Buddhist Scriptures, by E.J. Thomas, , at sacred-texts.com
To what extent can we speak of Buddhism as a religion—a system which rejects a belief in an immortal soul and an eternal God? We shall do well not to seek to answer this by fitting our reply into the limits of a ready-made definition. Buddhism implies a certain attitude to the universe, a conception which gives meaning to life, but it does not look upon the ultimate reality of things as personal. It succeeds indeed, more than any other system, in evading ultimate questions, though even in rejecting metaphysics it was unable to remain wholly unmetaphysical.
The chief ontological principle of Buddhism is that all compound things are impermanent; and it went on to assert that all things are compound except space and Nirvana. The self is compound, and hence impermanent. When the individual is analysed into body and mind with its qualities and functions, what is there remaining
behind? The soul, ātman, said the Vedāntin, that permanent entity which is in reality identical with the absolute and eternal Brahma. But the Buddhist answer was that there is nothing remaining. The elements of the self are the self, just as the parts of the chariot are the chariot. Whether this is philosophically or even psychologically sound is another question. This analysis was applied to all things and beings, and hence also to the gods. The gods were not denied, but their permanence was, and hence there was no paramātman or universal soul, of which the gods, according to the orthodox philosophy, were the manifestations. In this sense Buddhism is atheistic. The gods were merely beings, involved like us in incessant change, who by merit had acquired their high rank of existence, and who would lose it when their merit was exhausted. They were, as the Sānkhya philosophy said, office-holders, and any one by sufficient merit could attain to that rank. Buddha himself, according to the legends of his previous births, several times became Sakka (Indra) and even Brahma. In the birth-story of the hare (Jātaka, No. 316), when the hare resolves to sacrifice himself to provide food for the brahmin, the throne of Sakka, king of the gods, becomes hot, and Sakka becomes uneasy on finding that there is a being with so much merit who is likely to displace him.
Buddhism, however, is no theory that the world is a concourse of fortuitous phenomena. It retained the Indian doctrines of rebirth and karma. Karma, "action," is the law of cause and effect applied to the moral world. Every action brings its fruit, either in this life or another. It makes possible the moral government of the world without a moral governor. But action can only lead to temporary happiness or misery. It cannot—any more than in the Christian system—bring salvation. Salvation, the freedom from the circle of birth and death, results from knowledge, and the saving knowledge which is the essence of positive Buddhist teaching consists in the four truths—the fact of suffering, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading thereto. This is the teaching which makes Buddhism a religion. Buddhism offers not merely a philosophy, but a theory of life for those who are suffering, for the weary and heavy-laden, which has for centuries met the religious needs of a great part of the human race. "In religion," said Hegel, "all that awakens doubt and perplexity, all sorrow and care, all limited interests of finitude, we leave behind us on the bank and shoal of time. . . It is in this native land of the spirit that the waters of oblivion flow, from which it is given to Psyche to drink and forget all her sorrows." In no religion has this been more deeply realised than
in the perfect calm of the Buddhist saint, who in his earthly life has "crossed to the farther shore," and realised the eternal great Nirvana.
As there is no soul, no permanent entity which transmigrates, the doctrine of rebirth had to be modified in the Buddhist system. The elements or factors of the individual are composed of five groups (khandhas): (1) the body, (2) sensations, (3) perceptions, (4) the predispositions (sankhāras) forming the mental and moral character, (5) consciousness. It is through these groups that transmigration takes place, and the cause which leads to rebirth is "thirst" or clinging to existence. Impelled by this thirst the being is reborn as an individual in a new existence, higher or lower according to the karma accumulated. Rebirth ceases when this thirst is extinguished. To bring about this extinction many bonds have to be broken, errors corrected, and delusions destroyed, on the Noble Eightfold Path leading to perfect knowledge.
What the early Buddhists meant by Nirvana ("blowing out, extinction") has been much discussed, but it is at least possible to remove certain misconceptions about it. It has been confused with another question which has much exercised Western thought—what takes place at death? Is it
The ordinary Buddhist was not oppressed with this doubt. He knew that the ordinary man, who had not completed the Eightfold Path, was reborn. Nirvana is the extinction not of the self, but of the clinging to existence. To look upon it as the extinction of the soul is merely to substitute a question debated by Western theologians and materialists. Nirvana may be attained during life. It is a further question to ask what becomes at death of the Arahat in whom the clinging to existence is extinguished. The word Nirvana is used in two senses. To assert this is not a mere inference, for the two meanings are distinguished in the sacred texts. The Nirvana attained during life is called sa-upādisesa, "having the khandhas or elements of the individual remaining," and the Nirvana at death is anupādisesa, "not having the khandhas remaining." All the descriptions of Nirvana that speak of enjoying a blissful state refer to the Arahat who has attained liberation while alive. Buddha won Nirvana when he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi-tree. A good example occurs in the Discourse of the Right Wandering of a Monk (Sutta Nipāta, II. 13), where Buddha is thus addressed:
[paragraph continues] The verb here used (parinibbuta) for "reached Nirvana" is the same as used in the account of the death of Buddha; and Buddha shortly before his death, when warning his favourite disciple Ānanda that Chunda, who gave the food which led to his last illness, is not to be reproached for it, defines this final Nirvana as anupādisesa, "consisting in the complete passing away of the elements of being."
The question then remains as to what becomes at death of the Arahat who has attained Nirvana. That question was put to Buddha, and he refused to answer it, but we can see what the inevitable view is on the Buddhist theory of the self. In the account of Buddha's death there is no hint of his continued existence, but only a repetition of the Buddhist truth, "impermanent are all compounded things." In the Questions of Milinda the answer is more definite: "The Lord has reached Nirvana with the extinction of the roots which consists in the complete passing away of the khandhas. The Lord has perished, and it is impossible to point him out, saying, 'Here he is' or 'There he is.' But the Lord can be pointed out in the body of the doctrine, for the doctrine was taught by the Lord."
But what appears the obvious conclusion from these passages, and from the Questions of Mālunkyāputta, Uttiya, and Vaccha, given below, has not led to harmony in the theories of Western
scholars. Some of these views will be found discussed in Mrs. Rhys Davids’ Buddhism. The matter is still further complicated, because the later developments of Mahāyāna Buddhism did definitely introduce the idea of an after-life of bliss for the Arahat. The form of Buddhism which arose in Northern India some four centuries after Buddha's death, and which called itself Mahāyāna, "The Great Vehicle," exaggerated the view that all compound things are impermanent into the theory that all phenomena are illusory. In this respect it is parallel to the Vedānta doctrine of Māyā; and there is little doubt that the Vedānta influenced this development. Further, as the Vedānta taught a permanent reality behind the illusion of Māyā, so in Mahāyāna Buddhism the idea of Nirvana was converted into a positive conception, the idea of an eternal reality, in which dwell all the Buddhas as pure spirit. But whether this teaching be considered a logical development of the original system, or an accretion and corruption, it is certain that it does not belong to primitive Buddhism, nor to those schools of Buddhism which have best preserved the original tradition. The reader will find some valuable information on this question in Dr. Barnett's introduction to The Path of Light in the same series as the present volume.
The Buddhist Scriptures
The Buddhist scriptures, as preserved by the Buddhists of Ceylon and Further India, are in the Pāli language, a language related to Sanskrit much as Italian is related to Latin; and for several centuries before and after Christ it was spoken in varying dialects over most of Northern India. Buddha, according to the Ceylon tradition, died 543 B.C., but it is generally agreed that this date is too early. The latest calculation by an Indian scholar, Mr. V. Gopala Aiyer, makes the date fifty-six years later, 487 B.C. Immediately after Buddha's death the first council is said to have been held at Rājagaha (now Rajgir in Behar on the borders of Bengal), where the Vinaya (discipline) and Dhamma (doctrine) were recited and fixed. The historical evidence for this council is much disputed, but it is extremely probable that some such collection was made about this time. Nothing was written down. It was preserved, as the Vedas had already been preserved for centuries, by memory. It is this very fact which strengthens the view that we possess a faithful picture of the preaching of Buddha, a preaching which extended over more than forty years. To determine to what extent the discourses have been worked up into other forms and added to, and especially how the rules
of the Order have been gradually elaborated, is a work for future scholars.
In the third century B.C. the great king Asoka ruled over Magadha, and Buddhism became the established religion. Missionary embassies were sent out, and after the council of Patna, about 250 B.C., Asoka's own son Mahinda carried the faith to Ceylon. It was not until 160 years after his arrival that the text of the sacred books was written down.
These Buddhist scriptures as we possess them consist of the Tipiṭaka, "three baskets," in the following divisions:
Vinaya Piṭaka (Discipline of the Order, with commentary explaining how each rule came to be established).
Khandhakas (Mahāvagga and Cullavagga).
Sutta Piṭaka (Basket of Discourses).
2. Majjhima Nikāya ("Middle collection," 152 discourses).
3. Samyutta Nikāya ("Connected collection," 55 groups).
4. Anguttara Nikāya ("The add-one-collection").
5. Khuddaka Nikāya (Miscellaneous collection).
(b) Dhammapada (Anthology of verses).
(c) Udāna (Verses of solemn utterances spoken by Buddha at times of strong emotion).
(d) Iti-vuttaka (Passages beginning "Thus it was said" [by Buddha]).
(e) Sutta-nipāta (Discourses chiefly in verse).
(f) Vimāna-vatthu ("Stories of celestial abodes").
(g) Peta-vatthu ("Stories of petas [ghosts]").
(h) and (i) Thera- and Therī-gāthā (Psalms of the brethren and sisters).
(j) Jātaka (Stories of Buddha's previous births).
(k) Niddesa (A commentary on the latter part of (e)).
(1) Paṭisambhidā ("Analytical science," on the fourfold power of wisdom of Arahats).
(m) Apadāna (Stories of Arahats).
(n) Buddha-vansa (Lives of the 24 preceding Buddhas).
(o) Cariyā-piṭaka (Versifications of some of the Jātaka stories).
Abhidhamma Piṭaka ("Further Dhamma," more elaborate discussion of the principles of the Doctrine).
One of the most important of the extra-canonical Buddhist works is the Questions of Milinda. It was written, according to Prof. Rhys Davids, in the first century, A.D. It gives an exposition of the doctrine in the form of answers by the sage Nāgasena to the questions of king Milinda. It is not history, but romance, though Milinda or Menander was a Greek king of Bactria in the second century B.C. According to Strabo he was the most important of the Bactrian kings, who are said to have subdued more nations in India than Alexander. Two passages from the work are given in the present selection.
The high morality both of Buddhism and Christianity, and the personalities of their founders, have led to theories as to the influence
of one on the other. The subject is a complicated one, because there is no doubt that the two religions at a later date did come into contact in Tibet and other parts of Asia. This later relationship will be found discussed in Dr. Carus's Buddhism and its Christian Critics (London, 1897). The resemblances in earlier Buddhism do not amount to more than independent parallels, although Fausböll was inclined to think that the Sutta-Nipāta, in which several of them occur, was not anterior to the time of Christ. These are given below, p. 107.
Buddhism, in spite of fundamental differences from Christianity, has more in common with it than appears at first sight. Its deepest distinction is that it has no Saviour. Buddha was reborn from the Tusita heaven out of compassion to teach the truth, but still each man must work out his own salvation. His destiny, whether he wins Nirvana or not, depends in the long run upon himself.
It is sometimes unintelligently said that continued rebirth is a dreary doctrine. But it does not necessarily mean rebirth upon earth. The good Buddhist, just as the Christian, hopes to go to heaven, and fears to go to hell, and he has more possibilities than this. There are five states of rebirth, as a god in heaven, as a human being, as an animal, as a ghost, or in hell. A sixth state is sometimes added, that of the Asuras or
[paragraph continues] Titans. There are, further, several heavens with many subdivisions, eight great hells, and one hundred and twenty-eight minor hells. Nor does the Buddhist, although he hopes finally to escape rebirth, look upon the chief end as extinction. Nirvana is the attainment of the highest bliss, and involves the extinction of all the lower desires. In this it is in accord with the type of Christianity which makes the monk its ideal, and places virginity higher than marriage. But—and here is another deep difference—the infinity of bliss comes to be only the infinite cessation of sorrow. This is the summing up in the Sutta of the Great Decease:
Buddha is said to have prophesied that the Doctrine would last five hundred years, and it is the fact that by that time the decay set in in India, which with the contamination of other philosophical systems, and the adoption of debased forms of worship, led to its extinction in the land of its birth. But it is still the most widely spread religion of Asia. Ceylon, Burma, Siam,
and Kambodia preserve the "tradition of the elders," the Pāli tradition from which the following selections are taken. "In Burma," as a modern Bhikkhu writes, "It still reigns supreme; the message of It is written over all the land in Shrine and Monastery and Temple; written still deeper in the hearts and lives of women and of men. Forty long years after that supreme Illumination, the Master lived and taught His growing band of followers; passing at last Himself from Life for ever, into the Silence, the Utter Peace whereunto He had shown the way."