Buddha and the Moral Order
THE Providential Order is still our theme. Now, however, it is not to my own thoughts that I solicit attention. I ask you to engage with me in a sympathetic while critical study of the thoughts of other men in ancient and modern times. The subject is sufficiently large, attractive, and difficult to justify a second course. It cannot be said to be exhausted till we have made ourselves acquainted in some degree with the more important contributions towards its elucidation. Earnest thought on Divine Providence, however ancient, cannot but be interesting, and it may be instructive, not only by the abiding truth it contains, but even by its doubts, its denials, its crudities, its errors. It is obvious, however, that selection will be necessary. Attention must be confined to outstanding types of thought, in which an exceptionally intense moral consciousness is revealed, and deep, sincere protracted brooding, as of men wrestling with a great hard problem.
On this principle preference must be given in the first place to representative thinkers in India, Persia, and Greece, the countries in which, in far-past times, human reflection on the august topic of the moral order may be said to have reached the high-water mark. In India, the centre of attraction is Buddha, with his peculiar way of viewing life and destiny; in Persia, Zoroaster. To each of these great characters a lecture will be devoted, and in these two lectures my representation, through lack of first-hand knowledge, must rest on the authority of experts. On the contributions of Greece we shall have to tarry longer. The Tragic Poets and the Stoics have both strong claims on our regard, the former as conspicuous assertors of the moral order, the latter as not less prominent champions of a universal Providence. With these representatives of Greek wisdom two lectures will be occupied. Our next topic will be one having no exclusive connection with Greek thought or with the Greek people, but with which the name of the Stoics is closely associated. I mean Divination. The oracles have long been dumb, and it requires an effort to revive interest in the subject. But we cannot understand the views of the ancient world without taking the belief in Divination into account. This, therefore, will form the subject of the concluding lecture on Pagan thought.
Hebrew thought, on its own intrinsic merits, claims serious attention. The Prophets of Israel, as we all know, had much to say concerning the moral government of God. The Book of Job also is a unique contribution to the discussion of the problems of Providence which cannot be overlooked. Prophetic teaching, therefore, having been disposed of, all too inadequately, in a single lecture, that book will receive the consideration it claims in another. A reverent study of the teaching of Jesus on the Providence of the Divine Father in a third will close the discussion of Hebrew wisdom.
The foregoing part of our programme will take up eight lectures. Three of the remaining four will be devoted to modern thought on topics bearing on our theme, while the final lecture will assume the form of a retrospect and a forecast.
Modern thought is a wide word, and a point of view will be needed to guide selection. Let it be the question, What tendencies characterise those who have been anxious to abide as far as possible by the Christian idea of God? Two broadly contrasted tendencies may be discriminated, one optimistic, the other dualistic. The one accepts without abatement Christ's idea of a Divine Father and says: All is well with the world, or is on the way to be well. The other also accepts the Christian idea of God, but, unable to take an optimistic view of the past, present, or future of the world, introduces in some form a rival to the beneficent Deity of Christian faith. Two types of modern dualism may be distinguished, one of which discovers in the world of nature traces of a personal rival to the Good Being, counter-working His beneficent purpose, while the other finds a foe of the Divine even in the reason of man. Each of these types of dualism will engage our attention in a separate lecture.
The subject of the present lecture is Buddha1
and his view of the moral order of the world.
Buddha was the originator of a type of religion called Buddhism, which to-day is professed in the East by one-third of the human race. He was born in India, of a royal family, in the sixth century before the Christian era. The religion of India had run through a long course of development before he arrived on the scene. There was first the religion of the Vedic Indians, a comparatively simple nature-worship, poetic in feeling, and cheerful in spirit, setting a high value on the good things of this life and making these the chief objects of prayer. Then there came ancient Brahmanism, with its pantheistic conception of the universe as an emanation out of Brahma, its view of the world as an unreality, its elaborate ritual, its asceticism, and its caste distinctions. This system Buddha found in vogue, and to a large extent accepted. But in some respects his attitude was protestant and reforming. He discarded the sacred booksthe Vedic hymns, he set no value on sacrifice, he treated the Brahmanical gods with scant respect, and he disregarded caste, at least in the religious sphere.
In his religious temper Buddha differed widely both from the Vedic Indian and from the Brahman. In the cheerfulness and the frank worldliness of the former he had no part, and in contrast to the latter he set morality above ritual. He was a pessimist in his view of life, and he assigned to the ethical supreme value. From the moment he arrived at the years of reflection, he had an acute sense of the misery of man. At length, so we learn from biographical notices, a crisis arrived. One day various aspects of human sufferingold age, disease, deathfell under his observation, and thereafter a hermit came in view with a cheerful, peaceful aspect which greatly struck him. He was now resolved what to do. He would forsake the world and seek in solitude the peace he had hitherto failed to find. He withdrew into the wilderness, and lived a severely ascetic life, aloneSakya-muni, i.e. Sakya the lonely. Still he was not happy, nor did he attain peace till he discovered that the seat of evil was in the soul, and that the secret of tranquillity was to get rid of desire. This seen, Sakya-muni had become Sakya-BuddhaSakya the enlightened. Having found the way of salvation for himself, he felt impelled by sympathy with suffering humanity to make it known to others. He commenced to preach his gospel; in technical phrase, to turn the wheel of the law. The essence of his doctrine was summed up in four propositions: (1) Pain existspain, the great fact of all sentient life; (2) pain is the result of existence; (3) the annihilation of pain is possible; (4) the way to the desired end is self-mortification, renunciation of the world both outwardly and inwardly. All who were willing to receive this message, of whatever caste or character, were welcome to the ranks of discipleship. Discipleship in the strict sense meant not merely a pure life, but an ascetic habit in the solitude of the forest or in the still retreat of the monastery. From being a few, disciples grew to be many through the missionary ardour of converts, till at length the sombre faith of the Buddha became one of the great religions of the world.
On that account alone, if for no other, Buddhism would be entitled to some notice in even a short study of the thoughts of men on the moral order of the world, unless indeed it should turn out that so widely diffused a religion had nothing to say on the subject. That, however, is so far from being the case that few religions have anything more remarkable to say. For Buddhism, true to the spirit of the founder, is an ethical religion. It finds in moral good the cure of physical evil, and in moral evil the cause of physical evil. It asserts with unique emphasis a moral
order as distinct from a providential
order, the difference being that a moral order is an impersonal conception, while a providential order implies a Divine Being who exercises a providential oversight over the world. Even an atheist, like Strauss, can believe in a moral order, but only a theist can believe in a Providence. Buddha taught no doctrine either of creation or of providence, or even of God. He was not an atheist. He did not deny the being of God, or of the gods of ancient India, poetically praised in the hymns of Vedic bards and elaborately worshipped in Brahmanical ritual. He treated these gods somewhat as the Hebrew worshippers of Jehovah treated the deities of other peoples, allowing them to remain as part of the universe of being, while refusing to acknowledge them as exceptional or unique in nature, dignity, or destiny. It is characteristic of the Buddhist system to treat the gods in this cavalier fashion and to regard them as inferior to Buddha. When Buddha summons them into his presence they come; they listen reverently to his words, and humbly obey his behests. Yet Buddha is but a man, though more than divine in honour. Buddhism, it has been remarked, is the only religion in which the superiority of man over the gods is proclaimed as a fundamental article of faith.2
That the destinies of the world should be in the hands of such degraded and dishonoured beings is of course out of the question.
Equally out of the question is it that one who viewed human life as Buddha viewed it could possibly believe in a benignant Providence. Buddha's idea of life, according to all reliable accounts, was purely pessimistic. For him the great fact of life was pain, misery, and the four chief lessons to be learnt about life were that pain exists and why, that it can be put an end to and how. Birth, growth, disease, decay, deathbehold the sorrowful series of events which make life a mere vanity and vexation of spirit. Such is it as we see it, such it has ever been, such it ever shall be. The process of the whole universe is an eternal, monotonous, wearisome succession of changes, an everlasting becoming. Nothing abides, for all is composite, and all that is composite is impermanent. And the best thing that can happen to a man is to be dissolved body and soul, and so find rest among the things that are not.
While knowing nothing of a Divine Providence in our sense of the word, the religion of Buddha is honourably distinguished by its emphatic assertion of a moral order of the world. The moral order is the great fact for the Buddhist. It is the source of the physical order. Moral facts explain the facts of human experience. Wrong action is the cause of sorrow, not only in general and on the whole, but in detail and exhaustively. What a man does or has done sometime or other, explains completely what he suffers. I say has done, sometime or other, because perfect correspondence between conduct and lot is not held to be verifiable within the bounds of this present life. Buddha was fully aware of the lack of correspondence as exhibited in many startling contrasts of good men suffering and bad men prospering. But he did not thence conclude that life was a moral chaos, or that there was no law connecting lot with conduct. He simply inferred that to find the key to life's puzzles you must go beyond the bounds of the present life and postulate past lives, not one or two, but myriads, an eternal succession of lives if necessary, each life in the series being determined in its complex experience by all that went before; the very fact that there is such a life at allthat we are born once more, being due to evil done in former lives.
This conception of successive lives is so foreign to our modes of thought that it may be well to dwell on it a little.
Buddha did not invent the doctrine of transmigration
; he inherited it from the pre-existing Brahmanical religion. How it came to be there, seeing there is no trace of it in the Vedic hymns, is a question which very naturally suggests itself. Students of Indian religions have found the explanation, both of this theory and of the pessimistic conception of human life associated with it, in the Brahmanical view of God's relation to the world, according to which all being flows out of Brahma by way of emanation.3
Anthropologists prefer to see in the Indian idea a special form of a more general primitive belief having its fact-basis in observed resemblances between ancestors and descendants, and between men and beasts, naively accounted for by primitive men as due to the souls of ancestors passing into children, and of men into beasts. In higher levels of culture, as in India, they see this crude physical theory invested with ethical significance, so that successive births or existences are believed to carry on the consequences of past and prepare the antecedents of future life.4
What amount of truth may be in these hypotheses it is not necessary here to inquire. What we are concerned with is the relation of Buddha to the doctrine in question. Now at first it may seem strange that one who discarded the traditional theory of the emanation of the world out of Brahma did not also part with the kindred theory of transmigration. But on reflection we see that, while the latter theory might have no attraction for Buddha, as forming part of a merely speculative conception of the universe, it might be very welcome to him on moral
grounds. This is indeed so much the case that, had he not found the theory ready to his hand, he would have had to invent it as a postulate of his ethical creed, which maintained without qualification that men reap as they sow. That thesis is not verifiable within the bounds of the present life, at least not in a sense that would have seemed satisfactory to Buddha. You must go beyond, either forward or backward. Christians go forward, and seek in a future life a solution of the mysteries of the present. Buddha went both forward and backward, and more especially backward; and with characteristic thoroughness he gave to the hypothesis of transmigration, in an ethical interest, a very comprehensive sweep, making the range of migration stretch downwards from gods and saints, through holy ascetics, Brahmans, nymphs, kings, counsellors, to actors, drunkards, birds, dancers, cheats, elephants, horses, Sudras, barbarians, wild beasts, snakes, worms, insects, and inert things.5
The application of the doctrine, in the Buddhistic system, is as minute as it is wide. For everything that happens to a man in this life an explanation is sought in some deed done in a former life. Character and lot are not viewed, each, as a whole, but every single deed and experience is taken by itself, and the law of recompense applied to it.
The Buddhist Birth Stories, the oldest collection of folk-lore, contain curious illustrations of this habit of thought. One story tells how once upon a time a Brahman was about to kill a goat for a feast, how the intended victim had once itself been a Brahman and for killing a goat for a feast had had its head cut off in five hundred births, and how it warned the Brahman that if he killed it he in turn would incur the misery of having his head cut off five hundred times. The moral is given in this homely stanza:
If people would but understand
That this would cause a birth in woe,
The living would not slay the living;
For he who taketh life shall surely grieve.6
A less grotesque instance is supplied in the pathetic history of Kunala, a son of the famous King Asoka, the Constantine of Buddhism, related at length by Burnouf in his admirable Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism
. Kunala had beautiful eyes, which awakened sinful desire in a woman who, like his mother, was one of Asoka's wives. Repulsed, she conceived the wicked design of destroying his beauty by putting out his eyes, and carried out her purpose on the first opportunity. From our point of view this was a case of innocence suffering at the hands of the unrighteous, an Indian Joseph victimised by an Indian Potiphar's wife. But this did not content the Buddhist. He asked what had Kunala done in a previous life to deserve such a fate, and he received from his teacher the reply: Once upon a time, in a previous life, Kunala was a huntsman. Coming upon a herd of five hundred gazelles in a cavern he put out the eyes of them all. For that action he suffered the pains of hell for many hundred thousand years, and thereafter had his eyes put out five hundred times in as many human lives.7
Buddha had to go forward as well as backward in order to give full validity to his austere conception of the moral order. As in this life men enjoy and suffer for the good or evil done in former lives, so, he taught, must there be suffering and enjoyment in some future life or world for corresponding deeds done here. For the expression good or evil done Buddhism has one word, Karma. It will be convenient to use it for the longer phrase, as denoting merit and demerit, or character. The Buddhistic doctrine then is that the Karma of this life demands a future life, as this life presupposes and answers to the Karma of past lives. A future life, I have said; by which we
should, of course, understand our own life, implying personal identity, continuity of the soul's existence. Experts, however, are agreed that that is not the genuine thought of Buddhists. The soul for them is only a bundle of mental states without any substratum; therefore, like all composites, dissoluble and impermanent. Therefore, though in popular conception transmigration means transmigration of the soul
, for the disciple of Buddha it means transmigration of Karma, that is, of character
. Mr. Rhys Davids, one of the best informed of our authorities, expresses this view in these terms: I have no hesitation in maintaining that Gotama did not teach the transmigration of souls. What he did teach would be better summarised, if we wish to retain the word transmigration, as the transmigration of character. But it would be more accurate to drop the word transmigration altogether when speaking of Buddhism, and to call its doctrine the doctrine of Karma. Gotama held that, after the death of any being, whether human or not, there survived nothing at all but that being's Karma, the result, that is, of its mental and bodily actions.8
This transmigration or survival of character appears to us a very strange idea, but as Mr. Huxley has remarked,9
something analogous to it may be found in the more familiar fact of heredity
, the transmission from parents to offspring of tendencies to particular ways of acting. Heredity helps to make the idea of transmitted Karma more intelligible, and at the same time enables us in some degree to get over the feeling of its objectionableness on the score of morality. On first view, it seems an outrage on justice that my Karma should be handed on to another person that he may bear the consequences of what I have done. If my soul survived death and passed into another form of incorporated life in which I, the same person, reaped the harvest of what I had sown in a previous life, no such objection would arise. But how, one is inclined to ask, can it serve the ends of the moral order, that one should sow in conduct what another reaps in experience? It is a very natural question, yet the thing complained of is essentially involved in moral heredity. Whether we like it or not, and whatever construction is to be put upon it, it is certainly an actual fact of the moral world.
While an analogy, instructive in some respects, exists between heredity and Karma, it would be a mistake to identify them. Heredity operates within the same species, every animal producing its kind; Karma roams through all species of animated being, so that the Karma of a man living now may be handed on some day to an elephant, a horse, or a dog. Heredity is transmitted by generation; according to the developed ontology of Buddhism Karma can work without the aid of a material instrumentality.10
Heredity asserts its power in spite of great moral changes in the individual who transmits his qualities to his offspring. A saintly father who, by self-discipline, has gained victory over evil propensity may transmit, nevertheless, an inheritance of evil bias to his children. A Buddhist Arahat who, by sublime virtue, has attained Nirvana, escapes from the sway of the Karma law, and, though he may leave behind him a family born before he retired into the monastic life, he has no successor who takes upon him his moral responsibilities. Finally, in heredity the peculiarity of both parents, not to speak of atavistic or collateral contributions, are mixed in the character of offspring. Karma, on the other hand, is, as I understand, an isolated entity. Each man has his own Karma, which demands embodiment in an independent life for the working out of its moral results.
Karma then demands another life to bear its fruit. But how is the demand supplied? Now we know how Kant answered an analogous question, viz.: How is the correspondence between character and lotthat which ought to be and therefore sometime shall beto be brought about? Only, said Kant, through the power of a Being who is head both of the physical and of the moral universeGod, a necessary postulate of the practical reason, or conscience. But in Buddha's system there was no god with such powers. The gods, in his view, far from being able to order all things so as to meet the requirements of Karma, were themselves subject to its sway. How then are these requirements to be met? The answer must be, that Buddhism assigns to Karma the force of physical causation. The moral postulate is turned into a natural cause. The moral demand literally creates the needful supply. Karma becomes a substitute for Kant's Deity. Similar confusion runs through the whole system.
Another source of the endless succession of existence must now be mentioned. It is Desire, the will to live. Desire for life originates new life. This Buddhistic tenet is a new form of the old Brahmanical account of the origin of the world, based on a hymn in the tenth book of the Rig-veda, where we find the theory that the universe originated in Desire naïvely hinted in the following lines:
The One breathed calmly, self-sustained, nought else beyond it lay.
Gloom hid in gloom existed firstone sea, eluding view,
That One, a void in chaos wrapt, by inward fervour grew.
Within it first arose Desire, the primal germ of mind,
Which nothing with existence links, as sages searching find.11
The only difference between Brahmanism and Buddhism here is that in the former the desire which sets in motion the stream of existence is in Brahma, in the latter it is in individual sentient beings, the cosmological and pantheistic significance of the Brahmanical dogma being translated into an anthropological and ethical one.12
How desire, either in Brahma or in the individual man, could have such power is, of course, an unfathomable mystery. Most of us, I suspect, will agree with Mr. Rhys Davids when he bluntly declares that Buddha attached to desire, as a real, sober fact, an influence and a power which has no actual existence.13
But suppose we concede to desire all the power claimed for it, this question arises: Might it not be possible to give transmigration the slip, to break the continuity of existence, to annul the inexorable law of Karma, by ceasing from desire? Yes, joyfully, ecstatically, answered Buddha; and the reply is in brief the gist of the complementary doctrine of Nirvana. Karma and Nirvana are the great keywords of Buddhism. They represent opposite, conflicting tendencies. Karma clamours for continuance of being, Nirvana craves and works for its cessation. There is, as all must see, an antinomy here. Why should we cease to desire, if continuance of the stream of being is demanded by Karma? What higher interest can there be than that of the moral order? Ought not good men rather to cling to life for the very purpose of providing scope for the display of that order?
The precise meaning attached by Buddhists to the term Nirvana has been the subject of much discussion. Some have taken it as signifying the annihilation of the soul, while others have assigned to it the directly opposite sense of a perpetuated life of the soul in a future state of bliss. The former of these views can hardly be correct, seeing the cessation of soul-life takes place at death in the natural course of things, whereas Nirvana, whatever it be, is attained by moral effort. The latter view, while not without support in popular Buddhistic conceptions, is not in accordance with the genius of the system. Nirvana is, in the first place, a state of mind attainable in this life, the cessation of desire
rather than of existence
. According to Mr. Rhys Davids, the nearest analogue to it in Western thought is the kingdom of heaven that is within a man, the peace that passeth understanding.14
But this inward condition reached by the perfect man, the arahat
, has an important objective result. It suspends the action of the law of Karma, breaks the chain of successive existence, prevents another life, bearing its predecessor's responsibilities, from coming into being. In the words of Mr. Davids, When the arahat, the man made perfect, according to the Buddhist faith, ceases to live, no new lamp, no new sentient being, will be lighted by the flame of any weak or ignorant longing entertained by him.15
It is another instance of the Buddhist habit of turning moral postulates into physical causes. Our first example was taken from Karma. Karma demands another life to bear its fruit; therefore, according to Buddhist ways of thinking, it produces the life required. Even so with Nirvana. It demands the suspension of the law of Karma, therefore it ensures it. Hence, if all men were to become Arahats and attain Nirvana, the result ought to be the eventual extinction of animated being.
Other illustrations of the same mental habit are not wanting. The marvellous abstraction called Karma not only creates a succession of individual lives, but even a succession of worlds wherein to work out adequately the great problem of moral retribution. The cosmology of developed Buddhism is a grotesque, mad-looking scheme. But there is method in the madness. It is the moral interest that reigns here as everywhere, which, once it is perceived, redeems from utter dreariness pages concerning innumerable worlds in space and time that seem to contain but the idle dreams of an unbridled, fantastic Eastern imagination. For that which gives rise to the whole phantasmagory is the need of endless time to exhaust the results of Karma. The fruit of an action does not necessarily ripen soon; it may take hundreds of thousands of Kalpas to mature. What is a Kalpa? A great Kalpa is the period beginning with the origin of a world and extending beyond its dissolution to the commencement of a new succeeding world. This great Kalpa is divisible into four Kalpas, each representing a stage in the cosmic process of origination and dissolution. The four together cover a time of inconceivable length, immeasurably longer than would be the time required to wear away by the touch of a cloth of delicate texture, once in a hundred years, a solid rock sixteen miles broad and as many high. Yet, long as is the period of a great Kalpa, it may require many such to bring to maturity the fruit of an action done by a man during his earthly life of three-score years and ten. Therefore, as one world does not last long enough for the purpose, there must be a succession of worlds. Karma demands them, therefore Karma creates them. The Fiat of almighty Karma goes forth: Let there be worlds; and world after world starts into being in obedience to its behest. Worlds exist only for moral endsto afford adequate scope for the realisation of the moral order.
There is something sublime as well as grotesque in this cosmological creation of the Buddhist conscience. And one cannot but admire the moral intensity which conceived it possible for an action, good or evil, to be quickened into fruitfulness after the lapse of millions on millions of years, during which it lay dormant. This long delay of the moral harvest gives rise to a curious anomaly in the Buddhist theory of future rewards and punishments. It is this: men who have lived good lives in this world may go at death into a place of damnation, and men who have lived here bad lives may pass into the heaven of the gods. The damnation in the one case is the late fruitage of some evil deed done in long bygone ages, and the bliss, in the other, the tardy recompense of a good deed done in a previous state of existence. This seems a perilous doctrine to preach, presenting as it does to the hopes and fears of men prospects for the near future which appear like a reversal of the normal law of retribution.
Thus far of Karma and Nirvana. I now add a brief statement on Buddhist conceptions concerning the experience and functions of a Buddha.
In view of the infinitely slow action of the law of retribution and the strangely incongruous experiences of intermediate states, one can imagine what an interminably long and endlessly varied career one must pass through whose ultimate destiny it is to become a Buddha
one, that is, perfectly enlightened, completely master of desire, sinless, and no more in danger of sinning. One wonders, indeed, how there ever could be such a being. The Buddhist creed certainly cannot be charged with representing the making of a Buddha as an easy thing. On the contrary, he is believed to have passed through many existences under many forms of being, and in various states of being: now an animal, then a man, then a god; at one time damned, at another time beatified; in one life virtuous, in another criminal; but on the whole moving on, slowly accumulating merits which are eventually crowned with the honours of Buddhahood.16
One who has passed through such an adventurous history, and has at length arrived safely at the goal of perfect wisdom and goodness, must be a very valuable person when he comes into a world like this, full of ignorance, misery, and sin. What will be his function? What can he do for the race into which he has been born? For the Buddhist there is only one possible vocation for a Buddha. He cannot save men by vicarious goodness or suffering. Every man must be his own saviour, working out his salvation, as Buddha worked out his, through the ages and worlds, through beasthood, godhood, devilhood, to perfect manhood in some far-distant future æon. But a Buddha can tell men the way of self-salvation. He can preach to them the gospel of despair, declaring that life is not worth living, that birth is the penalty of previous sin, that the peace of Nirvana is to be reached by the extirpation of the will to live, and by gentle compassion towards all living creatures. This was how Gotama, the Buddha who was born in India some six centuries before the Christian era, occupied himself, after he became enlightened; and such must be the vocation of all possible Buddhas.
Of all possible Buddhas, I say, for to the followers of Gotama a plurality of Buddhas is not only possible but even necessary. Buddhist imagination has been busy here, as in the manufacture of worlds. The Christian knows of only one Christ, but the Buddhist knows of many Buddhas. The Buddhists of the North, according to Burnouf, believing in an infinitude of worlds situated in ten regions of space, believe also in an infinite number of Buddhas, or candidates for the honour, co-existing at the same time. The popular pantheon includes two kinds of Buddhas: a human species, and another described as immaterial Buddhas of contemplation. The theistic school of Nepaul has an Ur-Buddha
, a kind of divine head of all the Buddhas. But, according to the same distinguished authority from whom I have taken these particulars, primitive Buddhism, as set forth in the short, simple Sutras, knows only of human Buddhas, and of only one Buddha living in the world at the same time.17
Faith in a succession of Buddhas seems to be common to all Buddhistic schools. This faith has no basis in historical knowledge: it is simply the creature of theory. If asked to justify itself it might advance three pleas: possibility, need, necessity. Possibility, for it is always possible that in the long course of ages a man should make his appearance who has attained the virtue of Buddhahood. One actual Buddha proves the possibility of others. Looking at the matter a priori, one might be inclined to doubt whether in the eternal succession of existence even so much as one Buddha could ever appear. A candidate for the high distinction (called a Bodhisat) must become a proficient in the six great virtues which conduct to the further shore: sympathy, purity, patience, energy, contemplation, wisdom. One can imagine a human being working at the heroic task in his own person, or through the successive inheritors of his Karma, during countless æons, in millions of existences, and after all failing in the task. The chances are millions to one against its ever being achieved. But then Gotama was a Buddha, and in presence of that one fact all a priori reasoning falls to the ground. The thing has happened once, and it may happen again and again. And it is very desirable that it should happen repeatedly. Need justifies faith. How important that in each new world as it arises a Buddha should appear to set the wheel of doctrine in motion, to unfold the banner of the good law, and so inaugurate a new era of revelation and redemption! It is abstractly possible, of course, that no Buddha might come just when one was most wanted, or that a Buddha might arrive on the scene when there was no urgent need for him, or that a multitudinous epiphany of Buddhas might take place at the same time; for the Buddhist theory of the universe knows of no Providence over all that can arrange for the appearance on the scene of its elect agents when their work is ready for them, and so plan that there shall be no waste of power. But even a Buddhist may hope that the fitness of things will somehow be observed; and for the rest the imperious demands of theory must be complied with. The way to Nirvana must be shown to the blind, and the competent leader must be forthcoming. Stat pro ratione voluntas.
But why cannot the one historic Buddha who was born in Kapilavastu in the sixth century before Christ meet all requirements? Well, for one reason, becoming, succession, is the supreme cosmological category of Buddhism, and it is not surprising that, in sympathy with the spirit of the system, the category was applied also to Buddhahood. There is an eternal succession of Kalpas, of destructions and renovations of worlds; why not also an unending series of Buddhas? But, granting that a succession of Buddha-advents is required by the genius of the system, why should it not be simply a series of re-appearances on the part of one and the same Buddha? Because all things in this universe are impermanent, Buddhas not excepted; nay, they more than all, for existence is a curse, and it is the privilege of a Buddha to escape from it absolutely, his own candle of life going out, and not lighting, by his Karma, the lamp of a new life in another. Gotama is to-day only a memory, and nothing remains of him for his disciples to worship except his bones scattered here and there over the lands.
This series of Buddhas, as already stated, is simply the creature of theory. Once more a moral postulate is turned into an efficient cause. Buddhas are needed at recurrent intervals, therefore Buddhas are forthcoming in spite of antecedent improbabilities. Of these Buddhas, countless in number, nothing is known, save in the case of one. Pretended knowledge simply makes the careers of all the rest a facsimile of the career of that one. All are born in middle-India; their mothers die on the seventh day after birth; all are in similar way tempted by Mara, and gain victory over the tempter; all begin to turn the wheel of the law in a wood, near the city of Benares; all have two favourite disciples, and so on. The story of these imaginary Buddhas is evermore but the monotonous repetition of the legendary history of Gotama.
In proceeding to offer some critical observations on the Buddhist conception of life and of the moral order, I must begin with the remark that the great outstanding merit of this religion is its intensely ethical spirit. In Buddhism virtue, in the Indian passive senseself-sacrifice, sympathy, meeknessis supreme. It was indeed characteristic of ancient Indian religion under all forms to assign sovereign value and power to virtue in some shape. Even in the Veda, with all its naturalism, and its secular conception of the summum bonum, prayer, penitence, sanctity, wisdom, are represented as more powerful than the gods, as making men gods. But Buddhism rises to the purest conception of what virtue is, making it consist, not in meditation or self-torture, or work-holiness, but in inward purity and the utter uprooting of selfish desire. And, in opposition to Brahmanism, the new religion showed the sincerity and depth of its ethical spirit by treating caste distinctions as of subordinate importance compared with ethical qualities. It did not meddle with caste as a social institution, but it treated it as irrelevant in the religious sphere. It invited all, of whatever caste, to enter on the new path, believing all capable of complying with its requirements; and in the new brotherhood all invidious distinctions were ignored. My law is a law of grace for all, Buddha is reported to have said. Whether he uttered it or not, the saying truly reflects his attitude and the genius of his religion. It is in principle revolutionary, and, had the virtue of Buddhists not been of the quietistic type, treating all secularities as matters of indifference, it might have ended in the abolition of caste, as the Christian faith led to the eventual abolition of slavery.
One wonders why a moral consciousness so robust did not give birth to a reformed faith in God and in Providence. We have seen what it was equal to in connection with the doctrine of Karma. To Karma it assigned the functions both of creation and of providence. Karma is in fact a substitute for God. By the aggregate Karma of the various orders of living beings the present worlds were brought into existence, and their general economy is controlled. Karma creates and governs the world, because it postulates a world adapted to the working out of its requirements. Why not rather believe in a God who is at the head both of the physical and the moral worlds, and therefore able to make the two correspond? That surely is the true postulate of every system which makes the ethical supreme. Its failure to see this is the radical defect of the Buddhistic theory of the universe.
The failure was due to two causes.
First, the traditional gods of India were unworthy to hold their place in the faith and worship of men. When a severe moral temper began to prevail, sceptical reaction was inevitable. Reaction towards atheism is to be expected whenever a religious creed has degenerated into a set of dogmas in which the human spirit cannot rest; or when a creed, in itself pure, has become associated with an ignoble life. And a virtuous atheism of reaction is a better thing than the unvirtuous insincere theism or pantheism it seeks to replace. Buddhism was a virtuous atheism of reaction which sought to replace the prevalent Brahmanical pantheism. And as such it was relatively justified, a better thing than it found, if not an absolutely good thing.
But why remain in the reactionary stage? why not strive after a reformed idea of God? Why not go back to the Vedic idea of a Heaven-Father, Dyauspitar, and charge it with new, ethical contents, so giving to the world centuries before the Christian era a Father in heaven, possessing moral attributes such as Buddha admired and practisedbenignant, kind, gracious, patient, forgiving? The question leads up to the second cause of Buddha's theological shortcoming. It was due to his pessimistic interpretation of human life. Life being utterly worthless, how could a Father-God be believed in? Buddha's ethical ideal and his reading of life were thus in conflict with each other. The one suggested as its appropriate complement a benignant God over all; the other made the existence of such a Deity incredible: and the force on the side of negation proved to be the stronger. And yet the judgment on life which landed in virtual atheism was surely a mistake. All is not vanity and vexation of spirit. The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord, declares a Hebrew psalmist. Why should Hebrews and Indians think so differently, living in the same world and passing through the same experiences of birth, growth, disease, decay, death? Do race, temperament, climate, geographical position, explain the contrast?
Out of this great error concerning life sprang another equally portentous, the idea of Nirvana as the summum bonum. Life, taught Buddha, is inherently miserable; therefore let wise men cease to desire it, and abstain from kindling with the taper of Karma the light of another life. Perfectly logical reasoning; but observe in what an antinomy the Buddhist is thus landed between Karma on the one hand and Nirvana on the other. Karma and Nirvana are irreconcilable antagonists. The one creates, the other destroys, worlds. Let Karma have its way, and the stream of successive existences will flow on for ever. Let Nirvana have its way, and men will cease to be, and the worlds will perish along with them. It is a dualism in its kind, as decided as that presented in the Persian religion, but with this difference: the Persian twin spirits are opposite in character, the one good, the other evil; the Indian antagonists, on the other hand, are both good, Karma representing the moral order,righteousness, Nirvana, the summum bonum. It is a fatal thing when these two come into collision.
The Buddhist conception of Karma is as fantastic as its doctrine of Nirvana is morbid. Its atomistic idea of merit and demerit, as adhering to individual acts instead of to conduct as a whole, destroys the unity of character; and its theory of indefinitely delayed retribution is as baseless as it is mischievous in tendency. The resulting view of the world-process presents the spectacle of a moral chaos rather than a broad intelligible embodiment of sowing and reaping in the moral universe. It is unnecessary to point out how entirely diverse the world-process of Buddhist ethical theory is from that implied in the modern theory of evolution. In the evolutionary theory the world moves steadily onward from lower to higher forms of life till it culminates in man. On the Buddhist theory the universe is turned topsyturvy. The higher may come before the lower, according to the requirements of the law of Karma. Man comes first of all, not at the end of the evolutionary process, as its crown and climax; for moral acts are the prius and cause of physical creation. There had been no world unless man, with his merit and demerit, had previously been. Under the modern conception physical causality and moral aims have their distinct value, under law to a supreme Cause who controls all, and makes the two worlds work in concert. Under the Buddhist conception physical causation counts for nothing; moral requirements alone find recognition: and the result is a fantastic see-saw, a wild fluctuation in the history of moral agents who may be gods at one time, men at another, beasts at a still later stage of their existence.
Yet, in spite of all its defects, theoretical and practical, the religious movement originated by Buddha may be numbered among the forces which have contributed in a signal degree to the moral amelioration of the world. Its ethical idea, if one-sided, is pure and elevated. It has helped millions to live sweet, peaceful lives in retirement from the world, if it has not nerved men to play the part of heroes in the world. It has soothed the pain of despair, if it has not inspired hope, and has thus, as Bunsen remarks, produced the effect of a mild dose of opium on the tribes of weary-hearted Asia.18
This is all it is fitted to do, even at the best. The Buddhism even of Buddha was at most but an anodyne, sickly in temper while morally pure. The sickliness has been a more constant characteristic of the religion he founded than the purity. It has entered into many combinations which have marred its beauty, not even shrinking from alliance with the obscenities of Siva-worship.19
But no religion can afford to be judged by all the phases it has passed through in the course of its development. Let us therefore take Buddhism at its best and think of it as kindly as possible. But what it gives is not enough. Men need more than a quietive, a soothing potion; militant virtues as well as meekness, gentleness, and resignation. The well-being of the world demands warriors brave in the battle against evil, not monks immured in cloisters, and passing their lives in poverty and idleness, wearing the yellow robe of a mendicant order.