According to the Buddha there is no permanent and eternal soul inside a ‘being’ as is conceived by some philosophical systems. The latter gives the example of a bird in a cage to explain what happens when one dies. The eternal soul leaves the body just like the bird in a cage and only the cage is left behind.
Instead, the Buddha has analyzed a being into five khandhas and says that a being is made up of these khandhas in the same way a chariot is made up of several parts like the wheels, poles, shafts etc.
When Māra asks bhikkhuni Vajirā,
‘By whom has this being been created?
Where is the maker of the being?
Where has the being arisen?
Where does the being cease?’
‘This is a heap of sheer formations:
Here no being is found.
Just as, with an assemblage of parts
The word “chariot” is used.
So, when the aggregates exist,
there is the convention “a being”.’
And what are the aggregates that go into making a being?
The Buddha has analyzed ‘being’ in great detail and shown that it consists of only five aggregates. They are rūpa khandha, vedanā khandha, saññā khandha, saṅkhāra khandha and viññāṇa khandha. Khandha means aggregate or heap because rūpa (matter) is not one kind but many different kinds which join to form one rūpa such as cakkhu rūpa (eye formation). Similarly, there are so many vedanas, so many saññās, so many saṅkhāras and so many viññāṇas in a being. That is why all rūpas that go into making a being are called rūpa khandhas; all vedanās that make a being are called vedanā khandhas and so on. When it is said that all rūpas, all vedanas etc. go into making a being, it does not mean that rūpa or vedana is something which is permanent. They are always changing, changing very fast. But they are abstracted and grouped together as the five khandhas (pañcakkhandha). The function of saññā is different from the function of vedanā. Whereas vedanā means feeling, saññā means perceiving. Function wise they are different. In the same way, each khandha is different from the others and its function is also different from the functions of the other khandhas.
Since none of the five khandhas is permanent and a being is made of them, there is, therefore, nothing like a permanent soul. That ‘one is’ because one sees, hears, smells, tastes and touches is just a mirage; it is not true. What one sees at this moment is not the same as what one sees the next moment. Furthermore, both the seer and the seen are constantly changing. The change that takes place is so quick that one has the impression of ‘permanence’ or ‘continuity’ in the perceiver and the perceived.
See the topic called Puggala for a detailed understanding of pañcakkhandha.
The questions set in the topic Puggala will be relevant for this topic also.