THEOSOPHY, Vol. 49, No. 2, December, 1960
(Pages 76-78; Size: 9K)


[Article number (4) in this Department]

AN increasing interest in the psychological components of Buddha's teaching, as well as the present phase of popular fascination by Zen, naturally encourages the Theosophical student to seek connectives between Buddhism and Theosophy. Particularly is one tempted to affirm that Buddha, himself -- the source of so much more profundity than Westerners ever used to realize -- upheld the teaching of reincarnation. But most textbooks on comparative religion deny that Buddha held any such conviction. Can Buddha's teaching of reincarnation be unequivocally demonstrated?

The Key to Theosophy explains some distinctions between Theosophy and Buddhism by calling attention to the difference between the esoteric and the thoroughly-publicized teachings of Gautama. The often-quoted passage from the Samyuttaka Nikaya, wherein the Buddha refused to answer Vacchagotta's question as to whether the "ego" really exists, is commented upon by H.P.B: in a footnote on page 81. Here she remarks that such equivocation "shows, better than anything, that Gautama withheld such difficult metaphysical doctrines from the masses in order not to perplex them more. What he meant was the difference between the personal Ego and the Higher Self, which sheds its light on the imperishable Ego, the spiritual 'I' of man."

From this and other of Buddha's conversations with his disciples, the anatta or "no soul" doctrine was developed -- apparently on the ground that if Buddha did not affirm the existence of the soul as a kind of eternally-enduring entity he must be opposed to the teaching of immortality. One of the most recent discussions of Buddhism appears in Huston Smith's The Religions of Man, in which the author comments upon this particular puzzle:

This anatta (no soul) doctrine has again caused Buddhism to look like a peculiar religion, if indeed deserving of the name at all. But once more the word in question must be used with the greatest possible care. What was the atta (Pali for the Sanskrit atman) or soul which Buddha denied? In Buddha's day it had come to signify (1) a spiritual substance which in accord with the dualistic outlook in Hinduism (2) retained its separateness throughout eternity.

Buddha denied both elements in this concept of soul. His denial of soul as a spiritual substance -- a sort of miniature self in the head -- appears to have been the chief point that distinguished his concept of transmigration from prevailing Hindu interpretations. Authentic child of India, he never doubted that reincarnation in some sense was a fact, but he was openly uncomfortable over the way his Brahmanic contemporaries were interpreting the concept.

This interpretation prepares the way for the view that while the personality should not be regarded as an eternally integral reality, the influences of each personality are transmitted, through ideation, into the next inhabitable form. On this point also, Prof. Smith is useful when, to the concept of a universal spiritual essence rather than individualized "spirits," he adds Buddha's acceptance of karma:
The best summary of his views we can construct would run something like this: (1) There is a chain of causation threading each life to those which have led up to it and others which will follow. That is to say, each life is in the condition it is in because of the way the lives which have led into it were lived. (2) In the midst of this causal sequence, man's will remains free. Though the orderliness of the world sees to it that up to a point acts will be followed by predictable consequences, these consequences never shackle man's will or determine completely what he must do. Man remains a free agent, always at liberty to do something to affect his destiny....
Buddha's fundamental emphasis is on the attainment of wisdom, and he was opposed to any confusion between the ideas of wisdom and status. If one thinks of one's "soul" as moving up the ladder of being, always striving for a higher placement, he is, in Buddha's terms, confusing the soul with the personality. The spiritual essence of man is not concerned with status nor with rewards or punishments. The devotee of wisdom seeks to bring to maturity a certain attitude of mind, but this attitude of mind is out of all relation to place or status. While priests may give assurance that a devotee is "on the right track," or is "progressing well," such assurances are irrelevant to the man who seeks wisdom -- since the man who is really seeking wisdom needs no assurance.

These points are found in an interesting context in a contemporary Buddhist publication, Chetana, printed in Bombay. An article by A. A. G. Bennett, "The Buddha's Decision to Teach," has a passage which is clearly relevant to these subtleties:

The Buddha was once asked if there existed any quality to be cultivated in the present life which would continue over into the world beyond. He replied in one word: "Vigilance," apramada. Many people looking for advanced theory or pedantic exercises may object that this teaching is too simple; there must be something abstruse or transcendental about it. There are both these; the Enlightenment itself lay in the attaining of the Buddha to the Maha-prajna, or Great Wisdom, but the event was not without preparation. ... One's instrument is one's mind; it needs to be correctly set and balanced in order to serve its purpose and to produce the best possible result; the player needs to be able to discern that result and produce it. "All things are preceded by mind, have mind foremost, are mind-made," says the Dhammapada. We have, then, in Buddhism, a Mind-culture, and in one's study of Mind one can have all the profundity and complexity one cares to invoke.
The foregoing may help to explain why we are unable to find any direct emphasis on reincarnation in the Dhammapada. We do find, however, that after all of Buddha's remarks concerning self-study of the mind, he incidentally refers to rebirth as a self-evident fact in Nature. For example, in "The Brahamana," verses 32 and 41 say:
Him I call a Brahamana who has gone beyond the miry road of rebirth and delusion difficult to cross and who has reached the other shore; who is meditative, who is without doubt, without attachment, who is calm and content.

Him I call a Brahamana who knows his former lives, who knows heaven and hell, who has reached the end of births, who is a sage of perfect knowledge and who has accomplished all that has to be accomplished.

In other words, one could say that Buddha feels that the subject of reincarnation comes up ideally for consideration only after one has rid himself of enough immaturities of mind to be no longer the psychological victim of personal karmic circumstances. Yet the "in passing" reference to reincarnation above has obvious relation to the fact that in Buddha's time the acceptance of some doctrine of reincarnation was universal and unquestioned.

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(January 1961)
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