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Anatta and Moral Responsibility

And Two Other Essays


A. D. Jayasundere

Buddhist Publication Society
Kandy • Sri Lanka

Bodhi Leaves No. 89

First published: 1981

BPS Online Edition © (2014)
Digital Transcription Source: BPS and Access to Insight Transcription Project

For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis, and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.


The author of these essays, Abraham Dias Jayasundere, was born on the 1st February 1869 at Meepe, a village in the Talpe area of the Galle District. He received his education at the Central School, Galle (presently All Saints’ School), and at St. Thomas College, Colombo. His leaning was towards the Classics, and he was particularly proficient in English and Latin which was eventually shown in the facility with which he explained the most abstruse points of the Dhamma.

In accordance with the wishes of his father, who was himself learned in Sinhalese and had a fair knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit, he decided to enter the legal profession. It was during this period of his studentship that Colonel Olcott first visited Ceylon and inaugurated the revival of Buddhist education. The task of infusing the Buddhist public with enthusiasm as to the necessity of establishing Buddhist schools for the education of their children was laborious, but Mr. Jayasundere flung himself with all his energy into the work and spent several years in such service. The outcome of his efforts was the inauguration of the Galle Buddhist Theosophical Society and the establishment of Mahinda College. He was Secretary of the Society and later its president. He took the keenest interest in its work till his retirement from active practice at the bar.

In the year 1894 he qualified for admission to the profession and was enrolled a proctor of the District Court of Galle. While a keen student of the law, he devoted much time during this period to the study of literature and philosophical subjects. He was an active supporter of the Rationalist Press and read every book turned out by that Association. He was also for many years a regular reader of the Open Court of Chicago, and all theosophical and many philosophical publications. He founded the Galle Debating Society and was for many years its Secretary and guiding spirit. He not only contributed his share to practically every debate, but he also read many papers before the society and worked so hard for its improvement that before long it acquired a reputation equal to that of the well-known Smallpass Literary Association of Colombo.

He came into contact with several noble men who influenced his life and gave impetus to his study of the Buddha Dhamma: the Venerable Yatamalagala Somananda Thera, incumbent of the Gunaratana Avasa; E. R. Gooneratne, Wisala Mudaliyar and Acting Maha Mudaliyar of Atapattu Walauwa; Godage Sagiris de Silva, Sinhalese Pandit of Mahinda College; and Frank Lee Woodward, Principal of the same college.

Mr. Jayasundere first read every available publication on Buddhism in English and later decided to study the Dhamma in the original text, and for that purpose started a Pali study class under the said Venerable Thera. He continued his studies and remained a pupil of the Venerable Thera till the latter’s death in 1936.

As a result of his studies he decided to translate the Catukka Nipata of the Anguttara Nikaya in continuation of the work begun by K. R. Gooneratne, the first local representative of the Pali Text Society of England.

He also organised the Buddha Dhamma Sangama which was later merged in the Galle Young Men’s Buddhist Association. For many years he held the office of president of these associations. In addition he induced many Buddhists from the professional spheres to join in the observance of the Eight Precepts on Vesak day. He was a life member of the Colombo Young Men’s Buddhist Association, and a Trustee of the Buddhist Congress Tripitaka Trust.

He died of heart disease on the 31st July, 1947 at his residence.

Mr. Jayasundere was a firm believer that the Theravada school had handed down the Teachings of the Lord Buddha in their pristine purity. The following essays were of his sifting of the Dhamma are illustrated in the following essays which the Maha Bodhi Society have placed before the public.

—P. P. Siriwardana

Anatta and Moral Responsibility

Our esteemed brother, Pandit Sheo Narain, has written: “One point has always puzzled me in my readings of Buddhist literature and it is this: What survives death to bear the results of karma in one’s life? … I wish some learned Buddhist scholar who has studied the subject in Pali would throw some light to set at rest the controversy.”

Let me confess at the outset that I do not intend to pose as “a Buddhist scholar who has studied the subject in Pali.” Far from it. But as an earnest student of the Dhamma, who had experienced the same difficulty, our friend will pardon me if I venture to intrude where angels should fear to tread.

Difficulties on religious questions are, in the very nature of things, altogether personal to the individual concerned. This is obviously the reason why our Lord in common with other religious teachers, adopted the dialogical method of instruction. A most persuasive reasoning was the argumentum ad hominem. A fully sounded thesis or a set discourse often missed the point of en enquirer’s doubt or difficulty.

I shall, therefore, with our learned brother’s permission, present my views on the question at issue in the form of a dialogue, at the same time tendering him my humble apologies for the liberties I propose to take with him, by imputing to him words which he may perhaps repudiate.

S.N.: My friend, let us have a heart to heart exchange of views on the subject of “anatta (no-soul) and moral responsibility.”

A.D.: I shall be only too glad. But you must pardon my shortcomings.

S.N.: That it all right. We are not infallible—not even the youngest of us.

S.N.: Let me plunge in medias res. To put it categorically—did the Buddha teach anatta or atta (self or soul)?

A.D.: Most emphatically anatta, and not atta.

S.N.: Are you quite sure on the point?

A.D.: I am as certain as the sun is the centre of our solar system. Until Copernicus discovered the heliocentric system the world believed the Ptolemaic theory. Likewise, until the Lord Buddha proclaimed the anatta -doctrine, mankind was enmeshed in the ego-centric, atmanistic heresy.

S.N.: That sounds rather dogmatic, does it not? But quote your authority please.

A.D.: Why, my first authority is the first step of the Eightfold Path.

S.N.: That is strange indeed. Where is anatta in the first step? I can’t find it.

A.D.: I am not surprised. In the Samyutta Nikaya (21:5) the Master says: “When one understands that form, feeling and the other khandha s are transient, subject to pain and soul-less (anatta), in that case one possesses Right Understanding.”

S.N.: That bears you out, I admit. Do you then maintain that one who hugs the atta -heresy is a micchaditthika, one of wrong beliefs, ergo— not a Buddhist?

A.D.: Most certainly, yes, if we abide by the Master’s teaching.

S.N.: Your second authority please?

A.D.: I rely on Anattalakkhana Sutta, the second sermon delivered to the Pañca-vaggiya-bhikkhus on the fifth day after the first sermon, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Law.”

S.N.: Now, my friend. There I think I catch you napping. I put to you this poser: Did not myriads attain Nibbana as a result of the first sermon, even before the Anattalakkhana Sutta was preached? If so, the anatta -teaching was not a sine qua non for winning Arahantship.

A.D.: Bear with me, Sir, for a moment. The wonder is that not one of the five Bhikkhus, let alone the myriads of Deities and Brahmas became an Arahant on hearing the first sermon, and only one out of the five, namely Añña-Kondañña, gained the “Spotless Eye of Truth” as a Sotapanna, a Stream-enterer.

S.N.: But how did Añña-Kondañña break the first of the fetters, that of personality belief, without the aid of the anatta -teaching?

A.D.: Quite right, Sir, that is just the point. I am glad you appreciate it. May I recall what I have already said? I showed you by a quotation from the Samyutta that anatta is implicit in the first step of the Path; and that fact barely sufficed a Stream-enterer to break asunder the gross fetter of personality belief. But the explicit elucidation of anatta in the second sermon was a sine qua non for an Arahant to do away with the finer fetters of conceit, agitation and ignorance.

S.N.: I regret I do not follow you. Do you contend seriously that full realisation of anatta is not indispensable to break a gross fetter, whereas it is essential to get rid of a finer fetter?

A.D.: That does sound paradoxical. But I do submit it is so. Every Arahant extinguishes the asavas (taints), but not the vasanas (impressions or taint traces) of these asavas, which a Buddha alone can eliminate. Does that not demonstrate to a nicety, that a keener insight, a greater realisation is essential to get rid of a finer and, therefore, more elusive, evil?

S.N.: That hits the nail on the head. It is sound reasoning, I grant. But need we further expatiate upon a basic teaching like anatta ?

A.D.: Surely not; anatta runs like a streak of scarlet right through the Pitakas. There is no mistake about that. One can gauge its utmost value from this fact. It is by clear insight into the reality of things—yathabhuta-ñana-dassana that one sees Nibbana.

S.N.: What is this clear insight—ñanadassana ? I am curious to know.

A.D.: It is purely and simply seeing in terms of anicca, dukkha and anatta, and, therefore, conversely to see wrongly is to see in terms of permanence, happiness and soul (nicca, sukha and atta), as all those of wrong beliefs (micchaditthika) do. Moreover, this all-important subject of anatta is placed at the forefront in the very first discourse Brahmajala in the Digha-Nikaya, and in the Mula-Pari-yaya of the Majjhima Nikaya; it also forms the main theme of the first chapter of the Kathavatthu and of the later Milinda-pañha.

S.N.: But what does the author Mr Har Dayal say? “It is certain,” he emphatically writes, “Mahayanist writers believed in the continuity of personal identity in the most unmistakable terms.” Surely he must have good reason to say so.

A.D.: Well, it is difficult to say whether Mr Har Dayal’s grounds are good or bad until we have them before us. For the present let us be guided by the father of Mahayana, Asvaghosa himself, “the very first champion, promulgator and expounder” of it as Dr Suzuki aptly calls him.

Asvaghosa opens his famous Sraddhotpada-sastra (translated as “The Awakening of Faith”), the bible of Mahayana, as follows: “Adoration to the Dharma whose essence and attributes are like the ocean, revealing to us the principle of Anatman and forming the storage of infinite merits.” Dr. Suzuki is perhaps the greatest authority on Mahayana. Do, please, mark what further he writes: “The Doctrine of Anatman is considered to be one of the most important and characteristic features of Buddhism and justly so, for both the Hinayana and Mahayana uphold this as essential … In the case of the anatman or non-ego theory, the Mahayanists assert that there is no Atman or ego-soul, not only in its subjective aspect but also in its objective application. That is to say, they deny with the Hinayanists that there is such a thing as the ego-substance behind our consciousness as a cover etc., simple, ultimate independent unit; but they go still further and declare that this objective world, too, has no atman, no ego, no God, no personal creator, no Ishvara, working and enjoying his absolute transcendence behind this concatenation of cause and effect. This is technically known at the double negation of the subjective and objective world and for this reason the Mahayana school has often been called, though unjustifiably and quite incorrectly, Nihilism or Sunyavadin.”

S.N.: Let us, at last, hark back to our original point. How do you reconcile anatta with moral responsibility?

A.D.: Before we tackle your very difficult question we must take, so to say, a preliminary canter. The whole world for centuries upon centuries has been nurtured on static ideas—both in the East and the West. So our norms and canon of logic have evolved from static notions. But the Tathagata created a revolution in the mental world when he enunciated the paccayakara dhamma, the dynamic conception of life and of the world. We find a modern echo of this teaching in Henri Bergson, the French philosopher.

Let us bear in mind that there is a marked difference between the Buddhist idea of identity, which is purely dynamic, and that of other schools of thought which is only static. Elsewhere I once wrote: “Identity is a static idea and strictly speaking cannot apply to life or biological values. One can correctly envisage life and its functions only from the dynamic viewpoint. Mathematics, jurisprudence and the physical sciences deal in identities but not the sciences of ethics and psychology. In Buddhist psychology both the subject and the object are transitory; only the interrelation between them remains constant. This constancy of relation, which is called by some consciousness, gives rise to the false animistic notion of personal identity. Because of the continuity of temporary selves of successive states of consciousness, man, blinded by nescience (avijja) mistakes similarity for identity and takes the river of life for one abiding soul, even as he mistakes the river of yesterday as identical with the river of today.

“Life according to Abhidhamma is like the current of a river (nadi soto viya) or the flame of a lamp (dipajala viya). It is a conclusion of modern science that the cells of the human body undergo constant change, so much so that every particle of the body of a boy of ten becomes completely transformed and gradually replaced in the body of a youth of eighteen. The ceaseless flux of things applies to both mind and body. In the former the flow is even more rapid than in the latter and, therefore, it is truer to speak of the body as a permanent thing (atta) than of the mind.” To put it in a nutshell, the Buddhist’s dynamic view of identity consists in continuity alone and not in the permanence of substance, which is the static idea. We have to keep this distinction clearly in mind as the last step in our argument.

S.N: But you have not yet come to the point of my difficulty: “What survives death to bear the results of kamma in one’s life?” Please address yourself to that.

A.D.: Let me see. Your question is vitiated by a petitio principii or in plain English, it begs the question: when you say “what survives death,” you assume or take for granted that something does survive—which is not the case. Strictly speaking, the question is wrongly put and must therefore be put aside (thapania). Similar questions or something to the same effect were put to the Master by a brahmin of old: “How now, Lord Gotama? Is he who acts the same as he who feels the result of the act (so karoti so patisamvedayati)?” “’He who acts is the same as he who feels,’ that, brahmin, is one end (heresy).” “How then Lord Gotama? Is he who acts another man than he who feels?” “’He who acts is another than he who feels’ that, brahmin, is the other end. Overcoming these two ends the Tathagata points out the doctrine in the middle, in terms of paticca samuppada. “ [1]

Now, what does this mean to us moderns? It means, as I understand it: there is no permanent, unchanging identity between the actor and the feeler, but there is at the same time a continuity between them—“neither him nor another,” na ca so na ca añño. Hence, the Buddhist idea of identity consists in continuity and not in identity of substance, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as identity of substance in the universe—“all formations are impermanent,” sabbe sankhara anicca.

S.N.: I am beginning to see some light. It all comes to this: one must alter one’s viewpoint if one wishes to understand the Buddhist idea. We must give up our static way of thinking and adopt the dynamic view of life. We must discard our coloured glasses and “think ourselves in sympathy with the Buddhist position.”

A.D.: Exactly so, you put it admirably. When even in this life as it is, there is no permanent self, how can a non-existing thing “survive death to bear the results of karma in one’s life,” as you put it?

S.N.: So far all right, but I have not done with you. There it the further question yet outstanding—where is moral responsibility in that case? In the magisterial diction of another critic, Dr. Stace: “If the next life is only a continuation of karma and not of personality, why should anyone bother himself about the consequence of his action?”

A.D.: I have previously called attention to the fact that in both mind and body the youth of eighteen is different in every particle from the boy of ten. Let me then put this counter-question: what youth is therefore not morally responsible for his acts done when he was a boy of ten, because in all respects he is different? Is it not so?

S.N.: But the boy continued to exist till he became the youth. The boy did not die and was not reborn as the youth.

A.D.: That makes all the difference. Do you not thereby implicitly admit that moral responsibility depends on the continuity and not on the identity?

S.N.: Just so, I grant it. There being no soul, the only conceivable form of identity is continuity and not identity of an unchanging substance—which we mistakenly call personality.

A.D.: I am glad you appreciate the fine distinction. Let me make it clearer by asking you a counter-question.

Suppose that that boy of ten underwent a sudden loss of memory and recovered his consciousness to find that all his past was a perfect blank. What moral responsibility would he feel for acts done before he lost his memory and which he cannot remember?

S.N.: Moral responsibility therefore depends, as I take it, not only on continuity of personality but also on memory. Am I right in saying so? If the youth of eighteen does not actually remember the act he did as a boy of ten because of the loss of memory he subsequently underwent, he cannot feel a sense of responsibility for an act he does not remember.

A.D.: It is not a question of memory either. You are actually forced to that conclusion. Moral responsibility cannot possibly depend upon memory, for the simple reason that there can be loss of memory.

S.N.: Why do you say so? If the murderer does not remember his crime by some loss of memory, what is the use and where is the justice of sending him to the gallows? There is no object in punishing him, except as an example to others, perhaps.

A.D.: You are quite right and your reasoning is flawless, if the universe is run, controlled and judged by some omnipotent arbiter who rewards and punishes. Unfortunately, the world is not so constituted but is governed by unintelligent and impersonal physical and moral laws. The law of kamma is just one of these moral laws and there is no Lord of kamma to dispense rewards and punishments in terms of the laws of kamma. In the inimitable way that our brother Silacara puts it: “If a person does something in his sleep, gets out of bed and walks over the edge of a verandah, he will fall into the road below and in all likelihood break an arm or leg or something worse. But this will happen not at all as a ’punishment’ for his sleepwalking, but merely as its result. And the fact that he did not remember going out on the verandah would not make the slightest difference to the result of his fall from it, in the shape of broken bones. So the follower of the Buddha takes measures to see that he does not walk over verandas or other dangerous places, asleep or awake, so as to avoid hurting himself or anybody who might be below and on whom he might fall.” Luminous words indeed!

S.N.: What is the upshot of it all? If then memory is not an essential factor in assessing moral responsibility, it necessarily follows that the interruption of memory by death will not prevent the operation of the law of kamma. The fact that the man who dies does not remember his acts in his next life is no bar to his reaping the fruits of such acts. The murderer is hanged whether he remembers his crime or not.

A.D.: I congratulate you. You have gained “the spotless eye of truth” at least in the intellectual sense. May you before long win “the Spotless Eye of Truth” in the highest spiritual sense, as a Sotapanna. Moreover, have you not heard of such a thing as pubbenivasanussati-ñana— knowledge or memory of previous lives?

S.N.: Yes, I have indeed. But how is such knowledge or memory possible when death breaks up the process of thought and the body also?

A.D.: That, my dear sir, opens up a very large, deep question, so much so, I fear we both may find ourselves are long floundering beyond our depths. But subject to correction by learned Abhidhammika scholars, I shall proceed to state how I understand it in my humble way.

S.N.: Do it please, because, after all, we have reached the climax of our interesting talk.

A.D.: The Lord Buddha says, and both Eastern and Western psychology bears him out on the point, that man dies every moment (khanika marana). We have seen before that the cells of the body constantly change and that the flow of thoughts in the mind is even more rapid. Philosophically speaking, i.e., in actual truth and fact, man therefore dies every moment and is reborn in the next, both as regards mind and body. What the world conventionally calls death is the termination of a life-time. The former is not apparent whereas the latter happen before the eyes of all. But according to Abhidhamma there is the strange fact that the succession of thoughts that goes on in life is not interrupted by death, and there is no interval between the dying thought (cuti-citta) in this life and the rebirth-thought (patisandhi-citta) in the next life.

S.N.: I see what you are driving at. Because there is no entity that passes from one thought to the next, and there is an unbroken succession of thoughts all through life and even between death and rebirth, I do not see much difficulty now in believing that memory of previous lives can be recalled. At least, it is a bare possibility.

A.D.: Memory of past lives, be it noted, is not a mere abstract conception, a mere possibility or even a probability only; it is and has been a concrete fact. There are innumerable instances of those who have acquired this psychic power. But for a full and complete explanation of its modus operandi in view of the Buddhist teaching of anatta, we must look to the Patthana-pakarana of the Abhidhamma for an answer. This book, appropriately called the “Great Book,” contains twenty-four modes of relation which is more comprehensive than and transcends the association philosophy of the West which deals with the relations of ideas only, where as the Patthana comprises the relations between all phenomena.

According to the Patthana, each thought is related to the one next to it both before and after in at least four of these twenty-four ways of relation. These four relations (paccaya) are proximity (anantara), contiguity (samanantara), absence (natthi) and abeyance (avigata). Each thought as it dies gives service to the next or gives up the whole of its energy (paccayasatti) to its successor. Thus each successive thought has all the potentialities of its predecessors. Therefore, the mental principle of cognition or perception (sañña) in each mental state of consciousness, with all its heritage of the past, is a recognising in the image reproduced by the idea of the original object revived by the very marks which were observed by its predecessors in a certain reflection. I hope you now see more clearly how memory of past lives is recalled.

S.N.: To sum up the whole of our long but edifying discussion: The Buddhist position is that moral responsibility is possible without a soul (anatta). There is continuity but not identity, and memory of past lives can be recalled even though there is no soul. I offer you my grateful thanks for the great pains you have taken in enlightening me.

A.D.: I reciprocate your kind sentiments, my friend. If I have thrown even a little light on an obscure and deep subject, which an Arahant alone can fully realise, I should feel amply rewarded. Our friendly talk should be a constant reminder to all of us what puny things we mortals are with our poor feeble crutch of an intellect, and that we must diligently cultivate the higher insight (vipassana) if we wish to see, as by daylight, what we now glimpse as through a glass darkly.

Mahabodhi, November 1932 and March-April 1933

The Buddhist Idea of Giving (dana)

Recently a Western critic, who is a professed Buddhist, was pleased to pass some severe strictures on the Buddhist idea of charity. It behoves us, therefore, to make a brief survey of the Buddhist view of dana and to enquire: what is the real significance of giving, not only in the abstract as it is found in the Teaching, but also in actual practice among present-day Buddhists?

Charity or giving is the lowest of all forms of morality and is the common property of all religions. It is the ABC of every ethical system or moral code. As an eminent thinker says: “Charity is like the seconds-hand of the homologue of morality.” Even as the action of the seconds-hand is clearly visible, dana manifests itself in material or gross form. Just as the movement of the minute-hand is less perceptible, and that of the hour-hand still less so, the higher virtues of sila (morality) and bhavana (meditation) are hardly noticeable at all in practice.

Giving is such an elementary form of moral conduct that it does not even enter into or find a place in the scheme of the Noble Eightfold Path. What is the reason for this significant omission? The Eightfold Path, it should always be borne in mind, is actually trodden only by the Eight Ariyas, or the Four Pairs of Noble Ones. The rest of us, even the highest of us, are best merely trying—some may be trying very hard—though yet unsuccessfully, to reach the lowest rung of the Eightfold Ladder. This stage of the disciple’s progress is in Buddhist terms called the pubba-bhaga-patipada, or the practice of the preparatory stage. Giving forms only a part of this preliminary practice of the aspirant, and he oversteps this stage only when he has highly developed the practice of giving.

All deeds of ordinary worldlings are actuated, more or less, by motives of a self-referable character. In other words, all human actions, save and except those of the Arahants, are traceable in the last analysis to selfishness. Egoism (taking the term in its empirical sense) is therefore the inevitable motive for morality.

We are at once confronted with the great problem: how can man, who is selfish by nature, get rid of his selfishness so that he may reach the goal of final emancipation? He does so, we maintain, just in the same way as a sailor crosses the sea by paddling his own boat or by steering his own ship. The disciple of the Buddha reaches the further shore of samsara by practising acts of merit, even though prompted thereto by his own egoistic impulse.

The Buddhist gives with one of two objects in view. Being a believer in the doctrine of retributory justice (kamma), he either gives expecting a worldly reward here in this life or hereafter in the course of rebirths; or he gives with intent to eliminate all the roots of greed from his heart. Even in the latter case, it should be observed, egoism is at bottom the motive impulse.

Unfortunately, there is a good deal of confusion in the public mind on the Buddhist idea of dana, for it is commonly held that gifts should always be made only to virtuous individuals. To put it briefly, this idea is both true and false. But we must here discriminate. Who gives expecting a worldly return should certainly find a virtuous recipient for his gifts. For example, the wise farmer who looks forward to a plenteous harvest sows his seed on fertile soil. But the man whose object is to eradicate all the noxious weeds of craving from his heart, so as to prepare a favourable soil for the planting of the higher virtue of morality and meditation, need not hanker after virtuous recipients of his charity, for to him any form of voluntary divestment of his property is to that extent a diminution of his attachment to worldly possessions.

The first of the Ten Perfections of the Bodhisatta is this virtue of dana which he practised in numerous lives over and over again, even to the extent of making the supreme sacrifice of his life itself for the sake of fellow-beings. But a virtuous person never could accept the gift of another’s body or flesh. The Bodhisatta was therefore obliged on all occasions to make the supreme gift to a being of no virtue whatever, be it a demon, a cannibal or a wild beast. The highest gift can, therefore, never be made to a righteous person. Such is only acceptable to a sinner. It is thus clear that he who gives without any worldly object but solely with the idea of ridding himself of greed, need not go after virtuous persons, but may give irrespective of the virtues of the recipients of his gifts.

The degree of worldly reward is necessarily commensurate with the virtues of the recipient. Hence, he who gives with a view to a worldly return should give to persons advanced in righteousness. Though such gifts are also acts of merit, they are hardly of any moral value for the higher function of eradicating greed, with a view to the attainment of the goal. On the contrary, such misconceived acts of charity do indeed retard his spiritual progress, for every gift with a worldly object in view will only prolong his journey through samsara and detain him unnecessarily in the blind alleys of individual existence.

Who gives in order that he may reap a manifold reward hereafter, be it here on earth or in heaven, is like the careful creditor who lends money on interest. He will get back his money with interest, even with compound interest, without risk or uncertainty. But no virtue, as such, can be attached to a money-lender’s dealing. On contrary, such a giver merely aggravates his greed by the very fact of his expecting rewards. But he who gives in order that he may get rid of his greed does an act of highest virtue, and he is a giver in the highest Buddhist sense. The best, practical antidote to greed (lobha) is dana.

There is also a donor, let us not forget, who gives out of sheer love or kindness, without the slightest reference to any reward. But such a gift should be more properly counted as an act of metta (loving-kindness) or of karuna (compassion), for the predominant quality of such a gift is rather the excellent motive behind it than the mere act of giving itself. It will then be rightly accounted a meditation (bhavana), a very much higher act of merit than dana.

All donors, therefore, fall into one of these two categories. The great majority of givers are the ordinary, blind worldlings who give even as money-lenders invest their money or, as it happens very often, quite aimlessly. This former is in accord with the saying of the Christian Bible: “He that giveth to the poor handeth to the Lord.” But the instructed Buddhist gives with the object of diminishing and ultimately eliminating his craving for wealth.

In that wonderfully scientific system called Saddhamma, ethics are founded upon a purely psychological basis. The specific teaching of the Buddha is his sublime doctrine of no-soul (anatta). This is a teaching altogether peculiar to Buddhism. So much so, it is this anatta -teaching that differentiates it from all other religions of the world. Now, what is the ethical import of this anatta-teaching with reference to dana ? He who realises that he has no ego, soul or I, cannot give to benefit such ego, soul or I, either by worldly reward or by eradicating craving, for the pure and simple reason that no such ego, soul or I, as a matter of fact, exists. So, the true Buddhist does not give with a selfish object. Taking this ego, soul or I, in its strictly philosophical sense, the Buddhist who rightly understands, knows that if he gives with a view to worldly reward, it is not after all he himself, but it is in one sense another in his place who will actually reap the benefit of his gift. Professor Rhys Davids in “American Lectures” says: “The fruit of karma, as Buddhists call it, survives where one dies and will advance the happiness of some other being or of some other beings who will have no conscious identity with himself.” It is therefore, only a believer in “no-soul” (anatta), who can make an utterly unselfish gift. That is why the Dhamma is called the religion of enlightenment as to the true nature of the basic facts of life. For, herein knowledge is given the foremost place of honour. And knowledge is here full realisation of anatta. Samma-ditthi is the first step of the Path.

But others who do not comprehend the Buddha’s teaching on the point give only with a selfish idea, for they are constantly thinking of their own selves or souls, except perhaps in the only other instance where one gives without knowing the ethical significance of what one is doing or prompted by the power of a merely casual impulse.

Be it then noted that a gift rooted in the ignorance of its effects, according to the Buddhist point of view, can never form a virtuous action of high value, though it may be followed by a reward of an insignificant character. A person who gives unaware of the moral value of his act is like unto the man who throws up a stick without any aim as to which of its two ends will strike the ground

Those moralists who posit a criterion for morality by saying: “Virtue is its own reward,” must now realise that they are only pursuing a mere shadow. “Where self is, there cannot be virtue.” says the Master. The only philosophical basis for morality is then this anatta -teaching, for all those systems of ethics based upon the soul-theory must for ever flounder in the selfishness of the souls (attha) of their own creation. To them there can be no end to samsara. Anatta is thus the master-key to the Dhamma, and anatta alone can unlock the elusive mystery of the ethical problem.

In the words of the Dhammapada: “Sons have I, self have I; so the fool worries. Of a truth, thou hast no I; how then canst thou own sons or self?”

—The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon, 1928

Buddhism and “The World-Problem”

The Pali word for “world” is loka. Loka has two meanings—the world of living beings, satta-loka and the outer world,sankhara-loka. Strange to say, the Greek word for “world,” cosmos, has the same two meanings—micro-cosmos, the little world or the world of living beings, and macro-cosmos, the large world of space.

The final goal or destiny of a living being is, therefore, the solution of “the world-problem.” The problem of the inorganic world is the peculiar province of physical science and, therefore, lies outside the scope of our enquiry. An investigation into this latter question falls within the category of profitless discussion banned in Buddhism.

Given one thing: the world—in other words the pain-filled world of sorrow (sattaloka). The salient feature of all sentient life is its accompaniment of sorrow. This is the First Noble Truth. It is important to determine at the outset the true import of sorrow in Buddha-thought. This world of living beings (satta-loka), according to that teaching, is divided into thirty-one spheres or, more accurately, phases. The sphere of sense desires (kamavacara) consists of the six devalokas (heavens), the world of human beings, the animal kingdom, the asuras (titans), the petas (ghosts) and the so-called hells, the sixteen rupa-brahma-lokas of celestial beings, (with fine-material bodies) and the arupa or non-material realms. The duration of life in all these phases differs according to the degree of existence in each.

If we compare the sum of sorrow in all these spheres with the amount of happiness, it remains an open question whether, after all, the happiness does not counter-balance the sorrow. For we must remember that the incalculable cycles of unalloyed bliss which the devas and brahmas enjoy may be even greater than the tortures the beings in hells undergo. Therefore, even from the Buddhist viewpoint, when we lay side by side the sorrow and the happiness in the world, are our critics justified in characterising Buddhism as pessimism? If then the happiness is no less than the sorrow, why does the Tathagata lay down sorrow as the First Noble Truth?

The full and complete answer to this important question is to be found in the right comprehension of that refrain which we find so often recurring in the canon. The Master addresses the disciples thus:

“Bhikkhus, is the body, is the mind, permanent or impermanent?”

“Impermanent, Lord.”

“That which is impermanent, is it liable to suffering or not?”

“It is liable, Lord.”

“Of that which is liable to suffering, is it then right to say: this is mine, I am this, this is the soul of me?”

“No, Lord.”

Therefore, it is clear that according to the Master, it is the certainty of impermanence or transiency that makes life sorrowful. We read in a Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya that just as when the lion, king of the beasts, at eventide issues forth from its lair, surveys the four directions and roars thrice, all animals tremble with fear and alarm and flee on all sides, even so when the Tathagata roars the lion’s roar— sabbe sankhara anicca: “all compound things are impermanent”—the deities in long possession of splendid mansions begin to quiver and tremble and exclaim: “Alas, so long have we fancied ourselves secure in our blissful abodes, now they are no longer permanent and but passing shadows.”

The Maha-brahma, the soi disant creator of the world, who with the radiance of his small finger can light up a thousand world-systems, may at any moment be reduced to the condition of a fire-fly! The great Sakka, king of the gods, in all his glory and majesty, may indeed at once be reborn as a sukara (pig).

And man himself, the so-called lord of creation, who has wrung so many secrets out of nature’s bosom, ever falls a ready victim to the tiniest virus that fells him. When one looks around the whole wide world, one sees how life feeds upon life and lives upon death. The bigger preys upon the smaller animal; this is the usual rule of all life, from the biggest mammal down to the minutest bacilli. One contemplating the idea is simply dumbfounded at the ghastly spectacle. This is a world of suffering and sorrow.

It is so full of horrible cruelty that our hearts simply revolt at the very thought of it. Life is so arrayed that it is an incessant warfare to live. “Struggle for existence” is the final watch-word of science. What a hideous fallacy then to hold an all merciful god responsible for such monstrous cruelty!

We must thus conclude that it is the transitory nature of all life, and its liability to suffer at any moment, which establishes the truth of suffering (dukkha - sacca).

What, then, is meant by realising the First Noble Truth? If to realise sorrow is to endure sorrow, then indeed he who has suffered most should have best realised sorrow. The denizens of the hells, who undergo nameless tortures for countless ages, must have utterly comprehended dukkha-sacca. But this is absurd. We are thus driven to the conclusion that to suffer or endure sorrow is not necessary to realise sorrow.

Let us now take a glance into the early life of the Bodhisatta in his royal palace. Brought up as he was in the lap of princely luxury, and cribbed and confined with jealous care by his kingly sire, it was after witnessing the omens of a sick man, an old man, a corpse and a recluse that Prince Siddhattha received the motive-impulse to his great renunciation. The young prince suffered no unhappiness whatever in his own person. But it was his seeing the sufferings and afflictions of others that brought home to his kindly heart that ennui and world-weariness which urged him to flee from the life of the home, as though from a pit of live coals, to the homeless state. It was therefore not sorrow felt or endured in his own person, but pain and suffering which he witnessed in others that made him realise the truth of the great intuition: All life is sorrow-fraught. Prince Siddhattha comprehended the First Noble Truth of sorrow, or had the first glimpse of it, while still in the family life, though he discovered the other three Noble Truths at the foot of the Bodhi-tree.

We must thus bear in mind that when the Master lays emphasis on the realisation of the First Truth, what is meant is: sorrow understood and not sorrow felt. In other words, it is not an emotional feeling that is implied but experience through knowledge or insight. This is the all-sufficient reason why Buddhism is called the religion of enlightenment through knowledge (pañña). Thus to sum up: satta-loka (the world of living beings) is only a synonym for the world of sorrow, the cycle of existence (samsara-vatta).

All religious teachers, other than the Tathagata, ascribed to an external agency the source of pain and suffering. Even in the Christian Bible we read that “God brings peace and creates evil.” It follows as a logical necessity that man must look for escape from “this valley of tears,” as the Christian scriptures put it, to an external power. Prayers, supplications, offerings, sacrifices are naturally the only means prescribed to attain salvation from sorrow.

The Buddha alone of all religious teachers, with a masterstroke of genius, discovered the cause of sorrow to be craving (tanha) inherent in the living being. “Verily,” he says, “in this fathom-long, beminded body with its perceptions, I declare to be the world, the world’s arising, the world’s ceasing and the path to the world’s ceasing.” The Master laid hold of life by the root and addressed the majestic query: what right has life itself to exist? The answer to this question he found by a flash of glorious intuition that eventful night so full of profound significance to all living beings, as he sat under the “Tree of Knowledge” which was justly so called. Rendered with the strictest accuracy, the causal chain runs thus: ignorance must be present in order that volitional activities may come to pass, and so forth, up to craving and finally to birth thus bringing about the entire mass of ill.

When the Buddha places ignorance at the head of the system, it must not be taken, as is so often erroneously done by some scholars, as a sort of primordial first cause. What is the cause of a living being? Volitional activities (sankhara), is the answer. When ignorance is stated to be the condition of volitional activities, it should be taken as an abstract answer to the same question, which is answered in the kamma -teaching. It is the same thing, whether we say a being is born by reason of his kamma (sankhara) or ignorance. We say light is present or shadow is present but they are aspects of the same thing—the one positive, the other negative. Therefore ignorance, of itself, means nothing but that willing is present. Ignorance is willing but only in the abstract form.

All the other religious teachers the world has ever seen have affirmed eternal life in heaven as the final and supreme salvation. They failed to solve the world-problem, in so far as they placed only plus-signs or “willing” in an infinite series, when they posited eternal life. The Lord Buddha alone of all religious teachers placed a minus-sign, that is “non-willing,“ and the sum of life was resolved without that ever-recurring remainder, which in other systems of religion is called god or soul—a factor which has rendered the world-problem altogether insoluble. In the Fire-Sermon (Aditta-Pariyaya), the Master says: “All things, O Bhikkhus, are burning. The eye is burning. Visual consciousness is burning. Visual contact is burning. The resultant sensation is burning,” and so forth. Likewise with regard to the other senses and their respective sense objects.

The other religions say: “Everything is in a static condition that is where the creator placed it;” whereas the Buddha says: “Everything is fire” that is a becoming or a process. This is where the great Teacher breaks away from all conventional forms of thought in a most surprising manner and establishes his unquestioned pre-eminence and roars the lion’s roar of victory.

He presents the same idea in different form, in another place. “What, O Bhikkhus, is the arising of the world? Because of the eye and of forms arises visual consciousness. The coming together of these is contact. Because of contact arises sensation.” And so forth in terms of the formula of causal genesis up to birth and the resultant mass of all sorrow.

This is the highest form of Kantian idealism applied to the ends of religion. Just as flame is a mere succession of flickering moments and never the same for even two successive seconds, even so is the “I-process” which ever renews itself, the only constancy being its incessant change.

Kamma, so to say, throws up a bridge between this life and the next and welds together the manifold phases or flashes of the empirical personality so as to present an apparent “I” But since all life is but sorrow, it is kamma that keeps the “I-process” a-going. We are thus faced with the all-important question: “How is deliverance to be found from this endless process of becoming,” or in other words, how can we escape from sorrow?

The empirical ego is only an apparent “I“—it has no reality, because it is merely an aggregation of the khandhas. It is kamma that causes their coming together. Remove kamma and the khandhas fall asunder. Even thus is brought about the complete abrogation of personality. When there is the arising, there is also the passing away of life. This is change or transiency (anicca). Because of transiency there is sorrow (dukkha).

And thus to conclude: the world is conditioned by the action of the senses. Upon the senses, therefore, depends the world. The world in the last analysis is the sum-total of the sense-impressions. The activities of the senses constitute the generative cause of the world. Therefore the senses are the real creators of the world in all its vast totality.

Thus was solved the world-problem, without the recurrent remainder. But let us remember it is a problem—Quod erat faciendum, and not a theorem—Quod erat demonstrandum. “We ourselves must walk the Path, the Buddhas only show the Way.”

—The Buddhist Annual of Ceylon, 1926


  1. Nidana Samyutta [Back]