CHAPTER 19: COSMIC EVOLUTION AND INDIVIDUAL SOUL
Although every sentient being in the phenomenal realms has a soul, who carries the five aggregates in his countless lives in the cycle of birth and rebirth, including rebirth in heavens if he maintains good karma; in transcendental reality there is no individual soul.
3.71 Infinite and Eternal
Original Text in Chinese
Then, the natural body of Zhen Ru. All ordinary people, Sravadas, Pratyekabuddhas, Bodhisattvas, all Buddhas neither add nor subtract. Neither created in the beginning nor terminated at the end. It is infinite and eternal.
After we have learnt about the two aspects of the Supreme Reality, i.e. transcendental reality and phenomenal world, let us now learn about its three universals, i.e. the universals of forms, of characteristics and of applications. Let us start with its universal of forms.
From the spatial perspective, the Supreme Reality is all inclusive. Everything there is, is included in the Supreme Reality. The total numbers of ordinary people, Sravadas, Pratyekabuddhas, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are neither added nor subtracted. For example, when an ordinary person becomes a Buddha, it does not mean that there is one ordinary person less and one Buddha more. From the temporal perspective, the Supreme Reality was not created in the beginning, nor terminated at the end. It is infinite and eternal.
Why is it that when a mortal becomes a Buddha, the numbers of mortals and Buddhas still remain the same? Hui Neng's famous statement that when a mortal is Enlightened he becomes a Buddha, when a Buddha is unenlightened he becomes a mortal, provides an answer. It is something like your brother getting married: he does not cease to be your brother when he becomes his wife's husband.
It is also significant to note that while Sravadas become Enlightened by hearing and following the Buddha's teaching, Pratyekabuddhas include those who become Enlightened by following other religious teachings. This shows that Buddhists accept that Enlightenment can be attained by other religious or even non-religious, like scientific, means.
In Buddhist teaching, the Supreme Reality is eternal: it has no beginning and no end. Phenomenal worlds and whole universes, however, undergo birth and rebirth! Much ahead of modern astronomers, Buddhist masters described the life cycles of worlds and whole universes in four stages of birth, growth, decay and death. Their knowledge was astonishingly accurate. For example, Buddhist sources since the past have mentioned that our universe was formed 12.8 billions years ago. Only now, after numerous errors in earlier estimates, many astronomers believe that the age of our universe is between 10 to 20 billion years.
Regarding our earth, Buddhist sources say that it was covered with water during its birth or formative stage which lasted 335,960,000 years. Black clouds formed in the sky with heavy rain and lightning beating on the earth's ocean, which was probably what modern scientists call the prebiotic soup. Cosmic winds blew over the water and vaporized its essence to form various heavenly realms above the earth surface. Later the "realm of supportive structure" (qi shi jie), or the inorganic world in western terms, appeared.
The "realm of sentient beings" (you qing shi jie), or the organic world, began on earth at its growth or developmental stage. According to Buddhist sources, the first forms of organic life arrived here from other worlds, while some life forms also came from the heavenly realms above where heavenly beings because of their bad karma reincarnated here. Probably after nine kalpas, which is about 3 billion years, the first humans were found, for it was then that the early Buddhas appeared on earth. The Buddhist sources mention that due to their karmic merits or demerits, the life-span of humans varied enormously at different epochs, ranging from about 20 years to 84,000 years! In this era of Guatama Buddha, the human life-span is about a hundred years.
Buddhist sources also mention that throughout its history our earth has been devastated by natural catastrophes, in the pattern of seven fires followed by a deluge. Once, there were two, then three, and finally seven suns in the sky, with the result that the earth was parched. During great floods, sometimes the water reached up to some of the heavenly realms. However, the final catastrophe that will destroy this earth, the Buddhist masters predicted, is neither fire nor flood, but cosmic winds.
But that is not necessarily the end of the world or mankind. The world, perhaps in different forms, will be born again, and continue its endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Moreover, the various stages of birth, growth, decay and death occur at different times for different worlds. So, at any one time, there are countless worlds teeming with life.
The cycle of birth, growth, decay and death operates at the galaxy level as well as at the human, sub-atomic and all other realms. Lobsang Rampa's description in his "The Cave of the Ancients" that from the time a match is lighted till the flame extinguishes, representing to some sentient beings the birth and extinction of a universe, is illuminating. This cycle is also applicable to the mental dimension. A thought, as explained in Passage 3.22, arises, abides, changes and stops. As thoughts, in different realms, are real substantial things, it would be interesting to philosophize whether what we think in our mind is actually a "real-life" drama for some other beings. Alternatively, is our life drama a mental projection of some divine consciousness?
3.72 Joy, Permanence, Self
Original Text in Chinese
Since the origin, the nature is self-sufficient to satisfy all merits. This is because the natural body has great wisdom of brightness, illuminating all Dharmarealm. It has real consciousness of knowledge, and its self nature is pure and tranquil, endowed with permanence, joy, self, and purity, clear and cool, immutable and free.
Its excellent qualities are more numerous than the sands of Ganges, non-differentiated and non-transient, unchangeable, incrediable dharmas of Buddha. It can satisfy everything and lacks nothing, named Ju Lai Zang, also named Ju Lai Fa Shen.
Since the beginningless origin, the nature of the Supreme Reality is self-sufficient to satisfy all needs in the phenomenal world. This is because the Supreme Reality possesses great wisdom to overcome ignorance, illuminating the entire Dharmarealm. It also has real consciousness of knowledge, and purity to eliminate all defilement. It is endowed with per¬manence, therefore overcoming impermanence; joy, there¬fore overcoming suffering; spontaneous self, therefore overcoming uncertainty regarding souls; and purity, therefore overcoming all problems.
It is free from any distort¬ion, and is immu-table, and free from birth and rebirth. Its excell¬ent qualities are more numerous than the sands of Ganges, and exist as non-differentiated and non-transient, unchangeable, incredible dharmas of Buddha. This collection of dharmas satisfies every¬thing, and lacks nothing, and is named Ju Lai Zang (Tathagata-garbha, or the Storehouse of the Supreme Reality), and also named Ju Lai Fa Shen (Tathagata Dharmakaya, or the Spiritual Body of the Supreme Reality).
This is an important passage answering some intriguing questions on Buddhism from the Mahayanist view-point. It is frequently said that the three marks of Buddhism, i.e. the three special features that distinguish (mainly Theravada) Buddhism from other religions, are duhkha, anicca and anatta, which are Pali terms meaning the doctrines of suffering, of non-permanence, and of non-self. These three doctrines expound that there is much suffering in life, that nothing is permanent, and that the self is non-existent.
However, if these three doctrines are inadequately understood, they may lead to serious mis-conceptions. Not only a person does not have a soul or spirit, even his own physical and mental identity is in question. According to this concept, what the person thinks is his real self is only a collection of five aggregates (skandhas) of forms, thoughts, feelings, activities and intellect, which are all constantly changing. So, he is totally different from what he was the previous moment, and will be, as he has always been, totally different every moment. On top of all this, he suffers through life most of the time.
At death, the five aggregates dissolve, but his karmic effect results in a rebirth of a new collection of five aggregates. Actually, according to this belief, the terms "death" and "rebirth" are not appropriate, because as everything is impermanent and there is no self or soul involved, it is not certain who or what dies and is reborn.
Nevertheless, although this collection of aggregates exists only momentarily, his spiritual aim, like that of all other Buddhists, is to eliminate suffering and attain nirvana. Exponents of this belief never seem to be bothered with answering why is it necessary for this soulless, non-self person, properly regarded as a momentary collection of five aggregates, to eliminate suffering when the very next moment he and all his suffering will be naturally eliminated.
Nirvana, in this context, is often regarded as extinction -- extinction of suffering as well as the karmic effect that would, if not for nirvana, result in another collection of aggregates. As there is no permanent self or soul, it is difficult to answer questions like who actually attains nirvana, or what happens at or after nirvana. More serious questions for which there have been no satisfactory answers, include what is the purpose of working for nirvana when everything (including nirvana) is impermanent, and what actually is nirvana if it is not -- as it seems here -- total, final extinction.
If Buddhism is interpreted along this philosophy, it is no surprise that many people think it is pessimistic, negative and nihilistic. What is there to work for if everything is impermanent? What is the meaning of salvation if there is no soul or self to save? What is the logic of enlightenment if it results in the dissolution of the very being that is Enlightened? Obviously, the fact that so many people of various races and cultures, among whom are highly intelligent minds and deeply sincere hearts, have embraced Buddhism throughout history, indicates that there must be some mistake in the interpretation of these three doctrines.
This concept, which is accepted by many Theravadins today, is rejected by many other Buddhists. Mahayanists and Vajrayanists generally believe in the existence of an indestructible self, mind or soul.
Right at the beginning when doctrinal differences led to the formation in India during the first five hundred years in Buddhist history, of the traditional eighteen schools, of which Theravada was one of these schools, there was intense debate over this issue of self or soul. The Pudgalavadins, a popular Hinayana school which later developed into many other schools, put up convincing arguments against these doctrines held by some elders. In fact, the name of the school was derived from their stand that the self, or pudgala, exists in the phenomenal realm. They pointed out, for example, it was incontestable that the term pudgala is often mentioned in the sutras. The Vatsiputriyas, another Hinayana school, quoted from the Burden Sutra and postulated that the bearer of the five aggregates is the pudgala, or self.
Recalling his previous lives, the Buddha himself said, "This sage Sunetra, who existed in the past, that Sunetra was I." Even in the Abhidharma, the Buddhist classic greatly valued by the exponents of non-self, the eight types of enlightened beings are generally known as the eight pudgalas. "The orthodox teachers had to admit these passages, but maintained that they do not mean what they say". Their defence was rather flimsy too, arguing that "even if your pudgala exists, he is not useful for salvation, does not promote welfare, or dharma, or the religious life, produces no super-knowledge, Enlightenment or Nirvana. Because there is no use for him, therefore the pudgala does not exist".
Yet it is intriging that even in important Theravada scriptures, the soul is discussed. For example, "one of the sutras of the Digha Nikaya (D I 17-49) mentions a great number of speculative views. The subject discussed were especially the nature of the soul and the world, the nature of virtue and its results, the existence of another world, and whether the soul and the world are caused or not." The trouble with the doctrines of suffering, impermanence and non-self lies in their being understood superficially. Buddhism, like most other religions, must be appreciated at two levels: ordinary knowledge and higher wisdom. Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, considered by many as the second Buddha, said that the essence of Mahayana Buddhism is lost if these two levels of ordinary knowledge and higher wisdom are not understood.
Seen from the phenomenal perspective, life is suffering, not that there is no joy in living, but that the very nature of existence in the phenomenal realm deprives the being from existence in transcendental reality. But from the transcendental view-point, life is eternal joy. It is understandable that those without any knowledge of the eternal joy of transcendental reality, will cling to worldly pleasures, just as a child who has never gone beyond his poverty-stricken environment will cling to his petty toys. One should note that the teaching is not against enjoying pleasures (unless it brings suffering to others), but that clinging to these pleasures will generate karmic effect that ties him to birth and rebirth, thus denying himself the chance of attaining eternal joy.
From the phenomenal aspect, everything is transient; but from the transcendental aspect, everything is permanent. In the phenomenal world, not only the dharmas that constitutes a person are momentary as they are constantly changing, even his whole life-span of a hundred years in the present era is like a wink of the eye when compared to the countless lives he has under¬gone and will undergo if he makes no effort to liberate himself from samsara. But if he succeeds in realizing Cosmic Reality, he actualizes his eternity!
Even in the Hinayana scriptures, the Buddha did not categorically say that there was no soul. When asked by followers who had not acquired the higher wisdom, or even challenged by other people, the Buddha kept a noble silence so as not to confuse them. But in the Mahayana and the Vajrayana scriptures, there are frequent references to the soul, like souls of devotees going to the Western Paradise of Eternal Bliss.
The idea of non-soul or non-self was used by the Buddha for two specific purposes: to correct wrong beliefs concerning the soul at the phenomenal level, and to help his followers to attain Cosmic Reality at the transcendental level. These two purposes are actually the same, but interpreted at the ordinary or the higher levels. Many people believe that each person has a separate soul, which will go to heaven if he has faithfully fulfilled his religious duties. This is a common belief among ordinary people at the phenomenal level. At a higher transcendental level, spiritual aspirants believe that when they achieve spiritual realization, their individual souls will reunite with the Supreme Reality.
According to the Buddha's teaching, these two concepts are mistaken, or they miss the highest spiritual goal. There is no doubt in Buddhism, as in other religions, that the good and pious will go to heaven. But in Buddhist teaching, going to heaven is not the highest spiritual ideal, because it is still in the phenomenal realm. And if those souls in heaven are obsessed with their own individuality, they will not be able to liberate themselves from the phenomenal illu¬sion so as to attain transcendental reality.
At a higher level, the aspirant in this worldly life understands the higher wisdom and works for cosmic realization with the Supreme Reality directly, without bothering to go to heaven first. When he succeeds in this most noble mission, he is awakened to the fact that he is the Supreme Reality! It is not the case of his puny individual soul joining the Cosmic Soul; his is the Cosmic Soul!
An analogy, though imperfect, can illuminate this great truth. Let us say that the Supreme Reality is a gigantic ocean, and the countless fishes swimming in the ocean are spiritual aspirants. In every aspirant there is some water of the ocean, which, for our purpose, represents the individual soul of that aspirant. When the aspirant attains spiritual realization, he discards his fishy body, and suddenly realizes that his soul (the drop of water formerly imprisoned in his body) is actually an integral part of the Supreme Reality (the whole ocean). The amount of water remains the same in the ocean, before and after he attains spiritual realization. He does not add his drop of water to the ocean, because this drop was already a part of the ocean. Similarly, when a person attains perfect enlightenment, he does not add his soul to the Cosmic Soul. The amount of souls remains the same, but he suddenly realizes that his soul is actually the Cosmic Soul.
Hence, although every sentient being in the phenomenal realms has a soul, who carries the five aggregates in his countless lives in the cycle of birth and rebirth, including rebirth in heavens if he main¬tains good karma; in transcendental reality there is no individual soul. If an aspirant clings to his indivi¬dual soul, which means he has not totally liberated himself form the phenomenal dimension, he will not be able to realize the highest spiritual fulfilment. The Buddha, therefore, expounded the concept of no soul (in the transcendental aspect) to help him.