Buddha certainly has denied the self, the ego, the “I”, but he has not denied the soul and the self and the soul are not synonymous. He denies the self because the self exists only in the unconscious man. The unconscious man needs a certain idea of “I”, otherwise he will be without a center. He does not know his real center. He has to invent a false center so that he can at least function in the world, otherwise his functioning will become impossible. He needs a certain idea of “I”.
You must have heard about Descartes’ famous statement: “Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am.”
A professor, teaching the philosophy of Descartes, was asked by a student, “Sir, I think, but how do I know that I am?”
The professor pretended to peer around the classroom. “Who is asking the question?” he said.
“I am,” replied the student.
One needs a certain idea of “I”, otherwise functioning will become impossible. So because we don’t know the real “I” we substitute it by a false “I” – something invented, composite.
Buddha denies the self because to him “self” simply is another name for the ego, with a little color of spirituality, otherwise there is no difference. His word is anatta. Atta means “self”, anatta means “no-self”. But he is not denying the soul. In fact he says when the self is completely dropped, then only you will come to know the soul. But he does not say anything about it because nothing can be said about it.
His approach is via negativa. He says: You are not the body, you are not the mind, you are not the self He goes on denying, eliminating. He eliminates everything that you can conceive of, and then he does not say anything what is left. That which is left is your reality: that utterly pure sky without clouds, no thought, no identity, no emotion, no desire, no ego – nothing is left. All clouds have disappeared…just the pure sky.
It is inexpressible, unnamable, indefinable. That’s why he keeps absolutely silent about it. He knows it that if anything is said about it you will immediately jump back to your old idea of the self If he says, “There is a soul in you,” what you are going to understand? You will think that, “He calls it soul and we call it self – it is the same. The supreme self maybe, the spiritual self; it is not ordinary ego.” But spiritual or unspiritual, the idea of my being a separate entity is the point.
Buddha denies that you are a separate entity from the whole. You are one with the organic unity of existence, so there is no need to say anything about your separateness. Even the word soul will give you a certain idea of separateness; you are bound to understand it in your own unconscious way. Your friend says that: “…man is a biochemical computer and nothing more.”