Home/The Repository/Interpreting India to the West

Interpreting India to the West

Statue of Padmasambhava in Rewalsar. Photo by Iryna Rasko / shutterstock


Buddhism, as is well known, has practically disappeared from the land of its origin. The older and more authentic form of the doctrine known as the Hīnayāna, or Little Vehicle, is found to-day chiefly in Ceylon, Burma, and Siam; the less authentic form of the doctrine known as the Mahāyāna, or Great Vehicle, which is less a religion than a system of religions, is found chiefly in Tibet, China, and Japan. Dr. Coomaraswamy has undertaken to give an account of both forms of the doctrine as well as to sketch the development of Buddhist art through the ages. His volume may be found useful by those who wish to get a first rapid impression of a vast and difficult subject. But from this point of view it is only a compilation, and the author does not claim anything more for it. His book, he says, “is designed not as an addition to our already overburdened libraries of information, but as a definite contribution to the philosophy of life.” It is as such that I propose to consider it.

Most learned treatments of Buddhist philosophy in the Occident have a bad twist of some kind, and most popular allusions to the subject may be dismissed as absurd. Dr. Coomaraswamy had a chance to clear up a great deal of misunderstanding. One is disquieted, however, at the very start by his choice of epigraphs from Jacob Boehme, William Blake, Walt Whitman, etc. Perhaps the best way of setting forth what Buddha is would be to show in what respects he is not like the persons whose names appear in this list of epigraphs. The last epigraph from Buddha himself is indeed appropriate, if only as an explanation of the inappropriateness of the list as a whole: “Profound, O Vaccha, is this doctrine, recondite and difficult of comprehension, good, excellent and not to be reached by mere reasoning, subtile and intelligible only to the wise; and it is a hard doctrine for you to learn who belong to another sect … and sit at the feet of another teacher.”

Dr. Coomaraswamy seems at times to hold a brief for Vedantist as opposed to Buddhist teachings. He is at no time, however, a violent partisan of this “other sect,” and the root of the difficulty is not entirely here: it is at least equally in a subtle infidelity not merely to Buddhism, but to the Vedanta itself, and in general to the spirit of ancient India. In this respect his book may be taken as typical of a whole class of books that have purported of recent years to interpret India to the West.

If one wishes to get at the true spirit of ancient India one needs to reflect on the definition of the divine as the “inner check” which so struck Emerson when he came upon it in Colebrooke’s essay on the Vedanta. More than any other this phrase supplies the key to ancient Indian thought; this thought is in general highly astringent, it conceives, that is, of the good not as we do in terms of expansion, but in terms of concentration. It would seem indeed a matter of some importance whether one identifies the “spirit that says no” with God, or, like Faust, identifies this spirit with the devil. The whole passage in which Faust thus glorifies expansion, and which M. Boutroux relates to recent German apologies for war, is in close accord with one side of Jacob Boehme, with whom Dr. Coomaraswamy is fond of comparing Buddha.

Boehme is known to be a chief influence on another of Dr. Coomaraswamy’s favorites, William Blake, in whom the tendency to denounce the restrictive principle as evil and to identify the good with expensive desire reaches a climax. Blake’s saying that “desires suppressed breed pestilence” has, says Dr. Coomaraswamy, been confirmed by psychoanalysis. It is rather odd that, thinking thus, he should wish to write a book on Buddha at all; for more perhaps than any other teacher, ancient or modern, Buddha proceeds on the opposite assumption. Let one read together Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and the Buddhist “Dhammapada” if one wishes to get about the most complete contrast in the history of human thought.

If Buddha was like other ancient Hindu teachers in stressing the inner check, he was unlike them in combining this astringency with an extremely positive temper. In the face of the 62 systems of philosophy current in his time he declared the inanity of metaphysics. He looked with disfavor on those who had “views.” “The Tathāgata (Buddha) has no theories.” One is not to trust anything that is not immediate and experimental. “In this little fathom-long moral frame with its perceptions and imaginings is, I proclaim, the world.”

Here is the Oriental equivalent of the fateful maxim that man is the measure of all things which was debated by the Socratic group and the sophists. It is in general in the Greece of this period that one should seek the true parallels to Buddha, and not among romantics like Blake. In his solution to the critical problem (for that is what is involved in the maxim that man is the measure of all things) the Greek of whom Buddha most reminds one is Aristotle.

Buddha is like Aristotle in his intensely analytical bent; and one may perhaps best clear up certain current confusions about Buddha by comparing this greatest of Eastern analysts with the master analyst of the West. The essentially Buddhistic act is the rigorous tracing of moral cause and effect. It was by an act of analysis, namely, by following the chain of evil, link by link, back to its beginning in ignorance, that Buddha attained supreme enlightenment. In tracing evil to ignorance Buddha is at one with Socrates and Plato, but in refusing therefore to identify the opposite of ignorance, knowledge, with virtue, he agrees with Aristotle. One may know the right, but fail to do it. What stands in the way, says Buddha, is the most subtle and deadly of all the sins — moral indolence, the tendency to drift passively with temperament and desire. Man’s laziness cannot, from the positive point of view, be considered merely an aspect of his ignorance: man is ignorant and lazy.

If moral laziness is for the Buddhist the chief vice, it follows that the opposite is the supreme virtue. A Brahmin once came to Buddha and, remarking that he was in haste, asked Buddha whether he could not summarize his doctrine in one word. Buddha replied that he could and that the one word was strenuousness (appamada). His last charge to his disciples was to practice this virtue unremittingly. A man should cease to drift with the stream of impulse and take himself in hand. “By rousing himself, by strenuousness, by restraint and control the wise man may make for himself an island that no flood can overwhelm.” Appamada may also be rendered vigilance, for the Buddhist agrees with Goethe that “error stands in the same relation to truth as sleeping to waking.” “Strenuous among the slothful,” says Buddha, “awake among the sleepers, the wise man advances like a racer leaving behind the pack.”


If Buddha is positive like Aristotle he is not positive in the more recent sense that has been given to this word in the Occident. Diderot, for example, who represents another aspect of the great expansive movement I have already noticed in Blake, lays down the principle that “everything is experimental in man,” and then argues from this principle that the notion of a double nature in man — on the one had, an element of expansive desire and, on the other, a power of control over this desire, “the civil war in the cave” as he terms it — is “artificial” and to be got rid of if one wishes to be vital and “natural.” Buddha also affirms that everything is experimental in man, but in opposition to Diderot starts with the “civil war in the cave” on the ground that nothing is more experimental: one does not have to take it on authority or tradition but merely to look within.

Buddha seems to have the facts on his side: nothing is so vital and immediate as the act of self-control by which one rises above the temperamental level. To any one who considers the matter coolly the contemporary pragmatist who professes to be all athirst for immediacy and to be satisfied with nothing short of the experimental, and is at the same time for living in a “universe with the lid off,” must needs seem a bit farcical.

The purpose of the strenuous war on impulse and temperament that Buddha urges appears in another brief summary that he once gave of his doctrine: “Sorrow and the release from sorry.” Buddhism is in its essence a psychology of desire in its bearing on happiness and unhappiness. A man’s wisdom or unwisdom is determined by the quality of his desires or, what amounts to the same thing, by his estimate of pleasure and pain. “What fools say is pleasure,” Buddha declares, “that the noble say is pain; what fools say is pain, that the noble know is pleasure. Behold a thing difficult to understand, here the ignorant are confounded.”

If one would be numbered among the noble and at the same time escape from evil, one must put away the desire for the less enduring in favor of the more enduring, and ultimately put away altogether the desire for transient in favor of what is no longer subject to birth and decay. This aspiration to rise above the impermanent is the central aspiration of the Buddhist. For example, even the highest heavens finally pass away, and so desire for heaven is dismissed by him as “low.”

Men have various ways, according to Buddha, of lulling themselves into a false security, of imagining they have attained the permanent when they have not. One of the chief ways is to build up speculatively a world of supposed entities and essences behind the flux. In his disposition to see in such speculations only nesting places for metaphysical conceit Buddha approximates to what would be known in the Occident as extreme nominalism. But because he is averse to “animism” and absolutist metaphysics one must not therefore see in him, with Mrs. Rhys Davids, a sort of precursor of Bergson. If Buddha saw so deeply into the nature of the flux it was only in order to escape it. “Escape from the flux” is indeed one of the definitions of Nirvana (bhavanirodho nibbanam); whereas, not only Bergson, but many others who now pass for philosophers, rejoice in novelty for its own sake, would ask nothing better than to whirl forever on the wheel of change, and have built up into a metaphysic their own intoxication with the future.

If Buddha will not hear of a soul or self in the sense of a metaphysical entity, he takes as his starting point, as we have seen, the psychological fact that the philosopher of the flux is seeking to ignore — the presence, namely, in man not merely of one but of two selves and the conflict between them (“the civil war in the cave”), the opposition as one may say between an element of change known experimentally as vital control (frein vital). The escape from sorrow can come only as a result of the strenuous exercise of the principle of control. No man and no god can be strenuous for another. Salvation by faith appears, and in very extravagant forms, among the Mahayanists, but all that is meant in the older doctrine by faith in Buddha is faith to “enter the path.” “Self is the lord of self. Who else can be the lord?” “You yourself must make the effort. The Buddhas are only teachers.”

Buddha is evidently at the furthest remove from us. We are encouraging the individual to shift responsibility — especially upon society. Government is now expected, as some one has phrased it, to put wings on everybody. Wings, if wings there are to be, must, according to Buddha, be of one’s one growing. No one has ever brought home responsibility more sternly to the individual, not merely for what he is to be, but for what he is. The law of karma, in virtue of which Buddha thus extends responsibility backwards as well as forwards, is, he warns us, “unthinkable”; it must be perceived and can be perceived completely only by a Buddha. Even to the non-Buddhist, however, glimpses may be vouchsafed into the dark backward of time on the attainment of supernormal memory. A man may then perceive, in some measure at least, how he has reaped the fruits of his own sowing through successive births.

Since a man must look to himself for salvation, let him cherish himself — the self that exercises control. To be thus self-regarding, says Deussen, echoing a Mahayanist charge against the older doctrine, is to be selfish. The same charge holds in any case against Aristotle, for whom also the final motive in ethics is true self-love. That the word “self” is ambiguous is undeniable. The author of a recent book on Ibsen asserts that the lines “This above all, to thine own self be true,” etc., anticipate our modern gospel of self-expression; but it should be clear from the context that Polonius is a decayed Aristotelian and not a precursor of Ibsen.

What both Buddha and Aristotle understand by self is the permanent self. Anything in a man that is impermanent, says Buddha, that is here today and gone tomorrow, can not properly be called a self; and he carries through unflinchingly his program of putting aside the less permanent in favor of the more permanent. To be a lover of one’s self in the Buddhist sense turns out so far as the ego is concerned to be selfless. Buddha does not encourage any maceration of the flesh, but the dying to the ordinary self that he recommends goes at least as far as the most austere Christianity. The joy of not saying “I am,” on which Buddha is so fond of dwelling, will always be a very cryptic joy to the worldling. The Occidental, indeed, is inclined to doubt whether, when Buddha has finished purifying the self of impermanence, anything remains.

The Buddhist himself refuses to discuss metaphysically what is left after the “extinction” or “going out” (the literal meaning of Nirvana) of the three deadly sins — lust, ill-will, and delusion. But on Nirvana as a psychological fact, a matter not of future but of present experience, he has much to say. Nothing is more foreign to his temper than to look before and after, and pine for what is not. Professor Rhys Davids, who has spent a lifetime in close contact with the original documents, insists on the “exuberant optimism” of the early Buddhists. The phrase would seem to call for some explanation.
The true Buddhist, like the true Christian, takes a gloomy view of the unconverted man; but, though holding that life quantitatively is bad, he is, regarding a certain quality of life, unmistakably buoyant. Herein he differs from the Stoic with whom he has been compared. Though keenly analytic, he is not a rationalist, but an enthusiast. His enthusiasm, however, is not of the emotional type with which we are familiar, but of the type that has been defined as exalted peace; for to pass from the less permanent to the more permanent is to pass from the less peaceful to the more peaceful.

The problem of happiness and the problem of peace are found at the last to be inseparable. One should grant the Buddhist his Nirvana if one is willing to grant the Christian his peace that passeth understanding. Peace, as Buddha conceives it, is an active and even an ecstatic thing, the reward, not of passiveness, but of the utmost effort. “If one man conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men,” he says, “and if another conquer himself, he is the greater conqueror.” Of him who is victorious in this warfare it is written: “His thought is quiet, quiet are his word and deed, when he has obtained freedom by true wisdom, when he has thus become a quiet man.” Buddha himself seems to speak from an immeasurable depth of calm, a calm which is without the slightest trace of languor.


We are at present very much taken up with schemes for promoting peace among men collectively, at the same time that we hold a philosophy of life that tends to develop in men individually the utmost degree of psychic restlessness. Give a bootblack half the universe, according to Carlyle, and he will soon be quarreling with the owner of the other half. He will if he is a very temperamental bootblack. The Buddhist therefore takes hold of the problem at this end; like Aristotle he looks upon the “infinite” of expansive desire which is glorified by Blake and the romanticists as bad, and so seeks to set bounds to the reaching out of the ordinary or temperamental self for more and ever for more. The true drama of war and peace, as he views it, is enacted in the breast of the little “fathom-long” creature; whatever prevails there extends in widening circles into society. All the other forms of war are reflections, near or remote, of “the civil war in the cave.”

The practical workings of Buddhism in this matter of war and peace may be illustrated interestingly from Indian history. About 273 B.C. Asoka, grandson of that Chandragupta who defeated in the Punjab and drove back the Macedonian garrisons left by Alexander the Great, succeeded to a realm more extensive than modern British India. He had it in his power to drench the world in blood. He actually made a beginning — and then came the conversion to Buddhism.

The result may be told in his own words; for a number of the edicts which he caused to be engraved on rocks or pillars throughout his vast empire still remain. In one of his rock edicts he tells of his “profound sorrow” at the hundreds of thousands who had been slain in his war on the Kalingas as well as at the misery that had been brought upon a multitude of noncombatants. “If a hundredth or a thousandth part of these were now to suffer the same fate it would be matter of regret to his Majesty.”

A mighty emperor who not only repented of his lust of dominion, but had his repentance cut into the rock for the instruction of future ages — this under existing circumstances is something to ponder on. In his own words, Asoka wished to substitute for the reverberation of the war drum the reverberation of the law of righteousness. He labored so effectively for some 30 years to extend the faith that his role in Buddhism is often compared to that of Constantine in Christianity.

The comparison suggested by his personal character is with Marcus Aurelius. The difference between the Buddhist and the Stoic temper appears in the last word of a sentence in the same Kalinga edict from which I have just quoted: “His Majesty desires that all animate beings should have security, self-control, peace of mind, and joyousness.” The practical and positive spirit of the Sakya sage survived in India at least to the time of Asoka. “Let small and great exert themselves,” he says. “Let all joy be in effort.” So far as we can judge at this distance, Asoka’s life was a miracle of effort in every sense of the word, but the effort that he especially prized, as he tells us, was inner effort, the effort that is shown in meditation.

To be strenuous in Buddha’s sense is, as a matter of fact, to meditate. Here again one should observe the parallel to Aristotle. The end, according to Aristotle, is the chief thing of all, and the end of ends is happiness. One becomes happy only as one moves from the changeful towards the peaceful and the permanent, and this ascent can be accomplished only by effort according to the special law of man’s nature, only, that is, by right meditation; so that Aristotle’s final definition of happiness is a “contemplative working.”

Mediaeval Christianity rightly recognized the kinship between Aristotle’s “life of vision” and its own ideal. If Jesus preferred Mary to Martha, it was not because Mary was more stagnant than Martha, but because she was more meditative and therefore more peaceful. Buddha is more exclusively preoccupied with meditation than Aristotle and carries it further. Buddha indeed may be defined as a very unemotional person who put an analytical keenness that reminds one of Aristotle into the service of a type of religions insight that, tested by its fruits, reminds one of Christianity.

For Buddhism and Christianity, which are often so disconcertingly far apart on the doctrinal side, confirm one another in practice. According to Saint Paul the “fruits of the spirit” are “love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control.” According to Asoka, these fruits are “compassion, liberality, truth, purity, gentleness, and saintliness.” Asoka’s list may be less perfect than that of Paul, but it surely points in the same direction.


I have been dwelling so much on Buddha’s idea of strenuousness or spiritual exertion because we shall thus best put on our guard against the Western tendency to convert this extraordinarily alert and masculine figure into a heavy-eyed, pessimistic dreamer. Mr. Chesterton, for example, invites us to consider the contrast between the sheer inertia of the Buddhist saint and the devouring vitality of the Christian saint as the two types are represented in art. “The Buddhist,” he says, “is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”

There are no doubt saints and saints. A few years ago the London papers published a dispatch from India to the following effect: “A new saint has appeared in the Swat Valley. The police are after him.” But a saint, whether Buddhist or Christian, who knows his business as a saint is rightly meditative and in direct proportion to the depth of his meditation is the depth of his peace. According to an authority that Mr. Chesterton is bound to respect, the kingdom of heaven is within us. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Chesterton explain how the saint is going to find that which is within by “staring with a frantic intentness outwards.” Not being able, like many others, to distinguish between religion and romanticism, Mr. Chesterton has succeeded in maligning at the same time both Buddhism and Christianity.

If we keep in mind the Buddhistic or Aristotelian idea of meditation, we shall also be put on our guard against Dr. Coomaraswamy’s perversion of his subject of which I spoke at the outset, and which is also in its way a romantic perversion. He does not discriminate sufficiently between meditation and pseudo-meditation, between genuine philosophy and religion and the primitivistic parody of philosophy and religion. “The mysterious path leads inwards,” says Novalis — but fails to add that there is in the inner life itself an all-important parting of the ways. On the one hand is the ascending path of insight and discrimination. Those who take it may be termed the spiritual athletes. On the other hand is the descending path towards the sub-rational followed by those who court the confused revery that comes from the breaking down of barriers and the blurring of distinctions and who are ready to forego purpose in favor of “spontaneity”; and these may be termed the cosmic loafers.

Contrast the “vision” of a Dante, with its clear-cut scale of moral values from the peak of heaven to the pit of hell, with the “vision” of a Walt Whitman (in his “Song of Myself”) in which not merely men and women, good, bad, and indifferent, but “elder, mullein, and pokeweed,” are all viewed on the same level in virtue of what the pantheist is pleased to call love. Whitman’s line, “Objects gross and the unseen soul are one,” which Dr. Coomaraswamy quotes with approval, is almost inconceivably remote in spirit from early Buddhism or any philosophy of the inner check. Pantheistic revery, with its relaxation of control and its running together of the planes of being, has developed in the last century or so in the Occident into a vast system of sham spirituality.

Diffusive revery of this kind may be very poetical and artistic and has no doubt a place on the recreative side of life; but as a substitute for firm masculine purpose, for work, according to either the human or the natural law, it is simply debilitating. Nothing is more alien in any case to the true spirit of Buddha. Dr. Coomaraswamy, admitting as much, concludes that Buddha was only a psychologist and not a “mystic” like Jesus — and Nietzsche; for we learn elsewhere in his volume that Nietzsche was only the “latest of the mystics.” These weird collocations of names, which abound in a whole theosophical literature that has been appearing of late years, seem to appeal to a certain type of half-educated person who wishes to enjoy a sense of vast spirituality with a minimum expenditure of intellect and moral effort.

Something may, as a matter of fact, be said for Dr. Coomaraswamy’s idea that a general mobilization of the sages is now needed as an offset to other forms of mobilizing that have been in progress in the Occident; but here, if anywhere, severe scrutiny should be exercised over the quality of the recruits. Otherwise, we shall presently see, as in Dr. Coomaraswamy’s book, the tremendously strenuous Buddha lined up with the cosmic loafer, Walt Whitman, and Nietzsche enrolled with Jesus among the “mystics.”

It is well that India, after her ancient wont, should “let the legions thunder past and plunge in thought again,” but her broodings are not likely to be much avail if divorced from the keen discrimination that is so conspicuous in her greatest teacher. Hindus may still exist who are in the true line of descent from the spiritual athletes of their race, but in that case they are giving no sign of themselves to the outer world. Those who are giving sign of themselves reveal an affinity with a type very familiar to the Occident — the aesthete who assumes an apocalyptic pose.

We cannot afford to turn the values of the inner life over to the aesthete, nor in general to the primitivist — and the East has had its primitivists from the early Chinese Taoists down to Tagore — who preaches a “wise passiveness.” To be energetic according to the natural law and passive according to the human law, to combine, that is, material purpose with spiritual drifting — and there is more than a suggestion of just that combination in our contemporary life — may prove a lame solution of the only problem that finally matters — the problem of happiness.

But, though we need to act on ourselves as on the outer world, to be wisely strenuous in short, it does not follow that we should, as some are now trying to persuade us, become Buddhists. Buddha and his early followers were, with all their cool analysis, pure supernaturalists; they aimed to scale the ultimate heights of being, to attune their ears to “sweet airs breathed from far past Indra’s sky.” That puts rather a wide gap between them and us who have been tending towards the naturalistic level. If we wish to rise above this level, we may have our own inspired teachers in the West. One may learn from these teachers as well as from Buddha the relation that exists between concentration, meditation, and peace, on the one hand, and, on the other, between expansiveness and war — whether with one’s self (“the civil war in the cave”) or with others.

But though Buddhism cannot take the place of our Western wisdom, it may be used to supplement and support it, especially by those who are positive to receive this wisdom on a purely traditional basis. The danger is that one may become positive and critical enough to throw off outer restraint, but not positive and critical enough to achieve inner restraint. A Buddha and an Aristotle, on the other hand, not only raise the critical problem, they carry it through. In the man who is only half positive and critical the element of desire tends to run wild. His wants are not merely numerous, but often incompatible. He wants, for example, to be purely expansive — this, he holds, is to be vital and dynamic and even “creative” — and at the same time he wants peace and brotherhood. But history teaches, if it teaches anything, that what must prevail in a purely expansive world is the law of cunning and the law of force.

To seek to combine peace and brotherhood with expansive living — this indeed is the supreme chimera of the Occident at the present time. It is in contrast with the sophistries and subterfuges, whether of the intellect or emotions, by which the expansionist of a certain type glosses over the incompatibility of his desires that Buddhism shows to advantage. Buddha deals with the law of control, the special law of human nature, in a spirit as positive and dispassionate as that in which a Newton deals with the law of gravitation. If a man wishes peace and brotherhood, he must pay the price — he must rise above the naturalistic level; and this he can do only by overcoming his moral indolence, only by applying the inner check to temperamental impulse. “All salutary conditions [dhamma],” says Buddha, “have their root in strenuousness.”

Originally published in The Nation, Oct. 18, 1917.

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) was a professor of French literature at Harvard and a leader of the New Humanist movement. His works includeRousseau and RomanticismandDemocracy and Leadership.

leave a comment

Latest Articles