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Chapter 12: What is the Soul?

What is it that you call atman, soul? Is this soul consciousness itself or is it something individual?

Really, no matter what we call it, we will miss it. Any conceptualization is going to miss the real - any conceptualization - so whatever has been known as the self, the soul, the atman, is not the real thing. It cannot be. All those who have defined it, have defined it with a condition: that they are trying something that is absurd. That which cannot be said they are saying; that which cannot be defined they are defining; that which cannot be known they are making a theory about.

There have been three attitudes about it.

First, there have been the mystics, the knowers, who have remained totally silent about it. They will not give any definition; they say definition is futile. Then there has been another group of mystics - the largest group - that says, “Even an effort that is futile can be helpful. Sometimes even untrue theory leads to truth, sometimes even wrongs may become rights, sometimes even a false step may lead you to a right end. It may look false at the moment, or in the end it may even prove false, but still, false devices can help.”

This second group feels that by remaining silent you are still saying something, that nothing can be said. And this second type of mystic has a point. Definitions belong to them. Then there is a third type who has been neither silent nor who has defined. They have just denied the whole thing in order that you will not be at all obsessed with it.

Buddha belongs to this third type. If you ask him whether there is a soul, whether there is God, whether there is an existence beyond life, he will just deny it. Even on the verge of death when someone asked him, “Will you be, beyond death?” he denied it.

He said, “No! I will not be. I will drop out of existence just like a flame that goes out.” You can’t ask where the flame is when it goes out; it just ceases. That is why Buddha says that nirvana means “cessation of the flame,” not just moksha, not just liberation. Buddha says, “This is liberation: to cease completely. To be is to be somewhere, somehow, in slavery.” This is the third type.

These three types all quarrel, because one who speaks is bound to feel that those who have remained silent are not compassionate enough, that they should have said something for those who cannot understand silence. And those who have defined, have defined in so many ways that there are quarrels about it: quarreling is bound to be there.

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