Buddhist Philosophy Part II: Impermanence, Suffering and the Illusion of Self

The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the so-called Middle Way, for which Buddhism is perhaps most known for represent the very basic tenets of Buddhism in all its forms.  Within this philosophical framework are included not only a unique perspective on the nature of reality itself which distinguish it from all other theo-philosophical traditions in antiquity, and in modern times, but also the basic guiding principles upon which a good and fulfilling life, and ultimately liberation and “enlightenment”, i.e. nirvana, or the cessation of suffering, can be achieved.

These core Buddhist tenets are primarily understood through a set of sutras referred to as the Dharmacakrapravartanasūtram, or as it is sometimes translated, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma.  These teachings can be found in the Sutra Pitaka, a section of Pali Canon which is believed to represent the earliest and most authoritative text of Buddhist philosophy.  This teaching, akin to Jesus’s sermon on the mount, is was said to be delivered to five ascetic monks (bhikkhus) with whom he had practiced austerities with after he had renounced his royal heritage and who became his first followers.

As the story is told, upon approaching his former ascetic brethren, given that they recognized that he was no longer following their extreme ascetic ways being that he was fully clothed and well fed, his former friends were at first reluctant to receive him.  However, after seeing him come closer, it was clear that he was a changed man, an enlightened and illumined being of sorts, and henceforth the monks sat and eagerly received his teachings.

Then the Realized One [Tathāgato], monks, in the first watch of the night agreed (to teach) by keeping silent, in the middle watch of the night he took delight in what was to be said, in the last watch of the night he addressed the auspicious group-of-five, (saying):

“There are these two extremes, monks, that one who has gone forth ought not to descend to, which is this: being joined and clinging to the pleasure in sense pleasures, which is low, vulgar, worldly, not very noble, not connected with the goal, not (helpful) for the spiritual life in the future, not leading to world-weariness, dispassion, cessation, deep knowledge, Complete Awakening, and Emancipation [Nirvana]; and this, which is not the middle practice: devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, not connected with the goal, painful in this very life and in the future where it results in pain.

Not having approached either of these two extremes, monks, the Doctrine of the middle practice [Middle Way] is being taught by the Realized One, which is this: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, right concentration.

There are these Four Noble Truths, monks.  Which four?  Suffering, the arising of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the practice leading to the cessation of suffering.

Herein, what is suffering?  Birth is suffering also old age is suffering also sickness is suffering also death, being joined to what is not dear, being separated from what is dear, is suffering also not to obtain what one seeks for is suffering in brief.  The five constituent parts (of mind and body) that provide fuel for attachment are suffering.  This is said to be suffering.

Herein, what is the arising of suffering?  it is that craving which leads to continuation in existence, which is connected with enjoyment and passion.  This is said to be the arising of suffering.

Herein, what is the cessation of suffering?   It is the complete fading away and cessation without remainder of the birth of that craving, which greatly enjoys this and that, and is connected with enjoyment and passion.  This is [said to be] the cessation of suffering.

Herein, what is the practice leading to the cessation of suffering?  It is the noble eightfold path [Noble Eightfold Path], which is this:

  • right view [samyag-dṛṣṭiḥ],
  • right thought [samyak-saṁkalpaḥ],
  • right speech [samyag-vākright],
  • right action [samyak-karmāntaḥ],
  • right livelihood [samyag-ājīvaḥ],
  • right endeavor [samyag-vyāyāmaḥ],
  • right mindfulness [samyak-smṛtiḥ],
  • right concentration [samyak-samādhir-iti].[1]

What we find here first and foremost in the initial part of his teaching is the fundamental belief that the basic problem of life, the one essential aspect of being to which all mankind is afflicted, is suffering.  Furthermore, he outlines from the very start that his “revelation”, was not just that the nature of being or existence itself was essentially characterized by this notion of suffering (duḥkha in Sanskrit, or dukkha in Pali)[2], but that in fact he had “discovered” the source of this suffering, as well the specific practices and principles by which it could ultimately be eliminated, i.e. what he called the “cessation of suffering”.  These principles and this path, again the so-called “Middle Way”, are referred to as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

While The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path represent the cornerstones of Buddha’s teachings, he also lays out a fairly sophisticated metaphysical framework upon which the intellectual foundations of his philosophy rests.  Herein lies the philosophic portion of Buddhism, where he defines what he believes to be the true nature of “reality”, the fundamental characteristic of “being” and “existence” itself, which when properly understood, hold the key to the liberation from what is sometimes called the “wheel of dharma”.

At its core, Buddhist philosophy is based upon the notion that it is from a very basic and fundamental misconception and misunderstanding of the true nature of reality which is the cause, or source, of suffering in all its forms.  It is fair to say then that Buddha’s teaching is based upon a fully rational and logical system of cause and effect, marking a stark departure – at least from his point of view – from the faith based theo-philosophical systems which dominated the intellectual landscape in the Indian subcontinent in the middle of the first millennium BCE and placing his teachings squarely within the philosophical intellectual revolution that sprung forth throughout Eurasian antiquity at that time – parallel to the Hellenic philosophical tradition to the West and the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition to the East.

The source of suffering according to Buddha’s teachings as interpreted and understood by his followers is based upon three basic “misconceptions”, or falsehoods, upon which he not only establishes his “worldview”, but also provide the rational foundation of his Four Noble Truths and in turn the Noble Eightfold Path, the basic practices and principles to be followed to end suffering once and for all.  These misconceptions are referred to in the Buddhist tradition as the “three marks of existence”, or tilakkhaṇa in Pali (trilakṣaṇa in Sanskrit).  They are:

  • anicca(anitya in Sanskrit), typically translated as “Impermanence”[3],
  • dukkhain Pali, duḥkha in Sanskrit, which is typically translated as “suffering” but a more literal translation might be “unsatisfactoriness”, and
  • anattā, anātman in Sanskrit, which means literally “non-self”, or more literally translated as the “lack of existence of self”, or perhaps more aptly put as the “illusion” of self.[4]

It is from these three fundamental “misconceptions” from which our experience of suffering originates according to Buddha, and upon which the intellectual foundations of his Middle Path are based.

From the Khuddaka Nikāya, or “Minor Collection”, section of the Sutta Pitaka called the Dhammapada[5], or “Way of Dharma”, one of the cornerstone texts in all of Buddhist scripture, we find the following description of these “three marks of existence” as they relate to the Noble Eightfold Path and Four Noble Truths:

Of all the paths the Eightfold Path is the best; of all the truths the Four Noble Truths are the best; of all things passionlessness is the best: of men the Seeing One (the Buddha) is the best.

This is the only path; there is none other for the purification of insight. Tread this path, and you will bewilder Mara.

Walking upon this path you will make an end of suffering. Having discovered how to pull out the thorn of lust, I make known the path.

You yourselves must strive; the Buddhas only point the way. Those meditative ones who tread the path are released from the bonds of Mara.

“All conditioned things are impermanent” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

“All things are not-self” — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

The idler who does not exert himself when he should, who though young and strong is full of sloth, with a mind full of vain thoughts — such an indolent man does not find the path to wisdom.

Let a man be watchful of speech, well controlled in mind, and not commit evil in bodily action. Let him purify these three courses of action, and win the path made known by the Great Sage.

Wisdom springs from meditation; without meditation wisdom wanes. Having known these two paths of progress and decline, let a man so conduct himself that his wisdom may increase.[6]

The passage above come from the chapter called “Magga Vagga”, or “Maggavagga”, typically translated as “The Way” or “Path”, and while it most likely represents a compilation of sayings and teachings of Buddha that were only later organized under a single heading or chapter, it still nonetheless philosophically connects the Eightfold Noble Path, the Four Noble Truths, and the tilakkhaṇa, i.e. the “three marks of existence”, arguably the three most distinctive characteristics of Buddhist philosophy.

Here, anicca (change or impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anattā (no-self) are described as points of contemplation which lead one along the “path of purification”, providing the rational basis as it were of the Four Noble Truths.  That is to say, it is the confusion surrounding the notion of the existence of Self (in particular as it was understood in Vedic philosophy), the illusion of any sort of permanent existence, and the recognition that anything that is “conditioned” or “qualified” in any way can only ultimately lead to a lack of satisfaction at some level, that form the backbone of ignorance from which the basic problem of human suffering originates from.  So these three elementary characteristics of “reality”, or again “being”, are presented as being necessary and critical to the “purification” process which underlies the means by which cessation of suffering can be achieved.  It’s important to note that the intellectual system is entirely rational, and in this sense it not only marks a significant departure from the theo-philosophical systems that preceded it in the Indian subcontinent, but it also places Buddhism squarely within the context of “philosophy”, particularly as it was understood in classical antiquity as reflected of Logos over Mythos, rather than “religion” as it is most often times viewed.

These three complementary and interrelated “marks of existence” permeate Buddhist philosophy and reflect the fact that according to Buddha’s teaching, it is ignorance, or lack of knowledge, that is the source of basic predicament of man, and conversely that “knowledge”, or the absence of ignorance, is the source of liberation, enlightenment or nirvana.  These elemental, and primarily psychic, “marks of existence” therefore constitute the intellectual basis upon which the Four Noble Truths are constructed, and through which as explained in this passage above, the bonds of “Mara”, the deity that personified desire and death which the Buddha directly encountered and overcame on his journey toward enlightenment, can be broken.

Impermanence is the cornerstone of these three principles really, as it is the common thread under which all three “illusions” or “misconceptions” can be understood.  It is mankind’s lack of recognition of the true nature of impermanence, as it relates to existence itself, which represents the fundamental ignorance, again the lack of knowledge, which is at the very root of the of the problem of human suffering according to Buddha.  It is the very core of the intellectual problem as it were, a problem which rests on the principles of reason and causality, and therefore represents the “thorn” which must be removed in order that this “chain of causality” which underlies the problem of suffering can be broken.  Impermanence then, is the basic metaphysical and philosophical tenet upon which all Buddhist philosophy fundamentally rests, the contemplation and full realization of which – again knowledge or lack of ignorance surrounding the true nature of – becomes the essential component of the attainment of nirvana.

From the Samyutta Nikaya portion of the Sutra Pitaka , we find further explanation of this notion of impermanence, anicca, and how it is directly associated to the principle of “non-self”, anattā.

The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus [monks], developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”

Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.” — SN 22.102[7]

The direct causal relationship between impermanence (anicca) and “suffering” (dukkha) is described as being caused by this illusion of self, this notion that “I am”, or that “I exist”, something that Buddha clearly saw as not only flawed, but totally based upon falsehoods and misconceptions surrounding the nature of reality.  But in this sense Buddha’s teaching is not all that revolutionary.  The idea that a misconception of the idea of self, or soul, or confusion surrounding the nature of existence was at the very heart of the philosophical revolution throughout the classical period of Eurasian antiquity.  But this intellectual connection between these misconceptions, and the full acceptance of the rule of cause and effect in not just the domain of philosophy but also theology, or metaphysics, is surely one of the very unique and lasting contributions of Buddhist philosophy.  Suffering then, is directly causally linked to impermanence itself, and once this is established and truly understood, it then becomes possible to eradicate it entirely.

“The body, bhikkhus [monks], is impermanent.  What is impermanent, that is suffering.  What is suffering, that is not-self.  What is not-self [should be considered as] ‘This is not mine,’ ‘I am not this,’ ‘This is not myself’: in this manner it should be seen according to actuality with perfect wisdom.

“Feeling is impermanent… Perception… Mental activities… Consciousness is impermanent.  What is impermanent, that is suffering.  What is suffering, that is not-self.  What is not-self, should be considered, ‘This is not mine,’ ‘I am not this,’ ‘This is not myself’: in this manner it should be seen according to actuality with perfect wisdom.” — SN 22.15[8]

Here, impermanence and suffering are not only “causally” equated, but the attainment of perfect wisdom, the end goal of Buddhist philosophy from which one can liberate themselves from suffering, is described as the practice of, and full and complete recognition and understanding of, the lack of existence of this notion of “self”, i.e. anattā.  It is this notion of “not-self” – in Sanskrit anatman – which in fact represents the major philosophical departure from the prevailing philosophical doctrines of the Vedic schools of philosophy which rest squarely not only on the existence of “self”, or atman, but also its indivisibility and ultimate unity with the cosmic Self, or Brahman, the existence of which Buddha also denies.  So impermanence and confusion regarding the idea of one’s one existence, become the cornerstone elements of Buddhist philosophy, ideas which are born out of the Vedic philosophical tradition from which Buddha is exposed during his journeying and wandering days, but which represent an almost complete inversion of the system itself, a system which is based upon reason, logic and causality rather than ritual, scripture or blind faith.

The important and relevant rational and logical deduction here however with respect to the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and its relationship to suffering, and in turn the existence of a path or way by which suffering can be eliminated, is that this idea of self-existence itself is fundamentally flawed, hence the importance of the notion of “not-self”, anattā, in the Buddhist philosophical tradition, which when fully comprehended and “realized”, can form the intellectual basis upon which suffering itself can be completely, utterly, entirely and absolutely eliminated.  This belief system depends upon two assumptions of course, a) that the basic problem of existence is not god realization or the attainment of heaven after death or even immortality but the avoidance of suffering, and b) that reality itself is not only fully “rational”, but that it also rests entirely upon metaphysical and ideological principles, i.e. our reality is governed by our minds and beliefs.


[1] From Dharmacakrapravartanasūtram, The Discourse that Set the Dharma-Wheel Rolling, edited and Translated by Anandajoti Bhikkhu, August 2009 pgs 9-10.  According to the author this translation is from the Sanskrit text Lalitavistara (literally “An Elaboration of the Play [of the Buddha]”), one of the central texts of the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism which begins with Buddha’s decision to leave Heaven, and then follows the narrative of his birth life and practices until his Awakening, culminating with this final discourse delivered to his former 5 ascetic monastics which become his first disciples and to which he delivers his sermon on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, i.e. the Dharmacakrapravartanasūtra.  Note that while the text of the Sanskrit version is very close to the extant Pāḷi version of the Discourse, there are some variations albeit minor, speaking to the consistently of the transmission of the content of the discourse itself.

[2] Dukkha is opposed to the Pali or Sanskrit work sukha, which meaning “happiness,” “comfort” or “ease”.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Sukha’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 April 2016, 23:28 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sukha&oldid=715303916&gt; [accessed 14 April 2016]

[3] The Pali word anicca is a compound word consisting of “a” meaning “non” or “lack of”, and “nicca” meaning “constant, continuous, permanent”, denoting that which is literally “not permanent” or “not lasting”.

[4] See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Three marks of existence’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 October 2016, 10:04 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Three_marks_of_existence&oldid=742873817> [accessed 6 October 2016]

[5] The Pali word Dhammapada is a compound of two words, dhamma, which is equivalent to the Sanskrit word dharma, and “pada”.  Dhamma is not only a key Buddhist philosophical term, but also an important word and concept in orthodox Indian philosophy as well.  In the Buddhist tradition it is sometimes used to denote Buddha’s teachings as a whole, or alternatively it can mean simply “righteousness”, or “way” or “path”.  Pada means “foot” in Pali, and therefore in this context Dhammapada can be understood to denote the way of truth or righteousness.  The word is certainly reminiscent of the elemental Chinese philosophic notion of “Dao”, which is also typically translated as “way” or “path”.  The Dhammapada consists of 423 verses and is classically organized into 26 separate chapters or headings, all of which contain sayings and teachings which are attributed to the Buddha himself.  Many of the verses and passages in the Dhammapada can be found in other parts of the Pali Canon as well, signifying their importance within the context of Buddhist teachings as a whole.

[6] Dhammpadda.  Chapter XX, Maggavagga: “The Path”, pgs 273-289.  Translated from the Pali by Acharya Buddharakkhita, 1996. at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.20.budd.html

[7]Samyutta Nikaya, 22.102.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html#vagga-3.

[8] Samyutta Nikaya, 22.15.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html#vagga-3.

The Legend of Prince Siddhartha: Buddhist Philosophy Part I

Running parallel to the maturation and evolution of Hellenic philosophy, to the East the Indo-Aryan people were going through a similar intellectual revolution from the prevalence of ritual and ceremonial worship of gods and goddesses embedded in their mythologically steeped traditions as preserved in their Hindu (Vedic) scripture, to a more speculative and metaphysical mode of inquiry into the nature of reality and existence and its relationship to change, impermanence, and the immortality of the Soul, or Self (Atman) as it was referred to in the Vedas.

The aim of this inquiry, again just as it was in the West in the Hellenic philosophical tradition which was emerging at contemporaneously, was to explain not only the nature of reality, being, or “existence”, but also mankind’s place in as well as expound upon the goal of life, i.e. happiness, enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, moksha, eudaemonia or whatever other term the specific theo-philosophical tradition chose to denote this idea.  Unique to the Indo-Aryan philosophical tradition, which was also shared by Buddhism its close cousin, was that there existed a path to the ultimate liberation of the human Soul, by means of which death itself could be overcome.  This belief system was not just steeped in the notion of “realization”, or absolute knowledge (vidya), that which was spoken of by the great sages or seers of old, i.e. the Rishis, but also was characterized and underpinned by a system of metaphysics within which the nature of the Soul could be understood, and through which the means by which the Soul could be ultimately liberated rested upon.  This fundamentally intellectual development was driven not only by the analysis, commentary and interpretation of the more esoteric and philosophical aspects of the Vedas, or more specifically the Upanishads, but also by the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, the historical figure who is the founder of Buddhism.

Buddhism takes root in the Indian subcontinent toward the end of the 5th century BCE or so, originating in the northeast border between modern India and Nepal where Siddhartha Gautama was born (and where he presumably taught as well) at around the same time that the first of the Upanishads were compiled.  In modern academic literature, Buddhism is typically considered to be part of a broader philosophical movement that arose as an alternative to Vedic religion in the first half of the first millennium BCE in the Indian subcontinent called Śramaṇa.  This movement included Jainism, as well as other heterodox – i.e. not adhering to the Vedas as authoritative scripture – theo-philosophical schools of thought.[1]

The rise and influence of Buddhism then must be seen within the context of a broader intellectual movement that arose on the outskirts of the ancient Indo-Aryan civilization which reflected a basic and fundamental dissatisfaction with Vedic philosophy, culture and tradition as a means to liberation.  It represented almost a rebellion of sorts to the orthodox theological and religious dogma that was prevalent at the time which was encased within a very structured and elitist socio-political structure, i.e. Varna, which closely guarded theological study and knowledge by a specific class of society, i.e. the Brahmins, and which held that moksha, or immortality, was to be practiced only by the well trained and select few. Siddhartha, after much trials and tribulation, and after following many different paths and teachings, concluded that the prevailing orthodox Vedic philosophical system as a means to liberation or happiness was fundamentally flawed and after his Awakening, came up with an alternative philosophy (and underlying metaphysics) which became the basis of Buddhism in all its different variants today.

The popularity and spread of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent in the last half of the first millennium BCE, which spread all the way into the Far East and regions of Chinese cultural influence in the first few centuries of the Common Era and beyond, along with the establishment of Vedic philosophy as represented in the Upanishadic literature, is in many respects directly analogous theo-philosophical development in the Hellenic world which arose out of the prevailing mythological and theological based religious traditions from which our modern (Western) notion of “philosophy” itself was conceived.  It can also be understood as analogous to the Christian revolution in the first few centuries of the Common Era as Jesus of Nazareth rejected the fundamental teachings of Judaism and proclaimed his new philosophy, i.e. the Gospel, for which he was ultimately crucified.  The teachings of Jesus, who later became known as Christ or Logos personified, as interpreted and compiled by his followers who founded Christianity as we know it today, not only rejected the religion of the Hebrews (of which Jesus was of course a member), but also the so-called “pagan” religions that were prevalent in the Mediterranean at the time, proclaiming that not only was there one true God as the Hebrews had done before him, but that this God was accessible to, and was in fact indistinguishable from, the very inmost essence of all mankind.

But Christianity as well, in its formation in the after the death of Jesus and as the Church and its associated religious dogma became codified and canonized into the Bible, also integrated Hellenic theo-philosophy as well, this element of Christianity being specially emphasized by the early Christian Church Fathers.  Just like Jesus then, Buddha rejected the religious traditions of his forefathers proposed not only an altogether different theo-philosophy, but also a fundamentally different worldview, i.e. metaphysics, as well as a completely different means and approach by which the ultimate goal of life could be reached, a goal which he defined as the cessation of suffering.  Buddhism then was born out of Hinduism just as Christianity was born out of Judaism, and Buddha was a Hindu just as Jesus was a Jew.

After searching for keys to unlock the secret of human suffering in his many years of wandering after he left behind his family and kingdom, Buddha ultimately came to find that none of the teachings he encountered answered his questions satisfactorily, and therefore he rejected Vedic philosophy in all its variations and after his “Awakening”, came to understand and teach a practical handbook of sorts for all seekers of Truth and Knowledge, a much more simplified and practical philosophy, a way of life really, than was then offered by the more traditional orthodox Vedic philosophical schools.

 

The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).  His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures that one might expect were accessible to a prince.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth of the potential for his son to be a great religious prophet and teacher, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world which in turn might lead to his renunciation of his birthright.  It is said that he married and had a son and spent the first 29 years of his life in the sheltered and elaborate palace of his father where no desire of his was left unfulfilled.

In his late twenties, a story is told that one day he left the palace of his own volition to view his subjects and kingdom first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father.  On this journey outside the palace walls, he was exposed to his first examples of the great suffering of the world, seeing first an old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering and pain, followed by the corpse of a dead man, and lastly by an ascetic monk who had renounced the world in the classic Vedic monastic tradition which was prevalent at the time.  This experience is said to have completely transformed his view of the world and invoked feelings of tremendous and overwhelming compassion for the plight of his people, inspiring him to renounce his royal pedigree, leave his wife and child, and begin to live the life of an itinerant wandering monk to search for truth and the meaning of life, which was from his perspective the source and possible secret to the end of suffering.

Prince Siddhartha then spent the next several years following various forms of extreme Vedic asceticism and renunciation to try and find the true nature of existence and the path to illumination as prescribed by the teachings of the Vedas, with each successive path and teaching that he followed getting him no closer to the answers to the questions that he was seeking.  It is then said that after practicing these extreme forms of renunciation and deprivation that led him close to the edge of death, he finally gave up these practices as fruitless and settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India), and resolved to sit in contemplation until either the solution to the nature of suffering and its ultimate liberation was revealed to him or die in the process.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddhartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha the name being derived from the root Sanskrit verb ”to know”, or “budh”, meaning “one who is awake”, i.e. the Awakened One.  The term Buddha, or Buddha nature, has come to represent the eternal and ever-present nature of truth and existence which he came to embody after his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree.

Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved and the eternal truth and knowledge of the nature of suffering and the path by which it could be overcome was revealed to him, Prince Siddartha became Buddha.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind, believing that everyone was too steeped in ignorance and worldliness to understand, comprehend and ultimately practice the eternal Truth which was revealed to him, it is said that he was convinced by one of the great Indian deities, Brahma Sahampati, to at least try to teach for the good of mankind.

Thus began the teaching phase of his life from which the philosophical system of Buddhism as we know it today has been handed down to us.  It is said that he traveled throughout India and taught his Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, as well as instituted the practices of Buddhist monasticism, for some 45 years until his death sometime in the 5th or 4th centuries BCE.  These teachings, sometimes referred to as his Buddha Dharma, or the Way of Buddha, represented a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature as they applied to the problem, and ultimate solution, of human suffering which was from his perspective the end goal of any theological or philosophical pursuit.  He taught how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding, or knowledge of “reality”, or more precisely the shedding of ignorance of the existence of the Self and attachment to which to Buddha attributed the source of suffering.

The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to the 5th century BCE.  What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as the Buddha, is from a corpus of textual material written that is handed down to us in in Pali[3], as well as somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese transliterations of the Pali texts.  The Tripitaka, or Pali Canon, which is term used for the orthodox and authoritative Buddhist texts, cover not only his teachings, but also include biographic material as well, the latter of which is interspersed with a variety of mythical accounts that established him as a pseudo-divine figure who was born to deliver his message for the good of mankind.  Tripitaka (Tipitaka in Pali), means literally “three baskets”, and while the earliest parts of the canon are believed to have been compiled or transcribed within a few centuries after Buddha died, the biographic material is believed to have been incorporated into the corpus in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.

Siddhartha Gautama, or the “Awakened One” as he was referred to by his followers, is one of the most prominent and influential theo-philosophical teachers from antiquity whose influence has spread over the centuries from the Indian subcontinent throughout most of Asia and now in modern times to the West.  In many respects the Pali Canon and teachings of the Buddha which are contained therein can be seen as analogous to the Four Gospels which contain various narratives of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and form the core part of the New Testament of the Bible which were written some decades after his death and were only later included as part of the Biblical canon.

According to most scholarly accounts, it is the Pali Canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism that considers the Pali Canon to be the authoritative Buddhist scripture is referred to as Theravada Buddhism, Theraveda meaning literally “school of elderly monks” in Pali, as opposed to the slightly more possible and well known variant of Buddhism, at least in the West, called Mahayana Buddhism – of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative for example – and relies on a different set of scriptures than the Theraveda school referred to as the Agamas (“sacred work” or “scripture” in Sanskrit or Pali), which are written in Classical Chinese and referred to as the Chinese Buddhist Canon, or Dàzàngjīng (大藏經).

Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses more on the monastic aspects of Buddha’s teachings and emphasizes the, rules, rites and practices for those who wish to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did.  These enlightened beings are called bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings” in the Mahayana school and while the Mahayana school does not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition (which precedes it historically) in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

Despite their differences in interpretation and practices, each adheres to the core basic teachings of Buddha as reflected in his Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which outlines the intellectual and metaphysical basis for the basic precepts and practices which are to bring about the cessation of suffering and ultimately enlightenment and the end if the cycle of death and rebirth.  While Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic doctrine per se, at least not in the classic Western sense of the term, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, it does however lays out basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, which is the means by which the bonds of attachment which ultimately lead to suffering can be broken for good, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which can be followed which will ultimately lead to nirvana, the term given to the cessation of suffering and the end of the “wheel of dharma”.

 

When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity.  While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture, i.e. the establishment of the Pali Canon, and formation of the foundational principles and practices of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contain three major sections, (in Sanskrit) the Sutra Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka.  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which was an integral part of Buddhism from its inception.  The Abhidharma portion of the is the youngest material and reflects the Buddha’s teachings regarding various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali Canon that we ascertain the core of Buddhist doctrine as it was understood by his followers and is interpreted by the various schools and practitioners throughout the world today.

 


 

 

[1] Śramaṇa (Samaṇa in Pali) is a Sanskrit word meaning “seeker”, or “one who performs acts of austerity”, or simple an “ascetic” and is used to refer to several Indian theo-philosophical intellectual developments that emerged in the first half of the first millennium BCE as distinct, and in opposition to, the more prevalent “orthodox” Vedic tradition which came to represent the basis of the Hindu faith, hence their categorization as “heterodox”.  These intellectual theo-philosophical developments and schools of thought ran directly parallel, and are believed to have influenced, the philosophy of the Upanishads.  Theo-philosophical traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism, as well as the lesser known traditions such as Ājīvika, Ajñana and Cārvāka are all considered to be part of the Śramaṇa movement.  Classical Indian philosophical conceptions such as saṃsāra and moksha are believed to have originated within these schools of thought, conceptions that were later integrated into some of the major Indian philosophical schools such as Yoga and Samkhya.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Śramaṇa’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 September 2016, 02:20 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=%C5%9Arama%E1%B9%87a&oldid=739942627> [accessed 18 September 2016] as well as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Buddha: Siderits, Mark, “Buddha”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/buddha/&gt;.

[3] Pali is a Prakrit language native to the Indian subcontinent, believed to have originated in Northern India, and very closely related to Sanskrit, with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  Pali is a language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy

The Great Cave of the Mind

So many teachings
So many schools
So many methods
So many philosophies
So many religions and creeds
There is no end really

As there exist different societies and nations
All throughout the world
There will always be different methods
Which have been developed over the ages
To commune with the divine
To that which is unspeakable and beyond words
Unbelievable and unknowable
And the existence behind non-existence

But they all stem no doubt
From the first man who thought he saw god
The burning bush
The ten commandments
The calling of Moses to the mountain top

To great prophet Muhammad
The seal of the long line of prophets
Descendant from Abraham
Who would hide in recluse
In the darkest of caves in the mountains
Somewhere in the dirt wasteland
Of the Saudi Arabian peninsula no doubt
To commune with the client teacher
The ever present and subtlest of guides

And Gabriel was his teacher
Whose he saw in his visions
Like the great prophets of old
Who spoke to him in Arabic verses
To inspire him to guide and lead his people
And bring back the truth of the unity of the divine
And the importance of living together
In a civilized and compassionate world

Christ too no doubt
Had his moments of communion
Where God the Father revealed himself to him
In all his glory
And promised him a seat at his right hand
And showed the terror of crucifixion that was to befall him
If he chose the wayward path
The path of righteousness and loyalty

Christ was given the choice
And he chose Truth over falsehood
Professed the power of the divine
And its living presence within all of us
In the multitudes of the poor and the starving
As well as the aristocrats and rabbis
Who ultimately sent him to his death

And for this choice,
His stubborn unwillingness to deny
That he and the Father were One
He was punished and tortured
And Christianity born from his ashes
2000 years and billions of faithful
born from the deeds of one courageous man
And man he was
Child of God or not
He was of human flesh and blood
Just like each and every last one of us

We saw this journey of his
His stubbornness and willingness to die for principle and Truth
As his gift to us
Although it cannot ever be understood
Whether his message was Truth was to be followed at all costs
And that God is the blessed gift of us all
Or that, as the later Christian Fathers teach us
That he died for our sins for our salvation

Buddha too
Having grown up studying the Vedas with the Brahmin priests
Practicing asceticism after he renounced the kingdom to which he was heir
Denying the physical form of his body
Until he lay almost dead and utterly lifeless
And then he sat, just sat, under the bodhi tree
And again with the stubbornness of a child
Refused to move until the Truth was revealed to him

And the earth shook, and the beasts roared
And after he played the demons and desires
That plague the mind of us all
He saw it as clear as day
The Middle Way
The path to enlightenment
The birthright of us all
To which he devoted his life to teaching
To all those who would listen
And which teaching has survived all this time
2500 years in the making
And going stronger than ever
As its roots in Asia have migrated to the West
So far from the lands it originated from
So many ages past from which the teachings themselves were born

But one has to ask
Was this Truth revealed to these great men
And women too to be fair who we have failed to mention
Mother Theresa perhaps being the best and most recent
Woman of such divine spirit
That each and every one she came into contact with
Was her very own
Was the child of Mother Earth
Just as Sarada Devi
The great consort of Sri Paramhamsa Ramakrishna
Who treated each and every one of Ramakrishna devotees
That flocked to her after his death
As one of her own as well

‘More work is to be done for you my child’
Ramakrishna said to her in his astral form after his passing
And ‘Truth and the Essence of Being I shall hold back from you my child
Until your work is done here
After which you shall see the vision of the Ultimate Reality again
And be merged into it as your heart so desires’
As Ramakrishna said to Vivekananda
After revealing to him the secret of secrets
The wisdom of the ages
The essential and all pervading consciousness of the universe

And Vivekananda after years of wandering throughout India
Begging for his food and alms
Came crashing upon the West
With his message of Vedanta
That he had gleaned from the teachings of his Master
Through his boundless love and compassion
And wonderful visions of mystical and spiritual truths
Embodying the Truth of the Vedas
Fulfilling the modern ages’s need to have these eternal truths
Refreshed and reborn once again
In this modern age of greed and lust
Where every want is but a click or a call away

So he combined these ancient spiritual teachings
With his Western education
And genius photogenic brilliant mind
A renewed birth of Vedic wisdom
Was unleashed on the world
Where Karma, Bhakti, Raja and Jnana yoga
Are woven together in the greatest fabric
To shield the spiritual seeker
From the veil of Maya
Which has us all in her playful grasp

But digress we have
Because the point we make here
Is that in all these illustrious lives
Communion with the divine was understood
As a basic assumption of all faiths
In all the Great Books
But Jesus and Buddha especially
And of course Ramakrishna and his 12 disciples
The great prophets of our age
Taught that God is our very own

Which begs the very interesting question
Well then where can He (She) be found?
Where can he (she) be seen?
Some say in Nature
Some say in Churches
Some see him in books
Or visions and dreams (Jung)

But if we take this leap of faith
And we trust in these crazy souls
And their message of the existence of a world
Greater and stronger and more lasting than this one
To which this one in turn seems just like a passing dream
To what means must we employ then?
In order to see this Truth for ourselves
That is said to be our very birthright

And here is where religion comes into play
And the mastery of the mind becomes the game
And the practices laid out by so many masters over the millennia
By so many priests and sages
With their myriad of of rituals and spiritual practices
Sadhana the Hindus call it
Penance of the Christians
In different tongues with different instruments
In different nations and faiths throughout the world
Since time immemorial
In all religious sects
In all esoteric and mystical creeds

We confront the power of the mind
And the energy that courses through and gives life to the embody
Which connects us with
The embodied soul and energy of the Cosmic Mind
The great giver of life to all created beings
And the Universe itself

The mind itself though, perhaps our greatest tool
Its almost overwhelming potency
Of drawing not just correlations and connections
But seeing differences and distinctions as well
As categories and systems of thought
Spread throughout the linguistic tree
That has been embedded in each and every one of us
Since even before we could walk

And these symbols, these ideas
To Plato at least were primary
Subsidiary was the world around us
Physical reality
The Allegory of the Cave from The Republic
Shows us this great idea
Forms and Ideas
Lead us to the ultimate reality of the Sun

But Plato used dialogue and dialectic
So no one really truly knows
What he taught in his Academy
What his beliefs truly were
His dialogues were read aloud no doubt
And debates arose about ethics and morality
And the structure of the perfect society
Of the role of Myth and Truth
And how his great master Socrates
Died the death of all deaths
Taking the hemlock
Rather than denouncing the only thing he knew
Beyond any doubt whatsoever
Was that he knew nothing
And by knowing nothing
He was the wisest man in all of Athens
As proclaimed by the Oracle at Delphi

But Plato’s Forms, Aristotle’s Categories
These divisions and classifications
And associations which can be drawn
Inherent, contingent, associative, primary etc
It doesn’t matter which system of thought
One believes or trusts or puts the most credence into

The path, the way
Laid out and kept alive in the East
All these millennia
Captured away in ancient schools of learning
And old dusty books and manuscripts
Copied by hand through the ages
Translated into so many different tongues
Interpreted and commented on by so many renowned and brilliant scholars

Where the passage of knowledge
From teacher to student
Lasted centuries and centuries
And lineages could be quoted
Back thousands of years
As a waiter or waitress would read a custom menu
At a fancy Italian restaurant in NYC

So we have the books and these religious systems
That the prophets left us with
And we have these mystical traditions
Which survive in various forms in the East
That are now being introduced back into the West
And religions are being rejected
With their hypocrisy and rigid dogma
And political contamination

And people flock more toward
Individual practices which promote peace and harmony
And have a practical and positive impact
On their lives and the lives of those around them
So that their lives can be more fulfilling
So that virtue can be understood
And practiced and integrated into daily life
In an integrated and powerful way

And the sins of nations
Can perhaps be healed
Without the need for violent revolution
Which has been the way of the past
The heritage of the human race

And in each of these systems
That have now been introduced to the West
Be they Buddhist, Taoist, TM (Transcendental Meditation)
Zen Buddhism or Christian Prayer,
Muslim submission to the will of the one true god Allah
Or the chanting of the names of the different manifestations
Of the supreme power of Brahman
Which has been kept alive in so many different forms and rituals
In the great land of India
The system of Yoga
Their great gift to the world

It is the power of symbol,
The power of thought,
The power of sound
The power of grace
The power of Faith
That each has in common

And with this basic start
And an explanation of these various symbols and words and chants and hymns
In each of the respective theo-philosophical systems
Either godless (Buddhist or Taoist for example)
Or monotheistic like the Judeo-Christian-Muslim faiths
Relate back to the one true Creator of all that has been created

The first cause as Aristotle would call him
The Good of Plato from which all Forms and Ideas come forth
Which are naturally ordered in the most elegant way possible
‘All who do not know geometry may not enter here’
The words inscribed outside his illustrious Academy
The first Academic institution in the history of mankind

And yet these symbols
Which must be categorized and organized in our mind
That play out as the string of words and thoughts
That ring in our heads when we sit in meditation practice
No matter what school we have been taught from
Or what tradition – theological, philosophical or religious – we come from and adhere to

All lead to the same source
EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM
These thoughts and symbols
If we follow their course
Emerging from the Universal Mind
And then germinating and manifesting
In the small mind that is tied to this physical form
Which we borrow for such a short time

COMES FROM AND ENDS UP IN
THE VERY SAME ESSENTIAL BEING
WHICH IS WHAT ALL THE GREAT PROPHETS
TAUGHT TO ALL OF THEIR FOLLOWERS

This is the great Mind the Buddhist tradition speaks of
When these thoughts calm down and serenity can be found
Even for a moment
It is then that God’s grace can be found
Not as a gift from someone other than ourselves
But as a self-evident and essential feature
Of not only the natural world with which we live and breathe
But also of the spirit that animates us
And which connects us to every living thing
That we share this world, and the next, with
And that exists in each and every moment
For every being that inhabits this world

Follow the thoughts and symbols
But latch onto a system of symbols you are attracted to
That you have faith and devotion in
For these are fundamental requirements
For any successful endeavor
Which will get you to practice and learn
Even when it is the last thing in the world you’d like to do
While buried in this world madness
Of capitalism and greed

And don’t reject your thoughts as they come
Don’t try to quiet them
Don’t try to do anything with them
The Zen Masters say just let them arise and fall
Like passing waves in an ocean
But this is misleading for those of us that struggle
And where suffering and pain is real
And heartbreak and disappointment rests around every corner

So our thoughts will yield emotions
Yes they will
Some painful and hard to stomach
Some joyous and uplifting
But we must let them all go
And know them for what they truly are
Manifestations of the Great Mind
In our small mind that have manifested
In our seemingly insignificant life

And these these waves lead to further thoughts
Which emerge from the very same source
All leading onward and onward in a seemingly endless flow
Of a mind that will never settle
The caged monkeys Paramhamsa Ramakrishna used to call them

But do not fight them
Play with them, accept them
As manifestations of the great Mind
The Great Cosmic Spirit
In our own lives and in our own being

Let the thoughts and their associated emotions come and go
But have faith in whatever system of belief that drives you
That we are all not lost
And that that which has created the universe itself
Rests within our breast
Just as it rests in the spirit of every living creature
That crawls and walks and runs on this great Earth
And perhaps on other Earths like ours that we knoweth not

And what you just might find
As this madness and frustration
Of the attempt to control that which is uncontrollable
Is that as the thoughts arise,
They can be transformed
To the symbols of the tradition which you have chosen
And you can bring the mind back
To focus on the highest of the high
The greatest good
Satchitananda itself
In whatever form suits the individual soul
And our lives which are filled with all these thoughts and emotions
Can be accepted for what they are
Expressions of the great Mind and Spirit
Which is the source of all
Every last one of us

This is what has been taught
By all the great Masters that have found the way
And passed it down to us
This is the importance of following a teaching
That you have a path, and a set of symbols
Through which the truth can be revealed
Be you have a teacher or not
For we are all our own teachers
And there is no greater teacher
Than our own inner voice
Although help is always welcomed of course

But a path must be chosen
And these symbols
And thoughts and sounds
Interesting enough you will find
Will begin to get more and more abstract
Higher Ideals will be presented
Built upon the acceptance of the lower thoughts and deeds
Which plague our Soul
And the belief and faith that just maybe
We are not lost in a sea of greed and selfishness
And that a shepherd is among us
Who will not abandon any of its flock

And with this belief, this Faith
We can find our thoughts and ideas becoming crystallized
Just as Plato described them
In his Allegory of the Cave
And as the thoughts dim down
And the Forms and Ideas move higher and higher
And more virtuous and more Good

We will break our chains
See the visions of shadows on the wall
That we thought were real all this time
And we will pass beyond the entrance
Of that great deep cavern that we had spent our whole lives in
Believing it was real

And our guide will show us
Our anima or animus as Jung would call him
They will show us the way out
And they will point into the sky
While our eyes adjust from the great darkness
That covered our whole being for our whole lives
And say, ‘See look. It is the Sun that shines true light’
‘And those shadows should be abandoned for what is true and real’

So do not fight the thoughts or the emotions
Embrace them as difficult as they may be
Forgive, let go of anger and hate
And open your heart to allow for Plato’s Good
The Sun of his universe
To shine in your heart and mind

And maybe if we are lucky
And our practice is sound
And our heart is true
And a genuine effort for balance and harmony
And understanding and empathy
For those with whom we must live and work
Some peace can be found
In the madness of our times
Where the writing of mystical poetry
And the belief and faith in the reality of the world of the spirit
Is considered madness and ethereal
With no practical value
By most if not all

Regardless, all the practices are the same
The symbols and methods are slightly different
But to open up the clarity and purity of mind
One must start with faith in something
Submission to something larger and greater than us as individuals

And then let the thoughts flow
And let the waves subside
And let the new waves form at the same time
New and powerful waves
Of Goodness and Righteousness
And Virtue and Love
Inspired by whatever teaching or whatever Master
That has touched you in some way

And then and only then
Will the true transformation take place
And you will find after all that
Ironically enough
That the reality we must live and work in
To survive and thrive
And feed our endless desires
For wealth and power
And Lust and Greed
And the world of the spirit
Which we place our faith in
And if we are lucky see glimpses of
From time to time
Could not be further apart

And then the problem presents itself
Perhaps the greatest challenge of all
That which marks the true masters
Is the problem of the integration of the two worlds
Where the inside and the outside are in balance
And the world of the spirit and the world of ‘reality’
The materials world and the world of the Soul
Can coexist and perhaps thrive together
In harmony and balance

A man can dream
That is what poets do
Namaste

Vedic Worship

To sit and submit
The offering of incense and candles
And be inspired
By the life of the Master
And those who came before us
To show us the Way

That there is some Truth
To all the Teachings
That Love exists
That true love is all that there is

But how to see?
With all the suffering
With all the pain and loss
That each and every one experiences

The great Mother Kali
In her most feared form
With the severed heads
And the sword she carries

The sword that cuts the bonds of ego
And the very same sword
That cuts through your heart
When your love is taken
When you friend is lost
Forever or so it seems

How to love when it all seems
Like the world is against you
And that God could not possibly be
Responsible for all the evil
That shines so clearly in front of us

With each passing news cycle
With each act of anger
With each act of protection
Of oneself for oneself
That hurts so many
That hurts deep within your heart

But it is all worship is it not?
Worship with work
Worship to look after those
With whom you are held responsible
Worship to look after oneself
Who is also God’s creation

To pray for your friends
To pray for your loved ones
That they would be relieved of their suffering
That they would not feel pain
And only feel love and be happy

And to find the strength
To even pray for those
That have hurt you
To those that have treated you poorly

To those that are less fortunate
To those that must beg for food
And sit on the streets with no shelter
In the cold and dark nights

How is that this God of ours
Could let the world be so?
Is this not one of the greatest of mysteries?

But faith we must have
In the divine bliss we feel
When the light of the Master
Shines through us
When a glimpse is given
And a nod of approval made
That we will be saved in the end

But until then it is all worship
Worship in prayer and meditation
Worship through chanting of the sacred name
Worship through work and charity
Worship through eating and drinking
Worship through laughter and play
Worship through music
Worship through games and competition

It is all the play of the Lord
But how can we see?
Without the grace of the Lord himself
That the light shines for all of us

Even in the depths of suffering
And through this pain
The transformation occurs
The greatest of all alchemical reactions

As the soul is transformed
From the physical body
Bound to desire and karma
Into a being of light
That can be a beacon of Truth

To show the way for those around us
And illustrate that there is hope
For each and every one of us
In this grand illusion that we call Life

In this grand and ceaseless game
Where everyone chases
That which cannot be caught

And yet in the end
We must all suffer the same fate
As the body decays and death calls upon us
And our lives pass before us in an instant

And all we can hope for
All we can yearn for
Is the light of love to touch us
And for forgiveness to be granted
For all our trespasses

To each and every one that we have hurt
As we have looked after ourselves
Over the endless years of living
Only to protect ourselves in the end

And yet only hurting ourselves in the process
Not knowing the whole time
That what is within us is within them
And to love another is simply to love oneself

And so we worship
On the mat, deep in meditation
And then off the mat
In the world that we must live in

That the Lord has created for us
With Her grand illusion
The greatest of plays
Her beautiful Maya

With pain and joy
But most importantly Life itself
That is the greatest of all gifts

If we can but understand
Be given the gift of Knowledge
And the fire of the burnt ego
Within which our true beings can shine through

Until then worship we must
Worship of the One inside us
Who is the very same One
Who sits beside us and guides us
And who sits within
The heart of all

What is Vedanta?

Introduction

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind. This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record. The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile. This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures. The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins. In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE. Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads. The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture. The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”. Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE. Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads. As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites. Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy. The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family. It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE. Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life. In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman. This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya”, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed. The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads. It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries. The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE. The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle. Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War. This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins. Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith. An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting. The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc. This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature – Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit. Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta. [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life. The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman. According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

The Ultimate Aim of Vedanta: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power. Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development. This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion. The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life. The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises. Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures. And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior. To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness. That was its sole purpose of existence. This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around. The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order. Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively. You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day. This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

The Philosophy of the East: The Legacy of the Indo-Aryans

Introduction

Throughout academic parlance in the Enlightenment Era intellectual and philosophical development throughout mankind’s history has been divided into Eastern and Western branches.  The Eastern branch of thought and development for many centuries was looked upon as “Oriental”, a term that has fallen out of favor in academic and intellectual circles in no small measure due to the fact that it implied and originated within the context of the colonization of a good part of the “Eastern” world and Western academic pursuits into understanding the nature of theological and philosophical, as well as socio-political development of the so-called East – an outsiders view that came with its own bias that is considered by most scholars to be one of supremacy and dominance that looked down upon the cultural and religious systems of the East with not disdain per se but most certainly with a sense of arrogance and superiority.

The problem however, despite these known biases, is that the classification of East versus West does have a certain clarity and clean delineation in modes of thought however, modes of thought that are divided at least intellectually by what could be termed reductionist versus holistic.  In other words, even if the classification of certain ways of thinking and development as a whole doesn’t have a specific geographical divide between East and West (although one could argue that in fact does), the tendency to break things down into parts and explore their relationships as individual automata and their interactions does in fact characterize Western thinking more or less since Hellenistic antiquity and the tendency to look at individuals within the context of their relationship to the whole, or the universe at large, does in fact characterize “Eastern” modes of thought to a great extent.

Charlie had spent a great deal of time considering and outlining as best he could the theological and philosophical development in the West, starting with ancient cosmological and theistic systems based upon the worship of deities, sacrificial practices and such that were steeped in mythology and then evolved into the monotheistic forms of religion which we are most familiar with and dominate the Western intellectual and theological landscape today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and out of which, mostly in reaction to, arose our fascination toward science proper which although has allowed for great advancements in science and technology has to a large extent left us with a very objective and reductionist view of reality.

There were parallel developments to the East however, to the East of ancient Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire which evolved very much independently to Western theological and philosophical development.  Specifically we’re referring to the Vedic and Indo-Aryan tradition which arose out of ancient India based upon the philosophy of the Upanishads, the mythology of the Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras and other ancient Indian texts and their subsequent interpretation from 2500 BCE onwards, the tradition of Buddhism which stemmed from the teachings of the great and influential Siddhartha Gautama who himself was greatly influenced by ancient Vedic religious doctrines and practices even if he rejected them for the most part, and in Taoism which took root in China and the far east from the middle of the first millennia onwards and still thrives today.  These theological and philosophical systems of belief are interesting to analyze not just in the wisdom which they present but also as contrasting and opposing modes of thought to the reductionist and rationalist way of thinking which underpins modern science as well as the overall worldview of the West.

Arguably one of the unique contributions of Indo-Aryan philosophy (to which Vedanta and Buddhism ultimately owe their heritage) to modern day theology and spirituality is their fundamental belief in the individual nature of the religious experience and the faith in what is variously referred to as “realization”, “liberation”, “enlightenment”, or “nirvana” all of which are various terms used to describe the state or act of direct experience of the divine in this very life – juxtaposed with the focus on an afterlife in heaven which characterizes most if not all of the Western theological traditions.  This fundamental belief lies at the heart of the Vedic philosophical system, which is the philosophical and mystical counterpart of Hinduism proper, as well the theo-philosophical system of Buddhism.  [Taoism has a slightly different bent in that it focuses on the way and the balancing of opposites as the path to peace, tranquility and happiness rather than as enlightenment itself being the ultimate goal of life, more akin to Buddhism with its emphasis on the way than Vedanta per se].

 

What is Vedanta?

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind.  This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record.  The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile.  This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures.  The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins.  In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE.  Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads.  The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture.  The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”.  Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE.  Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads.  As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites.  Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy.  The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan  peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family.  It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE.  Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life.  In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman.  This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

 

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed.  The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads.  It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries.  The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE.  The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle.  Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War.  This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins.  Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith.  An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.  In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting.  The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc.  This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature –   Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit.  Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta.  [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life.  The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman.  According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

 

The End of the Vedas: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power.  Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development.  This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion.  The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life.  The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises.  Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures.  And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior.  To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness.  That was its sole purpose of existence.  This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.

 

 


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around.  The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order.  Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively.  You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit.  Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day.  This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

Buddhism 101

Origins of Buddhism

Buddhism originated out of the Hindu and Vedic culture just as Christianity emerged out of and in reaction to orthodox Judaism.  The historical figure we know today as Buddha was raised on the northern Indian/Nepal border in the foothills of the Himalayas as a prince from an affluent ruling family, living and teaching somewhere between the end of the sixth and early part of the 4th centuries BCE but dated by most scholars to have lived and taught in the 5th century BCE.

What we know about the historical figure named Siddhartha Gautama who later became known as Buddha is from texts written in Pali (an extremely close relative to Sanskrit[1]), and other somewhat later Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese texts that were transcribed no sooner than some 2 or 3 centuries after his death and in some cases not fully codified until the 2nd or 3rd century CE.  The texts cover what is supposedly his direct teachings to not just householder disciples but also covers specific guidelines and rules for the establishment of a monastic order as well, along with some materials (written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE) which outline the basic facts of his life, the latter being interspersed with some basic facts as well as a variety of mythical accounts that had become associated with the historical figure who is attributed to the founding of one of the world’s greatest and lasting religions that still thrives to this day.

The mythical narrative surrounding the birth, life and death of the Prince Siddhartha is consistent with the narratives of most pre-historical heroic figures (Jesus, Hercules, etc.) and starts with stories of his immaculate conception into a ruling family in the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India.  It is said that upon his birth, which his mother did not survive, he was visited by a great sage who predicted that he would either be a great ruler of men or a great religious teacher and reformer (holy man).

His early childhood and young adulthood was spent living the life of luxury within the confines of multiple palaces and exposed to all the pleasures and luxuries of life.  It is said that his father, given the prophecy upon his birth, took great pains to shelter him from any outside influences that would expose him to the suffering and harsh realities of the world.  He is said to have married and had a son (Rahula) and spent 29 years in this sheltered and elaborate existence as a great prince with no want or desire left unfulfilled.

After this illustrious and heavenly upbringing it is said that one day he left his palace to view his subjects first hand, despite the misgivings and sheltering instincts of his father, upon which he saw first and old man on the verge of death, then a diseased man in great suffering followed by the corpse of a dead man and lastly by an ascetic monk, all of which completely transformed his view of the world, drove him to great compassion for the plight of his people and inspired him to renounce his royal pedigree and live the life of a wandering monk to search for Truth and the secret to the end of suffering, leaving his wife and child behind.

Siddhartha then spent the next several years practicing various forms of yoga and asceticism to try and find the path to enlightenment and an end to suffering, each successive path and each successive teaching yielding no answer to what he considered to be the basic problem of life for all people and which he saw as his ultimate goal and purpose.  It is then said that after practicing austere forms of renunciation and deprivation, he followed settled down under a Bodhi tree (believed to be in Bodh Gaya, India) resolved to sit in deep meditation until he solve the problem of human suffering or died trying.

From an historical context Siddhartha Gautama life and teaching represents one of the many theo-philosophical streams of thought that emerged in the Indus Valley region at the time as alternatives to the older Vedic religion that was steeped in ritual and dogmatism.  These various religious movements are sometimes grouped together as Sramana and gave rise to not just Buddhism, but also the Upanishadic tradition of Vedanta, Jainism and later the Yogic philosophic traditions, all descending from the Vedic/Hindu theo-philosophical tradition of antiquity but all rejecting many of its orthodox positions regarding caste and ritual and all for the most part sharing core philosophic themes and terminology such as samskara, the psychology underpinning the cycle of birth and death, karma and the laws of action which underpin Indian ethics even to this day, and the possibility and reality of moksha, or liberation.

After supposedly sitting in deep meditation for some 49 days, being tempted during his practice by various demons and gods with all sorts of worldly temptations to lead him astray (think Jesus’s 40 days and 40 nights in the desert having been tempted by Satan), at the age of 35 Siddartha Gautama achieved Enlightenment and arose as the Buddha which we know his as to this day.  Upon emerging from this deep meditative and transformative experience, which was supposed marked by a great earthquake when his state of enlightenment was achieved, the Buddha had complete understanding and knowledge of not only the source of the world’s suffering but also the path to rising above it so to speak, to reach a state of nirvana which would yield an end the seemingly endless cycle of birth, suffering, and death which plagued mankind since time immemorial.  Although initially reticent to teaching this new found knowledge to the rest of mankind thinking that they were too steeped in ignorance and desire to every understand what he had come to realize under the Bodhi tree, he was supposed convinced by one of the great Indian deities Brahma Sahampati to at least try for the good of mankind.

And thus began the 45 years of teaching of Buddha, what is sometimes referred to as his Dharma or “way” as a complete explanation and exposition of the laws of nature and how they applied to the problem of human suffering and how the great cycle of birth, disease, decay and dying could be overcome by proper understanding of “reality”, or the shedding of ignorance “vijnana” which to Buddha was the ultimate source of suffering – ignorance of the true nature of the self and consciousness, i.e. that it was an illusion and that it does not in fact exist.

 

Buddhist Scripture and Philosophy

When analyzing the teachings of Buddhism, as reflected in the various textual sources which were compiled by his followers sometime after his death, we are left with very similar challenges and pitfalls when studying the philosophy of all of the great teachers in antiquity. While we can optimistically assume that his precise teachings and doctrines, words and phrases and terminology , were faithfully transcribed by his followers even if several generations of teacher and student transmission existed before any of the actual texts which codify his teachings were transcribed, we still nonetheless have to try and extract what he actually said and taught from the extant literature – for the texts were written in a variety of languages that a) in all likelihood do not reflect the actually language that he spoke, and b) we do know that he did not leave any written materials behind himself.

The most authoritative and oldest textual tradition surrounding Buddhism is the Pali Canon, also referred to sometimes by the Sanskrit Tripitaka, meaning “three baskets” denoting the three main treatises that make up the ancient scripture that is written in Pali, an ancient script very closely related to Sanskrit.  According to almost all scholarly accounts, it is the Pali canon that represents the oldest authoritative Buddhist scripture.  This strain of Buddhism represents what is referred to as Theravada Buddhism.

According to tradition, the transcription of the Pali Canon is the result of the Third Buddhist Council that was convened at the behest of the pious Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya (304-232 BCE) who ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the third century BCE.  His intent for convening the council, much like the Christian councils that were convened in the 3rd century CE onward, was to standardize the teachings, texts and some philosophical elements of Buddha’s legacy from amongst the various factions that had sprung forth after Buddha’s death, leading to the existence of a variety of teachers and philosophic schools who disagreed on many aspects of the Buddha’s message and precepts.

As the tradition has it, the council lasted nine months and consisted of senior monastic representatives from all around the emperor’s kingdom who debated various aspects of Buddhist doctrine, culminating in the canonization of the scripture (the Pali canon) and forming the foundations of Theravada Buddhism.  After the council it is said that the emperor dispatched various monks who could recite the teachings by heart to nine different locations throughout the Near and Far East, laying the groundwork for the spread of Buddhist teachings and philosophy not just in the Indian subcontinent, but throughout the ancient world as far East to Burma and even as far West to Persia, Greece and Egypt.

The Tripitaka contains three major sections, the Sutra Pitaka (Sutta Pitaka in Pali), the Vinaya Pitaka, and the Abhidharma Pitaka (Abhidhamma Pitaka in Pali).  The Sutra Pitaka is the oldest of the three parts of the canon and is said to have been recited by Ananda, Buddha’s secretary at the First Council, a meeting of five hundred disciples of Buddha shortly after his death to compile his teachings.  The Sutra portion of the Tripitaka contains discourses in dialogue form between Buddha and his disciples and other contemporary figures on a variety of doctrinal and spiritual questions within which the philosophical heart of Buddhism is contained.  Another disciple of Buddha named Upali is said to have recited the Vinaya portion of the Tripitaka which deals mostly with rules governing monastic life, reflecting the strong undercurrent of renunciation and monasticism which has been a part of Buddhism from the very beginning.  The Abhidharma portion of the Pali canon is the youngest material and supposedly reflects the Buddha’s teachings to various deities in heaven during the final period of his Enlightenment and deals with various philosophical and doctrinal issues which help elucidate the some of the more esoteric and obscure aspects of the scripture.

It is from the Sutra portion of the Pali canon that we can glean the core of Buddha’s teachings to his disciples as it’s clear that the Vinaya and Abhidharma sections contain somewhat later material relative to the Sutra Pitaka.  It is divided into five sections of sutras which are grouped as nikayas, or “collections” – the Digha Nikaya or “Long Discourses”, the Majihima Nikaya or “Middle Discourses”, Samyutta Nikaya or “Connected Discourses”, the Anguttara Nikaya or “Numerical Discourses”, and the Khuddaka Nikaya or “Minor Collection”.

The other main thread of Buddhism which continues to thrive today is Mahayana Buddhism, of which the more widely known schools of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are representative.  Mahayana literally means “Great Vehicle” in Sanskrit and focuses and builds upon the Buddhist monastic tradition as articulated in the Tripitaka and establishes the path, rules and practices for those who want to pursue enlightenment for the good of all sentient beings as Buddha himself did, what are referred to as bodhisattvas, or “enlightened beings”, in the Mahayana tradition.  Although the Mahayana schools do not necessarily differ from the Theravada tradition which precedes it historically in terms of basic philosophical tenets and practices, it nonetheless developed a unique and relatively independent scriptural and philosophical tradition which codified and institutionalized specific doctrines, teachings and practices for the pursuit and attainment of enlightenment, what perhaps Buddhism in modern parlance is best known for.

The essence of Buddhism in all schools however is to be found in the Eightfold Noble Path and the Four Noble Truths, the latter of which outlines the true nature of reality and the causes of suffering and the former which addresses directly the path to end such suffering permanently.  Buddhism does not lay out a philosophic discipline per se, nor does it lay out any systemic laws or beliefs as is characteristic of the Abrahamic religions, but instead lays out some basic fundamental precepts about the nature of life and reality from which it establishes a path, the so called “Middle Way”, to rising above the seemingly endless trials and tribulations of life, resting on the fundamental assertion that not only is enlightenment possible, but that there is a specific path which when followed rigorously will lead to nirvana which in Buddhism is the ultimate goal of all sentient life.

 

Buddhist Metaphysics and Psychology

It is said that Buddha first taught the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths to his five companion ascetics just after attaining enlightenment as recorded in the Dharmacakra Pravartana Sutra, or The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma as the title is translated into English, a set of sutras which can be found in the Sutra Pitaka portion of the Pali canon.  In this teaching, Buddha is addressing his five fellow renunciate ascetics with whom he practiced sadhana (religious rites and practices) with, and he lays out his basic philosophy as it was revealed to him when he achieved enlightenment.  He rejects the two extremes of complete self-indulgence and total self-denial (renunciation) and puts forth a “middle way”, what has come to be known as the noble eightfold path, as the means to salvation and cessation of suffering.

After laying down the middle way, Buddha describes the nature of reality, or the Four Noble Truths, the proper understanding of which underpins the “right view” portion of the Eightfold Noble Path.  These four truths, the pillars of Buddhist philosophy, can be summarized as follows:

 

  • The Truth of Suffering: that the basic nature of life is characterized by varying types and degrees of suffering (duhkha), sometimes alternatively translated as
    “unsatisfactoriness”. Suffering in this context involves the mental and physical pain associated with the process of being born, being subject to disease and illness and ultimately death, as well as the stress and anxiety associated with attachment to feelings, objects and emotions that are in a constant state of change – the Buddhist notion of impermanence (anitya) and attachment or grasping (upadana). 
  • The Truth of the origin of suffering: that suffering has an ultimate source and it comes from the incessant craving or attachment (raga) of objects of desire and its conjugate the aversion of fear of undesirable objects, (dvesha) ultimately stemming from ignorance (avidya), or wrong knowledge, of our ideas of self and reality.
  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: that suffering indeed can be overcome via the cessation of the root of suffering, the ceasing of all craving or aversion of things that are impermanent that stem from ignorance, representing the ultimate goal of Buddhism.
  • The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering: that there is a specific path which if followed correctly will yield a cessation of suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path which consists of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration, the perfection of which yields a perfected state of being, nirvana, the final state of the cessation of suffering.

 

From the Sutra Pitaka, the “Connected Discourses” we find:

 

The perceiving of impermanence, bhikkhus [monks], developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion, removes all passion for material existence, removes all passion for becoming, removes all ignorance, removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”

Just as in the autumn a farmer, plowing with a large plow, cuts through all the spreading rootlets as he plows; in the same way, bhikkhus, the perceiving of impermanence, developed and frequently practiced, removes all sensual passion… removes and abolishes all conceit of “I am.”[2]

 

While The Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path are the cornerstones of Buddhism, the school also lays out a fairly sophisticated causal and psychological metaphysical framework upon which the intellectual foundations of nirvana rest and upon which our ultimate misunderstanding of the nature of existence originates.

A related concept which speaks to the metaphysics underlying Buddhist philosophy is the notion of “dependent origination” or “dependent arising”; Pratityasamutpada in Sanskrit.  At the heart of pratityasamutpada are the Twelve Nidanas, the basic psychophysical elements which constitute the set of interdependent and causally related principles from which Samsara, – a Vedic Sanskrit term which is adopted by the Buddhist tradition as well which signifies the repeating cycle of birth and death and is translated as “continuous movement” or “cycle of existence” – emerges.  It is the cycle of Samsara, which again is fundamentally characterized by suffering (duhkha), which Buddhism as a theo-philosophical system as a whole is designed to address and it is the notion of Pratityasamutpada which describes in detail the co-conspirators so to speak that underlie this phenomenon.[3]

The Twelve Nidanas are

  • ignorance (avidya), which yields
  • mental formations and habits (samskara), which yields
  • a sense of consciousness or mind (vijnana), which yields
  • the world of name and form (namarupa), which in turn yields
  • the existence of the sensory apparatus or “sense gates” (sadayatana), which yields
  • sensory impressions (sparsa), which yields
  • feelings or sensations (vedana), which in turn causes
  • cravings and desires (trsna), which yields
  • attachment or grasping (upadana), which yields
  • formation of new karmic tendencies, or “becoming” (bhava), which in turn yields
  • new life or “birth” (jati), which leads to
  • aging, decay and death (jaramarana).

 

Such is how the endless wheel of life is described in Buddhism, which again is fundamentally characterized by suffering and anxiety and via the proper understanding and proper practice (the eightfold noble path) of which can lead to nirvana and the cessation of suffering.  It is important to understand that although these twelve “causes” are connected as if in direct cause and effect link, the underlying philosophy links them in a much more holistic and interdependent manner, providing the basis for complex, interdependent life and the source of the belief in the existence of individual consciousness or a sense of “I” or “me”.

 

In one of his earlier discourses, the Buddha declares that we ought to regard any form of sensation and consciousness, whether “past, future, or present; internal or external; manifest or subtle…as it actually is…: ‘This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am’” (Majjhima Nikāya I, 130).[4]

 

Buddha also laid out a more psychological and process based view of how this illusory notion of self emerges, consistent with and complementary to the Twelve Nidanas.  This is the notion of Skandhas, which is the name given for the five functions or aspects of cognition, the detailed analysis of which yields the unavoidable conclusion that none of them can be said to represent “I” or “self”, another tool used by Buddha to help his students understand the concept of the not-self (anatman), as the association of the individual with one or more of these cognitive faculties so to speak is again the ultimate the source of our ignorance which is the ultimate cause of suffering.  These five aspects of cognition, or “aggregates”, are:

  • Form or matter: rupa, which represents the physical world as well as our senses which perceive it;
  • Sensation or feeling: vedana, the sensory processing aspect of interaction with rupa which is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in nature;
  • Perception, conception, apperception, cognition: samjna, which is the act of recognition or recognized awareness of an object or idea;
  • Mental formations, impulses, volition, desire: samskara, the sum total of all mental habits, conditioned thoughts or ideas, opinions, compulsions or desires which are triggered by the perception of an object and the sensations or feelings associated with said object;
  • Consciousness or discernment: vijnana, that which discerns, determines or cognizes, that element of the mind which we associate with consciousness or ego.

 

The Skandhas are properly understood as interrelated concepts which together constitute the process by which we as rational, sentient beings interact with and experience the world.  The five aspects of this process all are strewn together in constant flux, each aspect connected to and in some respects causally related to all of the others.  The important deduction from the proper analysis of the framework however is that none of these aspects of “us”, when looked at closely really can be said to represent “I” or “me” in any truly meaningful way, hence the conclusion that this “self” which we so closely identify with is an illusion.  This is what has come to be known as the doctrine of “not-self” in Buddhism, anatman in Sanskrit, which sits in direct contrast to the Upanishadic notion of the eternally existent self, or Atman, upon which Vedic philosophy rests.

 

 


 

[1] Pali was mainly a liturgical language from Northern India which was very closely related to Sanskrit with most words existing in both languages with simple phonetic transliterations between the two.  It was primarily a liturgical language in the Indo-European/Indo-Iranian language family whose main historical significance is that it is the language of one, if not the, main source of Buddhist scripture and philosophy which is referred to as either the “Pali Canon” or Tipitaka, the latter term meaning “three baskets” in Sanskrit.

[2] Samyutta Nikaya, 22.102.  Translation by John D. Ireland 2006.  From http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ireland/wheel107.html#vagga-3.

[3] In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition Samsara is depicted by the “wheel of life”, or bhavacakra.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhavacakra.

[4] Coseru, Christian, “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/mind-indian-buddhism/&gt;. Pg. 4, “The Not-Self Doctrine”

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