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

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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