NEW YORK BUDDHISTS
[The Theosophist, Vol. II, No. 7, April, 1881, pp. 152-153]
About two years ago, the question of Buddhism was greatly discussed in the American, especially the New York, papers. Many an unbeliever in Christianity had turned to the noble philosophy of the Kapilavastu sage, and had declared himself a Buddhist, inasmuch as his own philosophical and scientific convictions responded far easier to the logical, though for many an unintelligent mind too abstruse, metaphysical conceptions of the Tripitaka. What, and who are they who are seeking the Nirvana? Is the Nirvana preferable to the modern Hell? What have the orthodox Christian people to say? These were the questions asked among many other answers appeared one from the pen of an ex-Christian gentleman. The article is not quite free from errors, but there is one idea running clearly through it, and that is that it is high time that the idea of Hell should be given up by the Churches. Unless they want to live to see the day when, without accepting, or even understanding what the religion of Gautama Buddha is, almost every intelligent man—especially since the publication of Mr. Edwin Arnold’s splendid Light of Asia—which has run through any number of editions in America—will declare himself a Buddhist simply in the hope that no belief in hell shall be exacted from him in spite of the recent revision of the Bible and the achievements of the nineteenth century.
That the Nirvana—even as the misconceived doctrine of total annihilation—is preferable to the Christian hell in the eyes of every sensible man, may be seen from the article above referred to which appeared in the New York Telegram. The writer said:—
The followers of Buddha are supposed to occupy a large portion of their time in thinking about the Nirvana—that state of nothingness to which they shall return after their long pilgrimage and multitudinous metamorphoses in the flesh are over. It would occupy too large a space to explain what are all the peculiar tenets of these singular religionists, and we only refer to them here in order to point a moral at which we shall arrive further on. To quote the language of an accomplished writer upon this subject of Buddhism, when an individual dies, the body is broken, the soul is extinguished, leaving merely its deeds with their consequences as a germ of a new individual. According to the germinating power (which is determined by the morality of the actions) the result is an animal, a man, a demon, or a god, and identity of souls is thus replaced by their continuity.
SAMSARA AND NIRVANA
The true Buddhist, therefore, thinks that he ought to act well, not merely on behalf of his own selfish weal, but for the benefit of the new “I” which is to follow him. The final goal of Buddhist salvation is the uprooting of sin, by exhausting existence, that is, impeding its continuance. This life is called the Samsara. By the Nirvana, into which we pass after we have gone through all the metamorphoses of being of which we are capable here, is meant “highest enfranchisement,” and by this vague term is meant what theists would call “absorption into God,” and what atheists would call “nothingness.” It signifies the enfranchisement from existence without any new birth, the cessation from all misery. It is described as the “beyond” of the Samsara, its contradiction; without time, space, or force. Life is considered the summum malum, and annihilation therefore as the summum bonum. Those who accept this faith believe that even in this world a man may rise for a few moments into the Nirvana, provided he cultivates divine meditation and unselfishness. Multitudes of human beings derive comfort from this singular belief. One sometimes loses sight of this fact when dwelling constantly in a Christian country.
THE HELL QUESTION
We have introduced this allusion to the Buddhists, because it seems as though in some respects their belief is happier and more rational than that of many of the extremists among orthodox theologians. The pleasing subject of hell as a region or condition of eternal punishment has now agitated the public for some months, and as much interest seems to be taken in it now as ever. If its existence or its non-existence could be demonstrated it would be the most important theme that could possibly solicit the attention of mankind. But this existence or nonexistence cannot be demonstrated, and consequently, though thousands of people are interested in the subject, comparatively few feel any exceedingly deep and vital concern. Especially since Colonel Ingersoll has been lecturing on the question have millions made it a jest, and the coming essay on the matter by the Count Joannes will probably stimulate jocularity still more. The small class who really feel a vital interest in the matter are the orthodox believers in the various churches.
HELL AND NIRVANA
Of course, the entire body of orthodox clergymen would listen with anger to any attempt to deprive them of the satisfaction of believing in a hot and permanent hell. What this satisfaction consists in we have in vain attempted to analyse and understand. It would seem as though a future which precluded the possibility of unnumbered beings burning in agony forever were preferable to one in which that anguish was a sine qua non. The religion of the Buddhists precludes any such belief as this and therefore recommends itself, so far as that goes, to the religious world in general. When a man cannot exist in happiness, forever, there is nothing unpleasing in the prospect of consciousness being destroyed or only existing in a mild and gentle manner, into which no pain can enter. We are not by any means advocating the religion of the Buddhists, but while so many sects are disputing the question of hell or no hell it is interesting to
know that a religion that is embraced by millions of people dispenses with the idea altogether.
Notwithstanding the arguments that time will never come when the Church will be able to dispense with hell, it is idle and hypocritical to argue as we have heard so many persons do, upon this point. “I am a Christian,” says one.—“Then you believe in Hell and the Devil?”—“Oh, no, indeed; for this doctrine is ridiculous and long since exploded.”—“Then you are not a Christian, and your Christianity is but a false pretence”—is our answer.—“But, indeed, I am one, for I believe in Christ.”—“In a Christ god or a Christ man?” “If you believe in him in this latter capacity, then you are no more a Christian than a Jew or a Mohammedan; for both believe in their own way that such a man lived from the year 1 to the year 33; the one holding him as an impostor, and the other condescending to see in Jesus a prophet though far lower than Mohammed. Yet for all that neither of these call themselves Christians—nay, they loathe the very name! And if, agreeing with your Church, you see in the crucified ‘Man of Sorrow’ your saviour, the very God himself, then are you compelled by this very fact to believe in Hell.” . . . “But why?”—we will be asked. We answer by quoting the words of the Chevalier des Mousseaux, in his Moeurs et pratiques des démons, a book which has received the approbation of the late Pope and several cardinals. “THE DEVIL IS THE CHIEF PILLAR OF FAITH, he says. He is one of the grand personages whose life is closely allied to that of the Church; and without his speech which issued so triumphantly from the mouth of the Serpent, his medium, the fall of man could not have taken place. Thus, if it were not for him [the Devil], the Saviour, the Crucified, the Redeemer, would be but the most ridiculous of supernumeraries, and the Cross an insult to good sense! For—from whom, would this Redeemer have redeemed and saved you, if not from the Devil, the ‘Bottomless pit’—Hell” (p. x). “To demonstrate the existence of Satan, is to re-establish one of the fundamental dogmas of the Church, which serve as a basis for Christianity, and, without which, Satan would be but a name”—says Father Ventura di Raulica of Rome, the
Examiner of Bishops, etc.* This, if you are a Roman Catholic. And if a Protestant Christian, then why should you ask God in the “Lord’s Prayer” to deliver you from “the evil one”—unless there be an evil one inhabiting his hereditary domain of Hell? Surely, you would not presume to mystify the eternal in asking Him to deliver you from something or someone in the existence of which or whom you do not believe!
* [These words of Cardinal di Raulica may be found on p.v. of the Preface to des Mousseaux’s Les hauts phénomènes de la magie.—Compiler.]