The above are the essential doctrines of the original Buddhism. They are at the same time its distinctive doctrines; that is to say, the doctrines that distinguish it from all previous teaching in India. But the Buddha, while rejecting the sacrifices and the ritualistic magic of the brahmin schools, the animistic superstitions of the people, the asceticism and soul-theory of the Jains, and the pantheistic speculations of the poets of the pre-Buddhistic Upanishads, still retained the belief in transmigration. This belief - the transmigration of the soul, after the death of the body, into other bodies, either of men, beasts or gods - is part of the animistic creed so widely found throughout the world that it was probably universal. In India it had already, before the rise of Buddhism, been raised into an ethical conception by the associated doctrine of Karma, according to which a man's social position in life and his physical advantages, or the reverse, were the result of his actions in a previous birth. The doctrine thus afforded an explanation, quite complete to those who believed it, of the apparent anomalies and wrongs in the distribution here of happiness or woe. A man, for instance, is blind. This is owing to his lust of the eye in a previous birth.
But he has also unusual powers of hearing. This is because he loved, in a previous birth, to listen to the preaching of the law. The explanation could always be exact, for it was scarcely more than a repetition of the point to be explained. It fits the facts because it is derived from them. And it cannot be disproved, for it lies in a sphere beyond the reach of human inquiry.
It was because it thus provided a moral cause that it was retained in Buddhism. But as the Buddha did not acknowledge a soul, the link of connexion between one life and the next had to be found somewhere else. The Buddha found it (as Plato also found it) in the influence exercised upon one life by a desire felt in the previous life. When two thinkers of such eminence (probably the two greatest ethical thinkers of antiquity) have arrived independently at this strange conclusion, have agreed in ascribing to cravings, felt in this life, so great, and to us so inconceivable, a power over the future life, we may well hesitate before we condemn the idea as intrinsically absurd, and we may take note of the important fact that, given similar conditions, similar stages in the development of religious belief, men's thoughts, even in spite of the most unquestioned individual originality, tend though they may never produce exactly the same results, to work in similar ways.
In India, before Buddhism, conflicting and contradictory views prevailed as to the precise mode of action of Karma; and we find this confusion reflected in Buddhist theory. The prevailing views are tacked on, as it were, to the essential doctrines of Buddhism, without being thoroughly assimilated to them, or logically incorporated with them. Thus in the story of the good layman Citta, it is an aspiration expressed on the deathbed; in the dialogue on the subject, it is a thought dwelt on during life, in the numerous stories in the Peta and Vimāna Vatthus it is usually some isolated act, in the discussions in the Dhamma Sangani it is some mental disposition, which is the Karma (doing or action) in the one life determining the position of the individual in the next. These are really conflicting propositions. They are only alike in the fact that in each case a moral cause is given for the position in which the individual finds himself now; and the moral cause is his own act.
In the popular belief, followed also in the brahmin theology, the bridge between the two lives was a minute and subtle entity called the soul, which left the one body at death, through a hole at the top of the head, and entered into the new body. The new body happened to be there, ready, with no soul in it. The soul did not make the body. In the Buddhist adaptation of this theory no soul, no consciousness, no memory, goes over from one body to the other. It is the grasping, the craving, still existing at the death of the one body that causes the new set of Skandhas, that is, the new body with its mental tendencies and capacities, to arise. How this takes place is nowhere explained.
The Indian theory of Karma has been worked out with many points of great beauty and ethical value. And the Buddhist adaptation of it, avoiding some of the difficulties common to it and to the allied European theories of fate and predestination, tries to explain the weight of the universe in its action on the individual, the heavy hand of the immeasurable past we cannot escape, the close connexion between all forms of life, and the mysteries of inherited character. Incidentally it held out the hope, to those who believed in it, of a mode of escape from the miseries of transmigration. For as the Arahat had conquered the cravings that were supposed to produce the new body, his actions were no longer Karma, but only Kiriyā, that led to no rebirth.
Another point of Buddhist teaching adopted from previous belief was the practice of ecstatic meditation. In the very earliest times of the most remote animism we find the belief that a person, rapt from all sense of the outside world, possessed by a spirit, acquired from that state a degree of sanctity, was supposed to have a degree of insight, denied to ordinary mortals. In India from the soma frenzy in the Vedas, through the mystic reveries of the Upanishads, and the hypnotic trances of the ancient Yoga, allied beliefs and practices had never lost their importance and their charm. It is clear from the Dialogues, and other of the most ancient Buddhist records, that the belief was in full force when Buddhism arose, and that the practice was followed by the Buddha's teachers. It was quite impossible for him to ignore the question; and the practice was admitted as a part of the training of the Buddhist Bhikshu. But it was not the highest or the most important part, and might be omitted altogether. The states of Rapture are called Conditions of Bliss, and they are regarded as useful for the help they give towards the removal of the mental obstacles to the attainment of Arahatship. Of the thirty-seven constituent parts of Arahatship they enter into one group of four.