Is it a Religion?
It is neither a religion in the sense in which that word is commonly understood,
for it is not "a system of faith and worship owing any allegiance to a supernatural
Buddhism does not demand blind faith from its adherents. Here mere belief is
dethroned and is substituted by confidence based on knowledge, which, in Pali, is
known as Saddha. The confidence placed by a follower on the Buddha is like
that of a sick person in a noted physician, or a student in his teacher. A Buddhist
seeks refuge in the Buddha because it was He who discovered the Path of Deliverance.
A Buddhist does not seek refuge in the Buddha with the hope that he will be saved
by His personal purification. The Buddha gives no such guarantee. It is not within
the power of a Buddha to wash away the impurities of others. One could neither purify
nor defile another.
The Buddha, as Teacher, instructs us, but we ourselves are directly responsible
for our purification.
Although a Buddhist seeks refuge in the Buddha, he does not make any self-surrender.
Nor does a Buddhist sacrifice his freedom of thought by becoming a follower of the
Buddha. He can exercise his own free will and develop his knowledge even to the
extent of becoming a Buddha himself.
The starting point of Buddhism is reasoning or understanding, or, in other words,
To the seekers of truth the Buddha says:
"Do not accept anything on (mere) hearsay — (i.e., thinking that thus have we
heard it from a long time). Do not accept anything by mere tradition — (i.e., thinking
that it has thus been handed down through many generations). Do not accept anything
on account of mere rumors — (i.e., by believing what others say without any investigation).
Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures. Do not accept
anything by mere suppositions. Do not accept anything by mere inference. Do not
accept anything by merely considering the reasons. Do not accept anything merely
because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions. Do not accept anything merely
because it seems acceptable — (i.e., thinking that as the speaker seems to be a
good person his words should be accepted). Do not accept anything thinking that
the ascetic is respected by us (therefore it is right to accept his word).
"But when you know for yourselves — these things are immoral, these things are
blameworthy, these things are censured by the wise, these things, when performed
and undertaken conduce to ruin and sorrow — then indeed do you reject them.
"When you know for yourselves — these things are moral, these things are blameless,
these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken,
conduce to well-being and happiness — then do you live acting accordingly."
These inspiring words of the Buddha still retain their original force and freshness.
Though there is no blind faith, one might argue whether there is no worshiping
of images etc., in Buddhism.
Buddhists do not worship an image expecting worldly or spiritual favors, but
pay their reverence to what it represents.
An understanding Buddhist, in offering flowers and incense to an image, designedly
makes himself feel that he is in the presence of the living Buddha and thereby gains
inspiration from His noble personality and breathes deep His boundless compassion.
He tries to follow His noble example.
The Bo-tree is also a symbol of Enlightenment. These external objects of reverence
are not absolutely necessary, but they are useful as they tend to concentrate one's
attention. An intellectual person could dispense with them as he could easily focus
his attention and visualize the Buddha.
For our own good, and out of gratitude, we pay such external respect but what
the Buddha expects from His disciple is not so much obeisance as the actual observance
of His Teachings. The Buddha says — "He honors me best who practices my teaching
best." "He who sees the Dhamma sees me."
With regard to images, however, Count Kevserling remarks — "I see nothing more
grand in this world than the image of the Buddha. It is an absolutely perfect embodiment
of spirituality in the visible domain."
Furthermore, it must be mentioned that there are not petitional or intercessory
prayers in Buddhism. However much we may pray to the Buddha we cannot be saved.
The Buddha does not grant favors to those who pray to Him. Instead of petitional
prayers there is meditation that leads to self-control, purification and enlightenment.
Meditation is neither a silent reverie nor keeping the mind blank. It is an active
striving. It serves as a tonic both to the heart and the mind. The Buddha not only
speaks of the futility of offering prayers but also disparages a slave mentality.
A Buddhist should not pray to be saved, but should rely on himself and win his freedom.
"Prayers take the character of private communications, selfish bargaining
with God. It seeks for objects of earthly ambitions and inflames the sense of self.
Meditation on the other hand is self-change."
— Sri Radhakrishnan
In Buddhism there is not, as in most other religions, an Almighty God to be obeyed
and feared. The Buddha does not believe in a cosmic potentate, omniscient and omnipresent.
In Buddhism there are no divine revelations or divine messengers. A Buddhist is,
therefore, not subservient to any higher supernatural power which controls his destinies
and which arbitrarily rewards and punishes. Since Buddhists do not believe in revelations
of a divine being Buddhism does not claim the monopoly of truth and does not condemn
any other religion. But Buddhism recognizes the infinite latent possibilities of
man and teaches that man can gain deliverance from suffering by his own efforts
independent of divine help or mediating priests.
Buddhism cannot, therefore, strictly be called a religion because it is neither
a system of faith and worship, nor "the outward act or form by which men indicate
their recognition of the existence of a God or gods having power over their own
destiny to whom obedience, service, and honor are due."
If, by religion, is meant "a teaching which takes a view of life that is more
than superficial, a teaching which looks into life and not merely at it, a teaching
which furnishes men with a guide to conduct that is in accord with this its in-look,
a teaching which enables those who give it heed to face life with fortitude and
death with serenity,"6 or a
system to get rid of the ills of life, then it is certainly a religion of religions.
Is Buddhism an Ethical System?
It no doubt contains an excellent ethical code which is unparalleled in its perfection
and altruistic attitude. It deals with one way of life for the monks and another
for the laity. But Buddhism is much more than an ordinary moral teaching. Morality
is only the preliminary stage on the Path of Purity, and is a means to an end, but
not an end in itself. Conduct, though essential, is itself insufficient to gain
one's emancipation. It should be coupled with wisdom or knowledge (pañña).
The base of Buddhism is morality, and wisdom is its apex.
In observing the principles of morality a Buddhist should not only regard his
own self but also should have a consideration for others we well — animals not excluded.
Morality in Buddhism is not founded on any doubtful revelation nor is it the ingenious
invention of an exceptional mind, but it is a rational and practical code based
on verifiable facts and individual experience.
It should be mentioned that any external supernatural agency plays no part whatever
in the moulding of the character of a Buddhist. In Buddhism there is no one to reward
or punish. Pain or happiness are the inevitable results of one's actions. The question
of incurring the pleasure or displeasure of a God does not enter the mind of a Buddhist.
Neither hope of reward nor fear of punishment acts as an incentive to him to do
good or to refrain from evil. A Buddhist is aware of future consequences, but he
refrains from evil because it retards, does good because it aids progress to Enlightenment
(Bodhi). There are also some who do good because it is good, refrain from evil because
it is bad.
To understand the exceptionally high standard of morality the Buddha expects
from His ideal followers, one must carefully read the Dhammapada, Sigalovada Sutta,
Vyaggapajja Sutta, Mangala Sutta, Karaniya Sutta, Parabhava Sutta, Vasala Sutta,
Dhammika Sutta, etc.
As a moral teaching it excels all other ethical systems, but morality is only
the beginning and not the end of Buddhism.
In one sense Buddhism is not a philosophy, in another sense it is the philosophy
In one sense Buddhism is not a religion, in another sense it is the religion
Buddhism is neither a metaphysical path nor a ritualistic path.
It is neither sceptical nor dogmatic.
It is neither self-mortification nor self-indulgence.
It is neither pessimism nor optimism.
It is neither eternalism nor nihilism.
It is neither absolutely this-worldly nor other-worldly.
It is a unique Path of Enlightenment.
The original Pali term for Buddhism is Dhamma, which, literally, means that which
upholds. There is no English equivalent that exactly conveys the meaning of the
The Dhamma is that which really is. It is the Doctrine of Reality. It is a means
of Deliverance from suffering, and Deliverance itself. Whether the Buddhas arise
or not the Dhamma exists. It lies hidden from the ignorant eyes of men, till a Buddha,
an Enlightened One, realizes and compassionately reveals it to the world.
This Dhamma is not something apart from oneself, but is closely associated with
oneself. As such the Buddha exhorts:
"Abide with oneself as an island, with oneself as a Refuge. Abide with the Dhamma
as an island, with the Dhamma as a Refuge. Seek no external refuge."
— Parinibbana Sutta
Some Salient Features of Buddhism
The foundations of Buddhism are the four Noble Truths — namely, Suffering (the
raison d'etre of Buddhism), its cause (i.e., Craving), its end (i.e., Nibbana,
the Summum Bonum of Buddhism), and the Middle Way.
What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?
"Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, disease is suffering, death is suffering,
to be united with the unpleasant is suffering, to be separated from the pleasant
is suffering, not to receive what one craves for is suffering, in brief the five
Aggregates of Attachment are suffering."
What is the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering?
"It is the craving which leads from rebirth to rebirth accompanied by lust of
passion, which delights now here now there; it is the craving for sensual pleasures
(Kamatanha), for existence (Bhavatanha)7
and for annihilation (Vibhavatanha)."8
What is the Noble Truth of the Annihilation of Suffering?
"It is the remainderless, total annihilation of this very craving, the forsaking
of it, the breaking loose, fleeing, deliverance from it."
What is the Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Annihilation of Suffering?
"It is the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of right understanding, right
thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness,
and right concentration."
Whether the Buddhas arise or not these four Truths exist in the universe. The
Buddhas only reveal these Truths which lay hidden in the dark abyss of time.
Scientifically interpreted, the Dhamma may be called the law of cause and effect.
These two embrace the entire body of the Buddha's Teachings.
The first three represent the philosophy of Buddhism; the fourth represents the
ethics of Buddhism, based on that philosophy. All these four truths are dependent
on this body itself. The Buddha states: "In this very one-fathom long body along
with perceptions and thoughts, do I proclaim the world, the origin of the world,
the end of the world and the path leading to the end of the world." Here the term
world is applied to suffering.
Buddhism rests on the pivot of sorrow. But it does not thereby follow that Buddhism
is pessimistic. It is neither totally pessimistic nor totally optimistic, but, on
the contrary, it teaches a truth that lies midway between them. One would be justified
in calling the Buddha a pessimist if He had only enunciated the Truth of suffering
without suggesting a means to put an end to it. The Buddha perceived the universality
of sorrow and did prescribe a panacea for this universal sickness of humanity. The
highest conceivable happiness, according to the Buddha, is Nibbana, which is the
total extinction of suffering.
The author of the article on Pessimism in the Encyclopedia Britannica writes:
"Pessimism denotes an attitude of hopelessness towards life, a vague general opinion
that pain and evil predominate in human affairs. The original doctrine of the Buddha
is in fact as optimistic as any optimism of the West. To call it pessimism is merely
to apply to it a characteristically Western principle to which happiness is impossible
without personality. The true Buddhist looks forward with enthusiasm to absorption
into eternal bliss."
Ordinarily the enjoyment of sensual pleasures is the highest and only happiness
of the average man. There is no doubt a kind of momentary happiness in the anticipation,
gratification and retrospection of such fleeting material pleasures, but they are
illusive and temporary. According to the Buddha non-attachment is a greater bliss.
The Buddha does not expect His followers to be constantly pondering on suffering
and lead a miserable unhappy life. He exhorts them to be always happy and cheerful,
for zest (Piti) is one of the factors of Enlightenment.
Real happiness is found within, and is not to be defined in terms of wealth,
children, honors or fame. If such possessions are misdirected, forcibly or unjustly
obtained, misappropriated or even viewed with attachment, they will be a source
of pain and sorrow to the possessors.
Instead of trying to rationalize suffering, Buddhism takes suffering for granted
and seeks the cause to eradicate it. Suffering exists as long as there is craving.
It can only be annihilated by treading the Noble Eightfold Path and attaining the
supreme bliss of Nibbana.
These four Truths can be verified by experience. Hence the Buddha Dhamma is not
based on the fear of the unknown, but is founded on the bedrock of facts which can
be tested by ourselves and verified by experience. Buddhism is, therefore rational
and intensely practical.
Such a rational and practical system cannot contain mysteries or esoteric doctrines.
Blind faith, therefore, is foreign to Buddhism. Where there is no blind faith there
cannot be any coercion or persecution or fanaticism. To the unique credit of Buddhism
it must be said that throughout its peaceful march of 2500 years no drop of blood
was shed in the name of the Buddha, no mighty monarch wielded his powerful sword
to propagate the Dhamma, and no conversion was made either by force or by repulsive
methods. Yet, the Buddha was the first and the greatest missionary that lived on
Aldous Huxley writes: "Alone of all the great world religions Buddhism made its
way without persecution censorship or inquisition."
Lord Russell remarks: "Of the great religions of history, I prefer Buddhism,
especially in its earliest forms; because it has had the smallest element of persecution."
In the name of Buddhism no altar was reddened with the blood of a Hypatia, no
Bruno was burnt alive.
Buddhism appeals more to the intellect than to the emotion. It is concerned more
with the character of the devotees than with their numerical strength.
On one occasion Upali, a follower of Nigantha Nataputta, approached the Buddha
and was so pleased with the Buddha's exposition of the Dhamma that he instantly
expressed his desire to become a follower of the Buddha. But the Buddha cautioned
"Of a verity, O householder, make a thorough investigation. It is well for a
distinguished man like you to make (first) a thorough investigation."
Upali, who was overjoyed at this unexpected remark of the Buddha, said:
"Lord, had I been a follower of another religion, its adherents would have taken
me round the streets in a procession proclaiming that such and such a millionaire
had renounced his former faith and embraced theirs. But, Lord, Your Reverence advises
me to investigate further. The more pleased am I with this remark of yours. For
the second time, Lord, I seek refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha."
Buddhism is saturated with this spirit of free enquiry and complete tolerance.
It is the teaching of the open mind and the sympathetic heart, which, lighting and
warming the whole universe with its twin rays of wisdom and compassion, sheds its
genial glow on every being struggling in the ocean of birth and death.
The Buddha was so tolerant that He did not even exercise His power to give commandments
to His lay followers. Instead of using the imperative, He said: "It behooves you
to do this — It behooves you not to do this." He commands not but does exhort.
This tolerance the Buddha extended to men, women and all living beings.
It was the Buddha who first attempted to abolish slavery and vehemently protested
against the degrading caste system which was firmly rooted in the soil of India.
In the Word of the Buddha it is not by mere birth one becomes an outcast or a noble,
but by one's actions. Caste or color does not preclude one from becoming a Buddhist
or from entering the Order. Fishermen, scavengers, courtesans, together with warriors
and Brahmans, were freely admitted to the Order and enjoyed equal privileges and
were also given positions of rank. Upali, the barber, for instance, was made in
preference to all other the chief in matters pertaining to Vinaya discipline. The
timid Sunita, the scavenger, who attained Arhatship was admitted by the Buddha Himself
into the Order. Angulimala, the robber and criminal, was converted to a compassionate
saint. The fierce Alavaka sought refuge in the Buddha and became a saint. The courtesan
Ambapali entered the Order and attained Arhatship. Such instances could easily be
multiplied from the Tipitaka to show that the portals of Buddhism were wide open
to all, irrespective of caste, color or rank.
It was also the Buddha who raised the status of downtrodden women and not only
brought them to a realization of their importance to society but also founded the
first celibate religious order for women with rules and regulations.
The Buddha did not humiliate women, but only regarded them as feeble by nature.
He saw the innate good of both men and women and assigned to them their due places
in His teaching. Sex is no barrier to attaining Sainthood.
Sometimes the Pali term used to denote women is Matugama, which means
"mother-folk" or "society of mothers." As a mother, woman holds an honorable place
in Buddhism. Even the wife is regarded as "best friend" (parama sakha) of
Hasty critics are only making ex parte statements when they reproach Buddhism
with being inimical to women. Although at first the Buddha refused to admit women
into the Order on reasonable grounds, yet later He yielded to the entreaties of
His foster-mother, Pajapati Gotami, and founded the Bhikkhuni Order. Just as the
Arahats Sariputta and Moggallana were made the two chief disciples in the Order
of monks, even so he appointed Arahats Khema and Uppalavanna as the two chief female
disciples. Many other female disciples too were named by the Buddha Himself as His
distinguished and pious followers.
On one occasion the Buddha said to King Kosala who was displeased on hearing
that a daughter was born to him:
A woman child, O Lord of men; may prove
Even a better offspring than a male.
Many women, who otherwise would have fallen into oblivion, distinguished themselves
in various ways, and gained their emancipation by following the Dhamma and entering
the Order. In this new Order, which later proved to be a great blessing to many
women, queens, princesses, daughters of noble families, widows, bereaved mothers,
destitute women, pitiable courtesans — all, despite their caste or rank, met on
a common platform, enjoyed perfect consolation and peace, and breathed that free
atmosphere which is denied to those cloistered in cottages and palatial mansions.
It was also the Buddha who banned the sacrifice of poor beasts and admonished
His followers to extend their loving kindness (Metta) to all living beings
— even to the tiniest creature that crawls at one's feet. No man has the power or
the right to destroy the life of another as life is precious to all.
A genuine Buddhist would exercise this loving-kindness towards every living being
and identify himself with all, making no distinction whatsoever with regard to caste,
color or sex.
It is this Buddhist Metta that attempts to break all the barriers which separate
one from another. There is no reason to keep aloof from others merely because they
belong to another persuasion or another nationality. In that noble Toleration Edict
which is based on Culla-Vyuha and Maha-Vyuha Suttas, Asoka says: "Concourse
alone is best, that is, all should harken willingly to the doctrine professed by
Buddhism is not confined to any country or any particular nation. It is universal.
It is not nationalism which, in other words, is another form of caste system founded
on a wider basis. Buddhism, if it be permitted to say so, is supernationalism.
To a Buddhist there is no far or near, no enemy or foreigner, no renegade or
untouchable, since universal love realized through understanding has established
the brotherhood of all living beings. A real Buddhist is a citizen of the world.
He regards the whole world as his motherland and all as his brothers and sisters.
Buddhism is, therefore, unique, mainly owing to its tolerance, non-aggressiveness,
rationality, practicability, efficacy and universality. It is the noblest of all
unifying influences and the only lever that can uplift the world.
These are some of the salient features of Buddhism, and amongst some of the fundamental
doctrines may be said — Kamma or the Law of Moral Causation, the Doctrine of Rebirth,
Anatta and Nibbana.
Kamma or the Law of Moral Causation
We are faced with a totally ill-balanced world. We perceive the inequalities
and manifold destinies of men and the numerous grades of beings that exist in the
universe. We see one born into a condition of affluence, endowed with fine mental,
moral and physical qualities and another into a condition of abject poverty and
wretchedness. Here is a man virtuous and holy, but, contrary to his expectation,
ill-luck is ever ready to greet him. The wicked world runs counter to his ambitions
and desires. He is poor and miserable in spite of his honest dealings and piety.
There is another vicious and foolish, but accounted to be fortune's darling. He
is rewarded with all forms of favors, despite his shortcomings and evil modes of
Why, it may be questioned, should one be an inferior and another a superior?
Why should one be wrested from the hands of a fond mother when he has scarcely seen
a few summers, and another should perish in the flower or manhood, or at the ripe
age of eighty or hundred? Why should one be sick and infirm, and another strong
and healthy? Why should one be handsome, and another ugly and hideous, repulsive
to all? Why should one be brought up in the lap of luxury, and another in absolute
poverty, steeped in misery? Why should one be born a millionaire and another a pauper?
Why should one be born with saintly characteristics, and another with criminal tendencies?
Why should some be linguists, artists, mathematicians or musicians from the very
cradle? Why should some be congenitally blind, deaf and deformed? Why should some
be blessed and others cursed from their birth?
These are some problems that perplex the minds of all thinking men. How are we
to account for all this unevenness of the world, this inequality of mankind?
Is it due to the work of blind chance or accident?
There is nothing in this world that happens by blind chance or accident. To say
that anything happens by chance, is no more true than that this book has come here
of itself. Strictly speaking, nothing happens to man that he does not deserve for
some reason or another.
Could this be the fiat of an irresponsible Creator?
"If we are to assume that anybody has designedly set this wonderful universe
going, it is perfectly clear to me that he is no more entirely benevolent and just
in any intelligible sense of the words, than that he is malevolent and unjust."
According to Einstein:
"If this being (God) is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human
action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also his
work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and
thoughts before such an Almighty Being.
"In giving out punishments and rewards, he would to a certain extent be passing
judgment on himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness
ascribed to him."
"According to the theological principles man is created arbitrarily and without
his desire and at the moment of his creation is either blessed or damned eternally.
Hence man is either good or evil, fortunate or unfortunate, noble or depraved, from
the first step in the process of his physical creation to the moment of his last
breath, regardless of his individual desires, hopes, ambitions, struggles or devoted
prayers. Such is theological fatalism."
— Spencer Lewis
As Charles Bradlaugh says:
"The existence of evil is a terrible stumbling block to the Theist. Pain,
misery, crime, poverty confront the advocate of eternal goodness and challenge with
unanswerable potency his declaration of Deity as all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful."
In the words of Schopenhauer:
"Whoever regards himself as having become out of nothing must also think that
he will again become nothing; for an eternity has passed before he was, and then
a second eternity had begun, through which he will never cease to be, is a monstrous
"If birth is the absolute beginning, then death must be his absolute end;
and the assumption that man is made out of nothing leads necessarily to the assumption
that death is his absolute end."
Commenting on human sufferings and God, Prof. J.B.S. Haldane writes:
"Either suffering is needed to perfect human character, or God is not Almighty.
The former theory is disproved by the fact that some people who have suffered very
little but have been fortunate in their ancestry and education have very fine characters.
The objection to the second is that it is only in connection with the universe as
a whole that there is any intellectual gap to be filled by the postulation of a
deity. And a creator could presumably create whatever he or it wanted."
Lord Russell states:
"The world, we are told, was created by a God who is both good and omnipotent.
Before He created the world he foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain.
He is therefore responsible for all of it. it is useless to argue that the pain
in the world is due to sin. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be
guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He
decided to create man."
In "Despair," a poem of his old age, Lord Tennyson thus boldly attacks God, who,
as recorded in Isaiah, says, "I make peace and create evil." (Isaiah, xiv. 7.)
"What! I should call on that infinite love that has served us so well? Infinite
cruelty, rather that made everlasting hell, Made us, foreknew us, foredoomed us,
and does what he will with his own. Better our dead brute mother who never has heard
Surely "the doctrine that all men are sinners and have the essential sin of Adam
is a challenge to justice, mercy, love and omnipotent fairness."
Some writers of old authoritatively declared that God created man in his own
image. Some modern thinkers state, on the contrary, that man created God in his
own image. With the growth of civilization man's concept of God also became more
and more refined.
It is however, impossible to conceive of such a being either in or outside the
Could this variation be due to heredity and environment? One must admit that
all such chemico-physical phenomena revealed by scientists, are partly instrumental,
but they cannot be solely responsible for the subtle distinctions and vast differences
that exist amongst individuals. Yet why should identical twins who are physically
alike, inheriting like genes, enjoying the same privilege of upbringing, be very
often temperamentally, morally and intellectually totally different?
Heredity alone cannot account for these vast differences. Strictly speaking,
it accounts more plausibly for their similarities than for most of the differences.
The infinitesimally minute chemico-physical germ, which is about 30 millionth part
of an inch across, inherited from parents, explains only a portion of man, his physical
foundation. With regard to the more complex and subtle mental, intellectual and
moral differences we need more enlightenment. The theory of heredity cannot give
a satisfactory explanation for the birth of a criminal in a long line of honorable
ancestors, the birth of a saint or a noble man in a family of evil repute, for the
arising of infant prodigies, men of genius and great religious teachers.
According to Buddhism this variation is due not only to heredity, environment,
"nature and nurture," but also to our own kamma, or in other words, to the result
of our own inherited past actions and our present deeds. We ourselves are responsible
for our own deeds, happiness and misery. We build our own hells. We create our own
heavens. We are the architects of our own fate. In short we ourselves are our own
On one occasion9 a certain
young man named Subha approached the Buddha, and questioned why and wherefore it
was that among human beings there are the low and high states.
"For," said he, "we find amongst mankind those of brief life and those of long
life, the hale and the ailing, the good looking and the ill-looking, the powerful
and the powerless, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, the ignorant
and the intelligent."
The Buddha briefly replied: "Every living being has kamma as its own, its inheritance,
its cause, its kinsman, its refuge. Kamma is that which differentiates all living
beings into low and high states."
He then explained the cause of such differences in accordance with the law of
Thus from a Buddhist standpoint, our present mental, intellectual, moral and
temperamental differences are mainly due to our own actions and tendencies, both
past the present.
Kamma, literally, means action; but, in its ultimate sense, it means the meritorious
and demeritorious volition (Kusala Akusala Cetana). Kamma constitutes both
good and evil. Good gets good. Evil gets evil. Like attracts like. This is the law
As some Westerners prefer to say Kamma is "action-influence."
We reap what we have sown. What we sow we reap somewhere or some when. In one
sense we are the result of what we were; we will be the result of what we are. In
another sense, we are not totally the result of what we were and we will not absolutely
be the result of what we are. For instance, a criminal today may be a saint tomorrow.
Buddhism attributes this variation to Kamma, but it does not assert that everything
is due to Kamma.
If everything were due to Kamma, a man must ever be bad, for it is his Kamma
to be bad. One need not consult a physician to be cured of a disease, for if one's
Kamma is such one will be cured.
According to Buddhism, there are five orders or processes (Niyamas) which
operate in the physical and mental realms:
- Kamma Niyama, order of act and result, e.g., desirable and undesirable
acts produce corresponding good and bad results.
- Utu Niyama, physical (inorganic) order, e.g., seasonal phenomena
of winds and rains.
- Bija Niyama, order of germs or seeds (physical organic order); e.g.,
rice produced from rice-seed, sugary taste from sugar cane or honey etc. The
scientific theory of cells and genes and the physical similarity of twins may
be ascribed to this order.
- Citta Niyama, order of mind or psychic law, e.g., processes of consciousness
(Citta vithi), power of mind etc.
- Dhamma Niyama, order of the norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring
at the advent of a Bodhisatta in his last birth, gravitation, etc.
Every mental or physical phenomenon could be explained by these all-embracing
five orders or processes which are laws in themselves.
Kamma is, therefore, only one of the five orders that prevail in the universe.
It is a law in itself, but it does not thereby follow that there should be a law-giver.
Ordinary laws of nature, like gravitation, need no law-giver. It operates in its
own field without the intervention of an external independent ruling agency.
Nobody, for instance, has decreed that fire should burn. Nobody has commanded
that water should seek its own level. No scientist has ordered that water should
consist of H2O, and that coldness should be one of its properties. These
are their intrinsic characteristics. Kamma is neither fate nor predestination imposed
upon us by some mysterious unknown power to which we must helplessly submit ourselves.
It is one's own doing reacting on oneself, and so one has the possibility to divert
the course of Kamma to some extent. How far one diverts it depends on oneself.
It must also be said that such phraseology as rewards and punishments should
not be allowed to enter into discussions concerning the problem of Kamma. For Buddhism
does not recognize an Almighty Being who rules His subjects and rewards and punishes
them accordingly. Buddhists, on the contrary, believe that sorrow and happiness
one experiences are the natural outcome of one's own good and bad actions. It should
be stated that Kamma has both the continuative and the retributive principle.
Inherent in Kamma is the potentiality of producing its due effect. The cause
produces the effect; the effect explains the cause. Seed produces the fruit; the
fruit explains the seed as both are inter-related. Even so Kamma and its effect
are inter-related; "the effect already blooms in the cause."
A Buddhist who is fully convinced of the doctrine of Kamma does not pray to another
to be saved but confidently relies on himself for his purification because it teaches
It is this doctrine of Kamma that gives him consolation, hope, self reliance
and moral courage. It is this belief in Kamma "that validates his effort, kindles
his enthusiasm," makes him ever kind, tolerant and considerate. It is also this
firm belief in Kamma that prompts him to refrain from evil, do good and be good
without being frightened of any punishment or tempted by any reward.
It is this doctrine of Kamma that can explain the problem of suffering, the mystery
of so-called fate or predestination of other religions, and above all the inequality
Kamma and rebirth are accepted as axiomatic.
As long as this Kammic force exists there is re-birth, for beings are merely
the visible manifestation of this invisible Kammic force. Death is nothing but the
temporary end of this temporary phenomenon. It is not the complete annihilation
of this so-called being. The organic life has ceased, but the Kammic force which
hitherto actuated it has not been destroyed. As the Kammic force remains entirely
undisturbed by the disintegration of the fleeting body, the passing away of the
present dying thought-moment only conditions a fresh consciousness in another birth.
It is Kamma, rooted in ignorance and craving, that conditions rebirth. Past Kamma
conditions the present birth; and present Kamma, in combination with past Kamma,
conditions the future. The present is the offspring of the past, and becomes, in
turn, the parent of the future.
If we postulate a past, present, and a future life, then we are at once faced
with the alleged mysterious problem — "What is the ultimate origin of life?"
Either there must be a beginning or there cannot be a beginning for life.
One school, in attempting to solve the problem, postulates a first cause, God,
viewed as a force or as an Almighty Being.
Another school denies a first cause for, in common experience, the cause ever
becomes the effect and the effect becomes the cause. In a circle of cause and effect
a first cause is inconceivable. According to the former, life has had a beginning,
according to the latter, it is beginningless.
From the scientific standpoint, we are the direct products of the sperm and ovum
cells provided by our parents. As such life precedes life. With regard to the origin
of the first protoplasm of life, or colloid, scientists plead ignorance.
According to Buddhism we are born from the matrix of action (Kammayoni). Parents
merely provide an infinitesimally small cell. As such being precedes being. At the
moment of conception it is past Kamma that conditions the initial consciousness
that vitalizes the fetus. It is this invisible Kammic energy, generated from the
past birth that produces mental phenomena and the phenomenon of life in an already
extent physical phenomenon, to complete the trio that constitutes man.
For a being to be born here a being must die somewhere. The birth of a being,
which strictly means the arising of the five aggregates or psycho-physical phenomena
in this present life, corresponds to the death of a being in a past life; just as,
in conventional terms, the rising of the sun in one place means the setting of the
sun in another place. This enigmatic statement may be better understood by imagining
life as a wave and not as a straight line. Birth and death are only two phases of
the same process. Birth precedes death, and death, on the other hand, precedes birth.
The constant succession of birth and death in connection with each individual life
flux constitutes what is technically known as Samsara — recurrent wandering.
What is the ultimate origin of life?
The Buddha declares:
"Without cognizable end is this Samsara. A first beginning of beings, who, obstructed
by ignorance and fettered by craving, wander and fare on, is not to be perceived."
This life-stream flows ad infinitum, as long as it is fed by the muddy
waters of ignorance and craving. When these two are completely cut off, then only,
if one so wishes, does the stream cease to flow, rebirth ends as in the case of
the Buddhas and Arahats. An ultimate beginning of this life-stream cannot be determined,
as a stage cannot be perceived when this life-force was not fraught with ignorance
The Buddha has here referred merely to the beginning of the life-stream of living
beings. It is left to scientists to speculate on the origin and the evolution of
the universe. The Buddha does not attempt to solve all the ethical and philosophical
problems that perplex mankind. Nor does He deal with theories and speculations that
tend neither to edification nor to enlightenment. Nor does He demand blind faith
from His adherents. He is chiefly concerned with the problem of suffering and its
destruction. With but this one practical and specific purpose in view, all irrelevant
side issues are completely ignored.
But how are we to believe that there is a past existence?
The most valuable evidence Buddhists cite in favor of rebirth is the Buddha,
for He developed a knowledge which enabled Him to read past and future lives.
Following His instructions, His disciples also developed this knowledge and were
able to read their past lives to a great extent.
Even some Indian Rishis, before the advent of the Buddha, were distinguished
for such psychic powers as clairaudience, clairvoyance, thought-reading, remembering
past births, etc.
There are also some persons, who probably in accordance with the laws of association,
spontaneously develop the memory of their past birth, and remember fragments of
their previous lives. Such cases are very rare, but those few well-attested, respectable
cases tend to throw some light on the idea of a past birth. So are the experiences
of some modern dependable psychics and strange cases of alternating and multiple
In hypnotic states some relate experiences of their past lives; while a few others,
read the past lives of others and even heal diseases.10
Sometimes we get strange experiences which cannot be explained but by rebirth.
How often do we meet persons whom we have never met, and yet instinctively feel
that they are quite familiar to us? How often do we visit places, and yet feel impressed
that we are perfectly acquainted with those surroundings?
The Buddha tells us:
"Through previous associations or present advantage, that old love springs up
again like the lotus in the water."
Experiences of some reliable modern psychics, ghostly phenomena, spirit communications,
strange alternating and multiple personalities and so on shed some light upon this
problem of rebirth.
Into this world come Perfect Ones like the Buddhas and highly developed personalities.
Do they evolve suddenly? Can they be the products of a single existence?
How are we to account for great characters like Buddhaghosa, Panini, Kalidasa,
Homer and Plato; men of genius like Shakespeare, infant prodigies like Pascal, Mozart,
Beethoven, Raphael, Ramanujan, etc.?
Heredity alone cannot account for them. "Else their ancestry would disclose it,
their posterity, even greater than themselves, demonstrate it."
Could they rise to such lofty heights if they had not lived noble lives and gained
similar experiences in the past? Is it by mere chance that they are been born or
those particular parents and placed under those favorable circumstances?
The few years that we are privileged to spend here or, for the most five score
years, must certainly be an inadequate preparation for eternity.
If one believes in the present and in the future, it is quite logical to believe
in the past. The present is the offspring of the past, and acts in turn as the parent
of the future.
If there are reasons to believe that we have existed in the past, then surely
there are no reasons to disbelieve that we shall continue to exist after our present
life has apparently ceased.
It is indeed a strong argument in favor of past and future lives that "in this
world virtuous persons are very often unfortunate and vicious persons prosperous."
A Western writer says:
"Whether we believe in a past existence or not, it forms the only reasonable
hypothesis which bridges certain gaps in human knowledge concerning certain facts
of every day life. Our reason tells us that this idea of past birth and Kamma alone
can explain the degrees of difference that exist between twins, how men like Shakespeare
with a very limited experience are able to portray with marvelous exactitude the
most diverse types of human character, scenes and so forth of which they could have
no actual knowledge, why the work of the genius invariably transcends his experience,
the existence of infant precocity, the vast diversity in mind and morals, in brain
and physique, in conditions, circumstances and environment observable throughout
the world, and so forth."
It should be stated that this doctrine of rebirth can neither be proved nor disproved
experimentally, but it is accepted as an evidentially verifiable fact.
The cause of this Kamma, continues the Buddha, is avijja or ignorance
of the Four Noble Truths. Ignorance is, therefore, the cause of birth and death;
and its transmutation into knowingness or vijja is consequently their cessation.
The result of this analytical method is summed up in the Paticca Samuppada.