Summary of Buddhism on Human Nature

standing Buddha statue with draped garmet and halo

Buddhism: In The Footsteps of the Buddha

(This is a summary of and commentary on a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Thirteen Theories of Human Nature.) 

Buddhism developed in Northern Indian in the 5th Century BCE and spread throughout Asia. Like Hinduism it is a disparate tradition, but our chapter will focus on the main differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

We begin with a story in the Pali Canon. When confronted with the great questions “Do we have souls?” “Do we live after death?” “Is the world eternal?” the Buddha refuses to answer these questions insisting that “the religious life does not depend on dogma.” One will die before these questions are answered. Buddha likens asking such metaphysical questions with claiming—after being struck by a poison arrow—that you won’t have the arrow removed until you know who wounded you, what kind of person they were, the nature of the arrow, etc.  Again such a person would die before all their questions are answered.

Moreover even if one had answers to all these abstract questions what good would it do? Would you cease to suffer in this life? [He might be wrong. If you know that you would have infinite being, consciousness, and bliss after death it might help. His point though is to first eliminate the cause of suffering and then proceed.] Thus Buddhism is anti-metaphysical. Rather than constructing esoteric theories, the Buddha wants to understand the nature, causes, origins and the possibility of removing suffering. Buddhism is like medicine that we use until we gain full health.

Life of Buddha – The story of the Buddha, independent of its historicity, is crucial to understanding Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama was born a privileged prince after a miraculous birth. [By legend a white elephant entered his mother Maya’s womb through her side.] Siddhartha grew up shielded from life’s unpleasantness but one day went for a ride outside the palace where he saw, in succession: old age, sickness, death, and finally a simple monk who had renounced the world. Buddha thought the monk revealed a possible way out of this suffering and, in response to these experiences—he left his wife, newborn son, and the comfort of the palace.

For the next six years, he tried ascetic experiences with no success—nearly starving to death in the process. Eventually, he found a middle way between the opulent decadence of palace life and extreme asceticism. While sitting under the Bodhi tree, determined not to leave until he achieved enlightenment, he finally achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama had become the Buddha, the Awakened One. He decided to share his insights with others [like the enlightened prisoner in Plato’s cave who returns to it.] His own life became the model for the monastic life of a Buddhist monk. He died, surrounded by his followers at the age of 80.

Theory of Existence – The 3 most fundamental characteristics of existence for the Buddha are: 1) radical impermanence (constant change); 2) lack of a solid self (no self); 3) unsatisfactoriness (suffering).

The first mark of existence captures life’s transitory, ephemeral, fleeting nature. Nothing in the world is solid or independent of anything else. And nothing—no idea, being, state of mind, or thing—endures. Everything is impermanent, changing constantly at every moment. And everything, including you and me, are dependent upon and interconnected with other things without which we wouldn’t exist. [Our parents, grandparents, gravity, evolution, the air and water, the sun and stars, etc.]

Consider also how our thoughts, desires, cravings, interests, wants, preferences, hatreds, loves, lusts, and beliefs, all depend on situations largely out of our control—and consider how much mental suffering we endure on this basis. Buddhism aims to free us from the ignorance that is at the root of all this suffering. Of course, our present life is one of a long series of lives, and our present condition is determined by past actions. [Again to make this idea of reincarnation scientifically believable, consider many of your behaviors emanate from your biological past; and how many of your beliefs emanate from your social and cultural heritage.] Karma is the term which denotes this moral law of cause and effect. And karma is enough to propel the universe along in Buddhism, there are no creator or sustainer gods. (While some versions of Mahayana Buddhism imply that some eternal form may be behind the world, this is not a personal god in any sense.)

Theory of Human Nature – The second mark of existence means that the idea that there is nothing solid or permanent about reality also applies to the self. There is no self. (anatma or no atman.) Consider a chariot (or the car you drive or university you attend.) They are all made up of many parts, but the word chariot or car or university applies to all of those parts together—they are not independently existing things. In the same way the word I, or ego, or self is simply a name for all of the parts put together. There is nothing in addition to the parts—there is no soul of the car, university or body. You are the sum of your parts and their interrelationships; there is no separate soul or essence to you any more than to your car or university. [Even saying “you” in the above is misleading. When you say “you” that only refers to all the parts of your body and their interactions.] Again there is no independent self, ego, I, soul, etc. A truth confirmed by the Buddhists in meditation. (The idea of no-self is one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve encountered in 40 years of teaching college-level philosophy.)

Of course, you have continuity of memory, but there is nothing permanent underlying your being, nothing like a soul. You are a mind, body, and stream of consciousness. You are not really a being [a substance] but a becoming [an event.] The idea that you are a separate ego is also harmful because it leads to fear of death, violence, greed, competition, etc. Realizing the self is an illusion leads to compassion—the most important Buddhist virtue.

The idea of the separate ego is an expression of the 5 attachments or components (skandas) that make up what we call a person. The components are: 1) form—the body and its sense organs; 2) sensations—the physiological process produced by the contact of senses and the world [eyes see objects; ears hear sounds]; 3) perception—sensations that lead to object recognition [What I feel is a table]; 4) mental formations—our predispositions, attitudes, tendencies, habits, and karma [states of mind like conceit, impatience, humility, wisdom, etc.]; and 5) consciousness—not only does one sense and perceive something one becomes aware of something; consciousness is awareness.

Perhaps the most important components are the mental formations, which themselves result from the interplay of bodies, sensations, perceptions, and conscious awareness. All of this leaves karmic residue or ideas in our minds. [This is a fascinating topic. How and why do we form mental constructs? And how do the state of our reality and the reality of the world depends on good and true consciousness.] In short, our consciousness is conditioned by [nearly determined by] our mental formations. And if they are in turn completely determined then we have no control over consciousness. In short, our consciousness is conditioned by what has gone before which then shapes our consciousness perhaps forever. [How my mind doesn’t feel like my own when I read this.]

Consciousness consists of these every changing, ephemeral states or forms of mind—and how brief our conscious life is. Like a chariot that exists on a single point of its wheels, we live only for a brief moment of a single thought. We are changing every millisecond. Thus there is nothing permanent about us, not even for a moment. [You may think a piece of granite or steel is stable but it too is changing every moment. You can confirm this by looking at ancient ruins, or considering the past of future of the stars and planets.] Ask yourself this. Are you the same or different from when you were 6 years old? In one sense you are the same—born of the same parents, same DNA—but in another sense you are radically different.

The Buddhists explain the self using a candle flame. At every moment it is different—you are always changing—but there is a connection between the candle flame now and it flame an hour ago—you have some psychological continuity with your 6-year-old self. [In philosophy this is known as the problem of personal identity. How can you be both the same and different from what you used to be? What, if anything, persists in a person over time? It is one of the most vexing and studied questions in contemporary philosophy.] Finally, reincarnation is explained by the analogy of one candle relighting another new one as the former one burns out.

Buddha himself refused to answer the question of whether a separate, permanent soul exists. [I have encountered Buddhism on and off for 40 years and with each new encounter I am always moved by its profundity.]

Diagnosis – We begin with the 4 noble truths. The first noble truth is that life is full of suffering and dissatisfaction. (This is also the third mark of existence.) We suffer from anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty, fear, frustration, anger, disappointment and loss–everything is imperfect and flawed. In addition, everything is constantly changing, radically impermanent, so even good things and good times never last. The first kind of suffering is ordinary suffering: aging, sickness, death, unpleasant conditions, sadness, pain, not getting what we want, etc. The second kind results from change, even happiness doesn’t last, is fleeting and ephemeral. The last type of suffering results from the false sense of ego. [Thus we suffer when slighted, insulted, not recognized, etc.] The Buddha did not say that life is essentially or only suffering, but that we experience much suffering. And this is not meant to be pessimistic but realistic—the basic problem of life is that we experience so much dissatisfaction.

The second noble truth identifies the cause of suffering as craving, grasping, desiring. We try to hold on to and possess things that don’t last. The essence of reality is change and grasping or desiring tries to prevent change by keeping things as they are. Much of this desiring is motivated by the idea of the separate ego, which always wants more. [We want money, sex, power, drugs, food, fame, etc. What happens? When in the state of wanting, I am dissatisfied. Then I get what I want, but soon I want more. I want a thousand dollars and then a million and then a billion and I am still unhappy. The thrill of the new car or house makes me happy for a very short time. In fact, studies show that after one has about a 100 thousand dollar income more money does not make people happier. Does a glass of wine taste good? Maybe. Do ten glasses make you feel better? Probably not. Is it nice to have a roof over your head? Yes. Does having ten houses make your happier? No. This is what Buddha is getting at when he says our desires cause our troubles.]

Prescription – The end of craving and desiring is the key to relieving suffering. This is the third noble truth. [This is antithetical to a capitalist economy propelled by creating desires through advertising.] This leads to the state of nirvana, a peaceful state with no desiring. But what exactly do we do to experience this blissful state of not wanting and desiring and craving? We understand the fourth noble truth, which is to follow the eightfold path, also known as the Middle Way between a life of complete asceticism and a life of desiring pleasure. This path addresses ethical conduct, which is based on compassion, mental discipline, which flows from meditative practice and leads to the realization of the true nature of self, and wisdom, which is the realization of the true nature of reality.

Ethical components of the eightfold path include: 1) right speech—speech that tries to benefit others, speech that doesn’t lie, and silence when called for; 2) right action—moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct, no lying, killing, cheating, stealing, and the like; and 3) right livelihood—making a living without harming others.

Mental discipline is comprised of: 4) right effort—working toward wholesome rather than unwholesome states of mind; 5) right mindfulness—achieved through mindfulness meditation that leads to a better understanding of the impermanent nature of reality and lack of self; and 6) right concentration—meditation on a single point [like the breath, a flame, an image, a mantra].

Wisdom includes: 7) right thought—detachment from the idea of self; and 8) right understanding—accepting the 3 marks of existence (life is impermanent, there is no self, and there is suffering) and harmonizing the mind with this realization. It also implies accepting the 4 noble truths.

Different Paths – For monks this involves selfless, detached actions which aim to free one from karmic residue, and ultimately which leads to enlightenment. For the laity, this involves doing good deeds, accepting the 5 precepts—don’t kill, steal, lie, consume intoxicant or have illicit sex—and improving their karmic lot. The monks provide a model of the spiritual life; the laity provides minimal food for the monks. In the Theravadan tradition the monk who reaches nirvana, while in the Mahayana tradition the bodhisattva does not enter nirvana but stays in this world and helps the rest of us be liberated. The bodhisattva is often characterized as more compassionate than the monk who withdraws from the world. In some schools of the Mahayana tradition, the idea our true consciousness already exists and we must work to uncover it. [Similar to how Socrates thought of knowledge.] The idea is that we don’t have to work to achieve Buddha nature but recognize that it is already within. [Even if it is within it seems we have to work to bring it forth.] The Mahayana tradition also recognizes other ways besides the monastic life to enlightenment, including devotional practices.

Women in Buddhism – In some texts women are treated as inferior in Buddhism, yet the Buddha allowed women to be monks as long as they were subordinate to men. On the other hand, some Buddhist texts advocate an all-inclusive salvation. Today Buddhism is dealing with these issues.1


1. If you think this is only an issue in Hinduism or Buddhism consider what seminal Catholic thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas say about women:

“Woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition…” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q. 92 a. 1

“I don’t see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman was not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. The same goes for comfort in solitude. How much more pleasure is it for life and conversation when two friends live together than when a man and a woman cohabitate?” St. Augustine, De genesi ad litteram, 9, 5-9

“Good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I q.92 a.1 reply 2

And you can find other disparaging remarks about women throughout the history of philosophy. I’d say the first thinker who says nice things about women is John Stuart Mill. For more see his book: The Subjection of Women (Dover Thrift Editions).

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