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The Higher Buddhism

PHILOSOPHICAL Buddhism requires some brief consideration in this place, — for two reasons. The first is that misapprehension or ignorance of the subject has rendered possible the charge of atheism against the intellectual classes of Japan, The second reason is that some persons imagine the Japanese common people — that is to say, the greater part of the nation — believers in the doctrine of Nirvâna as extinction (though, as a matter of fact, even the meaning of the word is unknown to the masses), and quite resigned to vanish from the face of the earth, because of that incapacity for struggle which the doctrine is supposed to create. A little serious thinking ought to convince any intelligent man that no such creed could ever have been the religion of either a savage or a civilized people. But myriads of Western minds are ready at all times to accept statements of impossibility without taking the trouble to think about them; and if I can show some of my readers how far beyond popular comprehension the doctrines of the higher Buddhism really are, something will have been accomplished for the cause of truth and common-sense. And besides the reasons already given for dwelling upon the subject, there is this third and special reason, — that it is one of extraordinary interest to the student of modern philosophy.


Before going further, I must remind you that the metaphysics of Buddhism can be studied anywhere else quite as well as in Japan, since the more important sutras have been translated into various European languages, and most of the untranslated texts edited and published. The texts of Japanese Buddhism are Chinese; and only Chinese scholars are competent to throw light upon the minor special phases of the subject. Even to read the Chinese Buddhist canon of 7000 volumes is commonly regarded as an impossible feat, — though it has certainly been accomplished in Japan. Then there are the commentaries, the varied interpretations of different sects, the multiplications of later doctrine, to heap confusion upon confusion. The complexities of Japanese Buddhism are incalculable; and those who try to unravel them soon become, as a general rule, hopelessly lost in the maze of detail. All this has nothing to do with my present purpose. I shall have very little to say about Japanese Buddhism as distinguished from other Buddhism, and nothing at all to say about sect-differences. I shall keep to general facts as regards the higher doctrine, — selecting from among such facts only those most suitable for the illustration of that doctrine. And I shall not take up the subject of Nirvâna, in spite of its great importance, — having treated it as fully as I was able in my Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, — but confine myself to the topic of certain analogies between the conclusions of Buddhist metaphysics and the conclusions of contemporary Western thought.


In the best single volume yet produced in English on the subject of Buddhism,1 the late Mr. Henry Clarke Warren observed: "A large part of the pleasure that I have experienced in the study of Buddhism has arisen from what I may call the strangeness of the intellectual landscape. All the ideas, the modes of argument, even the postulates assumed and not argued about, have always seemed so strange, so different from anything to which I have been accustomed, that I felt all the time as though walking in Fairyland. Much of the charm that the Oriental thoughts and ideas have for me appears to be because they so seldom fit into Western categories."... The serious attraction of Buddhist philosophy could not be better suggested: it is indeed “the strangeness of the intellectual Landscape,” as of a world inside-out and upside-down, that has chiefly interested Western thinkers heretofore. Yet after all, there is a class of Buddhist concepts which can be fitted, or very nearly fitted, into Western categories. The higher Buddhism is a kind of Monism; and it includes doctrines that accord, in the most surprising manner, with the scientific theories of the German and the English monists. To my thinking, the most curious part of the subject, and its main interest, is represented just by these accordances, particularly in view of the fact that the Buddhist conclusions have been reached through mental processes unknown to Western thinking, and unaided by any knowledge of science.... I venture to call myself a student of Herbert Spencer; and it was because of my acquaintance with the Synthetic Philosophy that I came to find in Buddhist philosophy a more than romantic interest. For Buddhism is also a theory of evolution, though the great central idea of our scientific evolution (the law of progress from homogeneity to heterogeneity) is not correspondingly implied by Buddhist doctrine as regards the life of this world. The course of evolution as we conceive it, according to Professor Huxley, “must describe a trajectory like that of a ball fired from a mortar; and the sinking half of that course is as much a part of the general process of evolution as the rising.” The highest point of the trajectory would represent what Mr. Spencer calls Equilibration, — the supreme point of development preceding the period of decline; but, in Buddhist evolution, this supreme point vanishes into Nirvâna. I can best illustrate the Buddhist position by asking you to imagine the trajectory line upside-down, — a course descending out of the infinite, touching ground, and ascending again to mystery... Nevertheless, some Buddhist ideas do offer the most startling analogy with the evolutional ideas of our own time; and even those Buddhist concepts most remote from Western thought can be best interpreted by the help of illustrations and of language borrowed from modern science.

I think that we may consider the most remarkable teachings of the higher Buddhism, excluding the doctrine of Nirvâna, for the reason already given, — to be the following: —

That there is but one Reality;

That the consciousness is not the real Self; —

That Matter is an aggregate of phenomena created by the force of acts and thoughts; —

That all objective and subjective existence is made by Karma, — the present being the creation of the past, and the actions of the present and the past, in combination, determining the conditions of the future.... (Or, in other words, that the universe of Matter, and the universe of [conditioned] Mind, represent in their evolution a strictly moral order.)


It will be worth while now to briefly consider these doctrines in their relation to modern thought, beginning with the first, which is Monism: —


All things having form or name, — Buddhas, gods, men, and all living creatures, — suns, worlds, moons, the whole visible cosmos, — are transitory phenomena.... Assuming, with Herbert Spencer, that the test of reality is permanence, one can scarcely question this position; it differs little from the statement with which the closing chapter of the First Principles concludes: —


"Though the relation of subject and object renders necessary to us those antithetical conceptions of Spirit and Matter, the one is no less than the other to be regarded as but a sign of the Unknown Reality which underlies both." — Edition of 1894.


For Buddhism the sole reality is the Absolute, — Buddha as unconditioned and Infinite Being. There is no other veritable existence, whether of Matter or of Mind; there is no real individuality or personality; the "I” and the "Not-I" are essentially nowise different. We are reminded of Mr. Spencer's position, that "it is one and the same Reality which is manifested to us both subjectively and objectively." Mr. Spencer, goes on to say: "Subject and Object, as actually existing, can never be contained in the consciousness produced by the cooperation of the two, though they are necessarily implied by it; and the antithesis of Subject and Object, never to be transcended while consciousness lasts, renders impossible all knowledge of that Ultimate Reality in which Subject and Object are united.".... I do not think that a master of the higher Buddhism would dispute Mr. Spencer's doctrine of Transfigured Realism. Buddhism does not deny the actuality of phenomena as phenomena, but denies their permanence, and the truth of the appearances which they present to our imperfect senses. Being transitory, and not what they seem, they are to be considered in the nature of illusions, — impermanent manifestations of the only permanent Reality. But the Buddhist position is not agnosticism: it is astonishingly different, as we shall presently see. Mr. Spencer states that we cannot know the Reality so long as consciousness lasts, — because while consciousness lasts we cannot transcend the antithesis of Object and Subject, and it is this very antithesis which makes consciousness possible. "Very true," the Buddhist metaphysician would reply; “we cannot know the sole Reality while consciousness lasts. But destroy consciousness, and the Reality becomes cognizable. Annihilate the illusion of Mind, and the light will come." This destruction of consciousness signifies Nirvâna, — the extinction of all that we call Self. Self is blindness: destroy it, and the Reality will be revealed as infinite vision and infinite peace.

We have now to ask what, according to Buddhist philosophy, is the meaning of the visible universe as phenomenon, and the nature of the consciousness that perceives. However transitory, the phenomenon makes an impression upon consciousness; and consciousness itself, though transitory, has existence; and its perceptions, however delusive, are perceptions of actual relation. Buddhism answers that both the universe and the consciousness are merely aggregates of Karma — complexities incalculable of conditions shaped by acts and thoughts through some enormous past. All substance and all conditioned mind (as distinguished from unconditioned mind) are products of acts and thoughts: by acts and thoughts the atoms of bodies have been integrated; and the affinities of those atoms — the polarities of them, as a scientist might say — represent tendencies shaped in countless vanished lives. I may quote here from a modern Japanese treatise on the subject: —


"The aggregate actions of all sentient beings give birth to the varieties of mountains, rivers, countries, etc. They are caused by aggregate actions, and so are called aggregate fruits. Our present life is the reflection of past actions. Men consider these reflections as their real selves. Their eyes, noses, ears, tongues, and bodies — as well as their gardens, woods, farms, residences, servants, and maids — men imagine to be their own possessions; but, in fact, they are only results endlessly produced by innumerable actions. In tracing every thing back to the ultimate limits of the past, we cannot find a beginning: hence it is said that death and birth have no beginning. Again, when seeking the ultimate limit of the future, we cannot find the end."2


This teaching that all things are formed by Karma — whatever is good in the universe representing the results of meritorious acts or thoughts; and what ever is evil, the results of evil acts or thoughts — has the approval of five of the great sects; and we may accept it as a leading doctrine of Japanese Buddhism.... The cosmos is, then, an aggregate of Karma; and the mind of man is an aggregate of Karma; and the beginnings thereof are unknown, and the end cannot be imagined. There is a spiritual evolution, of which the goal is Nirvâna; but we have no declaration as to a final state of universal rest, when the shaping of substance and of mind will have ceased forever.... Now the Synthetic Philosophy assumes a very similar position as regards the evolution of phenomena: there is no beginning to evolution, nor any conceivable end. I quote from Mr. Spencer's reply to a critic in the North American Review; —


"That ‘absolute commencement of organic life upon the globe,’ which the reviewer says I 'cannot evade the admission of,' I distinctly deny. The affirmation of universal evolution is in itself the negation of an absolute commencement of anything. Construed in terms of evolution, every kind of being is conceived as a product of modification wrought by insensible gradations upon a preexisting kind of being; and this holds as fully of the supposed ‘commencement of organic life’ as of all subsequent developments of organic life.... That organic matter was not produced all at once, but was reached through steps, we are well warranted in believing by the experiences of chemists."3...


Of course it should be understood that the Buddhist silence, as to a beginning and an end, concerns only the production of phenomena, not any particular existence of groups of phenomena. That of which no beginning or end can be predicated is simply the Eternal Becoming. And, like the older Indian philosophy from which it sprang, Buddhism teaches the alternate apparition and disparition of universes. At certain prodigious periods of time, the whole cosmos of "one hundred thousand times ten millions of worlds" vanishes away, — consumed by fire or otherwise destroyed, — but only to be reformed again. These periods are called " World-Cycles," and each World-Cycle is divided into four "Immensities," but we need not here consider the details of the doctrine. It is only the fundamental idea of a evolutional rhythm that is really interesting. I need scarcely remind the reader that the alternate disintegration and reintegration of the cosmos is also a scientific conception, and a commonly accepted article of evolutional belief. I may quote, however, for other reasons, the paragraph expressing Herbert Spencer's views upon the subject: —


"Apparently the universally coexistent forces of attraction and repulsion, which, as we have seen, necessitate rhythm in all minor changes throughout the Universe, also necessitate rhythm in the totality of changes, — produce now an immeasurable period during which the attractive forces, predominating, cause universal concentration; and then an immeasurable period during which the repulsive forces, predominating, cause diffusion, — alternate eras of Evolution and Dissolution. And thus there is suggested to us the conception of a past during which there have been successive Evolutions analogous to that which is now going on; and a future during which successive other such Evolutions may go on — ever the same in principle, but never the same in concrete result." — First Principles, § 183.4


Further on, Mr. Spencer has pointed out the vast logical consequence involved by this hypothesis: —


"If, as we saw reason to think, there is an alternation of Evolution and Dissolution in the totality of things, — if, as we are obliged to infer from the Persistence of Force, the arrival at either limit of this vast rhythm brings about the conditions under which a counter-movement commences, — if we are hence compelled to entertain the conception of Evolutions that have filled an immeasurable past, and Evolutions that will fill an immeasurable future, we can no longer contemplate the visible creation as having a definite beginning or end, or as being isolated. It becomes unified with all existence before and after; and the Force which the Universe presents falls into the same category with its Space and Time as admitting of no limitation in thought."5First Principles, § 190.


The foregoing Buddhist positions sufficiently imply that the human consciousness is but a temporary aggregate, — not an eternal entity. There is no permanent self: there is but one eternal principle in all life, — the supreme Buddha. Modern Japanese call this Absolute the "Essence of Mind." "The fire fed by faggots,” writes one of these, "dies when the faggots have been consumed; but the essence of fire is never destroyed.... All things in the Universe are Mind." So stated, the position is unscientific; but as for the conclusion reached, we may remember that Mr. Wallace has stated almost exactly the same thing, and that there are not a few modern preachers of the doctrine of a "universe of mind-stuff." The hypothesis is "unthinkable." But the most serious thinker will agree with the Buddhist assertion that the relation of all phenomena to the unknowable is merely that of waves to sea. “Every feeling and thought being but transitory," says Mr. Spencer, "an entire life made up of such feelings and thoughts being but transitory, — nay, the objects amid which life is passed, though less transitory, being severally in course of losing their individualities quickly or slowly, — we learn that the one thing permanent is the Unknown Reality hidden under all these changing shapes," Here the English and the Buddhist philosophers are in accord; but thereafter they suddenly part company. For Buddhism is not agnosticism, but gnosticism, and professes to know the unknowable. The thinker of Mr. Spencer's school cannot make assumptions as to the nature of the sole Reality, nor as to the reason of its manifestations. He must confess himself intellectually incapable of comprehending the nature of force, matter, or motion. He feels justified in accepting the hypothesis that all known elements have been evolved from one primordial undifferentiated substance, — the chemical evidence for this hypothesis being very strong. But he certainly would not call that primordial substance a substance of mind, nor attempt to explain the character of the forces that effected its integration. Again, though Mr. Spencer would probably acknowledge that we know of matter only as an aggregate of forces, and of atoms only as force-centres, or knots of force, he would not declare that an atom is a force-centre, and nothing else.... But we find evolutionists of the German school taking a position very similar to the Buddhist position, — which implies a universal sentiency, or, more strictly speaking, a universal potential-sentiency. Haeckel and other German monists assume such a condition for all substance. They are not agnostics, therefore, but gnostics; and their gnosticism very much resembles that of the higher Buddhism.

According to Buddhism there is no reality save Buddha: all things else are but Karma. There is but one Life, one Self: human individuality and personality are but phenomenal conditions of that Self. Matter is Karma; Mind is Karma — that is to say, mind as we know it: Karma, as visibility, represents to us mass and quality; Karma, as mentality, signifies character and tendency. The primordial substance — corresponding to the "protyle" of our Monists — is composed of Five Elements, which are mystically identified with Five Buddhas, all of whom are really but different modes of the One. With this idea of a primordial substance there is necessarily associated the idea of a universal sentiency. Matter is alive.

Now to the German monists also matter is alive. On the phenomena of cell-physiology, Haeckel claims to base his conviction that "even the atom is not without rudimentary form of sensation and will, — or, as it is better expressed, of feeling (aesthesis), and of inclination (tropesis), that is to say, a universal soul of the simplest kind." I may quote also from Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe the following paragraph expressing the monistic notion of substance as held by Vogt and others: —


"The two fundamental forms of substance, ponderable matter and ether, are not dead and only moved by extrinsic force; but they are endowed with sensation and will (though, naturally, of the lowest grade); they experience an inclination for condensation, a dislike of strain; they strive after the one, and struggle against the other."


Less like a revival of the dreams of the Alchemists is the very probable hypothesis of Schneider, that sentiency begins with the formation of certain combinations, — that feeling is evolved from the non-feeling just as organic being has been evolved from inorganic substance. But all these monist ideas enter into surprising combination with the Buddhist teaching about matter as integrated Karma; and for that reason they are well worth citing in this relation. To Buddhist conception all matter is sentient, — the sentiency varying according to condition: "even rocks and stones," a Japanese Buddhist text declares, “can worship Buddha." In the German monism of Professor Haeckel’s school, the particular qualities and affinities of the atom represent feeling and inclination, “a soul of the simplest kind"; in Buddhism these qualities are made by Karma, — that is to say, they represent tendencies formed in previous states of existence. The hypotheses appear to be very similar. But there is one immense, all-important difference, between the Occidental and the Oriental monism. The former would attribute the qualities of the atom merely to a sort of heredity, — to the persistency of tendencies developed under chance-influences operating throughout an incalculable past. The latter declares the history of the atom to be purely moral! All matter, according to Buddhism, represents aggregated sentiency, making, by its inherent tendencies, toward conditions of pain or pleasure, evil or good. "Pure actions," writes the author of Outlines of the Mahâyâna Philosophy, "bring forth the Pure Lands of all the quarters of the universe; while impure deeds produce the Impure Lands." That is to say, the matter integrated by the force of moral acts goes to the making of blissful worlds; and the matter formed by the force of immoral acts goes to the making of miserable worlds. All substance, like all mind, has its Karma; planets, like men, are shaped by the creative power of acts and thoughts; and every atom goes to its appointed place, sooner or later, according to the moral or immoral quality of the tendencies that inform it. Your good or bad thought or deed will not only affect your next rebirth, but will likewise affect in some sort the nature of worlds yet unevolved, wherein, after innumerable cycles, you may have to live again. Of course, this tremendous idea has no counterpart in modern evolutional philosophy. Mr, Spencer's position is well known; but I must quote him for the purpose of emphasizing the contrast between Buddhist and scientific thought: —


“...We have no ethics of nebular condensation, or of sidereal movement, or of planetary evolution; the conception is not relevant to inorganic matter. Nor, when we turn to organized things, do we find that it has any relation to the phenomena of plant-life; though we ascribe to plants superiorities and inferiorities, leading to successes and failures in the struggle for existence, we do not associate with them praise or blame. It is only with the rise of sentiency in the animal world that the subject-matter of ethics originates." — Principles of Ethics, Vol. II, § 326.


On the contrary, it will be seen, Buddhism actually teaches what we may call, to borrow Mr, Spencer's phrase, “the ethics of nebular condensation," — though to Buddhist astronomy, the scientific meaning of the term "nebular condensation" was never known. Of course the hypothesis is beyond the power of human intelligence to prove or to disprove. But it is interesting, for it proclaims a purely moral order of the cosmos, and attaches almost infinite consequence to the least of human acts. Had the old Buddhist metaphysicians been acquainted with the facts of modern chemistry, they might have applied their doctrine, with appalling success, to the interpretation of those facts. They might have explained the dance of atoms, the affinities of molecules, the vibrations of ether, in the most fascinating and terrifying way by their theory of Karma.... Here is a universe of suggestion, — most weird suggestion — for anybody able and willing to dare the experiment of making a new religion, or at least a new and tremendous system of Alchemy, based upon the notion of a moral order in the inorganic world!


But the metaphysics of Karma in the higher Buddhism include much that is harder to understand than any alchemical hypothesis of atom-combinations. As taught by popular Buddhism, the doctrine of rebirth is simple enough, — signifying no more than transmigration: you have lived millions of times in the past, and you are likely to live again millions of times in the future, all the conditions of each rebirth depending upon past conduct. The common notion is that after a certain period of bodiless sojourn in this world, the spirit is guided somehow to the place of its next incarnation. The people, of course, believe in souls. But there is nothing of all this in the higher doctrine, which denies transmigration, denies the existence of the soul, denies personality. There is no Self to be reborn; there is no transmigration — and yet there is rebirth! There is no real “I" that suffers or is glad — and yet there is new suffering to be borne or new happiness to be gained! What we call the Self, — the personal consciousness, — dissolves at the death of the body; but the Karma, formed during life, then brings about the integration of a new body and a new consciousness. You suffer in this existence because of acts done in a previous existence — yet the author of those acts was not identical with your present self! Are you, then, responsible for the faults of another person?

The Buddhist metaphysician would answer thus: "The form of your question is wrong, because it assumes the existence of personality, and there is no personality. There is really no such individual as the ‘you' of the inquiry. The suffering is indeed the result of errors committed in some anterior existence or existences; but there is no responsibility for the acts of another person, since there is no personality. The ‘I' that was and the ‘I' that is represent in the chain of transitory being aggregations momentarily created by acts and thoughts; and the pain belongs to the aggregates as condition resulting from quality." All this sounds extremely obscure: to understand the real theory we must put away the notion of personality, which is a very difficult thing to do. Successive births do not mean transmigration in the common sense of that word, but only the self-propagation of Karma: the perpetual multiplying of certain conditions by a kind of ghostly gemmation, — if I may borrow a biological term. The Buddhist illustration, however, is that of flame communicated from one lamp-wick to another: a hundred lamps may thus be lighted from one flame, and the hundred flames will all be different, though the origin of all was the same. Within the hollow flame of each transitory life is enclosed a part of the only Reality; but this is not a soul that transmigrates. Nothing passes from birth to birth but Karma, — character or condition.

One will naturally ask how can such a doctrine exert any moral influence whatever? If the future being shaped by my Karma is to be in nowise identical with my present self, — if the future consciousness evolved by my Karma is to be essentially another consciousness, — how can I force myself to feel anxious about the sufferings of that unborn person? "Again your question is wrong," a Buddhist would answer: “to understand the doctrine you must get rid of the notion of individuality, and think, not of persons, but of successive states of feeling and consciousness, each of which buds out of the other, — a chain of existences interdependently united."... I may attempt another illustration. Every individual, as we understand the term, is continually changing. All the structures of the body are constantly undergoing waste and repair; and the body that you have at this hour is not, as to substance, the same body that you had ten years ago. Physically you are not the same person: yet you suffer the same pains, and feel the same pleasures, and find your powers limited by the same conditions. Whatever disintegrations and reconstructions of tissue have taken place within you, you have the same physical and mental peculiarities that you had ten years ago. Doubtless the cells of your brain have been decomposed and recomposed: yet you experience the same emotions, recall the same memories, and think the same thoughts. Everywhere the fresh substance has assumed the qualities and tendencies of the substance replaced. This persistence of condition is like Karma. The transmission of tendency remains, though the aggregate is changed....


These few glimpses into the fantastic world of Buddhist metaphysics will suffice, I trust, to convince any intelligent reader that the higher Buddhism (to which belongs the much-discussed and little-comprehended doctrine of Nirvâna) could never have been the religion of millions almost incapable of forming abstract ideas, the religion of a population even yet in a comparatively early stage of religious evolution. It was never understood by the people at all, nor is it ever taught to them to-day. It is a religion of metaphysicians, a religion of scholars, a religion so difficult to be understood, even by persons of some philosophical training, that it might well be mistaken for a system of universal negation. Yet the reader should now be able to perceive that, because a man disbelieves in a personal God, in an immortal soul, and in any continuation of personality after death, it does not follow that we are justified in declaring him an irreligious person, — especially if he happen to be an Oriental. The Japanese scholar who believes in the moral order of the universe, the ethical responsibility of the present to all the future, the immeasurable consequence of every thought and deed, the ultimate disparition of evil, and the power of attainment to conditions of infinite memory and infinite vision, — cannot be termed either an atheist or a materialist, except by bigotry and ignorance. Profound as may be the difference between his religion and our own, in respect of symbols and modes of thought, the moral conclusions reached in either case are very much the same.


1 Buddhism in Translations, by Henry Clarke Warren (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1896). Published by Harvard University.

2 Outlines of the Mahâyâna Philosophy, by S. Kuroda.

3 Principles of Biology, Vol. I, p. 482.

4 This paragraph, from the fourth edition) has been, considerably qualified in the definitive edition of 1900.

5 Condensed and somewhat modified in the definitive edition of 1900; but, for present purposes of illustration, the text of the fourth edition has been preferred

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