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

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I. Introductory. Pessimism and deliverance or Nirvāṇa. Difficulties in ascertaining the nature of deliverance. II. Etymology and meaning of the word Nirvāṇa. Three opinions on the state of a Saint after death. III. Annihilation. IV. 'Unqualified deliverance.' V. Conclusion. Scholastic views on the conflicting statements in the Scriptures.


Older Buddhism, more accurately the Buddhism of the old Books, is almost exclusively a discipline of deliverance, deliverance from rebirth and death, deliverance from transmigration. Like the other disciplines of deliverance, the doctrine of the Upaniṣads or the Sāṃkhya, it is founded on pessimism.

Indian or Buddhist pessimism is often looked upon as a natural consequence of the belief in transmigration. Much has been written on this subject—sometimes perhaps 'unintelligently,' as E. J. Thomas rather strongly asserts 1. India

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as a whole has never been, as it were, hallucinated by the idea of rebirth and death. Common religious people dreamt of paradises, of eternal paradises; and there has been, from the beginning, side by side with the Buddhist discipline of salvation, a Buddhist religion, a moralized Hinduism. The doctrine of transmigration itself opens out cheerful possibilities: rebirth does not necessarily mean rebirth as a creature of hell, as an animal, a ghost, a miserable man. The Śatapathabrāhmaṇa expressly states that rebirth in this world is a reward. The so-called 'bad states' (durgati) are not without their own satisfactions: to be a serpent or a ghost 'endowed with a great magical power' is after all not despicable. But the most striking evidence that transmigration did not frighten the Buddhist monks is that they have built a number of heavens, fit for any temperament: enjoyable and meditative heavens. They know, better than the Brahmans themselves do, the path that leads to the heaven of Brahmā! In a word, Transmigration is death again and again, but it is also inexhaustible life.

But there were in the days of Śākyamuni many men to whom the very idea of death proved intolerable. Why, owing to what climatic,

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racial, social circumstances it is so, is and will remain a mystery. But the fact is beyond doubt, and it is well illustrated by the importance given, in the old Buddhist Literature, to this simple statement, which looks like a great discovery: "Life indeed ends in death 1."

Śākyamuni teaches that the ocean is not large and deep enough to contain the tears which through millions of existences fill the eyes of one man; he comforts a mother who had just burnt on the funeral pyre her daughter ironically named Jīvā, Life, by telling her that she had already burnt, thousands of times, in the same burning place, the same daughter.

There is no happiness in life:

Then I asked them: "Can you maintain that you yourselves for a whole night, or for a whole day, or even for half a night or day, have been perfectly happy?" And they answered "No."

Buddhists go so far as to deny that suṣupti, the profound sleep praised in the Upaniṣads, is free from suffering; they would refuse to the Great King the few hours of rest which the Socrates of the Apologia is willing to concede to him.

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Then I said to them: "Do you know a way, or a method, by which you can realize a state that is altogether happy?" And still to that question, they answered "No 1."

In a word, there were many, men and women, old and young, noblemen and outcasts, merchants and robbers, who had learnt to despise the trivial joys of existence, who wished for absolute happiness and despaired of reaching it. Deliverance from rebirth seemed to them a goal for which it was worth while to strive.


Deliverance, or Nirvāṇa, is the central idea of the teaching of Śākyamuni and the raison d’ētre of the religious life:

"As the vast ocean, O monks, is impregnated with one flavour, the flavour of salt, so also, O monks, this my Law and Discipline is impregnated with but one flavour, with the flavour of deliverance 2."


It seems therefore that we should be amply provided with definitions of Nirvāṇa and that there should be no doubt as to the actual meaning of this word.

As a matter of fact, we know what Nirvāṇa

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is as well as the Buddhists themselves, and it is not our fault if we are not able to give an unambiguous statement. The Buddhists were satisfied with descriptions which do not satisfy us.

On the one hand, whereas we have been for centuries trained to make our ideas clear, this was not the case with Indians. The historian has not to deal with Latin notions worked out by sober and clear-sighted thinkers, but with Indian 'philosophumena' concocted by the ascetics whom we shall describe presently: men exhausted by a severe diet and often stupefied by the practice of ecstasy. Indians do not make a clear distinction between facts and ideas, between ideas and words; they have never clearly recognized the principle of contradiction.

Buddhist dialectic has a four-branched dilemma: Nirvāṇa is existence, or non-existence, or both existence and non-existence, or neither existence nor non-existence. We are helpless.

We are prepared to admit that there may be degrees in 'being,' pleroma and kenosis. But our logical categories are not numerous enough for a theory of degrees in 'voidness' or nonexistence as Mātṛceṭa states it:

Others than Buddha have won the same liberation or Nirvāṇa, but in Buddha the superiority is altogether

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great. All the liberated are void, but this leaves room for the superiority of Buddha: the void of a pore of the skin compares but poorly with the large void of the sky 1.

Moreover, we look at the Buddhist doctrines from the outside. Whereas Nirvāṇa is for us—pace the neo-Buddhists—a mere object of archæological interest, it is for Buddhists of paramount practical importance. Our task is to study what Nirvāṇa may be; the task of a Buddhist is to reach Nirvāṇa.

Comparisons are misleading; but the Imitatio Christi may be quoted: "What avails the understanding of the holy Trinity, if we displease the Trinity?" We have to please God, not to realize the nature of God. Rather in the same way, Śākyamuni prohibited discussion concerning Nirvāṇa. For a Buddhist, the important thing is, not to know what Nirvāṇa is, but to reach Nirvāṇa; and inquiry concerning Nirvāṇa may prove disastrous. As historical students, our only danger is to make mistakes, and we can afford it.

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The primitive meaning of this celebrated word, Nirvāṇa, seems to be twofold: on the one hand, 'becoming cool, cooling'; on the other hand, 'blowing out,' 'extinguishing.' There is a nirvāṇa of a man who is thirsty as well as of a candle 1.

Hence two directions in the evolution of the religious or philosophical meaning of the word. Cooling, refreshment, the refreshment of a man who is suffering, the cooling of a man who is hot with desire, comfort, peace, serenity, bliss. Also extinction, detachment or extinction of the fire of the passions, negative bliss or extinction of suffering, annihilation or extinction of individual existence.

Each metaphor is apt to convey two distinct ideas.

On the one hand, Nirvāṇa is Sanctity (arhattva). For a Saint (arhat) has become cold (śītībhūta), as he is no more burned by the fire of passions, and he has extinguished this fire.

On the other hand, Nirvāṇa is the ultimate end of a man, the state of a Saint after death.

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[paragraph continues] For Nirvāṇa may be cooling of suffering—an eternal refreshment—or extinction of existence.

In the Pāli literature, it is not always evident whether the word Nirvāṇa (nibbāna), with its numerous synonyms, means Sanctity, the state of a living Saint, or the state of a Saint after death. The first meaning is the more common. On the other hand, in the Sanskrit literature of Buddhism, Nirvāṇa generally means the state of a Saint after death. We will use the word Nirvāṇa in this last meaning and style Sanctity the state of a living Saint.


Two points are beyond doubt:

1. Nirvāṇa is the summum bonum.

2. Nirvāṇa belongs to Saints and to Saints alone.

Let us consider the death of an ordinary man and the death of a Saint. Men who at death are endowed with desire and who have not destroyed their ancient Karman, have to be reborn according to their merit and demerit. They continue transmigrating. A Saint has not to be reborn; he has passed beyond birth, old age and death; in the technical phrase: "He has destroyed rebirth; he has led the religious

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life; he has done what he had to do; he has nothing more to do with life here 1."

So much is certain.

But it can be maintained either (1) that the dead Saint is annihilated, cut off, does not exist any longer; or (2) that he has reached an immortal state; or (3) that we can only assert, without being able to state positively what deliverance is, that he is delivered from transmigration.

In other words, Nirvāṇa is either annihilation, or immortality, or 'unqualified deliverance,' a deliverance of which we have no right to predicate anything.

It is fairly certain that, from the beginning, there have been Buddhists who held one of these three opinions. The point is to realize the relative importance of these conflicting views, and to state which is the prevailing teaching of the Scriptures and the ruling idea of the Buddhist religious life.

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That Nirvāṇa is annihilation results—at least for us—both from the general principles of Buddhist philosophy and from clear statements.

There is nothing permanent in Man. Man is a complex of bodily and spiritual constituents which form a physico-psychical organism. In the case of men who are not Saints, this organism is not cut off at death when the body perishes, because, owing to desire and to Karman, it is continued in a new organism, heir of the first. Now suppose that—as is the case of a dying Saint—desire is destroyed and Karman to be experienced (vedanīya) absent, there is no cause for rebirth. There will not be a new complex of bodily and spiritual constituents to be reborn when a Saint dies. And there is no existence possible outside these constituents: the Buddhist criticism has sedulously destroyed all the mystical or psychological data—idea of a transcendent soul (Sāṃkhya), idea of an immanent absolute (Upaniṣads, Vedānta)—that could give any support to a conception of survival of whatever kind. Selflessness precludes all possibility of survival.

Moreover it is certain that the Buddhists—I mean the Buddhists who compiled the Scriptures

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[paragraph continues] —were well aware of this consequence of the dogma of Selflessness. When the question is discussed of the survival of the Saint, the answer is often—often, not always—in the terms we have just stated: "Any matter or body (rūpa) which could be said to be the matter or the body of the Saint no longer exists," and so on with the immaterial (arūpin) constituents of the human organism: "Any cognition whatever which could be said to be a cognition of the Saint no longer exists." Elsewhere: "Henceforth, when I shall be asked whether a Saint perishes at death or not, I shall answer: Body is perishable 1."

It cannot be said that there is a chariot where there is neither pole, nor axle, nor any of the constituent parts of the chariot. In the same way, there is no Saint where there are not the elements which constitute this pseudo-individuality called a Saint 2.


It may therefore be safely maintained that Nirvāṇa is annihilation.

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Does that imply that Buddhists aim at annihilation? Not exactly so. Scholars who have maintained that Nirvāṇa was chiefly looked upon as annihilation do not say that a monk leads the religious life in order to be annihilated at death, but that he leads the religious life in order to become a Saint. Sanctity is the goal. Sanctity is the summum bonum, deliverance, Nirvāṇa.

In the words of Rhys Davids 1, the deliverance Śākyamuni preaches is "a salvation from the sorrows of life, which has to be reached here on earth in a changed state of mind." The hope of a monk is to obtain "a lasting state of happiness and peace to be reached here on earth by the extinction of the fire of lust, hatred and delusion." 'A lasting state of happiness. . .' from the moment when Sanctity is attained to the hour of death. Buddhism would thus be only a discipline of happy life here below.


Our opinion is that these statements are very wide of the mark. But it is only fair to admit that much may be said in their favour and that they are to some extent exact. We must honestly admit that Sanctity—coupled with annihilation

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[paragraph continues] —may have been and has been, for many a monk, the ruling motive of the religious life.

According to the philosophical tenets of Buddhism—strictly understood—on the one hand, transmigration is pain; on the other hand, the Saint, at death, does not exist any longer. The life after death having lost any interest for the Buddhist, he had only to work out a supreme ideal of happiness in this very life. That he did. It is a professional happiness. The monks, technicians of Sanctity—that is, absolute detachment, mental and moral apathy—were apt to make Sanctity the chief point of a discipline of their own. Ils n’étaient pas Hindous pour rien.

India has always been full of awe and admiration for the ascetics and ecstatics who have reached a thorough tranquillity, a perfect ἀταραξία, insensible to pleasure and to pain and therefore altogether happy. Such men were a natural product of the Indian soil. They have been the pattern of Brahman and Buddhist Sanctity.

The Brahmans have worked out a metaphysical interpretation of the ecstatic Saint. They style him a jīvanmukta, 'delivered yet living,' and assert that he is actually identified with Brahman, that is to say with the immanent Absolute.

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The Buddhists have as a starting point the same type of Saint; but they do not attempt any metaphysical interpretation. They are satisfied with a study of the psychological ascertained facts. To put it shortly, the Buddhist Saint is plunged in the concentration 'where notion and feeling are destroyed.'

While dwelling in concentration, the Saint is happy. When he, sometimes, opens his eyes to the spectacle of the world, he is also happy. He contemplates from the shores of the island of serenity the painful agitations of men: he is free, they are fettered by desire. He enjoys one of the most delicate pleasures in this life, the pleasure of self-complacence coupled with altruism. He says, in the style of the Lucretian sage:

The wise, climbing the terraced heights of wisdom looks down upon the fools; serene he looks upon the toiling crowd, as one who stands on a mountain looks down upon those that stand upon the plain 1.

A sublime pattern of this serene happiness was afforded by Śākyamuni. A halo of mystery is not wanting. Neophytes long for such a happiness, for such a perfection. To become like Śākyamuni is no mean ideal.

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It may be urged that Sanctity being its own reward and ending in annihilation is not a cheerful prospect.

But scholars who identify Nirvāṇa with annihilation would say:

1. Annihilation is the end of the misery of life, and Buddhists are pessimists, Buddhists are sick of existence 1.

2. Indian philosophers, as a rule, do not attach. much importance to the survival of personal consciousness, which is for us a necessary characteristic of survival, or rather is the survival itself. With the strict Vedāntists, Nirvāṇa (brahmanirvāṇa) is the end of the illusion of individuality; with the Sāṃkhyās, Nirvāṇa is the eternal isolation (kaivalya) of the soul, eternal unconsciousness. Therefore, when a Buddhist admits that Nirvāṇa is annihilation he only goes a step further.

Again a man works out his ideal of happiness after death from the pattern of his ideal of happiness here below. According to the Buddhist and Indian standard, the supreme happiness for a living man is to reach and to dwell in the

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concentration 'where feeling and notion are destroyed.' As a matter of fact, annihilation (uccheda, nirodha) is this happy state of concentration continued for eternity. Therefore annihilation is a state and a happy state.

3. Nevertheless Indian ascetics were men; and men long for immortality, not immortal death, but immortal life. There was however a means, an excellent means of gratifying the needs of the heart while maintaining the dogma of annihilation.

Death has nothing awful for young people, who have the whole of life before them, who do not realize that "Live indeed ends in death." In the same way, annihilation in Nirvāṇa will be easily accepted if Nirvāṇa is 'postponed.'

The monk may be given some existences to reach Nirvāṇa.

At the beginning, almost all the disciples of Śākyamuni became Saints, to be extinguished at death: but soon a new theory was framed according to which the state of a Saint requires more than a life-long exercise and, therefore, is to be realized by steps. There are disciples on the road to Sanctity to whom seven or less numerous new existences, human or celestial, are allowed to complete their sanctification.

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It is worthy of notice that Brahmanism has built parallel theories of gradual salvation. Side by side with the 'merging in Brahman during this life'—the only notion known in the earliest texts—the Vedāntists instituted a discipline leading to deliverance by steps (kramamukti).

The reasons of this new departure were certainly manifold. One was that Sanctity came to be looked upon as a difficult task. The other, and possibly the stronger, was that monks were really happy to postpone Nirvāṇa. A 'half saint' is sure to reach Nirvāṇa at the end and sure to enjoy pleasant rebirths on the way. His lot is a lucky lot indeed.

Neo-Buddhism—Mahāyāna—went far in this direction. Nirvāṇa was relegated to a remote distance. According to the Lotus of the True Law, a man, to reach Nirvāṇa, has to become first a Buddha, and, to become a Buddha, thousands and thousands of strenuous and charitable lives are necessary. In this way, Buddhism succeeded in getting rid, if not of the very notion of Nirvāṇa, at least of Nirvāṇa as a practical ideal. The starting point of this change is to be found in the old theory of the steps to Sanctity.


The preceding remarks have done full justice to the views of Childers, Rhys Davids, Pischel and other scholars. But we do not believe that the definition they have given of the aim of the Buddhist religious life, viz. Sanctity coupled

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with annihilation, conveys the right idea of Nirvāṇa.

It is true that, according to the doctrinal tenets, strictly understood, a Saint is annihilated at death. It is true that there are categorical statements to this effect, and Max Müller was wrong in denying that Nirvāṇa in the sense of annihilation is a dogma of Buddhism. It is a dogma of Buddhism. But Buddhism is not an orthodoxy, a coherent system of dogmas; it is rather a practical discipline, a training; and in this discipline, the notion 'Nirvāṇa-annihilation' is chiefly a result of philosophical inquiry and, therefore, a notion of secondary rank.

This notion was not an 'original purpose' of Buddhism, a doctrine aimed at by Śākyamuni. Śākyamuni did not start with such a notion of the deliverance from birth, old age, death and suffering; this notion was forced upon him—or upon the Church—because he had been rash enough to deny the existence of a Self and to invent—or to adopt—the theory of a composite soul.

This fact must be emphasized, for it seems to be important both for the history of Buddhism and the history of religion in general. Logic or dialectic is a dangerous auxiliary of religious thought: doctrines may be altogether reversed

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by the development of some dogma; certain premisses being accepted, conclusions will be as inevitable as destiny itself. But, when such conclusions are out of harmony with the general spirit of the doctrine, with the average temperament of the faithful, with common sense, either they fail to obtain general acceptance and beget only heresies and sects, or they remain mere theoretical and 'bookish' views, pure ideas, without becoming what the philosophers style 'idées-forces.'

We have seen that the extreme consequence of the doctrine of Karman, "What we do is the result of what we have done," has not been admitted by the Buddhists, firm maintainers of Free-will despite their ontology, their psychology and their ethics. Many another instance, Indian or European, might be quoted. (1) The conception of Being in the Upaniṣads and Vedānta logically ends in pure Monism (advaita); and Śaṃkara in fact is a pure monist, or tries to be a pure monist. But there are many Vedāntist schools which maintain a variety of 'qualified monisms' (viśiṣṭādvaita). (2) The notions of predestination or absence of Free-will are easily, we do not say logically, developed from the dogma of God, creator and all-powerful. These notions found in Mahomedanism a favourable ground: they agree with the uncompromising and austere monotheism of Islam and with what is called 'oriental apathy.' While, in Christendom, they have been repeatedly developed only to be repeatedly checked.

In the same way, or rather, somewhat in the

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same way, final annihilation was in Buddhism only a corollary of the denial of a Self, a result, not an object aimed at by Śākyamuni, not a postulate of the Indian mind, depressed as it may have been by the miseries of life, intoxicated as it may have been by philosophical meditations.

In fact, there are evidences that would lead us to believe that Śākyamuni did his best to avoid this result, and even objected to a definite statement of such a result.


These evidences are to be found in a number of texts which profess to state the position taken by Śākyamuni as concerns metaphysics, as concerns the existence of a soul (jīva) distinct from the body, as concerns the survival of a Saint. This position is a sort of agnosticism or pragmatism.

Śākyamuni knows everything, but there are truths he refuses to reveal. The reason of his silence is that the knowledge of the truths which are not necessary to Sanctity is a dangerous knowledge; or that a man and even a Saint, is not intelligent enough to gasp certain truths.

That Śākyamuni knows everything, no Buddhist has ever doubted. One of the most celebrated titles of a Buddha is sarvajña,

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[paragraph continues] 'omniscient,' or with more precision, sarvākārajña, 'who knows everything as it is.' Buddhists believe that Śākyamuni, when he obtained bodhi, illumination or enlightenment, acquired universal knowledge. He does not know, at any moment, everything, because his knowledge, like all knowledge, consists of so many distinct and successive acts of attention (manasikāra), but he knows everything he desires to know. Śākyamuni, therefore, never says: "I do not know," but in some circumstances he says plainly: "You will not know, you shall not know."

Here is a simile 1:

Śākyamuni was staying at Kauśambī in the grove of Asoka trees. He took a few Asoka leaves in his hand and said to his disciples: "What do you think, O monks, whether these few leaves, which I have gathered in my hand, are more, or the other leaves yonder in the grove? "—"The few leaves which the Lord holds in his hand are not many, but many more are those leaves in the grove."—"So also, O monks, is that much more which I have learned and not told you than that which I have told you."

Śākyamuni is said to have left unsettled, to have set aside and rejected the questions concerning the existence of a soul (jīva) distinct from the body, and the nature of Nirvāṇa.

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As a matter of fact, there are in the Canon many sayings of Śākyamuni which, at least indirectly, settle these questions in the sense of soullessness and annihilation. We may admit (1) that some disciples, or many disciples, felt dissatisfied with the nihilistic doctrines, and therefore hoped, at the bottom of their hearts, that they misunderstood the Master. Let us not forget that the disciples of Śākyamuni came to him as to the discoverer of the path to immortality (amṛta). Or, possibly (2) there were monks without any prejudices, anxious only to be made quite sure about Nirvāṇa, not by logical conclusions drawn from psychological premisses, not by metaphorical and conflicting phrases, but by a direct and definite statement from the lips of the Omniscient. Last, not least, (3) there were monks who had never heard of the nihilistic sayings of Śākyamuni and wondered at Śākyamuni's silence concerning soul and survival.

Māluṅkyāputta was one of these monks 1.

"There are," said Māluṅkyāputta, "questions that Buddha has left unsettled, has set aside and rejected. . . whether the soul and the body are identical; whether the soul is one thing and the body another; whether a saint exists after death; whether a saint does not exist after death; whether a saint both exists and does

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not exist after death; whether a saint neither exists nor does not exist after death. . . . The fact that Buddha does not settle these questions does not please me. I will inquire. If he does not answer, in that case I abandon the religious life under the rule of Buddha."

Māluṅkyāputta questions Buddha accordingly, and ends by uttering very strong words: "If the Lord does not know, the only upright thing for one who does not know, is to say: I do not know."

Buddha, of course, does not confess that he does not know, nor does he answer the questions.

Did I ever say to you: "Come, lead the religious life under me and I will explain to you these points"? or did you say to me: "I will lead the religious life under you on condition that you will explain to me these points"?

Māluṅkyāputta confesses that Buddha has not given any pledge to that effect, and that he himself did not state any condition of his accepting the Buddhist rule. And Buddha continues:

Any one who should say: "I will not lead the religious life under Buddha until Buddha explains all these points," that man would die before Buddha had ever explained these points to him.

Men are suffering from actual pains which are to be healed at once; they are poisoned with desire, and desire prepares for them new rebirths and new sufferings: desire is to be crushed.

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It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and this man were to say: "I will not have this arrow taken out until I have learnt whether the man who wounded me belongs to the caste of the warriors. . . before I have been told his name, his clan, his stature, his complexion; before I have been told the nature of the bow, of the bow-string. . ." This man would die before he knew.

As the knowledge of all these circumstances has nothing to do with the removal of the deadly arrow, even so the knowledge of the metaphysical points is totally extraneous to the discipline which abolishes suffering and desire, to the discipline of Sanctity:

The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the soul and the body are identical, on the dogma that the soul is one thing and the body another thing, on the dogma that a saint exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, neither exists nor does not exist after death. Whether this or that dogma is true, there still remain birth, old age, death, for the extinction of which I am giving instructions. . . . What I have left unsettled, let that remain unsettled.

Thus spoke Śākyamuni.

These 'agnostic' statements are astonishingly to the point. Whatever opinion a Buddhist may entertain concerning the destiny of a dead Saint, this opinion is an obstacle to serenity, to detachment, to Sanctity, and therefore to Nirvāṇa itself.

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If Nirvāṇa be a happy state, the monk would strive for Nirvāṇa as one would strive for a paradise, and he would accordingly miss it: he would reach at death some paradise, an enjoyable but transitory paradise. If Nirvāṇa be annihilation, Nirvāṇa would again inspire desire or abhorrence: in both cases, Sanctity is impossible. Anxiety and speculation concerning the life after death (antagrāhaparāmarśa) is one of the five heresies. Therefore, "let that remain unsettled that has not been settled by Śākyamuni." A monk will reach Sanctity and Nirvāṇa, without knowing what Nirvāṇa is, and for this very reason that, owing to this ignorance, he remains free from the desire of existence (bhavatṛṣṇā), free from the desire of non-existence (vibhavatṛṣṇā): "I do not long for life; I do not long for death."

We believe that the most exact and the most authoritative definition of Nirvāṇa is not annihilation, but 'unqualified deliverance,' a deliverance of which we have no right to predicate anything.

The idea of Nirvāṇa generally cherished by the Buddhists is not a positive one. They know that existence is suffering. And they think that there is an exit, a Nirvāṇa, deliverance from

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transmigration, from birth, disease, old age and death; and that is indeed enough.

Nirvāṇa is looked upon as a deliverance: just as a man who is in gaol wants only to be free, even so Man do be happy; he only wants to be delivered from the miseries of life. That is pessimism.

It is not absolute nihilism, nihilism boldly looked at in the face. It is a negative attitude, which does not appeal to the most innate needs of our mind; but it is also to some extent an expectant attitude, which leaves some food to the needs of the human heart. The monk strives for unqualified deliverance; he does not inquire whether deliverance is destruction or a mysterious kind of existence; but he knows that Śākyamuni is omniscient and compassionate, and such a 'caravan-leader' is the great man upon whom it is safe to rely.


It remains to draw the conclusion of our inquiry, that is, to strike a sort of balance between the contradictory statements with which we are counted, and to reconcile these statements if possible.

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According to the doctrinal tenets of Buddhism, accurately and profusely explained in every part of the Scriptures, Nirvāṇa is annihilation: selflessness is, from our point of view, incompatible with any kind of survival of the Saint. But do the Buddhists draw from their tenets the logical conclusion concerning Nirvāṇa? They do; or some of them do: there are categorical statements to prove that the compilers of some parts of the Scriptures identified Nirvāṇa with annihilation.

Moreover it is not doubtful that Sanctity was for many a monk the very deliverance, the very Nirvāṇa preached by Buddha.

But this conception of Sanctity as a goal in itself, if it agrees with the nihilistic view of Nirvāṇa,—Nirvāṇa in the sense of annihilation,—agrees as well with the 'agnostic' texts, with Nirvāṇa in the sense of 'unqualified deliverance.'

The whole Suttanipāta testifies to the Buddhist dislike of 'opinion.' The religious life, as depicted in this book, one of the oldest, is not compatible with any opinion. Everything supports our surmise that 'annihilation' is the result of the philosophical inquiry, a mere scholastic corollary.

Moreover, while we are not willing to 'maximize' the importance of the few scriptural texts

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which affirm the existence of a Self, under the name of pudgala (an individual, a person), these texts cannot be ignored altogether. They are old; they are no less authentic than the selflessness texts; they are the authoritative texts of the Sammitīya sect, an important school. The maintainers of the pudgala theory will admit that Nirvāṇa, the state of a Saint after death, is existence.

And, in this connexion, we are not sure that all the scriptural passages, which describe Nirvāṇa as a happy and stable condition, refer to Nirvāṇa in the sense of Sanctity; some of them at least may refer to the state of a Saint after death. If they all refer to Sanctity, as is often contended by scholars, the reference is more than once very obscure.

The obvious conclusion is that the ancient Buddhist tradition was not clear on the nature of Nirvāṇa as well as on many other points.

This conclusion does not please those scholars who are prepared to turn primitive Buddhism into an orthodoxy. While we believe that the scriptural contradictions—Nirvāṇa annihilation, Nirvāṇa immortality, Nirvāṇa a prohibited problem—are to be accepted as they are; while we believe that the true Buddhist state of mind

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is a happy syncretism, scholars of a more orthodox or less catholic temperament make a choice among the conflicting views; they deny, expressly or tacitly, the authenticity or the authority of the texts which support the view they have rejected 1.

Much is to be learned from the position taken by the philosophers of the Mahāyāna school (neo-Buddhism). They are both honest and clear-sighted; they are plainly conscious of the contradictions of the Scriptures; they are, on the other hand, firm believers in the authenticity of these Scriptures; they cannot, therefore, resort to the Gordian method of exegesis.

As philosophers, they have to make a choice and unanimously maintain the nihilistic interpretation of Self and of Nirvāṇa. But, as historians, they confess that Śākyamuni sometimes indulged in 'ontological' statements, sometimes simply prohibited inquiry concerning the 'unsettled questions,' sometimes taught annihilation. They explain why he did so, and the

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reasons they give for the contradictions of the Master are of far-reaching importance as concerns the philosophical solution of the problem itself.

It is an old opinion among the Buddhists that Śākyamuni has modified his teaching according to the needs of his hearers, according to their intellectual and moral possibilities. Let us understand his position. A Buddha is a physician, the physician of this mortal disease that is named desire. Desire originates rebirth, suffering, death. In order to cure this disease, Śākyamuni had to employ 'allopathic' contrivances. He teaches that there is not a Self—and with such an emphasis that he sometimes gives the impression of being a 'materialist'—because a man who believes in the reality and permanence of his Self will love his Self, will hate the Self of his neighbour, will be anxious about the state of his Self after death, in a word will desire. He teaches that there is rebirth, because the idea of annihilation at death is likely to produce the heresy of "Let us live happily so long as we are alive." He emphasizes the happiness of deliverance, in order to induce men to give up the trivial hopes of transitory paradises and many foolish devices to this end: deliverance is better than any conceivable state

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of existence. Last, not least, Śākyamuni does not hide this fact that deliverance is absolute silence and annihilation, the end of suffering, because it is the end of feeling. Why does he teach such a doctrine? I dare say, because the most pragmatist of the philosophers cannot help sometimes describing things as he believes they are: deliverance is annihilation—and there are some few disciples worthy to be told the truth.

The simile of the physician is a Buddhist metaphor. There is another to the same effect, more Indian and also very exact. A Buddha is a tiger or rather a tigress. This tigress has to transport her cub, and accordingly takes it into her mouth; she holds it between her double set of teeth. But for the teeth, the cub would fall; but if the teeth were to be tightly closed, it would be crushed. In the same way a Buddha saves beings, transports them across the ocean of transmigration, by the parallel teaching of permanence and impermanence, Self and Selflessness, bliss of Nirvāṇa and annihilation in Nirvāṇa. Permanence, Self, bliss of Nirvāṇa: so many falsehoods. Useful falsehoods: but for them one would give up the religious training towards deliverance. Impermanence, selflessness, annihilation: so many truths. Dangerous truths,

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like a serpent with a jewel in its hood: it requires a clever hand to take the jewel. In the same way, few men are able to avoid being crushed by these sublime and terrible truths. Selflessness wrongly understood would lead to the wrong view that there is no survival; the doctrine of annihilation in Nirvāṇa would originate despair or distrust.

Therefore Śākyamuni has been obscure on these points, and did not avoid some contradictions; and, when an inquirer was bold enough to ask for a plain answer, he plainly answered: "You shall not know." Cela ne vous regarde pas.

Buddhism ends in an act of faith. Śākyamuni will lead us to salvation provided we close our eyes and follow blindly his ordinances. The important thing in Buddhism is not dogma, but practice, not the goal, the mysterious and unascertainable Nirvāṇa, but the Path, Sanctity.


107:1 Buddhist Scriptures, p. 20.

109:1 It may be remarked in passing that this sentence seemed to the first translators to be really too simple, and, through a wrong separation of the words, they turned it into: "Life indeed is death" (Dhp. 148; Saṃ. I, p. 97).

110:1 Dialogues of the Buddha, I, p. 287.

110:2 Cullavagga, IX, 1, 4.

112:1 Varṇanārbavarṇana, I, 10-11, ed. F. W. Thomas, Indian Antiquary, 1905, p. 145, and Hoernle's Manuscript Remains, I, p. 78.

113:1 See art. 'Nirvāṇa,' in Hastings, E.R.E.

115:1 There are, in the Pāli scriptures, two formulas. The first one, which we believe is the earlier, is translated above, nāparam itthatāya; it points out that the Saint is not to be reborn in this world. The second one, n’atthi tassa punabbhavo, states that the Saint is not to be reborn. In the Sanskrit canon, the first formula is worded as follows: nāparam asmād bhavāt prajānāmi; also a clear and definite negation of rebirth.

117:1 Saṃyutta, IV, 374, and elsewhere.

117:2 The Yamaka dialogue (Saṃyutta, III, p. 100, see the translation of Warren, p. 138, of Oldenberg, tr. Foucher2, p. 279) is not, as Oldenberg believes, an evidence against the doctrine of annihilation. On the contrary Udāna, VIII, 3 (Itivuttaka, § 43), which Oldenberg understands in the meaning of annihilation, is by no means clear.

118:1 Manual (1877), pp. 110-115; Hibbert Lectures (1881), pp. 161, 253; compare Childers (1875), p. 208.

120:1 Dhammapada, 28.

121:1 Milton's lines are not Buddhistic:

For who would lose, though full of pain, this being,
These thoughts that wander through eternity?

127:1 Saṃyutta, V, p. 437; compare Milinda, p. 413; Dīgha, II p. 100.

128:1 Majjhima, I, 426; Hastings, E.R.E. art. 'Agnosticism.'

135:1 It is much safer to credit Śākyamuni and the primitive Brotherhood with all our texts, than to deny the antiquity of any idea to be found in these texts. "Il n’y a point," says La Bruyère, "d’ouvrage si accompli qui ne fondît tout entier au milieu de la critique, si son auteur voulait en croire tous les censeurs qui ôtent chacun l’endroit qui leur plaît le moins." Sainte-Beuve used to compare Homer in the hands of Wolf and Dugas-Montbel to the man with two lovers: "l’une arrache les cheveux noirs, l’autre les gris, et le voilà chauve."

Next: Chapter VI. The Path To Nirvāṇa