Once more the Blessed One began to speak: "Behold now, brethren," said he, "I exhort you, saying, "Decay is inherent in all component things, but the truth will remain forever!'"
"There is no abiding principle in man." Thus is quoted the Lord, Gautama the Buddha. And for twenty-five centuries men have insisted in misinterpreting his meaning. They have applied a thousand yard-sticks of preconceived ideas and theological and pseudo-philosophical speculations in a futile endeavor to measure the depth of seven little words.
A very few, however, have heard the words, have said little, have thought much, have studied nature and man. They have tried, as best they knew, to live the ethical and moral precepts of the Blessed One, and lo! from Those who know they have received the keys which open the doors of their own inner consciousness. And then, in its beautiful simplicity, is revealed the true meaning of the words.
The Buddha has been accused of inconsistency and contradictory teaching. There are paradoxes, indeed, but no contradictions. How many of us are honest enough to admit with Dr. Draper:
And yet, if I have correctly presented its principles, it will probably appear that its primary conception is not altogether consistently carried out in the development of details. . . . But then I am not sure that I have caught with precision his exact train of thought, or have represented his intention with critical correctness. Considering the extraordinary power he elsewhere displays, it is more probable that I have failed to follow his meaning, than that he has been, on the points in question, incompetent to deal with his task. (1)
This teaching does not mean, or even say, that at death the entire constitution of man, outer and inner, visible and invisible, disintegrates into mere nothingness, or even into the mere dust of the worlds visible and invisible, which contribute to the various principles of man.
These seven words strike the keynote of all study of Man — and the Universe. Nothing "abides" — nothing is static — not one atom in boundless infinity stands still. Motion — that is the basic characteristic of Manifestation. And "motion" is not confined to the ceaseless ebb and flow of physical matter. From sub-physical to super-spiritual, eternal motion is.
And motion means evolution, the unfolding, the unwrapping of inherent, but latent, faculties, capacities, powers. If there were an "abiding principle" in man — a principle frozen in its immutability — it would mean that there is a point beyond which that principle cannot or does not go. It would mean that the universe is not a Cosmos, but a Chaos; that law and order are phantasmal dreams, and there is no rhyme or reason for anything.
But this, I think, is what the Buddha meant when he said, "There is no abiding principle in man:"
Man is a composite entity, a hierarchy composed of many parts, or principles. Each of these principles is an entity, a being, living, functioning, evolving in (more or less) harmonious company with the other principle-entities which as an aggregate form the individual man. At "death" the aggregate of principles is temporarily broken up. Each principle pursues its more or less independent evolution for a time. When the time comes for reincarnation of the man, the principles are again reintegrated, and man is born.
Evolution — Motion — is Nature's basic characteristic, Nature's first Law. Every universe, every atom, every being or entity, which includes the various principles of man, is forever learning, experiencing, growing, unfolding the spiritual and divine powers and faculties within itself.
No man, no principle in man, no atom of man's being "abides" for two consecutive instants of what we call time. Every instant provides experience, and the unfolding of a faculty or power to meet that experience. It is thus that we grow. . . .
Orientalists will some day discover that the dictionary and grammar-book are very ineffectual keys with which to attempt to open the secret doors of Sacred Lore.
1. John William Draper — History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, p. 53. (return to text)