It is the custom of Orientalists to speak of Buddhism as a religion, and a very beautiful and intuitional book has been written, with the title, The Religion of Buddha. But we shall be well advised to bear in mind that the Buddha’s purpose was not to announce a world religion, or even to frame a religious system for all the members of a single nation or people, such a system as the Laws of Manu, or the book of Leviticus presents, including, with the Ten Commandments, the details of a complete system of ritual, and of civil and criminal law.

This was not the purpose of the Buddha. Though he taught openly in the villages and the cities, in the palaces of princes as well as in the shadowed solitude of the forests, his aim was not to establish better and more righteous modes of life for villagers and citizens, or even to inspire kings and princes with a more enlightened policy; his real purpose was to gather disciples from the villages and towns and palaces, and to inspire in them the desire to enter on a path which should lead them away, once for all, from the preoccupations of village or city or palace, a path that should lead them to a new world. And, in general, the account of one of the visits of the Buddha to the common haunts of men, whether villagers or princes, is followed by a record of those who, hearing him there, and inspired by his golden words, had gone forth from that worldly life, taking refuge in the Buddha, taking refuge in the Law of Righteousness, taking refuge in the Order. The true purpose of the Buddha was to found an Order of Disciples.

Seeing this clearly, we must remember also that from time immemorial the teaching and training of disciples falls into two parts: that which is imparted outwardly by word to the understanding of the disciple, and that which is imparted inwardly to the disciple’s heart and spirit, when the Master communicates his own life and being to the disciple. This inner teaching is intensely individual, fitted to the special needs of that disciple from day to day, and in a sense incommunicable, concerned with states of consciousness, spiritual intuitions and inspiration, which must be experienced before they can be understood by the mind, or which transcend the ordinary reach of the mind altogether. If imparted in words to a disciple who had not gained this spiritual experience, these teachings could not be understood; they might very easily be misunderstood, thus leading to confusion, not to light, but to greater darkness.

Danger would always arise where the disciple had not yet conquered the strong forces of the lower self, for the constant impulse of the lower self is to seize and turn to its own uses whatever it can lay hold on, whether natural forces or thoughts that seem to promise power. In the words of Sartor Resartus, “the self in thee needs to be annihilated” before the higher way can be entered, or even clearly seen; the danger is that the lower desires, impulses and egotisms may be transferred to these larger worlds, so that the last state of that man is worse than the first.

Therefore it is that so much of the Buddha’s teaching is directed toward an understanding of the lower self, in order that the disciple clearly seeing its nature and menace may resolutely set about the hard task of conquering it. Quite inevitably, this purpose gives to much of the Buddha’s recorded teaching a complexion that has been called “nihilistic”; inevitably, because the whole aim is the annihilation of selfishness and evil desires.

In this preliminary task, the Buddha used two chief instruments: practical moral discipline, involving the renunciation of the householder’s life, the pledge and practice of chastity in thought, word and act, and a series of rules of conduct, which included an admirable code of good manners; and, second, intellectual analysis, to be applied by the disciple to the lower self and the world of the lower self, in order that he might overcome the glamour of the lower self and its appetites, and recognize them for the base and unworthy things they are. The disciple was taught to turn the light of his intelligence upon the bundle of desires that make up the lower self, so that these desires might be conquered and the force in them transmuted.

The most famous piece of analytic thinking in the teaching of the Buddha is what is called the Chain of Causation, Nidana, which pervades and underlies his whole thought, and which, fortunately for us, is set forth in one of the Suttas with that crystalline clearness that is so distinctive of the Buddha’s thinking, as also of that other great Aryan Master, Shankaracharya, The Maha-Nidana-Suttanta is indeed so lucid and direct that it may be translated almost without comment or elucidation. It begins:

Thus it has been heard by me.

Once upon a time the Master dwelt among the Kurus, in a township of the Kurus, named Kammassadhamma. And so the noble Ananda, coming to the place where the Master was, making salutation to the Master, sat down by his side. Seated beside him, the noble Ananda said this to the Master: “Marvellous is it, Lord, wonderful is it, Lord, that, whereas this teaching of effects arising from causes is deep, and looks deep, to me it appears absolutely clear and simple!”

“Say not so, Ananda, say not so! Deep, Ananda, is this teaching of effects arising from causes, and it also looks deep. Because, Ananda, mankind is not awake to this law, and does not penetrate it, mankind is tangled like a matted skein, balled up like clotted yarn, or as rushes and grass confused together, and therefore cannot escape from misery, from the evil way, from downfall and recurring death.

“If it be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of decay and death?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of decay and death?’ It should be answered, ‘Being born is the cause of decay and death.’

“If it be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of being born?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of being born?’ It should be answered, ‘Differentiated existence is the cause of being born.’

“If it be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of differentiated existence?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of differentiated existence?’ It should be answered, ‘ Clinging to life is the cause of differentiated existence.’

“If it be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of clinging to life?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of clinging to life?’ It should be answered, ‘Thirsting desire is the cause of clinging to life.’

“If it be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of thirsting desire?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of thirsting desire?’ It should be answered, ‘Sensation is the cause of thirsting desire.’

“If it be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of sensation?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of sensation?’ It should be answered, ‘Contacts of the senses are the cause of sensation.’

“If it should be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of contacts of the senses?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of contacts of the senses?’ It should be answered, ‘Objects differentiated according to name and form are the cause of contacts of the senses.’

“If it should be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of objects differentiated according to name and form?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of objects differentiated according to name and form?’ It should be answered, ‘Cognition of difference is the cause of objects differentiated according to name and form.’

“If it should be asked, Ananda, ‘Is there a definite cause of cognition of difference?’ it should be answered, ‘There is!’ Then he will say, ‘What is the cause of cognition of difference?’ It should be answered, ‘Differentiation according to name and form is the cause of cognition of difference.’

“Thus, then, Ananda, differentiation according to name and form is the cause of cognition of difference, cognition of difference is the cause of differentiation according to name and form, differentiation according to name and is the cause of contacts of the senses, contacts of the senses are the cause of sensation, sensation is the cause of thirsting desire, thirsting desire is the cause of clinging to life, clinging to life is the cause of differentiated existence, differentiated existence is the cause of being born, being born is the cause of decay and death, decay and death are the cause from which lamentation, misery, dejection and despair arise. Such is the origin of this whole body of ills.”

We may interrupt our text for a moment here. The problem has been to discover the cause of decay and death, lamentation, misery, dejection and despair: the problem of the Origin of Evil in human life. We have been led back step by step along the Chain of Causation to differentiation according to name and form, and to cognition of difference, each of these two being said to be the cause of the other. This is not really arguing in a circle, as it may seem, because the two in fact arise simultaneously; they are the two sides, subjective and objective, of that primordial differentiation of the Logos, which must remain an unsolved mystery for our human minds. We do not know, we cannot conceivably know, why there is a manifested universe, any more than we can know why there is a universe at all. But it does not at all follow that the Buddha, in thus leading the mind of the noble Ananda back to an insoluble mystery, has for a moment lost sight of his practical goal. The first purpose, conveyed, as always, with delicate and charming humour, was to bring the noble Ananda to realize that the whole problem not only looked deep, but in fact was deep, in spite of his confident assertion that, for his bright intelligence, it was as clear and simple as possible. Socrates later followed much the same method with those who were too assured of their own cleverness.

But the matter really goes deeper. The reason why primordial differentiation took place within the unmanifested Logos may be altogether beyond our ken. But we are quite able to understand that our ingrained habit of identifying our consciousness and feelings with this outward flow toward matter is the cause of many evils, whose pedigree is traced in the Chain of Causation. We are equally able to understand that, by ceasing to set our hearts on these temporal things, we may turn inward toward the Self with reverted vision, and so come to inherit eternal things. This turning, this conversion, this change of direction from self-identification with the temporal and false to self-identification with the true and the eternal, is what the disciple needs, at the entrance of the way. He has already in hand the practical and moral side of the problem by “leaving the household life” and entering the Buddha’s celibate Order; he is now set to master the intellectual side by analyzing the causes that underlie and build up the kind of life he has abandoned, so that he may uproot these causes, lest they drag him back once more to decay and death, lamentation and misery.

The Chain of Causation is not invariably given in exactly the terms of the Sutta we have translated. Sometimes an additional step is added in the middle of the ladder: “Differentiation according to name and form is the cause of the six sense-powers; the six sense-powers are the cause of contacts of the senses,” and so on, with no essential change of meaning. But there is also another version of the upper rungs of the ladder: “Cognition of difference is the cause of differentiation according to name and form; discrete existences are the cause of cognition of difference; Avidya, primordial unwisdom, is the cause of cognition of difference;” Thus we get the full chain of Twelve Nidanas, as it is generally quoted. But, once again, the essence of the matter remains precisely the same. We are led back to the primal differentiation in the Logos. And the practical moral is exactly the same: Kill out the dire heresy of separateness. It is deeply interesting that, in this fuller form of the Chain of Causation, we are led back to Avidya, as in the Upanishads and the Vedanta, which offer as the cure Vidya, true Wisdom, or Brahma Vidya, the Wisdom of the Eternal. So we come back to our Pali text:

“’Being born is the cause of decay and death,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, is it to be understood that being born is the cause of decay and death. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no being born, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, neither of Devas to Devahood, nor of Seraphs to Seraphhood, nor of Gnomes to Gnomehood, nor of Ghosts to Ghosthood, nor of Men to Manhood, nor of Quadrupeds to Quadrupedhood, nor of Birds to Birdhood, nor of Reptiles to Reptilehood, supposing, Ananda, there were no being born of these several beings to their several states, no being born at all, on this cessation of being born, could decay and death arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of decay and death, namely, being born.

“’Differentiated existence is the cause of being born,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood that differentiated existence is the cause of being born. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no differentiated existence, of any sort, of any kind, of anything, in any way, that is to say, existence of desire, existence of form, existence of the formless, no differentiated existence of any kind, on this cessation of differentiated existence, could being born arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of being born, namely differentiated existence.

“’Clinging to life is the cause of differentiated existence,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood that clinging to ‘life is the cause of differentiated existence. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no clinging to life, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, that to say, clinging to desires, clinging to views, clinging to rituals, clinging to self-assertion, no clinging of any kind, on this cessation of clinging, could differentiated existence arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of differentiated existence, namely, clinging to life.

“’Thirsting desire is the cause of clinging to life,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood that thirsting desire is the cause of clinging to life. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no thirsting desire, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, that is to say, thirst for forms, thirst for sounds, thirst for scents, thirst for tastes, thirst for sense-contacts, thirst for tendencies, no thirsting desire of any kind, on this cessation of thirsting desire, could clinging to life arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of clinging to life, namely, thirsting desire.

“’Sensation is the cause of thirsting desire,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood that sensation is the cause of thirsting desire. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no sensation, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, that is to say, sensation born of visual contacts, sensation born of auditory contacts, sensation born of aromatic contacts, sensation born of gustatory contacts, sensation born of bodily contacts, sensation born of mental contacts, no sensation of any kind, on this cessation of sensation, could thirsting desire arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of thirsting desire, namely, sensation.

“Thus, Ananda, sensation is the cause of thirsting desire, thirsting desire is the cause of pursuit, pursuit is the cause of gaining, gaining is the cause of distinction of values, distinction of values is the cause of passionate longing, passionate longing is the cause of cleaving to possessions, cleaving to possessions is the cause of avarice, avarice is the cause of selfishness, selfishness is the cause of setting guards, setting guards is the cause of uplifting clubs, uplifting weapons, quarrelling, discord, contention, mutual vituperation, lying, backbiting; thus many sinful, evil impulses arise.

“’Setting guards is the cause of uplifting clubs, uplifting weapons, quarrelling, discord, contention, mutual vituperation, lying, backbiting; thus many sinful, evil impulses arise,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how setting guards is the cause of uplifting clubs, uplifting weapons, quarrelling, discord, contention, mutual vituperation, lying, backbiting, so that many sinful, evil impulses arise. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no setting guards, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no setting guards at all, on this cessation of setting guards, could there be uplifting clubs, uplifting weapons, quarrelling, discord, contention, mutual vituperation, lying, backbiting, so many sinful, evil impulses arising?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of uplifting clubs, uplifting weapons, quarrelling, discord, contention, mutual vituperation, lying, backbiting, so many sinful, evil impulses arising, namely setting guards.

“’Selfishness is the cause of setting guards,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how selfishness is the cause of setting guards. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no selfishness, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no selfishness at all, on this cessation of selfishness, could there be any setting guards?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of setting guards, namely, selfishness.

“’Avarice is the cause of selfishness,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how avarice is the cause of selfishness. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no avarice, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no avarice at all, on this cessation of avarice, could selfishness arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of selfishness, namely avarice.

“’Cleaving to possessions is the cause of avarice,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how cleaving to possessions is the cause of avarice. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no cleaving to possessions, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no cleaving to possessions at all, on this cessation of cleaving to possessions, could avarice arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of avarice, namely cleaving to possessions.

“’Passionate longing is the cause of cleaving to possessions,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how passionate longing is the cause of cleaving to possessions. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no passionate longing, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no passionate longing at all, on this cessation of passionate longing, could cleaving to possessions arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of cleaving to possessions, namely passionate longing.

“’Distinction of values is the cause of passionate longing,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how distinction of values is the cause of passionate longing. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no distinction of values, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no distinction of values at all, on this cessation of distinction of values, could passionate longing arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of passionate longing, namely, distinction of values.

“’Gaining is the cause of distinction of values,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how gaining is the cause of distinction of values. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no gaining, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no gaining at all, on this cessation of gaining, could distinction of values arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of distinction of values, namely, gaining.

“’Pursuit is the cause of gaining,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how pursuit is the cause of gaining. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no pursuit, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no pursuit at all, on this cessation of pursuit; could gaining arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of gaining, namely, pursuit.

“’Thirsting desire is the cause of pursuit,’ how is .this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how thirsting desire is the cause of gaining. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no thirsting desire, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, no thirsting desire at all, on· this cessation of thirsting desire, could pursuit arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this ·is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of pursuit, namely, thirsting desire.

“Thus, verily, Ananda, these two impulses of thirsting desire, from being two, become one, because of sensation, which is their cause.

“’Contacts of the senses are the cause of Sensation;’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how contacts of the senses are the cause of sensation. Supposing, Ananda, that there were no contacts of the senses, of any sort, of any kind, of any one, in any way, that is to say, visual contact, auditory contact, aromatic contact, gustatory contact, bodily contact, mental contact, no contact at all, on this cessation of contact, could sensation arise?”

“No, Lord !”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of sensation, namely, contact.

“’Differentiation according to name and form is the cause of the contacts of the senses,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how differentiation according to name and form is the cause of the contacts of the senses. If, Ananda, these shapes, distinctive marks, characteristics, peculiarities, through which the whole category of names comes into being,—if these shapes, distinctive marks, characteristics, peculiarities did not exist, would there be any application of names in the category of forms?”

“No, Lord!”

“If, Ananda, these shapes, distinctive marks, characteristics, peculiarities, through which the whole category of forms comes into being,—if these shapes, distinctive marks, characteristics, peculiarities did not exist, would there be any application of perception in the category of names?”

“No, Lord!”

“If, Ananda, these shapes, distinctive marks; characteristics, peculiarities, give rise both to the category of names and the category of forms, and if these shapes, distinctive marks, characteristics, peculiarities did not exist, could there be either application of names or application of perception?”

“No, Lord!”

“If, Ananda, these shapes, distinctive marks, characteristics, peculiarities, whereby name and form come into being,—if these shapes, distinctive marks, characteristics, peculiarities did not exist, could contacts of the senses arise?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of contacts of the senses, namely, differentiation according to name and form.

“’Cognition of difference is the cause of differentiation according to name and form,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how cognition of difference is the cause of differentiation according to name and form. If cognition of difference, Ananda, did not descend into the womb of the mother, would differentiation according to name and form arise in the womb of the mother?”

“No, Lord!”

“If cognition of difference, Ananda, having entered, should depart, would differentiation according to name and form come to birth in this state of being?”

“No, Lord!”

“If cognition of difference were to become extinct in the young child, whether boy or girl, would differentiation according to name and form attain to growth, development, completeness?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of differentiation according to name and form, namely, cognition of difference.

“’Differentiation according to name and form is the cause of cognition of difference,’ how is this to be understood? In this way, Ananda, it is to be understood how differentiation according to name and form is the cause of cognition of difference. Supposing, Ananda, that cognition of difference were to find no foundation in differentiation according to name and form, could the sequence of being born, decay, death, misery, have come into being?”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, this is indeed the source, this is the origin, this is the beginning, this is the cause of cognition of difference, namely, differentiation according to name and form.

“Therefore, Ananda, birth, decay, death, dissolution, rebirth will continue, naming, defining, differentiation, manifesting will continue, the wheel will continue to turn for the production of worldly life, so long as differentiation according to name and form, and cognition of difference, continue.”