THE HIGHER BUDDHISM
The Buddhist metaphysician would answer thus: "The form of your question is wrong, because it assumes the existence of personality, - and there is no personality. There is really no such individual as the 'you' of the inquiry. The suffering is indeed the result of errors committed in some anterior existence or existences; but there is no responsibility for the acts of another person, since there is no personality. The 'I' that was and the 'I' that is represent in the chain of transitory being aggregations momentarily created by acts and thoughts; and the pain belongs to the aggregates as condition resulting from quality." All this sounds extremely obscure: to understand the real theory we must put away the notion of personality, which is a very difficult thing to do. Successive births do not mean transmigration in the common sense of that word, but only the self-propagation of Karma: the perpetual multiplying of certain conditions by a kind of ghostly gemmation, - if I may borrow a biological term. The Buddhist illustration, however, is that of flame communicated from one lamp-wick to another: a hundred lamps may thus be lighted from one flame, and the hundred flames will all be different, though the origin of all was the same. Within the hollow flame of each transitory life is enclosed a part of the only Reality; but this is not a soul that transmigrates. Nothing passes from birth to birth but Karma, - character or condition.
One will naturally ask how can such a doctrine exert any moral influence whatever? If the future being shaped by my Karma is to be in nowise identical with my present self, - if the future consciousness evolved by my Karma is to be essentially another consciousness, - how can I force myself to feel anxious about the sufferings of that unborn person? "Again your question is wrong," a Buddhist would answer: "to understand the doctrine you must get rid of the notion of individuality, and think, not of persons, but of successive states of feeling and consciousness, each of which buds out of the other, - a chain of existences interdependently united." ... I may attempt another illustration. Every individual, as we understand the term, is continually changing. All the structures of the body are constantly undergoing waste and repair; and the body that you have at this hour is not, as to substance, the same body that you had ten years ago. Physically you are not the same person: yet you suffer the same pains, and feel the same pleasures, and find your powers limited by the same conditions. Whatever disintegrations and reconstructions of tissue have taken place within you, you have the same physical and mental peculiarities that you had ten years ago. Doubtless the cells of your brain have been decomposed and recomposed: yet you experience the same emotions, recall the same memories, and think the same thoughts. Everywhere the fresh substance has assumed the qualities and tendencies of the substance replaced. This persistence of condition is like Karma. The transmission of tendency remains, though the aggregate is changed....
These few glimpses into the fantastic world, of Buddhist metaphysics will suffice, I trust, to convince any intelligent reader that the higher Buddhism (to which belongs the much-discussed and little-comprehended doctrine of Nirvana) could never have been the religion of millions almost incapable of forming abstract ideas, - the religion of a population even yet in a comparatively early stage of religious evolution. It was never understood by the people at all, nor is it ever taught to them to-day. It is a religion of metaphysicians, a religion of scholars, a religion so difficult to be understood, even by persons of some philosophical training, that it might well be mistaken for a system of universal negation. Yet the reader should now be able to perceive that, because a man disbelieves in a personal God, in an immortal soul, and in any continuation of personality after death, it does not follow that we are justified in declaring him an irreligious Person, - especially if he happen to be an Oriental. The Japanese scholar who believes in the moral order of the universe, the ethical responsibility of the present to all the future, the immeasurable consequence of every thought and deed, the ultimate disparition of evil, and the power of attainment to conditions of infinite memory and infinite vision, - cannot be termed either an atheist or a materialist, except by bigotry and ignorance. Profound as may be the difference between his religion and our own, in respect of symbols and modes of thought, the moral conclusions reached in either case are very much the same.