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Reasons and Persons$

Derek Parfit

Print publication date: 1986

Print ISBN-13: 9780198249085

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/019824908X.001.0001

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J Buddha's View

J Buddha's View

Reasons and Persons
Oxford University Press

At the beginning of their conversation the king politely asks the monk his name, and receives the following reply: ‘Sir, I am known as “Nagasena”; my fellows in the religious life address me as “Nagasena”. Although my parents gave (me) the name “Nagasena” . . . it is just an appellation, a form of speech, a description, a conventional usage. “Nagasena” is only a name, for no person is found here.’27

  • A sentient being does exist, you think, O Mara?
  • You are misled by a false conception.
  • This bundle of elements is void of Self,
  • In it there is no sentient being,
  • Just as a set of wooden parts,
  • Receives the name of carriage,
  • So do we give to elements,
  • The name of fancied being.28

Buddha has spoken thus: ‘O Brethren, actions do exist, and also their consequences, but the person that acts does not. There is no one to cast away this set of elements and no one to assume a new set of them. There exists no Individual, it is only a conventional name given to a set of elements.’29

Vasubandhu: . . . When Buddha says, ‘I myself was this teacher Sunetra’, he means that his past and his present belong to one and the same lineage of momentary existences; he does not mean that the former elements did not disappear. Just as when we say ‘this same fire which has been seen consuming that thing has reached this object’, the fire is not the same, but overlooking this difference we indirectly call fire the continuity of its moments.30


Vatsiputriya. If there is no Soul, who is it that remembers? Vasubandhu: What is the meaning of the word ‘to remember’? Vatsiputriya. It means to grasp an object by memory. Vasubandhu. Is this ‘grasping by memory’ something different from memory? Vatsiputriya. It is an agent who acts through memory. Vasubandhu. The agency by which memory is produced we have just explained. The cause producive of a recollection is a suitable state of mind, nothing more. Vatsiputriya. But when we use the expression ‘Caitra remembers’, what does it mean? Vasubandhu. In the current of phenomena which is designated by the name Caitra, a recollection appears.31

The Buddhist term for an individual, a term which is intended to suggest the difference between the Buddhist view and other theories, is santana, i.e. a ‘stream’.32

Vatsiputriya. What is an actual, and what a nominal existence? Vasubandhu. If something exists by itself (as a separate element) it has an actual existence. But if something represents a combination (of such elements) it is a nominal existence.33

  • The mental and the material are really here,
  • But here there is no human being to be found.
  • For it is void and merely fashioned like a doll,
  • Just suffering piled up like grass and sticks.34


(27) From the Milina Panha, quoted in COLLINS, pp. 182‐3.

(28) Cila Mara, quoted in Th. Stcherbatsky, ‘The Soul Theory of the Buddhists’, Bulletin de l'Academie des Sciences de Russie, 1919, p. 839.

(29) Vasubandhu, quoted in Stcherbatsky, op. cit., p. 845.

(30) Quoted in Stcherbatsky, op. cit., p. 851.

(31) op. cit., p. 853.

(32) See COLLINS, pp. 247‐61.

(33) T. Stcherbatsky, The Central Conception of Buddhism, Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1923, p. 26.

(34) The Visuddhimagga, quoted in COLLINS, p. 133.