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.
Ananda Coomaraswamy, an early interpreter of Asian culture to the west, and someone Ken Wheeler often quotes out of context, wrote. “No one will wish to deny that the truths of early Buddhism are true, or that the stress that was laid on Anicca (transcience) and Anattā (no eternal soul), and the thought of salvation here and now, constituted a permanent contribution to our realization of ‘things as they really are.’”
Authoritative Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula Thero wrote, “Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a Soul, Self or Atman. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine.'”
The American-born professor of Asian history and religion, C. Pierce Salguero writes that, “Many other traditions have concluded that the self is an awareness, a consciousness, a soul, God or some other entity that encompasses or transcends or witnesses all the phenomena we experience. Buddhism differs from these by concluding that there is no self at all.”
Nanatiloka Mahathera, a German-born Buddhist monk and scholar wrote that, “The Buddha teaches that what we call ego, self, soul, personality, etc. are merely conventional terms not referring to any real independent entity.”
Claims He’s World’s Foremost Authority on Anatta (No-Soul)
The Angry Photographer claims to be the world’s foremost authority on the term anatta, the Pali word for “no soul.” It’s one of many subjects on which he sets himself up as a fake expert while viewing the consensus among genuine scholars as a conspiracy.
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.”
Well, as a matter of fact, there is. It’s in the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta (SN 22:59; III 66-69), one of the earliest Buddhist scriptures we have. In fact, it’s the second sermon the Buddha ever preached, and it explains the term anatta (no soul).
“This is Not Mine, This I am Not, This is Not My Soul.”
In this passage, the Buddha says, “Whatever consciousness there is, whether past, future, or present, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, far or near, all consciousness should be seen as it really is with correct wisdom thus: ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my soul (atta).’” (Emphasis added)
The Theoria Apophasis host dismisses this scripture, saying that it excludes what he calls the “higher consciousness” or the “higher self” as taught by Plato. However, the text itself shows that this is a logical fallacy, since the Buddha goes out of his way to exclude any sort of subtle, external, superior or distant consciousness. He emphasizes, “all consciousness.”
In the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22), the Buddha says, “After death this ‘I’ will be constant, permanent, eternal, not subject to change. I will stay just like that for an eternity’—Isn’t it utterly and completely a fool’s teaching?”
“It’s Utterly and Completely a Fool’s Teaching”
His followers reply, “What else could it be, lord? It’s utterly and completely a fool’s teaching.”
If the Theoria Apophasis host wants to make the extraordinary claim, contrary to conventional Buddhist doctrine, 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 to prove a negative sets impossible expectations and doesn’t validate Ken Wheeler’s assertion. In the context of the above citations on consciousness and personality, it’s much more valid to ask why the Buddha never affirmed an immortal soul if, as Ken Wheeler insists, its existence was one of his core beliefs.
Buddha Didn’t Teach Permanent or Higher Self
Contrary to what Ken Wheeler tries to argue, the Buddha didn’t teach any sort of permanent consciousness or higher self. In short, according to scripture, he taught that we have no soul.
In the above verses, the Buddha specifically uses the Pali word atta for soul. This is the root of the Pali word anatta (no-soul) on which the Angry Photographer sets himself up as a fake expert.
Readers familiar with the Buddhist belief in reincarnation may be wondering how this no-soul teaching relates to the idea of rebirth in a new body after death. The Buddha noticed two schools of thought on what happens when we die back in his day.
Two Schools of Thought on What Happens When We Die
The first view was annihilism (uccedavada). In this view, we simply cease to exist when we die and there is no consciousness beyond the grave.
The other extreme was eternalism (sassatavada), 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.
Buddha rejected both views in favour of what he called paticca-samuppada, which is usually translated as “dependent arising.” He taught that twelve attachments cause the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Attachments Cause 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 twelve attachments are what reincarnates, which is why it’s essential to work toward releasing these clingings rather than wasting time and effort arguing about a hypothetical soul.
So, the Buddha rarely said 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’s another one of those original, authentic sources on which Ken Wheeler brags about being such an expert.
Buddha Maintained “Noble Silence” on Topics Like the Soul
Because he viewed these arguments as pointless, the Buddha maintained what his followers called the “Noble Silence” about certain topics, particularly the afterlife. He felt that thinking about them was a pointless distraction, and that arguing about them was counterproductive.
In this sutta, the Buddha says, “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.
“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? It Is Unbeneficial”
“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.”
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.
Buddhism aside, the Angry Photographer is very determined to convince others of his own views on an immortal soul and the afterlife. He’s especially fond of a radio analogy to explain his spiritual paradigm.
Radio Analogy Explains Ken’s 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.
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.
Misuses the Christian Term “Consubstantial”
Consubstantial is a term from Christian theology. It means “of one substance,” which is precisely the opposite of what the Angry Photographer means when he misuses this word.
Consubstantiality refers to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all being one God rather than to the bodies and souls of everyday people. More to the point, it has nothing to do with Buddha’s teachings.
Philosophers view reasoning by analogy alone as a logical fallacy. For example, one of Kentucky Ken’s heroes is Plato.
Plato Dismissed Analogies as “Imposters”
Plato had this to say about analogies like the Angry Photographer’s comparing the human soul to a radio signal. “Arguments that make their point by means of similarities are imposters and, unless you are on your guard against them, will quite readily deceive you.”
So, beyond the issue of consubstantiality, simply drawing a comparison between a radio broadcast and the human experience is invalid. Before the Theoria Apophasis host can draw such an analogy, he first has to provide tangible evidence that the two things are related in some way.
Since the Angry Photographer is dead wrong about Buddhist scriptures, there’s an even more ironic logical fallacy underlying his claims. He arbitrarily decrees that all religious debates must be Sola Scriptura.
Declares All Religious Debates Must Be Sola Scriptura
Sola Scriptura is a Latin term coined by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation. To overcome the corruption he thought was 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, Sola Scriptura has nothing to do with Hinduism or Buddhism. In Ancient India, religious scholars valued word-of-mouth above the written word for sacred teachings.
Buddha’s Sermons Remained Undocumented for 500 Years
So Buddha’s sermons remained undocumented for at least 500 years after his death. Neither Buddha nor any of his disciples wrote anything down during his lifetime.
The Buddha himself specifically opposes Ken Wheeler’s Sola Scriptura approach in the Kalama Sutta. This is yet another one of those Pali scriptures about which Kentucky Ken claims to be such an authority.
Asked 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 Himself Opposes Sola Scriptura Approach
The Buddha called on Buddhists to think for themselves rather than taking the Angry Photographer’s Sola Scriptura approach. He asks, “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 the symptoms of grandiose delusional disorder include falsely believing one is an unrecognized genius and/or one has made one or more important discoveries. We’ll let readers draw their own conclusions.
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.
Limits Debate to His Narrowly Defined “Original Buddhism”
In addition to Sola Scriptura, Kentucky Ken also makes another self-serving stipulation. He sets an impossible standard of proof for his critics by insisting that any debate be limited to his own narrow definition of “original Buddhism.”
In other words, he seeks to restrict any discussion of Buddhism to sayings attributed directly to the Buddha in the scriptures called the Nikayas. He has an ulterior motive for imposing this limitation as well.
This constraint enables him to duck any and all later commentary by other authors recorded in ancient Buddhist scripture. It’s a maneuver to rule out the most cited Buddhist scriptural passage denying the soul’s existence, which goes like this.
“The Way Is, But the Walker Is Not Found”
“For suffering is, but no sufferer. Not the doer, but certainly the deed is found. Peace is, but not the appeased one. The way is, but the walker is not found.”
This was written by the revered scholar Buddhaghosa, who organized and systematized the teachings found in the Buddha’s many dialogues. Buddhaghosa is remembered for his scrupulous research and authenticity.
The Angry Photographer also uses his originality restriction to avoid discussing passages in the vast body of commentary in the Pali Canon called the Abhidamma. This is roughly the equivalent of a Christian scholar refusing to even read any of the epistles in the New Testament, a Jewish scholar dismissing the entire Talmud out of hand, or a Muslim scholar denying any relevance to the Hadiths.
Resorts to Cherry-Picking and Mistranslation
When all else fails, the YouTuber behind Theoria Apophasis routinely resorts to cherry-picking and mistranslation to impose his dogma onto Buddhist and other ancient writings. One of his more egregious distortions is to mistranslate the Pali word citta – which, according to the Pali Text Society, means “heart” – as “soul.”
Citta can mean the organ in our chest. More often, as in English, it also symbolizes love, hope or compassion, as in “Don’t be so mean, have a heart,” or “Keep going, don’t lose heart.”
The word citta can also refer to some aspects of our mind. Again, it works like in English when we say, “I can recite that poem off-by-heart,” or, “I believe in democracy with all my heart.”
Mistranslates Citta to Misquote Buddha
Ken Wheeler exploits the metaphorical meanings of citta to misquote the Buddha and rationalize his claims about the immortal soul. He manipulates texts in which the word is meant to convey love, hope or compassion to force them into meaning things they don’t.
Here’s one of countless cases in point. In one of the Buddha’s discourses the Angry Photographer likes to brag about, he says, “This is immortality, the liberated heart which does not cling.” (MN 2.265) Kentucky Ken pulls a scriptural switcheroo to render this as, “This is immortality, that being the liberated soul which does not cling (after anything).”
Ken Wheeler 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.
Different Mistranslation of Same Passage
In his 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).”
In the same theurgy primer, the Angry Photographer cites the Pali phrase “Thitam cittam ajjhattam susanthitam suvimuttam.” Once again, he concocts his own idiosyncratic translation.
In this case, he writes “With the will (citta) steadfast (upon itself) [this is] the very Soul, this is to be supremely steadfast, is to be thoroughly liberated.” The correct translation of this phrase is simply “upright heart, composed within, truly released.”
Trying to Bend Text to His “Will” (Pun Intended)
The Buddha is teaching that a righteous heart provides inner peace and a sense of freedom. So yet again, Kentucky Ken is mistranslating citta and inserting his own interpretive phrases trying to bend the text to his “will” (pun intended).
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.”
“A Word Means Just What I Choose it to Mean”
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.” Neither of them pulls it off
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 in the early 20th century for her early work translating several essential Pali texts.
Tragically, Rhys-Davids’ son died in WWI and her husband, also a Buddhist scholar, 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.
Caroline Rhys-Davids Fell Prey to Spiritualism Fad
The celebrated scholar began taking part in seances, claimed to hear the voices of the dead, and believed her spirit could literally visit the Great Beyond by dreaming. For obvious reasons, these eccentric convictions led her to abandon the central Buddhist concept of anatta (no self/soul) in later life.
As a result, scholars view her later work as an incoherent embarrassment. Despite this, the YouTuber behind Theoria Apophasis embraces her more recent misinterpretations, not for their accuracy, but because she’s a fake expert who confirms his own prejudices.
We can see how far Caroline Rhys-Davids strayed from original Buddhist doctrine by going back to the following passage. Her own husband, Thomas William Rhys-Davids, wrote it forty years earlier.
Her Own Husband Contradicted Her Conclusions
“The position (of no-soul) is so absolute, so insisted on, so fundamental to the right understanding of primitive Buddhism, that it is essential that there be no mistake about it. There is no loophole, and the efforts to find one have always met with unswerving opposition, both in the pitakas (scriptures) themselves and in extracanonical texts.”
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.” Buddha taught that there were three poisons, delusion, ill-will and greed. As every post on this site shows, the Angry Photographer displays all three traits repeatedly. Buddhists would argue he has very bad karma as a result.
The Theoria Apophasis host made a revealing comment in a recent video denouncing the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no self/soul). He said, “Who would want that? It would be better to suffer a million transmigrations and a thousand mountains the size of Mount Everest.”
Revealing Comment – “Who Would Want That?”
Whether or not the Buddha’s teachings, or any ideas, are desirable should have nothing to do with our decisions about believing them. This Freudian slip reveals that the Angry Photographer bases his worldview solely on what he wants to believe – in this case that he’s not going to die.
Ken Wheeler also espouses a worldview called perennialism. One of its key tenets is the existence of an immortal human soul.
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.”
“We Are Forced to Abandon the Doctrine of Anatta”
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 anatta.
So, the Theoria Apophasis host is also a fake expert on perennialism. Even if he wasn’t, perennialism isn’t as widely accepted by scholars as it once once.
Philosopher Herman T. Katz published a devastating paper in 1978. It refutes the claim that all religions stem from a common metaphysical root.
“‘God’ Can Be ‘God’ and ‘Nirvana’ Can Be ‘Nirvana’”
Katz made the case for respecting these cultural differences rather than shoehorning them into “perennial philosophy.” He explained the advantages, writing, “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 ‘God’ with Brahman’, or ‘Brahman’ with ‘Nirvana.”‘
Ken Wheeler is entitled to believe anything he wants about the soul and the afterlife. Even so, he’s not entitled to put words in the Buddha’s mouth.
Not Entitled to Put Words in the Buddha’s Mouth
In the Bahuvediniya Sutta, Buddha explains to his trusted aid, Ananda, “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 many ironic opinions. In this case, he tries to assert his dubious expertise about Buddhism by violating one of the Buddha’s most authentic and fundamental tenets. And yet, he persists.
Citta – Standard Translation from Pali Text Society Pali-English Dictionary
Unanswered Questions in Buddhism
Language, Epistemology and Mysticism