For those religions that believe in a soul, much spiritual writing defines it as the very essence of man. In many one speaks of the soul leaving the body at death. In Hinduism and those Buddhist lineages that believe in soul, one speaks of its reincarnation. But what the soul actually is and where it is to be found is a source of varied opinion.
In my earlier writing, The Self in No Self, I noted that what I termed our unborn spirit, our elemental nature … or what people would often call temperament … was part of our true Buddha nature. It was something that made one uniquely who he is, from birth, and yet because of his Buddha nature, he was at the same time one with all people.
Our unborn spirit does not separate us from each other, while still making us unique. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. It is the feelings and perceptions of the ego-mind … thoughts … that separate us from others and is the source of selfish action and our suffering. This is the teaching of The Heart Sutra; this is perfected wisdom. Our unborn spirit, our elemental nature poses no barrier to selfless behavior because it is not composed of thought.
What I referred to as man’s unborn spirit, his elemental nature is what is more usually referred to as his soul. It is not of dependent origination. Whether the soul is part of our Buddha nature or an adjunct is, as the Pennsylvania Dutch say, “no never mind.” It is of no consequence.
The point I want to make here, as I did in my book, The Self in No Self, as well as in my post, “The Misleading Teaching of No Self,” is that the individuality of each person is not inconsistent with the Buddha dharma. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are both individuals; they are not clones. The Buddha never taught that there is no self; what he taught was that the ego is “not self.” (See my post referred to.)
It is the ego-mind that develops within us and is of dependent origination that separates us from others and is the source of our samsara. That is what the Buddha defined as “not self.” It is from our ego-mind that we must free ourselves. Our individuality, our unborn spirit, our elemental nature … our soul … is part of our true self. It, together with our true Buddha nature, is thus the very essence of man.