XII. THE IDEA OF PRE-EXISTENCE
"If A Bikkhu should desire, O brethren, to call to mind his various temporary states in days gone by - such as one birth, two births, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, one hundred, or one thousand, or one hundred thousand births,-in all their modes and all their details, let him be devoted to quietude of heart, - let him look through things, let him be much alone." - Akankheyya Sutta.
Were I to ask any reflecting Occidental, who had passed some years in the real living atmosphere of Buddhism, what fundamental idea especially differentiates Oriental modes of thinking from our own, I am sure he would answer: "The Idea of Pre-existence." It is this idea, more than any other, which permeates the whole mental being of the Far East. It is universal as the wash of air: it colors every emotion; it influences, directly or indirectly, almost every act. Its symbols are perpetually visible, even in details of artistic decoration; and hourly by day or night, some echoes of its language float uninvited to the ear. The utterances of the people, - their household sayings, their proverbs, their pious or profane exclamations, their confessions of sorrow, hope, joy, or despair, - are all informed with it. It qualifies equally the expression of hate or the speech of affection; and the term ingwa, or innen, - meaning karma as inevitable retribution, - comes naturally to every lip as an interpretation, as a consolation, or as a reproach. The peasant toiling up some steep road, and feeling the weight of his handcart straining every muscle, murmurs patiently: "Since this is ingwa, it must be suffered." Servants disputing, ask each other, "By reason of what ingwa must I now dwell with such a one as you?" The incapable or vicious man is reproached with his ingwa; and the misfortunes of the wise or the virtuous are explained by the same Buddhist word. The law-breaker confesses his crime, saying: "That which I did I knew to be wicked when doing; but my ingwa was stronger than my heart." Separated lovers seek death under the belief that their union in this life is banned by the results of their sins in a former one; and, the victim of an injustice tries to allay his natural anger by the self-assurance that he is expiating some forgotten fault which had to, be expiated in the eternal order of things.... So likewise even the commonest references to a spiritual future imply the general creed of a spiritual past. The mother warns her little ones at play about the effect of wrong-doing upon their future births, as the children of other parents. The pilgrim or the street-beggar accepts your alms with the prayer that your next birth may be fortunate. The aged inkyo, whose sight and hearing begin to fail, talks cheerily of the impending change that is to provide him with a fresh young body. And the expressions Yakusoku, signifying the Buddhist idea of necessity; mae no yo, the last life; akirame, resignation, recur as frequently in Japanese common parlance as do the words "right" and "wrong" in English popular speech.
After long dwelling in this psychological medium, you find that it has penetrated your own thought, and has effected therein various changes. All concepts of life implied by the idea of preexistence, - all those beliefs which, however sympathetically studied, must at first have seemed more than strange to you, - finally lose that curious or fantastic character with which novelty once invested them, and present themselves under a perfectly normal aspect. They explain so many things so well as even to look rational; and quite rational some assuredly are when measured by the scientific thought of the nineteenth century. But to judge them fairly, it is first necessary to sweep the mind clear of all Western ideas of metempsychosis. For there is no resemblance between the old Occidental conceptions of soul - the Pythagorean or the Platonic, for example - and the Buddhist conception; and it is precisely because of this unlikeness that the Japanese beliefs prove themselves reasonable. The profound difference between old-fashioned Western thought and Eastern thought in this regard is, that for the Buddhist the conventional soul - the single, tenuous, tremulous, transparent inner man, or ghost - does not exist. The Oriental Ego is not individual. Nor is it even a definitely numbered multiple like the Gnostic soul. It is an aggregate or composite of inconceivable complexity, - the concentrated sum of the creative thinking of previous lives beyond all reckoning.