Articles on the immortality of the soul

Bodde, Derk. "The Chinese View of Immortality" Its expression by Chu Hsi and its relationship to Buddhist Thought", Review of Religion 6 (May 1942) pp. 369-383.

Chang, Aloysius. "Fan Chen and His 'Treatise on the Destruction of the Soul'", Chinese Culture 14, no 4. (1973) pp. 1-8.

Lai, Whalen E. "Beyond the Debate on 'The Immortality of the Soul': Recovering an essay by Shen Yueh", Journal of Oriental Studies 19, o. 2 (1981), pp. 134-157.

Lai, Whalen E. "Emperor Wu of Liang on the Immortal Soul, Shen Pu Mieh", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol 101, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun, 1981), pp. 167-175.

Liebenthal, Walter, “The Immortality of the Soul in Chinese Thought,” Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 8, No. 1/2 (1952), pp. 327-397.

Liu, Ming-Wood.“Fan Chen's "Treatise on the Destructibility of the Spirit" and Its Buddhist Critics" , Philosophy East and West . Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 1987), pp. 402-428.

Pachow, W., "The Controversy Over the Immortality of the Soul in Chinese Buddhism" Journal of Oriental Studies 16., Nos. 1-2 (1978) 38., pp. 21 - 38.

(submitted by Castalia)

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Skill in Means?

In Laughing at the Dao, Kohn presents Huiyuan's introduction of the concept of the immortal soul and horror with which it was received by the Chinese nobility.
Quoting Tsukamoto, he writes, "The reaction of the princes and nobles, told about reincarnation and the accompanying retribution, was a feeling of fright from which there was no escape."

Kohn continues, noting that this is contrary to the doctrine of anatman.

(ref p. 4)

I can't help but wonder if this was skill in means.
If so, it seems a brilliant way to bring these rulers to a sense of personal responsibility and accountability - as well as helping create their sense of need for the Dharma.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


In the handouts for Lesson 6 (p 16), we are presented with Fan Zhen's assertion that the spirit and the physical body are the same.

He uses "the simile of sharpness and the edge of a knife".

"the edge is the support of sharpness; the sharpness is the activity of the edge. So the edge and the sharpness are the same, apart from the edge there is no sharpness."

Regardless of my particular beliefs on the subject, the argument is not without merit.

First, sharpness is a mere quality of the edge. It is a condition of the edge that is not essential to the existence of the edge. So while it is true we cannot have sharpness without an edge, we can have an edge without sharpness - we simply lose functionality.

Likewise, the logical conclusion of Fan Zhen's simile is be that while there cannot be an imperishable spirit without a body, there can be a body without a spirit - the ultimate loss of functionality (a corpse).

"I have not heard that there is sharpness without the edge. So does the spirit exist after the death of the body?"

Furthermore, sharpness is an appellation, a concept, dependent and without svabhava.
The sharpness of an edge exists dependent on the edge (consciousness then is dependent on the body) and is regarded as sharp relative to other things that are less sharp (as that with consciousness is differentiated from that without).
It may also be regarded as dull with regard to something that is more sharp (as an ordinary being would not have the same quality of consciousness as an arhat and perhaps an arhat as a buddha), as well as dependent on something that can be cut, so as to regard it as sharp.

Thus while there is no independent sharpness, sharpness exists dependent on the conditions, on causes, on applications.

That said, it would be difficult for even the least "sharp" among us to accept this simile as representative of ultimate truth, for who would liken the body to a knife or the spirit to a blade in anything other than the conventional sense?

This seems a useful simile for oratory, but not for philosophical analysis.
Even in the present, in the existence of the sharp knife, the sharpness cannot be found, but that does mean it does not have some conventional existence.
Beyond this, beyond conventional existence, who could speak of a knife or sharpness.

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture


In his Buddhism in China, Ch'en gives us the Buddhist refutation of Fan Chen's analogy presented by Hsaio Chen.

"He argued that the keenness of the knife is due to the effects of the whetstone. If we blunt the edge of a knife, it loses its keenness, and its usefulness as a knife is destroyed, but the knife still remains. Therefore it is not possible to say that when the keenness is lost, there is no knife."

Ref pg. 141

Gregory Hamilton Schmidt's picture

Zhong Bin

"I have not heard that there is sharpness without the edge. So does the spirit exist after the death of the body?"

Zhong Bin in is criticism of Huilin (Lesson 6 p 15) refutes this type of logic.

He rejects He Chengtian's use of the simile of fire and firewood, with the fire existing dependent on firewood, Which parallel's Fan Zhen simile of the sharpness depending on the edge of the knife.

Interestingly, Zhong Bin - in his rejection of Huilin's denial of the imperishable spirit - states that "fire comes from firewood, but spirit does not come from physical form; so spirit transcends the physical form, as the dharmakaya is eternal."