Identity And Non-identity
Kutadanta, the head of the Brahmans in the village of Danamati
having approached the Blessed One respectfully, greeted him and
said: "I am told, O samana, that thou art the Buddha, the Holy
One, the Allknowing, the Lord of the world. But if thou wert the
Buddha, wouldst thou not come like a king in all thy glory and
Said the Blessed One: "Thine eyes are holden. If the eye of thy
mind were undimmed thou couldst see the glory and the power of
Said Kutadanta: "Show me the truth and I shall see it. But thy
doctrine is without consistency. If it were consistent, it would
stand; but as it is not, it will pass away."
The Blessed One replied: "The truth will never pass away."
Kutadanta said: "I am told that thou teachest the law, yet thou
tearest down religion. Thy disciples despise rites and abandon
immolation, but reverence for the gods can be shown only by
sacrifices. The very nature of religion consists in worship and
Said the Buddha: "Greater than the immolation of bullocks is the
sacrifice of self. He who offers to the gods his evil desires
will see the uselessness of slaughtering animals at the altar.
Blood has no cleansing power, but the eradication of lust will
make the heart pure. Better than worshiping gods is obedience to
the laws of righteousness."
Kutadanta, being of a religious disposition and anxious about his
fate after death, had sacrificed countless victims. Now he saw
the folly of atonement by blood. Not yet satisfied, however, with
the teachings of the Tathagata, Kutadanta continued: "Thou
believest, O Master, that beings are reborn; that they migrate
in the evolution of life; and that subject to the law of karma we
must reap what we sow. Yet thou teachest the non-existence of the
soul! Thy disciples praise utter self-extinction as the highest
bliss of Nirvana. If I am merely a combination of the sankharas,
my existence will cease when I die. If I am merely a compound of
sensations and ideas and desires, wither can I go at the
dissolution of the body?"
Said the Blessed One: "O Brahman, thou art religious and earnest.
Thou art seriously concerned about thy soul. Yet is thy work in
vain because thou art lacking in the one thing that is needful.
"There is rebirth of character, but no transmigration of a self.
Thy thought-forms reappear, but there is no ego-entity
transferred. The stanza uttered by a teacher is reborn in the
scholar who repeats the words.
"Only through ignorance and delusion do men indulge in the dream
that their souls are separate and self-existent entities.
"Thy heart, O Brahman, is cleaving still to self; thou art
anxious about heaven but thou seekest the pleasures of self in
heaven, and thus thou canst not see the bliss of truth and the
immortality of truth.
"Verily I say unto thee: The Blessed One has not come to teach
death, but to teach life, and thou discernest not the nature of
living and dying.
"This body will be dissolved and no amount of sacrifice will save
it. Therefore, seek thou the life that is of the mind. Where self
is, truth cannot be; yet when truth comes, self will disappear.
Therefore, let thy mind rest in the truth; propagate the truth,
put thy whole will in it, and let it spread. In the truth thou
shalt live forever.
"Self is death and truth is life. The cleaving to self is a
perpetual dying, while moving in the truth is partaking of
Nirvana which is life everlasting."
Kutadanta said: "Where, O venerable Master, is Nirvana?"
"Nirvana is wherever the precepts are obeyed," replied the
"Do I understand thee aright," rejoined the Brahman, "that
Nirvana is not a place, and being nowhere it is without reality?"7
"Thou dost not understand me aright," said the Blessed One, "Now
listen and answer these questions: Where does the wind dwell?"
"Nowhere," was the reply.
Buddha retorted: "Then, sir, there is no such thing as wind."
Kutadanta made no reply; and the Blessed One asked again: "Answer
me, O Brahman, where does wisdom dwell? Is wisdom a locality?"
"Wisdom has no allotted dwelling-place," replied Kutadanta.
Said the Blessed One: "Meanest thou that there is no wisdom, no
enlightenment, no righteousness, and no salvation, because
Nirvana is not a locality? As a great and mighty wind which
passeth over the world in the heat of the day, so the Tathagata
comes to blow over the minds of mankind with the breath of his
love, so cool, so sweet, so calm, so delicate; and those
tormented by fever assuage their suffering and rejoice at the
Said Kutadanta: "I feel, O Lord, that thou proclaimest a great
doctrine, but I cannot grasp it. Forbear with me that I ask
again: Tell me, O Lord, if there be no atman, how can there be
immortality? The activity of the mind passeth, and our thoughts
are gone when we have done thinking."
Buddha replied: "Our thinking is gone, but our thoughts continue.
Reasoning ceases, but knowledge remains."
Said Kutadanta: "How is that? Is not reasoning and knowledge the
The Blessed One explained the distinction by an illustration: "It
is as when a man wants, during the night, to send a letter, and,
after having Ids clerk called, has a lamp lit, and gets the
letter written. Then, when that has been done, he extinguishes
the lamp. But though the writing has been finished and the light
has been put out the letter is still there. Thus does reasoning
cease and knowledge remain; and in the same way mental activity
ceases, but experience, wisdom, and all the fruits of our acts
Kutadanta continued: "Tell me, O Lord, pray tell me, where, if
the sankharas are dissolved, is the identity of my self. If my
thoughts are propagated, and if my soul migrates, my thoughts
cease to be my thoughts and my soul ceases to be my soul. Give me
an illustration, but pray, O Lord, tell me, where is the identity
of my self?"
Said the Blessed One: "Suppose a man were to light a lamp; would
it burn the night through?"
"Yes, it might do so," was the reply.
"Now, is it the same flame that burns in the first watch of the
night as in the second?"
Kutadanta hesitated. He thought "Yes, it is the same flame," but
fearing the complications of a hidden meaning, and trying to be
exact, he said: "No, it is not."
"Then," continued the Blessed One, "there are flames, one in the
first watch and the other in the second watch."
"No, sir," said Kutadanta. "In one sense it is not the same
flame, but in another sense it is the same flame. It burns the
same kind of oil, it emits the same land of light, and it serves
the same purpose."
"Very well," said the Buddha, "and would you call those flames
the same that have burned yesterday and are burning now in the
same lamp, filled with the same kind of oil, illuminating the
"They may have been extinguished during the day," suggested
Said the Blessed One: "Suppose the flame of the first watch had
been extinguished during the second watch, would you call it the
same if it burns again in the third watch?"
Replied Kutadanta: "In one sense it is a different flame, in
another it is not."
The Tathagata asked again: "Has the time that elapsed during the
extinction of the flame anything to do with its identity or
"No, sir," said the Brahman, "it has not. There is a difference
and an identity, whether many years elapsed or only one second,
and also whether the lamp has been extinguished in the meantime
"Well, then, we agree that the flame of to-day is in a certain
sense the same as the flame of yesterday, and in another sense it
is different at every moment. Moreover, the flames of the same
kind, illuminating with equal power the same land of rooms, are
in a certain sense the same."
"Yes, sir," replied Kutadanta.
The Blessed One continued: "Now, suppose there is a man who feels
like thyself, thinks like thyself, and acts like thyself, is he
not the same man as thou?"
"No, sir," interrupted Kutadanta.
Said the Buddha: "Dost thou deny that the same logic holds good
for thyself that holds good for the things of the world?"
Kutadanta bethought himself and rejoined slowly: "No, I do not.
The same logic holds good universally; but there is a peculiarity
about my self which renders it altogether different from
everything else and also from other selves. There may be another
man who feels exactly like me, thinks like me, and acts like me;
suppose even he had the same name and the same kind of
possessions, he would not be myself."
"True, Kutadanta," answered Buddha, "he would not be thyself.
Now, tell me, is the person who goes to school one, and that same
person when he has finished his schooling another? Is it one who
commits a crime, another who is punished by having his hands and
feet cut off?"
"They are the same," was the reply.
"Then sameness is constituted by continuity only?" asked the
"Not only by continuity," said Kutadanta, "but also and mainly by
identity of character."
"Very well," concluded the Buddha, "then thou agreest that
persons can be the same, in the same sense as two flames of the
same kind are called the same; and thou must recognize that in
this sense another man of the same character and product of the
same karma is the same as thou."
"Well, I do," said the Brahman.
The Buddha continued: "And in this same sense alone art thou the
same to-day as yesterday. Thy nature is not constituted by the
matter of which thy body consists, but by thy sankharas, the
forms of the body, of sensations, of thoughts. Thy person is the
combination of the sankharas. Wherever they are, thou art.
Whithersoever they go, thou goest. Thus thou wilt recognize in a
certain sense an identity of thy self, and in another sense a
difference. But he who does not recognize the identity should
deny all identity, and should say that the questioner is no
longer the same person as he who a minute after receives the
answer. Now consider the continuation of thy personality, which
is preserved in thy karma. Dost thou call it death and
annihilation, or fife and continued life?"
"I call it life and continued life," rejoined Kutadanta, "for it
is the continuation of my existence, but I do not care for that
kind of continuation. All I care for is the continuation of self
in the other sense, which makes of every man, whether identical
with me or not, an altogether different person."
"Very well," said Buddha. "This is what thou desirest and this is
the cleaving to self. This is thy error. All compound things are
transitory: they grow and they decay. All compound things are
subject to pain: they will be separated from what they love and
be joined to what they abhor. All compound things lack a self, an
atman, an ego."
"How is that?" asked Kutadanta.
"Where is thy self?" asked the Buddha. And when Kutadanta made no
reply, he continued: "Thy self to which thou cleavest is a
constant change. Years ago thou wast a small babe; then, thou
wast a boy; then a youth, and now, thou art a man. Is there any
identity of the babe and the man? There is an identity in a
certain sense only. Indeed there is more identity between the
flames of the first and the third watch, even though the lamp
might have been extinguished during the second watch. Now which
is thy true self, that of yesterday, that of to-day, or that of
to-morrow, for the preservation of which thou clamorest?"
Kutadanta was bewildered. "Lord of the world," he said, "I see my
error, but I am still confused."
The Tathagata continued: "It is by a process of evolution that
sankharas come to be. There is no sankhara which has sprung into
being without a gradual becoming. Thy sankharas are the product
of thy deeds in former existences. The combination of thy
sankharas is thy self. Wheresoever they are impressed thither thy
self migrates. In thy sankharas thou wilt continue to live and
thou wilt reap in future existences the harvest sown now and in
"Verily, O Lord," rejoined Kutadanta, "this is not a fair
retribution. I cannot recognize the justice that others after me
will reap what I am sowing now."
The Blessed One waited a moment and then replied: "Is all
teaching in vain? Dost thou not understand that those others are
thou thyself? Thou thyself wilt reap what thou sowest, not
"Think of a man who is ill-bred and destitute, suffering from the
wretchedness of his condition. As a boy he was slothful and
indolent, and when he grew up he had not learned a craft to earn
a living. Wouldst thou say his misery is not the product of his
own action, because the adult is no longer the same person as was
"Verily, I say unto thee: Not in the heavens, not in the midst of
the sea, not if thou hidest thyself away in the clefts of the
mountains, wilt thou find a place where thou canst escape the
fruit of thine evil actions.
"At the same time thou art sure to receive the blessings of thy
"The man who has long been traveling and who returns home in
safety, the welcome of kinsfolk, friends, and acquaintances
awaits. So, the fruits of his good works bid him welcome who has
walked in the path of righteousness, when he passes over from the
present life into the hereafter."
Kutadanta said: "I have faith in the glory and excellency of thy
doctrines. My eye cannot as yet endure the light; but I now
understand that there is no self, and the truth dawns upon me.
Sacrifices cannot save, and invocations are idle talk. But how
shall I find the path to life everlasting? I know all the Vedas
by heart and have not found the truth."
Said the Buddha: "Learning is a good thing; but it availeth not.
True wisdom can be acquired by practice only. Practise the truth
that thy brother is the same as thou. Walk in the noble path of
righteousness and thou wilt understand that while there is death
in self, there is immortality in truth." 67
Said Kutadanta: "Let me take my refuge in the Blessed One, in the
Dharma, and in the brotherhood. Accept me as thy disciple and let
me partake of the bliss of immortality."
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