Sunday, October 25, 2009




Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Hong Kong, 2009



Centre of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

The people in the world have a general tendency to lean upon one of the two views of either “All exists” as one extreme or “All does not exist” as the second extreme. The early Buddhist discourses referred to the mutual opposition between these two views. On one side we have the view of permanence or eternalism (sassatavada) while on the other side there is the view of annihilation (ucchedavada).

The view of permanence or eternalism (sassatavada) is known as bhava-ditthi or the belief in “being”; while the view of annihilation (ucchedavada) is known as vibhava-ditthi or the belief in “non-being”. But without accepting either of these two extreme views, the Buddha preached the Dhamma by the Middle which is also known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

Earlier Concept of Sassatavada and Ucchedavada
Most of the religions in modern times are a linear development of Vedic thought while others have emerged either in isolation or in opposition to it. But they all appear to believe in a “soul” or “self-entity” and emphasize the fact that while the soul is something permanent, the body is something perishable. There is general agreement among all religions that since this self-entity (soul) is something immutable, it survives death and man's true essence is to be found in this self-entity (soul). This belief in a permanent spiritual substance within man (metaphysical self ) was represented in the Pali suttas as sassatavada.

However, the materialistic view questioned the validity of theological and metaphysical theories which do not come within the domain of sense-experience. This explains why they rejected the religious version of atmavada, the belief in a metaphysical self. There is no observable self-entity apart from the body. If this self-entity really exists, then it must be identical with the physical body as what we see or perceive around us. Because materialism identifies the self with the physical body, it necessarily follows that at death, the self too is annihilated without any prospect of post-mortal existence. This was represented in the Buddhist texts as ucchedavada (annihilationism).

Critical Buddhist Evaluation of Sassatavada and Ucchedavada
The Buddhist doctrines assumed their significance from the critique of sassatavada and ucchedavada. Buddhism constructed its own world-view through the demolition of these two pre-existing world-views and emerged as a new faith amidst many other faiths in the form of a critical response to the mutual opposition between these two views. Sassatavada emphasizes the duality between the soul and the body. As a result, man's emancipation is based on this notion of duality. The gravitational pull of the body, that is gratification in sensuality, prevents the upward journey of soul. Deliverance of the soul, its perpetuation in a state of eternal bliss, thus requires the mortification of the flesh, represented in the Buddhist texts as attakilamathanuyoga (self-mortification) which led to a variety of ascetic practices during the time of the Buddha. A case in point was Jainism, which advocated rigid austerities to liberate the soul.

Ucchedavada (materialism), on the other hand, believes that ‘man is a pure product of the earth' awaiting annihilation at death. His aim in this temporary life thus cannot be the rejection of sense-pleasures in the pursuit of a higher spiritual ideal which is described in the Buddhist texts as kamasukhallikanuyoga (sensual gratification). Thus, self-mortification and sensual gratification represent the practical aspects of the two theories of sasssatavada and ucchedavada.

After making a critical assessment, Buddhism rejected both sassatavada and ucchedavada. Since ucchedavada rejects survival and encourages man to lead a life without any obligation of moral responsibility or inhibitions and encourages gratification in sensuality as the ultimate purpose in life, the Buddha was more critical of ucchedavada. He used three terms to criticize the ucchedavada, which are hina (inferior), gamma (rustic or vulgar) and pothujjanika (worldly). Since sassatavada never lead to the collapse of moral life, the Buddha was sympathetic towards sassatavada, though it does not lead to the realization of the ideal of emancipation (anattha-samhita). As it recognizes a spiritual source in man, it also recognizes moral distinctions.

Buddhist Concept of Atmavada
The Buddhist understanding of atmavada describes that any kind of thing, whether it is material, mental or spiritual, could become an Atman if it becomes an object of self-identification. This process of self-identification is said to manifest itself in three ways: this is mine (etam mama); this I am (esoham asmi); and this is my self (eso me atta). As materialism takes the body to be the self as an object of self-identification, it is also a variety of atmavada. But what materialists identify as the self is not a metaphysical entity, but the perishable physical body. However, in the context of Buddhist teachings, what matters is not the permanence or impermanence of the object of self-identification, but the very fact of self-identification. Thus, Buddhism views both sassatavada and ucchedavada as two varieties of atmavada.

Buddhist Concept of Life
The Buddhist perspective on life, suffering and death can never be truly understood unless we understand the Buddhist laws of causality (Paticcasamuppada) and mutation. These two laws are natural laws that operate universally in all physical and mental phenomena. Each "event" or "happening" acts as the cause for the arising of the following event, which then provokes another event. This concept is used to emphasize that life consists of interwoven activities of causes and effects, referred to as the kamma process, which is volitional activity whether mental, verbal or physical. The relationship between cause and effect is that both the earlier and later phases are an integral part of a single process with many psychophysical factors mutually conditioning one another. Life is made possible because of the continuous interaction of these conditioning and conditioned factors. With no beginning and no end point, life is thus considered to be a continuous process of an endless cycle. Death is considered as an integral part of existence and is one phase of this endless cycle and cannot terminate the cycle. This conditioned existence is called samsara and represented in Buddhist art by the Wheel of Life (bhavacakra).

Buddhist Concept of the Noble Eightfold Path
The Buddha's life itself delineates the perennial conflict between sassatavada and ucchedavada and its transcendence by the Middle Path. The Buddha's lay life as a prince exemplifies one extreme; his life as ascetic practicing severe austerities exemplifies the other. And his attainment of enlightenment by giving up both extremes shows the efficacy of the Middle Path for deliverance from all suffering.

The Buddha's first sermon on Setting the Wheel of the Dhamma in Motion (the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta), is on the ground of avoidance of two extremes of sassatavada and ucchedavada. The Buddha explained the Dhamma in the following words “This is suffering, this is the origin of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, and this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” The Buddha showed the newly discovered path to emancipation, the Noble Eightfold Path (ariya-atthangikamagga) or the majjhima patipada (the Middle Path). This avoids the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This concept of the Middle Path is not a compromise between the two extremes or an admixture of them. As it transcends the mutual opposition between the two extremes, Middle Path is defined in the same sermon as ubho ante anupagamma (without entering into either extreme).

Buddhist Concept of Kammavada
Buddhism recognizes all religions as different forms of kammavada, because they all advocate the supremacy of the moral life. In the Kaccayanagotta Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha had proclaimed that by avoiding the two notions of existence and nonexistence he propagated a doctrine by the middle which was referred to as the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada) and it is through this particular doctrine that Buddhism avoids both sassatavada and ucchedavada. The doctrine of dependent origination is called the doctrine by the middle (majjhima-dhamma) and it is believed that one who discerns dependent origination, discerns the Dhamma (Yo paticcasamuppadam passati so dhammam passati). It is on the basis of this principle that Buddhism explains all its fundamental doctrines, such as the analysis of mind and the theory of perception, kamma, moral order and the nature of the empirical individuality and its samsaric dimension.

Buddhism avoids sassatavada by not accepting the theory of existence of self-entity within man which is impervious to change. This is the denial of any kind of spiritual substance within man. Buddhism also avoids ucchedavada, since the human personality is not a pure product of matter but is an uninterrupted and interconnected process of psycho-physical phenomena which does not terminate in death. Although Buddhism does not agree completely with sassatavada, it does not deny survival in the form of rebirth (punabbhava) and moral responsibility (kammavada).

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