The Buddha's Way of Virtue, by W.D.C Wagiswara and K.J. Saunders, , at sacred-texts.com
The "ambrosial (or deathless) path," Nirvāna, is the prize which these stanzas hold out to the strenuous: this is at once the goal of effort and its cessation, a calm haven after strenuous voyaging. * The seer speaks with a quiet rapture and a serene assurance which convince us as we read, that whether it is Gautama himself who speaks, or whether it is the collective voice of his followers, here is in any case the utterance of a real experience of the soul. Can it be that these men entered behind the veil of sense and time, and that their voices ring down the ages from that mysterious Beyond to which the mystics of all ages have aspired?
We cannot say; yet it is very clear that if the metaphysical Nirvāna is a fantasy, the ethical Nirvāna is real enough: and Gautama was above all things an ethical teacher. That
we shall understand Nirvāna from a perusal of those pages is not likely; that it will attract Western thinkers is not wholly to be desired; but we can at least study the ethical experience of which Nirvāna is but the description and the attempted explanation: and a grasp of what Arahatship means is essential to the understanding of Buddhism. The Arahat is one who, through obedience to the preaching of Buddha, has reached that calm state when the will no longer struggles, but is unified and at rest.
As the eagle, after long strain of upward flight, stays poised in mid-air, so the seer reaches the calm and severe heights of character. This is Nirvāna in the present world: and Nirvāna hereafter may be more mysterious, but it must be of the same kind.
Very much as the Christian, experiencing "the peace that passes understanding," interprets in the light of this experience the serenity and calm of the Hereafter, so the Buddhist "saint," having known the quiet and serenity of the unified will, projects this experience into the future.
To both alike this future is "ineffably sublime"; words fail men when they attempt to speak of the Beyond: and yet we can piece together a picture of their inmost thoughts from such fragmentary descriptions of their experience as they let fall.
Arahatship and Nirvāna, then, form one ideal, and it is with this that the Dhammapada is concerned.
We have seen that Nirvāna is ineffable (stanza 218 and note); but we have also to remember that it can be experienced here and now. In stanza 402 we read:
"He is the Brahmin who in this very world knows the end of sorrow, who has laid the burden aside and is free." *
For whilst "the burden" is ultimately bodily existence, yet it is the sinfulness and egoism and pride of the flesh which make that burden so intolerable: the body is in fact a good servant but a bad master, and he who masters his body is already as it were freed from it.
"Happy is he," says the Dīgha Nikāya, "who is free of lust and beyond its power: the highest bliss is freedom from pride and self-will."
"There is no sorrow like existence, no bliss like Nirvāna," says the Dhammapada.
"The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, cries St. Paul…Unhappy man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death?"
These and similar passages are a cry for deliverance; and both teachers insist upon the same great truth, that man's bodily life, in so far as it is dominated by self-will and lust, is an evil
to be escaped at any cost. Neither is Manichean: it is not the body that is evil, but the body enslaved by the tyranny of evil desires.
And for both teachers it is the perversity of the "flesh" that shapes the ideal of escape; though the one longs after the life of dissolution, and the other believes that he will be "clothed upon" with a "glorified body" hereafter. *
The salient feature of the Buddhist ideal is freedom:
"Him I call Brahmin who has cut the bonds, who thirsts not for pleasure, who has left behind the hindrances."
(See 397 and note on 398.)
The phrase "highest freedom" occurs more than once in these stanzas as a synonym for Nirvāna, and, as Mrs. Rhys Davids has shown, it is this aspect of Nirvāna which is most frequently hymned in the Psalms of the Sisters, that remarkable collection of verses attributed to the women-elders of the Sangha. † (Cf. Dhammapada, 90, 92, 93, 96, etc.)
Inasmuch as this "highest freedom" is escape from lust and other "bonds," it is an
ideal for this life: inasmuch as it is escape from the round of rebirths it is an ideal for the future: here Arahatship passes over into Nirvāna. *
And in both alike the way of escape lies in the mind of man:
Fashioned and fathered by our Thought." *
The Arahat has mastered his mind (that "frail and fickle thing" that in the worldling "leaps hither and thither, like a monkey seeking fruit)"; and therefore he is already free from the tyranny of the flesh (cf. 89). For it is the mental "bonds"—lust, pride, self-will—which have bound him through the long waste of years to one body after another; and it is "knowledge" which sets him free:
"He is the Brahmin indeed who… has reached the end of rebirths, the sage whose knowledge is perfect, and who is perfect with all perfection."
This freedom of Nirvāna is envisaged as Rest: and there is in these stanzas a cry for rest which runs through all the Buddhist books like some pathetic fugue: a desire so passionate as to be almost unintelligible to Western minds.
But to men obsessed heart and spirit with the
"weary weight of the intolerable years," life after life of suffering and care, it is a real longing which here finds rhythmic expression:
"All is fleeting, all is unreal, all is sorrowful." (277-9.)
"There is no sorrow, like to existence: no bliss like Nirvāna, the Supreme Rest." (202.)
Worldly existence is wholly evil; but every man is free to cultivate the "otherworldly" frame of mind, and be at peace. For Buddhism is in a sense eudaemonistic; it does not flout man's desire to be happy: only it defines this happiness in terms of inward peace and self-control.
Section XV of the Dhammapada is the Buddhist analogue of the Beatitudes of Jesus, and, as an ideal of the Happy Life, ranks high indeed.
It is an ideal of kindliness and serenity, of peace and unity, which is very winsome: it would be hard to pick a quarrel with the exponents of such a life!
To the Christian it seems none the less an ideal more passive and stoical, less loving and mystical than that of Jesus; and yet we cannot but rejoice that the East has had this ideal so long before it. To the Karma-haunted millions of India it has shone with a steady and alluring radiance, in time past more potent than to-day, but even now embedded in their subconsciousness.
Its calm and cool attractiveness is beautifully
symbolised in the poetic imagery of the Dhammapada:
"The good man shines like the moon escaped from clouds, he is pure as some unruffled lake." (95.)
[paragraph continues] And the company of such a leader with his disciples is
"As the moon following the path of the stars." (208.)
Another lovely moonlit scene embodies and symbolises the spirit of this ideal:
The Buddha's six chief disciples are in a park, and as they sit in the tropical moonlight they ask one another what quality in the Bhikkhu could add to the beauty of the scene. Amongst the answers are three which throw light upon the meaning of Arahatship:
"The peace and insight of moral victory," says one,
"The joy and insight of Emancipation," says another;
[paragraph continues] and Sāriputta wins the Master's approval by his reply:
"When a Bhikkhu masters his heart (cittam) and does not let it master him."
"Hear from me," says Gautama. "Hear from me what kind of Bhikkhu could add a lustre to the wood; one who, sitting serene and controlled, resolves: "Till my heart is freed from the ferments of lust I shall not quit my seat." *
This scene is most suggestive, for it throws
into strong contrast Buddhist and Christian Ethics, and further it leads us into the heart of a vexed and difficult problem.
With regard to the first point, it is sufficient to say here that Buddhism teaches a rigorous and calm self-mastery, Christianity demands a passionate self-surrender.
With regard to the second, we may state the problem thus: Is Nirvāna a social ideal? Or is it an ideal of solitude and forgetfulness? The answer seems to be that Buddhism holds out no promise of the reunion of emancipated "souls"; Nirvāna is the cessation of all personal existence: yet the experience of the peace and joy of Noble Companionship—such companionship and communion of soul as is here depicted—is too good not to be desired. And this desire has tinged the ideal picture of the Beyond: in spite of metaphysics the ethical, asserts itself
"Good is the Vision of the Noble" (i.e. Arahats).
"Good is their company." (206.)
"A loyal friend is the truest kinsman:
Nirvāna is the greatest Bliss." (204.)
To sum up the Buddhist position upon the question of "Society and Solitude" is no easy task; but we may express it tentatively thus: At first solitude is essential:
"Alone man lives like Brahma: in twos men live like gods: in threes they are as a village. More than this is a mob."
[paragraph continues] And as the Dhammapada says,
"Even for great benefit to another let no man imperil his own benefit." (166.)
But if an Arahat is to be found, his society can do nothing but good: let the Bhikkhu resort to him. If there are a company of Arahats, let them rejoice in communion and fellowship. And hereafter
Nirvāna is "the unknown shore." (323.)
It is "the solitude which it is hard to love." (88.)
[paragraph continues] With all his kindliness and even geniality Buddha does not disguise the fact that victory will be purchased at a heavy cost:
"One is the road leading to wealth: another is that leading to Nirvāna."
[paragraph continues] To win to the goal will mean asceticism all along the line:
Play the man…
Travel stoutly alone…"
[paragraph continues] Such are his rallying-cries.
For the "Path of Safety" is beset with "evil beasts." And to win across "the torrent" to the safety of the "other side" needs courage and strenuous effort. And, having won through, men will find a great solitude, a peace, a freedom, only to be purchased by ceasing to be. Such is Nirvāna in the fullest sense.
Freedom; Safety; Rest: Calmness; Kindliness;
[paragraph continues] Self-control: Solitary effort or the company of the select few. Above all, Bliss, ineffable yet traceable to its seat in the unified will. Such is Arahatship, or Nirvāna in this present life. It is a lofty ideal, and though no Buddhist now strives to realise Nirvāna, yet there are men in all Buddhist lands gazing into the remote future to see Arahatship shining afar off like some dim yet lovely star. And because it is ethical, therefore it is attainable:
In the days of Gautama it is clear that men reached the goal of Arahatship, and knew the peace and joy of a mind and conscience at rest. For the contagion of his enthusiasm and the magnetism of his personality went far to energise ideals which are real enough beneath a tropic sun, and, in so far as they are ethical ideals, vital enough in all lands. And to-day Buddhists look wistfully to a Coming One, Maitri, who shall spur them on to victory: or they put their trust in the grace of an Amida who demands only faith in his saving power.
The Christian will see in these aspirations and yearnings the promise of a speedy fulfilment, when men see the Majesty and the Love of God revealed in Christ: and he will welcome the teachings of Gautama the Buddha as the utterance of a prophet and a seer.
Nirvāna is thus explained in the Abhidhammattha-Sangaha, translated by Mr. Shwe Zan Aung, and published by the Pali Text Society under the title Compendium of Philosophy.
Printed by Hazel, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury, England.
102:* Upasama implies both the idea of Peace and the idea that there has been a struggle to win it.
104:* cf. stanza 32: where "near to Nirvāna" should probably be rendered "in the very presence of Nirvāna." (Rhys Davids.)
105:* From a more positive point of view we may say that for the Buddhist, Peace is an ideal of equilibrium now and of unconsciousness hereafter: for the Christian, Peace is an ideal of conscious fellowship with God begun now and hereafter consummated.
105:† This collection, published by the Pali Text Society, will go far to prove how real and deep was the ethical experience of the early Buddhists.
106:* In technical phraseology the ethical Nirvāna is called Savupādisesanibbānam, or Nirvāna, in which the five skandhas or elements of being remain; and the metaphysical Nirvāna is called Anupādisesanibbanam, or Nirvāna, in which they cease to exist. (See Note at end.)
108:* Majjhima Nikāya, 32.