Intro to Buddhism
September 29, 1998
The classification of Buddhism under the heading "Religion" has long been a source of
disagreement among scholars, and rightly so, for it is in many ways far different from the other
major religions of the modern world. While Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are all
based on mythological narratives, have set rules and ceremonies to follow, and are centered on a
belief in a God or gods, Buddhism is not. Oddly enough, what Buddhism does share with these
other religions, the claim to be a path to truth, is actually the very thing that sets it apart from
them. While the other major religions of the world are effectively belief systems that demand faith
in metaphysical "truths," Buddhism is rather a critical mode of analysis that seeks to tear down the
walls of false beliefs with which humans surround themselves for comfort and security. Buddhists
do not have blind faith in anything; instead they seek to understand the world free from
allillusions. By removing man's veil of ignorance, Buddhism reveals the truth latent in each person.
One of Buddhism's most powerful tools in the onslaught against what the Buddha termed
avidya, unenlightened man's ignorance of reality, is the concept of karma. While karma to the
Hindus means action, to Buddhists karma is not action, but causality and conditionality. Karma is
a law of nature, not an arbitrary construct; it's Western equivalent can be found in Newtonian
physics as the law which states that every action will have an equal and opposite reaction. It goes
against reason to deny that every event must have a cause, and therefore anything contrary to
karma is contrary also to reason and must thus be false.
Applying this idea of karma to many popular belief systems brings to the surface serious
flaws inherent in their beliefs. For example, most major religions speak of a point in time, however
distant, when the world was created by God. According to the law of karma, the natural question
to ask in turn is who created this God? The belief that most people hold is that God always
existed, uncaused and without end. However, this belief runs contrary to karma in that all things
must have a cause, and thus this belief must be untrue and illusory.
Moreover, there is no need to even postulate a God in the first place, or any sort of creation
story, because karma tells one that the world has no beginning and no end. Existence is an infinite
chain of cause and effect. The very atoms which make up one's body have existed forever in
constantly changing form, perhaps as rivers, perhaps as trees, and perhaps as a part of the
incalculably dense mass which comprised the universe before the big bang. Yet, there never
existed a time when they did not exist, nor could there have existed an uncaused event which
brought about their existence.
Closely related to the idea of karma is the concept of pratitya-samutpada, which states that all
things are interdependent and conditioned. It too makes complete sense both logically and
empirically, and is therefore different from ideas that require belief. According to
pratitya-samutpada, the idea of an omnipotent and transcendent God who is beyond space and
time is rejected as unlikely. Unconditioned self-existing, or what the Buddha called svabhava, is
an illusion unmasked by this idea of dependent origination. Every inch of the universe is
interconnected in a giant spider-web of causality extending back through time without beginning
or end. Therefore the very idea of the existence of a God, or any entity, completely free and
outside of time and space is therefore impossible, because all things are shown to be
Deconstructing the ideas of God and creation breaks down illusions that pervade much of
world thought, especially that of Western society. The concept of a beginning in the existence of
the world is characteristic of Westerners' broader understanding of time and life as linear as
opposed to cyclical. Buddhism destroys the very limiting linear perspective of Western thought,
allowing men and women to view the world through the unclouded vision of enlightenment.
Furthermore, by showing the fallacy in the unfounded belief in a higher being, Buddhism
eradicates the dependence that one might feel towards God. While the belief that God will take
care of his faithful is a comfort to many, this idea is nothing but an illusion that hampers one's
ability to see reality and live one's life accordingly. In the Buddhist way of life, one is not subject
to arbitrary laws and guidelines imposed by a God; one only follows the natural laws of reason.
Like the idea of God, the man's concept of an immortal soul, a self, or an ego is also an
illusion unmasked by the insights of Buddhism. In claiming to have a soul, man is making the
impossible claim of having svabhava. The Buddhist concept of anatman specifically addresses the
question of man's sense of self by stating that man has no permanent soul or being. To Buddhists,
"being" is an impossible state that requires permanence in an impermanent world. There is
therefore no "being" but only ceaseless "becoming". In this process, karma is constantly at work
on human beings, who, like the entire universe, are in a constant state of change because they ate
subject to all of the effects of their environment as it changes. There is not reason for man to then
believe that any part of him remains constant and permanent. Such a belief only obscures reality.
Through the workings of the five aggregates, form, sensation, perception, disposition, and
consciousness, man develops a stream of consciousness that continues from birth until death.
Although this stream of consciousness undergoes constant change, as does one's body and mind,
man still persists in believing that the sense of self derived from this stream of consciousness is his
permanent self or ego. This idea of a self is one of the most deeply embedded ideas in Western
culture today. It is one of the key concepts that molds the men and women of Western society
into the self-seeking individualists that they are and traditionally have been. Man's sense of self is,
however, anitya, impermanent, it changes as does his environment, and his attachment to this false
idea of permanent soul is one of the causes of his suffering. Buddhism seeks to free man from this
state of suffering, dukkha, by bringing him out of his state of ignorance and thus ending the
attachment to false beliefs. Through eradicating this false perception of a self using the concept of
anatman, Buddhism uproots one of the basic foundations of Western thought and society.
Not only does the concept of no-soul, anatman, show the falsity of the idea of the soul, it also
reveals the fallacy of a belief in heaven and hell. Without a transcendent soul there is no need for
one to preoccupy oneself with speculations on an afterlife. According to Buddhist thought, one's
body and mind undergo constant changes that continue after one's death as the body decomposes
and becomes a part of other living organisms. Thus to a Buddhist, life really has no end but
instead moves in cycles.
This cycle of existence, known as samsara, is more than simply a cycle of physical existence.
Samsara is also man's illusion of the world as produced by his desire and attachment. Not only
does man become attached to and long after false ideas like God, heaven, and an immortal soul;
he also longs after his happiness, his loved ones, and his possessions. Because nothing is free from
the constant forces of change, man always faces the loss of the ideas and possessions to which he
clings, and the suffering that accompanies this loss. The only way to escape samsara and end
dukkha is to overcome one's ignorance and desire.
Unlike systems of belief, which perpetuate illusion and longing, Buddhism has as its ultimate
goal the extinction of illusion and ignorance through the cessation of desire. When one is free
from desires and illusions, one is said to have reached the state of nirvana. Unlike the concept of
heaven, nirvana is not a union with God or a blissful afterlife, but rather a state one may attain in
life by acting in pure detachment from desires. Concepts like heaven or afterlife require blind faith
on the part of the follower, and are proven by karma and anatman to be illusions. Yet nirvana is a
state of mind attainable by all through wisdom. One may reach nirvana by following the Eightfold
Noble Path, which is quite different from the Ten Commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition
or the dharma of Hinduism. Unlike these arbitrary codes of law, the Eightfold Noble Path seeks
only to regain man's original purity of mind throug~ ethical behavior, mental discipline and
wisdom. Those who have reached nirvana see the world as it truly exists: ruled by karma and
pratitya-samutpada. They see the fallacy of belief in a soul. Most importantly they are not subject
to suffering because they have no desires or longings. For all of their pomp and ritual, no other
religion can offer freedom from suffering in life the way Buddhism does.
Buddhism is vastly different from other religions in that it is not a belief system but rather a
critical mode of analysis. It does not require of its followers the blind faith needed to accept
unprovable metaphysical "truths." Instead it relies on man himself to critically'discern the way in
which the world truly exists with the help of the buddha's own insights like kamuz,
pratitya-samutpada, anatman, and samsara. By breaking down the false constructs of the human
experience, these concepts help man to wash clean the sullied surface of his mind revealing a mind
inherently pure and free of ignorance. Once released from his ignorance, man is also released from
Intro to Buddhism
November 10, 1998
Because of their philosophical tradition, Westerners often have a tendency to want to
reject the Buddhist worldview as fundamentally pessimistic and therefore inferior to their own
belief systems. However, when one explores the meanings behind Buddhist doctrines like sunyata,
it is clear that Buddhism is in reality not at all pessimistic; rather it is, as a religio-philosophica1
system, far more realistic than many comparable Western systems. Take for example the famous
question of the glass being half empty or half full. One will recall that those who espouse the latter
position are deemed optimists, while those who choose the former view are said to be pessimists.
A Buddhist, on the other hand, would remark that the glass is in reality completely empty,
whether it is full of water or not. Indeed the glass, the water and the air are themselves equally
empty. In order to grasp this paradoxical idea, it is necessary to understand the meaning of
emptiness in the Buddhist sense the term, and the methods by which Buddhists express this
The doctrine of sunyata states that all things are empty of svabhava, or independent being. It
is the natural conclusion of the concept of pratitya-samutpada, which states that all things are
conditioned and interdependent; the unconditioned self-existing of svabhava is simply an illusion.
Because all things are dependent on each other, they are in and of themselves empty and relative.
Yet they are, in this emptiness and relativity, a reflection of the oneness of the universe. Their
emptiness is fullness. As Thich Nhat Hanh states in The Miracle of Mindfulness, "[a] person who
looks at the table and can see the universe is a person who can see the way" (p. 48). Buddhists
warn that even this emptiness is empty, in that no doctrine or teaching is absolute, but only a
relative means to an inexpressible absolute truth.
There is a danger in viewing all things as empty, for one many come to perceive that this
emptiness is simply a negation of fullness. As Suzuki states in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism,
"[w]hen a thing is denied, the very denial involves something not denied" (p. 39). In other words,
something is always affirmed through denial; the two concepts are opposite sides of the same coin
in that "not being" is just as much a form of being as "being" itself. The Buddha himself states
that, "if they grasped and held onto the idea of things as having intrinsic qualities they would be
cherishing the idea of an ego entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.
Likewise if they grasped and held onto the notion of things as devoid of intrinsic qualities
they would be cherishing the idea of an ego entity, a personality, a being, or a separated
individuality" (The Diamond Sutra, 22).
Therefore emptiness in Buddhism is neither an affirmation nor a negation, but rather a higher
synthesis of the two. In order to express such an anti-logical idea necessitates the use of paradox
because people are inherently ignorant of the fact that the logical dualism of affirmation and
negation cannot express the true nature of the world (Suzuki, 52).
For one to begin to pull oneself from the quagmire of this logical ignorance, one must first
overcome the attachment to words as a means to express truth. Yet even the Buddha Sakyamuni
himself found it very difficult to express any truth without the aid of language. According to The
Diamond Sutra, "truth is undeclarable; so 'an enunciation of truth' is just the name given to it"
(p.42). Yet, if the truth cannot be expressed in language, how is one to help his fellow man realize
Nirvana? The Buddha's solution was to rely on the use of paradox to express the absolute truth
by means of a relative truth.
Paradox is the best medium through which to convey truth by virtue of the fact that
paradox cannot be understood in the logical sense; it tears down the barriers of logic and language
to reveal a higher truth beyond. Nevertheless, one cannot ever take language, even paradox, as
absolute truth in itself "[a] finger is needed to point at the moon, but what a calamity it would be
if one took the finger for the moon!" (Suzuki, 74).
Thus one finds the Buddha expressing his teaching through the use of paradoxical language
such as "ego is not different from nonego" (The Diamond Sutra, 46), "all characteristics are in
fact no-characteristics" (The Diamond Sutra, 21), and his formula "A is not-A" (Suzuki, 60).
While these paradoxes cannot be grasped using logic, they all convey a basic truth - that the
perceived difference between opposites is empty. Everything in this world is relative; one must
understand the concept of dark to comprehend light, and therefore darkness is light. One must
know form to comprehend formlessness; thus form is formlessness. Moreover, absolute truth is
relative truth because they are dependent on one another. Like everything else in the universe,
they are subject to pratitya-samutpada and are therefore sunyata.
In Buddhist practice, emptiness is key to the realization of Nirvana. Zen practice in particular
offers a perfect example of the usefulness of paradoxical language to express emptiness in the
form of the koan. These koans are accounts of"dharma battles," usually in the form of questions
and answers, through which a Zen master guides his students towards enlightenment. However, it
is not from its semantic meaning that the koan derives its power as an instructive tool. Rather the
significance of the koan is in its perlocutionary quality; it confounds the logic of the hearer and
pushes him towards a truth uncontainable in language. For example, in An Introduction to Zen
Buddhism, Suzuki relates the story of the monk who asked the Zen master Joshu what he would
say if the monk came to him with nothing. The master replied that he would tell him to "[f]ling it
down to the ground." When the monk protested, asking what he should throw down if he had
nothing, the master replied, "[i]f so, carry it away" (Suzuki, 54). The master's reply here is clearly
paradoxical; it defies logic to try to drop what is in one's hands if one is holding nothing. Here
"nothing" is supposed by the master to be "something." Though illogical, this paradox expresses
the truth that nothing is something and vice versa. The two concepts are dependent on each other
for meaning, and thus both are empty of independent being.
In other koans, the master may reply to the questions of the disciple by roaring loudly,
striking him with a stick, or simply saying something entirely irrelevant to the question. Through
this technique of spontaneous responses, the master shows that there is no logical formula for the
attainment of enlightenment, and through nonsense he shocks his disciple away from seeking truth
by logical means. The goal of these illogical responses is to cause the disciple to attain the same
state of mind as the master, detachment from all methods and formulae. Belief in a dualism of
means and ends only leads one away from enlightenment. Here once again, one finds a paradox; in
Buddhism the end is the means. There is no enlightenment to be attained because one's innate
nature is the Buddha-nature. All beings are contained in the womb of Buddhahood; they only need
to realize that that is their true nature. Likewise the Buddha-nature, the oneness of all beings, is
One of the most famous dharma battles was that of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu, who each wrote
a stanza on the essence of mind in response to a question posed by the fifth patriarch of China.
The stanza written by Shen-hsiu read: "Our body is the bodhi tree / And our mind a mirror bright
/ Carefully we wipe them hour by hour / And let no dust alight," while the stanza of Hui-neng
read: "There is no bodhi tree / Nor stand of a mirror bright / Since all is void / Where can the dust
alight?" While the first stanza reflects the idea of gradual cultivation and the need to meditate to
keep the mind clear of all attachments, the second stanza reflects the idea that emptiness is the
reality of all things, especially the mind and our Buddha-nature. In his stanza, Hui-neng criticizes
Shen-hsiu's stanza in that it promotes both attachment to the Buddha-nature and attachment to a
method - gradual cultivation. One must be detached from all things and realize one's emptiness in
order to discover one's true Buddha-nature. Here again the answer given by Hui-neng is irrational,
to say essentially that one has no body and no mind runs contrary to logic. Yet one's mind and
body have no independent being, and thus they are dependent on all other things and contribute to
all other things. They are oneness, Buddha-nature and emptiness.
Although one should not cling to meditation as a means to Nirvana, Zen meditation does
bring one to the realization of emptiness as the reality of the universe through the practice of
mindfulness. This mindfulness is not like the trance-like concentration of samadhi in Yoga.
Rather it is a consciousness of everything one does, both within the mind and without, which
culminates in vipassana, or insight. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, through meditation one can
reach a state called "non-discrimination mind" in which there is made no distinction between the
thinker and his object of thought. The concept of "I" disappears and the subject becomes one with
the object (Hanh, 57). Thus one is freed from the belief in svabhava, and one realizes the
emptiness and oneness of all things. Moreover, practicing mindfulness in all situations leads one
to a clear, unattached mind. When one experiences an emotion without mindfulness of that
emotion and its effect on him, one becomes that emotion and is ruled by it. Yet when one has
mindfulness of his mind at all times, one can understand and control those emotions and react to
them naturally without being enslaved by them. Furthermore, mindfulness of one's constantly
changing state discourages the belief in a permanent ego entity, or any permanence in the
phenomenal world. Hence one realizes that everything is emptiness.
Thus, through meditation and the use of the koan, Zen practitioners come to see sunyata
as the basic principle of the universe. It is clear, however, that this acceptance of the emptiness of
all things is not pessimism on the part of Buddhist. According to the concept of sunyata, all things
are empty of independent selfhood because all things are interconnected and conditioned. All
things are one; thus all things contain Buddha-nature, which is itself emptiness. However, even
emptiness must be described as empty and conditioned, for its is dependent on the idea of fullness,
and thus is itself fullness. While paradoxical, the idea that emptiness is fullness aptly describes
reality in a world where all things are interdependent. Indeed it may not be possible to describe
the world in logical terms, for, as Suzuki states in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, "we live
psychologically or biologically and not logically" (p. 64).