Definition of being a man

Excerpted from The Way to Nirvana, by L. de la Vallée Poussin, [1917], Published on DNA, July 8, 2008

New Delhi, India -- The Buddhist definition of Man is summarized in a word,’selflessness’. Sakyamuni does not admit the existence of a Self; he teaches that the so-called Self is a compound of material and spiritual data called skandhas; but he nevertheless teaches reward of actions in a future life.

For the Enlightened, Sakyamuni teaches annihilation at death (Nirvana),  which denies rebirth or transmigration. For the unenlightened, he believes that, owing to the strength of actions, a new being is created who is to inherit the actions of the dead man and to enjoy their fruit. A man dies and is dead for ever, but his goodness or wickedness persists and causes another man to be born.

There is a person, to be described as ‘a living continuous fluid complex,’ which does not remain quite the same for two consecutive moments, but which continues for an endless number of existences, bridging an endless number of deaths, without becoming completely different from itself.

There is a principle of life and heat, which moves the body, feels and wills. This principle is not a spiritual entity. Rather is it a semi-material soul — a ‘subtle body’ as the Indians say — which, during life, may abandon the gross body, when for instance it travels far in dreams; and which, at death, finally flies away, only to be reincarnated elsewhere.

The Brahmans started from these ‘animistic’ views to develop a metaphysical psychology, quite different from the theories of the West. The Indian philosopher found his materials in the crude surmises of the popular or ritualistic tradition.  

The leading principle of the philosopher was that what is transitory cannot be the Self. He therefore distinguished two constituents. The first one is the subtle body of the old ‘animistic’ belief: subtle elements, subtle earth, water, wind and fire, making subtle organs of sensation, one of which is the mind. The second constituent is an everlasting and spiritual principle, the Self that is enveloped in the subtle body, in the semi-material soul.

According to the Buddhists, no Self, that is, no unity, permanent feeling or thinking entity, comes into the field of inquiry. We know only the body, which is visibly a composite, growing and decaying thing, and a number of phenomena, feelings, perceptions, wishes or wills, cognitions — in philosophic language, a number of states of consciousness. That these states of consciousness depend upon a Self, are the product of a Self or arise in a Self, is only a surmise, since there is no consciousness of a Self outside these states of consciousness; and a wrong surmise, since there cannot be connexion between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’: “There are perceptions, but we do not know a perceiver.”