The Bodhisatta's Search
Alara and Uddaka were renowned as teachers among the Brahmans,
and there was no one in those days who surpassed them in learning
and philosophical knowledge.
The Bodhisatta went to them and sat at their feet. He listened to
their doctrines of the atman or self, which is the ego of the
mind and the doer of all doings. He learned their views of the
transmigration of sou
s and of the law of karma; how the souls of
bad men had to suffer by being reborn in men of low caste, in
animals, or in hell, while those who purified themselves by
libations, by sacrifices, and by self-mortification would become
kings, or Brahmans, or devas, so as to rise higher and higher in
the grades of existence. He studied their incantations and
offerings and the methods by which they attained deliverance of
the ego from material existence in states of ecstasy.
Alara said: "What is that self which perceives the actions of the
five roots of mind, touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing? What
is that which is active in the two ways of motion, in the hands
and in the feet? The problem of the soul appears in the
expressions 'I say,' 'I know and perceive,' 'I come,' and
'I go' or 'I will stay here.' Thy soul is not thy body; it is
not thy eye, not thy ear, not thy nose, not thy tongue, nor is it
thy mind. The I is the one who feels the touch in thy body. The
I is the smeller in the nose, the taster in the tongue, the
seer in the eye, the hearer in the ear, and the thinker in the
mind. The I moves thy hands and thy feet. The I is thy soul.
Doubt in the existence of the soul is irreligious, and without
discerning this truth there is no way of salvation. Deep
speculation will easily involve the mind; it leads to confusion
and unbelief; but a purification of the soul leads to the way of
escape. True deliverance is reached by removing from the crowd
and leading a hermit's life, depending entirely on alms for food.
Putting away all desire and clearly recognizing the non-existence
of matter, we reach a state of perfect emptiness. Here we find
the condition of immaterial fife. As the munja grass when freed
from its horny case, as a sword when drawn from its scabbard, or
as the wild bird escaped from its prison, so the ego, liberating
itself from all limitations, finds perfect release. This is true
deliverance, but those only who will have deep faith will learn."
The Bodhisatta found no satisfaction in these teachings. He
replied: "People are in bondage, because they have not yet
removed the idea of the ego.
"The thing and its quality are different in our thought, but not
in reality. Heat is different from fire in our thought, but you
cannot remove heat from fire in reality. You say that you can
remove the qualities and leave the thing, but if you think your
theory to the end, you will find that this is not so.
"Is not man an organism of many aggregates? Are we not composed
of various attributes? Man consists of the material form, of
sensation, of thought, of dispositions, and, lastly, of
understanding. That which men call the ego when they say 'I am'
is not an entity behind the attributes; it originates by their
co-operation. There is mind; there is sensation and thought, and
there is truth; and truth is mind when it walks in the path of
righteousness. But there is no separate ego-soul outside or
behind the thought of man. He who believes that the ego is a
distinct being has no correct conception of things. The very
search for the atman is wrong; it is a wrong start and it will
lead you in a false direction.
"How much confusion of thought comes from our interest in self,
and from our vanity when thinking 'I am so great,' or 'I have
done this wonderful deed?' The thought of thine ego stands
between thy rational nature and truth; banish it, and then wilt
thou see things as they are. He who thinks correctly will rid
himself of ignorance and acquire wisdom. The ideas 'I am' and
'I shall be' or 'I shall not be' do not occur to a clear
"Moreover, if our ego remains, how can we attain true
deliverance? If the ego is to be reborn in any of the three
worlds, be it in hell, upon earth, or be it even in heaven, we
shall meet again and again the same inevitable doom of sorrow. We
shall remain chained to the wheel of individuality and shall be
implicated in egotism and wrong.
"All combination is subject to separation, and we cannot escape
birth, disease, old age, and death. Is this a final escape?"
Said Uddaka: "Consider the unity of things. Things are not their
parts, yet they exist. The members and organs of thy body are not
thine ego, but thine ego possesses all these parts. What, for
instance, is the Ganges? Is the sand the Ganges? Is the water the
Ganges? Is the hither bank the Ganges? Is the farther bank the
Ganges? The Ganges is a mighty river and it possesses all these
several qualities. Exactly so is our ego".
But the Bodhisatta replied: "Not so, sir! If we except the water,
the sand, the hither bank and the farther bank, where can we find
any Ganges? In the same way I observe the activities of man in
their harmonious union, but there is no ground for an ego outside
The Brahman sage, however, insisted on the existence of the ego,
saying: "The ego is the doer of our deeds. How can there be karma
without a self as its performer? Do we not see around us the
effects of karma? What makes men different in character, station,
possessions, and fate? It is their karma, and karma includes
merit and demerit. The transmigration of the soul is subject to
its karma. We inherit from former existences the evil effects of
our evil deeds and the good effects of our good deeds. If that
were not so, how could we be different?"
The Tathagata meditated deeply on the problems of transmigration
and karma, and found the truth that lies in them.
"The doctrine of karma," he said, "is undeniable, but thy theory
of the ego has no foundation.
"Like everything else in nature, the life of man is subject to
the law of cause and effect. The present reaps what the past has
sown, and the future is the product of the present. But there is
no evidence of the existence of an immutable ego-being, of a self
which remains the same and migrates from body to body. There is
rebirth but no transmigration.
"Is not this individuality of mine a combination, material as
well as mental? Is it not made up of qualities that sprang into
being by a gradual evolution? The five roots of sense-perception
in this organism have come from ancestors who performed these
functions. The ideas which I think, came to me partly from others
who thought them, and partly they rise from combinations of the
ideas in my own mind. Those who have used the same sense-organs,
and have thought the same ideas before I was composed into this
individuality of mine are my previous existences; they are my
ancestors as much as the I of yesterday is the father of the
I of to-day, and the karma of my past deeds conditions the fate
of my present existence.
"Supposing there were an atman that performs the actions of the
senses, then if the door of sight were torn down and the eye
plucked out, that atman would be able to peep through the larger
aperture and see the forms of its surroundings better and more
clearly than before. It would be able to hear sounds better if
the ears were torn away; smell better if the nose were cut off;
taste better if the tongue were pulled out; and feel better if
the body were destroyed.
"I observe the preservation and transmission of character; I
perceive the truth of karma, but see no atman whom your doctrine
makes the doer of your deeds. There is rebirth without the
transmigration of a self. For this atman, this self, this ego in
the 'I say' and in the 'I will' is an illusion. If this self
were a reality, how could there be an escape from selfhood? The
terror of hell would be infinite, and no release could be
granted. The evils of existence would not be due to our ignorance
and wrong-doing, but would constitute the very nature of our
And the Bodhisatta went to the priests officiating in the
temples. But the gentle mind of the Sakyamuni was offended at the
unnecessary cruelty performed on the altars of the gods. He said:
"Ignorance only can make these men prepare festivals and hold
vast meetings for sacrifices. Far better to revere the truth than
try to appease the gods by shedding blood.
"What love can a man possess who believes that the destruction of
life will atone for evil deeds? Can a new wrong expiate old
wrongs? And can the slaughter of an innocent victim blot out the
evil deeds of mankind? This is practising religion by the neglect
of moral conduct.
"Purify your hearts and cease to kill; that is true religion.
"Rituals have no efficacy; prayers are vain repetitions; and
incantations have no saving power. But to abandon covetousness
and lust, to become free from evil passions, and to give up all
hatred and ill-will, that is the right sacrifice and the true