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Buddhist And Jain Ethics, And Egoistic Hedonism

( Originally Published 1922 )

THERE are contained in the Upanishads the germs of the great Hindu philosophical systems. The most famous of these is the Vedanta, a system of philosophy which found its ablest and most impressive exponent in Sankaracharya. In our discussion of the ethics of the Upanishads, for the sake of clearness, we went on the assumption that their philosophical groundwork was on the lines of Vedantic monism. This assumption was justifiable. The great Upanishads, at any rate so far as the main lines of their teaching is concerned, admit of this monistic explanation, while, on the other hand, where other philosophical tendencies appear, their distinctive conceptions have but comparatively slight influence on the ethical outcome. At this point, however, attention may be drawn to the fact that the foundations of other systems are present in the Upanishads, and that when these systems came to be clearly differentiated from each other, certain of them were recognized as orthodox, in spite of the divergences in their doctrine. The ground for this ascription of orthodoxy was their supposed agreement with Vedic teaching. They were not the speculations of schools which rejected all authority but that which reason would admit. They were nothing more than expositions of more ancient teaching from particular standpoints.

We propose to consider now in as brief space as possible three systems of thought which lay no claim to orthodoxy, rejecting as they do the authority of the Vedic writings. They are taken at this point because they were evolved before the six great systems received the form given to them by their chief exponents. The first two, Buddhism and Jainism, have much in common with each other, while the last, the system of the Charvakas, has this only in common with the other two that it is equally heretical. All fall outside the main stream of Hindu thought, though the first two in particular have profoundly influenced it. It is impossible for us therefore to pass them by, and we shall consider them together now in a brief chapter.

Buddhism developed directly out of Brahmanism, retaining much of what was most characteristic in the Brahmanical point of view. Indeed, there is a sense in which it may be said that Buddhism in its original form was really a reformulation on ethical lines of what was most fundamental in the existing systems of thought. The ritualistic and magical elements were rejected or relegated to a less determinative position, and the strictly ethical consequences of certain ideas which had become firmly established in the Hindu mind, especially karma and samsara were brought out.

Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a Kshatriya, a member of a noble family. The circumstances of his birth determined for him, as for all Hindus, the place which he was to occupy in the social system with all that this had come to involve of duty, religious, social, and ethical. Further, from his early days his mind would be steeped in the current conceptions of the meaning of the world and of life. When he was twenty-nine years of age he took a step which had been taken by many of the higher classes—he deserted wife, home, and possessions, and entered upon the life of the religious devotee. He was moved to take this step by the dispeace of mind which had come to possess him in his participation in the enjoyments, interests, and cares of the world. In his dispeace of mind there came to him four-visions-of a decrepit old man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and a dignified ascetic. The visions of age, sickness, and death filled him with horror, for he realized that he himself must one day pass through these experiences. The peaceful life of the hermit, on the other hand, spent in meditation and self-discipline, seemed to him to offer a way of escape from the miseries which beset life. It is important to observe that in entering upon the ascetic life, Gautama was impelled by the same motive as has Been operative all through the history of Hinduism, viz. the desire to find a way of deliverance for his own soul from the round of karma and samsara. We do not know with certainty what philosophical training he had received. Efforts have been made to prove a close connexion between his later doctrine and those ideas which formed the basis of the Samkhya philosophy. But so far as our ethical study is concerned this is a matter of little importance, for the philosophical ideas involved in his ethical teaching are not the property of any single school.

Gautama shared the belief which was practically universally held by Hindus, that through tapas or austerities it was possible to acquire great merit. We have seen that tapas was regarded from two points of view ; on the one hand, it had efficacy of a magical or quasi-magical order, bringing to him who practised it superhuman powers which he might exercise over nature, his fellow-men, and even the gods ; on the other hand, it came, particularly in the Upanishads, to be regarded from a more properly ethical point of view, as a discipline that had value in loosening the bonds binding the soul to the things of sense, and thus helping it to the attainment of that discrimination or knowledge, that insight into the true nature of reality, which meant deliverance. These two points of view were not as a rule held in opposition to each other, but the attitude of the average man to tapas would probably show the influence of both. To Gautama it was the ethical potency of austerities which made its appeal. He gathered round him five disciples, and along with them he gave himself to the practice of tapas, continuing it for six years with such rigour that his body became utterly emaciated. In all this he simply was doing what many had done before him. But there were elements in the character of Gautama which prevented him from finding peace in the ascetic life. The distrust which he felt of all kinds of forms and ritual came to extend itself to the physical exercises of tapas. Living in an atmosphere charged with superstition he possessed a mind wonderfully free from any superstitious taint. His austerities failed to achieve for him the ethical purpose for the attainment of which he had undertaken them, and he could not believe in their efficacy to bring to him gifts of any other kind. So at the end of his six years of physical discipline his pain of mind was as deep as it had been at the beginning. One day from sheer weakness he fell down in a swoon. On his recovery he reflected that he had done all that could be done through tapas, and that he could hope for no more from it. So he determined to give it up.

His followers looked upon his departure from the life of severe austerity as terrible apostasy, and they forthwith deserted him. He had to enter upon the great critical struggle of his life alone. Seated under the Bo tree, he spent a day in deep meditation, passing in review his past efforts and realizing their utter valuelessness. Must the quest for a way of salvation be given up, and was there nothing to be done but to return to the worldly life which he had resigned, or was there any other means by which he might attain the goal which he had so long sought in vain ? At the end of the day he came to clear light ; he saw with perfect clearness the cause of the misery of life and the way of escape from it. He had become Buddha, the enlightened one. The problem and its solution had come to take a different form from what they had taken in the thought of the religious teachers whose influence was dominant in India, and, indeed, the problem which he solved was a different one from that the solution of which he sought when he embarked first on the religious life. The salvation sought by the religious inquirers who had preceded him had been individual salvation. They had no social Gospel ; each must by himself work out his own salvation, and the solitude of the jungle offered the best surroundings for its attainment. But during the great day of struggle and of victory Gautamas thoughts travelled far beyond the misery which he himself had experienced to that which oppressed mankind as a whole, and when enlightenment came to him it came in the form of a Gospel which he must pass on to all.

The essential truths to which he attained are known as the Four Noble Truths. They may be summarized as follows :

1. That all those experiences connected with individual existence, and all those experiences which serve to impress on the mind the idea of separate existence are full of suffering and sorrow.

2. That desire—the ` thirst which finds pleasure in objects or craves for the satisfaction of needs—is the root of suffering.

.3. That the way to the extinction of sorrow and suffering is through the quenching of this ` thirst .

4. That the way to attain this is through the Noble Path of a virtuous and meditative life.

This Noble Path has eight divisions :

1. Right belief. 5. Right mode of livelihood.
2. Right aims. 6. Right endeavour.
3. Right words. 7. Right mindfulness.
4. Right actions. 8. Right meditation.

There are also four stages of this path, viz. (1) Conversion, (2) the path of those who will return only once to the world, (3) the path of those who will never return, and (4) the path of the Arahats. These stages are marked by progressive deliverance from the ten fetters by which the natural man is bound. These fetters are :

1. Delusion of self.

2. Doubt (as to the Buddha and his doctrines).

3. Belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies.

Deliverance from these brings one into the second stage, where begins the process of purification from :

4. Sensuality.

5. Malevolence.

In the course of the third stage these fetters are completely destroyed. The seeker now becomes an Arahat, in which stage he is freed from

6. Love of life on earth.
7. Desire of life in heaven.
8. Pride.
9. Self-righteousness.

Having broken all these fetters he attains Nirvana. There has been much controversy as to the precise connotation of this term. Professor Rhys Davids has defined it as ` the extinction of that sinful, grasping condition of mind and heart, which would otherwise, according to the great mystery of Karma, be the cause of renewed individual existence. We shall not stop at present to examine this definition. It brings out at any rate the point which is of greatest importance for us here, viz. that Nirvana is a state in which individual existence ceases, whether in this world or in another.

In connexion with this brief statement it is desirable that we should emphasize a few facts. First of all it will be noted that Gautama started from the same position from which orthodox Hindu religious thinking had always taken its start. The fundamental evil was conceived to be individual existence as the ground of desire, which, in turn, was the root of misery. To the Indian it has always seemed self-evident that suffering is essentially evil and that a real salvation must cut at the root of all that contributes to suffering. This is an intelligible position, and to a certain extent we should probably all agree with it. Suffering, at any rate in many of its forms, is certainly evil. Where Christian thought diverges from Indian thought on this subject is in this,, that suffering has never been recognized as the sole or most fundamental evil. There have always been recognized evils greater than suffering, and goods greater than freedom from suffering. It is noteworthy that Gautama never questioned the assumption that here lay the essential evil that beset existence. He had learned it from his childhood, and all that he saw seemed to impress the truth of it more deeply on his mind. Again, it is of interest to observe the place occupied in his thought by the traditional ideas of karma and samsara No attempt is made to prove their truth ; they are simply taken for granted. There could be no clearer demonstration than this of the extraordinary hold which these ideas had taken on the Indian mind. In the form in which they have been held in India they are so foreign to the average Western mind that it is difficult for most European readers to enter into sympathetic understanding of the type of mind to which they are incontestably true. The Buddha discarded much which belonged to the current religion, but the conceptions of karma and samsara remained above doubt.

The particular way in which karma operates was, however, understood by him as different in certain important respects from the way in which the thinkers of the Upanishads under-stood it. The Buddha had no place in his thought for either a Universal Soul or an individual soul. His mind was of the rationalistic type, and he had no need for such entities. There is in the individual being no essential permanent element—no kernel which remains when the husk has been removed ; there is nothing but husk. Nor is there any kernel hidden away behind the phenomena of the world. Following the teaching of Gautama himself, early Buddhism developed a very elaborate psychology in which were catalogued the various qualities or properties which enter into the constitution of man. He is the aggregate of these properties, physical and psychical, and there is nothing behind them which may be called soul. The belief in a soul is one of the heresies which Buddhism has condemned. This doctrine of the non-existence of soul has been illustrated in an interesting way in the Milindapanha in a passage in which man is likened to a chariot. The chariot is not the ornamented cover, or the wheels, or the spokes, or the reins, or all the parts thrown together. But all the parts combined together in their proper order are the chariot. So a living being is the various divisions of qualities, physical and psychical, skandhas as they are called, united together. How then can the individual be determined to one new birth after another according to his karma? Where is the subject of karma? With the dissolution of the body, does some part remain which bears the karma acquired in one life into another life ? No, it is said, nothing is passed on but the karma itself. The `thirst or grasping which characterized the sentient being who has died leads to a re-combination of qualities so as to form another sentient being determined as to its nature by this karma. When the Buddha was asked whether this did not mean that it was really a new being who was born, and who had to bear the consequences of the actions of the being who had died, he treated the question as irrelevant and unprofitable and would give no answer.

This is one important aspect of the Buddhist doctrine of karma, but there is another aspect of it which is even more important. It has already been indicated that Gautama placed less emphasis on the magical and ritualistic elements in the religion in which he had been nurtured than on the more ethical implications of karma as he understood it. The significance of this can hardly be exaggerated. In the history of Hinduism from its beginnings in the Brahmanas and Upanishads the ethical has always been more or less obscured and distorted by unethical conceptions and practices. Karma has never been thoroughly ethicized. Merit has been supposed to be acquired through the performance of sacrifices and ritual acts which have had no ethical value. In the teaching of the Buddha all this was modified. Karma was largely ethicized. The only acts which were regarded as meritorious were moral acts, and belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies was condemned as heresy. At the same time it must not be imagined that this means that karma was explained as deriving its content from moral actions bearing values identical with what they would bear in the estimation of the modern European. We must bear in mind the fact that Gautama started from presuppositions which are strange to us. He held that the essential evil is individual existence with the thirst that serves to maintain it, and the suffering which is its inevitable outcome. The end he held to be the destruction of that thirst and the consequent cutting of the root of individual existence. The virtues which will contribute to the attainment of such an end are not qualities like valour and high-mindedness, but those qualities which help the mind to withdraw itself from its attachment to the worldly things and interests which enslave it. In the light of this we can understand the Ten Moral Rules binding on members of the order of mendicants which the Buddha formed-not to destroy life, not to take that which is not given, not to tell lies, not to drink intoxicants, not to commit adultery, not to eat unseasonable food at night, not to wear garlands or use perfumes, to sleep on a mat spread on the ground, to abstain from dancing, music and stage plays, and to abstain from the use of gold and silver. These injunctions are the outcome not of any idea of occult or magical influences connected with the actions themselves but of a realization of their importance in relation to the highest good.

At the same time we must remember that the Buddha did not teach a doctrine that provided a way of deliverance merely to the individual. As has been already said, in his own great spiritual struggle he was deeply moved by the thought of the needs of others. As a consequence the virtue of love is given a prominent place in his ethical teaching, and by love he means not the passion which disturbs and enslaves the mind, but that calm and unperturbed frame of mind that would seek the good even of the evil-doer, refusing to return hatred by hatred.

For never in this world does hatred cease by hatred; Hatred ceases by love ; this is always its nature.

This love was extended not only to human beings but to the lower animals, towards which the duty of harmlessness, or ahimsa, is enjoined. To this we shall return when we come to examine the similar doctrine in Jainism.

With the recognition of the virtue of love a place is provided far more logically in Buddhism than in the doctrines of orthodox Hindu teachers for social life. The qualities which are developed and exercised in social life at its best are not so alien to the spirit of him who treads the Noble Path as they are to the spirit of the man who seeks deliverance in accordance with the precepts of the Upanishads. The gulf between ordinary life in society and the life of the sannyasi is far more marked than that which exists between ordinary life and that of the Buddhist mendicant. And what gulf there was the Buddha helped to bridge by his institution of an order of lay disciples, in which a place was found for those of his followers who were not prepared to take upon themselves all the responsibilities involved in membership of the mendicant order. An interesting example of his attitude to the duties of social life, to quote but one out of many, is furnished by the precepts which he gave to a householder named Sigala who came and did him reverence. He laid down to him the mutual duties of parents and children, pupils and teachers, husband and wife, friends and companions, masters and servants, and laymen and those devoted to religion. And he recognized in all these relationships those gentler virtues which contribute to the smooth functioning of the social organism.

This is one of the great contributions which Buddhism has made to Indian ethical thought. Of equal importance is its teaching regarding caste. Gautama made no religious distinction between men of different castes, but associated with men of all castes and threw his order open to all except outcastes. In his wanderings he received food indifferently from people of all castes. He accepted men as members of his order according to their personal fitness only, and one of his earliest disciples was a barber named Upali, a man of great gifts, destined to become a leader in the order. It was, no doubt, this disregard of caste, the most firmly established institution in the Hindu social system, which chiefly prevented Buddhism from becoming the religion of India, and which led in the end to its overthrow ; for among his lay followers caste persisted. But it was an element for which the Buddha could logically find no place in his system ; which, indeed, was utterly inconsistent with some of its central principles. In Hindu literature distinctions of caste have been explained by reference to the principle of karma, but to Gautama there was no necessary connexion between them. He realized that a mans position was determined by his karma, but that did not involve the institution of fixed and unalterable social divisions. To man as man he preached a message of boundless hope.

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