Do We Really Exist? Believing That The Self Is An Illusion Does Not Eliminate The Fear Of Death

Buddhism teaches that the soul or ‘self’ is not a permanent entity but a combination of material and mental phenomena in constant flux. Researchers hypothesized that believing the soul or self to be illusory would mitigate the seemingly natural human instinct to fear death, and monastic Buddhists would be more generous and less afraid of death than lay Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. But their study published on 22 January 2018 apparently found otherwise…



“Death is a scary thought for most—but Buddhism holds specific beliefs that might be expected to curb that fear. Buddhism teaches that the ‘persisting self,’ essentially, does not exist, as described in a new study. The self, which is somewhat comparable to the soul, is a combination of traits that are ever-changing, and the self, as many Westerners may know it, does not persist through time and old age.

“That understanding of Buddhism prompted researchers to hypothesize that monastic Buddhists would fear death less when compared to lay Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Their perceived belief that the self does not exist But the researchers’ study, published January 22 in Cognitive Science, found otherwise…

“The surprising findings, both on generosity and fear of death, counter what would be assumed to be true based on the central concepts of Buddhism. Buddhist philosophers argue that understanding the self as an illusion should result in more generosity, care and love for others, as well as the reduction of egocentricity, according to the authors. That ‘no-self doctrine,’ as Strohminger described it, ‘doesn’t, at least in this context, appear to be doing that at all.’

“’If anything, it appears to be doing exactly the opposite,’ she said.” – Sydney Pereira, Newsweek (7 Feb 2018 06:00) [1]


Maybe. Maybe not. Assuming for sake of argument that a study group of lay Tibetan, lay Bhutanese and monastic Tibetans is a truly representative sample of the entire Buddhist population, the fact is that “no-self doctrine” (sic) is understood differently by those who hear/read about it.

Those who understand correctly that anatta or “not-self” is NOT a philosophy of annihilation or nihilism but merely a mindset – a psychological strategy – one adopts in order to weaken attachment to/identification with a socially conditioned narrative of personal identity or “self” (constructed in order to justify a delusional ownership of impermanent mental, verbal, and bodily phenomena, and identified in the Four Noble Truths as a cause for suffering) are likely to understand the philosophical implications of associated Buddhist ideas like karma, death, and rebirth differently to those who believe literally “the self is illusory” or “the self does not exist”.

Fear of “self-annihilation” and stinginess would seem to be based on a misunderstanding of anicca, dukkha, anatta and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Fear of dying spiritually unprepared and being reborn in some hellish realm would be perfectly in line with that doctrine, on the other hand.


[1] ‘Do We Really Exist? Believing That The Self Is An Illusion Does Not Eliminate The Fear Of Death’ by Sydney Pereira, Newsweek (7 Feb 2018 06:00)

[2] Image Credit – Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images. Ibid.