buddhism, there are differing views on exactly how karma works.
The Buddhist views karma as a way to explain why one person is born into luxury and another is homeless or why one man is a genius and another has severe mental challenges. According to the law of karma, none of these inequalities is accidental, but each is the result of something the person did either in this or a past life for which he or she is being punished or rewarded.
While the theory of karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism, the belief is said to have been prevalent in India and Hinduism long before the advent of Buddhism. The word karma, connected to the meaning it has today, first appeared in Hindu books known as the Upanishads, which were composed over a wide period of time ranging from the pre-Buddhist period to the early centuries BC.
The concept of karma, and its resultant need for reincarnation, is incompatible with Christianity.
The Letter to the Colossians states that “When you were dead in your trespasses . . . God made you alive together with him (Christ) when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”110 (2:13, 14).
In other words, our “bad karma” was nailed to the Cross of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to the Father, so there is no need for a “redo” in another life. Instead, the Christian works out his or her salvation during this lifetime here on earth, through repentance and the Sacraments, ultimately relying on God’s grace and the Savior who stands at the heart of our faith.
-Brinkmann, Susan. A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness (pp. 57-62). Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. Kindle Edition.
Love, & good “karma”,
101. Wilkinson, Rev. Peter J., “Buddhism: A Catholic Perspective,” A.C.T.S. No. 1537 (1968)
102. Pope St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, No. 11
103. Williams, Paul, “On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism: One Convert’s Story,” accessed at whyimcatholic.com
104. “Dharma Data: Rebirth,” accessed at Buddhist Studies: Buddha Dharma Education Association at Buddhanet
105. “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life, December, 2009
106. Schonborn, Cardinal Christoph, excerpt from From Death to Life: A Christian Journey, appearing on Ignatius Insight.com
107. Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Catholic Book Publishing, 1994) No. 1013
108. Letter to the Hebrews, 9:27
109. Catechism of the Catholic Church, (Hereafter CCC), No. 1022
110. Letter to the Colossians, 2:13-14 111. 1 Timothy, 1:15