The Philosophy of Buddhism

One could say that the history of Buddhism began with a loss of innocence. Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince of the Shakhya clan in India, had been brought up in a life of royal affluence, safe from the misery and cruelty of the world outside the palace gates, distracted by sensual pleasures and lush life. But one day the fateful encounter with the real world took place and Siddhartha was shaken to the core.


The origin and teachings of Buddhism

There, in his own kingdom, not far from his gardens and delights, he met people suffering from disease, old age and death; he brooded over these things, deeply troubled that such was the destiny of all beings. Then he met an ascetic holy man, a renunciant dedicated to liberation. The prince then undertook the great renunciation, abandoning his family, his fortune and his kingdom in pursuit of the path of liberation. The central and profound question that burned in Gautama was: "How can suffering be ended?"

He became a wandering ascetic, practiced yogic disciplines and meditation, studied with various teachers and attained high states of consciousness; but he still did not find the answer to his question. He practiced severe forms of asceticism, almost to death by starvation, all without gain. Finally, he sat under a bodhi tree, determined not to rise from meditation until he had gained the insight he was seeking. Soon after, he attained enlightenment; he became the Buddha -- the Enlightened One.

He had ascended through different stages of meditative awareness, he had seen all his past lives, and he had seen directly into reality, into the nature of existence and the causes of suffering and rebirth. He wondered if he should try to teach these ideas, which were so subtle and difficult for others to understand; perhaps it would be futile.

But in the end he decided that at least some people would be able to understand; perhaps more importantly, they could be shown the way to arrive at these ideas themselves. He gave his first sermon to a few disciples in the Benares deer park, and then continued to wander and teach for the next forty-five years until his death at the age of eighty.

He was born in the sixth century B.C.E., at a time of great upheaval and political change in India; many were dissatisfied with the Vedic religion, and new teachings had emerged, including the Upanishads. The Buddha stood largely outside the Vedic tradition, criticizing many of its central teachings. Nevertheless, he had been influenced by this tradition and his teachings, in turn, would have a profound effect on teachers later in the Hindu tradition, such as Shankara; even in Hindu classics such as the Bhagavad Gita, some reaction can be observed to the Buddhist teachings.

But centuries later, the influence of the Buddha faded in India and spread to other Asian countries. Today, Buddhism has spread throughout the world. Various sects emerged as teachers reinterpreted and exposed the basic teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism can be seen as a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, or all three; here we will deal mainly with Buddhism as a philosophical system.





Buddhist Metaphysics

The Buddha's main concern was to eliminate suffering, to find a cure for the pain of human existence. In this respect, he was compared to a doctor, and his teaching was compared to a medical or psychological prescription. Like a doctor, he observed the symptoms - the disease from which the human race suffered; then he gave a diagnosis - the cause of the disease; then he gave the prognosis - it could be cured; and finally he gave the prescription - the method by which the disease could be cured.

His first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, follows this model. First, the idea that "life is dukkha." Dukkha translates into suffering, pain, impermanence; it is the unsatisfactory quality of life that is targeted here - life is often beset with grief and difficulties, and even at its best, it is never completely satisfactory. We always want more happiness, less pain. But this "wanting more" is itself the problem: the second noble truth teaches that the pain of life is caused by the "tanha" - our desires, our attachments, our selfishness in grasping pleasure and avoiding pain.

Is anything else possible? The third noble truth says yes; complete liberation from attachment and dukkha is possible, liberation from pain and rebirth. The fourth noble truth says how to achieve this liberation; it describes the Noble Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana, the total extinction of the pain of existence.

Another main teaching of Buddhist metaphysics is known as the Three Marks of Existence. The first is Anicca, impermanence: everything is transitory, nothing lasts. The second is Anatta, No-Self or No-Soul: human beings, and all existence, is without soul or self. There is no eternal and unchanging part of us, like the Hindu idea of Atman; there is no eternal and unchanging aspect of the universe, like the Hindu idea of Brahman.

The whole idea of self is seen as an illusion, an illusion that causes immeasurable suffering; this false idea gives rise to the consequent tendency to try to protect the self or the ego and to preserve one's interests, which is vain since nothing is permanent anyway. The third mark of existence is that of Dukkha, suffering: all existence, not only human existence but also the highest states of meditation, are forms of suffering, ultimately inadequate and unsatisfactory.


The three brands

The three marks of existence can be seen as the basis of the four noble truths above; in turn, the three marks of existence can be seen as stemming from an even more fundamental Buddhist theory, that of Pratityasamutpada: Dependent Origin, or interdependent co-creation. This theory says that all things are caused and are caused by other things; all existence is conditioned, nothing exists independently, and there is no First Cause. There has been no beginning to the chain of causality; it is useless to speculate on how the phenomenal existence began. However, it can be ended, and that is the ultimate goal of Buddhism - the ultimate liberation of all creatures from the pain of existence.

This causality is sometimes referred to as a circular connection of twelve different factors; if the chain of causality can be broken, existence ends and liberation is achieved. One of these factors is attachment or thirst, the tanha, and another is ignorance; these two factors are emphasized as the weak links in the chain, the place to take a break. To overcome selfish desire, one cultivates the heart through compassion; to eliminate ignorance, one cultivates the mind through wisdom.

Compassion and wisdom are twin virtues in Buddhism, and are cultivated through ethical behavior and meditation, respectively. It is a process of self-discipline and personal development that emphasizes the heart and mind equally, and stresses that working together is necessary for enlightenment.

If Buddhism can be seen as a process of self-development, one might ask what is a person, if not a soul or a self. In accordance with the ideas of dependent origin, Buddhism views a person as a changing configuration of five factors, or "skandhas". First there is the world of physical forms, the body and all material objects, including the sense organs. Secondly, there is the factor of sensation or feeling; here are the five senses and the mind, which in Buddhism is considered a sense organ.

The mind feels thoughts and ideas in the same way that the eye feels light or the ear feels air pressure. Thirdly, there is the factor of perception; this is the faculty that recognizes physical and mental objects. Fourth, there is the factor which is variously called mental impulses or formulations; here is the will and attention, the faculty of will, the force of habit.

Finally, there is the faculty of consciousness or awareness. In Buddhism, consciousness is not something separate from the other factors, but it interacts with them and depends on them for its existence; there is no unconditional birth of consciousness. Here we do not see the identity of the person as a constancy, but rather as an ephemeral and changing assortment or process of various factors that interact with each other. One of the major goals of Buddhism is first to become aware of this process and then to eliminate it by eliminating its causes.

This process does not end with the dissolution of the physical body at death; Buddhism assumes reincarnation. Even if there is no soul to continue after death, the five skandhas are seen as continuing, fueled by past karma, and resulting in rebirth. Karma in Buddhism, as in Hinduism, arises from voluntary action and has positive or negative effects in this life or in a future life. Buddhism explains the karmic mechanism a little differently; it is not the results of the action itself that result from karma, but rather the state of mind of the person performing the action.

Again, Buddhism tends to focus on psychological intuitions; the problem with bad or selfish action is that it shapes our personality, creates ruts or habitual patterns of thinking and feeling. These patterns in turn translate into the effects of karma in our lives.

Many other metaphysical questions were asked of the Buddha during his lifetime; he did not answer them all. He avoided more abstract and speculative metaphysical reflections, and discouraged questions such as obstacles in the way. Questions such as what Nirvana is, what preceded existence, etc. were often addressed through silence or what may have seemed like a mysterious darkness. Asked what happens to an Arhant, an enlightened Arhant, when he dies, the Buddha is said to have answered, "What happens to the footprints of birds in the air?". Nirvana means 'extinction' and he compared the death of an arhant to the extinction of a flame when the fuel (karma) runs out. Clearly, he felt that many of these issues stemmed from a false attachment to oneself and diverted attention from the main goal of eliminating suffering.




The Path to Liberation: The Buddhist Way of Life

The Buddha wanted his philosophy to be a practical one, aiming at the happiness of all creatures. As he described his metaphysics, he did not expect anyone to accept it by faith, but rather to verify its understanding himself; he always emphasized clarity and understanding. To achieve this, however, requires a disciplined life and a clear commitment to liberation; the Buddha outlined a clear path to the goal and also made observations on how to live life wisely.

The heart of this teaching is contained in the Noble Eightfold Path, which covers the three essential areas of Buddhist practice: ethical conduct, mental discipline ("concentration" or "meditation"), and wisdom. The goal is to cultivate both wisdom and compassion; then these qualities together will eventually lead to enlightenment. The path is laid out in eight steps, but all steps can be practiced simultaneously, since they work together.

The first two steps or factors constitute Wisdom. Right understanding (or right vision) is the understanding of true reality, as seen in the Buddhist teachings; it is not simply an intellectual understanding, although it helps. It is rather a direct insight and penetration into the nature of things. Good thinking (or good intentions) is that state of mind which is selfless, detached, and free from malice; that generosity of spirit which extends loving kindness to all beings.

The next three steps on the Eightfold Path constitute ethical conduct. Good speech involves refraining from lies, coarse or malicious language, senseless gossip, slander, or slander that may cause disagreement. It means telling a gentle, kind and helpful truth, or not speaking at all. Right action requires refraining from killing and from violence, theft, dishonest practices, intoxicating drinks and inappropriate sexual behaviour. A good livelihood means refraining from any occupation that harms others, such as arming, butchering animals or selling alcohol. A career must also develop one's talents, overcome ego by joining in a common cause and provide what is necessary for a dignified existence - the basic comforts and necessities, but not the ostentatious luxuries.


The last three steps

The last three steps of the path are those that promote mental discipline. The right effort is the will to cultivate healthy states of mind and to eliminate those that are bad or undesirable. Mindfulness (or attention) involves being very aware of the processes involved in daily life, those of the body, sensations, mind and experience of thoughts and ideas.

Mindfulness is practiced in Buddhist forms of meditation such as Vipassana, through techniques such as observation of breathing and body sensations. Mindfulness refers to the progressive stages of dhyana (this is closer to what is called meditation in most Hindu traditions). In this discipline, the mind is gradually freed from passionate desires, then thoughts, and finally feelings of joy, until only pure consciousness remains, in a state of perfect calm and equanimity.

Other teachings speak of the four friends and five obstacles that one encounters along the way; these are qualities in the heart that can help or divert attention from the process. The four friends are: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Loving kindness is universal love for all beings, without distinction. Compassion is the ability to sympathize with others, to feel what they feel. Sympathetic joy is the quality that takes pleasure in the happiness of others.

Equanimity is a calm acceptance of everything that happens, based on the understanding of the impermanence of all things; in the end, the only thing that really matters is liberation, so the vicissitudes of life are meaningless. The five obstacles are: sensual desire, unwillingness, laziness and torpor, restlessness and anxiety, or distraction, and skeptical doubt. Everyone has these obstacles in common, so it is important to find ways to eliminate them; they are like toxins or weeds that prevent the cultivation of these essential qualities for self-discipline and hinder our liberation.


The teachings of Buddha

The Buddha's teachings on ethics and quality of life also extended to the social and political realm. He was ahead of his time in many ways; considering all people as equals, he rejected the caste system and openly encouraged women to become students and teachers. He taught that governments had a responsibility to lead by example, to teach people ethics and to eliminate poverty by giving them the opportunity to become prosperous.

He was clearly opposed to all forms of war and taught that violence can never create security. Consistent with these teachings, Buddhism is rare among the world's religions in that its followers have never attempted to spread their beliefs through the use of force. Unique among the victorious rulers, the Buddhist Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century BCE renounced violence and war and placed Buddhist ethical virtues at the center of his government.

If we consider the Buddhist path as a philosophy, we can consider its epistemology: some claims of knowledge have been made, but how do we know if they are true? As stated above, the Buddha himself never asked anyone to accept unproven assertions of faith, and in fact discouraged them from doing so. He maintained that his teachings could be verified by direct insight and reasoning, by anyone willing to consider them and follow the necessary path of self-discipline.

Starting from a few basic assumptions, such as impermanence and dependent origin, he derived a complex and coherent system of philosophy that was maintained for centuries. Later, teachers validated his claim that others could achieve the same ideas, and they developed his basic teachings with impressive intuitive depth and intellectual rigor.

In this way, the Buddhist teaching itself became a kind of interactive and evolutionary process, much like his idea of practiceasamutpada. However, the ultimate goal is always Nirvana, which is an experience that ultimately transcends all concepts and languages, even beyond the Buddhist teachings. Ultimately, even the attachment to the Dharma, the Buddhist teaching, must be abandoned like any other attachment. Tradition compares the teaching to a raft on which one crosses a fast river to get to the other side; once on the other bank, it is no longer necessary to carry the raft. The distant shore is Nirvana, and it is also said that when you arrive, you can see very clearly that there has never been a river at all.