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vol. 3, p. 183
from Adyar archives of the International Theosophical Society
vol. 3 (1875-1878)


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< Buddhism and Spiritualism (continued from page 3-182) >

On theology Buddhism is absolutely silent. Yet belief in a supreme deity is not inconsistent with Buddhism. For the Buddhist temples of Ceylon almost all contain images of the Hindoo gods; and F. D. Maurice, in “Religions of the World,” quotes a most devout and beautiful prayer to God, not Buddha, of the Grand Lama of Thibet.

Buddha taught that all sentient beings had been existent in some form from eternity; that this sequence of existence was an evil; that it sprung from ignorance; that wisdom consisted in learning how to put an end to it; that he alone could teach the way, and put men on the right road to nirwana, the end of all changes of existence. He taught that there is no future existence of the individual, and yet that death is not annihilation, — another paradox! We exist and do not exist; we die and we do not die. Death in any state of existence, while it is the destruction and end of what now exists, is not the annihilation of a potentiality inherent in that existence. This potentiality is not the soul, but the karma, the merit and demerit, that is, the moral nature, of the being. An evil karma is caused by ignorance, by cleaving to the circle of existences. Hence sin. Sin is never forgiven: it must be atoned for. Thus the consequences of any sin whatever, at any period of existence, may influence the karma, and through this the fate, of any individual throughout all the sequences of his existence, till he attains nirwana; and till this goal is reached merit can never raise him so high that demerit may nor again drag him down to the bottom of the ladder. The karma of any individual, that is, his moral nature,— his value, as it were,— is not based upon the merits and demerits of any one existence, but on the sum and balance of those of all previous existences as well. And although a being in one of the lowest bells may be re-born into the world of men, or into a dewa loka, yet Buddha declares that this is just about as likely as it is for a blind turtle by accident, in coming to the surface of the sea, to put his head through the hole in an ox yoke fortuitously floating there. The elements of sentient existence are called the five khaudas: 1. The whole being apart from the mental processed; 2. Sensation; 3. Perception; 4. Discrimination; 5. Consciousness.

These five khaudas taken altogether are not the self, nor taken separately are they the self. Consequent upon death there is a dissolution of the five khaudas,— a destruction of every part of them. The idea that the soul happily flies away, like a bird from its cage, is distinctly stated to be a heterodox one. What then remains to continue the existence? The karma only; for apart from the five khaudas, which have been destroyed, there is no such thing as a soul.

Ignorance, appreciation of pain and pleasure, and cleaving to existing objects, produce the evil karma, which causes the sequence of existences. It is the karma which, at any death, determines whether the next being in the series shall be born an insect, a beast, a man, a demon, or a dewa. If it be good, it must of necessity produce a being in a state of happiness and privilege, if it be evil, in a state of misery and degradation. In the act of reproduction it can act without the aid of material instrumentality, since spirits are produced by the apparitional birth. Buddhist metaphysicians are very careful to assert that it is not the same being who is thus re-born. They illustrate this by reproduction from seed; or, better still, by the transference of a flame from one week to another. But then they also assert that the man is not the same individual as the boy. Karma is without a mind. Its ways are intricate and involved; no sentient being can possibly tell into what state the karma he possesses may appoint his next birth, although he may be now, and may continue till his death, the most meritorious of men. There will ultimately be a reward for what is good, but it may be long delayed. It acts like an hereditary disease: its evils may be long latent, and at length break out in all their virulence. It is by the aggregate karma of all orders of living beings that the present worlds were brought into existence, and that their general economy is controlled.

It does not seem that karma controls the will: therefore the Buddhistic fatality is an acquired fatality, and appears to exercise only a sort of general direction of events. If it be objected to a Buddhist, that, if there be a dissolution of all the elements of existence at death, then there can be no reward or punishment, no future world to that being, he denies this, arguing, that, if a man plant a mango stone, the tree produced belongs to him, although he planted a stone, not a tree; that, if a camper-out burn down buildings or standing grain, by carelessness about his Are, be is punished for it, although the flame that did the damage is not the same identical flame which he kindled, &c. Yet he declares that the flame is as much the same flame, as the flame of a wick is the same at one moment as at another. Indeed, that this is only a metaphysical subtlety is clear from the fact that Buddha himself, and other saints, could remember and recount any of their past experiences.

Karma with Buddha was the supreme controlling power of the universe, as far as he knew. He ignores, but does not deny, the possible existence of an intelligent and personal Deity. The government of karma is, however, a government of moral law, — a law which never errs in its decisions. Thus, although it is not the same individual that arises from the ashes of the funeral pyre, there is no escape from the consequence of sin; for the being who has come into existence by means of the karma of the departed inherits all its responsibilities. Moreover, since it is admitted that the resultant being is as much the same individual as the man is the same as the boy, to say that it is yet not the same seems to us a mere paradox.

The karma of any individual, then, — that which determines its destiny, — is the sum of all its merits and demerits from eternity.

The action of karma is quite uncertain: merit or demerit may operate in fortune at once in this life, or its operation may be delayed for countless ages. No other theory to account for the operation of the universe has ever been broached like unto that of karma, save that of the philosopher Fichte, who says that “the arrangement of moral sentiments and relations, that is, the moral order of the universe, is God.”

The ontology of Buddhism is an immense subject, which I have only just touched on for the purpose of explaining the most important of its theories,— that of karma. Buddhist philosophers enter into endless disquisitions in, and definitions of, all the moral, intellectual, and sensational powers of the mind. There is no space for pursuing the subject further here.

The ontology of Spiritualism I do not Understand: It is yet in its infancy. Yet the Spiritualists as a body bold, I know, the opinion that on death the soul “flits” sway from the body like a bird from its cage, — a theory which Buddhist sages distinctly declare to be heretical. Spiritualists do not believe in the existence of all beings from eternity; they do not dream of transmigration into animal forms. These notifies seem to us to be absurd, and may be so; but they are at least as reasonable and easy of belief as that of new and independent creations by some unknown power.

Spiritualism, for the most part, believes in a personal God; but he has never chosen to reveal himself to man, save through the moral order of his universe, which is accordingly the only deity the Buddhist acknowledges. The personality seems to deny the infinite of God; for does not personality imply limitation? And when you have got your God, is he not just as difficult to account for as is the Buddhist karma?

Carried out to its apparently necessary conclusions, the doctrine of karma would seem to reader it infinitely improbable that any friends on earth would ever meet again, would ever—

“Feel the touch of a vanished hand,
Or hear the voice that is still.”

And were this so, it must be admitted that the doctrine is an infinitely melancholy one. Yet, in point of fact, —In judge from the parables and tales of Buddha, — the more usual course in which it operates seems to be in bringing together again and again, in re-births, old friends and acquaintances, who thus work out upon one another the punishments and rewards of former injuries or benefits; and, so far from the immediate fate of the virtuous man being practically an utter uncertainty, it is constantly represented that a life of virtue, in any one state, leads certainly to a happy re-birth in the next. The existence of a spiritual body, bearing any sort of resemblance to this form of clay, — nay, the soul itself, as we understand it, — is distinctly denied by the Buddhists. The organized body, with all that appertains to it, decays, or is utterly destroyed as such; nothing at all remains of the departed existence but the karma, or moral value: by the inherent power of this, and in accordance with its quality, a new body is formed; but it is no more any part of the old existence than the flame transferred to a new wick is of the old flame. So says Buddha.

God and the soul blotted out of the universe, it would seem as though a hopeless void were left, — a melancholy emptiness, in whose presence the practice of virtue would be an absurdity, and nope in the future a delusion. We shall see in the next paper what singular perfection of the moral code has sprung up upon this baseless and sandy foundation, and with what solidity it has stood the assaults of time and enemies, the world and the devil. I remember often thinking when I was a youth, and an orthodox Christian, that, in view of such great probability of eternal misery to offspring, nothing should ever tempt me to become a father. I remember often wondering at the selfishness of reproductive Christians. The great improvement the spiritual philosophy has wrought in our ideas of futurity, has somewhat quieted my conscience on this score; but, were I an orthodox Buddhist, no compunction could ever trouble my mind, since as a parent I become only the blind instrument of a karma, which must be worked out in a similar fashion in any case: I originate no eternal misery. The practice of abortion, so common in the present day, may possibly have owed its origin and frequency to scruples as honest, just, and conscientious as my own. I do not think that an orthodox Christian mother — from her paint of view — is wrong in practicing this method of saving her innocent offspring from the talons of “a justly incensed God;” for does she not believe and say that truly “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”?