“…There is rebirth of character, but no transmigration of a self. Thy thought-forms reappear, but there is no ego-entity transferred. The stanza uttered by a teacher is reborn in the scholar who repeats the words. Only through ignorance and delusion do men indulge in the dream that their souls are separate and self-existent entities. Thy heart, O Brahman, is cleaving still to self; thou art anxious about heaven but thou seekest the pleasures of self in heaven, and thus thou canst not see the bliss of truth and the immortality of truth.” — Buddha The Gospel of Buddha, According to Old Records
While some believe it’s impossible to know whether there is life after death, belief in immortality is timeless. People of all times and places in history have believed that the human soul survives death. If there is no consciousness beyond the grave, then life has fooled almost everyone from the Pharaohs of Egypt to Jesus of Nazareth. When we talk about rebirth or reincarnation, some people laugh at the idea. They consider such belief is passe and obsolete. Others may think such question is in arena of religion. After all, it concerns what is after death.
All Existence is Spiritual
The following text comes from The Gospel of Buddha, According to Old Records By Paul Carus, Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company, 1894
THERE was an officer among the retinue of Simha who had heard of the discourses of the Blessed One, and there was some doubt left in his heart. This man came to the Blessed One and said: “It is said, O Lord, that the samana Gotama denies the existence of the soul. Do they who say so speak the truth, or do they bear false witness against the Blessed One
And the Blessed One said: “There is a way in which those who say so are speaking truly of me; on the other hand, there is a way in which those who say so do not speak truly of me. The Tathagata teaches that there is no self. He who says that the soul is his self and that the self is the thinker of our thoughts and the actor of our deeds, teaches a wrong doctrine which leads to confusion and darkness. On the other hand, the Tathagata teaches that there is mind. He who understands by soul mind, and says that mind exists, teaches the truth which leads to clearness and enlightenment.”
The officer said: “Does, then, the Tathagata maintain that two things exist? that which we perceive with our senses and that which is mental?”
Said the Blessed One: “I say to thee, thy mind is spiritual, but neither is the sense-perceived void of spirituality. The bodhi is eternal and it dominates all existence as the good law guiding all beings in their search for truth. It changes brute nature into mind, and there is no being that cannot be transformed into a vessel of truth.” [ The Gospel of Buddha, According to Old Records ]
Identity and Non-Identity
The following text comes from The Gospel of Buddha, According to Old Records By Paul Carus, Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company, 1894
KUTADANTA, the head of the Brahmans in the village of Danamati, having approached the Blessed One respectfully, greeted him and said: “I am told, O samana, that thou art the Buddha, the Holy One, the All-knowing, the Lord of the world. But if thou wert the Buddha, wouldst thou not come like a king in all thy glory and power?” Said the Blessed One: “Thine eyes are holden. If the eye of thy mind were undimmed thou couldst see the glory and the power of truth.”
Said Kutadanta: “Show me the truth and I shall see it. But thy doctrine is without consistency. If it were consistent, it would stand; but as it is not, it will pass away.” The Blessed One replied: “The truth will never pass away.”
Kutadanta said: “I am told that thou teachest the law, yet thou tearest down religion. Thy disciples despise rites and abandon immolation, but reverence for the gods can be shown only by sacrifices. The very nature of religion consists in worship and sacrifice.” Said the Buddha: “Greater than the immolation of bullocks is the sacrifice of self. He who offers to the gods his evil desires will see the uselessness of slaughtering animals at the altar. Blood has no cleansing power, but the eradication of lust will make the heart pure. Better than worshiping gods is obedience to the laws of righteousness.”
Kutadanta, being of a religious disposition and anxious about his fate after death, had sacrificed countless victims. Now he saw the folly of atonement by blood. Not yet satisfied, however, with the teachings of the Tathagata, Kutadanta continued: “Thou believest, O Master, that beings are reborn; that they migrate in the evolution of life; and that subject to the law of karma we must reap what we sow. Yet thou teachest the non-existence of the soul! Thy disciples praise utter self-extinction as the highest bliss of Nirvana. If I am merely a combination of the sankharas, my existence will cease when I die. If I am merely a compound of sensations and ideas and desires, whither can I go at the dissolution of the body?”
Said the Blessed One: “O Brahman, thou art religious and earnest. Thou art seriously concerned about thy soul. Yet is thy work in vain because thou art lacking in the one thing that is needful. There is rebirth of character, but no transmigration of a self. Thy thought-forms reappear, but there is no ego-entity transferred. The stanza uttered by a teacher is reborn in the scholar who repeats the words.
“Only through ignorance and delusion do men indulge in the dream that their souls are separate and self-existent entities. Thy heart, O Brahman, is cleaving still to self; thou art anxious about heaven but thou seekest the pleasures of self in heaven, and thus thou canst not see the bliss of truth and the immortality of truth.
“I say to thee: The Blessed One has not come to teach death, but to teach life, and thou discernest not the nature of living and dying. This body will be dissolved and no amount of sacrifice will save it. Therefore, seek thou the life that is of the mind. Where self is, truth cannot be; yet when truth comes, self will disappear. Therefore, let thy mind rest in the truth; propagate the truth, put thy whole will in it, and let it spread. In the truth thou shalt live forever. Self is death and truth is life. The cleaving to self is a perpetual dying, while moving in the truth is partaking of Nirvana which is life everlasting.”
Then Kutadanta said: “Where, O venerable Master, is Nirvana?” “Nirvana is wherever the precepts are obeyed replied the Blessed One.
“Do I understand thee aright,” rejoined the Brahman, “That Nirvana is not a place, and being nowhere it is without reality?” “Thou dost not understand me aright,” said the Blessed One, “Now listen and answer these questions: Where does the wind dwell
“Nowhere,” was the reply.
Buddha retorted: “Then, sir, there is no such thing as wind.” Kutadanta made no reply; and the Blessed One asked again: “Answer me, O Brahman, where does wisdom dwell? Is wisdom a locality?”
“Wisdom has no allotted dwelling-place replied Kutadanta. Said the Blessed One: “Meanest thou that there is no wisdom, no enlightenment, no righteousness, and no salvation, because Nirvana is not a locality? As a great and mighty wind which passeth over the world in the heat of the day, so the Tathagata comes to blow over the minds of mankind with the breath of his love, so cool, so sweet, so calm, so delicate; and those tormented by fever assuage their suffering and rejoice at the refreshing breeze.”
Said Kutadanta: “I feel, O Lord, that thou proclaimest a great doctrine, but I cannot grasp it. Forbear with me that I ask again: Tell me, O Lord, if there be no atman [soul], how can there be immortality? The activity of the mind passeth, and our thoughts are gone when we have done thinking.”
Buddha replied: “Our thinking is gone, but our thoughts continue. Reasoning ceases, but knowledge remains.” Said Kutadanta: “How is that? Are not reasoning and knowledge the same?”
The Blessed One explained the distinction by an illustration: “It is as when a man wants, during the night, to send a letter, and, after having his clerk called, has a lamp lit, and gets the letter written. Then, when that has been done, he extinguishes the lamp. But though the writing has been finished and the light has been put out the letter is still there. Thus does reasoning cease and knowledge remain; and in the same way mental activity ceases, but experience, wisdom, and all the fruits of our acts endure.”
Kutadanta continued: “Tell me, O Lord, pray tell me, where, if the sankharas are dissolved, is the identity of my self. If my thoughts are propagated, and if my soul migrates, my thoughts cease to be my thoughts and my soul ceases to be my soul. Give me an illustration, but pray, O Lord, tell me, where is the identity of my self?”
Said the Blessed One: “Suppose a man were to light a lamp; would it burn the night through?” “Yes, it might do so,” was the reply.
“Now, is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the night as in the second?” Kutadanta hesitated. He thought it is the same flame, but fearing the complications of a hidden meaning, and trying to be exact, he said: “No, it is not.”
“Then,” continued the Blessed One, “there are two flames, one in the first watch and the other in the second watch.” “No, sir,” said Kutadanta. “In one sense it is not the same flame, but in another sense it is the same flame. It burns the same kind of oil, it emits the same kind of light, and it serves the same purpose.”
“Very well said the Buddha and would you call those flames the same that have burned yesterday and are burning now in the same lamp, filled with the same kind of oil, illuminating the same room?” “They may have been extinguished during the day,” suggested Kutadanta.
Said the Blessed One: “Suppose the flame of the first watch had been extinguished during the second watch, would you call it the same if it burns again in the third watch?” Replied Kutadanta: “In one sense it is a different flame, in another it is not.”
The Tathagata asked again: “Has the time that elapsed during the extinction of the flame anything to do with its identity or non-identity?” “No, sir,” said the Brahman, “it has not. There is a difference and an identity, whether many years elapsed or only one second, and also whether the lamp has been extinguished in the meantime or not.”
“Well, then, we agree that the flame of today is in a certain sense the same as the flame of yesterday, and in another sense it is different at every moment. Moreover, the flames of the same kind, illuminating with equal power the same kind of rooms, are in a certain sense the same.” “Yes, sir,” replied Kutadanta.
The Blessed One continued: “Now, suppose there is a man who feels like thyself, thinks like thyself, and acts like thyself, is he not the same man as thou?” “No, sir,” interrupted Kutadanta.
Said the Buddha: “Dost thou deny that the same logic holds good for thyself that holds good for the things of the world?” Kutadanta bethought himself and rejoined slowly: “No, I do not. The same logic holds good universally; but there is a peculiarity about my self which renders it altogether different from everything else and also from other selves. There may be another man who feels exactly like me, thinks like me, and acts like me; suppose even he had the same name and the same kind of possessions, he would not be myself.”
“True, Kutadanta, answered Buddha, he would not be thyself. Now, tell me, is the person who goes to school one, and that same person when he has finished his schooling another? Is it one who commits a crime, another who is punished by having his hands and feet cut off?” “They are the same, was the reply.
“Then sameness is constituted by continuity only?” asked the Tathagata. “Not only by continuity,” said Kutadanta, but also and mainly by identity of character.”
“Very well, concluded the Buddha, then thou agreest that persons can be the same, in the same sense as two flames of the same kind are called the same; and thou must recognize that in this sense another man of the same character and product of the same karma is the same as thou.” “Well, I do,” said the Brahman.
The Buddha continued: “And in this same sense alone art thou the same today as yesterday. Thy nature is not constituted by the matter of which thy body consists, but by thy sankharas, the forms of the body, of sensations, of thoughts. The person is the combination of the sankharas. Wherever they are, thou art. Whithersoever they go, thou goest. Thus thou wilt recognize in a certain sense an identity of thy self, and in another sense a difference. But he who does not recognize the identity should deny all identity, and should say that the questioner is no longer the same person as he who a minute after receives the answer. Now consider the continuation of thy personality, which is preserved in thy karma. Dost thou call it death and annihilation, or life and continued life?”
“I call it life and continued life,” rejoined Kutadanta, “for it is the continuation of my existence, but I do not care for that kind of continuation. All I care for is the continuation of self in the other sense, which makes of every man, whether identical with me or not, an altogether different person.”
“Very well,” said Buddha. “This is what thou desirest and this is the cleaving to self. This is thy error. All compound things are transitory: they grow and they decay. All compound things are subject to pain: they will be separated from what they love and be joined to what they abhor. All compound things lack a self, an atman, an ego.”
“How is that?” asked Kutadanta. “Where is thy self? asked the Buddha. And when Kutadanta made no reply, he continued: “Thy self to which thou cleavest is a constant change. Years ago thou wast a small babe; then, thou wast a boy; then a youth, and now, thou art a man. Is there any identity of the babe and the man? There is an identity in a certain sense only. Indeed there is more identity between the flames of the first and the third watch, even though the lamp might have been extinguished during the second watch. Now which is thy true self, that of yesterday, that of today, or that of tomorrow, for the preservation of which thou clamorest?” Kutadanta was bewildered. “Lord of the world,” he said, I see my error, but I am still confused.”
The Tathagata continued: “It is by a process of evolution that sankharas come to be. There is no sankhara which has sprung into being without a gradual becoming. Thy sankharas are the product of thy deeds in former existences. The combination of thy sankharas is thy self. Wheresoever they are impressed thither thy self migrates. In thy sankharas thou wilt continue to live and thou wilt reap in future existences the harvest sown now and in the past.”
“Verily, O Lord,” rejoined Kutadanta, this is not a fair retribution. I cannot recognize the justice that others after me will reap what I am sowing now.”
The Blessed One waited a moment and then replied: “Is all teaching in vain? Dost thou not understand that those others are thou thyself Thou thyself wilt reap what thou sowest, not others. Think of a man who is ill-bred and destitute, suffering from the wretchedness of his condition. As a boy he was slothful and indolent, and when he grew up he had not learned a craft to earn a living. Wouldst thou say his misery is not the product of his own action, because the adult is no longer the same person as was the boy?
“I say to thee: Not in the heavens, not in the midst of the sea, not if thou hidest thyself away in the clefts of the mountains, wilt thou find a place where thou canst escape the fruit of thine evil actions. At the same time thou art sure to receive the blessings of thy good actions. To the man who has long been traveling and who returns home in safety, the welcome of kinfolk, friends, and acquaintances awaits. So, the fruits of his good works bid him welcome who has walked in the path of righteousness, when he passes over from the present life into the hereafter.”
Kutadanta said: “I have faith in the glory and excellency of thy doctrines. My eye cannot as yet endure the light; but I now understand that there is no self, and the truth dawns upon me. Sacrifices cannot save, and invocations are idle talk. But how shall I find the path to life everlasting? I know all the Vedas by heart and have not found the truth.”
Said the Buddha: “Learning is a good thing; but it availeth not. True wisdom can be acquired by practice only. Practice the truth that thy brother is the same as thou. Walk in the noble path of righteousness and thou wilt understand that while there is death in self, there is immortality in truth.”
Said Kutadanta: “Let me take my refuge in the Blessed One, in the Dharma, and in the brotherhood. Accept me as thy disciple and let me partake of the bliss of immortality.”