Beyond God Heaven Hell and Karma

Below are answers to audience questions as part of a public appearance by Bhante Yogavacara Rahula at the University of Charleston in Charleston, West Virginia in July, 1999, in advance of a day-long meditation retreat at Cenacle House.

One of the strangest aspects of the Buddha's teaching that Westerners especially have to understand because of all our Christian conditioning is about the soul. I'll try to answer it as best as I can.

I think if you ask the average person about the "soul" it's their idea of 'I' or their consciousness. The feeling of 'I' exists. Right now, you all have a feeling you're living there, you're sitting in a chair, you're hearing, you might be thinking and judging your thinking. There's a sense of 'I am,' right? Everyone has that. Would most people think that that's their soul? ... It's the sense of 'I am.' Many people may even confuse it or really don't know what it is. And that's another thing. They talk about it, but they really don't know what it is. Can you put it in your hands and show me---where is your soul, if you have a soul?
The way the Buddha analyzed it is that the sense of self, the sense of ourselves thinking we are somebody separate from others, that is produced as a byproduct of the mental process. And it's a counterpoint of craving and desire. Wherever there's desire, there'll be this sense of 'I am' and the objects we desire. And the more we desire, the stronger that 'I' appears to be real.
But in meditation, when you've reached a state of tranquility, you are no longer grasping and craving for external things or not even attaching to your own opinions and history. When you let all that go in meditation by developing concentration, the mind lets go of all that. Lets go of the external stimulation. It lets go of even your past and your future. It lets go of the memory. The sense of self starts to evaporate. The sense of 'I am' starts to disappear. And it can actually be transcended altogether. And you can just lose the sense totally that you are any kind of individual person, and the consciousness will attain what is called 'universality,' and feel like it is part of the universe. And part of God. You'll feel like you are no longer separate from anything else. And that's what's called complete wholeness and transcendence. And there's no individual soul in that. That's a universal experience.
That experience would be the same, whether any of us experience that. And it goes beyond all identification with mind and matter, this world, that world or the other world, God or no God. It has nothing to do with a god, it has nothing to do with a soul. It's just the nature of reality. At least, that's the Buddhist definition of it.

And that's why the sense of soul---if you're talking about an individual soul that's going to go to heaven or hell or live eternally--- that is what the Buddha denied. There's nothing that is that kind of independent, eternally existing, unchanging self because the experience of that can totally be transcended in the deepest states of meditation and realization. So the concept of 'self,' 'soul' and 'the world,' even the concept of 'God,' is something that is created by our mind.

And once we have that universal experience, all those questions are answered perfectly. And you understand the meaning of all that. But to try to figure it out with our limited intelligence is very difficult. That's why only in meditation---at those deeper levels of spiritual realization---that you realize those things.

I don't know if that answered your question. But again, that question cannot really be satisfactorily answered by our limited forms of conditioned thinking.


When the body dies this consciousness leaves the body. That consciousness is what you might consider the soul, in the sense of 'I will go to heaven' or some other place. In Buddhism, they believe in this theory that this mind also leaves the body, but it may assume another life form. They call it 're-becoming' or 'rebirth.'...
There are different theories propounded. Some people talk about a transition period, others talk about immediate rebirth. Personally, I don't give too much importance to all that. I don't really care about that too much. Whether there's rebirth or not, to me, is actually not that important. Because the Buddha wasn't interested in rebirth, he was interested in attaining liberation here and now, in this life.
And so, if you purify your mind here and now in this life, you don't have to worry about rebirth or anything else. It's really not necessary to believe that to get the benefit of meditation. And to free your mind.
So I wouldn't really worry too much about that. It's an interesting theory and all that, and even though we believe that it is probably true, it's nothing we're going to argue about because it doesn't really matter.

In the Christian theory they hold that if you live an evil life you might go to Purgatory or Hell, right? If you live a good life, obey the commandments, you might go to heaven. So in a sense that's like a scare tactic, it's the fear of God, the fear of one's actions---' I don't want to go to Hell, so I'll be good.' And you do good and you go to Heaven. So the Buddhists have the same sort of thing. But instead of a God sending you to Heaven or Hell, it's "rebirth"---being reborn in Heaven or Hell, according to your own actions, or in some other state. So it's also a scare tactic.
Whether it's true or not doesn't matter. If you believe it's true, it'll help you be good and not do negative actions that are going to bring you suffering. And if it winds up not to be true, you're not going to lose anything, you see? So it's win-win situation. If you believe it and do good, you don't suffer in this life, so you don't lose anything. But if it IS true and you live an evil life, and you're reborn in Hell, then you're going to suffer then, too. You suffer n this life as well as the next life. So it'sa lose-lose situation. (Laughs) At least, that's the way I see it.

But anyway, we shouldn't even cling to these theories. What we're interested in is living in the present moment and learning how our mind creates the obstacles to living in the present moment, here and now, peacefully. And how we create our suffering from moment to moment due to our outlook on life.
So that's the most important thing, really.