Category Archives: Eastern Philosophy

The Basics of Taoism

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


Along with Confucius, Laozi is one of the two main thinkers of importance in the history of Chinese philosophy. In early periods of Chinese history, the philosophies of the two schools to develop from their thought (Confucianism and Taoism) are viewed as in rivalry. However, in the Middle Ages, a syncretism developed between Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Ideas from each of these philosophical schools were thought to have an appropriate place in a balanced life.

There is much legend surrounding the life of Laozi. Some have even questioned whether he lived at all. Most, however, accept that he did live at around the same time as Confucius, in the 6th century BCE. While Confucius, however, develops what is

largely a social theory, the focus of Laozi is on a metaphysics and individual ethics.

Laozi and the Tao te Ching — Introduction

It is difficult to know what precisely Laozi (also Lao Tzu) thought. Though according to legend he was the author of the Tao te Ching, scholars now know this isn’t the case. Stylistically, the various parts of the book differ too extremely from one another. In addition, some of the aphorisms in the book are known to have pre-dated the 6th century BCE when he is thought to have lived.

The text is generally thought to have been completed in the 3rd century BCE. It may well be that going back in Chinese history, the aphorisms in the Tao te Ching became part of an oral culture, passed on among groups of Taoists. The Tao te Ching is the most translated book in the world except for the bible. And there have been over 200 commentaries on the work since it was written. For the sake of convenience, I will here attribute the ideas of the Tao te Ching to the legendary Laozi.

The Tao

Laozi is known for the emphasis on the Tao. Translated variously as the way, or nature’s way, there were two main characteristics of the Tao. It was used as a verb “to direct,” “to guide,” or “to establish communication.” As a noun, it was used to refer to the order of nature familiar in the patterns of seasons and the alterations between night and day and so on. The Tao was thought to reflect the complimentary oppositions of the yin and yang, principles of the cosmic order, which became associated with female and the male, the dark and the light, the cold and the hot, the damp and the dry. In Taoism, this idea of nature’s balancing of oppositions takes on a greater clarity than in the Heraclitian or ancient Greek world generally.

A focus of Laozi, however, becomes to guide or direct or show the way for individuals to establish a conscious connection with this cosmic order. In the main Laozi emphasizes an ethics or, even more broadly, a general form of life, that will create the means of communication with the Tao, with nature’s Way.

Laozi emphasizes the reality is a dynamic process. However, the precise character of the process remains somewhat unclear.

The Unknowable Tao

As the Tao te Ching opens: “The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.” (Tao te Ching, 1)

The Tao is a reality that Laozi does not think can be known absolutely. The unchanging Tao is beyond human categorization and conceptualization. The concepts we develop for it, and this would apply to those like Yin and Yang and the concepts that we use to describe its process, have a contingency and incompleteness.

The Tao as mother of all things

That said, the Tao te Ching goes on to describe quite a lot. “(Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things” (Tao te Ching, 1). The Tao is thought to pre-exist all things. It is the source of creation.

Yet, while the Tao is the source of all things, it is not for that a separate creator: “All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to them, not one refusing obedience to it. When its work is accomplished, it does not claim the name of having done it. It clothes all things as with a garment, and makes no assumption of being their lord…” (Tao te Ching, 34).

The Tao is best conceived as a foundation of all reality, as a system in flux, but unfolding with certain regularities.

Balancing oppositions

The Tao in the Tao te Ching, like the cosmos in thought of the Ancient Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, is viewed as fundamentally in process as oppositions are balanced. “The movement of the Tao by contraries proceeds” (Tao te Ching, 40). Or as Chapter 2 already notes: “All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skillful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.” On the one hand, here the emphasis is on the balance of oppositions in the world. On the other, the focus is also on the inevitability of oppositions for our conceptual understanding. We do not know the beautiful without a concept of the ugly, and so on.


While highlighting the oppositions that comprise the Tao with a great clarity, the Tao te Ching also focuses on emptiness and nothingness. “The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fullness” (Tao te Ching, 4). Or, for a text emphasizing emptiness in multiple contexts: “The thirty spokes unite in the one nave; but it is on the empty space (for the axle), that the use of the wheel depends. Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends. The door and windows are cut out (from the walls) to form an apartment; but it is on the empty space (within), that its use depends.

Therefore, what has a (positive) existence serves for profitable adaptation, and what has not that for (actual) usefulness” (Tao te Ching, 11). Nonbeing is as fundamental or more fundamental than Being in Taoism, as in Buddhism.

Intuition and its critical limitations

Laozi is known for emphasizing the need for a mental intuition in order to achieve this understanding of the Tao. In this, he downplayed very much the importance of education, which he saw as indoctrinating individuals into preconceived views of what is right and wrong and to limited views of reality.

Laozi was thus not known for encouraging an empirical and rational critical outlook. Xunzi, the third century BCE Confucian scholar criticized him saying “Lao Tzu understood looking inward but knew nothing of looking outward” (Qtd. in Kahenmark, 20). Early sources maintain that he was gifted with a spiritual intuition. As noted in the Chuang Tzu, he, along with Kuan Yin “made [their teaching’s] basic principle the Permanent Unseen and its ruling idea the Supreme One. Their outward demeanor was gentle and accommodating; their inward principles were perfect emptiness and noninjury to all living creatures” (Chapter 33, Qtd. in Kahenmark, 21).

The epistemology at work in Laozi is more instrumentalist than realist. Named things have a contingent use value. But it is not through reflective analysis that we will know the law of balance of the Tao or the order of the cosmos. It is a spiritual intuition that leads to a more reliable kind of knowledge. The harmony with the Tao is not achieved through discursive reason. Rather, it is achieved through a spiritual insight.

Ethics and political thought

This insight of the unity of all things in the Tao also has its benefits for the ethical life. Comprehending this unity, individuals do not assert their own ego interests above that of others. Rather they willingly engage in cooperation with one another. The Taoists tended to emphasize a fundamental goodness of human nature. For this reason, they opposed a heavy-handed legalist framework. In the view of the Taoists, laws were not necessary to generate civility or cooperation among people. They thus argued for a minimalist political framework. “Governing a small country is like frying a small fish. You ruin it by poking too much” (70). Too much government would, in Laozi’s view, cause more problems than it solved: “The more restrictions and prohibitions there are, the poorer the people will be” (57).

The ideal of Laozi, however, is small village life. One might wonder whether the rather lassie faire political philosophy works well in cosmopolitan cities with individuals who do not share common cultural ideals or in other general contexts of global governance.

The Basics of Confucianism

Temple of Confucius of JiangyinWuxiJiangsu

Confucius’ life

Confucius, or “Master Kung” as he became known, was born in the city of Lu (now known as Qufu) in the Northeast of China in 551 BCE and he died in 479 BCE. As a child he studied history and music, as well as hunting, fishing, and archery. Confucius exemplified in his own life the rather broad set of competencies and broad minded interests that come to be thought befitting of a well-developed gentleman within the Confucian system of education. He married but divorced.

Confucius spent a part of his early life as a civil servant for the Duke of Lu. According to legend he had great success in that position, but his job was compromised due to the jealousy of others. After leaving that position, he spent his life as a scholar and educator. He developed the system of political philosophy that would come to dominate Chinese society for more than 2000 years. As a scholar, he traveled from town to town, with students who followed him. He sought throughout his life to again find work as a political advisor, as he thought that having the opportunity to positively influence political institutions was key to creating the conditions for the self-development of individuals. He found such work again at the age of 67 as an advisor for the Duke of Ai.

The texts of Confucius 

For most of Chinese history, Confucius was thought to have edited (or written) five books which became known as the Confucian Classics. These books covered areas thought integral for the well-rounded education of civil servants. These included:

  • The Classic of Poetry — a book of 305 poems and songs, performed at court ceremonies
  • The Book of Documents — a book of documents and speeches attributed to leaders of the Chao period
  • The Book of Rites — a description of ancient rites and ceremonies
  • I Ching — a book of divination
  • Spring and Autumn Annals — a historical record of the region of Lu from which Confucius came

Besides these texts, the Analects is the collection of sayings of Confucius, early compiled by his students. It consists largely of proverbs, thematically related in sections. From this text, in particular, we cull some of the basic ideas of Confucius.

The warring state period

Confucius, like Laozi, lived in a period of political disarray in China, known as the warring states period. The time was one of political dissolution in which the unity of the Chou dynasty was eroded and small state conflict was dominant. Various philosophical and political systems were developed at this time with the aim of helping to reestablish a better functioning political order.

Besides Confucianism and Taoism, in political thought the period gives rise to legalism, which sought strong centralist policies for the empire, and Mohism, which argued for the need to rule in accord with “the will of heaven,” but offered a utilitarian standard of considering the greatest benefit (li) for the people. While Taoism argued for a return to largely self-government, or even anarchism, with the small village unit as a model, Confucianism argued for reestablishing the feudal ideal identified with the earlier Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Confucius as a model

Like Socrates’ in Ancient Greece, Confucius’ life is thought of as exemplary. Though Confucius did not think of himself as a sage, in Chinese history he has come to serve in particular as an example of a normal individual who is able, through his own efforts, to become a sage. He is not a prophet with a divinely inspired message. He is not a mystic. He is a scholar who strives to live virtuously. In fact, Confucius sees himself not as the founder of a school but as one individual in a long line of scholars (Ju chia) which extends back to the era of the Shang dynasty, circa 1100 BCE.

Views of religion

Though Confucianism was intricately tied into the state religion in China, Confucius did not teach much about the gods. His is not primarily a religious philosophy but a political philosophy. As noted in the Analects, “The Master did not talk about marvels, feats of strength, irregularities, gods” (7/21).

We often find Confucius expressing hesitancy to discuss questions of traditional religion. The following is indicative: “Chi-lu asked about serving the ghosts and gods. The Master said, ‘Until you can serve men how can you the ghosts.’ ‘Permit me to ask about death.’ ‘Until you know about life how can you know about death?’” (11/12)

Similarly, it is noted: “The Master said, ‘To work for the things the common people have a right to and to keep one‘s distance from the gods and spirits while showing them reverence can be called wisdom.’” (6/22)

That said, Confucius did emphasize the importance of ritual for a virtuous life. And the civic religious functions played an important role in this. Still, we might say that he sees religion more in the service of a good life than man in the service of religion.

Self Development

The focus on Confucius is on self-development. In the Confucian worldview this not means that one lives with a focus on narrow self-interest, but with an understanding of how one’s life and well-being is tied into that of others. One becomes self-developed through cultivating virtues and fulfilling one’s social role.

Jen and Li 

Of special importance for self-development are the virtues of Jen and Li.  Jen is a virtue entailing conscientiousness, empathy, and altruism (that is, action done for the benefit of others, not ourselves). Li is translated as rites, ceremonies, or customs. Here religion clearly played role, but Li extends beyond the religious rights tot he cultivation of custom. All of this is to play a part in helping us develop Jen. In fact, the everyday rituals and customs can serve to wake us to the special character of the everyday world we are immersed in. It can foster our empathy and serve to undergird the social order.

Interlinked connections

While both Taoism and Confucianism underline the need for self-development in harmony with the Tao, their understandings of what this entails differ from each other. The Taoists have a much greater focus on individualism and spirituality as traditionally understood. Confucianism, by contrast, sees our harmony with the Tao and our self-development as taking place always against the backdrop of our existing social relationships. We fulfill ourselves and live in harmony with the Tao by fulfilling our roles as sons or daughters, fathers, and mothers, within the family, or by fulfilling our roles as civil servants within the state.

The well-ordered society is key to well-ordered individuals. And developing ourselves requires contributing to our society in its various social systems. Human life is characterized fundamentally by a network of relationships of interlinked systems. The self finds itself interlinked with a family, within a city, within a regional government, within an empire, within the world. The Tao is aligned when each of these system levels is aligned.


The study of the earlier mentioned five classics was thought integral to the education of civil servants throughout most of Chinese history. The works cover various domains of human life, and the study of them was to instill in them the importance of artistic expression, social processes and social systems, rituals, and considerations of metaphysics. These were tracked formally to the poetic vision, political vision, social vision, metaphysical vision, and historical vision. Each of these domains is key to our own self-development. They are domains of human expression that shape us. A wise civil servant shapes our social and political institutions with a view to the importance of each of these domains of human life, in service of the goal of virtue.

The Mandate of Heaven

Confucius emphasized that an emperor had a great responsibility to lead by virtuous example. As stated in the Analects: “Direct the people with moral force and regulate them with ritual, and they will possess shame, and moreover, they will be righteous.” (2.3)

The leader should be a well-rounded developed individual, who lives virtuously and properly embodies the empire’s customs and conscientiousness. Such an exemplary leader governs not for himself but to meet the needs of those in the kingdom. Seeing this, the people will follow his example. This is key to aligning the earth with heaven, for aligning action with the Tao. Under the best circumstances, this occurs, and the emperor is owed allegiance.

However, if an emperor fails to fulfill his role, then Confucianism came to accept that an empire could rightfully be overturned and a new imperial order could be instituted that did fulfill its correct purpose. The old empire — failing to fulfill its purpose — would lose the mandate of heaven. A new dynasty could then ascend and gain it. The kind of regime change that was imagined here would, of course, be extremely rare.

The rectification of names

The Confucian system developed a quite rigid set of roles for individuals within the imperial system. As very concisely expressed in the Analects:

“Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son” (12.11).

Confucianism became quite focused on obligations associated with the roles one had in society. These roles also paid respect to and solidified a set of “natural hierarchies”: The subject owed the emperor obedience.  The son owed the father allegiance. The wife owed the husband obedience. The friend owed the friend respect.

The obligation to retain that allegiance in each case was that the father, husband, friend, etc. fulfilled their own obligation. If they did not, then there were not considered an emperor, father, friend and so on in the true sense of the word and the obligation was not complete.

In the example, we have discussed, the emperor had a set of attributes and rituals that he was to really be an emperor. Conscientiousness about fulfilling that role was essential to retain the mandate of heaven. In the case of the other various roles, conscientiousness of the obligations of the role was also vital. When individuals lived up to the name of their role (lived up to the obligations of being a good father, son, wife, friend, minister, etc.) then heaven was thought to be unified with earth.


Many Chinese, especially in the twentieth century, came to be critical of the Confucian system of government in different ways, but mainly for what we can see as its conservatism. Its emphasis of traditions and rituals meant it was somewhat backward looking. Though the Chinese had made many technological and scientific developments, the focus of the Confucian education system was on disciplines that are hermeneutic rather than scientific. The focus of education was all too often on interpreting what great men of the past had said rather than examining the world with modern science.

Other issues of contention included the rather hierarchical social order of the Confucian ethical system. In alignment with the Confucian system, children were to obey their parents, wives to obey their husbands, citizens to obey their political leaders. Individuals increasingly felt that this often lead to the unjust treatment of many. And it simply came to be thought that these characterization of natural roles (of women, for example) were simply incorrect.

Further after years of international subjugation of China to Western powers, various Chinese wondered if Confucianism was partially responsible because of its focus on obedience to those in power.

The Confucian dynasty system was finally ended in 1912. Under Mao and modernization, much has changed. Nonetheless, various elements of Confucianism are still present in Chinese culture, much like Christianity is in a now largely secular Europe …

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?

Hindu Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics

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

Metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta

Metaphysics studies the type of things that exist and includes reflections on ultimate reality. In the presentation of ideas so far, the views of Brahman and the self in Hinduism and the marks of existence in Buddhism, as well as related discussions of the five aggregates are all part of the subject matter of metaphysics. Reincarnation and karma also can be included in this area of philosophy, as they concern processes to which existent things are subject.

The discussion of the self in Advaita Vedanta offered earlier was incomplete. So far, besides discussing the self as we normally understand it — a given individual, named Sarah, for example — we discussed Atman, the world soul of which Sarah would be an expression. Beyond that, however, the Hindus speak of self in a further sense called jiva. Jiva is an individual soul, separate from the world soul, but also not identical with a specific person. The jiva undergoes reincarnation, passing through various reincarnations as specific individuals until it achieves Moksa, the full awareness that ultimate reality is one unified whole. While Sarah is the individual in a particular lifetime, the jiva is the soul that transmigrates from one life to another. Sarah in this life may become Shiela in the next. A typical analogy is that of water which can be poured from one container to another, taking on the form of whatever container it is in.

So in one life, the water is in the form of a cup (Sarah), in another it takes the form of a pot (Shiela). Another analogy is that of a pillow and a pillowcase. The jiva is the pillow, in one life slipped in one pillowcase (Sarah), in another slipped into another one (Shiela). This is supposed to happen until jiva (non-named since it always takes on the name of its present incarnation) learns the lessons it should and awakens to the deep truth of the fundamental unity of everything through a practice of yoga. That knowledge is sufficient to end the cycle of births and rebirths. The individual soul at that point simply disappears again into the primordial unity of Brahman. To return to our water analogy, the water is then returned to the ocean, where it simply exists in unity, losing its individual features.

Epistemology in Advaita Vedanta and Beyond

One of the great difficulties with any of these religious-philosophical systems concerns how we are to know these difficult metaphysical truths — about the self and ultimate reality — that they expound.

Generally, we accept that we gain knowledge through reflection on our sense experience and logical deductions. But the spiritual systems propose metaphysical truths about which we have no sense experience. Generally, the religious systemizers will maintain that a type of internal sense, an internal sight, or insight, is possible that allows us to understand the metaphysical truths that are expounded. These Eastern systems, in particular, are less dogmatic than the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) tend to be.

Hinduism does have many sacred texts that are formative for all in the tradition, but it largely does not understand itself as a dogmatic belief system but as a living system. Gurus are thought to have the insights and to be able to guide others to have these as well. This requires the practice of various forms of yoga, which eventually should allow the insights among the practitioners. It is this kind of intuition that should lead individuals to accept the truth of the ideas of Brahman, Atman, reincarnation, and so on.

There are five general types of yoga: 1) Hatha yoga is the type of yoga most people are familiar with through yoga centers in the U.S. and Europe. In this form of yoga … one assumes asanas (or postures), engaging in physical practices that are to reform the mind, leading to Moksa. 2) Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. 3) Karma yoga is the yoga of service. 4) Raja yoga is the yoga of meditation. 5) Jnana yoga is the yoga of theoretical learning.

In Hinduism, the practice of these forms of yoga is related both to epistemology and ethics. Each of these practices should lead individuals to understand their ultimate unity with one another in Atman and Brahman. Knowing this, these individuals will also lose the egoism that drives selfish and immoral behavior. So, it is such practices, along with the adherence to a moral regime, that lead to insight about metaphysical truths.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that only very few individuals will indeed have had such deep insight. But in the most charitable reading, one might note that few understand relativity theory or string theory either. But the assumption accepted is that with enough work they would be able to understand it. In these religious systems, the vast majority have some faith that they could, one day with enough practice, understand the truths that they now largely accept on faith.

Should we trust our cultivated inner perception?

A problem with such arguments about an inner perception is that there seems to be little agreement among those who maintain they have one (whether in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other traditions). Most of these worldviews maintain that some such insight is available, at least to some. Yet the fundamental descriptions of the metaphysical reality across these traditions are not in agreement, unlike the descriptions of relativity theorists, for example, in diverse places such as China, Germany, the U.S. and so on.

Reincarnation is also a process that practitioners of these Eastern systems maintain one might also have an inner perception of. Deja vu experiences, dreams, and the like are the general reports used in support of veracity of such views. The question for those considering such views is whether those experiences are best explained as indicating the reality of reincarnation and as lending sometimes support for the mechanism of karma, or whether some other explanation might be more compelling.

Indeed, given the lack of agreement among the various religious systems in the world about what that inner perception is — regarding views of God, the self, the afterlife — how reliable of a guide is it? …