Category Archives: Buddhism

Buddhist Metaphyics, Epistmology and Ethics

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

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

Buddhist Metaphysics

While some strands of Buddhism have very thick metaphysics, there are some forms with an extremely pragmatic orientation and a general focus on practices. Buddhism rejects that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing creator God. Buddhist emancipation is in some forms tied up with devotion to Celestial Boddhistavas, enlightened saints who are thought to have the power to ease others’ karma, but various forms of Buddhism do not accept or focus on this. In particular contemporary forms of Zen Buddhism downplay the importance of such metaphysics. One of the best-known tales of the early encounters with the Buddha makes this pragmatic stance toward metaphysics especially clear.

The monk and the arrow

Once when the Buddha was visiting a sangha (monastery), after some time a monk, Malunkya, who had been practicing diligently with the Buddha became quite dissatisfied with the fact that the Buddha had left various metaphysical questions unanswered. Malunkya thought to himself that he would ask the Buddha these questions and if he was given satisfactory answers he would devote himself to further study; otherwise he would leave the sangha.

Meeting the Buddha, Malunkya then asked him his questions: Was the universe was finite or infinite? Were the body and soul one and the same or different? Would the Buddha exist after his death or not? Mulunkya further informed the Buddha that if he refused to answer the questions, he would leave the sangha. The Buddha responded, asking if he had ever asked Malunkya to join the sangha so that he could get the answers to those questions. Malunkya acknowledged he had not.

The Buddha continued, noting that Malunkya’s decision to leave the sangha for not having received the answers to those questions was similar to a man who had been shot by an arrow going to a doctor for help but then refusing to allow the doctor to help remove the arrow until he could answer many questions about the one who had shot the arrow: his caste, his clan name, his height, his skin color, the name of his hometown, what type of a bowstring he used, the shape and material of the arrow, the poison used. The man would die before receiving the answers to those questions. Similarly, a man wanting the answers to those metaphysical questions would die before the Buddha would answer them. One does not have to know whether the universe is eternal or not or the soul immortal, the Buddha emphasized. There is suffering, birth, aging, and death. The teaching is to alleviate the pain accompanying that.


For many contemporary Buddhist practitioners, this story provides a good example of the practical orientation of Buddhism. The focus of Buddhist philosophy is not on certain dogmas but on engaging in practices that change one’s behavior and mental attitude.

The eightfold path provides the set of practices that it is thought end cravings and, by so doing, eradicate suffering. In this tradition, like in Hinduism, meditation practices and ethical behavior should facilitate an understanding of the basic metaphysical truths. But for philosophical Buddhism, the three marks of existence are more fundamental metaphysical truths: impermanence, no-self, and suffering. These are viewed as rather common sense, even empirical psychological observations.

The various elements of the eightfold path work in cohort to create the necessary understanding of these, complimenting one another. Right understanding and right resolve focus on wisdom. Right speech, right action, right livelihood focus on morality. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation focus on meditation. Each element works together. By meditating, one breaks down the barriers of the ego and comes to be wiser, while also overcoming the wrong views that lead one to unethical behavior. The ethical behavior, for its part, can also increase one’s empathy and help one to cultivate a better understanding of the world.

All of these things facilitate a conscious living in the moment. From moment to moment what we then have is a mental focus on a particular sensation. We have one interconnected occurrence after another. In the moment, the division between the self and the world break down, as one, for example, breathes in air from outside oneself or exhales it into the world upon which one is codependent. As the zen practitioners especially emphasize, the point is to prevent one’s mind from wandering and focusing on the past or the future. It is to be present.


The approach that Buddhists tend to have to many metaphysical ideas … is instrumentalist. As a tendency, they are not epistemological realists but constructivists. Applied to metaphysical ideas such as reincarnation and karma, as well as Celestial Boddhisatvas, philosophical Buddhists tend to say that if those ideas serve useful purposes, then it is fine to use them. But if they do not, or if they have outworn their use, then one can set them aside.

One finds statements like this in Buddhist thinkers as diverse as D.T. Suzuki, who along with Alan Watts was influential in introducing an earlier generation of U.S. Americans and Europeans to Zen Buddhism, as well as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, two international leaders in Buddhism, who are influential in spreading Buddhist teaching to the West.

Given the doctrine of no-self, the self, as we tend to understand it cannot be viewed as having any kind of permanent existence. It instead is viewed as a construct. It is a useful convention to refer to the self. Indeed it would likely be impossible to live without doing so. And one can hardly talk of the three marks of existence without referencing some individual’s pain or using nouns that refer to stable things. Buddhists tend to adopt a pragmatic approach to these and other distinctions. Various such metaphysical ideas have their uses. But their usefulness does not mean they have any ultimate truth value.

Such constructivist pragmatism, especially about the difficult to answer questions of the gods, the afterlife, and so on, has proven attractive to many people in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere who have given up on traditional views of God but find some attraction to meditative or mindfulness practices of the Buddhist tradition, or of yoga from the Hindu tradition, which they view as improving their lives, providing them with some greater felt sense of interconnectedness with the world and others around them, or simply relieving stress and contributing to greater mental balance.

Sam Harris, who is well-known for his arguments against God’s existence, is one well-known public intellectual in the U.S. who has come out in support of Buddhist philosophical ideas and some practices. He, like various others, would like to separate this from the “religious” aspects of the tradition, as he understands those. But for him and many other American Buddhists, the constructivist pragmatism, at least about traditional metaphysical topics, is a great source of attraction.

Of the various religious systems, contemporary forms of Buddhism are probably the least heavily loaded with “requirements” for thick metaphysics. That said, most Buddhists practitioners do believe in karma, reincarnation. Many believe in celestial Boddhistavas. Pure land Buddhists believe in a Pure Land the people inhabit after death. They believe that some individuals can be reincarnated as gods or devils. In Tibetian forms of Buddhism, most believe in reincarnations of Llamas, who refuse the leave the cycle of life and death and are reborn to help lead others to emancipation …

Brief comments on ethics

Much more can be said about the ethics in these traditions. Here I have only emphasized how both Hindus and Buddhists generally believe that ethical practice is part of what helps cultivate the intuition into metaphysical truths. Similarly, they both think that the intellectual intuition that meditation cultivates should break down the boundaries of the ego so that, seeing one’s self as either linked with others in Brahman (in Hinduism) or as co-dependently arising (in Buddhism), one would not act selfishly but cooperatively. Buddhists in particular focus on the virtue of compassion. Both philosophical schools otherwise have multifaceted ethical systems beyond what can be explored here.

Other teachings in Indian Philosophy

… Indian philosophy (and science) has made contributions to multiple areas of human understanding. Amartya Sen, Harvard Professor of Philosophy and a Nobel Prize winner of economics, underlines in particular early views of the 4th century BCE Indian philosopher, Kautilya, who in Arthasastra cataloged all knowledge into four disciplines: 1) Metaphysics, 2) knowledge of right and wrong, 3) the science of government, and 4) the science of wealth. As an early thinker of economics as a mere technical field, Sen contrasts Kautilya with Aristotle, who subsumes thinking about economics under considerations of ethics. But it is Kautilya who may be the first full-fledged economist in world history; and he breaks our mold of Indians as religious thinkers.

So, too, though I have emphasized Advaita Vedanta, the best known of all religious schools of Hindu philosophy, in fact, some of the earliest known expressions of atheism, the view that there is no god, come from Indian philosophy. Of course, as we have seen, Buddhism rejects the idea of a creator god. But the Charvaka or Lokayata, beginning around the sixth century BCE, develop a decidedly less spiritual philosophy than Buddhists. They embraced a form of materialism that accepted that all things were comprised of four elements. They rejected the Vedas, a belief in gods and the afterlife. And they proposed a radical hedonism, thinking we should live for what increases our individual immediate pleasure. Even if pains sometimes arise from doing so, it is in their view, worth it.

The point is, Indian philosophers have done much more than I have been able to indicate in these general statements, where I have confined myself to issues of metaphysics as they intersect with epistemology and ethics and I have focussed in particular on the religious philosophies.

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. 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?

Review of Robert Wright’s, Why Buddhism is True


Robert Wright is one of my favorite authors, and I have previously read his books:

1) Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny;
2) The Evolution of God;
3) Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information; and
4) The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (I taught out of this one.)

His most recent work comes with the audacious title: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Wright isn’t talking about supernatural Buddhism or its more exotic elements like reincarnation. Instead, he’s interested in the naturalistic parts of Buddhism that can be examined by psychology and philosophy. However, this includes some radical and life-altering claims about nirvana, enlightenment, emptiness, impermanence, overcoming craving, and the doctrine of no-self.

Wright’s basic claim is “that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” (15) Now Wright is no tender-minded, new age thinker, and he complements his careful analysis of Buddhist ideas by sharing his experiences meditating. Wright analyzes Buddhist ideas in light of his years of study of Buddhist doctrines, discussions with Buddhist scholars and meditation masters, his own meditative experiences, and especially Darwinian natural selection.

Natural selection is crucial here, as it has wired our brains in ways that cause suffering. Buddhist thinkers detected these tendencies long ago, although they didn’t know about evolution. So Buddhism is a rebellion against much of the evolutionary wiring our brains in order that we can see reality more clearly.

This is all important today because we now possess such destructive power. Combine this power with hatred, which derives from a brain designed by evolution to believe that it is special and its ideas always right, and we are in a dangerous situation. Thus Wright believes we need a revolution in consciousness to overcome this bias toward self and tribe that threatens our survival. A first step would be to realize emptiness, the no-self, and the freedom that results from this understanding. Perhaps we can then see at a deeper level than natural selection designed us to do, and marvel and be thankful for what we find.


The only problem I have with the work is that while we would certainly be better off if more people meditated, were less egocentric, minimized craving, and all the rest, I doubt this will happen, at least not on a planetary scale. Wright is aware of this criticism but hopes that whatever small gains we make in becoming self-aware are worth it. On the other hand, I believe that we should use technology to redesign our brains to make them more intellectually and morally virtuous, more capable of experiencing truth, beauty, goodness, and joy. Or perhaps we could scan the brains of meditators and transfer elements of their consciousness to the rest of us. Something like taking a Buddhist chill pill. But we definitely need high-tech fixes and we won’t survive without them.

Let me conclude by saying that Wright is a wonderful writer whose prose engages and inspires. Reading the book invites us to further study Buddhism and begin to meditate. One of the most compelling works I’ve read in a long time.

Summary of Buddhism on Human Nature

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: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, et. al., Oxford Univ. Press.) 

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 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).