William Rounseville Alger.

The solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life online

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presence of God in heaven. What is it to the Buddhist ?
Is it to become identical with empty infinitude ? The
Brahman would say, with ultimate insight, I am God. This,
at bottom, is the creed of every thorough-going idealist,
such as Vyasa, Plotinus, or Hegel. The Christian would
say, with filial trust, I am an inextinguishable personal
spark struck out by God, a favored and indestructible
child of the Infinite Spirit. This is the consistent creed
of all who regard the soul as a finite immaterial entity.
The Buddhist would say, with perfected detachment, I am
nothing : and would carry out the legitimate consequences
of the thought. Holding that his soul or selfhood has
no substantial, but only a phenomenal, being, that it is but
the point of convergence of the forces of the organism,
yet believing that that phenomenal centre of consciousness
is fatally bound to a continued succession of lives, and ex-
posed in every life to innumerable loathsome evils until
he so perfectly perceives the delusiveness of its substanti-
9 M


ality and so completely sheds all the affections begotten
by the illusion as to dissolve the karma and annihilate the
cleaving to existence, he sets himself at work to secure
this end, to dissipate the spell of ignorance, break the
chains of desire, and achieve an absolute detachment, an
absolute indifference to everything.

Nearly all Christian writers, nearly all Western philos-
ophers, who have studied this system, so completely op-
posed to their own modes of feeling, have been horrified
by it, filled with astonishment at it. Even so flexible and
wide a scholar and thinker as Max Miiller says, it seems
" a religion made for a mad house," and stands amazed
before the almost incredible fact that such religious power
should have been exerted, such moral benefits conferred,
by a teacher whose whole doctrine is summed in the dark
code of atheism and annihilation. But atheism and an-
nihilation are very different experiences to the Buddhist
and to the Christian, and exert very different influences.
The place occupied in the mind of a theist by the idea
of God, or by the idea of immortality, in the mind of an
atheist is occupied by something else : and this substitute
may fulfil for him the office of the idea whose place it
holds. However strange it may appear, Nirwana, god-
less and empty as it is, largely discharges for the disciples
of Gotama the functions discharged for us by the ideas
of God and immortality. It is the inspirer of their toils
and aspirations, the receptacle of their exhaling worships.
To appreciate the real nature and influence of the doc-
trine we must not stand on the outside with disdainful
superiority, but enter the interior with charitable humility
and curiosity and sympathy, and try to reproduce its re-
lationships as they live in the bosoms of its advocates.
We must, for the time, divest ourselves of our own spec-
ulative and emotional peculiarities, and invest ourselves
with those of the ancient Hindus, and of Gotama him-

Proceeding in this spirit, we shall first conceive of all
finite existence as made up of unreality, pain, and imper-
manence. Next we shall conceive of all ignorant beings
as inextricably fastened by their ignorance and their de-


luded desires in this heaving collection of misery. Then
we shall conceive that a perfect salvation for them all is
possible and unspeakably desirable. Still further, we
shall conceive that that salvation is to be won by a cer-
tain mode of thought, feeling, and action ; by the patient
practice of every social virtue and self-sacrificing disci-
pline. We shall see how that reflective insight, sympathy
and self-surrendering aspiration, carried through the con-
stant practice of the five great meditations of kindness,
pity, joy, disgust, and indifference, will ripen into a perfect
detachment and equipoise, sure signal of the destruc-
tion of the productive cleaving to existence, infallible
precursor of the eternal release, absorbing foretaste of
Nirwana. And finally we shall, by an adequate contem-
plation of the illustrations he uses, so familiarize ourselves
with the Buddhist's habit of sentiment that it will no
longer baffle or be repulsive to us, but we shall enter into
it as he does himself, putting it on and off at pleasure.
Such an exercise, a mental freedom and force competent
to the sympathetic conquest of modes of thought and
feeling so wholly foreign from our own, is an achievement
of the most honorable kind. Nothing can be more eman-
cipating, expanding, and enriching in its effect.

The moral regimen of Buddhism is self-renunciation,
disinterested sympathy, the common virtues of life, and
meditative aspiration, carried to their last terms, for the
purpose of escaping the intolerable evil of existence and
winning the absolute good of Nirwana. Thus conceived,
as it is by its votaries, so far from wondering at its effects
we must see that no effects are too great to ascribe to it
To trace the proper working of any system of religion
we should look at the system as it lies in the minds and
hearts of its disciples, not as it is impoverished and de-
graded in the travesty presented by ignorant and hostile

This difference in the quality of the same mode of
thought when regarded by different persons is curiously
illustrated in Jean Paul's critique on the moral influence
of the subjective idealism of Fichte, and in Fichte's
own estimate of it. This is Jean Paul's awful vision ;


" Around me is a wide petrified humanity : in the dark
unpeopled stillness no love glows, no admiration, no
prayer, no hope, no aim. I, so all alone, nowhere a
single throb of life, nothing around me, and besides
myself nothing but nothing, am only conscious of
my lofty Unconsciousness ; within me the dumb blind
working Demogorgon is concealed, and I am it. So I
emerge from eternity, so I proceed into eternity. And
who knows me now and hears my sorrow? I. Who
knows me and hears it to all eternity ? I." Compare
with this horror the glowing picture drawn by the master
himself : " In this point of view I become a new creature.
The ties by which my mind was formerly united to this
world, and by whose secret guidance I followed all its
movements, are forever sundered, and I stand free, calm,
and immovable, a universe to myself. No longer through
my affections, but by my eye alone, do I apprehend out-
ward objects, and am connected with them ; and this eye
itself is purified by freedom, and looks through error and
deformity to the True and Beautiful, as on the unruffled
surface of water forms are more purely mirrored in a
milder light."

There are four paths leading by prolonged and arduous
exertions to the fruition of Nirwana. Through these
paths Gotama sought by his system to guide all beings to
the shoreless ocean of exemption, to the wall-less city of
rest. These four paths, Sowan, Sakradagami, Anagami,
and. Arya, are only divisions, at different approximations
to the goal, of the one straight and narrow way, namely,
the dissolution of the whole linked series of sorrow by the
extinction of its two earliest terms, ignorance and desire.
By the " destruction of the hundred and eight modes of
evil desire," the Buddhist " rescues himself from birth, as
from the jaws of an alligator." It is impossible to dis-
cover any way in which it is " desirable to hold a red hot
bar of iron " ; so one who has fully contemplated the evils
of existence can see " no form in which existence is to be
desired." It is delicious for one who has been " broiling
before a fire " to " escape into the coolness of an open
space " ; the evils of existence are the fire, Nirwana is the
cool open space.


Is it true, then, that the religion which has had the
most numerous following of all the historic religions has
made an atheistic annihilation at once its God and its
Elysium ? Astounding as the proposition may be, so
in the form of statement it is to us. But we may be
quite sure so it is not in the substance of faith to its vota-
ries. Let us, therefore, instead of turning away in scorn,
or shuddering with horror, try to discern the meaning of
Nirwana in the theory of life and death held by Gotama

In the outset we must grasp the fact that the Oriental
Buddhists loathe existence as the sum of evil, the West-
ern Christians cling to it as the one good ; the former
yearn towards extinction as the sum of good, the latter
shrink from it as the one evil. This direct antagonism of
faith and feeling between them and us is a result of his-
toric causes, race, climate, institutions, and other influ-
ences. To appreciate the truth in the case we must not
begin by proudly assuming that we are wholly right, they
wholly wrong. We must impartially endeavor to discern
how far both may be right, how far each may be wrong.
On reflection, it is clear, first, that those who follow their
natural primitive instincts, dwelling on the known goods
of experience, will cleave to life with blind exaggerating
greed and tenacity ; their self-consciousness and selfish
desires will gather into a ruling object of regard every-
thing pertaining to the fruition of personality. Those, on
the contrary, who, under the domination of an ascetic re-
coil, select for constant contemplation the known evils of
experience, aggregating and emphasizing them, will natu-
rally acquire a morbid dislike of life, an habitual weariness
and loathing of it, as made up of the evils which exclu-
sively fill their vision. Now, obviously, the truth lies be-
tween the two views ; and the wise and healthy style of
conduct lies between the two extreme courses which they
legitimate. Our present existence, which is by no means
to be confounded with the entire range of universal life,
is neither pure good nor pure evil, but a mixture of them,
good in its essence and intent, evil in some of its accom-
paniments. It is, therefore, not to be supremely loved,


nor supremely hated. With an accurate discrimination
of its good and evil it is to be soberly valued, carefully
improved, and meekly resigned at last in consonance
with that Order of the Whole, which must be incompara-
bly better and more important than any atomic part.
The universal and absolute detachment which forms the
soul of Gotama's theory of life, is the fanatical exaggera-
tion of a sacred truth into a noble error. The true pro-
cess and purpose of life is the fruition of function. Re
nunciation, the highest attribute of a moral being, is a
function of free self-consciousness for the sake of co-or-
dinating, refining and enhancing the other functions. To
make it a devouring end in itself, and use it for the sup-
pression of all function, is a supreme perversion. The
genuine purpose and destiny of man in this life is the
self-ruled and harmonious fruition of the functions of his
being, not their self-abnegated extermination. The real
office of renunciation is not cessation and destruction,
but regulation and fulfilment. It should free him who
exercises it from slavery to all lower and worse standards,
to the service of higher and better ones. Every self-
denial should be the instrumental transition to a greater
and purer gratification. Detachment from evil is a
means ; the only end is attachment to good. The gen-
erous illusion. in the Buddhist theory of salvation is that
it makes an all-engulfing end of that which is truly but a
means. Detachment from the transient and individual
arrogates the place of attachment to the eternal and ab-

And yet, though this error is correctly ascribed to the
terms of the theory as set forth by its dogmatic expound-
ers, it is experimentally neutralized in the hearts of those
who practise the system, as it plainly was in the experience
of him who first propounded it. All the renunciations and
detachments of Gotama were prompted by and taken up
into one supreme attachment, namely, that marked by the
word Nirwana. All his desires were swallowed up in the
one desire to be without desires. And the desire to be
desire/ess, carried to such a pitch of harmony and equilibra-
tion as to fancy itself extinguished in its own fulfilment, is

BUDDHA. 1 99

NIRWANA. It is clear on reflection, that however closely,
according to the ordinary conceptions of language, the
Buddhist idea of Nirwana and the Christian idea of annihi-
lation appear to correspond with each other, metaphysi-
cally and morally their fundamental meanings to the East-
ern and the Western mind are in world-wide variance. By
annihilation we mean a boundless negation, the dep-
rivation of all being ; and we regard it as a blank horror.
By Nirwana the Buddhist thinkers mean a boundless affir-
mation, the resumption of that relationless, changeless
state of which every form of existence is the deprivation ;
and they regard it as an infinite entrancement. Immor
tality and annihilation are words we use to mark our
ignorance of the destiny of man after death, our ignorance
of that limitless abyss of potentiality which is the foil to
the visible creation. Imagination appropriates the attrac-
tive elements of the known to make the one mask beauti-
ful ; and we love it ; appropriates the repulsive elements
of the known to make the other mask hideous ; and
we hate it. In like manner Gotama masks his igno-
rance of the dismal night against which all created things
stand in relief, the unknowable, infinite side of our destiny,
with the word Nirwana. And if that mask be formless
and colorless, and yet he has the energy of faith to look
towards it with unconquerable love and longing, the feat
is wonderful rather than absurd, and he deserves to be
admired. Instead of presuming to look down on this
cosmopolitan hero of the mysteries of human life and
destiny as a deluded inferior and unbeliever, we should
see that there was much in his example both of faith and
conduct so fat superior to our attainment that we are
scarcely competent to emulate it.

In self-sacrificing detachment from the collective seduc-
tions of the earth, with disinterested sympathy for all crea-
tures, he forsook the throne of an empire for the tree of
an anchorite in the forest, and persevered for years in the
search for truth by meditations so profoundly abstracted,
that, his biographers say, if a trumpet had been blown
close to his ears he would no more have heard it than if he
had been dead. Having completed his investigations,


and compacted the results in a teachable form, he took up
his residence in a monastic school, and began to gather
disciples. For nearly fifty years he never ceased to pro-
claim his doctrine of salvation to all who would listen.
He made frequent journeys over the country, preaching
his system with an energy of conviction, an earnestness
of appeal, a variety of illustration, and an emphasis of
example, which combined with other co-operating influ-
ences to work a revolution in some respects the greatest
ever wrought by one man. For when the dying old Gota-
ma, at the age of eighty, under the sal-tree near Kusinara,
saw Nirwdna, his monasteries were dotting the hills, the
yellow cloaks of his monks fluttering in all the roads,
of India. And the system continued to spread rapidly
over one nation after another, drawing swarms of con-
verts, until it became, as it is at this moment, after the lapse
of twenty-five hundred years, the most numerously followed
of all the religions that have ever prevailed on the earth.
The ignorant myriads of his followers, unable to under-
stand or be satisfied with the transcendent abstractions of
the system, deformed its teachings by the addition of their
superstitious notions, and ended, in many cases, by deifying
the sage himself and painting a new paradise in the abyss.
Still, in all its forms, the religion retains much of the
metaphysical speculation, and more of the sublime ethics,
of its founder. The man who could do this, overthrow
the exclusive despotism of the Brahmanical hierarchy with
his spiritual democracy, revolutionize surrounding coun-
tries, make his philosophy the religion of half the world
for over a score of centuries, compelling innumerable
multitudes of disciples to forego all the world for the self-
denying repetition of his example, this man must have
had not only a personality, but also a faith, commensurate
with these astounding effects. Gotama Buddha stands
out as one man from amidst thousands of millions.

To stigmatize such a man, in the opprobrious sense of
the words, as an atheistic eulogizer of nothingness, a
godless unbeliever, is manifest injustice. Absolute pure
being is nothing definite, is no thing. It is All. As Spino-
za, with other metaphysical masters before and after him,


has said, every determination of being is a negation ;
every attribute or quality affirmed of it is a limitation.
Now Gotama's doctrine of the extinction of existence
means the removal of limitations, the destruction of all
obstacles to the return into that pure being, whereof, as
indicated by the word Nirwana, he himself says, " We can
affirm nothing, neither that it is nor that it is not, since it
has no qualities." It is that conditionless state, the idea
of which it bewilders the faculties of thought to conceive
and baffles the resources of language to express ; although
the writings of every deep speculative philosopher, from
Heraclitus to Hamilton, deal familiarly with it. The
scientific idea of force is the idea of as pure and myste-
rious a unity as the One of Parmenides. It is a noumenal
integer phenomenally differentiated into the glittering uni-
verse of things. The Christian who asserts that the Un-
knowable Cause of All is an intelligent and affectionate
Father, a personal counterpart of himself dilated to im-
mensity, would brand as an atheistic nothingarian the
scientist who pauses with the idea of a unit of force and
denies substantive validity to everything else. And yet
to the philosopher who has adequately thought his way
to that conception, with the fit emotion, it is unquestion-
ably a conception of overwhelming religiousness, capable
of yielding an unsurpassed measure of 'authority and
trust, of awe, sweetness, and peace.

Every representation of God, salvation, or heaven, is a
state of mind. To every man his highest apprehensible
reality stands for God. The purest, serenest, most suffic-
ing state of mind he knows stands to him as the represen-
tation of salvation. The perpetuity of that state of mind
is his heaven. Apply this to Gotama Buddha. When as
the result of his exercises he had freed himself from un-
balanced desires, risen above the disturbing sphere of
worldly things, and in the perfect triumph of detachment
and indifference secured an ecstatic equilibrium of the con-
stituents of consciousness, experimentally equivalent to the
extinction of consciousness, his mind a waveless sea with-
out shore, fixing the unruffled idea of that state for eter-
nity, he projected it to infinitude and called it Nirwana,


And thus, while according to our notions he believed in
no God and no future life, Nirwana was to him at once
God, salvation, and heaven. The power of this faith
inspired him to break the bonds of passion and vanquish
the temptations of the world as easily as the arrow of a
skilful archer cuts through the shadow of a tree. It is the
most wonderful psychological phenomenon in the history
of the human race. For Gotama Buddha, teeming with
repose of strength, wisdom, and bliss, advanced towards
Nirwana, in what seems to us the most absolute concep-
tion of loneliness, the most awful thought of solitude, that
ever dawned on the mind of man, no Personal Ruler
of the Universe through which he was travelling, but an
inflexible moral law treating every one exactly after his
deserts ; and at the goal, no comrade, no object, no idea,
no feeling, only one unbounded, unbroken, and eternal
blank. But if in substance of thought Nirwana and anni-
hilation are the same, they are wholly different in the
form and color under which they are apprehended, and
in the mode of feeling and spirit of life which they pro-
duce. The perception of the indivisible unity of real
being and the purely phenomenal nature of the self, in
the faith of Buddha this is the matchless diamond whose
discovery sets every prepared slave free.


AN important place must be granted to Confucius in any
list of the illustrious lawgivers and exemplars of mankind.
He also deserves mention among the great lonely men in
the history of the world. At the age of three years he
was deprived of his father, received public office at twenty,
began his course as d teacher and reformer at twenty-two,
and lost his mother at twenty-four. He is represented as
weeping bitterly for his mother and paying her every pos-
sible tribute. He was grieved by the cruelty and injus-
tice of the rulers, and by the irreverence and viciousness
of the people, and labored hard to teach both classes
their duties as well by example as by precept. His


moral purity, his learning and vigor, while drawing atten-
tion and disciples to him, also provoked the envy of rival
teachers, and the distrust of the officials over him. He
was dismissed from office ; and, in disfavor, in private
life continued his studies and labors for fifteen years,
from his thirty-fifth to his fiftieth year. Then for five
years he was restored to the confidence of his sovereign.
He at length lost his post as minister of the court in Loo,
through the influence of some wantons who induced the
ruler to violate and resent the austere precepts of the
sage and abase him from his honors.

We catch impressive glimpses of his character in the
sayings he has left. The Master said, " The superior
man has dignified ease without pride ; the mean man has
pride without dignified ease." The Master said, " Some
men of worth retire from the world because of disrespect
and contradiction." In his fifty-sixth year the injured
Confucius turned from the seat of his fond hopes and
started upon his exile. As he went along he looked back
on Loo with a melancholy heart, and gave vent to his
feelings in these verses :

O, how is it, azure Heaven,
From my home I thus am driven ;
Through the land my way to trace,
With no certain dwelling-place?
Dark, all dark the minds of men !
Worth comes vainly to their ken.
Hastens on my term of years ;
Desolate, old age appears.

For thirteen weary years he wandered from province
to province, using his faculties and his renown to the
utmost, but lamenting the want of Court position and
patronage to give his teachings more effect. Once he
said, " If any of the Princes would employ me, in the
course of twelve months I should have done something
considerable." At another time he said, " Am I a bitter
gourd ? Am I to be hung up out of the way of being
eaten ? " The world did not deal kindly with him ; for
in every province which he visited he met disappoint-
ment j now suffering from poverty, now from deserted-


ness, now from persecution. Once he pined so sorely
for home and friends that he cried aloud, " Let me return,
let me return." Again he is said to have been several
days without anything to eat. While tarrying in Wei he
was so annoyed by applications to solve petty questions
and settle disputes that he exclaimed, " The bird chooses
its tree, the tree does not chase the bird," and prepared
to depart.

Just then came his recall to Loo. He was sixty-nine
years old. The remaining five years of his life he spent
in peace ; but not as he would have preferred. Denied
any place of rank and authority, his counsels set at naught,
he reluctantly turned away from his plan of tranquillizing
and perfecting the State through the Sovereign and the
Law, and devoted himself to the slower moral accom-
plishment of the same end by completing and trans-
mitting his literary works. Perhaps one may understand
something of his disappointment in being obliged to
abandon a legislative and executive mission for a purely
didactic and moral one, from the following tribute paid to
him during his life by Tsze-kung, one of his disciples.
Tsze-kung said, " Were our master in the position of the
Prince of a State, he would plant the people, and forth-
with they would be established ; he would lead them on,

Online LibraryWilliam Rounseville AlgerThe solitudes of nature and of man; or, The loneliness of human life → online text (page 16 of 35)