The Buddhist Movement in England
Theosophist, May, 1883
The frequent publication of books on the subject in England, of recent years, has evidenced the strong interest now felt by the cultivated classes in the study of Buddhism. That this interest grows rather than declines is plainly indicated by the following report of a meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society in London, held quite recently with distinguished people present, which we reprint from an English paper:
At the last meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society, Sir Bartle Frere, president, in the chair, His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, K.G., Sir Thomas Brassey, M.P., and Mr. Cassels were elected resident members, and Her (?) Highness the Maharanee of Oodeypore, Lieutenant-Colonel C. Maclean Smith, and Mr. W. M. Ramsay, non-resident members. Mr. Arthur Lillie, M.R.A.S., read a paper “On the Buddhism of Ceylon,” in which he combated the idea advanced by a section of writers, headed by Mr. Rhys Davids, that the ancient books of Ceylon teach nothing but annihilation, non-existence of the soul, and atheism. He cited the “Tevigga-Sutta,” in which Buddha is questioned on the subject of that union with Brahma which it was the great object of the Brahmin ascetic, in Buddha’s day, to gain. Buddha, instead of answering that the Supreme Brahma is non-existent, and that those who sought union with him were unwise, proclaimed distinctly the contrary proposition. Mr. Lillie then urged that the charges of annihilation, etc., brought against Buddha by Mr. Rhys Davids were founded on an erroneous reading of the Buddhist ideas about Karma and the Skandhas, These, he stated, cease not on the death of the individual, but on his attaining spiritual awakenment. A passage in the Brahma “Jala Sutta,” much relied on by Mr. Davids, was then compared with its context, and it was shown that the doctrine of the annihilation of human beings was pronounced as heretical as that of future conscious existence. Mr. Lillie, in conclusion, expressed the opinion that the northern and southern systems should be compared together, as by these means alone, the archaic and true Buddhism could be detached from its later accretion.
This paragraph correctly indicates the antagonism between the views of the two great representatives of Buddhism in modern English literature. Both Mr. Lillie and Mr. Rhys Davids have struggled to divine the real meaning of Buddhism from the exoteric books and papers to which they have had access, and, broadly speaking, Mr. Davids has come to the conclusion that Buddhism must mean to teach annihilation and non-existence of the soul, because it entirely ignores the idea of a personal God, while Mr. Lillie argues that because it certainly does not teach annihilation, but, on the contrary, says a quantity of things that directly relate to a continued existence of the soul in other states of being after this life, therefore in reality it must intend to preach a personal God, however little it may say on the subject.
On these lines this very pretty controversy may go on forever without either party being in the least danger of defeat at the hands of the other. Mr. Lillie will never dig up from Buddhist literature any declaration of the existence of a personal God with which to crush Mr. Davids, and Mr. Davids will never find chapter and verse for his theory about the nihilistic significance of Buddhist doctrine with which to crush Mr. Lillie.
The futility of the argument turns on the groundlessness of the assumption that the question about the existence of a Supreme Being in the sense of an intelligent entity, whether with limbs and features or without, consciously willing the Universe to come into shape and activity out of nothing—has anything really to do with the question whether human souls have a conscious survival after death. We are now concerned, in these few lines, merely with what Buddhism thinks,—not with the tremendous questions involved themselves. And surely Mr. Davids must see if he will look at the matter in that light, that Buddhism cannot deny this life, even on his assumption as to what it thinks about the question of a God. On that assumption the Buddhist believes that without the agency of a God human physical life goes on: then why not human soul life also, on a different plane of being? In the same way surely Mr. Lillie must admit that, right as he certainly is in deducing from Buddhist scriptures the doctrine of continued existence for the higher principles of Man after his physical death, that correct deduction affords him no justification for imputing to Buddha, theories about the Supreme Brahma, which most assuredly he never held.
Meanwhile it is very pleasant to see eminent men in Europe endeavouring to hammer out the meaning of Buddhism, even though they may miss the correct interpretation of several points at first. The only way in which they will solve the problems raised, will be by paying attention to the direct teachings of the Secret Doctrine which are now being given out to the world through the columns of this Magazine for the first time in the history of the subject. It is by the application of these teachings, as a key, to the exoteric Buddhist scriptures that Oriental scholars will be enabled to unlock their real treasures.