Was the Buddha the First Humanist?1

KEY TERMS: humanism -- evolution -- Hina-Yana Buddhism -- natural causation

For the modern humanist one of the most astounding discoveries could well be a turn-of-the-century book written by Ms. Rhys Davids: a British scholar of the period specializing in Indian philosophy.2 Unlike most other works on Buddhism, this one focuses on the Buddhist "Norm" as actually taught by the Buddha and his students. It deals with what is revealed in the Pali Literature of what are now Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar. Many of these texts were then, for the first time, being translated into English by the author herself. This religious literature (still little known in the West) includes the Pitakas, the earliest known records of the Buddha's thought.

Davids differed from most students of early Buddhism in that she recognized its significance for modern scientific humanist thought. She believed the Buddha's original teachings present a world view in profound opposition to the Animistic, mystical and absolutist beliefs prevailing throughout human history, not only in Asia but in Western cultures as well. And she was convinced that the significance of the original Buddhism for the development of social science (particularly psychology) had never been adequately appreciated.

Rhys Davids described how the great religious reform movement that had shaken northern India during the sixth century BCE moved about a millennium later into Southeast Asia -- as the Hina-Yana (Little Vehicle) -- and was subsequently able to retain its original form for several centuries. On the other hand, the parent branch or Maha-Yana (Great Vehicle), while winning out in terms of numbers of adherents throughout India, was gradually engulfed and adulterated by certain powerful competing currents in the larger culture. These were the Animism of the common people and the Vedandist beliefs inherited from the Harappa civilization of the third and second millennia BCE, and from the caste system established during the later Aryan invasions.

Ironically, it was these departures from the philosophy of the Buddha that had such powerful appeal for the Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Tibetans who, in adapting that philosophy to their own cultures, changed it even more radically from its original course. Rhys Davids contended that, because of this history, the authentic ideas of Buddhism are to be found only in the sacred Canons of the Pitakas of the Hina-Yana branch confined chiefly to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, and in the scholarly commentary devoted to these: the whole of which is known as the Pali Literature.

The author devoted most of her book to a rigorous, scholarly examination of the central ideas of Buddhism, as presented in the ancient Pitakas and accompanying commentaries. She began with the concept of Dhamma (a term adapted from the Vedantist tradition but employed quite differently by early Buddhists) and the unique concept of Abidhamma. For Gotama Siddhattha (the Buddha), Dhamma represented the eternal and natural order of things, propelled not by a deity but by necessity. It implied no creation, purpose or ending -- no plan traceable to a mysterious consciousness prior to, or transcending, that of humans. Rhys Davids' study of these oldest known books on Buddhism reveals a universe that contains many worlds -- without a "first cause" -- going on from everlasting to everlasting, by alternating integration and disintegration. This cosmic process is orderly in its psychological and moral as well as its physical manifestations; that is, cause and effect operates equally in both.

Gotama's concept of Abidhamma appears as a supremely naturalistic and psychological one. It refers to the representation within the human mind of the external order of things and events. It is the logical system for organizing and interpreting experience that is constructed by human mental capacities during the process of experiencing external phenomena: the instrument that regulates the mind. Some twenty-three centuries were to pass before the idea was taken up and further developed by David Hume, Herbert Spencer, Bertrand Russell and Jean Piaget -- among others. For the early Buddhists, the concepts of Dhamma and Abidhamma provided a conceptual structure of such power that an entire systematization of logic and a subsequent unification of Indian learning was subsequently made possible by means of them. Only Western cultural chauvinism has prevented us from recognizing it as an accomplishment at least equal to that of Aristotle, which occurred considerably later.

The current relevance of these early Buddhist assumptions about the nature of reality and of the human being as a knowledge maker strikes the modern scientific humanist with the impact of a sledgehammer. Because of progress in the philosophy of science and in the behavioral sciences since Rhys Davids' time, the significance of what she described is far more startling than even she was equipped to understand. We might well respond in awe and reverence to a genius of the stature that the Buddha appears to have been.

Rhys Davids carefully documented her claim that it is the Norm (comprising Dhamma and Abidhamma) which defines the Buddha's original world view: a frame of reference within which all other Buddhist concepts must be comprehended. She devoted the remainder of her book to an elaboration of the most central of these concepts. They are the theory of No Soul, the law of causation, the Norm as moral law, the Norm as ideal, and the human quest for the Norm as a way of living and, ultimately, of achieving Nirvana.

The assumptions about the nature of reality and human consciousness contained in the Norm imply that the human mind comprises complex, experientially conditioned structures with no non-natural soul or spiritual substance hovering in the background. Rhys Davids maintained that this is precisely what the Buddha and the scholars of the Pali tradition were saying. She noted that this denial of any entity not governed by nature's laws was extended, logically enough, "to the whole hierarchy of gods and superhuman beings wherewith the Indian heavens, not to say earth, are so liberally populated."

What little we know of world cultures in the sixth century BCE leads us to conclude that the age, in India as elsewhere, teemed with Animistic, superstitious, metaphysical and mystical dogmas of the soul. Rhys Davids claimed that the Buddha was attempting a religious reform that would depose them all. But he must have realized that only an indirect approach would be effective. The first step would have required that his followers be persuaded that the idea of the soul could have no meaning within a Norm-ruled universe. In all early Buddhist teachings one can clearly see the attempt to communicate the futility of speculating about the soul: whether it is finite or infinite; material or spiritual; happy after death or miserable; self-made or god-made; eternal or ephemeral. For example, the Buddha is quoted as saying, "Since neither soul nor aught belonging to soul can really and truly exist, the view which holds that this I who am 'world', who am 'soul' shall hereafter live permanent, persisting, unchanging, yea abide eternally: is not this utterly and entirely a foolish doctrine?"

A scholar named Buddhaghosa, writing in the fifth century AD, discussed the five Khandras or categories into which the early Buddhists divided the human organism for purposes of analysis. He began with the body, or the material context within which mental processes occur, then listed the four most basic of these processes: feeling, perception, the will and consciousness. He emphasized that the Khandras were intended not only to incorporate all types of human functioning, but to afford no foothold for the supernatural and the Animistic. On the basis of these and similar writings which she was the first to translate into English, Rhys Davids suggested that followers of Hina-yana Buddhism laid the foundation for a science of the mind some two thousand years before the first stumbling forays in that direction in the West. She responded to the objection that their work was mere description by comparing that necessary initial task with the premature conclusions of the psychology of her own day -- ridden as it was with Freudianism and Jungian mythology. "To start with description is a better basis for the advance of knowledge than to block the path of inference and synthesis by transcendental agencies", she said. She considered the Buddha's understanding of the nature of consciousness to be far more sophisticated than were the prevailing ideas of her own time. She quotes him as saying, "Consciousness is reckoned only in accordance with the condition causing it; visual cognition from sight and seen object, idea from mind and mental object. Just as fire is different according to its fuel. Do you see that this is a becoming and not a being? Do you see that the becoming is according to a stimulus? Do you see that if the stimulus ceases, that which has become ceases?"

There was a self-transcending continuity in the Buddha's scheme of things, but it was not a conscious soul. It was the organism, afloat in the stream of organic life. Only if this is understood can early Buddhist thought be comprehended on its own terms. And only on those terms can we appreciate its significance for psychology and for modern humanism. According to Rhys Davids, the Buddha took a bold and remarkable stand against the theories of his day. He taught that all things-as-known are caused by what went before: that all life is a coming-to-be through one state of the organism inducing another state, organism to organism, consequent to antecedent, world everlasting. He affirmed a natural organic and psychological order, for the first time in human history as a belief system for all, in direct contradiction to the Animism and mysticism of dominant world view of the period.

The idea of natural causation in what is commonly referred to as the physical realm is nothing new to modern thinkers. What makes the Buddha's theory appear prescient to us today is that it was one of monism rather than dualism: it recognized no limits to natural causation. For the Buddha the law of cause and effect applied equally to all aspects of existence: organic and inorganic, the mental and moral as well as the physical. The aspect of this view most at variance with the prevailing dualism of the following centuries is the idea that the Norm (meaning Dhamma or universal causal order) applies just as compellingly to human mental operations and moral strivings as to the physical realm to which science has typically been restricted. This is a distinctively Buddhist principle. Rhys Davids explained it as a moral creed depending upon neither revelation nor divinely inspired personal intuition, nor upon the admonitions and threats of human authority figures. It teaches the truth and necessity of moral obligation throughout and beyond the individual life span, for as long and as far afield as the necessary consequences of that individual's actions impinge upon the future.

The Buddha accomplished this revolution in religion by substituting a cosmodicy for a theodicy: a natural order of cause and effect for the moral design of a creative and punishing deity. This order does not involve the common Western notion of a divine plan working through and within nature, wherein justice is supposedly achieved in the form of supernaturally inspired punishment or reward in this world or in a Heaven or Hell beyond human existence. Instead, it is based upon a few fundamental principles about an essentially naturalistic human nature. The first principle is that certain acts -- whether motor, vocal or mental -- inevitably bring pain over the long term, to all concerned, while certain other acts bring pleasure or happiness to all, providing the time frame and interpersonal context is sufficiently extended. The second principle is that human beings are defined by how they behave (as characters in formation rather than as static essences or souls). The third is that human existence involves, not an aggregate of individual lives, but an evolving system of life: a social organism comprising but transcending the life span of the person.

It is inevitable that the new wine of the Buddha's ideas had to be conveyed in the old bottles of Animistic metaphor. So we sometimes find references, even in the Pitakas, to the Vedantist notion of transmigration of the soul, with each succeeding life being determined by current behavior. But Rhys Davids was convinced that this doctrine is entirely contradictory to the Buddha's theory of No Soul. In fact, she said, his teachings make no consistent sense unless one views life not in terms of the individual but of an evolving organism within an ecological system: all subject to cause and effect. Only in a non-anthropocentric and evolutionary frame of reference can we recognize the power and relevance of the Buddhist Norm as a moral (and psychological) law.

What of the Norm as an ideal? The function of a norm is to order the contents of experience into a scale of values, and the things of topmost value into ideals which people strive to realize. For the Buddhist, judgment of values according to the Dhamma is called a Right-view or Dhucca. Recognition of Dhucca must involve, not resignation, but revolt and escape from evil or ill. Such avoidance requires that one follow the Right-way, which has three stages. The crucial first stage concerns the development of morally healthy habits, or Sila. Here we have the precepts of Buddhism, involving abstaining from taking life, stealing, lying, gossiping or slandering, and indulging in alcohol or impure sexual practices. The second level involves a disciplined culling away of anything that might hinder the achievement of a higher quality of life, such as lust, anger, hatred, illusion and error. The culminating stage, or Nirvana, is a condition of moral purity and intellectual enlightenment. It is an acceptance of nature's way, the realization of being part of a single stream of life evolving into eternity. It is a rounding off of life's pilgrimage, to be achieved through moderation rather than fanaticism, asceticism or indulgence. And it predicates nothing about any identifiable existence of the perfected person after death. Concerning death, the Buddha is said to have referred simply to a "going out" wherein there is no residuum of life.

For this culminating stage of Nirvana, the Pitakas describe three grades of moral training. These are the higher ethics, the higher consciousness and the higher wisdom. The first involves the disciplining of everyday conduct; the second, the training of intellect, emotion and will; and the third, the application of this advanced moral outlook and trained mind to the problems of life. Matters to be understood at this stage involve: (1) the nature, causes and abolition of evil and suffering; (2) the impermanent nature of the external world and everything in it; (3) the impermanent nature of the individual person; (4) the non-existence of a permanent, transmigrating soul; (5) the nature of goodness; and (6) the nature of moral and intellectual emancipation.

It is not possible to do justice to Rhys David's scholarship, nor to her subject, in a summary such as this. The intention is merely to render a little more understandable and accessible the magnificent accomplishments of the great man about whom she wrote: Prince Gotama Siddhattha, whose ideas on psychology and ethics have such an eerily modern ring. And one can only echo Rhys David's belief that an inquiry into the bases of ancient Buddhism provides the best beginning possible for a study of the evolution of modern scientific humanist thought.


  1. This essay by was previously published as the first in a series of articles by Pat Duffy Hutcheon on the evolution of humanist thought by Pat Duffy Hutcheon in Humanist in Canada (Summer 1997), p.20-23.
  2. Subsequent references are all to Rhys Davids, Buddhism. London: The London and Norwich Press, 1912