The Basics of Buddhism

standing Buddha statue with draped garmet and haloStanding Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Buddhist philosophy originates with Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha’s life itself weaves an interesting philosophic narrative. According to tradition, he was born the son of a king in the Magda empire of Ancient India or present-day Nepal. He was raised a prince but eventually turned away from the life of politics that his father had envisaged for him in order to pursue a life of spirituality. Specifically, according to legend, his father attempted to shield him from seeing the troubles of the world. But on various occasions, the young Siddhartha left the princely castle and escaped into the streets of the city where he saw those who were ill, who grew old, who died, and finally a monk. Seeing this suffering Siddhartha felt compelled to seek a spiritual life. He then left his home to join wandering mendicants and try to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The sixth century was a tumultuous time, with many religious reformers who were dissatisfied with traditional Hinduism. Buddha, not himself a member of the priestly class or the Brahmin, joined these reformers, questioning the focus on the priestly class within Hinduism and more generally its strong caste system. In his search for enlightenment, Siddhartha initially engaged in strict asceticism, denying himself many of his bodily needs. But he is thought by adherents to eventually have achieved Enlightenment, after having long meditated under a Bodi tree.

The Middle Way

One of his first proclaimed truths was the importance of “the Middle Way,” which states that it is not the life of excess (such as he enjoyed as prince) nor the life of ascetic denial (which he attempted in his early spiritual search) that leads to enlightenment. Rather, it is the middle path that neither indulges nor denies basic human needs. Buddha presented some of his basic teachings in his first sermon, to monks with whom he had practiced asceticism but who were drawn to him after believing he achieved enlightenment. In that talk, known as the Deer Park Sermon, besides describing the Middle Way, Siddhartha (who now was given the honorific title of the Buddha, the awakened one) also presented his views of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, two of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism, accepted by all Buddhist practitioners.

The four noble truths

The four noble truths outlined in this sermon are 1) that life is fundamentally characterized by suffering (dukkha); 2) that the cause of that suffering is attachment or craving (tanha); 3) that suffering can be overcome by the elimination of craving; and 4) that there is an eightfold path that makes it possible for us to eliminate this craving and thus eliminate suffering.

The eightfold path

This eightfold path consists of 1) right understanding; 2) right thought; 3) right speech; 4) right action; 5) right livelihood; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; 8) right concentration. It is through the cultivation of a disciplined spiritual, ethical practice that one is relieved of attachment and one overcomes suffering. These various components of thought, behavior and concentration work in concert to allow individual liberation.

The three marks of existence

Metaphysically, Buddha also went a different path that his Hindu forebearers. While the Hindu thinkers emphasized the unity of all things in Brahman, a world substance that many of them thought to be permanent and unchanging, Buddha proposed a view of reality that continues to change and along with it a view of “no-self.” Where the Hindus focused on a unified “being” that encompassed all things, Buddha focussed on emptiness and non-being. All things, he emphasized, were in a state of constant change. The self, too, then is not “Atman” (Self, with a capital “S” or world soul) but “Anatman” (no-self).

As some Western philosophers have expressed this idea: If an object changes from moment A to moment B, then how can that object be characterized as the same object at those two times? Is it not rather two different ones? Buddha himself highlights how at any given moment the mind is aware of a sensation, a thought, a feeling, etc. These he views as “aggregates.” Where is the self behind all of these? The awareness we have is not of a self, but rather of one of these aggregates. With considerations like these, Buddha develops a considerably different metaphysics than one finds in the Hindu worldview that he grew up with. He speaks of three marks of existence that set his views apart from traditional Hindu thought: impermanence, no-self, and suffering.

Some common questions

Buddhism too raises numerous philosophical questions: For example, if the doctrine of the “no-self” is true, then what sense do moral commands to individuals have? Who is to carry them out? Who is responsible if there is no-self. And how are we to make sense of the goal of liberation or enlightenment if there is no self to be liberated or enlightened?

Buddhists, of course, have ways of addressing such concerns. Buddhists will, of course, acknowledge that as a practical matter, we will continue to refer to the self, use the words that reference the self, like “I,” “me,”  “mine.” Yet this self is not thought to have ultimacy. This language, while needed for practical life, does not, for that, indicate that there is a permanent or separate self.

Co-dependent arising

This is tied to the Buddhist idea of “co-dependent arising.” That teaching, as we might express it in relationship to certain ecological ideas today, emphasizes the interconnection of all the conventionally understood self with an entire world. For example, though we might think of the boundaries of our skin as the boundaries of our self, in fact, we breathe in the air continually. We need the resources of water and food. Cut off from those things, the self disappears.

So, we might wonder, can we adequately consider the self as cut off from the world around it? Without the oxygen, produced by the plants, we will expire. Without water for several days, we also die. The self is tied into and co-dependent upon these other things. So we might think of those things too as only conventionally existent. For they, too are dependent on other things, which undergo change from moment to moment and do not retain a permanent existence. What we have, though, is always only the happening of each moment, itself continually undergoing change.

Some similarities between Hindu and Buddhist thought

In some general way, philosophers of the Hindu and the Buddhist traditions that we have discussed here display similarities. Both emphasize an interconnection between things. Yet, while Hindu philosophers speak of the individual self as part of a larger “Self,” a kind of Superorganism in which each individual is like a cell, Buddhists question that there is some overarching “Self.” They emphasize instead that all processes are undergoing change. They emphasize emptiness and nothingness rather than “Being.”

Yet other elements of these systems of thought are similar. Both traditions emphasize the need for adherence to a quite similar moral code and the need for a set of spiritual practices in order to achieve an intuitive awareness of metaphysical truths. They both generally accept the idea of reincarnation, and that the form of one’s reincarnation is dependent on how one has lived in previous lives — that is, they accept the reality of karma. Finally, they both accept the goal of enlightenment, even if they think that enlightened individuals understand the ultimate reality differently in these two traditions.

This conversation is only hinting at some of the philosophical issues at play in Hindu philosophy and Buddhism. Various concepts described here are also understood in other ways. And it is important to bear in mind that these worldviews are not static or uniform. In fact, we find various Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, all with subtle differences in how they understand their own traditions. These are rich thoughtful systems of thought, which each contain thinkers who debate issues with each other and with the traditional bodies of knowledge acknowledged by their traditions.

Some basic questions

Questions of course abound. Many of those posed when discussing Hinduism apply to Buddhism. Some of the following apply to both worldviews:

  • Why should we accept that there is anyone who can be fully enlightened and that enlightenment comes through a spiritual practice rather than analytical thinking?
  • If there is karma, why do so many good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people?
  • Is the evidence that this is somehow related to past lives in any way convincing, or does it function as an ideological foil?
  • Are these spiritual systems too focused on individual mental liberation and do they short social justice concerns?
  • Are these systems ultimately overly pessimistic? Is individual life so oppressive and disappointing that we ought desire to escape the cycle of existence?
  • Finally are basic elements of these systems of thought self-contradictory?
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6 thoughts on “The Basics of Buddhism

  1. “If there is karma, why do so many good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people?”

    Karma could be described as Darwinian karma. Actions in tune with predatory nature are rewarded– actions not consonant with nature are punished in some way. Which answers:

    “Are these spiritual systems too focused on individual mental liberation and do they short social justice concerns?”

    The food chain of life is natural; social justice is at least partially based on scientific progress– if we are indeed progressing.

    “Finally are basic elements of these systems of thought self-contradictory?”

    If so, the ‘illusory’ nature of existence renders self-contradiction meaningless.

  2. Dear professor John G. Messerly:
    I watch each time your articles on Reason and Meaning, and I congratulate you for the content and your endevour. This article about Budism seems me an interesting condensation of the subject. In relation with the “Some basic questions” at the end, I dare to call your atention on my internet page, in spanish, about Philosophy and History of Religion. On it you can see my papers discussing several subjects, between them the problem of evil and that of reencarnation. This is the link:
    Best regards.

  3. Again you’ve done a really nice job imo of breaking out the important truths of Buddhism for discussion. This post brings a few thoughts to mind that have taken me some ways away from Buddhist thought.

    In the four Noble Truths I generally agree but do not agree that all suffering is due to attachment. Like an animal dying in great pain there is only the reaction of the body suffering and no conscious attachment that it go away outside of instinct. Also imo it’s impossible to eliminate all attachment and all suffering for us humans. Thus enlightenment isn’t a reality. Yet these “truths” can surely help us greatly to the extent we may be willing and able to practice them.

    IMO much of the Eightfold path is impossible to seriously practice within a mostly corrupt culture and even small cultures are corrupt to one extent or another. The middle way is good concept however imo.

    As to self or no self that is the type of philosophical question that is interesting as all get out but relatively unimportant towards the goal of liberation from suffering. Keep it simple is my motto in this area. I’m not the brightest spark in the fire so I could well be wrong about this.

    Finally I’d say for myself at least the idea of following any moral code is tricky. Every one would have to agree on what is moral and I often find myself at odds with the herd on this quite often. If you follow your own idea of what is moral then it’s as good as your guess I guess. (insert smile)

  4. Only thing I doubt regarding Eastern faiths is reincarnation: how would Gautama be reincarnated as an amoeba? It would be as if Gautama never existed.

    But then reincarnation is a brain-teaser, such as parallel universes.
    When dealing with ‘Heaven’ concerning the Abrahamic faiths, or reincarnation in the various Eastern faiths, it is possibly best to tolerate the idiosyncratic– not reject it categorically. And since Eastern faiths well comprehend maya, reincarnation is not to be taken with the deadly seriousness that ‘Western’ faiths take their idiosyncrasies.
    No problem with déjà vu, though; déjà vu can be explained as repressed memories/ repressed dreams/repressed fantasies.

  5. A succinct but instructive analysis of the essentials of Buddhism. For an inspiring exposition of the life and teachings of the Buddha I found Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia helpful and persuasive. His description of the Buddha’s realisation of the Middle Path where he says “ The Foolish often teach the wise” how Prince Siddhartha was willing to learn from the song of a Nautch girl I found humbling and delightful.

  6. “The sun is seen to shine down on the saint and the sinner equally” Ecclesiasties

    “The petty fears and the petty pleasures are but the shadows of reality ” Thoreau

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