Individual Soul or not in Japanese Buddhism?
One of the most difficult questions in Buddhism is the existence and permanence of an individual soul, even when that existence is taken in a relativistic way. I have been seeing the most paradoxical opinions – some schools say that once the external body goes, individuality goes along with it, some say that a personal soul takes birth again to continue its evolution, others state that what is reborn has no direct personal link with the former being, and others still affirm nothing similar to a singular soul could ever exist. What should I believe in?
I cannot answer for all school of Buddhism and that is why I will tell you what I learned and what I believe in, according to Japanese Buddhism.
First, you must understand that Buddhism is influenced and modified by the different places it settles to. The purer form of Buddhism, closer to what the historical would have preached is Theravada, as practices in Sri Lanka, India etc.
Buddhism in Japan has been first influenced by its passage through China and Korea, bringing with it its modifications and then by Shintoism, the native religion of Japan.
In Shintoism, the human individual has many souls. (3 or 4 depending on the source) Each soul has a role in the body and each will accomplish something once the body dies. Some souls will join the “general consciousness” and other can be reincarnated.
It is my understanding that this explains why some people would be able to communicate with the souls of dead people and at the same time why more than one person could be the reincarnation of an individual (funny how individual comes from indivisible, or “which cannot be split”)
In the Esoteric Schools of Buddhism, which was heavily influenced by Shintoism, the soul of the deceased is generally severed from the illusion of individuality (we would actually be dreaming our lives) and return to the ultimate collective consciousness that is the Universe.
After a while, we are re-born and restart the cycle, depending on the Karma we accumulated.
Buddhist who are more advanced in the cycle, become more in-tuned with the universe and are able to retain more individuality when they die. Meaning that a very advanced master would be able to return to life through rebirth with some memories and knowledge to carry-on his work without having to start over from zero.
One supposed such master is the Dalai Lama.
Then there are those who become free of the cycle upon their death and do not need to be reborn. Some say they are reborn in the Western paradise and others say that they just cease to be reborn. They are joined with the Universe.
One of the conditions of suffering is birth. If one is not born, he will not suffer.
Thus, to put my answer in a concise paragraph, from my understanding, all the answers you mention are valid. It all depends on the evolution of the “soul”.
It is a very confusing question and I would recommend that you get the complete answer from scholars who did deep researches on the subject. I recommend Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism.
I do hope it answers your question.