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The Creed of Buddha, by Edmond Holmes, [1919], at

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SET forth in as few words as possible, Buddha's message to man is an appeal to him to find his true self, with all that this can give him--joy, peace, knowledge, love--by suppressing egoism, with all the desires and delusions on which it feeds, and breaking, one by one, the fetters of the surface life and the lower self.

Those who have followed me thus far will, I think, admit that Buddha's scheme of life coincides, at all its vital points, with the scheme that I worked out by drawing practical deductions from the master ideas of that deeply spiritual philosophy which found its highest expression in the Upanishads. One who accepted the central idea of that philosophy--the idea that the Universal Soul is the real self of each one of us--and realized its spiritual consequences, and who at the same time saw clearly that none of the current modes of apprehending it--the metaphysical, the intuitional, the poetical, the symbolical--was available for ordinary, unenlightened, undeveloped men, would probably come to the conclusion that, if the world at large was to be brought under the influence of that great spiritual idea, a practical interpretation of it must be presented to and followed by the rank and file of mankind.

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Such a teacher would begin by appealing to the very sense which it was his most cherished desire to cultivate,--the sense of reality, which is present in embryo in every breast. He would tell men that life is full of suffering, and that the chief cause of suffering is the impermanence--and therefore the unreality--of the objects of man's desire; and he would expect them to assent to these propositions.

This is what Buddha did.

He would explain to them that the desire for unreal things not only caused suffering in this or that earth-life, but also caused the suffering to be reproduced in other earth-lives,--desire for the shadows and illusions of earth being the subjective side of the attractive force by which earth draws the unemancipated soul back to itself again and again; and he would ask them to infer from this that deliverance from suffering (now and in the future) was to be won by the subjugation, and at last by the extinction of desire,--not of desire as such, but of the base, carnal, worldly, self-seeking desires, which, by keeping the soul in ignorance of its true nature and destiny, cause it to eddy round and round in the "whirlpool of rebirth."

This is what Buddha did.

He would tell them--though not in so many words--that, if their baser desires were to be subdued, they must practise self-control and cultivate sympathy; and, with that end in view, he would give them a few simple rules for the conduct of life,--rules which would provide for the development of self-control and sympathy along the arterial

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lines of morality, and the authority of which would therefore be in a measure self-evident.

This is what Buddha did.

For those who had mastered their baser desires and passions, and who, by a parallel process, had cultivated the latent virtues of gentleness, kindness, and compassion, and, speaking generally, begun to live in the lives of others, he would make further provision; he would help them in various ways to conquer their hydra-headed enemy, the lower self; he would teach them to distinguish between the shadows and the realities of life, to rid themselves of every self-seeking desire and every self-affirming delusion, to quench lust and anger, to extend in every direction the radiating light of sympathy and good will.

This is what Buddha did.

He would tell them that, when the last taint of egoism and the last shadow of ignorance had disappeared, the happiness to which they had always had an indefeasible title, but a title which each man in turn had to make good for himself, would at last be theirs; that the Path which they had followed for so long would lead them at last to the fullness of knowledge, the fullness of peace, the fullness of love,--and therefore to unimaginable bliss.

This is what Buddha did.

But he would impress on them that they lived in a world in which causes always produce their natural and necessary effects; that the consequences of their conduct would therefore follow them wherever they went; that external rewards were not to be hoped for; that external punishments

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were not to be dreaded; that virtue was its own reward and vice its own punishment, in the sense that whatever is done or left undone inevitably reacts upon the character, and, through the character, affects for weal or for woe the destiny of the soul; that interference from without was in the nature of things impossible; that the whole sacrificial system was based on a delusion; that ceremonial observances were of no avail:--he would teach them, in fine, that each man in turn must take his life into his own hands and work out his destiny for himself.

This is what Buddha did.

But, while he taught them all this, he would make no attempt to explain to them the deepest mysteries of existence; he would deliberately disconnect his scheme of life, so far as his own exposition of it was concerned, from theology and metaphysics; he would keep silence as to what is "ultimate and uttermost"; for he would know that the average mind has no capacity for deep thinking, and that, if he tried to disclose to his fellow-men his ultimate reasons for the course of life which he wished them to follow, they would make nonsense, first of his philosophical teaching and then of his whole scheme of life, giving themselves wrong reasons for everything that they did or left undone, and so (in the last resort) misinterpreting and misapplying every detail of his teaching.

This too is what Buddha did (or forebore to do). That he kept silence about "great matters" is as certain as that his ethical teaching was clear, coherent, and systematic.

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The coincidences between the two schemes of life--that which Buddha taught and that which follows logically (in the deeper sense of the word) from the philosophy of the Upanishads--are so many and so vital that they cannot be ascribed to chance. Even if the age in which Buddha lived had been separated by a thousand years from the age which gave birth to the stories of Brahma and the Gods, and Nachikêtas and Death, we should feel justified, on internal evidence, in concluding that Buddha had somehow or other come under the influence of the ideas which those stories enshrined. But we need not trust to internal evidence only. We know that the spiritual atmosphere of India in Buddha's day was impregnated with the ideas of the Upanishads. We know that those ideas must have appealed with peculiar force to a thinker of Buddha's exalted nature, whether he ended by emancipating himself from their influence or not. We know that the teachers who had expounded those ideas had utterly failed to bring them into connection with the daily life of the ordinary man, and had thereby left a gap in the philosophical teaching of India, which was waiting to be filled by some master mind. The cumulative evidence afforded by these facts, added to the internal evidence which has already been set forth in detail, seems to point with irresistible force to one conclusion, namely that Buddha accepted the idealistic teaching of the Upanishads--accepted it at its highest level and in its purest form--and took upon himself as his life's mission to fill the obvious gap in it,--in other words, to make the

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spiritual ideas which had hitherto been the exclusive possession of a few select souls, available for the daily needs of mankind.

If this conclusion is correct, we shall see in Buddhism, not a revolt against the "Brahmanic" philosophy as such, but an ethical interpretation of the leading ideas of that philosophy,--a following out of those ideas, not into the word-built systems of (so-called) thought which the metaphysicians of the day were constructing with fatal facility, but into their practical consequences in the inner life of man.


But is the conclusion correct? I must admit at once that there is a preponderance of opinion against it. The Orientalist scholars into whose hands the work of expounding the ideas and doctrines of Buddha has perforce fallen, seem to be agreed in holding that in Buddhism the mind of India broke away from the Brahmanic line of thought. Some indeed go further than this. They tell us that Buddha's teaching was directly and openly subversive of the "sovereign dogmas" of Brahmanism. They admit indeed, with considerable reluctance, that he believed in re-incarnation, but they contend that he did not believe in any re-incarnating self or ego; and they accept on his behalf all the philosophical consequences of this sweeping denial, the last of these being that Nirvâna--the τέλος τελειότατον of Buddhist effort and aspiration--is the prelude to annihilation.

Foremost among the distinguished scholars who have satisfied themselves that Buddha was a

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negative dogmatist--a metaphysician, whose propositions were all fundamental negations--is Dr Rhys Davids, a writer on Buddhism whose works enjoy a well-deserved popularity, and whose influence in determining the attitude of contemporary opinion towards the Buddhist scheme of life is very great. In the following passages from his writings his own attitude is clearly defined. After expounding the hour Sacred Truths, he goes on to say, "The remarkable fact is that we have here set forth a view of religion entirely independent of the soul theories on which all the various philosophies and religions then current in India were based." Speaking of re-incarnation he says, "There is no passage of a soul or I in any sense 1 from the one life to the other. Their [the Buddhists'] whole view of the matter is independent of the time-honoured soul-theories held in common by all the followers of every other creed." Speaking of the interest that the Brahmans took in Buddha's speculations, he says that "his [Buddha's] rejection of the soul-theory and of all that it involved was really incompatible with the whole theology of the Vedas." Elsewhere he says that no other school of religious thought is "quite so frankly and entirely independent as Buddhism of the two theories of God and the soul." Other significant passages in his writings are the following: "The victory to be gained by the destruction of ignorance is, in Gautama's view, a victory which can be gained and enjoyed in this life and in this life only."

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[paragraph continues] "Man is never the same for two consecutive moments, and there is within him no abiding principle whatever." "Another proof of the prominence of the doctrine of the non-existence of the soul is the fact that the Brahmans who have misunderstood many less important or less clearly expressed tenets of Buddhism recognize this as one of its distinctive features." "Would it be possible in a more complete and categorical manner to deny that there is any soul--anything of any kind which continues to exist, in any manner, after death?" If there is no soul or ego, in any sense of the word, what is the meaning of Nirvâna? According to Dr Rhys Davids, it is a state of blissful repose which precedes annihilation, with which, however, it must not be confounded. "Death, utter death, with no new life to follow, is then the result of, but it is not Nirvâna."

These passages make it clear that Buddha, according to Dr Rhys Davids' estimate of him, was a daring speculative thinker who had thought out all the master problems of existence and solved them to his own satisfaction, his solution in every case, or rather in the one case which is decisive of the rest, being an unqualified negation. The uncompromising denial of the soul, which Dr Rhys Davids ascribes to Buddha, makes an end of all metaphysical speculation. If there is no soul, if the sense of self 1 is wholly delusive, we may know, without further inquiry, that there is no God (in

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any spiritual sense of the word), no inward life, no former life, no after life. But what of the outward things which the (so-called) self perceives and, in the act of perceiving, certifies as existent, and even provisionally certifies as real? According to Western thought these are real things; and the physical force which is behind them all, is the fundamental reality which it is the aim of speculation to discover. But, according to Buddha, outward things are all shadows and delusions; his primary aim, as a moral teacher, being to deliver men from belief in their reality,--a belief which is the source of all error, sorrow, and suffering. It is clear then that, if Dr Rhys Davids' interpretation of Buddha's metaphysical system is correct, he (Buddha) was not a materialist, like those modern thinkers with whom he may seem to have much in common, but a philosophical nihilist, who could find no centre of reality, no principle of permanence, in that whirl and flux of phenomena which for him constituted the Universe.

It is true that in more than one passage in his American lectures Dr Rhys Davids says that Buddha denied the existence of the soul in the Christian sense of the word: and one might infer from this that it was open to him to believe in the soul in some other sense of the word,--for example in the Brahmanic, which is diametrically opposite to the "Christian." 1 But whether Dr Rhys Davids has himself failed to distinguish between the Christian

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and the Brahmanic theories of the soul, or whether he regards the former as the only soul-theory which is in any degree compatible with mental sanity, I cannot pretend to say. What is certain is that he regards Buddha's rejection of the soul-theory as thorough-going and uncompromising. The words "There is no passage of a soul or I in any sense from the one life to the other. Their [the Buddhists'] whole view of the matter is independent of the time-honoured soul-theories held in common by all the followers of every other creed," are decisive on this point. Besides, it stands to reason that if "death, utter death," is the inevitable sequel to Nirvâna, there is no room in Buddha's philosophy for the soul, in any sense of the word. 1

My reason for setting forth in detail Dr Rhys Davids' interpretation of Buddha's philosophy is that it happens to be the one interpretation which has found its way into the outer world. Ask the man in the street what he knows of Buddha. He will tell you that Buddha was a pessimist and an

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atheist, who denied the soul, denied a supreme cause, denied that the world had any centre of reality, and taught his followers to look forward to annihilation as the final deliverance from the woes of earth. This, if not identical with Dr Rhys Davids' teaching, is at least an echo of it. Dr Paul Carus, who has taken upon himself to popularize Buddhism and to vindicate it from the disparaging criticism of its "Christian critics," is in the main in full agreement with Dr Rhys Davids, but is more ready than that distinguished scholar to accept the logical consequences of the dynamically atomistic philosophy which he ascribes to Buddha. Even the author of "The Soul of a People," a writer whose deep and delicate sympathy with, and insight into, the "soul" or inner life of a Buddhist people, besides investing his book with a charm which is all its own, entitles him to a respectful hearing whenever he speaks, in general terms, about Buddhism,--even he, when treating of the popular belief in re-incarnation, must needs shake his head over the credulity of the good, simple people, and remind them that belief in the survival of the "I" is "opposed to all Buddhism," the real teaching of Buddha--"that what survives death is not the 'I' but only the results of its action"--"being too deep for them to hold."

Such unanimity on the part of the popular exponents of Buddhism points to a large measure of unanimity on the part of its more learned interpreters and commentators. That Dr Rhys Davids has given voice to a general consensus of opinion on the part of the Western students

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of Buddhism, can scarcely be doubted. From Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire to H. C. Warren, the Orientalists of Europe and America are agreed, with one or two notable exceptions, in holding that Buddha denied the Ego and regarded Nirvâna as the prelude to annihilation; while the fact that the South Buddhist Church has given Dr Paul Carus a certificate of orthodoxy suggests that on these points the general trend of official opinion in the Buddhist world itself coincides, mutatis mutandis, with the general trend of learned opinion in the West.

*      *      *      *      *      *

What evidence can Dr Rhys Davids, and those who think with him, give in support of their thesis that Buddha was a negative dogmatist

"Who dropped his plummet down the broad
Deep Universe, and said 'No God' 1--
Finding no bottom."

[paragraph continues] There is this initial difficulty in the way of our accepting Dr Rhys Davids' interpretation of Buddha's metaphysical--as distinguished from his ethical--philosophy, that, on our author's own showing, Buddha was a true and consistent agnostic, who was so far from dogmatizing about what is ultimate that he regarded all metaphysical speculation as vain and foolish, and all metaphysical strife as morally wrong. "There were a certain number of questions to which it was his habit to refuse to reply. These were questions the discussion

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of which, in his opinion, was apt to lead the mind astray, and so far from being conducive to a growth in insight, would be a hindrance to the only thing which was supremely worth aiming at--the perfect life in Arahat-ship. Such questions as: What shall I be during the ages of the future? Do I after all exist, or am I not? are regarded as worse than unprofitable, and the Buddha not only refused to discuss them, but held that the tendency, the desire to discuss them was a weakness, and that the answers usually given were a delusion." With these words, which are to be found in Dr Rhys Davids' American lectures on Buddhism, we may compare Dr Oldenberg's statement that "the most serious obstacle in the way of our comprehending Buddhist dogmas is the silence with which everything is passed over which does not lead to the separation from the earthly, to the subjection of all desire, to the cessation of the transitory, to quietude, knowledge, illumination, to Nirvâna." Both writers are agreed in holding that the scheme of life which Buddhism set before its votaries was in all probability formulated by Buddha himself; but both writers are also agreed in holding that, though Buddha gave his followers what I may call the penultimate (or perhaps the ante-penultimate) reasons for entering "the Path," he not only carefully abstained from giving them the ultimate reasons, but positively forbade them to speculate as to what those reasons might be. What then becomes of Dr Rhys Davids' confident and often repeated statement that Buddha's philosophy centred in a fundamental denial? To deny the

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[paragraph continues] Ego is to gather all metaphysical problems into one pregnant question, and to answer that question with an everlasting "No." In other words, it is to say the last word that can be said in metaphysical speculation. Is it possible for the same thinker to be, at the same time and on the same plane of thought, a true agnostic and an aggressive dogmatist? If this is not possible, which rôle are we to assign to Buddha?

The teaching of Buddha, as Dr Rhys Davids presents it to us, may be divided into two parts,--an ethical scheme of life, and a metaphysical theory of things. Dr Rhys Davids will scarcely contend that the authenticity of the latter is as strongly vouched for by external evidence as that of the former. That there are passages in the Buddhist Scriptures in which Buddha is represented as having authoritatively denied the Ego, may perhaps be provisionally admitted. 1 But surely, in the light of Dr Rhys Davids' assertion that Buddha both abstained from and discountenanced metaphysical speculation, we are free to conjecture that, as statements of Buddha's own metaphysical teaching, these passages are entirely untrustworthy. It is surely conceivable that what is set forth in them is, not Buddha's own words or even his own opinions, but the writers' private interpretation of Buddha's deeper philosophy,--an interpretation which is based partly on what he said, partly on what he left unsaid (for his silence is both significant and suggestive), but chiefly on what the writers themselves happened to believe. It is conceivable that

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the writers felt, as Dr Rhys Davids evidently feels and as we must all feel, that behind Buddha's silence there was a living creed; and that, feeling this, they succumbed to a temptation which it is always hard to resist--the temptation to bring the ideas of a great writer into line with one's own--and ascribed to Buddha conclusions and arguments which he had never formulated, but which, in their opinion, he would certainly have endorsed. It is conceivable, to say the least, that many of the stories and discourses in the Buddhist Scriptures are as far from setting forth the inner creed of Buddha as the writings of Christian theologians in all ages are from setting forth the inner creed of Christ. At any rate, if I am to reconcile Dr Rhys Davids' authoritative statement that Buddha abstained on principle from metaphysical speculation with his equally authoritative exposition of Buddha's metaphysical system, I must assume that he has based the latter on internal rather than on external evidence; I must assume, in other words, that his interpretation of Buddha's philosophy is, in the main, the outcome of his study of Buddha's scheme of life, is in fact his own private attempt "to complete and to find the centre of the circle" of which Buddha has given us only a "broken arc."

If this is what Dr Rhys Davids has attempted to do, he has set us an example which I, for one, intend to follow. The specific passages to which he appeals in support of his general thesis will be considered in due course, and an attempt will be made to show that for the most part they admit

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of an interpretation which is the exact opposite of that which Dr Rhys Davids has put upon them. But as, on his own showing, the internal evidence is far more weighty than the external (which indeed he has expressly debarred himself from regarding as conclusive), and as on this point I am in full accord with him, I will now study the internal evidence in the light of his interpretation of it. He tells me that Buddha broke away, abruptly and completely, from the deeper spiritual ideas of his own age and country. That he should have done this, that any great Teacher should ever do this, is improbable in a very high degree. Christ was in open revolt against the legalism of his age and nation; but, far from rejecting the grandly poetical conception of God which Israel had evolved in the days of his spiritual greatness, and to which his sacred writings owe their charm and influence, he went back to that conception, went back to what was most spiritual and most poetical in it, reaffirmed this against the materialism and formalism of the Scribes and Pharisees, and then transformed it into a deeper and more spiritual vision of God than Israel, at his best, had ever fashioned. The relation of Christ to Judaism may well have been paralleled by the relation of Buddha to Brahmanism. That there was much in the Brahmanism of his day which Buddha rejected and even denounced, is certain; but it does not follow from this that he had broken away from the Brahmanic teaching at its highest level. On the contrary, the fact that the Brahmanism of his day had either forgotten that high teaching or

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deliberately betrayed it, makes it probable that in denouncing the former he was championing the cause of the latter. And the further fact that his own scheme of life, when surveyed from the standpoint of the Brahmanic philosophy, seems to be the practical application and expression of its spiritual ideas, raises to a high degree the probability of his having been in sympathy with those ideas, and raises to a still higher degree the improbability of his having formally renounced them.


Thus at the outset we are entitled to insist that the internal evidence which Dr Rhys Davids brings forward in support of his general position shall be convincingly strong. It happens, however, that, as an interpreter of the inner creed of an Eastern thinker, he, in common with other European exponents of Buddhism, labours under the disability of looking at "great matters" from standpoints which are exclusively Western. For example, that ultra-Stoical conception of life which makes it possible for him to say that "the true Buddhist saint does not mar the purity of his self-denial by lusting 1 after a positive happiness, which he, himself, shall enjoy hereafter," and which gives a strong bias to the general attitude which he and others have instinctively adopted towards Buddhism, is wholly foreign to Eastern modes of thought, and is in no way countenanced by Buddha's own ethical teaching. On this point there cannot be the shadow of a doubt. Buddha's own outlook on life, if, as

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all the commentators admit, it is faithfully mirrored in the "Four Sacred Truths," was not ultra-Stoical but essentially anti-Stoical. The two paramount ends which he set before his disciples, when he urged them to enter "the Path," were deliverance from suffering and the ultimate fruition of perfect bliss. In other words, his philosophy was hedonism of a pure and exalted type. It is true that he condemned the life of pleasure. But why? Not because those who led it were trying to be happy, but because they were trying to be happy in the wrong way,--because they had mistaken the shadow of happiness for the reality, because what they sowed as pleasure they were doomed to reap as pain. So far was he from condemning man's longing for happiness, that his whole scheme of life may be said to base itself on an appeal to, and resolve itself into a systematic attempt to cultivate, that instinctive desire, by teaching men to "fix their hearts" "where true joys are to be found."

More important even, and more characteristically Western, than the ultra-Stoicism which dominates Dr Rhys Davids' own ethical philosophy is the dualism which dominates his metaphysical theory of things. This tendency affects his interpretation of Buddha's ideas in more ways than one, but chiefly in this one way. He insists on things being divided into the existent and the non-existent, which are alternatives, whereas the higher thought of India seems to have divided them into the real and the unreal, which are not alternatives but polar opposites. Thus Dr Rhys Davids would say that the Ego exists

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or does not exist, whereas the Indian thinker would concern himself with the problem of the reality of the Ego, and would see that what is real (or unreal) from one point of view may be unreal (or real) from another. The difference between the two ways of looking at things goes very deep; goes in fact to the root of most of the problems that perplex the student of Buddhism. Existence and non-existence are alternatives; and, if we are to choose between alternatives, we must provide ourselves with a criterion by which we may know the true alternative from the false. But how shall man, who is presumably not omniscient, provide himself with a criterion which will enable him to define the boundaries of the Universe? For it is this, and nothing less, that he attempts to do when he takes upon himself to divide things into the existent and the non-existent. What is the criterion or test of existence? It is impossible to answer this question except by begging it. In other words, we must say what we mean by existence before we can attempt to distinguish between the existent and the non-existent. But in the very act of defining the word, we provide ourselves, whether we intend to do this or not, with a test of the thing. For example. We ask ourselves: Does a certain thing exist or not? Does a centaur exist or not? Does a mermaid exist or not? It is easy for us to answer these questions, so long as we agree among ourselves that the existent is that which is perceptible by man's bodily senses. In thus defining the word existent, we provide ourselves with a test of existence; and the test is valid just so

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long and so far as the definition is true. But the definition is, at best, only hypothetically and provisionally true. In the ordinary affairs of every-day life it is sufficiently true to answer our practical purposes. This is all that we can say about it. To take for granted that it is absolutely true, and that the corresponding test of existence is absolutely valid, is to beg every question which this hypothesis enables us to answer: for, the moment we accept the definition as true without qualification or reserve, we commit ourselves to a vast metaphysical assumption. Does the Ego exist or does it not? "No," answers the "uninitiated" thinker, "it does not satisfy my criterion of existence. It is not perceptible by my bodily senses." He fails to see that the question as to the existence of the Ego, which is, ex hypothesi, invisible and otherwise imperceptible, involves the further question as to the validity of his materialistic test of existence. To ask whether the Ego exists or not is to challenge, by implication, the validity of that particular test. Had the test been regarded as absolutely valid, the question as to the Ego would never have been raised. Yet it is only the thinker who has allowed the materialistic conception of existence to dominate his mind and limit his whole speculative outlook; in other words, who has allowed the practical demands of his ordinary everyday life to control the philosophical movement of his thoughts;--it is only the thinker of this crude and commonplace type, who can bring himself to ask whether the Ego exists or not. The teacher who rejects that particular test of existence knows that there is no

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[paragraph continues] (final) test, and he therefore abstains from asking a question which is of necessity begged in the act of being asked.

Not only must there be a recognized test of existence, if the controversy as to the existence of the Ego is to have any issue, but there must also be a tacit agreement among the disputants as to the meaning of the word Ego. In the absence of such agreement, the discussion can lead to nothing but loss of temper and confusion of thought. And as in the region of metaphysics such agreement is not to be looked for, since, if it existed, the very raison d’être of metaphysical inquiry would be gone, one can but conclude that to debate such a question as Does the Ego exist?--a question which takes one in an instant to the ultimate limits of human thought--is not merely a mischievous waste of mental energy, but also a proof of mental blindness on the part of those who allow themselves to indulge in so futile a controversy. Even such questions as Does a centaur exist? or Does a mermaid exist? become unanswerable the moment they become metaphysical. For, though neither a centaur nor a mermaid exists, in the sense of being perceptible by man's bodily senses, each of these fabled beings does exist as a creation of the human mind. Is existence, in that sense of the word, equivalent to non-existence? Perhaps it is: but the question goes to the root of human thought; and it is impossible to answer it offhand without begging all the deeper questions which it involves.

As metaphysical controversy was wholly repugnant to Buddha's type of mind, the antecedent

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improbability of his having indulged in the most futile of all metaphysical controversies and authoritatively solved the meaningless problem in which that controversy finally centres, is overwhelmingly strong. Moreover, there is, as it happens, positive evidence that, when he was invited to think and teach in the category of the existent and the non-existent, he deliberately refused to do so. The story of the dialogue between Buddha and Vacchagotta will presently be told, and its meaning will be considered. Meanwhile, it is enough for our present purpose to know that, when the wandering monk Vacchagotta challenged the "Exalted One" with the question "Is there the Ego?" and then with the question "Is there not the Ego?" he was in each case answered with silence.

The more carefully one studies the teaching of Buddha, the stronger does one's conviction become that the ultimate category in which he thought was that of the real and the unreal, not that of the existent and the non-existent. The difference between these two categories is that, whereas the existent and the non-existent are (as has been already pointed out) mutually exclusive alternatives, the real and the unreal are polar opposites, and as such always coexist--except of course at the ideal points of infinity and zero--varying together in inverse pro-portion, or, in other words, being so related to one another that the one falls as the other rises and rises as the other falls. If we are to choose between alternatives, we must be able to apply to each of them from without (so to speak) a recognized criterion or test. When our alternatives are ultimate conceptions,

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such as the existent and the non-existent, it stands to reason that to apply a test from without is impossible:--

"For God alone sits high enough above
To speculate so largely."

[paragraph continues] If we are to choose between polar opposites, we must be able to measure them by a standard. This standard is always internal to, and inherent in, the movement of the two opposites from pole to counter pole. It follows that, even when our opposites are ultimate conceptions, such as the real and the unreal, a standard of measurement is available, being inherent in the very movement of our thought. For example, to ask whether the inward and spiritual side of life is existent or non-existent, is to ask a meaningless and therefore an unanswerable question. To ask whether it is real or unreal is to ask a question to which life itself, both in its universal and in its individual movement, is the abiding, though never formulated, answer. That Buddha thought in the category of the real and the unreal is suggested by the whole tenor of his teaching. If there is any one thing which his sayings make quite clear, it is that he regarded outward things and the outward side of life as unreal. But he was not so foolish as to think of them as non-existent. Which is the real pole of existence? is the question which he must have asked himself; and his scheme of life is his answer to that question.


Let us now assume, for argument's sake, that

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the answer which he gave to life's master question was the opposite of that which the general tenor of his teaching would seem to suggest. Let us go further. Let us assume, with most of the Western exponents of Buddhism, that Buddha was a negative dogmatist, pure and simple,--that he regarded the Ego not merely as unreal but as non-existent. What follows with regard to his scheme of life? That scheme undoubtedly centres in the doctrine of re-incarnation, the very purpose of it being to deliver men from the "whirlpool of rebirth." If there is no re-incarnating Ego, what becomes of the doctrine of re-incarnation? And if this, the keystone of the arch of Buddhist thought, is withdrawn, what becomes of Buddha's scheme of life? Dr Rhys Davids, and those who think with him, have tried to face this difficulty. In his first exposition of Buddhism Dr Rhys Davids saw clearly that denial of the Ego turned the doctrine of re-incarnation into nonsense, and he accepted the consequences of this conclusion. He so expounded the Buddhist belief in re-incarnation as to make nonsense of it, and then boldly affirmed that the belief was in its essence nonsensical. Speaking of those who have trusted themselves to the seemingly stately bridge which Buddhism has tried to build over the river of the mysteries and sorrows of life, he said, "they have failed to see that the very keystone [of the bridge], the link between one life and another, is a mere word--this wonderful hypothesis, this airy nothing, this imaginary cause beyond the reach of reason--the individualized and individualizing force of Karma." But in his American lectures he

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departs from this logical and intelligible position, and tries to persuade himself that the doctrine of re-incarnation, even if there be no re-incarnating Ego, is sense. "There is a real identity between a man in his present life and in the future. But the identity is not in a conscious soul which shall fly out away from his body after he is dead. The real identity is that of cause and effect. A man thinks he began to be a few years--twenty, fifty, sixty years ago. There is some truth in that; but in a much larger, deeper, truer sense he has been (in the causes of which he is the result) for countless ages in the past; and those same causes (of which he is the temporary effect) will continue in other like temporary forms through countless ages yet to come. In that sense alone, according to Buddhism, each of us has after death a continuing life." 1 This is an interesting statement of Dr Rhys Davids' own ideas about human immortality, but as a statement of what Buddha taught it is utterly misleading. It is doubtless true that all the forces of Nature, operating through millions of years, meet in me; and that what I do will produce consequences which will pass on, with an ever widening lateral movement, into the remotest future. But this is not what Buddhism teaches, in the doctrine of Karma, or has ever taught. "The peculiarity of Buddhism," says Dr Rhys Davids himself, "lies in this, that the result of what a man is or does is held not to be dissipated, as it were, into many streams, but concentrated together in the formation of one new sentient being." What

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[paragraph continues] Buddhism teaches is that I reap the crop which was sowed by some one man who lived before I did, and that in like manner some one man in the future will reap the crop which I am sowing now; and so on, both backwards and forwards. It teaches, in other words, that the current of moral cause and effect flows in the narrow channel of a succession of individual lives (or rather in a number of such channels), whereas modern science, to which Dr Rhys Davids seems to look for inspiration and guidance, teaches that there is always a dual movement,--from the collective life into the individual, and from the individual life into the collective.

The difference between these two conceptions of moral causation, and between the two derivative conceptions of human immortality, is as wide as it is deep. The question which we have to ask ourselves with regard to the Buddhist conception is a simple one: Is the identity between me and the inheritor of my Karma, or again between me and the man whose Karma I inherit, as real as the identity between the me of to-day and the me of twenty years hence (if I shall be living then), or again between the me of to-day and the me of my boyhood? If it is not as real, the doctrine of re-incarnation is pure nonsense from both points of view,--from that of Eastern idealism and of Western science. But if it is as real, the doctrine is sound sense in the eyes of Eastern idealism; and though Western science cannot countenance it, it is equally certain that it cannot reject it, for the matter is one which necessarily eludes its grasp.

Now, strange as it may seem, there is nothing

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in the Buddhist Scriptures to show that even those thinkers who are supposed to have declared war against the Ego regarded the identity between man and man, in a given line of Karmic succession, as less real than the identity between what a man is to-day and what he was twenty years ago, or will be twenty years hence. The author of the Milinda dialogues, for example, is supposed to have argued against the Ego. I doubt if he really did. It is quite possible, I think, that his dialogues have a different aim and admit of a different interpretation. But let us assume that, in theory at least, he denied the Ego, and that in this respect he falls into line with the modern votaries of metaphysical atomism. What then? I cannot find anything in any of his dialogues to show that his belief in individual re-incarnation was other than real. I cannot find anything to show that he regarded the identity between A, who is living now, and B, the future inheritor of his Karma, as in any way different from the identity between the A of to-day and the A of twenty years ago or twenty years hence. 1 Thoroughgoing denial of the Ego destroys the identity of a man from moment to moment as effectually as from life to life. 2 But--to quote

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[paragraph continues] Pascal's words--"la nature soutient la raison impuissante et l’empêche d’extravaguer jusqu’à ce point." Even Dr Paul Carus, whose intense antipathy to the Ego makes him the protagonist of the metaphysical atomists, would probably admit, as a working hypothesis, that he was the same being as Dr Paul Carus of twenty years ago, just as he would speak of self-culture, self-development, self-control, though all the while he regards the sense of self as entirely delusive. And, in like manner, the author of the Milinda dialogues would have accepted, as a working hypothesis, the identity of himself with the next inheritor of his Karma, even though he regarded (according to our provisional assumption) the sense of self as entirely delusive. But between these two concessions, which seem to have so much in common, there is a great gulf fixed,--the very gulf which separates Western from Eastern thought. Dr Paul Carus, who is steeped in the science of the West, would never admit, even as a working hypothesis, that A, who is living now, was the same being as a certain B, who appeared on earth one hundred years ago (or whatever the number of intervening years might be). The idea of one man inheriting all the Karma of another man is one which he could not possibly entertain. The author of the Milinda dialogues might well have said, "I have lived on earth many times already, and shall probably live many times more, but of course there is no I in the

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case at all." But Dr Paul Carus could not say this, though he might well say, "I have lived on earth for so many years, and may possibly live for so many more, but of course there is no I in the case at all."

There is nothing, then, to show that the Buddhist of the anti-Ego school is not as sure of his identity from life to life as Dr Paul Carus is of his identity from year to year, or from day to day. In each case the sense of assurance sinks in theory to zero, but in practice it is strong enough for all the practical purposes of life. In other words, the denial is in each case academic (or "notional") whereas the belief is practical (or "real"). But the difference between the respective ranges of the "real" belief of a Buddhist and the "real" belief of Dr Paul Carus is immense, and has far-reaching consequences. Within the limits of his own earth life, Dr Paul Carus combines academic denial with "real" belief; but the moment those limits are passed, the denial ceases to be academic and becomes intensely "real." The Buddhist, who is much more logical, sees no reason for drawing a hard and fast line at either birth or death. Backward and forward, as far as the eye of his thought can reach, his denial of the Ego, however sweeping and uncompromising it may be, is always "notional," whereas his belief in it is always "real." We shall presently learn that the monk Yamaka, who identified Nirvâna with annihilation, was persuaded to abandon this "wicked heresy" by a fellow-monk, who reminded him that the arguments against the reality of the Nirvânic life of the "Saint" were not a whit

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stronger than the arguments against the reality of the true life of the "Saint" whilst on earth. The moral of this story is surely obvious and significant.

I have spoken at some length on this point because I wish to make it clear that, if denial of the Ego is real, if its meaning is fully pressed home, the doctrine of re-incarnation, which is undoubtedly the keystone of the whole arch of Buddhist thought, becomes pure nonsense. The essence of the doctrine is that B inherits the whole of A's Karma, C the whole of B's, and so on. Unless the identity of A with B, of B with C, and so on, is as real as the identity, within the limits of each earth life, of the child with the youth and the youth with the man, the doctrine loses its meaning, and the arch of thought which it holds together becomes a ruinous heap. We must therefore either assume that the arch of Buddhist thought and doctrine had no keystone, or that the Buddhist denial of the "Ego" was "notional" rather than "real." Of these alternative assumptions, reason and common sense alike demand that we should adopt the latter.

Whichever assumption we adopt, we are at liberty to say that the attempts which Dr Rhys Davids, Dr Paul Carus and other Western interpreters of Buddhism make to bring the doctrine of re-incarnation into line with the scientific doctrines of heredity, of physical causation, and the like, are sophistical and inconclusive. I have not made an exhaustive study of the eschatology of the modern "religion of science"; but I understand that it recognizes three kinds of immortality. The

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first is that of living in the lives of our direct descendants,--an immortality which one can enjoy, while still on earth, down to the second or third of the after generations (for a man may live to see his great-grandchildren), but which bachelors, old maids, and other persons who die without issue are not allowed to share. The second is the immortality of fame (or notoriety)--the immortality of a Marcus Aurelius (or a John Lackland)--an immortality which few persons are privileged to enjoy, and which, with very rare exceptions, is of brief duration. The third is the immortality of living in the consequences of one's actions, so far as these affect for good or for evil the lives of other men. The immortality to which Buddha taught his disciples to look forward has nothing in common with any of these. The immortality of living in the ever-widening consequences of one's conduct is real enough, and the contemplation of it may give satisfaction to certain minds. But the immortality which the law of Karma makes possible is wholly different from this. The Karmic consequences of action are in the main inward and spiritual,--the effect on the doer of what he habitually does. Hence it is that the doctrine of re-incarnation, when divorced from the doctrine of a re-incarnating soul or Ego, loses its meaning and its value, and becomes as wildly fantastic as Western thought too readily assumes it to be. It stands to reason that, if there is no Ego, the inward consequences of a man's conduct will end abruptly at his death. What then? Are we to suppose that the outward consequences of his conduct,

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which have diffused themselves far and wide during his lifetime, will after his death--perhaps long after his death, for the return to earth may be long delayed--be reunited in the channel of a single human life? The supposition is not merely incredible, but absolutely unthinkable. The alternative supposition that B, the inheritor of A's Karma, will be rewarded (or punished)--presumably by an omnipotent magician--for A's conduct while on earth is worse than unthinkable. It does violence to one's sense of law on every plane of thought. But when the doctrine of Karma is supported and elucidated by the conception of a re-incarnating soul or Ego, it at once becomes intelligible, even from the point of view of denial of the Ego. To say that conduct always re-acts upon character, and that the departing soul will therefore take away with it from earth the inward consequences of its action and bring these back to earth, with all their possible ulterior consequences, at its next incarnation, is to say what is certainly disputable and perhaps untrue but at any rate has the merit of making coherent sense.

The inherent unreasonableness of the doctrine of Karma, as Western orientalists choose to interpret it, will become more apparent when we consider it in its relation to the motives which Buddha set before his followers. The paramount motive was the prospect of escaping from the "whirlpool of rebirth" and attaining to the bliss of Nirvâna. That this goal should be won within the limits of a single earth-life, however virtuous, was not--we may rest assured--contemplated by

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[paragraph continues] Buddha, or by any of those thinkers who carried on the tradition of his teaching. This is a general statement which admits of isolated exceptions. A man of abnormal spiritual development, like Buddha himself--a man whom a long series of virtuous lives had brought to the threshold of Nirvâna--might conceivably cross that threshold before he died, and return to earth no more. But for the rank and file of mankind the goal of deliverance was a "far-off divine event" to which the journey was in any case long and toilsome, though it might be materially shortened if the Path which Buddha pointed out to mankind--the path of sympathy and self-control--was resolutely entered and faith-fully followed. "The Buddhist," says Dr Rhys Davids, "hopes to enter, even though he will not reach the end of, the Path in this life; and if he once enters therein, he is certain in some future existence, perhaps under less material conditions, to arrive at the goal of salvation, at the calm and rest of Nirvâna." "He is certain." But is it he who will arrive at the goal, or someone else? Why does the life of sympathy and self-control tend to shorten the journey to Nirvâna? Obviously, because it makes for the spiritual development of the man who leads it; because it strengthens his character, deepens his insight, expands his consciousness, purifies his soul. But what if there is to be no identity between A, who is now walking in the Path, and B, the next inheritor of his Karma? From the point of view of the goal which Buddha set before men, the inward consequences of A's conduct--the reaction of what he does on what he

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is--are of supreme importance. But if there is no self, no Ego to return to earth, the inward consequences will, as I have lately pointed out, end abruptly at A's death, and there will be no character--developed, expanded, purified--for A to transmit to B, his new self. We must at any rate assume, if we are to see any meaning in Buddha's appeal to mankind, that the identity between A and B is as real as the identity between the A of this year and the A of next year, however real (or unreal) that identity may be. And this, I think, is what the accredited exponents of Buddhism, including those who may have denied the Ego in theory, have always taken for granted. There is nothing to show that, when Buddhism expounds and enforces the doctrine of natural retribution, it has any doubt as to B inheriting the inward consequences of A's conduct. But the inward consequences of A's conduct are summed up in his character; and if he transmits his character to B, he transmits himself.

It is here that Buddhism parts company with those Western interpreters of it who try, like Dr Paul Carus, to affiliate it to the (so-called) "religion of science." Whatever theory Dr Paul Carus may hold as to the identity 1 (or non-identity)

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of the man of sixty or seventy years with the same man (as we must call him) at the age of twenty or thirty, he would admit, without hesitation, that it was both reasonable and just that the old man should suffer because the young man had sinned. Similarly, whatever theory the author of the Milinda Dialogues may have held as to the identity (or non-identity) of B with A, he would have admitted, without hesitation, that it was both reasonable and just that B should suffer because A had sinned. But Dr Paul Carus could never bring himself to admit this: he could never in any way recognize individual re-incarnation.

Let us, however, suppose that Buddha and his followers were in full accord with Dr Paul Carus. Let us suppose that their denial of the Ego, as an entity which survives death, was not academic, but practical and real. In that case what would become of the paramount motive which they set before their fellow-men? If it were possible for each man, in his own lifetime on earth, to attain to Nirvâna, there would be a meaning, even for those who denied the Ego, in the promise of deliverance, though in that case the fulfilment of the Buddhist Law would involve the early extinction of the whole human race. But as, apart from a few isolated cases, the possibility of a man attaining to Nirvâna in his own earth-life has never been contemplated by Buddhism, the promise of deliverance, when coupled with an authoritative denial of the Ego, must be regarded as the hollowest of mockeries. What sense is there in telling me to live virtuously now in order that, if my successors 

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in that line of earth-lives to which I happen to belong are equally virtuous, someone who would otherwise appear on earth 100,000 years hence (let us say) may not be born; and in order that someone else--his immediate predecessor in the given line of lives--may enjoy the evanescent bliss of Nirvâna? To tell A to be virtuous in order that, somewhere in the remote future, Y may be supremely happy for a few years and Z may not be born, is to set him a meaningless task. It is difficult to say which sense is the more deeply outraged by such a doctrine of moral retribution,--one's sense of justice or (for the chain of cause and effect is obviously broken at each successive death) one's sense of natural law.


I will now set forth as briefly as possible my reasons for calling the current interpretation of Buddha's ideas a "misreading of Buddha."

The antecedent improbability of a great Teacher breaking away completely from the highest and deepest thought of his nation and his age, is very great. The great Teacher is always a reformer as well as an innovator; and to reform is to go back to an ideal which had been forgotten, or otherwise obscured. The chances are, then, that Buddha, who was unquestionably one of the greatest of all moral teachers, went back from what was corrupt and degenerate in the thought and the consequent practice of his age to what was pure and spiritual. This much we may say before we begin to study his scheme of life.

But when we study that scheme, and find, as we

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certainly do, that it is the practical application and embodiment of the great ideas of Indian idealism--so much so, indeed, that we may actually deduce from those ideas (given a practical aim on the part of their votary) the leading features of the Buddhist "Law"--we cannot but feel that the probability of the Founder of Buddhism having been an idealist (in the truest sense of the word) at heart--at the heart of his own deep silence--is raised to a very high degree.

And when, having for argument's sake assumed the opposite of this, assumed that the teaching of Buddha was directly and fundamentally subversive of the ideas which found utterance in the Upanishads, we find that the whole system falls to pieces and the wisdom of it becomes unthinkable nonsense, then what has hitherto been probability of a very high degree seems to approach the level of certainty. At any rate, if we may not yet say that the creed which Buddha held but did not openly profess, was the spiritual idealism of ancient India, we may say that the counter-hypothesis--that Buddha's creed was the direct negation of that lofty faith--can easily be disproved. The efforts that are made to bring the teaching of Buddha into line with the negative dogmatism of the "religion of science" would be ludicrous if they were not, in a sense, pathetic. For, in truth, they prove nothing except the depth of the abyss that separates Eastern from Western thought.


104:1 In all these extracts from Dr Rhys Davids' writings the italics are mine.

105:1 By the "sense of self" I mean that sense of one's own intrinsic reality, indivisible unity, and identity through all changes, which is of the essence of self-consciousness.

106:1 By "Christian," Dr Rhys Davids evidently means what belongs to the popular theology of Christendom, not what belongs to the inner creed of Christ.

107:1 Except perhaps in that singular sense which the "new psychology" is said to have officially endorsed, and which Dr Paul Carus has elucidated by defining the soul as "the totality of our thoughts, sensations and aspirations," as "a system of sensation, impulses and motor ideas," as "a bundle of samskâras," and so forth. I confess that these phrases convey no meaning to my mind. One might as well say that an oak-tree is the "totality" of its own leaves and acorns, that a great poem is a "system" of "feet" and phrases, that the Government of a country is a "bundle" of portfolios and bluebooks. (The new psychology, if I may judge from Dr Paul Carus' exposition of it, bases its philosophy on the vulgar confusion between matter and substance. See "Buddhism and Its Christian Critics," passim, and, in particular, the middle paragraph of p. 80.)

109:1 To deny the Ego is to deny the Self, the Universal Self (or God) in Nature, and the individualized Self (or Soul) in Man.

111:1 But see Chapter VII., p. 197.

114:1 "Lusting after happiness." What a basely materialistic conception of happiness underlies this question-begging phrase!

122:1 The italics are mine.

124:1 I am understating my case. In one of the Milinda dialogues it is expressly stated that the relation between "the name and form which is to end at death" and "the name and form which is born into the next existence" is exactly parallel to that between a "young girl" and the same girl (as we should say) when "grown-up and marriageable." For all practical purposes this is equivalent to saying that the relation is one of identity. (See "Buddhism in Translation," pp. 236, 237.)

124:2 Dr Rhys Davids is justified from his own point of view in p. 125 saying that "Man," as Buddha conceives of him, "is never the same for two consecutive moments, and there is within him no abiding principle whatever."

131:1 Dr Paul Carus professes to believe in personal identity. What he really believes in is "thumb-mark" identity. He tells us that "the continuous preservation of form is all that is and can be meant by sameness of personality." But if sameness of personality is dependent upon sameness of form, it must depend, in the last resort, on the marking of the human thumb; for though the face and the figure of a man may change, in the course of time, beyond recognition, his "thumb-mark" will always serve to identify him.

Next: Chapter VI. The Silence of Buddha