Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
ONE of the many questions which I am very often requested to answer from the Buddhist point of view concerns the immortality of the soul . Thinking that this will also interest you, I wish to present my view on the question here.
It seems, everything depends upon the conception of the soul. Both you and I may use the same term, but if it is understood differently we cannot expect to come to any definite conclusion. I often think that if every notion, every concept, every sentiment we may happen to have, is so clearly defined as not to leave any point in obscurity, a great bulk of philosophical and religious controversy, which seems almost to make up the history of thought, will vanish. However this may be, let me first try to show you what I understand by the soul.
Buddhism uses the term Atman in place of soul and makes it signify that mysterious something which lurks in the background of our mental activities, and which soars up to an
unknown quarter usually known as heaven after its departure from the body, within which it has been imprisoned, and on which account it used to long for liberation. The âtman or soul, according to this conception, is not material, exactly speaking, but something very much akin to it, for it is an individual existence and therefore subject to the limitations of space and time as well as to the law of causation. Though it is impossible to think the soul other than material if it is at all individual as conceived by ordinary people, yet they make it at once spiritual and individual--two qualities impossible to reconcile. Therefore, in point of fact, they materialize the soul by their unwarranted--though pious enough--attempt to make it immaterial and spiritual. They are not indeed spiritualistic in spite of their persistent claim to be so. They are in fact materialistic. For if things are truly spiritual and immaterial, in them there must be the absence of all those qualities which make up materiality, that is, they must not be bound by the conditions of space and time. The existence of a soul of this nature is most positively denied by Buddhism. And those who aspire after its immortality are designated ignorant, however wise and intelligent they may be in affairs other than religious.
It needs a certain amount of reflective power to see in the popular conception of the soul a grievous error which Buddhism endeavors to
remove. It may be more readily comprehended by the majority of people when we say that there is a mysterious metaphysical something in the mind which directs all its functions and operations according to its whimsical will, and which makes us believe in the reality of an ego-substance; than when we say that the so-called soul is no more than the unity of consciousness which is liable at any moment to dissolve, and which comes to exist when there is a certain co-ordination of all mental faculties. If you make the soul signify the notion which is popularly more intelligible, Buddhism will give you a very poor consolation, as it denies even the existence of such a shadowy object, not to speak of its continuance after the decay and dismemberment of the corporeal existence.
If this is found by you to be a little too abstract to be quite comprehensible, let me give you a favorite illustration frequently used by Buddhists to show the fallacy of belief in the existence of the soul. Do you think there-is such a thing as the soul of the house who picks up the beams, roof, floor, walls, windows, etc., and puts them together in such a fashion as to make a house, and then hides himself in it somewhere, though altogether unrecognizable? Do you think again there is what is to be called the spirit of water who mixes up a certain amount of hydrogen with a portion of oxygen in order to make that most familiar and useful liquid and then convert
it into his own hiding-place? When the intellect had not yet attained the present stage of development, people thought that there was in everything a spirit or a soul residing and living, and who, when in wrath, found expression in raising a tempest, in creating a hurricane, or in quaking the foundation of the earth. But that time seems to have departed forever.
A house is here when all the necessary things, such as walls, pillars, beams, etc., are brought together according to a certain form. Water comes into existence when hydrogen and oxygen combine themselves, each in a certain definite percentage, according to their inherent constitution. It will be ridiculous, then, to imagine that whenever we observe the waves stirring or a mountain-stream rushing there is a soul in the water who makes all these phenomena. The conception of the human ego-soul is in perfect parallel with that of the water soul-entity. if waves, cataracts, whirlpools, or fountains are possible without presuming the existence of a water-ego, why do we hypostatize mentality and conceive the ego as an ultimate reality? Even scientifically speaking, this hypothesis does not at all satisfactorily explain our mental phenomena, but instead involves us in more difficulties and complications. Accordingly, those who hanker after the immortality of the soul are said to be pursuing fata morgana which vanish into airy nothingness as you approach.
Buddhism seems to be perfectly justified in declining to acknowledge the ego-soul.
What will then become of our innate desire after immortality? This is the question which will naturally come to you after you have followed me so far. To this I will answer: Seek that which is above birth and death, identify yourselves with it, and in that measure in which your identification is complete you will acquire immortality, and your religious sentiment will be thoroughly satisfied. Buddhism does not seek enlightenment in egoism, does not realize Nirvâna in the assertion of selfishness. Have your self-will removed and put in its place the divine will. "Not my will, but thy will," as Christians say, is that which is immortal in us, as well as that which constitutes the reason of our individual existences. As long as you have your selfish desires, impure motives, ignorant impulses, your immortality will never be gained. To be egoistic and to be immortal is to make "a" equal to "not-a," or to mix water with oil, as a Japanese saying goes; they exclude each other, and the result is unspeakable tribulation of spirit.
The problem of immortality has never troubled Buddhists, to speak frankly. When we were first asked about it, we did not know exactly how to grapple with it, for Buddhists are used to look at the matter from a totally different point of view. Their first effort is to comprehend the
whole, leaving the details behind. They first want to grasp that which is changeless, is above the transiency of phenomenality. When this is accomplished, they find that they themselves are part and parcel of that imperishable something. Though mortal as individual, particular beings, they are a manifestation of the Great All, and as such they will most assuredly survive all forms of change and transformation. They have then nothing to trouble themselves concerning soul or no-soul and much less with its immortality. All that they have to do is to come to a clear consciousness of the reason of the universe and to make its realization in them as perfect as they can. Whether they live or not after the expiration of their physical lives does not concern them at all. Let "thy will be done," and everything else will run its own course, and are we not relieved of the useless, wasteful worry and anxiety?
If, in spite of all this, you feel somehow inconsolable on account of nothing concrete surviving after you but cold ashes and crumbling bones, I would give you the immortality of work (karma) instead of the immortality of the soul. Or we might say that what you wish to understand by the soul does not exist in the ego-entity but in the work you do, in the sentiment you feel, in the thought you think, and if all these are in accordance with "thy will" which disposes, they will be what is left after you, that is to say,
you will forever live in them. When we stand before a canvas painted by a great painter, do we not feel the presence of the artist, as his ideas and feelings are embodied in it? Cannot we say that the artist is still living in his work? We do not know whether his soul has gone up to the heavens and is enjoying the celestial happiness, but we do know for certain that he is still living among ourselves and inspiring us to higher ideals of life.
Do you prefer the immortality of the soul as popularly understood to this kind of immortality that I have endeavored to expound here? If you do, I have nothing further to say, but that the immortality of work or deed or thought or sentiment seems to be more in accordance with the result of modern scientific investigation--not only that, but to be more satisfactory to our religious consciousness.
Before concluding, there is one thing I should like to ask the believers in a materialistic, individual soul and its immortality; that is, What do you want to do up in heaven when you are ushered in there after you have finished your earthly career? Is it your wish to sit quietly beside your Father and among the host of celestial beings and passively enjoy inexpressible blessings? If this is your wish for individual immortality, I fail to see the purpose and significance of this life on earth. The history of civilization seems to lose its purport when you are away from here.
Buddhists think otherwise than Christians in this respect. We consider our existence here below as a sort of link in the eternal chain of the divine revelation in the universe. We have not come on earth, each singly and separately, to assert only our individuality; but our fates are most solidly linked to our ancestors and their civilization as well as to our successors and their destiny. What we are to-day is due to the karma of our predecessors and at the same time Will determine the fates of posterity. If we fail to enrich and ennoble our spiritual inheritance which originally came from the hand of the Dharmakâya, we entirely ignore the meaning of the history of humanity, we altogether disregard our responsibility to our forefathers and grandchildren. We must not go to heaven and selfishly enjoy our individual immortality. On the contrary, we must abide where we are, and co-operate with one another for the ennoblement and enrichment of our earthly life. We must not be ungrateful for what our ancestors did for us, nor must we be inconsiderate of the welfare and enlightenment of coming generations. We must behave nobly, we must think rationally, we must feel unselfishly, and let us live in this karma which endureth forever, even after the dissolution of this physical existence.
Again, according to Buddhism, this universe is a sort of spiritual laboratory, in which all our ideal possibilities are experimented upon and
developed and perfected. When this material garment wears out after a long use, we throw it away and put on a new one and appear in the same laboratory (and not anywhere else, not even in Heaven, let me remind you) as our own successors. We examine what our former lives have accomplished and apply all our moral and spiritual energy to the furtherance and perfection of the karma. The doctrine that the Buddha was able to reach his ideal eminence after his untiring practice of the six virtues of perfection (pâramitâs)} 1 throughout his innumerable lives since the dawn of consciousness, is no more than the Buddhist conception of immortality and of the eternal striving after ideals. Let us, therefore, go not anywhere else after death even if an indulging benefactor should attempt to persuade us to join his celestial hosts; but let us remain in this universe, let the karma we have accumulated here bear its fruit and be brought to a happy consummation; for we are not strong enough to stand the grave charge to be preferred by posterity to the effect that we have scattered all our precious ancestral legacy to the four winds.
53:1 Read before Green Acre Fellowship, Washington, D. C., April, 1906.
61:1 (1) Charity, (2) Observation of Moral Precepts, (3) Meekness, (4) Energy, (5) Meditation, (6) Wisdom.