Soul or No-Soul? Advaita Vedanta and the Metaphysics of Self

This essay is about Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism. Let me state at the outset that I am not an expert on either one, so any mistakes in understanding are entirely my own.

According to my understanding, Advaita Vedanta states that (1) There is a True Self or Soul (The Atman) (2) This True Self is identical to Brahman, which is the Absolute Reality or Ground of All Being that is unchanging, eternal, beyond all predicates and language, beyond all comprehension (3) As Absolute Reality, Brahman is all there is and all there is One With Brahman and (4) it is only our ignorance (Maya) that deludes us into thinking there is “Realness” to the particularities of “the many” such as tables, chair, dogs, cats, etc. 

Advaita Vedanta literally means “not-two,” which means that there is only One Real “Thing” that exists, Brahman (even though Brahman is not really a “thing” in the standard sense of the word, it absolutely beyond all limitations inherent to the concept “thing” or even “not-thing” for that matter.) Hence, the tree in my yard is One With Brahman. My cat is One With Brahman. And, I myself am One With Brahman, a statement that would be considered blasphemous by most Christians if we substituted “Brahman” with “God,” which is a pretty good translation so long as we understand “God” not necessarily as a Creator-Judgy-God in the Old Testament sense but rather as the mysterious absolute ground-of-being in the sense of Meister Eckhart and other mystics.

In contrast to this view, the Buddha taught that there is no unchanging, eternal True Self. He taught that the Self is in Reality just a collection of aggregate mental and physical processes but which ultimately has no core “Soul” underlying it. 

If you had asked me ten years ago which metaphysical thesis I lean towards, I would have said the No-Self view, no question. This was in part because I was a hardcore eliminative materialist (though I recognize now these are distinct viewpoints). Nowadays I am not sure which position seems more true to me.

Now, of course, the Buddha advised against merely taking his word for it, or relying on the authority of any spiritual teacher, including himself. He said, “look and see for yourself if my claims are not true.” Indeed, Buddhists take the doctrine of No-Self to be not a matter of faith but something which can be grasped directly in one’s own experience.

The problem, however, is that the absolute truth of the No-Self doctrine can only really be grasped when one has reached the state of nirvana, which is an experiential state that everyone agrees cannot be reduced to any linguistic or dualistic category of thought, especially not the dualistic categories found in the metaphysical debates of philosophy, the exact debates where people argue back and forth and whether the Soul “really” exists, etc.

While the advocates of Advaita Vedanta also emphasize the phenomenological self-evidence of their doctrine of the Soul, they have historically also emphasized logical argumentation and scriptural evidence to get to the heart of Atman and Brahman. But indeed, Vedantans will say that if you train the mind with enough meditation and yoga, the truth of Atman/Brahman will be self-evident in the state of nirvana/moksha/enlightenment.

From the perspective of meditational phenomenology, we have seemingly very similar states of “direct perception while in the state of nondual nirvana” leading to seemingly opposite metaphysical theses. Have we reached a standstill?

I have mentioned before that I have Wittgenstein’s famous dictum “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” tattooed on my forearm. And this debate always reminds me of Wittgenstein’s quietism because the discussion about the Soul or No-Soul is exactly the type of debate about which Wittgenstein thought the most philosophically sound response is simply silence or refusing to answer and refusing to not-answer. He would say it’s literally “non-sense” and “unask” the question – the question is beyond the bounds of where reason and logic and argument and conceptual thinking can find coherence and logical meaning.

This is not to say Wittgenstein would deny the spiritual or moral significance of the question. Rather, he would just stay quiet in response to someone really pressing him hard on what he “really thought” the metaphysical truth was. To put it crudely, I suspect Wittgenstein would get exasperated and exclaim that philosophy is a bunch of bullshit.

Myself, I am torn. I see the truth in both sides of the argument. I have my days where I see the truth of Advaita Vedanta and I have my days where I see the truth of No-self. And I wouldn’t say that I have had any overwhelming, direct, experiential evidence to conclusively settle my mind about either proposition. 

This is not to say I have not had experiences that I might describe as “non-dual.” I certainly have had experiences like that. But as their character indicates, they are not amenable to linguistic or conceptual schematization and as such, I have no recollection of whether the experiences supported or didn’t support the existence of a Soul or not.

Part of me is tempted to say something to the effect of “at their experiential core, these two philosophies are two sides of the same coin.” But I dunno, it’s hard to say stuff like that without collapsing into a kind of ahistorical relativism that appropriates and dissolves all meaningful differences between the various positions. From the Buddhist tradition, it’s clear that the Buddha really did directly perceive in his state of nirvana the absolute truth and reality of the No-Self and taught that to be the genuine truth in his capacity as an Awakened Being, which I do take seriously.

But he himself said he was just a mere human and that we should challenge and doubt any of his teachings which we cannot verify in our own direct experience.

And at the same time, how many enlightened Vedanta sages across history directly perceived the truth of the Atman in their experiences of enlightenment? Whose linguistic description of Absolute Nondual Reality is right?

I guess ultimately I think Buddhism has the right epistemological approach insofar as it emphasizes that one should train your mind, meditate, take refuge in your own direct perception, and come to the truth of the Self via your own direct perception, and not because of any faith or reverential belief in the tradition of spiritual authority. In other words, the Buddha would say that if you can’t “see for yourself” the truth of No-Self, you should not “believe” it at all, because its truth is not of the believing kind but a truth that must be experienced directly for oneself.

As of right now, I am still waiting to see for myself what I really know to be true via experience and hold myself open to the possibility of both positions manifesting their obviousness to me via direct experience. And besides, I think both traditions would assent to the idea that conceptually resolving an intellectual debate about metaphysical positions is the least of my concerns. My real concern is my suffering in this world and how to liberate myself from it.

Advaita says that I can take a “shortcut” via the knowledge of realizing that I am One With Brahman while admitting of course the huge caveat that it can take potentially a lot of preparation and training to be able to realize such knowledge on a deep enough level to have spiritual significance. Otherwise, it would agree with Buddhism that training and meditation is a solid and historically tested way of realizing the truth of the Atman and one’s Oneness With Brahman. 

So once again I am left on a solo spiritual path, seeking the truth, wishing I could just throw myself wholeheartedly into a particular spiritual tradition but feeling that I would be doing a disservice to myself because of my metaphysical doubts and desire for creative freedom in my spiritual practices. I am deeply eclectic and a jack-of-all-trades by nature so my general disposition is to study broadly and synthesize my learnings into something unique to my own predilections and interests. I am also very stubborn and refuse to acquiesce to any spiritual authority that does not make intuitive sense.

The upshot is I feel great spiritual freedom. The downside is I feel a distinct lack of spiritual community. I’m still working on resolving that last quandary.

Related Links

What Does It Mean to Know God?

Christianity and Zen: On Being at Home in Paradox

Yoga and Christianity: A Path of Liberation

How Can I Let Go of my Ego?

2 thoughts on “Soul or No-Soul? Advaita Vedanta and the Metaphysics of Self”

    • I am not aware of that concept from Jung but it definitely fits in with how I have been feeling! Self vs No-self are opposite positions but their division in language is dualistic. In the pure states of highest meditation, dualistic thinking and categories have no place and thus I suspect the tension between Self vs No-Self dissolves into a state of being that is beyond the limitations of this distinction, which seems limiting. The Buddha also warned about getting too attached to ideas and theories, so perhaps I am getting too attached to this debate, and too attached to finding an answer which I can express in language to settle my philosophical doubts.

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