Nirvana and Religion | Early Buddhism 4


Bondage and Liberation

The Buddha was convinced that much misery was due to the fact that men sought their own good in preference to that of others under the impression that they had a distinctive self of their own to nourish and preserve here and hereafter.

Of the five lower fetters (samyojanā) belief in a permanent individuality is the first, while of the five higher fetters desire for existence in the world of form and desire for existence in the formless world are the first two.

If men could be persuaded to give up their belief in the reality of an abiding self, they would see the futility of self-seeking on earth and hankering after a future life after bodily death.

The Buddha taught the doctrine of a middle path between eternalism and annihilation-ism:

 There is no eternal soul, it is true, but then the elements that go into the composition of individuality persist.

The skandhas, again, may dissolve, but then the karmas of a temporary aggregation, called a particular individual, pass on to another temporary aggregation, which is a different individual.

Soul does not migrate but karma does, and that should increase our sense of responsibility, seeing that by our action we are laying the foundation of happiness or misery of another individual that is to come into being after our death as a result of our own karma.

The Brāhmanic philosophers criticized the doctrine as involving a double injustice, namely:

1. that the agent fails to reap the fruits of his own actions (kṛta-praṇāśa) and somebody else suffers the consequences of his moral acts (akrtābhyupagama),

2. and belief in the Buddha's previous births (jātaka) practically recognized some sort of continuity.

The fructification of the moral act, according to early Buddhism, was not dependent either on a divine dispenser of justice or on the continuance of the same soul through different embodiments—

the moral law was autonomous in its operation, only that it ceased to function when dominated by the superior law that spiritual illumination annuls the fruition of accrued (sañcita) and accruing (āgāmin) deeds

though it does not cancel the results of actions that have begun to function already in this life (prārabdha).

A Buddha or an Arhat attains nirvana with residue (upādhi-śeṣa) here below—becomes a Jīvan­mukta, to use the Vedāntic terminology:

his body continues to function till death, but his soul ceases to acquire a momentum for rebirth as all desires are now at an end.

When the body drops off, he attains nirvana without residue (anupādhi-śeṣa) as no fresh embodiment takes place and the stream of consciousness that formed individuality dries up alto­gether with the accumulated actions (black, white or mixed), that neither ripen (vipāka) nor fructify (phala) any more.

It is natural that inquisitive minds like Mālunkyaputta, Uttiya and Vacchagotta should like to be enlightened about the destiny of the enlightened (tathāgata) after death.

The Buddha discouraged inquisitiveness about matters that had no direct bearing on holy living and did not lead to detachment, cessation of desire, stoppage of sorrow, tranquillity, higher knowledge of spiritual illumination and peace.

He used to say (e.g. in the Pāsādika-suttanta), that of the things he knew he had chosen to have some not clearly explained (avyākṛta), and among these was the state of the enlightened after death (nirvāṇa), enquiry into which he considered to be vain and heretical.


What then is nirvana—the final goal of all spiritual endeavour?

If mukti were synonymous with extinction, then the mainspring of moral endeavour would be broken. If it were identical with eternal persistence as an individual, it would breed selfishness.

When not inclined to commit himself to any definite view on the subject, the Buddha used to say (e.g. in the Brahmajāla and Poṭṭhapāda suttas) that nirvana connoted neither existence nor non-existence separately, nor did it mean both or neither of them at once.

It was indescribable in language.

Just as it is irrelevant to ask where or in what direction the fire of an extinguished lamp goes, so also it is improper to attempt to fix the location or direction of a departed saint. Both are simply blown out (nibbuto) and disappear from knowledge.

This reticence might create the impression that the Buddha either did not know or did not teach what became of the departed soul.

But being opposed to annihilation, he taught also, in negative terms, that nirvana was putting an end to the ills of life and that it was equivalent to escape from a world enveloped in the flame of desire, i.e. the extinction of all desires—of attachment, aversion and delusion.

In describing the ascent of the soul through the various meditations and trances (jñāna) the Buddha places above the realm of nothingness (ākiñcanya) certain higher reaches of consciousness,

thereby indicating that vacuity was not the last word on spiritual life and that the indescribability of nirvana need not prevent us from describing it negatively as the complete removal of all passions (kleśāvaraṇa) and all impediments to true knowledge (jñeyā- varaṇa).

The Buddha is said to have felt immediately after attaining bodhi (enlightenment) that the two points in his philosophy that might prove a stumbling-block to the multitude were the theory of causality and the nature of nirvana,

and he even hesitated at first to preach his message to mankind; but ultimately his compassionate nature (symbolized by the vision of the soliciting Brahmā sahampati) prompted him to take up the burden of spiritual ministration for the happiness and benefit of many.

But puzzles they still remain, and nirvana specially has worn many shapes according to the inclination and cultural stage of the enquirers.

The idea that nirvana was an uncompounded element gave it a positive character, and the further description of it as attainment of immortality (amata-padam) and bliss (sukha) tended to identify it with an eternally blissful condition,

though a state of peace that passes all understanding in view of the fact that vimokkha (deliverance, emancipation), is supposed to correspond to absolute cessation of consciousness (saññā-vedayita- nirodha)

and has nothing to do with the pleasures of heaven which the Arhat is supposed to have spurned at, in course of his progress towards perfection, as a deceit and a snare.

The Yogin of Brahmanism, the tīrthamkara (not to speak of the siddha) of Jainism and the Arhat of Buddhism are all superior to the gods whose long but terminable existence as such they all pity and do not envy at all.

The many miraculous powers (siddhi) and transcendental knowledges (abhiññā) that the saint in his progress towards emancipation acquires, whereby the physical forces fail to hinder him and are completely dominated by him,

and distant and subtle things, past and future events, the minds of others and the destinies of men enter into his knowledge, are also to be looked upon as mere inci­dental gains in which he should not exult,

as released souls are not interested in action and accumulation of knowledge.

The true or noble power is the capacity to turn completely away from the impurity of life and to control the mind, will, purpose and thought, and not to show marvels to create an impression on or win converts. .

Similarly, his mind should be directed towards ascending the different stages of ecstasy, trance or meditation, successively through ordinary reasoning and investigation, inner clarification, bliss and complete apathy, after which he quits the world of form altogether

and passes successively through the knowledge of the realm of the infinity of space where plurality and finite materiality are at an end, the infinity of con­sciousness where objective references are totally absent,

the realm of nothingness where complete absence of the subjective and the objective reference holds, the realm of neither presence nor absence of ideas where indeterminate and unspecifiable knowledge fills the mind and, lastly, the realm of the suppression of all empirical consciousness.

When we talk of gods, they must be thought of as being merged in meditations of different depths, but none in possession of the final intuition of the four noble truths, which is the positive counterpart of the last stage of withdrawal from empirical knowledge of the formless world.

Neither in this life nor after does the soul truly exist, for this reason no kind of embodiment can be seen as eternal—not even the divine type which is sometimes supposed to be so.

The spiritual aspirant must therefore get rid of the ethical and intellectual impediments that prevent his getting into the stream of salvation and attaining successively the stages of a once- returner, a non-returner and, finally, an Arhat.

It is obvious that hard spiritual exercise is needed to attain this ultimate objective.

The four sublime contemplations, namely:

benevolence towards all creation (maitrī), compassion towards the distressed (karuṇā), joy at others happiness (muditā), and indifference towards others' faults (upekṣā),

are needed to expand one's mind—to make one fit to roam in Brahman (brahma-vihāra-bhāvanā).

And these four would be considerably reinforced if we contemplate also the loathsomeness of the body (a-śubha- bhāvanā).

Constant remembrance (anu-smṛti) of the formula of refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha, the practice of breathing exercise and such other formulae must have been added later;

but yogic meditation antedated the Buddha's time and the same prescription of passing from the gross to the subtle, from the physical to the psychical, and from the feeling to the intuitive aspect of life, must have been in vogue in the contemporary systems of thought also.

Quietude or equanimity (samatva) is what these systems all aimed at along with prajñā which goes beyond mere morality and contemplation. The noble or good law rested on discipline (vinaya) and discernment of truth (dhamma).

Buddhism As Religion

That the Buddha who did so much to spread rationalism in dogma and rituals should himself be the locus of an adoration bordering on the religious in the Mahāpadāna Suttanta is due to the Buddha's demanding a pre-eminence for himself

over the other seekers after truth and salvation and even claiming a unique existence for himself (as the Buddha) as a being other than gods, men, etc.

The marks of a great person (mahā-puruṣa) distinguished him from ordinary mortals, and miracles soon gathered round his life and activities.

The ten powers or rather the penetrating knowledge of all things, the eighteen qualities peculiar to him which enabled him to possess omniscience and to adjust his conduct, speech and mind properly to all things,

and the four assurances that made him know positively that he had attained the saving knowledge entitled him to many honorific titles, such as Jina, Sarvajñā, Sugata, Tathāgata, Bhāgavat, etc.,

the Buddha was made to claim also that he had come in the line of succession of other Buddhas whose number was expanded from six—Vipassi, Sikhi, Vessabhū, Kakusandha, Koṇāgamana and Kaśyapa—to four times that number,

beginning with the Buddha Dīpankara under whom the present Buddha, then known as Sumedha, is supposed to have taken a vow that he would dedicate his life to the weal of creation and by whom final illumination was predicted for him.

The theory of later Buddhas, such as Maitreya, meets us later. In the Buddha's time there was occasional recognition of householders attaining mokṣa, but not of Arhats embracing the life of Bodhisattvas toiling through innumerable lives to become Buddhas in the end, for according to the canonical Scripture there could be only one Buddha in one cycle.

No wonder that Buddhological speculations should start as a consequence and even Docetism should be preached to justify the total distinction of the Buddha from ordinary mortals and saints,

and the different Schools should wrangle over the nature of the Buddha, alive and dead, and discuss the purpose for which gifts were to be made to the departed Buddha

and the spiritual well-being that was expected to follow from devotion to a released saint who could take no interest in or appreciate the reverential approach.

The belief that the places of the Buddha's nativity, enlighten­ment, first sermon and decease were places of sacred pilgrimage to the Community,

that monks and nuns could obtain liberation only by taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha, and could never hope to attain his position, and that the Buddha was superior to the gods of the brāhmanic pantheon, e.g. Indra and Brahma,

could very well start an attitude of religious devotion towards the founder of the faith and prompt the veneration paid to the stupas as if to a god in his temple.

The real counter-reformation began, however, in the Mahāyāna when the Buddha was raised to the status of the primal principle, and a theory of emanation supplied the theogonic aspect of religious belief

and later on reintroduced the old gods of Vedic times and adopted the new pantheon of Brahmanism in its own way under the impact of Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism that had begun to dominate the religious field after the Upaniṣadic upheaval had thrust the older gods out.


Earlier Buddhism made no distinction between esoteric and exoteric teaching as Mahāyānism did;

it did not encourage the idea that one should postpone attaining nirvana in the hope that one would thereby be enabled to stay in saṁsāra to help others in the path of sanctification;

it discountenanced the fond hope that all Arhats could resolve to start life as a Bodhisattva and ultimately become a Buddha; it discouraged facile idealism and nihilism.

It asked men to look upon the world to be sufficiently real to cause trouble to spiritual aspirants; it emphasized the loneliness of the advanced spirits and the necessity of personal endeavour to win salvation

without looking forward to extraneous help or hoping to be absorbed in a universal essence—it was a kaṭhina-yāna (difficult career or path) as opposed to the sahaja-yāna (easy course or path) of later belief in the efficacy of faith; it promised no blissful heaven to the saved.

Was it therefore a selfish creed inasmuch as it asked every soul to be a lamp unto himself and win personal salvation without caring for the spiritual emancipation of others?

This would be hardly true in face of the fact that the Buddha resisted the temptation to keep the secret of salvation to himself,

and that Buddha directed the monks- to roam all over the country, except during the rainy season, to bring the message of emancipation to the doors of the worldly-minded laity.

Still it was nicknamed Hīnayāna by its rival branch, the Mahāyāna, because no saint (śrāvaka) had any objective but his own salvation, and that to be won as quickly as possible without reference to the religious progress of the community as a whole.

Śrāvaka-yāna or Arhat-yāna is, therefore, a little vehicle (hīna-yāna) which can only carry one passenger safely across the stormy sea of life

while Buddha-yāna or Bodhisattva-yāna is the great vehicle (mahā-yāna) because in his capacious boat the saint can ferry other souls across the dangerous flood of saṁsāra.

It has been suggested that a better distinction, without indicating reproach of any kind, would be between Northern and Southern Buddhism:

Ceylon, Burma and Siam are strongholds of the earlier creed, while Nepal, Tibet, China and Japan constitute the home of the later creed.

From travellers’ accounts, archaeological remains and literary evidence it would appear that the geographical distribution was not clear-cut, and latterly both forms—Southern and Northern, Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna— flourished side by side and even in the same monastic establishments.

We must therefore content ourselves with the position that in language (Sanskrit or Pali or mixed Sanskrit), in sculpture, in religious and philosophical belief, in the rigour of ethical discipline and the extent of sacred literature,

divergence appeared and divided the followers of the Buddha into two major camps where the different Schools of Buddhist thought gathered

and that contact with foreign modes of belief and speculation was responsible for introducing greater innovations into Northern Buddh­ism than into Southern with its three baskets (Piṭakas) of Sutta (doctrine), Vinaya (discipline), and Abhidharma (philosophy).