On the Will in Buddhism.
Mrs. RHYS DAVIDS.
The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain &Ireland
On the Will in Buddhism.(1) By Mrs. RHYS
IT is only to be expected, while the ancient
literature of Buddhist philosophy is inaccessible to
the general critic, and still to some extent also to
the Indianist, that many hasty generalizations and
one-sided conclusions concerning the nature of
Buddhist ideals and discipline should continue to
prevail. Enough, however, has already been
accomplished in the editing of texts to render some
revision of what may be called common errors not
altogether premature. There is, for instance, much
that is misleading, or downright false, in labelling
Gotama's doctrine as Pessimism, Pantheism, Atheism,
Nihilism, Quietism, or Apatheia. Nor is that recent
criticism altogether discriminating which finds in it
the closest coincidences with that of
Schopenhauer,(2) or characterizes it bluntly as an
ethic rooted in egoism, or as "the crassest
eudaemonism, "(3) and aspiring to moral
The critics who are unversed in the study of the
Buddhist Canon in the original are precisely those
who most freely discourse on these lines about it. In
taking account at all of Eastern philosophy, they
have followed, consciously or unconsciously, the
direction of Schopenhauer's pointing finger, and the
general tendency to widen range and method in
historical study. In respect of the language through
which they acquire their knowledge of Buddhist
1 An abstract of this paper was read at the Paris
Congress of Orientalists, 1897.
2 e.g. Drs. Hecker ("Schopenhauer u. die indische
Philosophie") and Neumann.
3 Hecker, op. cit.. p. 212. Cf. Oldenberg, Buddha,
Abschn, ii, kap. iii; and Nietzsche, Der
4 Hecker, op. cit., p. 221, " Stumpfheit is as
philosophy, they are at the mercy of the
translator. Herein (as I have pointed out elsewhere')
lies danger for the justice of their conclusions.
They fail to realize that, in a great number of
cases, the languages which have grown up with the
traditions of Western philosophy do not afford
equivalents for Oriental standpoints. The translator
may have applied modern phrases with at least an
implicit diffidence. The general critic handles them
with easy confidence.
Language is not the only source whence the
erroneous inferences to which allusion has been made
have sprung, and are still springing . But on the
present occasion I wish to confine myself to showing,
by reference to certain texts and translations, how a
somewhat loose procedure on the part of translators
(when trying to find equivalents for some of the
central concepts of ethics), has left room for the
general student to get a false perspective of
As only one of several important instances, I
would; draw attention to the Buddhist attitude in
relation to the, volitional side of the human mind.
It is not possible to equate in Pali the word 'will,'
either in psychological comprehensiveness, or for its
trail of bad metaphysic. If however, we lop off the
metaphysic, and resolve 'will' into the classes of
mental states or processes, of which it forms a
factor more or less, and which, in its wider or its
narrower meaning, it is used to designate, we shall
find in Buddhist terminology abundance of suitable.
words, and in the philosophical treatises an
application of them as discriminative as we find
among ourselves, and sometimes even more so.
There is so far no evidence of a reduction of
complex volition into simple conation, such as may be
found in. our more scientific modern textbooks. There
is no such developed psychology to be met with as is
implied in the: strictly psgchological use of
carefully distinct terms (such
as Appetite, Desire, Deliberate Choice), where a
coefficient of bare conation is discerned as involved
with feeling of a certain sort, or with intellectual
activity of a certain sort, or with both intellect
and emotion. But what we do find in the Pitakas is a
pretty constant discrimination, in the employment of
terms connoting volition, between psychological
import only and ethical or moral implication.
In two parallel passages in the Dhamma Sangani,
for instance,(1) the term which best conveys the
meaning of bare, simple conation or consciousness of
energy, namely, viriyam, as well as all its synonyms
and complementary terms-- trying and striving, effort
and endeavour, zeal and ardour, vigour and
resistance, persistent striving, sustained desiring
and exertion, grasping of a weight---is used to
describe, in part, both the state or quality of mind
which is morally good and that which is morally bad.
To all such terms, then, when used of psychological
activity, Buddhism attaches no blame any more than we
should. When, on the other hand, the sacred writings
wish to convey ethical values in terms of volitional
import, either distinct and special words are used,
or else the term of volition is explicitly qualified
as referring to an object of perverted desire or to a
morbid state of will. Want or wish (akankha) becomes
craving or thirst (tanha); for desire (chando) we
get, lust (chanddarago) , lusts of the flesh
(kamarago), sensual delight (nandirago), or else some
qualifying phrase, desire for form (rupe chando),
and so forth.
It should be noted, however, that where words
implying effort of will occur without further
qualification, it is oftener in connection with
progress in self-training than with any idea of
depreciating volitional energy.(2) Thinamiddham, that
is, sloth mental and bodily, is a cardinal fault.
Quietude and calm are praised, but only as the
occasion for sustained
1 pp.11, 77.
2 The only quasi-exception known to me is the case
of the so-called Four Agatis, where Chando,
standing in company with three had qualities, has
a negative. moral value signifying partiality in a
judge. This technieal meaning, borrowed from
jurisprudence, occurs in one or two passages in
the Pitakas (see Cullavagga,
effort of concentration, or as indicating the
peace following mental toil and struggle.
In fact, if there be one feature in Buddhiat
ethics eminent for the emphasis attached to it, it is
not only that will as such, desire as such, are not
to be repressed, but that the culture and development
of them are absolutely indispensable to any advance
towards the attainment of its ideals. This is, of
course, well known by all who have any knowledge of
the Sacred Books, yet it is not yet as generally
appreciated as it deserves, either by experts, or by
general critics.(1) Let us take a few typical
passages on the need of diligent effort.
In one of the Dialogues in the Shorter
Collection(2) Gotama describes the process of
conversion as consisting in a connected sequence of
trust, drawing near, hearing the word, inquiry,
sustained insight, desire (chando), zeal (ussaho),
pondering (tulana), and struggle (padhanam). And the
learner has to bear in mind this maxim: "Verily may
skin, nerves, bones, flesh and blood dry up and
wither, or ever I stay my energies (viriyam), so long
as I have not attained whatsoever by human endurance,
energy, and effort (thama, viriya, parakkama) is
attainable." (3) This forcible adjuration recurs in
other books,' and was vowed by Gotama to himself in
his mental, wrestling beneath the Bo-tree.(5)
In fact, it seems to have been characteristic
of the man to have rated nothing higher in conduct
than a supreme effort of will in which "the whole
energies of being consent." This was the one thing
which he himself admitted, as he conversed with
his leading disciples one moonlight evening in a
sylvan scene, might lend an added splendour to
the beauty of nature--the resolve, namely, of one
meditating to free his heart then and there from
1 Cf. the statement by one of the most recent of
these, J. B. Crozier, in his " History of
Intellectual Development," p. 118--" The object of
Buddhism is the suppression of all desire "--and
his distorted view of Buddhism resulting (partly)
2 Majjhima Nikaya, No. 70, p. 480.
3 Majjh., i, 480.
4 Ang., i, 50; S., ii, 276.
5 Jat., i, 71.
every trace of evil.(1) To a young prince, an
intending disciple, who asks Gotama how long it would
take to graduate in his doctrine, the reply is that,
as with the art of riding, it all depended on whether
the learner brought five conditions, these being
conceived as so many forms of effort (padhaniyangani)
to bear--confidence, health, sincerity, energy,
Again (in M., 5th Sutta), the advantage of
self-knowledge lies in this, that on it depends an
uprising of desire (chando), a beginning of exertion
(vayamo), an inception of energy, in the way leading
to reform.(3) And the degeneration in the Order that
would follow on decay of effort and energy is counted
among the apprehensions of a bhikshu.(4)
In the Categories of progress toward the Ideal,
energy is a constant factor(5); and of two of the
Categories themselves, one is conceived as the Four
Great Struggles, and one as a course"(6) of Desire,
Energy, Thought, and Investigation, with a common
factor of meditation and struggle(7) --Ardour being
sometimes reckoned as a fifth essential. In the 6th
Sutta of the Majjhima seventeen desires for
self-improvement are met by advice as to how they may
Hence it is strictly in accordance with the
spirit of the older writings when the author of the "
Milinda" declares that Nirvana is to be realized, not
by bare quiescent meditation, much less by
mortification of impulse, but by rational discontent,
strong anguish, longing, followed by a forward leap
of the mind into peace and calm--then ; again by
joyous strenuousness in which the aspirant " strives
1 Majjh., 32nd Sutta.
2 Majjhima, No. 65, now in the press, of which, by
the courtesy of the editor, Mr. Robert Chalmers, I
have seen the proofs.
3 Cf. Ang, ii, 194-5: " Desire, effort, ezertion,
4 Ang, iii, 108.
5 i.e. in the Powers, the Principles, and the
Eight-fold Path; omitting only the Meditations.
7 Even in the list of the ten Highest States
(Paramiyo) insisted on in the later Buddhism as the
the condition requisite for a Bodhisatva's attaining
Buddhahood, we find resolution (adhitthana) included.
Cf. also the term abhiniharo.
with might and main along that path, searches it
out makes firm his self-possession fast in effort,
remains steadfast in love, directs his mind again and
And still later Buddhaghosa is constantly
insisting on the same doctrine; and, indeed, in one
passage goes so far as to say (Attha Salini, 300)
that the Buddha himself painted the delights of the
higher meditation in such glowing colours precisely "
in order to rouse ardour in his hearers, and for the
sake of making them lust after it."
But Buddhist ethic does not simply enforce and
encourage efforts of will and desire. We find some
attempts (and may yet find more) to cultivate in
detail that which " seems," to quote a modern
psychologist, Professor Sully, "to mark off the
highly developed will as such," namely, the capacity
of Control. "Mature will implies the inhibition of
certain nerve-centres by others.... a repression of
action when conficting motives arise... the
maintaining of a definitive purpose beyond the
movement, and the persistent concentration of mind on
this."(2) Thus, in the 20th Sutta of the Majjhima,
Gotama recommends the student who is obsede by some
haunting idea of an undesirable character to try
five methods in succession for expelling it--
(1) Attend to some good idea.
(2) Face the danger of the consequences of
letting the bad idea emerge in action.
(3) Become inattentive to the bad idea.
(4) Analyze its antecedents, and so paralyze the
(5) Coerce the mind with the aid of bodily
1 See the whole passage, " Milinda," 325-7.
2 Sully, "Pessimism," p. 212. See also p. 290, where
the author sketches a plan of will-culture,by
which, "in the economic management of all the
existing material of pleasure, etc., all evitable
suffering may be eliminated from life. The learned
author of this interesting work declares it its
outset that Buddhism is pure pessimism. Yet the
meliorative discipline he describes is very like
Again (Majjh., 36th Sutta) , Gotama gives a
detailed account of his own exercises in the effort
to control his sensations. These are illustrations of
Control such as we might find quoted in modern
Once more, the danger of what is now termed
aboulie, or atrophy of will-power, is touched upon
(Majjh., 19th Sutta) --that pathological state of
mind of which, in literature, Hamlet is the classical
instance.(l) Gotama, in narrating how, in his quest
after enlightenment, he analyzed and classified the
thoughts that arose in him, has a care lest by
over-long pondering and deliberation he should weary
his body and induce a swaying fluctuating mood
(cittam uhanneyya), and so pulls himself together--"
earnest, zealous, and resolved."
Further evidence of insight into the nature and
practice of control could be adduced from the
Pitakas, and will, no doubt, be found in such
portions as still remain to be edited. But in reply
to all this, those who quote quietism, apathy, and
egoistic self-concentration as the essence of
Buddhism, may disclaim any reference to the higher
will thus purged and chastened. They might say it is
only (tanha) trishna and (kamma) karma that they
identify with that primal, noumenal "will to live"
and its consequences, in which, they think, the
Buddha discerned the perennial source of sorrow, and
to which Schopenhauer saw humanity bound, helpless
and hopeless, as Tantalus and as Ixion. This was the
"will," these the "desires," that constituted for
both thinkers the Everlasting No, and induced them to
place shrunken and spiritless ideals above a more
courageous acceptance of life as a whole.
It is true that no ethical ideal insists more
strongly, than that which Gotama placed before his
Order, on the absolute necessity of renouncing, not
only certain spheres of desire --sensuous passion,
worldly ambitions, fevered cravings (parilaha) of any
kind--but also the longing for mere life
1 Cf. Hoffding, " Psyehology," p. 338.
or being, as such, as well as for any after-life,
as such. To prize mere quantity of' living stood by
him condemned as ignoble, as stupid, as a mortal
bondage, as one of the three great Defilements
(Asavas). To a modem poet's cry--
" How can I have enough of life and love! "
he may fairly enough be represented as
responding, "How can I have too little, if by life
and love such and such things be understood! But so
indeed might any Christian, might any Hellenist, make
reply. Even one of the most modern of all ethical
writers says much the same thing when he asks, "Do
you mean 'Let us eat and drink for to-morrow we die'?
Nay, rather let us Join hands and work, since to-day
we are alive together! "(1) But we might fairly
inquire of the ethical standpoint of the Buddhist
Canon if there be any sort of "life and love," the
which granted, it could sanction and endorse the
verse just cited.
Now, in seeking to meet this inquiry one thing is
ever impressing itself upon me. It is that the
compilers of the Canon might fairly demand of
translators that they should indicate, by a more
discriminating use of terms than is frequently found,
what form or direction of volitional activity is
spoken of as hurtful and vicious. What we actually
find, in many cases, is a curious readiness to use
some one term, in itself of psychological import
only, and not denoting ethical values, for a great
variety of Buddhist words which in themselves convey,
or are explicitly qualified as conveying, a meaning
that is morally blameable.
For instance, a comparison of the translations
made by such scholars as Burnouf, Foucaux, Max
Muller, Fausboll, Oldenberg, and Warren with the
originals, discloses the striking fact that the one
English word 'desire' is made to do duty for no less
than seventeen Pali words, not one of which means
desire taken in its ordinary general sense, but
rather in that of perverted, morbid, excessive
desire. It would be unnecessarily technical to set
out here the proofs of this statement. I put them,
therefore, in an appendix.
1 W. K. Clifford.
Dr. Neumann also, who, translating into German
and not into English, usually avoids this pitfall of
'desire,' applies nevertheless to precisely the same
class of ethical terms the words, in themselves
unmoral, Wille, wollen, Wunsch. Still more exception
may be taken to his weighting at least two pairs of
Buddhiet ethical terms with words borrowed from the
dialect of Schopenhauer's doctrine of will (Bejahung,
Verneinung). An incitement is hereby afforded to
followers of Schopenhauer to magnify the debt of
inspiration owed by the latter to Buddhism in a
forced parallelism which requires rather to be
checked than encouraged. The unique extension given
by Schopenhauer to the psychology of will, so as to
cover both conation and feeling, renders all such
parallelism at least hazardous.
We now come to what, in the present connection,
is due to Buddhism at the hands of the general
critic. The stony, stultified, self-centred apathy we
often hear ascribed to the Buddhist ideal is supposed
to be the result--in so far as the Indian climate is
not held responsible(1) --of a Schopenhauerian
pessimism as to the worth and promise of life and the
springs of life. If, however, the critic would dwell
more on the positive tendencies in Buddhist ethics,
he might discern under the outward calm of mien of
the Buddhist sage in literature and art, a passion of
emotion and will not paralyzed or expurgated, but
rendered subservient to and diffused around deep
faith and high hope. For there is no doctrine, not
even excepting Platonism, that sees in life, in the
life that now is, greater possibilities of
perfection. Nor is there any system, not excepting
that of the Christian, which sees in the evolution of
human love a more exalted transcendence of the lower
forms of that emotion. It is noteworthy that in the
passages containing outbursts of sublimated
feeling--of lovingkindness, pity, sympathy,
good-will--for all living creatures, the
1 German writers have much to say on this connection
between tropics and torpor. English writers, more
intimate, directly or indirectly, with the vallev
of the Ganges, and the amount of strenuous work
and play got through by their countrymen, as well
as by Indians, say less.
attitude taken up is, so to speak, more
dynamically conceived than in the great Pauline ode
to Agape. The emotion is depicted as an energy
radiating from a glowing nucleus to fill the
universe--as a living force, a "vie intensive et
expansive," as the late Jean Marie Guyau might have
said--as an overflow of superb effort, of abounding
will. "Our wind shall not waver; no evil speech will
we utter; we mill abide tender and compassionate,
loving in heart, void of secret malice; and we will
be ever suffusing such an one with the rays of our
loving thought, and from him forthgoing we will ever
be suffusing the whole world with thought of love
far-reaching, grown great, and beyond measure, void
of ill-will and bitterness. Thus, brethren, and well,
must ye exercise yourselves."(1) In passages like
this, which, with its variants, runs like a refrain
through much of the Sutta Pitaka--in those on the
glory of insight attending the sense of emancipation
wrestled for and won--we see a kind of "life and
love" of which Gotama would have gladly said " How
can we have enough!" The weary, heartrending tragedy
immanent in the life of the world he recognized and
accepted as honestly and fully as the deepest
pessimist. The complexities, the distractions, the
burdens, the dogging sorrow inevitable for life lived
in participation of all that the human organism
naturally calls for, and human society puts forward
as desirable--all this he judged too heavy to be
borne, not indeed by lay followers, but by those who
should devote their lives to learn and practise his
doctrine wholly and lift the world to higher
standpoints and nobler issues. Life in its fulness
they at least were not to cultivate. They could not
afford to listen to the bidding-- " Greift nur hinein
ins volle Menschenleben! " The penalty incurred by
Buddhism for this economy of energy is heavy enough.
It is that of ail aristocratic, by which I mean
exclusive or partial, systems of thought and culture
when tested by the evolving religious needs of
1 Majjh., 21st Sutta.
But if we take life of a certain quality of
refinement and sublimity--the life accessible to the
earnest, single-minded, single-hearted, strenuous,
self-possessed student-missionary, eased of all
worldly and domestic cares--Buddhism, so far from "
negating " the will to live that kind of life,
pronounced it fair and lovely beyond all non-being,
beyond all afterbeing. If final death followed
inevitably on the fullest fruition of it, this was
not what made such life desirable. Final death was a
hypothesis, accepted as welcome, not for its own
sake, but as a corollary, so to speak, to the solved
problem of emancipation. It merely signified that
unhealthy moral conditions had wholly passed away.
Hence, if fairly judged, neither will, nor
aspiration, nor the preciousness of life, can be said
to be repressed and contemned in Buddhist philosophy.
It spurned both asceticism and luxury, and urged a
healthy simplification in living--the open air, the
bath, the regular hours, the taking of repose, the
daily exercise--discerning that the emancipation, the
ideal life, must be rooted in hygiene, not in
hysteria. Of the mortification of all desire, of the
stultification of will, it would have said: "That way
madness lies."(1) It sought, often naively, often
pedantically, but on the whole sanely, to divert the
current of desire to aims intellectual and ethical
rather than worldly or sensual, and then to fosfer
and strengthen aspiration and resolve in the effort
to persevere towards complete attainment of what it
held to be the noblest kind of life.
Burnouf, in the Mahanidana Sutta, rendered
upadanam (grasping) by desir.
Foucaux rendered trsna (thirst, craving) by
desir. Lalita Vistara passim, e.g. p. 347, Ann. Mus.
1 The madness ofthe ditthummattako. mohummattako.
Oldenberg translates kama (sensual desires) by
desires simply; nekkhammam (which he reads as the
contradictory of kama), by abandonment of desire.
"Vin. Texts," i, 81, 104.
Max Muller uses the one term desires a number of
times for all the four terms asava, kama, vana,
tanha. Dhp. passim. His translator, Von Schultze,
whether metri causa or on other grounds, renders the
last term by "des Begehrens durstendem Drang" (Dhp.,
Fausboll applies desire without qualification to
at ]east thirteen different names for vicious or
excessive desire: e.g. (Sutta Nipata, passim).
sita (clinging bond).
anasaso (free from hankering after).
sineho (cleaving, stickiness).
kaye chandam (desire for the body).
chandaragaviratto (not dyed with lustful desire).
tanha (thirst, craving).
panidhi (here, aspiration, after becoming and
(cf. Fausb. on v, 243).
akasam (space; " puffed-up state ").
visattikam (lust, dart of).
jappitani (mumblings, prayers).
In Neumann's translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, I--L,
we find such renderings as--
Ragaunusayam: Regung des Wollens.
Kamehi vivicca: den Wunschen erstorben.
1 At other times better rendered by him as Begierden.
So in places rago is better rendered by Gier.
Warren, in the index to his work, Buddhism in
Translations, goes so far to justify his usage as
to state that desire and seeking are to be taken as
equivalent to passion, lust, covetousness, and thirst
(Index, s.v. Desire). Hut his object is rather
economy of space than care in interpretation. In the
translations themselves desire is made to take on the
heavy burden of tanha,(1) often it is true metri
causa, but not always, and once at least through a
misconception of the meaning of the phrase tanhaya
asesaviraganirodho,(2) which should be rendered "the
entire cessation and fading out of craving." (3)
1 Cf. £i£i 33, 34; pp. 160, 370-2, etc., etc.
2 S.iii, p. 26.
3 Mr. Warren twice renders adhitthanam (insistence,
persistent resolve) by 'affirmation' (pp. 163,
165), but whether with implicit Schopenhauerism or
not I cannot say.