Chapter II
Sentient Existence



The word Ego, when it occurs in this book, usually translates Pāli attan, Sanskrit ātman. It is more literally rendered Self; but I have preferred the word Ego, as the reader is not thereby led astray into thinking of the Brahmanical Universal Self and kindred doctrines. Buddhist doctrine is quite different and negative, as the reader will see. In selection § 15 a, however, Ego represents Pāli puggala, a word I sometimes render by 'individual,' as, for example, throughout selection § 40 b.

In the first two selections of this chapter occurs a list of ten theories which have caused considerable trouble, not merely, as may be supposed, to their original propounders, but to modern students of Pāli Buddhism. This latter-day anxiety, however, concerns itself not so much with their truth, as with the question, what was really the precise attitude of The Buddha with respect to them. Did he claim to know the truth concerning them, but refuse to tell; or did they lie entirely outside of the scope of his philosophy; or what other reason could he have for refusing to discuss them? Now I think that all these questions are left unanswered for the same reasons. If the reader will compare these two selections with selection § 15 d, and in particular note the next to the last paragraph on page 141, I think that he will see that The Buddha considered all such questions to be out of court. [112] All the questions (even perhaps the two concerning the finiteness or the infinity of the world) take for granted what he denies. Hence he refuses to give a Yes or No answer, just as any one of us might be excused for doing, in case any one were to be so impolite as to ask, "Have you left off beating your mother?" The truth of no one of these theories could be allowed. They were one and all heretical and incompatible with his doctrine. In proof of this, see selection § 15 d and page 167. But The Buddha also objected to these questions as being metaphysical ones and betraying a speculative spirit on the part of those who asked them. His was a purely practical aim, and his arguments à posteriori. If he taught his disciples the truth concerning misery and how misery could be made to cease, he thought that should suffice, and cared not to go deeper into ultimate questions than was sufficient for that end. This, I take it, is the reason why at the end of § 67 The Buddha objected to the form of the priest's question concerning the four elements. For The Buddha's way of putting the question does not appear to me so very different; but he added to it so as to make it apply to the living being.

The Buddha's system was a religious one, his philosophy an applied philosophy; and in the sermons and sayings attributed directly to The Buddha there is but little metaphysics that does not have a direct and practical bearing. Hence it is that I have given to this chapter the caption Sentient Existence. By this phrase, I in no way intend to imply that the doctrines herein advanced have no application to the inanimate world, but as The Buddha in his teachings kept constantly in mind the welfare of what had the capability of suffering, of undergoing rebirth, I find but little to insert concerning inorganic nature. Section 24, which bears directly on the subject, is not taken from the Tipitaka, but [113] from the Visuddhi-Magga, a work that endeavors to be systematically complete.

Here I would call the reader's attention to the Three Characteristics which I have placed at the head of this book, as giving the Buddhist pessimistic analysis of the universe. The Three Characteristics are applicable to inanimate as well as to animate nature. This makes it hard to translate the third Characteristic, as what is translated by Ego in the case of sentient beings cannot so be rendered in the case of lifeless things, but some such phrase as an underlying persistent reality (substantia) must be employed. This question of an Ego in sentient beings or of an underlying persistent reality in inanimate matter is of the last importance in Buddhism. Unless the thesis of this chapter be true, the scheme of salvation elaborated in the fourth chapter is impossible. Hence the reader will find this subject taken up in this and the two following chapters with perhaps wearying iteration. A very curious and instructive parallel can here be drawn between Buddhism and the teachings of modern science. All evolution of animate nature can be characterized as a process of self-integration or assertion of self through countless generations. The Buddhists make a similar statement; only they say that a man inherits from himself, and do not bring in the scientific doctrine of heredity, or inheritance from others. If such is the origin of the sentient being, then, naturally, the disintegration of self will cause dissolution, as the fourth chapter will explain.

I hope that the reader will be able to make out the Buddhist theory of existence. It does not appear to me that it corresponds to either τὸ ὄν or τὸ γιγνόμενον, nor yet is it nihilism, that is to say, a doctrine of unreality. The human being is composed of five groups, so-called because they each consist of many independent elements. In the case of the [114] sensation-group, these elements of being are said to be consecutive in time, but in other cases many members of one group can occur at the same time; for instance, it is stated in the Visuddhi-Magga that over thirty predispositions occur in conjunction with the first of the eighty-nine consciousnesses. Now each of the elements that together form a group is an independent existence, and is real enough while it lasts. All things we know of are formed from one or more of these groups. When milk changes to sour cream, Buddhist doctrine does not say that an underlying substance has entered on a new mode or phase of being, but that we have a new existence, or rather, perhaps, anew existence-complex, --that is to say, that the elements of the form-group that now compose the sour cream are not the same as those that composed the milk, the elements that composed the milk having passed away and new ones having come into being. This is what is intended in § 24, when it says, "This form in the series of forms belonging to its own nature." It would appear from page 151 that the form-group contains tolerably persistent elements, while those of the mental groups are momentary and more easily overcome. So far as the mental groups are concerned, Nirvana can be obtained in the present life, but from the form-group deliverance can only be attained at death, because, as stated on page 156, "whereas there are sensations, perceptions, etc. [i.e. predispositions and consciousnesses] which are not subject to depravity, it is not so with form."

Having explained the nature of the human being as consisting of the five groups, the next thing to be done is to show the causes of these five groups and how their several series are perpetuated. All this, too, must be done without recourse being had to what we call a First Cause. This gives occasion for an elaborate theory which is expressed in the [115] formula of Dependent Origination (Pāli paticcasamuppāda), also called the middle doctrine, as avoiding the doctrine of τὸ ὄν on the one hand, and of nihilism or the denial of the reality of existence on the other. The Buddhist Sacred Books seem to claim Dependent Origination as the peculiar discovery of The Buddha, and I suppose they would have us understand that he invented the whole formula from beginning to end. But it is to be observed that the formula repeats itself, that the human being is brought into existence twice--the first time under the name of consciousness and name and form and by means of ignorance and karma, the second time in birth and by means of desire (with its four branches called attachments ) and karma again, this time called existence. See § 35. Therefore, though Buddhaghosa, as the reader will see, is at great pains to explain this repetition as purposely intended for practical ends, yet one is much inclined to surmise that the full formula in its present shape is a piece of patchwork put together of two or more that were current in The Buddha's time and by him--perhaps expanded, perhaps contracted, but at any rate--made into one. If The Buddha added to the formula of Dependent Origination, it would appear that the addition consisted in the first two propositions. For ignorance, of course, is the opposite of wisdom, and wisdom, or the third discipline, that is to say, the method for getting rid of ignorance, is, as the reader will see in the Introductory Discourse to the fourth chapter and elsewhere in this book, The Buddha's particular contribution to the science of meditation; whereas concentration, or the second discipline, the method for opposing desire, he had learnt from his teachers. In § 37 these first two propositions are omitted, and consciousness and name-and-form of the third proposition are made mutually dependent.

The same antithesis of ignorance and desire appears also to [116] be present in the threefold fire of lust, hatred, and infatuation, where lust and hatred can be viewed as but the two opposite poles of the same feeling and will then together stand for desire, while infatuation will represent ignorance.

In addition to my remarks on attan and puggala above, it may be well to say a few words in regard to my translations of some other Pāli terms. "Elements of being" (dhamma) and "constituents of being" (saṅkhāra) are often used synonymously to mean the individual components of the Five Groups; but when dhamma refers to the twelve terms of the formula, Dependent Origination, I have sometimes used the phrase "factors of being." The two terms dhamma and saṅkhāra are very troublesome to render into English, both because they each of them mean so many things and because their ground meaning is not translatable into English, being expressive of a different philosophy. Saṅkhāra means what makes or what is made, fashioned, or put together: we should naturally with our different beliefs say, creator and created things. Everything except Nirvana and space is saṅkhāra. Saṅkhāra as a name for the fourth group, I translate by predispositions; as the second term in Dependent Origination, by karma. Dhamma means any established law, condition, or fact, either of nature or of human institutions. It is the word I render by Doctrine when it signifies The Buddha's teachings. This word dhamma occasioned me especial difficulty when used in § 74 to characterize the subjects of the Fourth Contemplation. But although "elements of being" is a bad rendering, the reader need not be led astray, as all the different things denoted by it are there enumerated.


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