Many Orientalists of a by-gone day, misled, perhaps, by learned but undiscerning Southern Buddhists, held that Nirvana, the consummation of the Buddha’s path, meant annihilation of consciousness, annihilation of being, itself. Robert Childers, whose Pali Dictionary is still the foundation stone of our knowledge of the sacred language of Buddhism, states that view without reservation, and many scholars followed his lead.

This complete failure to understand is due, in a considerable degree, to a misapprehension of the Buddha’s purpose, when he declares that “Self, Atta, has no reality,” Atta being the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit, Atma; and to a like misunderstanding of the states of consciousness which the Buddha describes, as leading up to Nirvana. To show that the consciousness of one approaching Buddhahood, and therefore drawing near to Nirvana, far from being negative, is intensely positive, we may quote a native gloss on that part of the Jataka, which describes the conditions under which the aspiration for Buddhahood may be successfully entertained:

“He who, if all within the rim of the world were to become water, would be ready to swim across it with his own arms, and to reach the further shore, he is the one to attain to Buddhahood; or, if all within the rim of the world were a jungle of bamboo, would be ready to break his way through it, and to reach the further side, he is the one to attain to Buddhahood; or, if all within the rim of the world were a floor of close-set spear points, would be ready to tread them, and to go afoot to the further side, he is the one to attain to Buddhahood; or, if all within the rim of the world were live embers, would be ready to step on them, and so to pass over, he is the one to attain to Buddhahood; then, but not otherwise, will his purpose succeed.”

We owe this fine passage to Henry Clarke Warren, who, more intuitive than the earlier Orientalists, interprets Nirvana as “extinction of desire,” and wisely adds: “I conceive that Nirvana can only be properly understood by a tolerably thorough comprehension of the philosophy of which it is the climax” (Buddhism in Translations, page 284). It is certain that the quality of supreme determination described in the passage quoted could not conceivably be the prelude of extinction; but this quality is entirely in harmony with the Theosophical understanding of a Master, and of that Master of Masters, whom we know as Siddhartha the Compassionate.

It is clear that the Atta of the Pali scriptures is not the Parama-Atma of the great Upanishads, but is the lower self of the false personality; and that the purpose of the Buddha, when he teaches in detail the unreality of Atta, is, to help the disciple, or, perhaps, we may almost say, to compel the disciple, to that abandonment of self, which is the first step on the path of wisdom and attainment. That this abandonment of self leads, not to extinction, but to real being, will become abundantly clear, when we come to the Buddha’s description of the states of consciousness which follow the abandonment of self. This description forms the conclusion of the Maha-Nidana-Suttanta, the first part of which has already been translated, under the title, “The Chain of Causation.”

The Buddha begins the work of dissipating the disciple’s belief in the reality of the false self by analyzing all the possible forms which that belief can take, and showing that they are untenable:

“In how many ways, Ananda, do they make declarations concerning the self?

“Either maintaining, Ananda, that fhe self has form and is limited, one declares, ‘My self has form and is limited’; or maintaining, Ananda, that the self has form and is unending, one declares, ‘My self has form and is unending’; or maintaining, Ananda, that the self has no form and is limited, one declares, ‘My self has no form and is limited’; or maintaining, Ananda, that the self has no form and is unending, one declares, ‘My self has no form and is unending.’

“In this way, Ananda, he who maintains and declares that the self has form and is limited, either maintains and declares that in this present life the self has form and is limited, or maintains and declares that in a future life the self has form and is limited, or his thought is, ‘Since it is not like that, I shall build it over like that.’ This being so, Ananda, enough has been said of the thought that the self has form and is limited.

“In the same way, Ananda, he who maintains and declares that the self has form and is unending, either maintains and declares that in this present life the self has form and is unending, or maintains and declares that in a future life the self has form and is unending, or his thought is, ‘Since it is not like that, I shall build it over like that.’ This being so, Ananda, enough has been said of the thought that the self has form and is unending.

“In the same way, Ananda, he who maintains and declares that the self has no form and is limited, either maintains and declares that in this present life the self has no form and is limited, or maintains and declares that in a future life the self has no form and is limited, or his thought is, ‘Since it is not like that, I shall build it over like that.’ This being so, Ananda, enough has been said of the thought that the self has no form and is limited.

“In the same way, Ananda, he who maintains and declares that the self has no form and is unending, either maintains and declares that in this present life the self has no form and is unending, or maintains and declares that in a future life the self has no form and is unending, or his thought is, ‘Since it is not like that, I shall build it over like that.’ This being so, Ananda, enough has been said of the thought that the self has no form and is unending.

“In so many ways, Ananda, do they make declarations concerning the self.”

All this may seem to us rather abstract and remote. We are evidently concerned, not with the impulses of selfishness, but with rather tenuous and metaphysical theories of the self. But it must be remembered that the disciples, for whom this teaching is designed, have already made a practical renunciation of the impulses of desire, leaving the household life for the homeless life, and surrendering all personal possessions; and, further, that other teachings of the Buddha are directly aimed at the impulses of desire. We are here, in fact, concerned with something more abstract, and more deep-rooted: with those thoughts of self, that cherishing of the thought of self, from which the impulses of selfishness may so easily rise again, through the operation of that chain of causation which has already been detailed. We are not now concerned with cutting away the leaves or lopping off the branches of selfishness; our purpose is, to destroy the seeds. Through right thinking, the seeds of wrong thinking are to be annihilated.

One may think of the self, says the Buddha, in a great many ways; but they all come down to this: the self may be thought of either as having form, or as not having form; the self may be thought of either as being limited in time, or as being unending.

Most of us probably think of the self, the imagined personality, as a replica of the body, but a very important replica. When we sign our names, we have, half-consciously, some such picture of the outward, bodily self in mind. So we think of the self as having form. Then again people are divided into those who believe that this self will definitely end at death, and those who believe that this identical self will continue in another world. They hardly stop to inquire which of the almost innumerable selves of a lifetime will thus be perpetuated: the self of childhood, the self of youth, or of maturity. Perhaps they have in view an eclectic self, made up of the best qualities of all three; thus, perhaps, dimly foreshadowing the selective process of Devachan, or Devaloka, as the Pali books call it. But, so far as we are concerned, they think of the self as having form, and as being either limited to the present life, or to be continued in a future life.

But there are those of more abstract bent, who are inclined to think that form belongs to the outer body, but not to the self. These again either believe, or do not believe, in survival. So we have the Buddha’s four alternatives, which really cover all possible permutations and combinations of our imaginings of the self. But there is a further possibility. There are those whose purpose is, to build up a self that shall possess such and such qualities; a purpose that is still self-centred and self-seeking; therefore to be swept aside with the same unflinching vigour. The Buddha’s purpose is, to uproot the seed of that subtle kind of selfishness, which “renounces” self in this world with the definite purpose of achieving something for self in a future world; the love of reward, carefully disguised and pushed just over the rim of the horizon. The Buddha is determined to make an end of self-seeking, once for all; to attain to that revulsion from the desire of personal reward, whether in this world, or in another world, which Sankara Acharya describes as the Second Qualification. The vessel of being must be chemically clean, before the water of life is poured into it from above.

The paragraphs which follow in the Pali text remind us that the men of the Buddha’s day and land were immeasurably more metaphysical, more argumentative also, than those of our day and generation. On the one hand, there were the class of thinkers, whom the Buddha elsewhere details and describes with delightful humour, who spent their lives in making affirmations concerning life and being, and spinning endless webs of argument in support of these affirmations. On the other hand, there were those equally ingenious and disputatious persons who spent their lives controverting and denying whatever the first class affirmed. The wrangling went on unceasingly. Both were wasting golden hours that should have been given to spiritual living, not to arguments concerning life.

So it comes that, having exhausted the possible combinations of thought on the affirmative side, the Buddha deems it expedient to go at equal length into the possible combinations on the negative side, as follows:

“And, further, Ananda, when no declaration is made concerning the self, in how many ways is no declaration made?” And, answering his own question, the great Master goes over the whole ground again, with the simple addition of a negative at each point. The point seems to be that, if men are plunged in disputatious argument, it does not greatly matter which view they are supporting; it is all waste of time and vanity.

Then we come to something closer to the thinking of our own times. The thought of self, of personality, may be based on feeling and emotion, rather than abstract thinking. Instead of Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am,” we may have “I feel, therefore I am.” The Buddha sets himself to dissipate the emotional cloud, just as he has dissipated the mental cloud, by the simple and effective process of pulling it to pieces, and showing that it has no inherent unity, no essential “selfhood”:

“And considering the self, Ananda, in how many ways does one consider the self? As feeling, verily, Ananda, he considers the self. ‘My self is feeling,’ he says. Or, ‘My self is not feeling, my self is devoid of feeling.’ Thus, Ananda, one perceives the self. Or he says, ‘Neither is my self feeling, nor is it devoid of feeling; my self feels, feeling is one of its activities.’ So, Ananda, considering the self, does one consider the self.

“In such a case, Ananda, when anyone says, ‘My self is feeling,’ one should say to him, ‘My dear Sir, there are three kinds of feeling: pleasant feeling, painful feeling, and feeling neither painful nor pleasant. As which of these three kinds of feeling do you perceive your self?’

“At the time, Ananda, when one feels pleasant feeling, at that time he does not feel painful feeling, nor feeling that is neither painful nor pleasant, while he is feeling pleasant feeling. At the time, Ananda, when one feels painful feeling, at that time he does not feel pleasant feeling, nor feeling that is neither pleasant nor painful, while he is feeling painful feeling. At the time, Ananda, when one feels feeling that is neither painful nor pleasant, at that time he does not feel pleasant feeling, nor feeling that is painful, while he is feeling neither pleasant nor painful feeling.

“Moreover, Ananda, pleasant feeling is unenduring, it is a composite, proceeding from antecedent causes, tending to dissipate, tending to pass away, tending to revulsion, tending to cease. Further, Ananda, painful feeling is unenduring, it is a composite, proceeding from antecedent causes, tending to dissipate, tending to pass away, tending to revulsion, tending to cease. Further, Ananda, feeling that is neither painful nor pleasant is unenduring, it is a composite, proceeding from antecedent causes, tending to dissipate, tending to pass away, tending to revulsion, tending to cease.

“If, when one is feeling a pleasant feeling, he thinks, ‘This is my self,’ then, when that pleasant feeling ceases, he thinks, ‘My self has passed away.’ If, when one is feeling a painful feeling, he thinks ‘This is my self,’ then, when that painful feeling ceases, he thinks, ‘My self has passed away.’ If, when one is feeling a feeling that is neither painful nor pleasant, he thinks, ‘This is my self,’ then, when that feeling neither painful nor pleasant ceases, he thinks, ‘My self has passed away.’

“So it is evident that he who thinks, ‘My self is feeling,’ regards as self something that even here, in this present world, is unenduring, subject to pleasure and pain, having a beginning, and passing away. Therefore, Ananda, the view that ‘My self is feeling’ is, for this reason, not to be tolerated.

“Likewise, Ananda, when anyone says, ‘My self is not feeling, my self is devoid of feeling,’ one should say to him, ‘My dear Sir, when there is no feeling at all, can one then say, “I am”?’”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, the view that ‘My self is not feeling, my self is devoid of feeling,’ is, for this reason, not to be tolerated.

“Likewise, Ananda, when anyone says, ‘Neither is my self feeling, nor is it devoid of feeling; my self feels, feeling is one of its activities,’ one should say to him, ‘My dear Sir, supposing that feeling of every sort, in every way, should cease altogether, without leaving a trace, could one then say, “This I am”?’”

“No, Lord!”

“Therefore, Ananda, the view that ‘Neither is my self feeling, nor is it devoid of feeling; my self feels, feeling is one of its activities,’ is, for this reason, not to be tolerated.”

So far, so good. It is to be supposed that, by thoroughly digesting this teaching, by following, again and again, in his own mind, the steps of the Buddha’s analysis of the outer, false personality, the disciple has thoroughly convinced his mind and understanding of the truth that the elements of true selfhood are not present in that personality. The self of the false personality has been utterly dissolved. What happens then? Is the result blankness and negation? Let us take first the Buddha’s answer:

“Then, Ananda, when a disciple no longer considers his self to be feeling, nor to be devoid of feeling, nor says, ‘My self feels, feeling is one of its activities,’ ceasing to consider thus, he no longer clings to anything in the world; no longer clinging, he trembles not; trembling not, he attains to liberation, recognizing that the cause of rebirth has been destroyed, the discipline has been fulfilled, what was to be done has been done, this condition of bondage is ended:

“Then, Ananda, when the heart of that disciple is thus set free, if anyone should say, ‘He maintains that after death the Tathagata is,’ that would be meaningless; or if anyone should say, ‘He maintains that after death the Tathagata is not,’ that would be meaningless; or if anyone should say, ‘He maintains that after death the Tathagata both is and is not,’ that would be meaningless; or if anyone should say, ‘He maintains that after death the Tathagata neither is nor is not,’ that would be meaningless.

“What is the cause of this? So far, Ananda, as there is verbal expression, so far as there is a method of verbal expression, so far as there is explanation, so far as there is a method of explanation, so far as there is declaration, so far as there is a method of declaration, so far as there is reasoning, so far as is the sphere of reasoning, so far as there are rites and ceremonies, so far as rites and ceremonies are performed, the disciple, completely knowing them, is liberated from them; but, that the disciple, completely knowing them, and liberated from them, no longer knows nor sees, to say this would be meaningless.”

The disciple has passed beyond the forms of reasoning. He has realized that “the end of the man who endeavours to live by thought alone is that he dwells in phantasies.” He has found the path, not of reasoning, but of life; “from the hour when he first tastes the reality of living, he forgets more and more his individual self; no longer does he care to defend or feed it. Yet when he is thus indifferent to its welfare the individual self grows more stalwart and robust, like the prairie grass and the trees of untrodden forests. It is a matter of indifference to him whether this is so or not. Only, if it is so, he has a fine instrument ready to his hand. And in due proportion to the completeness of his indifference to it is the strength and beauty of his personal self.” Through the Gates of Gold, from which these two passages are taken, is, perhaps, the best commentary on the part of the Buddha’s teaching that we are considering. The Master goes on to describe the ascending planes or degrees of consciousness:

“Seven, Ananda, are the stages of cognition, and two abodes. Which are the seven?

“There are, Ananda, beings diverse in body, diverse in intelligence, that is to say, men, some of the bright powers, some of those undergoing purification. This is the first stage of cognition.

“There are, Ananda, beings diverse in body, uniform in intelligence, that is to say, bright powers possessing celestial bodies, reborn in the first degree. This is the second stage of cognition.

“There are, Ananda, beings uniform in body, diverse in intelligence, that is to say, the bright powers called the radiant. This is the third stage of cognition.

“There are, Ananda, beings uniform in body, uniform in intelligence, that is to say, the bright powers called the lustrous. This is the fourth stage of cognition.

“There are, Ananda, beings who have altogether passed beyond the cognition of form, who have transcended the cognition of separateness, whose perception no longer dwells on the cognition of diversity, who, with the perception that ‘the radiant ether is infinite,’ have attained to the dwelling place of the infinite radiant ether. This is the fifth stage of cognition.

“There are, Ananda, beings who have altogether transcended the dwelling place of the infinite radiant ether, who, with the perception that ‘perceiving consciousness is infinite,’ have attained to the dwelling place of perceiving consciousness. This is the sixth stage of cognition.

“There are, Ananda, beings who have altogether transcended the dwelling place of perceiving consciousness, who have attained to the perception that ‘Nothing objective exists,’ attaining the dwelling place beyond objective being. This is the seventh stage of cognition.

“Then the abode in which there is no consciousness of separation, and the second abode, where there is neither consciousness nor non-consciousness of separation.”

While we cannot be certain of all the fine shades of meaning and of difference in this description of stages of cognition, it is quite clear that we are concerned with seven ascending stages, beginning with the ordinary consciousness of human life; that the first four of the seven are characterized by the presence of form, while the last three are above form, above that kind of limitation which expresses itself in form; and, further, that there are two more abstract degrees beyond the seven. This is in complete conformity with what we have learned, regarding the seven planes, divided into a lower quaternary and a higher triad, with something higher and more universal beyond.

We may further conjecture that the three stages which immediately follow the stage which includes mankind, while they may include different kinds of ethereal or angelic beings, also represent three degrees through which the disciple passes, when he has risen above the stage of “those who are undergoing purification.” This would harmonize well with the description of the second stage, as containing those who have been “reborn in the first degree.” So we may consider that the three following stages, the fifth, sixth and seventh, are degrees of development and consciousness in what has been called the causal body, “which is no body, either objective or subjective,” as The Theosophical Glossary says, adding that it corresponds with Buddhi in conjunction with Manas. This would imply individuality above the limitation of form, and would thus agree with the Buddha’s description of these three stages.

As to the seventh stage, above “the dwelling place of perceiving consciousness,” we may find a simple explanation in the words of one of the Upanishads: “Where there is duality, there one sees another, one hears another, one knows another; but where all has become Self, Atma, by what and whom would one see, by what and whom would one hear, by what and whom would one know? By what would one know Him, whereby one knows the All? By what would one know the Knower?”

Concerning the two “abodes” which are above this seventh stage, it is hardly profitable to speculate; we are not yet in a position to comprehend Nirvana and Para-Nirvana.

One matter remains to be cleared up. There is the possibility that the disciple might be allured by one or other of the ascending stages, and might wish to halt there, rather than continue the arduous uphill journey. To this possibility the Buddha turns:

“Then, Ananda, concerning the first stage of cognition, where there are beings diverse in body, diverse in intelligence, that is to say, men, some of the bright powers, some of those undergoing purification,—he, Ananda, who understands it, understands its rising, understands its setting, understands its pleasure, understands its danger, understands the way of passing beyond it, is it possible that he should be allured and enthralled by it?”

“No, Lord!”

For each of the seven stages the Buddha passes through the same thoughts, as also for the two abodes, leading us, perhaps, to the supreme renunciation of Nirvana, the great trial and victory of a Master. So, for each stage, for each abode, there is a renunciation, a liberation, leading to something higher, nobler, more divine:

“When, Ananda, a disciple has mastered these eight liberations in their order, has mastered them in reverse order, has mastered them both in order and in reverse order, so that, as he may desire, when he may desire, so long as he may desire, he may enter, or rise above, each one of them, when he is purified of all impurity, when he knows and realizes liberation of heart, liberation of intelligence, in doctrine and discipline, such a disciple, Ananda, is said to be liberated in both ways; and than this liberation, Ananda, no liberation is higher or more excellent.”

Thus spoke the Master. Full of joy, the noble Ananda rejoiced in the Master’s words.