The Modern Secular View
According to this view, which usually claims to be “scientific,” man is just another animal and, like the animals in the Christian view, simply perishes totally at physical death. This could actually be in part an unrecognized heritage from Christian thinking. The Christian says: “Animals have no souls.” The Secularist caps this by saying: “Man is an animal, therefore he has no soul.” Modern biology, medical science, psychology and so on tend markedly (whether quite explicitly or not) to take this view for granted. As has been stated and will be shown, the “scientific” basis for this attitude is at the very least, highly questionable. But its exponents are often people enjoying considerable prestige and are widely listened to by those who do not feel able to form an independent opinion on this subject.
The Buddhist Attitude
The Buddhist attitude to both of these types of view is that they are extremes, neither of which is in fact true. The first type of view is called in Buddhism “the heresy of eternalism” (sassatavaada), while the second is called “the heresy of annihilationism” (ucchedavaada). They both in fact miss the point.
What actually happens according to Buddhism can only be clearly understood if we have some acquaintance with the Buddhist view of the general nature of man. But before considering this (as far as it is relevant to our subject), it may be as well to observe how the Buddhist view can be misinterpreted. If we say, for instance, that in the Buddhist view man is not distinguished from animals by the possession of an “immortal soul,” then this looks very like the Modern Secular position. If, on the other hand, it is pointed out that according to Buddhism we reap the rewards and penalties, after death, for our actions in this life, then this looks rather like the Traditional Christian view. If both propositions are stated to be correct, the result looks like a contradiction, though in fact it is not. These misapprehensions about Buddhism result from failure to realize the kind of “optical illusion” which occurs when a middle position is viewed from one of the extremes.
If an island is exactly in the middle of a river then from either bank it looks closer to the opposite bank than to the observer. Only an observer on the island can see that it is equidistant. Viewed from the extreme left, any middle position looks much further to the right than it is, and vice versa. The same phenomenon is commonly observable in politics and other walks of life.
In this case, the true Buddhist view is that the impersonal stream of consciousness flows on — impelled by ignorance and craving — from life to life. Though the process is impersonal, the illusion of personality continues as it does in this life.
In terms of Absolute Truth, there is no “immortal soul” that manifests in a succession of bodies, but in terms of the relative truth by which we are normally guided, there is a “being” that is reborn. In order to gain Enlightenment, it is necessary to come to a realization of the situation as it is according to absolute truth; in order to face and begin to understand the problem of death we can, in the first instance, view it in terms of that “relative truth” which normally rules our lives and which has its validity in its own sphere. We need merely, for the present, to remind ourselves that this is but a “provisional” view of things. In this connection, too, we have to observe that we are dealing only with the question of death as it affects the ordinary person, not one who has attained Enlightenment.
We may therefore say that Buddhism, rejecting Annihilationism outright, partly agrees with the Eternalists, to the extent of accepting a form of Survival, without, for the moment, considering the differences further.