The following passages are excerpts from the book Nirvâna: A Story of Buddhist Psychology by Paul Carus. They are provided here to assist Asian philosophy students (students studying Asian philosophy, not philosophy students who happen to be Asian) in understanding the concept of Nirvana.
If these passages are at all helpful to you, I strongly encourage you to support the author (despite him being quite dead) and purchase the book.
The Controversy About Self (p. 34-41)
Anuruddha saw that Sudatta was filled with indignation. So he ceased to speak and looked expectantly at the young man. Sudatta rose to his feet and said:
“Utter surrender of Self?” Is that the liberation which Gautama preaches? My father called him a heretic and an infidel, and truly he was not mistaken, for Gautama’s liberation is a destruction: It annihilates man’s Self. Gautama rejects the authority of the sacred Scriptures. He does not believe in Ishvara, The Lord of Creation, and he holds that there is no soul. Yea, he is so irreligious that he condemns sacrifices as impious, ridicules prayer as useless, and would fain destroy our sacred institution of castes on which the social order of our civilization rests. His religion is the negation of all religion, it is not divide but purely human, for it rejects belief in the divinity of the Vedas and claims that enlightenment is sufficient to illumine the path of life.”
Anuruddha listened to Sudatta’s vehement denunciations, and observing the heightened color in his cheeks, thought to himself: “How beautiful is this lad and how noble does he appear in his pious zeal for the religion of his father!” The he said: “The Tathagata does not oppose Brahmanism. He who has grasped his doctrines will understand that he is reformer. He revealed to us a higher interpretation of religion.”
Replied Sudatta: “A denial of the existence of the Self will destroy all religion.”
Anuruddha asked: “What do you mean by Self?”
Sudatta, who was well trained in the Vedanta philosophy said: “My self is the immutable eternal Ego that directs my thoughts. It is that which says ‘I.'”
“What is the Ego or that which says ‘I’?” exclaimed Anuruddha: “There is unquestionably something which says ‘I’ in me, and in you, and in everybody present. But when we say ‘I,’ it is a mode of speech, as much as are all the other words and ideas that people our minds. The word ‘I’ it is true; remains the same throughout life, but its significance changes. It originates in the child with the development of self-consciousness, and denotes first a boy, then a youth, after that a man, and at last a dotard. The word may remain the same, but he substance of its meaning changes. Accordingly, that something which says ‘I,’ is neither eternal, nor immutable, nor divine, nor what Yoga philosophers call ‘the real Self’. It is a word which signifies the whole personality of the speaker with all his sensations, sentiments, thoughts, and purposes.”
The Brahman replied: “Gautama is an infidel who denies the existence of the soul, and yet is so inconsistent as to talk about rebirth in future incarnations, and of immortality.”
“Let us not haggle about words, friend Sudatta,” said the samana, “but understand the doctrine aright. The Tathagata looks upon that assumedly immutable ego-self of which you speak as an error, and illusion, a dream; and attachment to it will produce egotism which is a craving for happiness either here on earth or beyond in heaven. But while that illusory Self is an error of your philosophy, your personality is real. There is not a person who is in possession of character, thoughts, and deeds; but character, thought, and deeds themselves are the person. There is not an ego in you, O Sudatta, that thinks your thoughts themselves are thinking, and your character itself is the nature of your very self. Your character, your thoughts, your volitions are you yourself. You have not ideas, but you are ideas.”
“But who is the lord of these ideas of mine?” asked Sudatta. “Here your theory is wanting. Blessed is he who knows that the lord of his ideas is his ego, his Self.”
Anuruddha continued: “The ego-idea is not a lord who owns your body and mind, directing the emotions and impulses of your character; but those of your emotions which are strongest, they are the Lord, they govern you. If evil passions grow in your heart, you will be like a ship which is at the mercy of the winds and the currents of the sea; but if the aspiration for enlightenment takes possession of you, it will steer you to the haven of Nirvana where all illusions cease and the heart will be tranquil like the still, smooth lake. Deeds are done; and the doing the deeds passes away; but that which is accomplished by deeds abides; just as a man who writes a letter ceases writing, but the letter remains. Considering the permanence that is in deeds, what can be better than shaping our future existence wisely? Lay up a treasure of charity, purity, and sober thoughts. He who lives forever, thought the body my die. He will be reborn in a higher existence and will at last attain the bliss of Nirvana. There is not transmigration of a self-substance, but here is a re-incarnation of thought-forms which takes place according to the deeds that re done.”
“The Buddha teaches that good deeds should be done vigorously, and only the bad volitions which are done from vanity, or lust, or sloth, or greed, should be eradicated.”
Sudatta’s belief in the doctrine of the Self was not shaken. No, he felt more assured than ever of its truth, for his whole religion hung on it, and he exclaimed: “What are my deeds without my Self? What is enjoyment if I am not he enjoyer?”
Anuruddha’s pensive countenance grew more serious than ever: “Dismiss the craving for enjoyment and all though of Self and live in your deeds for they are the reality of life. All creatures are such as they are through their deeds in former existences. The thought-forms are the realities of our spiritual life. They are transferred from one individual to another. Individuals die, but their thought-forms will be reincarnated according to their deeds. Deeds shape in the slow process of growth the thought-structures which build up our personality, and that which you call the person, the enjoyer, the Self, is the totality of your thought-forms, the living memory of past deeds. Deeds done in past existences are stamped upon each creature in the character of his present existence. Thus the past has borne the present, and the present is the womb of the future. This is the law of Karma, the law of deeds, the law of cause and effect.”
“You take away the unity of the soul,” replied Kacchayana.
“Say rather,” rejoined Anuruddha, “I insist upon the complexity and wealth of man’s spiritual nature. So long as the illusion of the self is upon you, you cannot reach Nirvana.”
The samana’s words were weighty and serious. Nevertheless, his auditor remained unconvinced, and Kacchayana murmured to himself: “Gautama’s doctrine cannot be the truth. It would be a sad truth, indeed, if it were true after all. I Shall hold fast to the dearest hope of the religion of my father.”
The samana replied: “Choose not the dearest but the truest; for the truest is the best.”
Suffrage of Life and Chandra the Gambler (p. 77-86)
While they were traveling together on the highroad, Chandra said: “Deep is the wisdom of the Perfect One. He teaches that existence is suffering, and my experience confirms the doctrine. Pessimism is indeed the true theory of life.”
“What do you mean by Pessimism?” interrupted Sudatta.
“Pessimism means that the world is bad,” replied Chandra; and he continued: “The world is like a lottery in which there are few prizes and innumerable blanks. We can see at once how true it is that life is not worth living by supposing a wealthy man buying all the chances in a lottery in order to make sure of winning all the prizes. He would certainly be a loser. Life is bankrupt throughout; it is like a business enterprise which does not pay its expenses.”
“My friend,” said the Brahman, “I perceive that you are a man of experience. Am I right in assuming that, being a gambler, you had for a time an easy life until you met another gambler better versed in trickery than yourself, who cheated you out of all your possessions?”
“Indeed, sir,” said the gambler, “that is my case exactly; and now I travel to the Blessed One, who has recognized the great truth that life is like a lost game in which the prizes are only baits for the giddy. Whenever I met a man unacquainted with gambling I always let him win in the beginning to make him bold. I, too, was for a time successful in the game of life, but now I know tat those who win at first are going to lose more in the end than those who are frightened away by losing their first stake. Life uses the same tricks we use. I have been caught in the snare which I thought I had invented.”
Turning to the Brahman, bent with age and care, he continued: “the whiteness of your beard and the wrinkles in your face indicate that you, too, have found the sweets of life bitter. I suppose you are not less pessimistic than myself.”
A beam of sunshine appeared in the Brahman’s eyes and his gait became erect like that of a king. “no, sir,” he replied, “I have no experience like yours. I tasted the sweets of life when I was young, many, many years ago. I have sported in the fields with my playmates. I have loved and was beloved, buy I loved with a pure heart and there was no bitterness in the sweets which I tasted. My experience came when I saw the sufferings of life. The world is full of sorrow and the end of life is death. I have been sad at heart ever since, but when I think of Buddha who has come into the world and teaches us how to escape suffering I rejoice; I know now that the bitterness of life is sweet to him whose soul has found rest in Nirvana.”
“If life is full of bitterness, how can one escape suffering?” asked Chandra.
And Sudatta replied: “we cannot escape pain, but we can avoid evil, and it is by avoiding evil we enter Nirvana.”
When the two men came to the Vihara at Rajagaha they approached the Blessed Buddha with clasped hands, saying: “Receive us, o lord, among thy disciples; permit us to be hearers of thy doctrines; and let us take refuge in the Buddha, the truth, and the community of Buddha’s followers.”
And the Holy One, who reads the secret thoughts of men’s minds, addressed Chandra, the gambler, asking him: “Knowest thou, o Chandra, the doctrine of the Blessed One?”
Chandra said: “I do. The blessed One teaches that life is misery.”
And the Lord replied: “life is misery indeed, but eh Tathagata hast come into the world to point out the way of salvation. His aim is to teach men how to rescue themselves from misery. If thou art anxious for deliverance from render selfishness, practice self-discipline, and work out thy salvation with diligence.”
“I came to the Blessed One to find peace,” said the gambler, “not to undertake work.”
Said the Blessed One: “only by energetic work can peace be found; death can be conquered only by resignation of self, and only by strenuous effort is eternal bliss attained. Thou regardest the world as evil ruined by his own devices. The happiness that thou seekest is the pleasure of sin without sin’s evil consequences. Men who have not observed proper discipline, and how’ve not gained treasure in their youth, lie sighing for the past. There is evil, indeed; but the evil of which thou complainest is but the justice of the law of karma. What a man has sown that shall he reap.”
Then the Blessed One turned to the Brahman, and, recoginising the sterling worth of his character, addressed him: “Verily, o the Tathagata better than thy fellow-traveller. He who makes the distress of others his own, quickly understands the illusion of self. He is like the lotus flower that grows in the water, yet does the water not we it’s petals. The pleasures of this world allure him not, and he will have no cause for regret.”
Searching with a friendly eye the benevolent features of this Brahman visitor, the Buddha continued: “Thou art walking in the noble path of righteousness and thou delightest in the purity of thy work. If thou wishest to cure the diseases of the heart, as thou understandest how to heal the sores of the body, let people see the fruits that grow from the seeds of loving kindness. When they but know the bliss of a right mind they will soon enter the path and reach that state of steadiness and tranquility in which they are above the pleasure and pain, above sin and temptation. Go, then, back to thy home and announce to thy friends, who are subject to suffering, that he whose mind is free from the illusions of sinful desires will overcome the miseries of life. Spread goodness in words and deeds everywhere. In a spirit of universal kindness be ready to serve others with help and instruction; live happily, then, among the ailing; among men who are greedy, remain free from greed; among men who hate, dwell free from hatred; and those who witness the blessings of a holy life will follow thee in the path of salvation.”
Chandra listened with rapture to the words of the Blessed One and exclaimed: “Happy is Sudatta! Oh! That I could understand the doctrine of the Tathagata has only one taste, the state of salvation.
The eyes of the gambler were opened, and his pessimism melted away in the sun of Buddha’s doctrines. “o lord,” said he, “I long for that higher life to which the noble path of righteousness leads.”
Said the Blessed One: “as sea faring men are bent on reaching the haven of their destination, so all life presses forward to find the bliss of enlightenment, and enlightenment alone can point out the way of righteousness that leads to Nirvana.”
The gambler folded his hands and said to the Buddha: “wilt thou persuade the Brahman, my fellow-traveller, to take me to his home, where I am willing to enter his service that I may learn from him and attain to the same bliss?”
The Blessed One replied: “Let Sudatta the Brahman, do as he sees fit.”
Sudatta, the Brahman, expressed his willingness to receive Chandra as a helpmate in his work, and added: “Anurudha the philosopher taught me the path of the Dharma, which proclaims: ‘let evil deeds be covered by good deeds; he who was reckless and becomes sober, will brighten up the world like the moon when freed from clouds.'”
Seeing that the hearts of all present were ready to receive the good tidings of salvation, the Blessed One instructed them and roused and gladdened them with religious discourse, and having explained the doctrine, he concluded his sermon saying: “And this is the sign that you have reached the goal which is the glorious Nirvana: No accident will ever be able to disturb your mind, for, in spite of the world’s unrest, your heart will be like a still and smooth lake. All attachment to Self has died out; it has become like a withered branch that no longer bears fruit. But your sympathy goes out to every creature that suffers, and you are untiring in good works. Your hear beats higher; it expands and is roused to a nobler life; for it is inspired by the thoughts of the Buddha; your mind is clearer, for now comprehends the length, and breadth, and the depth of existence, recognizing the one goal that life must seek – Nirvana.”
Carus, Paul. Nirvâna: A Story of Buddhist Psychology. Open Court, 1896.