A Philosopher's lookat Buddhism

(Jacques Maritain, in An Introduction to Philosophy,Sheed and Ward, 1947, pp.33-37)

From the sixth century onwards new schools (of philosophy)arose in India, some Orthodox, others heterodox. Of these the principalwas that founded by Cakya-Muni, surnamed the Buddha (the enlightened, thesage). Buddhism, a doctrine essentially negative and solvent, directed,moreover, to practice rather than to speculation, may be regarded as thecorruption and dissolution of the Brahman philosophy.

Substituting for that which is that which passes away,refusing to say that anything does or does not exist, and admitting onlya succession of impermanent forms without fixed foundation or absoluteprinciple, in other words subordinating being to what is known as becomingor fieri, it showed, at the very time at which in Greece Heraclitus formulatedthe philosophy of flux, all the characteristics of a perfect evolutionarysystem, and, if it declared the existence of God, as of a substantial selfand an immortal soul, unknowable (agnosticism), its real tendencywas to deny the existence of God (atheism), and to substitute forsubstance of any kind a stream or flux, regarded indeed as itself real,of forms or phenomena (phenomenalism) ?Everything is empty, everythingunsubstantial? was a saying of Buddha. 

Hence for Buddhism metempsychosis (i.e. re-incarnation-Ed.) consists in a continuous chain of thoughts and feelings (a streamof consciousness, as we should term it today) passing from one mode ofexistence to another in virtue of a sort of urge towards life, due itselfto the desire to live: it is desire which is the cause of existence and?we are what we have thought.?.

At the same time, the teaching of deliverance from suffering,which in Buddhism, even more than in Brahmanism, dominates the entire system,assumes a different and even more radical form. Evil is no longer merelythe possession of individual or personal existence; it is existence itself: it is evil to be, and the desire of existence is the root of all suffering.The wise man must therefore destroy in himself man's natural longing forexistence and for beatitude, the fullness of being; he must abandon allhope and extinguish every desire. He will thus attain the state of emptinessor total indetermination called nirvana  (literally nakedness,metaphorically immortality, refreshment, the farther bank - theterm, in itself indefinite, was never defined by Buddha), which will deliverhim from the evil of existence and the yoke of transmigration, and which,in the logical consequence of Buddhist principles, must be regarded asthe annihilation of the soul itself. For since the soul is only the chainor current of thoughts and feelings which derive their existence from thedesire to be, to extinguish that desire is to extinguish the soul.

This nirvana is the goal for whose attainment Buddhismmade use of the ascetic practices which it took over with considerablemitigation from Brahmanism, also of its moral code - which is thus directed,not to God, but to a species of mystical nothingness as its last end. Wehere understand moral codes in a very wide sense as meaning a code of behaviour.If the expression be taken as implying moral obligation, whose ultimatebasis is the Christian doctrine of God, the transcendent Creator, we mustconclude that Buddhism, as indeed all the Oriental religions, Indian orChinese, has no moral code. Moreover, the source and ultimate measure ofBuddhist ethics is man, not God. If it rejected the system of castes whichexaggerated the demands of social order and divided man almost into distinctspecies, it was only to dissolve social order of any kind in an absoluteequality and individualism. And though it prescribed a universal benevolence(which extended even to prohibiting the slaughter of animals and to a compulsoryvegetarianism), almsgiving, pardon of injuries, and non-resistance to thewicked, its motive was not love of one's neighbor as such, whose positivegood and (by implication) existence we are bound to will, but to escapesuffering to oneself by extinguishing all action and energy in a kind ofhumanitarian ecstasy. Buddhism is, therefore, a proof that gentleness andpity, when they are not regulated by reason and dictated by love, can deformhuman nature as much as violence, since they are then manifestations ofcowardice, not of charity.  This doctrine of despair is not only aheresy from the point of view of Brahmanism; it is an intellectual plagueto humanity, because it proceeds from the negation of reason. It is not,therefore, surprising that we find in it the majority of the fundamentalerrors by which contemporary attacks on reason are inspired. If at thepresent day it has found a warm welcome among certain circles in Europe,it is because all those who hope to derive from humanitarianism a moralcode of human kindness for the acceptance of an atheistic society are alreadyimplicitly Buddhists.

Buddhism is a philosophy, agnostic and atheistic, whichnevertheless usurps the social and ritual functions of a religion. It isas a religion that it has won the allegiance of so many millions. Howeverin proportion as it has secured wide acceptance, Buddhism has ceased tobe atheistic, only to fall into the most degraded conception of deity.Popular Buddhism as practised today in many parts of Asia where, to adaptitself to existing beliefs, it has assumed the most varied shapes, is nothingmore than a form of idolatry, totally different from philosophic Buddhism.In certain other schools to which Brahmanism gave birth schools recognizedas "orthodox" we find, on the other hand, a tendency towardsthe normal distinction between philosophy and religion.