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The Way to Nirvana, by L. de la Vallée Poussin, [1917], at

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I. Introductory. II. Ancient history of Karman. III. Karman is volition and voluntary action. IV. Karman is moral action.


The Buddhist 'soul,' a series of physico-psychical states, would come to an end at death, when the physical organism dissolves, but for the strength of the actions which are to be enjoyed in a future life by a new physico-psychical apparatus, a continuation of the first one.

Action, in Sanskrit, karman, is one of the Indian words that the theosophists and the neo Buddhists have made known in the West. We must feel grateful for it. For we can say shortly 'doctrine of Karman,' meaning all the speculations concerned with action, and especially the dogma of the ripening (vipāka) of action.

The doctrine of Karman is more than the belief in the reward of good actions and the punishment of bad ones, here below or in another life; such

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a belief is a very common one and has nothing specifically Indian.

The doctrine of Karman presupposes the belief in transmigration and is primarily a rationalistic and moral explanation of the variety of the conditions of living beings through many consecutive existences.

By a rationalistic and moral explanation, we mean an explanation which is founded on the principle of causality understood as follows: "The good deed is rewarded, the evil deed is punished"; an explanation which leaves no place or very little place for any theological, mystical or superstitious agency: it is in the very nature of a good deed to produce reward; reward is automatically produced, that is independently of any exterior factor, out of the very potentiality of the good deed.

The deep reason of the origin and of the spread of this doctrine was, without doubt, a sentiment of justice. It is not just that crime should remain unpunished and virtue unrewarded. Unmerited suffering and unmerited pleasure offend us for the same reason. Hence a certitude, a sort of scientific certitude, first that sin is certain to turn into pain and a good deed into pleasure, just as for the modern physicist motion

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turns into heat, and, second, that pain and pleasure are respectively the product of sin and of virtue.

It may be said without exaggeration that this certitude has been, for centuries, the strongest and most popular feeling of India. Even to-day, in the castes which practise child marriage, young widows are looked upon as criminal: "What a sinner you have been to lose your husband so soon!"

With the Buddhists, the doctrine of Karman is, as a rule 1, strictly understood, and is almost everything. In the case of the non-Buddhists, with the possible exception of the 'religions of devotion' (bhakti), it is no less important, although it is not understood strictly 2.

We propose to examine the history of Karman, and the part of Buddhism in this history. The conclusion of this inquiry will be (1) that the Buddhists did not discover Karman, but (2) that they were among the first to give a reasonable and moral definition of Karman. Moreover the Buddhists alone were successful in drawing from the doctrine of Karman all its consequences:

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human destiny, cosmogony and theogony are, in Buddhism, built on Karman.


There were, at the time of Śākyamuni, (1) unbelievers, deniers of soul, transmigration and action, (2) believers in transmigration and in destiny, (3) believers in transmigration who foreshadowed the doctrine of action, (4) believers in transmigration and in action.


We have, but briefly, studied the development of philosophical analysis which, for a long time, had been destroying the old religious and cosmical notions of the Āryas. This analysis created an esoteric theology—literally a gnosis—took a pantheistic or monistic direction, and finally made prominent the idea of the universal Self.

But that is only one of the branches of the philosophical evolution, the 'orthodox' branch, or the Vedic or Brahmanic branch properly so called. In contrast with pantheists and mystics, there were materialists and positivists—many more, as it seems, in old India than later.

Our sources, which are both Brahmanic and Buddhistic, agree on the whole 1. Brahmanic

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sources lay much stress on the impiety of the 'would-be philosophers,' 'philosophasters' (paṇḍitamānika) who do not believe in the Veda and in Sacrifice. Buddhists, who themselves broke with sacerdotalism and theology, are especially preoccupied with the negation of soul and future life.


The common name for the 'unbelievers' is lokāyata, mundane,' and nāstika, 'negator,' 'denier,' people who say: na asti, 'it is not'; that is, when a priest or a mendicant wants an alms: "There is nothing for you"; and also: "There is no such thing as a gift, a sacrifice, an offering, a result of good or evil deeds"; "there is no mother, no father": parents are not entitled to any respect; "no ascetic or Brahman has discovered truth or can ascertain the reality of another life": the sacerdotal tradition and the revelations of the holy men, leaders of ascetic orders, are alike falsehoods and vain pretences to extort money.

The unbelievers had probably a sort of philosophy. When we get more precise information concerning them, that is some centuries after the time of Buddha, we are told that the Nāstikas were strong materialists, in the modern meaning of the word. Man is made of material elements;

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psychical phenomena are to be explained by the special possibilities of these elements when combined in a certain mixture: just as a mixture of rice and water develops an intoxicating power, in the same way consciousness arises in the living body.

However it may be with the ancient Nāstikas, the old Buddhist texts report their views as follows 1:

Man is composed of four elements. When Man dies, the earthy element returns and relapses into the earth; the watery element returns into the water; the fiery element returns into the fire; the windy element returns into the wind; the senses pass into space. Four men, with the corpse as a fifth, go to the cemetery, murmuring prayers. But the bones are bleached in the flame, and the offerings of the living perish in the ashes of his pyre. Wise and fool alike, when the body dissolves, are cut off, perish, do not exist any longer.

Thus spoke Ajita of the garment of hair.

Therefore, as says Purāṇa Kassapa:

There is no guilt for the man who mutilates or causes another to mutilate, who kills, takes what is not given, breaks into houses, commits dacoity, or robbery, or adultery; and so on. . . . Should he make all living creatures one heap, one mass of flesh, there would be no guilt. . . . Were he to go along the Ganges giving alms, and ordering gifts to be given. . . there would be no merit. . . .

Such were the strange sermons of the unbelieving ascetics; for ascetics had an absolute

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right of preaching the truth. As says the King Ajātaśatru: "How should such a one as I am, think of giving dissatisfaction to any ascetic or Brahman in my realm?" In India, thought was free; opinion was no crime; but evildoers were summarily dealt with.


Side by side with the thorough Nāstikas, a few philosophers, while believing in soul and transmigration, denied action and reward.

There are eighty-four hundred thousand periods during which both fools and wise alike, wandering in transmigration, will at last make an end of pain. . . . The happiness and pain, measured out, as it were, with a measure, cannot be altered in the course of transmigration; there can be neither increase nor decrease thereof. Just as a ball of string will stretch just as far as it can unwind, just so both fools and wise alike are wandering in transmigration exactly for the allotted term.

There is no cause, either ultimate or remote, for the depravity or rectitude of beings; they become depraved or pure without reason and without cause. There is no such thing as power or energy or human strength or human vigour. Beings are bent this way or that by their fate, by their individual nature.

Nor were the Brahmans very clear concerning the power which predetermines transmigration. It is true that references to Karman are not wanting:

The spirit, at death, takes upon itself another new form, a form of Fathers or of Gandharvas, of divine or

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human nature, or of any other kind of being. . . . As he acted and as he walked, so he becomes. He who does good becomes a good being, he who does bad becomes a bad being; he becomes pure by pure action, evil by evil action.

Elsewhere we meet a formula which is distinctly Buddhistic in tone and in meaning.

Man's nature depends on desire. As his desire, so is his aspiration; as his aspiration, so is the course of action which he pursues; whatever be the course of action he pursues, he passes to a corresponding state of being.

But, according to an important passage in the same book, the doctrine of Karman is a new doctrine, a doctrine to be kept secret. In the course of a philosophical tournament—such tournaments are not a rarity from the oldest times down to Akbar—Jāratkārava Ārtabhāga questions Yājñavalkya on the destiny of the dead, and the celebrated Brahman answers: "Give me your hand, my friend; we two alone must be privy to this; not a word on that subject where people are listening." And the narrator dryly summarizes the debate they had privately: "What they said, they said regarding action; by pure action, man becomes pure."

To sum up, references to Karman are not numerous in the old Brahman literature, the

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[paragraph continues] Brāhmaṇas or Upaniṣads. In the view of the authors of these books, sacrifice and esoteric wisdom are much more important than Karman. But it is only natural that liturgical treatises (Brāhmaṇas) should consider sacrifice as the best means of improving future life; and, as concerns the philosophico-mystical treatises (Upaniṣads), they deal chiefly with the merging of the individual Self in the great Self; the common idea is that this great aim can be realized by the possession of a mystic wisdom; and accordingly the Upaniṣads are little concerned with the problem of action and reward. Therefore we are not justified in arguing, from the relative silence of the old texts, that the doctrine of Karman was not already widely known.


The best reason we have for believing that the doctrine of Karman was not new, but was widely known at the time of Śākyamuni, is to be found in the very teaching of Śākyamuni and in the history of the church.

Many, among the ascetics who joined the primitive brotherhood, were believers in Karman. The Jaṭilas, the 'ascetics with matted hair,' were to be admitted without the noviciate or probation of three months imposed on others, "because

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they believe in Karman." The Master, for this reason, made an exception to the rule which wisely secured a thorough preparation for full admission to the Order 1.

But our point is that the teaching of Śākyamuni on Karman is in no way an improvisation, and clearly obtains a success which it could not have obtained if it had been new. Śākyamuni taught a path to deliverance, because many people were anxious to get deliverance. The same holds good for Karman. Human destiny, free will, the efficacy of penance for destroying sin,—together with such questions as 'Is the soul the body?', 'Is the universe infinite?'—were the topics of lively discussions among hermits and mendicants; while the laymen, who actually fed all these troops of spiritual men, took great interest in these philosophumena and were disposed to admit the doctrine of Karman. This doctrine, as well as the doctrine of transmigration which it so happily completes, was already deeply rooted in the popular feeling.

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As far as we can surmise—there are many more conjectures than ascertained facts in this old history—Śākyamuni was the first or one of the first to give a reasonable and moral definition of Karman.

That appears from the comparison between the Buddhists and the Jains, a powerful mendicant order which originated or was reorganized a few years before Śākyamuni.

The Jains are, in many respects, very much like the Buddhists, so much like that the different origin of the two sects was for a long time denied. They are good atheists—they even object to the common Indian saying, devo varṣati, Ζεὺς ὕει; they believe that Karman is the governing force in human destiny.

But they cherish the most materialistic idea of Karman. They are of opinion that bodily and verbal actions are important, that they create a subtle matter that envelops the soul and produces retribution—whereas mental action is weak, inefficacious.

Buddhism, on the contrary, teaches that there is no Karman without consciousness and even premeditation.

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Karman is twofold: (1) volition (cetanā), or mental or spiritual action (mānasa), and (2) what is born from volition, what is done by volition, 'what a person does after having willed,' namely bodily and verbal action 1.

By giving gold, while intending to give a stone, a gift of gold is indeed made; but, as it has not been premeditated or willed, the act is as if it were not done. It is not 'appropriated'; it is not 'stored up' (upacita); it will bear no fruit. In the same way, if a man kills his mother when striking at what is believed to be a pumpkin, there is no matricide, there is no murder, there is only destruction of a fruit.

The Jains criticize this doctrine strongly, and would believe that the unintentional murderer of his mother is a hideous criminal. The man who commits murder, or who harms in any way a living being, without intent, is none the less guilty, just as a man who touches fire is burned.

But this would lead to palpable absurdities. The embryo and the mother would be guilty of making each other suffer. The murdered man himself would be guilty, for he is the object and therefore the origin of the action of murder.

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[paragraph continues] Further the comparison of the fire is not a happy one: a man would not be guilty of murder if he got another person to commit it, for we are not burnt when we touch fire by means of another. Again unconscious sin would be more heavy than conscious sin: a man who touches hot iron without knowing that it is hot, is likely to be more deeply burnt than the man who knows 1.


This contrast of the Buddhist doctrine with the Jain doctrine draws our attention to this fact that the views of Śākyamuni, which seem to us reasonable indeed, but rather evident, were bold and new, and of far-reaching consequences.

To take the risk of acquitting the unintentional murderer was in fact to break with the immemorial conception of sin. We do not mean that, in the oldest times, a moral conception of duty and sin did not exist; but sin was also looked upon as a sort of contagious fluid, a sort and the most dangerous sort of impurity. One becomes sinful, hateful to gods and men, not

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only by sinful acts, but also by kinship or any sort of contact.

A consequence of this materialistic conception is that sin is to be dispelled by physical contrivances, is to be burnt out by penances (tapas), by the heat penance—standing between the four penitential fires, with the sun above—when the sin is as it were 'extracted' from the body along with the perspiration. Or the sin is to be washed away by baths, especially by baths in the holy water of the Ganges.

These old and always living speculations have been somewhat spiritualized in some Indian religions, but Buddhism alone radically ignores or cancels them. We must consider this definition, "Karman is volition, and bodily or verbal action which follows volition," as one of the steps in the history of the Indian thought.

Volition is all important. Our future depends on our present volition, and our present state depends on our past volition.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the wagon.

We are what we think, we are what we will.

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While emphasizing the all-importance of volition, Buddhism does not minimize the importance of bodily and verbal action, the action that a person does after having willed. To forsake the secular life and actually join the Buddhist Brotherhood is an entirely different thing from resolving to do so. To kill a man is more hideous than to resolve to kill a man. It is true that, in the case of a Rishi, endowed with magical power, the resolve to kill actually kills; but in the case of ordinary mortals murder supposes a will strong and persistent.

A point of the later scholasticism is worth mentioning. While a pure volition only leaves traces (vāsanā) in the series of thoughts, bodily and verbal actions—which are corporeal and material—create a thing of a particular nature, semi-material (rūpa) and semi-spiritual, which is called 'action,' although it is really a result of action. Scholastics name it avijñapti. Once produced by a voluntary verbal or bodily action (vijñapti), the avijñapti exists and develops of its own accord, without the agency of thought, whether a man is waking, sleeping or absorbed in contemplation.

The idea which gave rise to the conception of avijñapti is clear enough. A man who has taken the vows (saṃvara) of the religious life by a solemn declaration (vijñapti)—a verbal action—is not a man like others. He has engaged himself to avoid certain actions, killing, stealing, etc., during his life-time. He is not always pondering over this engagement during sleep or at any

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other time; nevertheless as long as he has not formally given up his vows or committed an action contrary to his vows, he remains a man who has taken the vows, literally 'who is restrained (saṃvṛta)'; his avoidance of sinful actions is another thing than the casual avoidance of sinful actions by a man who has taken no vows.

An action, to be 'complete' and really 'fruitful,' apt to 'ripen,' must consist of three parts: (1) the preparation, that is the first volition and all the contrivances necessary to the so-called 'principal action.' For instance, a butcher arises, takes some money, goes to the market, buys a goat, has the knife in his hand; (2) the principal action: the killing of the goat, the actual death-dealing blow; (3) the 'back' of the principal action: the cutting up and selling of the meat, etc.

The Buddhist theory of confession is based upon these considerations. The moral benefit or merit (puṇya) of a gift is totally or almost totally lost for the giver if he regrets his generosity; in the same way a sin is not done, it is only half done, if one regrets one's sin. Confession, as it is practised by the Buddhist monks, is not a sacramental rite; it is an expression of repentance, an affirmation: "I will not do it again," and also the accomplishment of one of the vows

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of a monk: "I will not tell lies." Confession does not destroy sin; but it is the intention of concealing sin that makes sin 'complete.'


According to the Buddhists, the only action (karman) is volition and intentional word and deed; further action, to be complete, must be 'prepared'—not casual or impulsive—and 'backed up,' approved of afterwards, not counteracted by repentance.

It must be added that Buddhists lay all the stress on the morality of actions, and in this was a marked progress.

Morality, of course, was not unknown in ancient India; but, to say the least, the ideas were somewhat confused by ritual prejudice. In Buddhism, all the intricate fabric of the rites of purification and of sacrifice falls to the ground. Whereas it was thought that Indra, King of the gods, had obtained his sovereignty through a hundred sacrifices (hence his name, Śatakratu), Buddhists believe that sacrifice is of no avail, that sacrificial murder is a murder. Whereas austerities and purifications of many kinds were deemed necessary, Buddhists condemn them as

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so many superstitions (śīlavrata). In the same way they abandon the most pious among the pious works of yore, gifts to the dead, funeral rites: the monks took no care of the funeral of Śākyamuni himself.

Morality alone makes the value of an act.


The fact has often been emphasized that the Buddhist rule of morality is, or seems to be, a purely negative one: to avoid the ten sins. "Do not kill, do not take what is not given, do not indulge in illicit love,"—three bodily sins. "Do not use mischievous, rude, mendacious, foolish language,"—four verbal sins. "Do not cherish lust, hatred, wrong doctrines, especially the doctrine that there is annihilation at death,"—three mental sins.

A layman has to accept this tenfold discipline or restraint (saṃvara) to be admitted as a 'devotee' (upāsaka). Monks take a more strict discipline: for instance, they renounce not only illicit love, but also marriage; but the negative character of their morality (bhikṣutā) is the same as it is for laymen.

Are we to conclude that positive morality, altruism or love, is foreign to the Buddhist ideal of conduct? As is well known, scholars disagree.

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[paragraph continues] R. Pischel, following Taine, has maintained that love of one's neighbour is the leading motive of Buddhism 1.

It may be first observed that Indian philosophers have been from of old keen enough to understand that man has always in view his own interest, even when he seems to be the most generous and disinterested. They have discovered La Rochefoucauld long ago. "It is for the sake of Self that Man loves cattle, wife, sons or riches," says the Upaniṣad. And Śākyamuni comforts the king Prasenajit and his wife the queen Mallikā ('Jessamine'); this loving pair ashamed at discovering that each of them preferred his or her Self to anybody else: "I do not see," says Śākyamuni, "any living being in the three worlds who does not prefer his own Self to anything 2."

Self-love, self-love well understood 3, governs all the actions of a Buddhist, whether monk or layman.

The monk has arrived at a stage in the spiritual career when a purely egoist behaviour is necessary. The monk has not to practise

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good actions,—such actions he has done in heaps in former births,—he has only to avoid evil actions, to avoid any occasion of an evil action, to extinguish desire. His ideal is absence of desire, absence of action. The monk has broken natural and social bonds; he has no obligation towards his former wife, his former children 1.

The case is quite different as concerns the layman. The layman has to acquire merit, he has to do positive acts of morality, good acts. "A good act is the act that benefits one's neighbour; a bad act, the act that harms one's neighbour 2."

Such a dogmatical definition of good and evil is scarce, and as a rule the morality of acts is to be known by their fruits: "A good act is an act that ripens into a pleasurable existence; a bad act, an act that begets suffering." Proofs are innumerable that Buddhists recommend good acts of every description. A man who does not commit any sin will be reborn as a man, not as an inhabitant of hell, an animal or a ghost; but if this sinless person is wanting in positive

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meritorious actions, especially in giving, he will be reborn as a poor man. Whereas a generous man, who has indulged in some sin, will, it is true, pay for this sin by rebirth in an inferior state (hell, etc.); but he will also, after being released from the ties of sin, enjoy on this earth, as a rich man, or in heaven, as a god, the fruit of his gifts.


Among meritorious actions, giving is the most fruitful. It may be interesting to state the principles of the valuation of the merit of giving.

One must take into account:

1. The qualities of the giver, faith, morality learning, and his intention in giving: 'I give in order to receive in my turn,' 'I give because I have received,' 'I give because my parents and grand-parents were wont to give. . . .'

2. The manner of giving: with respect, with the right hand, at the opportune moment.

3. The qualities of the object given, excellence in colour, smell, and so on. There is nevertheless an episode parallel to the widow's mite.

4. The qualities of the person who receives, that is, as Indians say, the 'field' (kṣetra) on which the gift is poured. Much depends, in Buddhism and in Brahmanism, on the fertility of the field. Our sources distinguish (a) the

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excellence in relation to the kind of existence: a gift to a wicked man has a hundred times the value of a gift to an animal; (b) the excellence due to suffering: gifts to the poor and to the sick are especially productive of fruit; (c) the excellence due to services received: our parents are our benefactors and have a right to our gifts; the preacher, who teaches us the Buddhist doctrine, gives us a second birth, better than the first; (d) last not least, the excellence due to qualities, morality, knowledge, in a word to sanctity. Buddhists are not as jealous as the Brahmans, and Śākyamuni extols the gifts made to the ascetics of the rival sects. But a Buddhist monk is evidently a better 'field' than a heretic. A gift to a Buddha, small as it may be, is very good indeed.

The gift given by a man who does not care for reward, who gives in order to free himself from greed, who understands fully the Buddhist doctrine,—that is, who knows the unsubstantiality (nairātmya) of the giver, of the gift and of the receiver,—that is the best gift.


The confusion of 'good' (kuśala) and 'meritorious,' 'bearing a pleasant fruit' (puṇya), which seems to be one of the consequences of

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the doctrine of Karman as understood by the Buddhists, leads to some results that are not perfectly sound. For instance, a man will abandon secular life in order to be reborn as a god and to enjoy pleasures incomparably greater than the pleasures of human life. The story of Nanda is a good illustration of this case: once this relative of Śākyamuni realizes that his wife cannot vie with the celestial damsels—just as the female apes cannot vie with his wife—he becomes a monk, for he will obtain, through actual continence, sensual pleasures of the highest degree 1.

An action is good when it does not aim at immediate (aihika) ends, when it is made in order to obtain reward in a future life; it is bad when it aims at an immediate end, viz. pleasure in this life. This rule, practically a golden rule, is possibly a little too empirical. But to appreciate it without prejudices, we must remember, first, that a system of morals is not to be estimated from the details of casuistry, and, second, that the true Buddhist is the man who does not care for merit or reward, but who strives for Nirvāṇa.


59:1 Nāgasena in Milinda, p. 134 (translation, 1, 191) is not strict.

59:2 See W. Hopkins, 'Modifications of the Karma Doctrine,' J.R.A.S., 1906, p. 581, 1907, p. 665.

60:1 See Hastings, E.R.E., art. 'Materialism.'

62:1 Dialogues of Buddha, I, pp. 46, 69, 71, 73.

66:1 It may be urged that this exception proves that the belief in question was also exceptional. We think that the only legitimate conclusion is that no other constituted body of ascetics was acceptable as a whole to the Buddhists.

68:1 Saṃyutta, II, p. 99; Madhyamakavṛtti, p. 306.

69:1 When stating these consequences of the Jain opinion, the author of the Abhidharmakośa (chapter IV) forgets that Nāgasena teaches Milinda the very Jain doctrine and the simile of the fire. In this connexion, compare Plato on the 'lie in the soul' (Rep. Bk. II, 382), and Bourdaloue on the 'fausse conscience.'

75:1 Taine, Nouveaux Essais; Pischel, Buddha; Oldenberg, Aus Indien and Iran, and Deutsche Rundschau, 1908, VI, p. 380.

75:2 Saṃyutta, I, p. 75.

75:3 Saṃyutta, I, p. 71 (Warren, p. 216); Jātaka, III, p. 279.

76:1 Oldenberg, Buddha, tr. Foucher2, p. 149.

76:2 The Abhidharmakośa states that 'wrong view' (see above, p. 46) is a sin; then it proceeds to discuss this statement: "How can it be said that 'wrong view' is a sin since a good act is the act that benefits one's neighbour. . . ."

79:1 Aśvaghoṣa's Saundaranandakāvya, partial translation by A. Baston, J. As. 1912, I, p. 79.

Next: Chapter IV. The Doctrine of Karman and Transmigration, Cosmogony, Theogony