Buddhist Souls – Why Ken’s Wrong

Buddhist souls seem to oddly preoccupy Ken Wheeler. Find out why his views insult Buddhist doctrine and how we know the Angry Photographer’s ideas would offend the historical Buddha.

The Buddha maintained what his followers called the “Noble Silence” about certain topics, particularly the existence of an immortal soul. He felt that thinking about them was a pointless distraction, and that arguing about them was counterproductive.

So, he didn’t say anything about these topics one way or the other. The Culamalunkya Sutta is one of the oldest and most authentic Buddhist scriptures we have. It comes from the original, authentic sources on which Ken Wheeler brags about being an expert.

In this sutta, the Buddha says, “‘The world is eternal’ — I have left undeclared. ‘The world is not eternal — I have left undeclared. ‘The world is finite’ — I have left undeclared. ‘The world is infinite’ — I have left undeclared. ‘The soul is the same as the body’ — I have left undeclared. ‘The soul is one thing and the body another’ — I have left undeclared.

“‘The Soul Is the Same as the Body’ I Have Left Undeclared”

“After death a Tathagata (one who has become enlightened) exists’ — I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathagata does not exist’ — I have left undeclared. After death a Tathagata both exists and does not exist’ — I have left undeclared. ‘After death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist’ — I have left undeclared.

“Why have I left that undeclared? Because it is unbeneficial, it does not belong to the fundamentals of the spiritual life, it does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. That is why I have left it undeclared.”

That seems pretty clear. Buddhists call these the “avyakata” or “Ten Unanswered Questions.” So, why wouldn’t Buddha answer these questions? He explained it to his disciple Malunkyaputta like this:

“It Does Not Lead to Enlightenment, to Nibbana”

“Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let this surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a khattiya, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker.’

“Until I know whether the man who wounded me was dark, brown, or golden-skinned; — until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a longbow or a crossbow;

“Until I know what kind of arrowhead it was that wounded me; — whether spiked or razor-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or lancet-shaped.’ All this would still not be known to that man, and meanwhile he would die.”

“Still Not Known to Him, Meanwhile He Would Die”

It’s easy to imagine the Angry Photographer with an arrow stuck in his tattooed chest arguing bitterly with the paramedics about the merits of various brands of archery gear. In fact, he brags about having taught archery at a sporting goods store. Ken Wheeler would much rather contradict others than expand his own knowledge.

Buddha explains the moral of the story. “If anyone should say thus: ‘I will not lead the spiritual life under the Blessed One until the Blessed One declares to me: “the world is eternal”…or “after death a Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist,” that would still remain undeclared by the Tathagata and meanwhile the person would die.”

These questions, including the nature of the soul and life after death, are simply not the Buddha’s priority. They’re distractions and they cause pointless arguments. Buddha wanted his followers to ignore them, and to focus on his moral code, the Eightfold Path.

How Does this Teaching Relate to Reincarnation?

Readers may be wondering how this teaching relates to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. The Buddha noticed two schools of thought on what happens when we die back in his day.

The first view was annihilism. In this view, we simply cease to exist when we die and there is no consciousness beyond the grave.

The other extreme was eternalism, the view that we have an eternal soul. Followers of this school of thought believed that the soul is endlessly reborn in a cycle of karma and reincarnation.

Rejected Both Extremes in Favour of Dependent Origination

Buddha rejected both views in favour of what he called paticca-samuppada, which is usually translated as “dependent origination.” He taught that twelve attachments cause the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

These attachments are like links in a chain. They include ignorance, mental formations, consciousness, name and form, the senses, contact, feeling, craving, clinging, becoming, birth, and aging and death.

As in so many things, the Buddha taught a middle way between an absolute end and an immortal soul. According to Buddha, our attachments are what reincarnates, which is why it’s essential to release these clingings rather than wasting time and effort arguing about a hypothetical soul.

Strict, Dogmatic View of How Our Sprit Works

Ken Wheeler takes an enormous interest in the human soul and the afterlife. He has a very strict, dogmatic view of how our spirit works relative to our mind, brain and body.

The Angry Photographer is also very determined to convince others of his views. He’s especially fond of a radio analogy to explain his spiritual paradigm.

For the Theoria Apophasis host, the experience of radio consists of the broadcast, the receiver and the signal. A radio receiver alone can’t be the broadcast, because in the absence of the signal, the receiver can offer only static.

Radio Signal Represents Our Immortal Soul

The signal, of course, represents our immortal soul, which animates our bodies (receivers). The signal continues even if the batteries in our receiver go dead or if the receiver breaks down.

So it takes both a signal and a receiver to make a broadcast. Ken Wheeler says they’re “consubstantial.” He thinks our body and our soul are consubstantial, too.

He seems to have lifted the term consubstantial from the Greek word Homoousios. This is a term from Christian theology. It applies to Christ rather than everyday people, and it has nothing to do with Buddha’s teachings.

Attempts to Impose His Life Stance onto Historical Buddha

Even so, he attempts to impose his life stance onto the historical Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. As the Theoria Apophasis creator is fond of saying, “People are entitled to their opinions, but people are never entitled to have their own truth.”

In his On Anatta/Anatman in Fact and Doctrine, Ken Wheeler poses the question “If the Buddha disbelieved in an atman (soul) why did he not deny the atman unambiguously? There is no such denial.”

As always, the Angry Photographer has his argument ass-backwards. As Carl Sagan put it, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Needs to Cite a Passage Where Buddha Taught Soul Exists

If the Theoria Apophasis host wants to claim, contrary to conventional Buddhist teaching, that Buddha explicitly taught the existence of an immortal soul, he needs to cite a passage where the historical Siddhartha Gotama says that. It’s not up to his critics to prove the opposite.

Asking others for a denial doesn’t validate Ken Wheeler’s assertion. It’s much more valid to ask why Buddha never affirmed the immortal soul unambiguously if, as Ken Wheeler insists, its existence was one of his core beliefs.

There’s another logical fallacy underlying the Angry Photographer’s approach to this controversy. He arbitrarily decrees that all religious debates must be Sola Scriptura.

Protestant Doctrine Sola Scriptura by No Means Universal

Sola Scriptura is a Latin term coined by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. To overcome the corruption plaguing the Roman Catholic Church at that time, he insisted that all doctrinal claims be justified based on scripture from the Bible, and not appeals to church authority.

The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is by no means universal within Christianity. If theologians adopted this stance in the literal way the Theoria Apophasis host advocates, they would have nothing to discuss with each other.

More to the point, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura has nothing to do with Hinduism or Buddhism. No Buddhist scriptures were documented until at least 500 years after the Buddha’s death, and scribes recorded them in Pali, a language that the Buddha didn’t speak.

Nobody Can Honestly Say They Know Buddha’s Exact Words

It’s impossible to take a literalist view on so-called “original Buddhism” because nobody can honestly say that they know Buddha’s exact words about anything. Both Hinduism and Buddhism have lengthy oral traditions and multiple, diverse scriptures, leaving us with no concise, canonical equivalent to the Torah, Bible, or Koran in their faith traditions.

The Buddha himself discouraged this kind of literalism in the Kalama Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya, Tika Nipata Mahavagga, Sutta No. 65) This is one of the early Pali scriptures about which Kentucky Ken claims to be such as expert.

In response to questions about how to distinguish between true and false doctrines, the Buddha cautions his followers as follows. ” Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture…”

Buddha Calls Upon Buddhists to Think for Themselves

Clearly, the Buddha calls upon Buddhists to think for themselves rather than taking the Angry Photographer’s Sola Scriptura approach. He then goes on to ask, “What do you think, Kalamas? Does delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?” His followers reply “For his harm, venerable sir.” 

We’ve seen that the symptoms of grandiose delusional disorder include believing that one is an unrecognized genius and/or that one has made one or more important discoveries. We’ll let readers draw their own conclusions.

Ken Wheeler’s insistence on Sola Scriptura debates about eastern religions is a cheap debating trick. By cherry picking obscure verses and then mistranslating them, he thinks he can bend scripture to his will.

By Mistranslating, Thinks He Can Bend Scripture to His Will

The Angry Photographer’s adherence to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is also highly selective. For example, he rejects the validity of any later commentary on Buddhism whatsoever, yet his favourite philosopher is Plotinus, who is a later commentator on Plato.

There’s a saying attributed to Shakespeare that goes, “Any fool in error can find a verse of scripture to back him up.” The Angry Photographer is living proof of this.

The YouTuber behind Theoria Apophasis routinely resorts to mistranslation to impose his dogma onto Buddhist and other ancient scriptures. One of his more egregious distortions is to mistranslate the Pali word citta – which, according to the Pali Text Society, means “heart” – as “soul.”

Mistranslates Pali Word Citta as “Soul” Instead of “Heart”

Here’s one of countless cases in point. In one of Buddha’s longer discourses, he says to his followers, “This is immortality, the liberated heart which does not cling.” (MN 2.265) Ken Wheeler pulls a scriptural switcheroo to render this as “This is immortality, that being the liberated soul which does not cling (after anything).”

The Angry Photographer incorrectly changes “liberated heart,” as in unfettered compassion, to “liberated soul.” Leaving nothing to chance, he attaches his own, invented, interpretive phrase to the end. This warped “translation” bastardizes the original meaning of the text by interpolating his false claim about the immortal soul in Buddhism.

In a more recent paper entitled A Primer on the Theurgy of Liberation as Against “Meditation” Dogma the Theoria Apophasis host uses a different mistranslation of precisely the same passage. Here it reads, “This is immortality, that being the liberated mind/will (citta) which does not cling (after anything).”

Does Citta Mean “Soul,” “Mind,” or “Will”?

So, does the Pali word citta mean “soul,” “mind,” or “will”? These words aren’t synonyms, so it can’t mean all three things.

The answer is that in Ken Wheeler’s mind, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Alice’s reply applies equally to Humpty Dumpty and Ken Wheeler when she says, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.” They can’t.

Using Views of Discredited Scholar Caroline Rhys-Davids

He rarely mentions her name, but the Angry Photographer is latching onto the views of the discredited, eccentric scholar, Caroline Rhys-Davids. She earned the respect of her peers at the turn of the 20th century for her early work translating several essential Pali texts.

Tragically, Rhys-Davids’ son died in WW1 and her husband passed away shortly after that in 1922. Traumatized by these losses, she fell prey to the spiritualism fad that was sweeping Britain at the time.

The celebrated scholar began taking part in seances, claimed to hear the voices of the dead, and believed she could literally visit the Great Beyond by dreaming. For obvious reasons, these eccentric convictions led her to denounce the central Buddhist concept of anatta in later life.

Not For Their Accuracy, but For Their Confirmation

As a result, scholars view her subsequent work as an incoherent embarrassment. Despite this, the YouTuber behind Theoria Apophasis embraces her more recent misinterpretations, not for their accuracy, but for their confirmation of his own prejudices.

Ken Wheeler’s obsession with the immortality of the soul seems to stem from a fear of his own death. This type of fear often has to do with concerns about how one has lived. As Leo Tolstoy explained, “A person who is afraid of death is one who has not lived his life properly and has broken the law of life.”

Buddhism teaches that there are ten courses of karmic action that lead to cila, or virtue. These are not taking life, not taking what isn’t given, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not using intoxicants, not lying, not using malicious speech, not using frivolous speech, non-covetousness, non-ill will and non-false views.

Buddhists Would Argue He Has Very Bad Karma

The Angry Photographer has violated all but two of these courses. Buddhists would argue that he has very bad karma as a result.

It’s no wonder that the YouTuber behind Theoria Apophasis wants to discredit conventional Buddhist doctrine in favour of his view that wisdom alone leads to Nirvana. Lao Tzu taught, “Your cleverness will not save you.” Based on what the historical Buddha taught his followers, the Angry Photographer’s prospects for his next life aren’t promising.

Ken Wheeler also espouses a worldview called perennialism. One of its key tenets is the existence of an immortal human soul.

“We Are Forced to Abandon the Doctrine” of Anatta

Even so, leading perennialists like Aldous Huxley had to concede that Buddhism didn’t conform to their views. In his book, The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley wrote, “To give a plausible answer to these questions in terms of anatta is so difficult that we are forced to abandon the doctrine.”

Ken Wheeler could simply accept, like Huxley, that the Buddha’s ideas differ from his own. Instead, Kentucky Ken resorts to misinterpretation of Buddhist scriptures while claiming to be the world’s foremost authority on the topic of Anatta.

So, Ken Wheeler doesn’t understand perennialism either. Beyond that, perennialism itself is not as widely accepted by scholars as it once once.

Religions Do Not Stem from a Common Root

Philosopher Herman T. Katz published a devastating paper in 1978 that challenged the conventional wisdom that all religions stem from a common root.

He demonstrated that religious experiences are heavily influenced by the cultural and religious context of the person having the experience. This is true before, during, and after the experience takes place.

He argued persuasively that we need to respect these cultural differences rather than shoehorning them into some sort of “perennial philosophy.” He explained the advantage of this by saying, “One is in a position to respect the richness of the experiential and conceptual data involved in this area of concern: ‘God’ can be ‘God’, ‘Brahman’ can be ‘Brahman’ and ‘nirvana’ can be ‘nirvana’ without any reductionist attempt to equate the concept of ‘God’ with that of ‘Brahman’, or ‘Brahman’ with ‘nirvana.’

Instead of Listening to the Song, We Get Distracted

Returning to nirvana and the Angry Photographer’s radio analogy, it’s as if we hear a beautiful, meaningful song. However, instead of listening to the melody and lyrics, we get distracted by something else.

We want to know if the song is on the radio and, if so, what station? Or is it on our smart speaker? Or is it playing on our computer’s speakers? Or maybe a CD, a cassette, or a vinyl record?

Answering these questions, or arguing about them, won’t help us to enjoy or understand the song. We’ll never grasp what the singer or the songwriter is expressing by pursuing the technicalities of how we’re hearing their music.

Not Entitled to Put Words in the Buddha’s Mouth

Ken Wheeler is entitled to believe anything he wants to about the soul and the afterlife. What he’s not entitled to do is to put words in the Buddha’s mouth.

Worse, the Angry Photographer is definitely not entitled to start ill-informed arguments with Buddhists about what their spiritual founder taught. This is especially inappropriate, since the Buddha taught his followers not to argue about these very things.

Buddha Taught His Followers Not To Argue About These Things

For example, in the Bahuvediniya Sutta, Buddha explains to his trusted aid Ananda, “In this analytical Teaching, if one does not approve another’s view, appreciating and accepting it, this kind of thing could happen and quarrels, fights, disputes and verbal fights would ensue. Therefore you should be united, open hearted, should co-operate like milk and water, and should look at each other with understanding and abide.”

Ken Wheeler has a lot of ironic opinions. In this case, he attempts to assert his dubious expertise about Buddhism by violating one of the Buddha’s most authentic and fundamental tenets. And yet, he persists.

Ken’s Evidence

On Anatta/Atman
Culamalunkya Sutta
Citta – Standard Translation from Pali Text Society Pali-English Dictionary
Unanswered Questions in Buddhism
Language, Epistemology and Mysticism

Published by David Morton Rintoul

I'm a freelance writer and commercial blogger delivering content services to selective business to business marketing clients. I have extensive experience in content creation, technical writing and training, working as a consultant and later in management roles with many of Canada's most successful organizations. Specialties: Content Marketing, Social Media, Technical Writing, Training and Development

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