This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

9.1. The Early Doctrine


When we move to the official doctrine of Buddhism in its earliest forms, we come first to the idea of dharma. Dharma is summarized neatly in the axioms known as the Four Aryan Truths:

That there is suffering (Dukkha); that it has a cause (Samudaya); that it can be suppressed (Nirodha); and there is a way, a ‘Path,’ to accomplish this (Magga).

The Four Aryan Truths

Gautama was a physician to the spiritually sick of his society: seeing pain, he reflected until he came upon a cure, and then proceeded to its application.

To cite from Gautama’s first sermon:

“This, O monks, is the Aryan Truth of Suffering: Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, to be united with the unloved is suffering, to be separated from the loved is suffering, not to obtain what one desires is suffering; in short, the fivefold clinging to the senses is suffering.

“This, O monks, is the Aryan Truth of the Origin of Suffering: It is the will to life which leads from birth to birth, together with lust and desire, which finds gratification here and there; the thirst for pleasures, the thirst for being, the thirst for power.

“This, O monks, is the Aryan Truth of the Extinction of Suffering: The extinction of this thirst by complete annihilation of desire, letting it go, expelling it, separting oneself from it, giving it no room.

“This, O monks, is the Aryan Truth of the Path which leads to the Extinction of Suffering: It is this sacred Eightfold Path, to wit: Right Belief, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Living, Right Effort, Right Recollectedness, Right Rapture.”[1]

[1] Oldenberg, Buddha, 2nd English ed., p. 206.

Right Belief, or the Gospel of Buddhism

We can find the primary message of Buddhism in the first division of the Eightfold Path: Right Belief. It is this division which is most susceptible to a ‘systematic’ exposition. It pertains to ‘Knowledge of the Real,’ and of man and the world in their relation to the Real. It is summarized neatly in the formula: Dukkha, Anicca, Anatta: Suffering, Impermanence, Non-egoity. To realize these principles is to realize the Truth,[1] and for this reason we will consider them individually.

[1] Majjhima Nikaya, i, 140.


Dukkha means Suffering. Suffering is to Buddhism what sin is to Christianity. It is the reason for being of the Buddhist gospel, the ailment for which it provides the cure.

“If these things were not in the world, my disciples, the Perfect One, the holy Supreme Buddha, would not appear in the world; the law and the doctrine which the Perfect One propounded would not shine in the world. What three things are they? Birth, old age, and death.

“Both then and now, says the Buddha again, just this do I reveal : Suffering and the Extinction of Suffering.”

Is this, then, the Gospel of pleasure? Absolutely not, says the Buddha, for pleasure is a kind of pain:

“Sorrow springs from the flood of sensual pleasure as soon as the object of sensual desire is removed.”[1]

And again:

“From merriment cometh sorrow; from merriment cometh fear. Whosever is free from merriment, for him there is no sorrow: whence should fear come to him? From love cometh sorrow; from love cometh fear. Whosoever is free from love, for him there is no sorrow: whence should come fear to him?”

Here we might find agreement with Nietzsche that “Pleasure if a form of pain” and again: “Said ye ever Year to one joy? O my friends, then said ye Yea also unto all Woe.” [Thus Spake Zarathustra, “The Drunken Son”] Such an attitude offers a welcome answer to the modern ideology of happiness and worldly satisfaction.

What is at the root of this teaching is the fact that happiness which depends on contact with the object of pleasure is by its nature passing, and depends from moment to moment on continued contact, and therefore must come to an end, and that end is pain. To illustrate this we see that Buddhism devotes much of its time to analyzing the consciousness and is determined to reveal is ever-changing character, always mixed in some way with passing things.

[1] Visuddhi Magga, xvii.


Now we come to Impermanence, which serves as a general law of existence:

“There are five things which no Samana, and no Brahman, and no god, neither Mara, nor Brahma, nor any being in the universe, can bring about. What five things are those? That what is subject to old age should not grow old, that what is subject to sickness should not be sick, that what is subject to death should not die, that what is subject to decay should not decay, that what is liable to pass away should not pass away. This no Samana can bring about, nor any god, neither Mara, nor Brahma, nor any being in the universe.”

The Buddha emphasizes the eternal succession of Becoming, the Round of Existence, or Samsara.

“I will teach you the Dhamma. That being present, this becomes; from the arising of that, this arises. That being absent, this does not become; from the cessation of that, this ceases.”[1]

The reader must take care to focus on the concept of causality here, for it is everything. The situation of the living being is the outcome of causes accumulated and expressed through Samsara and everything is determined by everything else. This is why it is said that “Dhamma-analysis is knowledge concerning conditions.”[2]

As we will see, this does not lead to determinism as such, but rather point us in the direction of liberation from Suffering: it tells us where peace is not to be found, and that is a necessary preliminary to an escape. There is no way to overcome causality within the order of Becoming, since Becoming is situated within causality and has causality as one of its basic conditions.

[1] Majjhima Nikaya, ii, 32.

[2] Vibhanga.

The Doctrine of the Mean

Gautama did not teach an extreme, but rather the Doctrine of the Mean:

“Everything is: this, O Kaccana, is one extreme view. Everything is not: this is the second extreme view. Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata teaches the Norm by the Mean.”

The Becoming of the individual consciousness

Regarding causality we can also stress the point that there is no first cause in the chain of causes, or more precisely the First Cause, or the Principle cannot be located at the same level as the ceaseless flux of cause and effect. The Principle, although acting as First Cause in relation to conditioned existence, does not participate in it, and so from the point of view of existence there is no beginning and no end, there is only the succession of instants of which no two are the same. This holds true for the individual consciousness as much as anything else:

“Strictly speaking, the duration of the life of a living being is exceedingly brief, lasting only while a thought lasts. Just as a chariot wheel in rolling rolls only at one point of the tire, and in resting rests only at one point; in exactly the same way, the life of a living being lasts only for the period of one thought. As soon as that thought has ceased, the living being is said to have ceased.

“As it has been said:

“The being of a past moment of thought has lived, but does not live, nor will it live.

“The being of a future moment of thought will live, but has not lived, nor does it live.

“The being of the present moment of thought does live, but has not lived, nor will it live.”[1]

The modern mentality, particularly in light of the Cartesian duality of spirit-matter, body-mind, tends to imagine that only the physical body is susceptible to the laws of change that go hand in hand with birth, development, and death. The Buddha reminds us (even if we ought to have already known since tradition universally proclaims it) that the invisible parts of man also are subject to these same conditions even if they are not composed of ‘matter.’ The psyche develops and changes just like anything else. The lesson of this teaching is that even the consciousness with which we tend to identify our being, and the chain of thoughts that present themselves to that consciousness, are subject to Impermanence, to Anicca. And this applies to everything that constitutes individual man: body and soul alike, the substance of either is changing from moment to moment.

To claim a name for myself is a matter of expediency, for the ‘I’ who was yesterday or this morning is not the ‘I’ who is at this moment.

To recapitulate what we’ve said so far: Suffering (Dukkha) is the disease, Impermanence (Anicca) is the cause. By enumerating the first two terms of the triple formulation Dukkha-Anicca-Anatta, we have arrived at the physician’s diagnosis.

[1] Visuddhi Magga, Ch. VIII.

Twelve Nidanas or the Wheel of Causation

The doctrine of Impermanence is elaborated via the Twelve Nidanas interconnected by the Law of Dependent Origination (Paticca-samuppada). The Twelve Nidanas, which we can call the wheel of causation, is a concept repeatedly mentioned in the Suttas and this is because it contains the general theory of phenomena in light of the Evil with which Buddhism is most concerned. The final outcome of the series is to demonstrate that the consciousness of ‘I’ is not situated within an immortal soul but arises from the stream of cause and effect, as foam upon the surface of the ocean. The purpose and use of the series is not so much to explain evil, for in Buddhism there is no question of theodicy as with Christianity, but rather to provide the necessary insight that will allow the source of evil to be destroyed. And the source of evil? The consciousness of ‘I’ and its desires.

Here, then, is the Wheel of Causation’ and its manner of revolution:[1]

Other lives (past)

Ignorance (avijja)

Pre-dispositions (sankhara): prejudices or habits of thought, mental complexes, will

Purpose or intention (cetana)

This present life

Sense organs (sadayatana)

Contact (sparsa)

Emotion (vedana)

Craving (tanha)

Attachment (upadana)

Other lives (future)

Coming-to-be (bhava)

Rebirth (jati)

Old age and death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, despair (jaramaranam)

The formulation always ends with: “Such is the uprising of this entire body of Evil.”

The path to the cure lies in the removal of those conditions which support the pathological state, which could be summarized by a single term: the thought of the ‘I’ and of ‘mine,’ which are false and amount to Ignorance plain and simple.

[1] Majjhima Nikaya, i, 140.


Everything is subject to Becoming, and this includes the soul of man, which cannot be eternal because, frankly, it is not:

“What is meant, lord, by the phrase, The world is empty?”

“That it is empty, Ananda, of a Self, or of anything of the nature of a Self. And what is it that is thus empty? The five seats of the five senses, and the mind, and the feeling that is related to mind: all these are void of a Self or of anything that is Self-like.”[1]

This is to say that there is nothing substantial behind our mental states, and the soul is as imaginary as the ego identity that the ignorant man pretends to possess.

Our names, and the names we choose to call things, are concepts and therefore artificial having no reality of their own. The Buddha demonstrates this in detail and with analogies: if you take the Ganges and set apart the sand, the banks, and the water, which is to say if you reduce it to its component parts, where is the Ganges? If you reduce a chariot to all its part, where is the chariot? It was only a name we chose to call a coincidence of various things. In the same way, when consciousness itself is dissected, nothing remains.

We have the illusion of an identity in our thoughts because they have a kind of continuity from moment to moment. The ego-identity of man is like “a river which still maintains one constant form, one seeming identity, though not a single drop remains today of all the volume that composed the river yesterday.”[2]

When speaking of the complex human composite which experiences consciousness, Buddhism uses the pair Nama-rupa, or ‘name’ and ‘form.’ This pair, borrowed from the Upanishads, is employed with a particular meaning. Rupa is the physical body and not a philosophical concept as in other contexts, while Nama is mind.

There is also another formulation which is divided into five parts and lays greater emphasis on the mental factor, with the goal of more decisively closing the door to any external substance behind consciousness, such as a soul. This arrangement is called the Five Aggregates, or khandas. This second formulation includes rupa, with the same meaning as before, but the mental aspect of man is divided into four parts: vedana (feeling), sanna (perception), sankhara (will), and vinnana (awareness). We will not elaborate on these further, since the divisions are complex, and at any rate this classification was later replaced by a division into citta, mind, and cetasika, or mental properties.

This states the fundamentals of the Buddhist ‘Right Views.’

[1] Samyutta Nikaya, iv. 54.

[2] Anuruddha, Compendium of Philosophy. Introd. Essay by S. Z. Aung, p. 9.

The Four Paths

We began with the Four Aryan Truths. We now find the Four Paths, and these are nothing but a fourfold division of the last of the Aryan Truths: “There is a path that leads from Suffering.” For the sake of greater clarity, we could also call these ‘stages’ of the same path.

First, there is the ‘conversion’ which implies the recognition of the Four Aryan Truths.  This conversion follows the preliminary step of following the Buddha, the Law, and the Order, and leads to freedom from the ego (Anatta), from doubt about the Buddha, and from trust in rites and ceremonies.

Second is the path of those who will only once more return to the world and will on that next birth attain Final Release. Here the converted individual becomes as free as possible from lust and resentment.

Third is the path of those who will never return to this world and will, in this present life, attain Release, for on this path the last remnants of lust and resentment are destroyed.

Fourth is the path of the Arahats, which is to say, the adepts. Such a saint is one freed from all desire for re-birth, in any world, and from ignorance:

“As a mother, even at the risk of her own life, protects her son, her only son, so let there be goodwill without measure among all beings. Let goodwill without measure prevail in the whole world, above, below, around, unstinted, unmixed with any feeling of differing or opposing interests. If a man remain steadfastly in this state of mind all the while he is awake, whether he be standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, then is come to pass the saying, ‘Even in this world holiness has been found.’”[1]

[1] Metta Sutta.

Ten Fetters

There are ten ‘fetters’ or evil states of mind that must be overcome as one travels the Four Paths. He who overcomes the first five becomes an Arahat, and such a one then embarks on the Fourth Path described above, because the ‘Fruit of the Fourth Path’ is freedom from the remaining five fetters.

The ten fetters, in order:

Sakkaya-ditthi, the delusion of self or soul; Vicikiccha, doubt; Silabbata paramasa, dependence on rites; Kama, sensuality, physical desire; Patigha, hatred, resentment; Ruparaga, desire for life in worlds of matter; Aruparaga, desire for life in spiritual worlds; Mano, pride; Uddhacca, self-righteousness; Avijja, ignorance.

As stated above, the first five are overcome on the way to becoming an Arahat, while the remaining five are overcome after having embarked on the Fourth Path:

“They, having obtained the Fruit of the Fourth Path, and immersed themselves in that living water, have received without price, and are in the enjoyment of Nibbana.”[1]

[1] Ratana Sutta.

Floods, Intoxications, Taints

There is also mention of another group of sins mentioned, and these are three or four in number:

Kama asava, sensuality; Bhava asava, desire for rebirth; Avijja asava, ignorance of the Four Aryan Truths; and, when given as four, Ditthi, which means ‘views’ and refers to metaphysical speculation. These can be restated as: lust, will to life, ignorance, and views, and he who is free from them has thereby attained Release.

The Theory of Soul-Wandering: Samsara and Kamma

When we come to the theory of soul-wandering, and the passing of life from one body to another at death, we need to acknowledge the situation and way of thinking in the pre-Buddhist era, which also went to form the way of speaking in early Buddhism. Again, this is exceedingly important when it comes to understanding the doctrine we are about to discuss in its proper light, since the way of speaking about it is ambiguous and lead to two different understandings, both acceptable in their order.

In the Bhagavad Gita (ii, 22.) it is said: “As a man lays aside outworn garments and takes others that are new, so the Body-Dweller puts away outworn bodies and goes to others that are new.”

Here the language used suggests that at death something like the individual soul separates from the body and then attaches itself to a new body to live another terrestrial life much like the first. And this is in fact the popular understanding of the saying; yet another might read this and understand that the Body-Dweller is ultimately none other than the individuated Self, and that, if we speak of the Self as dweller in one body and then next, this is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that there is no life that does not rely on the Self: thus, Sankara’s doctrine that: the Self is the only transmigrant. The Self being the supra-individual principle of the individual consciousness, there is no need to see in this process the survival of a soul, but only the one-ness of the Self.

There is another distinction that needs to be made, which is that there are a number of processes and concepts, distinct and legitimate in themselves, that are sometimes imagined as equivalent to ‘reincarnation’ but which are not. The one we have in mind here is metempsychosis, which involves the transmission of psychic elements but not the actual personality.

At any rate, that in early Buddhism and pre-Buddhist Brahmanism there was allowance for the belief in an animistic (soul-centered) transmigration involving the actual rebirth of the same soul in a new body, this does not mean that the doctrine was confused or polluted by contradictory understandings. The animistic and more ‘literal’ interpretation is necessary for the non-philosopher for the sake of worship, and this same leniency is recommended by another Buddhist master: “Moral and virtuous Wanderers and Brahmans do not force maturity on that which is unripe; they, being wise, wait for that maturity.”[1]

To higher men it is proper to preach Dukkha, Anicca, and Anatta in their purity, but one does not insist that less learned men comprehend the most difficult teachings, of which the principle of Non-Egoity certainly is. Thus, the Bhagavad Gita (iii, 29) also says: “Let not him that knoweth much awaken doubt in slower men of lesser wit.”

The reader will note that in enunciating the principle of preaching according to the knowledge of the listerner we have referred to Bhramanical texts and not Buddhist: this is because the Buddha was an iconoclast through and through, and he did not employ the technique we’ve just explained, and our purpose in explaining it was to lay the groundwork for a proper understanding of the Buddha’s adoption of the popular, animistic way of speaking. His approach, emphasizing a single point to exhaustion, did not allow for subtleties of meaning and differentiated understandings, at least not in his manner of public exposition. He adopted the common ways of speaking that he found ready at hand, but in many cases employed terms with altered meaning.

We dwell on all of this because it is necessary for a proper understanding of the doctrine of Soul-Wandering, or Samsara. Nowhere in Buddhism is the transmigration of souls enunciated, and it must be understood that what is meant is only a kind of metempsychosis: the transmigration of character, and if of personality as well it is personality without the ‘person,’ in the same sense that the child is the reincarnation of the parent insofar as certain psychic elements and the ‘personality’ are concerned.

The Buddha uses a number of rhetorical devices to illustrate that no thing transmigrate: life is a flame, and transmigration or rebirth is the transmitting of the flame from one combustible object to another, such as with one candle that, on the verge of burning itself out, is used at the last moment to light another candle: we do not say that it is the same candle and it would seem odd to us even to say that it is the same flame: it should be equally awkward, viewed in this light, to conceive of transmigration as the ‘same soul’ moving from body to body.

We can now identify the notion of kamma, which means simply ‘action,’ be that of thought, word, or deed. If we envision transmigration by another simile, that of a line of billiard balls, we can liken the process to the ‘movement’ conveyed when one ball strikes a second. The first ball stops ‘dead,’ but its movement passes on into the second ball. What is necessary to understand is that the precise nature and magnitude of the movement of the second ball is determined by what was conveyed to it through the first, and all that it does is owed to the aggregate of previous actions, to the kamma, of the previous ball, and not only the previous ball but the cue by which it was struck, and so on.

In essence, actions are followed by consequences, and the experience of life is cause and effect, and the aggregate of causes previous to our existence and which led to it and are now ‘possessed’ in us as in the second billiard ball, this is ‘character.’ Through this character the future behavior of the individual is largely determined.

We say ‘largely’ and not ‘completely’ in order to avoid the accusation of mechanistic predestination as conceived by the modern mind. It does not serve to eliminate responsibility or render effort futile, but only acknowledges that we must lie in the bed we have made: one must reap what we’ve sown. Kamma is the simply recognition of this fact–of consequences following from actions. The flipside is that every action taken has the capacity–not all at once but little by little–to alter the nature of the harvest. We can begin to improve the condition of the bed. Hence the Buddhist emphasis on ‘Right Effort.’

The result of the these two doctrines–kamma and samsara, or ‘deeds’ and ‘wandering’–we arrive at the conclusion that our history does not begin at birth. Thus:

“Man is born like a garden ready planted and sown.”


“Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me…Now on this spot I stand.”

“For what is our individuality? Most certainly it is not individuality at all; it is multiplicity incalculable. What is the human body? A form built up out of billions of living entities, an impermanent agglomeration of individuals called cells. And the human soul? A composite of quintillions of souls. We are, each and all, infinite compounds of fragments of anterior lives.”[2]

In the words of Ananda: “a congeries diseased, teeming with many purposes and places, and yet in whom there is no power to persist.”

[1] Payasi Sutta, Dialogues of the Buddha, ii, 332.

[2] Lafcadio Hearn, Gleanings in Buddha-Fields.

The concept of heredity

We can imagine this heredity in two ways:

The first involves the simple acknowledgement that the past lives of human beings influence present lives. To deny this is nonsense, since my ancestors undoubtedly made decisions that have determined my existence for better or for worse, and in fact I owe my bare existence to the actions of my parents.

The second way of thinking about this heredity is in terms of a single series of continuous lives leading up to the present in the form of an unbroken chain. It seems clear that the Buddhist view, like the Brahmanical one that predates it, adopts this latter.

If it seems like the choice to adopt this second framework results in a questionable oversimplification, we can suggest that it has pragmatic advantages and offers simple answers to questions like the one posed to Christ: “Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The Indian response, whether Buddhist or Brahmanical, is straightforward: this man did sin. The difference is that Buddhism takes this type of continuity for granted and does not explain how it is maintained from one life to the next, whereas the Brahmanical tradition postulates the linga-sarira (subtle body) as the vehicle of consciousness and ‘character’ which is like the soul of the body-soul-spirit composite and does not disintegrate at death. The subtle body then serves as the mould for the new material body which ‘materializes’ around it.

We have distinguished the Brahmanical postulate of the soul from the silence of Buddhist theory, but this does not imply that the former is denied by the latter, or that they are not incompatible, and in fact it would seem that we can assume the Brahmanical position behind the Buddhist silence. The survival of the subtle body, or soul, or personality, after death does not mean that this soul is immortal, and so does not conflict with the Buddhist’s emphatic insistence on the non-eternal-soul; nor does it contradict the doctrine Nirvana, since once that state is attained we have moved beyond the individual order entirely and the vehicle of karma, the soul, is no longer a factor.

The Heavens

Nowhere does Gautama deny the existence of gods and of posthumous states like heaven or hell. Those who call Buddhism atheist are merely reacting to the fact that it does not present itself as theistic: that is to say, while Gautama tells of his own intercourse with gods and visits to their heavens, he also insists on their mortality and their situation within Becoming. In this sense only is he atheistic in that he does not choose a named deity to mark out in particular as Alpha and Omega. Again, we can see here an agreement with Hinduism and in particular the Vedanta. As to the posthumous states and the beings who populate them, we will provide an outline below.

It is important to remember that Gautama emphasized the Becoming, and that unlike the Western Christian mind which conceives of any posthumous state as outside of the created order and within ‘eternity’ as a kind of permanent above beyond which there could be nothing, the Indian doctrines allow for various posthumous states situated, as all that is not the Absolute must be situated, within Becoming; and whatever is within Becoming is not ‘eternal’ in the true sense but because created has a beginning and end. All this is to say that for the Buddhist the heavens are several and they are not so much a final destination as they are degrees to be travelled through. They are the fruits of rebirth and hierarchically arranged, but none are the final goal: they are not Nirvana. When we speak, then, of the transmigration of the soul, it is more accurate to imagine rebirth as occurring in some posthumous state rather than being re-embodied to live out another terrestrial life. The latter postulate, while popular and therefore acceptable for those who cannot conceive of anything else, presents serious difficulties and to some even offends metaphysical truth. In other words, it is dangerous to insist that reincarnation implies that a man lives another life as a man, within this world; because samsara contains is total, it includes all worlds and all degrees, and it excludes the possibility of repetition.

As to the enumeration and arrangement of the Buddhist heavens:


The Brahma-lokas include the Arupa-lokas (Plans of No-form) and the higher Rupa-lokas (Planes of Form).

The Arupa-lokas are the four highest heavens, beyond sensuous desire and formless, attained by practice of the Four Arupa Jhanas.

The Rupa-lokas are divided into two groups, one being a division of the Brahma-lokas, as described above, and the other considered outside the Brahma-lokas and grouped under the name of Kama-lokas.

The Rupa-lokas that are considered Brahma-lokas are sixteen in number, conditioned by form, free of sensuous desire, attained by practice of the Four Jhanas. The remaining Rupa-lokas are called Kama-lokas (Planes of Sensuous Desire), and as these two names imply they are conditioned by form and not yet free of sensuous desire. The Kama-lokas are subdivided as follows.

Within the kama lokas there are the five worlds of men, demons, ghosts, animals, and purgatory.

Beyond these there are the Kama-vacara deva-lokas. These heavens are attained by the good works, and are further subdivided and variously populated. Of these we should mention Tusita heaven, where it is said that Gautama Buddha resided previous to his last birth and where Metteya, the final Buddha, awaits his last birth.

Of the gods themselves, two of the most significant are Sakka and (the personal) Brahma. The impersonal, unconditioned Brahma is not mentioned by name is Buddhist theory but what the name signifies is present implicitly and the ‘extinction’ of Nirvana could be nothing else but the ultimate spiritual realization which the goal of the Hindus.

What is most important in all of this is the threefold division of the heavens into the Planes of Desire, the Brahma Planes conditioned by Form, and those highest Brahma Planes unconditioned by Form. The general teachings of Gautama are that we are reborn according to the knowledge or works cultivated during life. If there is something legitimate in the frequent mention in the traditions (Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic alike) of being swept off to one or more of the heavens even in this life, it is appropriate that we would be ‘reincarnated’ in those places we visited in those moments of rapture; and if it be said that only the great men like St. Paul were taken to these heavens, we can insist that only they understood what was happened and that the difference between St. Paul, or Muhammad, is one of degree. If every man is not taken to the highest heavens in this life, many give clear evidence of having come into direct contact with formal and formless worlds beyond our own experience, be this the aesthetic rapture of the artist or musician, or the pure intellectual rapture of the metaphysician, or the mystical rapture of the Christian contemplative. We must necessarily be conveyed to the degree of truth appropriate to our realization of it during life, and this would normally involve contact with it during that time even if it is hardly ever recognized as such. All of this is to help the reader to understand the profundity of this doctrine of the heavens, that it not be underestimated or relegated to the status of popular imagination. It is an expression of pure metaphysic in a form that is, as everything was with Gautama, susceptible to a popular interpretation.

The points emphasized above are the same that motivate the Buddhist spiritual exercises, and it is also why different practices are prescribed for the attainment of the different lokas, and these are further distinguished by their appropriateness for different spiritual temperaments: the Four Sublime Moods are not the only means of realizing union with Brahma. The variety of methods are accessible to the accountant and the ascetic alike, although of course the Buddha really only took into consideration the latter and it was left to the Mahayana to develop applications appropriate to the former, even if they were there in principle.


Nibbana (Nirvana) is a term that became known in the West even before Buddhism itself, and this has unfortunately let to misconceptions about its meaning. It is the final goal of the Buddhist, and is roughly equivalent to the Moksha of the Brahman. The first of these misconceptions was that Nibbana was a state to be reached after death. On the contrary, the attainment of states in Buddhism is something that happens in the midst of the stream of Becoming and does not depend on any discontinuities or changes of state in order to become realized.

In the Milinda Panha, Nibbana is a “glorious city, stainless and undefiled, pure and white, ageless, deathless, secure, calm and happy,” but it is a city not situated in any place, not in this world or any other:

“There is no spot, O king, East, South, West or North, above, below or beyond, where Nibbana is situated, and yet Nibbana is; and he who orders his life aright, grounded in virtue, and with rational attention, may realize it, whether he live in Greece, China, Alexandria, or in Kosala.”

Nibbana is not what happens when a ‘soul’ dies and presents itself before God in a last judgement: Nibbana is preached so that it may be realized here and now. It was attained by the Buddha before he began his ministry and by numerous Arahats after him. The Fruit of the Fourth path is to be tasted in life, this one or another, but it is not a judgement.

We said above that those who are free from the first five fetters are Arahats, and these can be called adepts; the state of adeptship is called Arahatta.

“Lord, he who is Arahant, who…has won his own salvation, has utterly destroyed the fetters of becoming, who is by perfect wisdom emancipate, to him there does not occur the thought that any are better than I, or equal to me, or less than I.” To which Gautama replied, “men of the true stamp declare the gnosis they have attained; they tell what they have gained (attha), but do not speak of I (atta).”[1]

Perhaps another point worth mentioning is that in the Psalms of the Brethren the joy is not for the future, for a salvation that is looked forward to in the life to come: it is a now and is neither increased nor diminished by the prospect of any posthumous condition. It is what it is and the Buddhist salvation is experienced in its plenitude or it is not experienced at all.

There are other terms that seem almost synonymous with Nibbana, but are sometimes employed with a nuance. There is vimutti, which is the closest to the Western term ‘Salvation.’ To attain Salvation is to achieve the ethical extinction and the psychological aspect that follows.

Here we find the Eight Stations of Deliverance:

  1. Having oneself external form, one sees forms.
  2. Unaware of one’s own external form, one sees forms external to oneself.
  3. Aesthetic hypnosis.
  4. Abiding in the sphere of space regarded as infinite.
  5. Abiding in the sphere of cognition regarded as infinite.
  6. Abiding in the sphere of nothingness.
  7. Abiding in the sphere of neither ideation nor non-ideation.
  8. Abiding in the state where both sensations and ideas have ceased to be.[2]

The reader should note that stations 4-7 coincide with the Four Arupa Jhanas by which the Formless heavens, the Brahma-lokas, are attained.

[1] Anguttara Nakaya, iii, 359.

[2] Maha Nidana Sutta, 35; Mahaparinibbana Sutta, 33.

Against speculation and eschatology

We should also point out that the Buddha lists speculation as one of the taints, and emphatically refuses to discuss eschatology. When questioned on these matters, Gautama responded:

“I have not revealed that the Arahat exists after death, I have not revealed that he does not exist; I have not revealed that he at once exists and does not exist after death, nor that he neither exists nor does not exist after death. And why, Malunkyaputta, have I not revealed these things? Because, O Malunkyaputta, they are not edifying, nor connected with the essence of the Norm, nor tend to turning of the will, to the absence of passion, to cessation, rest, to the higher faculties, to supreme wisdom, nor to Nibbana; therefore have I not revealed it.”[1]


“As a flame blown to and fro by the wind goes out and cannot be registered, even so a Sage, set free from name and form, has disappeared, and cannot be registered…that by which they say ‘He is’ exists for him no more; when all conditions are cut off, all matter for discussion is also cut off.”[2]

On these points the Buddhists might have agreed with Emerson (barring, of course, the idea of the soul) when he said: “Of immortality the soul, when well employed, is incurious. It is so well that it is sure that it will be well.”

[1] Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 63.

[2] Sutta-nipata, 1073-5.

The rapture of Nibbana is not continuous, even if its attainment is permanent

Nibbana is not an uninterrupted experience in this life, and the Buddha himself experienced serious illness. In this sense the Buddhist experience of Salvation is not unlike that of other faiths, and in particular the Arahat who has travelled the Fourth Path is like the jivan-mukti of the Hindus. But in all cases the Delivered does not cease to exist, but on the contrary rests in the confidence that what he once experienced, and could experience again, and perhaps does experience at will, is authentic and that he is set free even if the empirical consciousness remains active. Such a one moves to and fro between Byss and Abyss.

Nibbana (in early Buddhism) or Nirvana (in the Mahayana) can be summarized by the words of Jacob Boehme:

“Lastly, whereas I also said, Whosoever finds It, finds Nothing and All Things; that is also certain and true. But how finds he Nothing? Why, I will tell thee how. He that findeth it, findeth a Supernatural Supersensual Abyss, which hath no Ground or Byss to stand on, and where there is no Place to dwell in; and he findeth also Nothing is like unto It, and therefore It may fitly be compared to Nothing; for It is deeper than any Thing, and is as NoThing with respect to All Things, forasmuch as It is not comprehensible by any of them. And because It is NoThing respectively, It is therefore free from All Things; and is that only Good, which a Man cannot express or utter what It is; there being Nothing to which It may be compared, to express It by.

“But in that I lastly said, Whosoever finds It, finds All Things; there is nothing can be more true than this Assertion. It hath been the BEGINNING of All Things; and It ruleth All Things. It is also the END of All Things; and will thence comprehend All Things within Its Circle. All Things are from It, and in It, and by It. If thou findest It, thou comest into that Ground from whence All Things are proceeded, and wherein they subsist; and thou art in It a KING over all the Works of God.”[1]

[1] Boehme, The Supersensual Life, “First Dialogue”.