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Identity And Non-identity

Kutadanta, the head of the Brahmans in the village of Danamati

having approached the Blessed One respectfully, greeted him and

said: "I am told, O samana, that thou art the Buddha, the Holy

One, the Allknowing, the Lord of the world. But if thou wert the

Buddha, wouldst thou not come like a king in all thy glory and


Said the Blessed One: "
hine eyes are holden. If the eye of thy

mind were undimmed thou couldst see the glory and the power of


Said Kutadanta: "Show me the truth and I shall see it. But thy

doctrine is without consistency. If it were consistent, it would

stand; but as it is not, it will pass away."

The Blessed One replied: "The truth will never pass away."

Kutadanta said: "I am told that thou teachest the law, yet thou

tearest down religion. Thy disciples despise rites and abandon

immolation, but reverence for the gods can be shown only by

sacrifices. The very nature of religion consists in worship and


Said the Buddha: "Greater than the immolation of bullocks is the

sacrifice of self. He who offers to the gods his evil desires

will see the uselessness of slaughtering animals at the altar.

Blood has no cleansing power, but the eradication of lust will

make the heart pure. Better than worshiping gods is obedience to

the laws of righteousness."

Kutadanta, being of a religious disposition and anxious about his

fate after death, had sacrificed countless victims. Now he saw

the folly of atonement by blood. Not yet satisfied, however, with

the teachings of the Tathagata, Kutadanta continued: "Thou

believest, O Master, that beings are reborn; that they migrate

in the evolution of life; and that subject to the law of karma we

must reap what we sow. Yet thou teachest the non-existence of the

soul! Thy disciples praise utter self-extinction as the highest

bliss of Nirvana. If I am merely a combination of the sankharas,

my existence will cease when I die. If I am merely a compound of

sensations and ideas and desires, wither can I go at the

dissolution of the body?"

Said the Blessed One: "O Brahman, thou art religious and earnest.

Thou art seriously concerned about thy soul. Yet is thy work in

vain because thou art lacking in the one thing that is needful.

"There is rebirth of character, but no transmigration of a self.

Thy thought-forms reappear, but there is no ego-entity

transferred. The stanza uttered by a teacher is reborn in the

scholar who repeats the words.

"Only through ignorance and delusion do men indulge in the dream

that their souls are separate and self-existent entities.

"Thy heart, O Brahman, is cleaving still to self; thou art

anxious about heaven but thou seekest the pleasures of self in

heaven, and thus thou canst not see the bliss of truth and the

immortality of truth.

"Verily I say unto thee: The Blessed One has not come to teach

death, but to teach life, and thou discernest not the nature of

living and dying.

"This body will be dissolved and no amount of sacrifice will save

it. Therefore, seek thou the life that is of the mind. Where self

is, truth cannot be; yet when truth comes, self will disappear.

Therefore, let thy mind rest in the truth; propagate the truth,

put thy whole will in it, and let it spread. In the truth thou

shalt live forever.

"Self is death and truth is life. The cleaving to self is a

perpetual dying, while moving in the truth is partaking of

Nirvana which is life everlasting."

Kutadanta said: "Where, O venerable Master, is Nirvana?"

"Nirvana is wherever the precepts are obeyed," replied the

Blessed One.

"Do I understand thee aright," rejoined the Brahman, "that

Nirvana is not a place, and being nowhere it is without reality?"7

"Thou dost not understand me aright," said the Blessed One, "Now

listen and answer these questions: Where does the wind dwell?"

"Nowhere," was the reply.

Buddha retorted: "Then, sir, there is no such thing as wind."

Kutadanta made no reply; and the Blessed One asked again: "Answer

me, O Brahman, where does wisdom dwell? Is wisdom a locality?"

"Wisdom has no allotted dwelling-place," replied Kutadanta.

Said the Blessed One: "Meanest thou that there is no wisdom, no

enlightenment, no righteousness, and no salvation, because

Nirvana is not a locality? As a great and mighty wind which

passeth over the world in the heat of the day, so the Tathagata

comes to blow over the minds of mankind with the breath of his

love, so cool, so sweet, so calm, so delicate; and those

tormented by fever assuage their suffering and rejoice at the

refreshing breeze."

Said Kutadanta: "I feel, O Lord, that thou proclaimest a great

doctrine, but I cannot grasp it. Forbear with me that I ask

again: Tell me, O Lord, if there be no atman, how can there be

immortality? The activity of the mind passeth, and our thoughts

are gone when we have done thinking."

Buddha replied: "Our thinking is gone, but our thoughts continue.

Reasoning ceases, but knowledge remains."

Said Kutadanta: "How is that? Is not reasoning and knowledge the


The Blessed One explained the distinction by an illustration: "It

is as when a man wants, during the night, to send a letter, and,

after having Ids clerk called, has a lamp lit, and gets the

letter written. Then, when that has been done, he extinguishes

the lamp. But though the writing has been finished and the light

has been put out the letter is still there. Thus does reasoning

cease and knowledge remain; and in the same way mental activity

ceases, but experience, wisdom, and all the fruits of our acts


Kutadanta continued: "Tell me, O Lord, pray tell me, where, if

the sankharas are dissolved, is the identity of my self. If my

thoughts are propagated, and if my soul migrates, my thoughts

cease to be my thoughts and my soul ceases to be my soul. Give me

an illustration, but pray, O Lord, tell me, where is the identity

of my self?"

Said the Blessed One: "Suppose a man were to light a lamp; would

it burn the night through?"

"Yes, it might do so," was the reply.

"Now, is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the

night as in the second?"

Kutadanta hesitated. He thought "Yes, it is the same flame," but

fearing the complications of a hidden meaning, and trying to be

exact, he said: "No, it is not."

"Then," continued the Blessed One, "there are flames, one in the

first watch and the other in the second watch."

"No, sir," said Kutadanta. "In one sense it is not the same

flame, but in another sense it is the same flame. It burns the

same kind of oil, it emits the same land of light, and it serves

the same purpose."

"Very well," said the Buddha, "and would you call those flames

the same that have burned yesterday and are burning now in the

same lamp, filled with the same kind of oil, illuminating the

same room?"

"They may have been extinguished during the day," suggested


Said the Blessed One: "Suppose the flame of the first watch had

been extinguished during the second watch, would you call it the

same if it burns again in the third watch?"

Replied Kutadanta: "In one sense it is a different flame, in

another it is not."

The Tathagata asked again: "Has the time that elapsed during the

extinction of the flame anything to do with its identity or


"No, sir," said the Brahman, "it has not. There is a difference

and an identity, whether many years elapsed or only one second,

and also whether the lamp has been extinguished in the meantime

or not."

"Well, then, we agree that the flame of to-day is in a certain

sense the same as the flame of yesterday, and in another sense it

is different at every moment. Moreover, the flames of the same

kind, illuminating with equal power the same land of rooms, are

in a certain sense the same."

"Yes, sir," replied Kutadanta.

The Blessed One continued: "Now, suppose there is a man who feels

like thyself, thinks like thyself, and acts like thyself, is he

not the same man as thou?"

"No, sir," interrupted Kutadanta.

Said the Buddha: "Dost thou deny that the same logic holds good

for thyself that holds good for the things of the world?"

Kutadanta bethought himself and rejoined slowly: "No, I do not.

The same logic holds good universally; but there is a peculiarity

about my self which renders it altogether different from

everything else and also from other selves. There may be another

man who feels exactly like me, thinks like me, and acts like me;

suppose even he had the same name and the same kind of

possessions, he would not be myself."

"True, Kutadanta," answered Buddha, "he would not be thyself.

Now, tell me, is the person who goes to school one, and that same

person when he has finished his schooling another? Is it one who

commits a crime, another who is punished by having his hands and

feet cut off?"

"They are the same," was the reply.

"Then sameness is constituted by continuity only?" asked the


"Not only by continuity," said Kutadanta, "but also and mainly by

identity of character."

"Very well," concluded the Buddha, "then thou agreest that

persons can be the same, in the same sense as two flames of the

same kind are called the same; and thou must recognize that in

this sense another man of the same character and product of the

same karma is the same as thou."

"Well, I do," said the Brahman.

The Buddha continued: "And in this same sense alone art thou the

same to-day as yesterday. Thy nature is not constituted by the

matter of which thy body consists, but by thy sankharas, the

forms of the body, of sensations, of thoughts. Thy person is the

combination of the sankharas. Wherever they are, thou art.

Whithersoever they go, thou goest. Thus thou wilt recognize in a

certain sense an identity of thy self, and in another sense a

difference. But he who does not recognize the identity should

deny all identity, and should say that the questioner is no

longer the same person as he who a minute after receives the

answer. Now consider the continuation of thy personality, which

is preserved in thy karma. Dost thou call it death and

annihilation, or fife and continued life?"

"I call it life and continued life," rejoined Kutadanta, "for it

is the continuation of my existence, but I do not care for that

kind of continuation. All I care for is the continuation of self

in the other sense, which makes of every man, whether identical

with me or not, an altogether different person."

"Very well," said Buddha. "This is what thou desirest and this is

the cleaving to self. This is thy error. All compound things are

transitory: they grow and they decay. All compound things are

subject to pain: they will be separated from what they love and

be joined to what they abhor. All compound things lack a self, an

atman, an ego."

"How is that?" asked Kutadanta.

"Where is thy self?" asked the Buddha. And when Kutadanta made no

reply, he continued: "Thy self to which thou cleavest is a

constant change. Years ago thou wast a small babe; then, thou

wast a boy; then a youth, and now, thou art a man. Is there any

identity of the babe and the man? There is an identity in a

certain sense only. Indeed there is more identity between the

flames of the first and the third watch, even though the lamp

might have been extinguished during the second watch. Now which

is thy true self, that of yesterday, that of to-day, or that of

to-morrow, for the preservation of which thou clamorest?"

Kutadanta was bewildered. "Lord of the world," he said, "I see my

error, but I am still confused."

The Tathagata continued: "It is by a process of evolution that

sankharas come to be. There is no sankhara which has sprung into

being without a gradual becoming. Thy sankharas are the product

of thy deeds in former existences. The combination of thy

sankharas is thy self. Wheresoever they are impressed thither thy

self migrates. In thy sankharas thou wilt continue to live and

thou wilt reap in future existences the harvest sown now and in

the past."

"Verily, O Lord," rejoined Kutadanta, "this is not a fair

retribution. I cannot recognize the justice that others after me

will reap what I am sowing now."

The Blessed One waited a moment and then replied: "Is all

teaching in vain? Dost thou not understand that those others are

thou thyself? Thou thyself wilt reap what thou sowest, not


"Think of a man who is ill-bred and destitute, suffering from the

wretchedness of his condition. As a boy he was slothful and

indolent, and when he grew up he had not learned a craft to earn

a living. Wouldst thou say his misery is not the product of his

own action, because the adult is no longer the same person as was

the boy?

"Verily, I say unto thee: Not in the heavens, not in the midst of

the sea, not if thou hidest thyself away in the clefts of the

mountains, wilt thou find a place where thou canst escape the

fruit of thine evil actions.

"At the same time thou art sure to receive the blessings of thy

good actions.

"The man who has long been traveling and who returns home in

safety, the welcome of kinsfolk, friends, and acquaintances

awaits. So, the fruits of his good works bid him welcome who has

walked in the path of righteousness, when he passes over from the

present life into the hereafter."

Kutadanta said: "I have faith in the glory and excellency of thy

doctrines. My eye cannot as yet endure the light; but I now

understand that there is no self, and the truth dawns upon me.

Sacrifices cannot save, and invocations are idle talk. But how

shall I find the path to life everlasting? I know all the Vedas

by heart and have not found the truth."

Said the Buddha: "Learning is a good thing; but it availeth not.

True wisdom can be acquired by practice only. Practise the truth

that thy brother is the same as thou. Walk in the noble path of

righteousness and thou wilt understand that while there is death

in self, there is immortality in truth." 67

Said Kutadanta: "Let me take my refuge in the Blessed One, in the

Dharma, and in the brotherhood. Accept me as thy disciple and let

me partake of the bliss of immortality."