Perennial philosophy and eastern religion seems to have a disagreement about the existence of a soul. But this disagreement is a only a matter of misleading words and can be entertained only until we see for ourselves that it is only a matter of perspective and interpretation.
When Buddhism speaks of beings as lacking inherent existence, this is something that we can verify for ourselves. By inherent existence we mean existence which does not depend on anything else, as if our island of words (like ‘soul’) have some reality all their own just because we say them. Let’s ask a simple question – is there anything that we know of that does not depend on anything else? Is even our “knowledge” itself not dependent on many causes and conditions? We see that it is always a matter of perspective and the deeper we practice the more malleable our perspective becomes.
What we are trying to awaken to is the interplay between self, soul and God and seeing how these parts exist in interpretation only. The only teaching I’ve come across that delineates this distinction is Anadi, who categorically separates awakening (finding out who we are, what our “soul” is beyond our ego) and samadhi (absorption into “universal reality” or right now). While I can’t say whether this distinction is meaningless or not, samadhi tends to render most distinctions meaningless as a matter of course.
The soul, in many religious, philosophical and mythological traditions, is the incorporeal and, in many conceptions, immortal essence of a living thing. -Wikipedia via Encyclopedia Britannica
So the soul is an essence of a living thing which is incorporeal and immortal, that is, does not die. But does it change? I know of nothing that does not. Does the perceiver of your essence, i.e., “you,” change, expand and contract? Certainly. Can this definition of a soul exist without a perceiver and interpreter? No, “essence” depends upon perception and interpretation for its existence. And is this really more of an essence or more of a stink? We should ask ourselves this.
The only meaningful question is who, at this time is aware of the tendencies and impulses inherent in our bodies as well as our “essence.” Is it inside or outside? What is the difference between our mind and all mind? Moreover, we may recognize the presence of something like a higher self that is guiding us, changing us. Does this ‘higher’ self bargain for its existence? Is it only our ego in disguise or is it of the nature of silence? Are we completely open, generous, compassionate and at one in the moment? Or does our essence hold back for itself, claw at what it desires and secretly wish gain for itself? Is our essence transparent and in total deference and surrender to reality or God’s Will? Or does our essence try to build an island for itself to rule at any cost to the world and to others?
Through practice, we first see that there are many parts which make our essence. Is our essence the ego or something else? Can it be dissolved into something greater? Could we be said to be this greater thing? Through continued practice we see this same lack of inherent (not dependent on parts and causes) existence in others as well. As we enter samadhi or right now, the difference and distance between ourselves and others vanishes as we begin to enter reality. Vanishing with it is the idea or concept of our separate soul. We may feel that expansion and contraction are our nature and the ‘feeling’ of a soul is just one step towards expansion.
So if the definition of soul is essence, then I would say we certainly all have one! However, in many cases separating the actor (soul) from his actions (body and life) is not only meaningless jibber jabber, but also the path to justifying evil and ruin. We are what we eat, what we say, what we do, what we cherish, what we create. Immortal or not, this is all we are. Incorporeal or not, the results bear fruit which we shall taste. Our soul changes and changes us as much with practice as any other part changes. It’s there if we look, it vanishes when we do not. When perceiver and soul vanish, we enter the stream of reality. When they return, we can continue to try and make sure our soul is one we are happy with.