Theosophical Forum, September, 1898
When Mr. Sinnett’s work “Esoteric Buddhism” was given to the world, some fourteen years ago. Mr. Rhys Davids achieved some celebrity by the epigram that it was “neither esoteric, nor Buddhism.” The epigram was a clever one, but, like many an epigram, its substantial truth was not so certain. For whoever has read Mr. Sinnett’s brilliant and epoch making work cannot fail to see that the heart and kernel of it is the twin teaching of Karma and Reincarnation, then first presented to the world in a vivid and convincing way. And not even Mr. Rhys Davids will deny that this twin doctrine is the very foundation of Buddha’s teaching, and that without it his doctrine becomes meaningless.
If we accept Buddha’s own teaching, that every man is rewarded according to his works, one wonders for what shortcomings “committed in a former birth,” it befell the Buddha, “Savior of the world and teacher of Nirvana and the Law,” to find in the west such an unimaginative band of interpreters, whose mental cast compels them to see, in his doctrines, only what fits their own philosophical preconceptions, and who have, consequently, made of him a nineteenth century agnostic, a kind of Comtist, by anticipation. One even finds, among the hardiest of his prophets, a certain group who make him out a sheer materialist—that he was an atheist is one of their commonplaces—and who boldly assert that he never taught reincarnation at all. And that is that kind of preconception, which gives rise to epigrams about certain ideas being “neither esoteric, nor Buddhism.” Now, it may be worth while to cite two passages among thousands to show that Buddha did teach the doctrine of reincarnation, and taught substantially as Mr. Sinnett describes it in his epigrammatically condemned book.
Our quotations come from the Visuddhi Magga:
In order to call to mind former states of existence, a priest should try and consider in retrograde order. all that he did for a whole day and night likewise.
“. . . . . . in this retrograde order must he consider what he did the day before, the day before that, up to the fifth day, tenth day, half month, month, year; and having, in the self same manner, considered the previous ten, twenty years and so on, up to the time of his conception in this existence, he must then consider the name and form present at the moment of his death in the previous existence. A clever man is able to penetrate beyond conception at the first trial, and to take as his object of thought the name and form present at the moment of his death. But whereas the name and form of the previous existence utterly ceased and another one came into being, therefor that point of time is like thick darkness and difficult to be made out by the mind of a stupid man. But even such a one should not despair, and say: ‘I shall never be able to penetrate beyond conception, and take as my object of thought the name and form present at the moment of my death in the last existence,’ but he should again and again enter upon the trance that leads to the High Powers, and each time he rises from it he should again consider that point of time.”
The other quotation gives further instructions:
“His alert attention having become possessed of this knowledge, he can call to mind many former states of existence, to wit: one birth, two births, three births, four births. five births, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, one hundred births, one thousand births, one hundred thousand births, many destructions of a world-cycle, many renovations of a world-cycle, many destructions and many renovations of a world-cycle; ‘I lived in such a place, had such a name, was of such a family, of such a caste, had such a maintenance, experienced such happiness and such miseries, had such a length of life. Then I passed from that existence and was reborn in such a place, there also I had such a name, was of such a family, of such a caste, had such a maintenance, experienced such happiness and such miseries, had such a length of life. Then I passed from that existence and was reborn in this existence.’ Thus he can call to mind many former states of existence and can specifically characterize them.”
Thus the Visuddhi Magga, an eminently Buddhist work, not only teaches the doctrine of reincarnation, but even goes so far as to give a receipt how these various incarnations are to be remembered even by “a stupid man.” The process looks easy enough and depends on the association of ideas and on forming the habit of going backwards over the events of one’s present life, beginning with a period of twenty four hours and gradually working back “to the moment of conception,” then stepping across the chasm to the moment of the preceding death.
The passage “a clever priest is able, etc., etc.” is remarkable in the extreme and very suggestive. And the word of encouragement to the “stupid man” is followed by a parable, well worth mentioning.
As a man who blunts his axe, in cutting down a bit tree, does not despair, but goes to the smith and gets it sharpened, and then back again to the tree; and this he repeats, if need be, many times, moreover, what was once cut need not be cut again, so is it with the process for recalling up the memory of past births.
Now, if words have any meaning at all, this surely means that Buddha taught a doctrine of reincarnation, very much as Mr. Sinnett does in his book, “Esoteric Buddhism,” this doctrine being, in fact, the heart of the book. And no one will deny, that it was through Mr. Sinnett’s book that the idea of reincarnation was first made thinkable and even credible to the western world.
But if we go beyond this one doctrine shall we find anything like Mr. Sinnett’s ideas—or the ideas of Mr. Sinnett’s book—in the teachings of Buddha? And, more particularly, shall we find any such large conception of the evolutionary processes, as, for instance, in the theories of Laplace and Darwin?
In answer to these questions, I wish to describe a passage of great interest in the Visuddhi Magga. But if may not be out of place to say at the outset, that, in doing this, I have no specific intention of defending Mr. Sinnett’s book, or any desire to prove that it contains the only original and genuine Buddhism. I use “Esoteric Buddhism” only as an illustration of a conception of Buddha radically opposed tot hat at present in vogue among his Western interpreters, who make him out to have been hardly more than a pessimistic moralizer of a somewhat aggravating type, in spite of the tradition of his singularly winning personality.
It is true that the Visuddhi Magga does not come to us as a part of the teaching directly recorded in the very words of Buddha, but I think there is no valid reason for doubting that it nevertheless contains and embodies a genuine tradition of Buddha’s doctrine. The immediate author, Buddha Ghosa, continually refers to teachings of Buddha, which support his more ample treatment of the subject and implies that he is simply putting on record a doctrine handed down by tradition.
Thus, the passage, which we have quoted as to the numbers of past births to be remembered, is almost if not quite identical with a passage in the Akhankheya Sutta. And if we are to accept the Buddhist belief as tot he Suttas, the latter does not contain the very words of Buddha.
Now, in the Visuddhi Magga, the phrase “many destructions and many renovations of a world cycle” naturally leads up to the questions: what is a world-cycle, and how is it destroyed, and, more especially, how is it renewed? And the answer to the last of these questions opens the way for a description of comic evolution, which is analogous to the nebular hypothesis of Laplace and is followed by certain geological theories of great interest. The more so as they are set forth with one or two remarkable illustrations.
We shall begin with the description of a new cosmic period, after the night of the gods, night during which “the upper regions of space have become one with those below, and wholly dark.”
“Now, after the lapse of another long period, a great cloud arises. And first it rains with a very fine rain, and then the rain pours down in streams which gradually increase from the thickness of a water lily stalk to that of a staff, of a club, of the trunk of a palmyra tree. And when this cloud has filled every burnt place throughout a hundred thousand times ten million worlds, it disappears. And then a wind arises, below and on the sides of the water, and rolls it into one mass, which is round like a drop on the leaf of a lotus.”
Is it not evident, that in this fine cosmic rain we have something very like the cosmic dust, the “nebulous matter” of the theory of Laplace? And have we not in the wind which rolls the mist into a sphere, something not unlike the “rotary motion” which is so necessary for Laplace’s theory, but for which he had offered as little adequate explanation, as does the Indian speculator, who simply states that his wind arose?
To continue the text:
“After the water has thus been massed together by the wind, it dwindles away and, by degrees, descends to a lower level. When it has descended to its original level on the surface of the earth, mighty winds arise, and they hold the water helplessly in check, as if in a covered vessel.”
Then comes a passage in the Visuddhi Magga, which is strikingly akin tot he tradition of the sun bright demi-gods descending to incarnation in order to people the newly formed world.
“Then beings, who have been living in the Heaven of the Radiant Gods, leave that existence, either on account of having completed their term of life, or on account of the exhaustion of their merit, and are reborn here on earth. They shine with their own light and wander through space. Thereupon, as described in the Discourse on the Primitive Ages, they taste that savory earth, are overcome with desire and fall to eating it ravenously. Then they cease to shine with their own light and find themselves in darkness. When they perceive this darkness, they become afraid. Now after these brings have begun to eat the savory earth, by degrees some become handsome and some ugly. Then the handsome despise the ugly, and as the result of this despising, the savoriness of the earth disappears . . . and rice grows up without any need of cultivation . . . Now when these beings eat this material food, the excrements are formed, within them and in order that they may relieve themselves, openings appear in their bodies, and the virility of the man, and the femininity of the woman . . . And being tormented by the reproofs of the wise for their low conduct, they build houses for its concealment. And having begun to dwell in houses, after a while they follow the example of some lazy one among themselves and store up food. From that time on the red granules and the husks envelop the rice grains and wherever a crop has been mown down it does not spring up again. Then these beings come together and groan aloud saying: Alas! Wickedness has sprung up among men, for, surely, formerly we were made of mind . . . Then they institute boundary lines, and one steals another’s share. After reviling the offender two or three times, they beat him with their fists, with clods of earth, with sticks.” . . .
Thus, according to the Visuddhi Magga, the sacred rights of property came to be established. This same ancient book narrates further how another sacred institution of man came into existence, namely that of royalty.
“. . . When this stealing, reproof, lying, and violence had sprung up among them, they came together and said: What is now we elect some one of us, who shall get angry with him who merits anger, reprove him who merits reproof and banish him who merits banishment. And we will give him in return a share of our rice.” . . .
And to this day that share of rice is given in support of any man, whose duty it is, either by election of birth, to “get angry with him who merits anger.” The very complicated origin, objects and privileges of sovereignty put in a very few words, indeed.
Seriously speaking, in the passage we have quoted above, we have an extremely close parallel to the idea of the “forbidden fruit” and the “fall” in the story of Eden, of Adam and Eve. Readers of the Puranas will remember also the closely similar myth of the Kapla trees, and how their blessings were forfeited by desire.
The resemblance between the cosmic theories of the Visuddhi Magga and the Book of Genesis is only the more accentuated by the order, in which, according to both, heavenly lights were created. Says the former “when thus the sun and moon have appeared, the constellations and the stars arise.” And here we have the order of events exactly as in Genesis, which states, that, after the greater light had been appointed to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night, “and He made the stars also.”
The Buddhist text continues:
“. . . Moreover, on the same day with the sun and the moon, Mount Sineru, the mountains which encircle the world, and the Himalaya Mountains reappear. These all appear simultaneously on the say of the full moon . . . And how? Just as when panica seed and porridge is cooking, suddenly bubbles appear and form little hummocus in some places and leave other places as depressions, while others still are flat; even so the mountains correspond tot he little hummocus, and the oceans to the depressions and the continents to the flat places.”
We can not at present follow the seer into his discourse on the original sexless race, which is very close to a pet theory of Darwin’s, based on the survival of rudimentary organs. All we can do, is to point to the fact, that, in the few sentences we have been able to quote, we have a world theory closely analogous to the nebular hypothesis of Laplace; also a theory as to the origin of man, the heart of which is the fall of spirit into matter and rebirth, and, besides, the germs of a very interesting geological doctrine in reference to the relation between the formation of mountains and the cooling and hardening of the terrestrial globe.
And the teachings of the Buddhist writer lose nothing either in scientific suggestiveness or in vivid colour, because he has chosen to find a simile of the great cosmic process in a plain bowl of porridge.
Neither do we lose anything because of their manifest likeness of some of the theories found both in Mr. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism and Mme. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine.