What Is the Self in Different Religions?

Introductory Remarks

When we speak about religions or about spirituality in general, it’s important to develop respect for each of the different traditions. For that, it’s important to know and appreciate the essence of these religions in order to appreciate their value. This is part of the value of promoting religious harmony.

In interfaith dialogue there are always three questions: “Who am ‘I?’” or “What is the self?” and “That ‘me,’ or self, where did it come from?” and “Is there a beginning or not, and what will happen finally, is there an end, or not?” All major religions try to answer these three questions.

What Is the Self?

Now, for the first question, “What is the self, the ‘I?’” Some simple faith worshippers worship local spirits, so they are not much concerned with these three questions. When a tragedy comes, they just pray to a local deity. But of the major religions, there were some that even three thousand years before Buddhism investigated these three questions. Recently, I met one scholar from an Egyptian university and he told me that in ancient Egyptian civilization, five thousand years ago, they too had developed religious philosophy and concepts of the next life. So these questions go back very, very far.

Now, to answer “What is the self?” whether we are talking about a theistic or a non-theistic religion, both can speak in terms of an independent self that exists aside from a body and which “ owns” the body. It’s independent of the aggregates of the body and the mind. They assert that there is a self that’s unaffected, partless, and independent. Probably the concept of a soul that we find in many religions has these three aspects.

Buddhism alone is the only religion that says that there is no self that is independent of the aggregates of the body and mind. Buddhism in general speaks in terms of impermanence, suffering, devoid, and selfless. These are [part of] the four hallmarks of the Dharma or four sealing points for labeling an outlook as being based on Buddha’s enlightening speech, as opposed to its being a non-Buddhist view. [Devoid and selfless – meaning totally lacking an impossible self – constitute the third of the four hallmarks.] The four are conditioned [affected] phenomena are impermanent [nonstatic]; tainted phenomena are suffering or entail suffering; all phenomena are devoid [and lack an impossible soul or self]; and nirvana is peace [a pacification of suffering.]

So these are the two basic answers to the question “What is the self?” – [either there is a self independent of the body and mind, or there is no such self.]

Does the Self Have a Beginning?

Then there’s the question, “Does the self have a beginning?” Some say the self arises from no cause on the basis of the aggregates, so it’s spontaneous. Even concerning the origin of the universe, they say it arises from nothing, no cause. This is actually the standpoint of science. In India, there’s the Charvaka materialist position that asserts this. But since “no cause” is something uncomfortable, most others say there must be some cause and condition.

When the Indian school of philosophy, the Samkhyas, say that the universe comes from permanent, primal matter – what they call prakriti, with its three universal constituents, the three gunas – this is the position of a cause being static or permanent. But others, followers of the creator god Ishvara, for instance, assert that the cosmos comes into being through the will of a transcendent being. All theistic religions have a similar version: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They all say that God created the self [the soul.] So, the concept of creation is their answer to “Where do I come from.”

Now, within theistic religions, there are two points of view. The first is that there is only one life [on this earth,] this life: that would be the point of view of Christianity, for example. The other is that there are many lives, reincarnation: that’s the Indian point of view. So, from the Indian point of view, Ishvara or Brahma created the soul with many lives and each life has a slightly different form, due to karma. Therefore, these Indian positions accept both a creator and causality. Christianity speaks only of this life and it is created by God. I feel this is a very powerful and helpful idea; belief in this brings a strong feeling of intimacy with God. There’s more possibility to follow God’s wish and to love God and to help fellow beings.

Once, when I visited a Muslim community in Ladakh very near the Pakistan border, one of my Muslim friends, a local Muslim priest, mentioned that a true believer in Islam should extend love to all of Allah’s created beings as he would to Allah. This is similar to the Buddhist point of view of loving all sentient beings. Thus, with these theistic religions in which God creates the soul, there’s a very close feeling to God, and therefore more enthusiasm to practice its teachings.

There’s another group or religions, however, which includes the Jains, the Buddhists, and one part of Samkhyas, who do not accept a creator. They say that everything comes about due [simply] to causes and conditions.

So we have a theistic and a nontheistic view concerning this point of where the “I” comes from, and here, the nontheistic position is that of the Jains, the Buddhists, and one part of the Samkhyas. From their point of view, there’s no beginning: there is just the law of causality.

Now, I don’t know the precise Samkhya answer here. If primal matter has continual perturbations, then since both primal matter and the self are ultimate truths, and the other twenty-three phenomena that they speak about are perturbations of primal matter, and the self knows primal matter, then the question is: “Does the self come out of primal matter as something that manifests from it or are they completely separate?” Actually, I think they say that they are completely separate, but what is the exact relationship?

[See: Basic Tenets of the Samkhya and Yoga Schools]

Buddhism, on the other hand, rejects the idea of an independent self – a self that exists independently not only of the universe, but also of the aggregates of body and mind. Rather, Buddhism says that the self [that does conventionally exist, the mere “I,”] is something that depends on the aggregates: it depends on the body and the mind.

As for its origin, then since the self can only exist and be understood in relation to or dependent on the aggregates, the question of the beginning of the self brings us to the question of the beginning of the continuum of the aggregates. Concerning that, roughly speaking, we all have a body and a mind. Since, the basis for labeling the self is primarily the continuum of [individual] mental activity or awareness, the question is: “Is there a beginning of the continuum of [individual] mental activity?”

Now, with regard to external phenomena, there are obtaining causes (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) and simultaneously acting conditions (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen). An obtaining cause is that from which one obtains the effect as its successor and which ceases to exist when its successor arises [like a seed being the obtaining cause for a plant], whereas the simultaneously acting conditions help the obtaining cause to bring about the effect [like soil, water, and sunlight being the simultaneously acting conditions for a plant.]

[See: Causes, Conditions and Results]

As for visual cognition, in addition [to these two causal factors,] it requires an external object as the focal condition (dmigs-rkyen) for its arising, while the visual sensors [the sensorial cells] of the eyes are what are called the dominating condition (bdag-rkyen). [A moment of] cognition also needs an immediately preceding condition (de-ma-thag rkyen) in order to bring about the continuity of its essential nature (ngo-bo) as awareness; and so, for a moment of visual cognition, the immediately preceding condition is another moment of awareness, the immediately preceding one. [The bare mental cognition that takes as its object a form has the immediately preceding moment of bare visual cognition of the form as its immediately preceding condition.] Now, as for the conceptual cognition of this form [that follows the bare mental cognition of it,] it also needs a prior moment in its continuum of consciousness as its immediately preceding condition. [This would be the bare mental cognition of that form.] Is that immediately preceding condition also its obtaining cause? I think so, but that’s not so clear.

Bare sensory [and bare mental] cognitions are cognitions of just the essential nature (ngo-bo) of something [the general type of thing something is, such as its being a visual form]. They are not cognitions of something’s functional nature (rang-bzhin) [what something does or how it functions.] After this [sequence of] bare [visual and mental] cognition [of a form,] there is a conceptual mental cognition [of that form,] which cognizes it through a meaning category (don-spyi). This [sequence] also brings about conceptual cognition [of that form] in terms of “me” and “mine.” So these conceptual cognitions have their own obtaining causes.

Sensory cognition arises in response to the conditions immediately around us, but in deep sleep with no dreams, sensory cognition is not manifest. But mental cognition is there; it still remains.

Now in [anuttarayoga] tantra, we speak of different levels of subtlety of consciousness. There’s the clear level of mind of sleep and there are practices to recognize it. This suggests that we have mental activity also in deep sleep. In The Five Stages (Rim-lnga), Nagarjuna’s text concerning Guhyasamaja, and also in Nagabodhi’s commentaries and texts on the topic, we find a presentation of the three subtle appearance-making minds (snang-gsum) [appearance-congealing (snang-ba; appearance, white appearance), light-diffusion (mched-pa, increase, red appearance), and threshold (nyer-thob; near attainment, black appearance)] and the four voids (stong-pa bzhi) [void (stong-pa), very void (shin-tu stong-pa), greatly void (stong-pa chen-po), all-void (thams-cad stong-pa). The first three voids are levels of mental activity that correspond to the three subtle appearance-making minds; while all-void corresponds to the subtlest level of mental activity, clear light mind (‘od-gsal).]

The fourth void state, all-void, is [immediately] preceded by the three previous void states. These three [subtle appearance-making minds, the first three voids,] arise [sequentially] with the progressive sequence (lugs-‘byung) [of the dissolution of grosser levels of consciousness into clear light mind at the time of death.] They are followed [sequentially, after a period of clear light mind,] by the reversal sequence (lugs-ldog) [of the three.] A similitude of the progressive and reversal sequences occurs in sleep and it is possible to recognize them. The same is the case with the bardo period between death and rebirth: a progressive sequence [of dissolution] also occurs [at its conclusion.] When the clear light mind of bardo ceases, [then in the next moment, with the start of the reversal sequence,] birth consciousness occurs [with the moment of conception.]

The point is that each of these different levels of consciousness or mind has its obtaining cause [from which it arises as its successor] and as it says in [Dharmakirti’s] Commentary on (Dignaga’s “Co­mpendium of) Validly Cognizing Minds” (Tshad-ma rnam-‘grel, Skt. Pramanavarttika), “The obtaining cause of a consciousness must be a consciousness.” So, we can understand this statement very well from this Guhyasamaja analysis. Thus, the consciousness of birth existence [at the moment of conception] has as its obtaining cause the clear light mind of bardo.

As for the non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy that assert previous lives and atman, they assert that it is a static unchanging self that obtains or appropriates a new birth and discards the old. They use the premise of the existence of past and future lives to establish atman as the agent and appropriator [of rebirth.] But Buddhism rejects a self or atman that is static and unchanging. Buddhism asserts the existence of past and future lives on the basis of an [individual] continuum of consciousness. [This follows from the fact that the obtaining cause of a consciousness, in other words its prior moment of consciousness, ceases when it gives rise to the next moment. Therefore, since an individual continuum of consciousness is nonstatic and changes from moment to moment, the self labeled or imputed on it must also be nonstatic.]

Does the Self Have an End?

Now for the question of whether or not a self has an end. [Some theistic religions say that] after death, we wait for a final judgment and then go to heaven and hell. If we go to heaven, we play music before God. This is very nice. Buddhism says something quite similar to this and also speaks of the hells as well [but asserts both of them as rebirths that are followed by yet further rebirth.] Now, I don’t know if in that type of [theistic] explanation there’s really an end of the self [when it reaches heaven or hell.] Some Brahmanic traditions say that an individual self merges with the Great Brahma, so is this a real end or not? That also I don’t know. Some non-theistic religions like Jainism accept moksha [liberation] and some of their scriptures say that moksha is like some kind of heaven and you remain there forever.

I don’t know the exact position of these Jain schools, but in Buddhism there are two assertions. One assertion is that when you attain nirvana [liberation], then for the rest of that lifetime, the body continues [as do the mind and the self labeled on the continuum of both.] This is known as “nirvana with residue.” But once those appropriated aggregates [of body and mind] that have been obtained from previous karma cease at the time of death, then[with the end of the body] the continuum of consciousness and the self also cease. This is “nirvana without residue.” So at that point there really is no self any more. [The self has come to an end.]

The other assertion, namely that of general Mahayana Buddhism, however, is that there is no reason for there to be a ceasing of the main consciousness. Thoughts that are based on deceptive and distorted cognition come to an end, since there is the opposing understanding that gets rid of their basis. [Correct understanding and distorted cognition are mutually exclusive and so cannot exist simultaneously in one moment of mind.] But there is nothing similar to this that can oppose the clear light mind. Because of that, [individual] clear light minds have no end, and so a self that is labeled dependently on a clear light mind also has no end. Even though the habits of deceptive cognition can come to an end, there’s no reason why a clear light mind should end. Thus, Buddhism has two positions: one that a self has an end and one that it has no end.


Over the last three thousand years or more, different religious traditions have developed and tried to answer these three questions. All these major religions have two aspects: a religious side and a philosophical side – in other words, an aspect dealing with practical teachings to tame the heart and the backing support of philosophy to substantiate them. Faith and reason must go together in this way in all traditions. Buddhism says that the practical teachings are the “method” side and the teachings on philosophy that back them are the “wisdom” side. The practical side entails as a method primarily the development of a wish [such as the wish to be able to help everyone overcome their suffering.]

Sometimes I describe two categories of religion: Godly and God-less religion. Buddhism is God-less. From a theistic, religious point of view, Buddhism is not a genuine religion: it is a form of atheism. Some friends say that Buddhism is “a means to get to God,” and so it’s not anti-God. Some friends correct me like this.

I feel that in theistic religions, the basic concept of religion is God. Some Buddhists say that Buddhism comes from Buddha, but Shakyamuni Buddha came from being a limited sentient being. Until Bodh Gaya, according to the common view, he was still a limited being. The Sanskrit tradition speaks of the Four Buddha Bodies, the Four Kayas, so that’s a little bit different; but the earlier Pali tradition says that the earlier part of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life was as a limited sentient being and later he became an enlightened Buddha. Thus, although the Buddha’s teachings came from when he was a Buddha, nevertheless Buddha himself came from a limited being. So Buddhism comes from the human level, not from a God. If God is a fully enlightened being, if we assert like that, then Buddha is like a God. But still he came from being a limited being.

The Buddhist viewpoint and theory are based on existing reality. Take, for example the Four Noble Truths. Suffering and its cause: they exist in reality. The explanation of selflessness is speaking about the nature of reality. The concept of nirvana is based on that. Some Buddhist texts say, “Take hold of the essential nature of reality as the basis; develop a method based on that as the path; and, from that, you will achieve the result.”

So, I differentiate Buddhist science or philosophy from Buddhist religion. On the level of Buddhist science, there is no discussion of moral evaluation. There is just investigation of what is reality. To conduct that type of investigation, the way of investigating needs to be objective and unbiased. We need skepticism: that’s very important. Doubt brings questioning and questioning brings investigation and that leads to [objective] answers. So, especially in the Sanskrit tradition of Nalanda University in India [which Tibetan Buddhism follows,] there’s a big emphasis on logic. Why question things in order to practice? That’s because we need to know reality; the practice needs to be based on reality, so investigation is important.

If religion is based on just scriptural quotations, then it’s not really dependent on reasoning. We can quote, but the validity of the quotation needs to be established by logic. In Buddhism, we speak of three types of phenomena: obvious, obscure and extremely obscure. The last category can not be known directly by bare cognition; nor can it be known by logical inference. It can only be known by relying on an authentic source of information or on someone with valid knowledge. [The validity of that source of information needs to be established by logic.]

Buddhist science, then, investigates the nature of what exists. What exists has two aspects: the physical world and the mental world. Modern science is highly advanced in the field of [investigating] the material world compared to the Buddhist understanding. So it’s useful for the Buddhists to learn from modern science. But concerning phenomena of the mind and consciousness, modern science is just in the beginning the stage of what it calls “soft science.” From ancient Indian knowledge about the mind – Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu – we can gain much information. Some scientists show an eagerness to collaborate and this is very helpful.