Buddhist Philosophy
By Dr. Phramahachanya Sutthiyano
Presented at
Wat Phrasriratanaram, St.Louis Missouri USA.

Buddhism, according to western scholars, is a way of life developed in India by the Buddha in the 6th century BC. In Thai, "Buddhasasana" is the term used to refer to the Buddha's teaching. The key tenets identified by Buddhism are the four noble truths and the causality of phenomena. Buddhists believe correct human behavior is necessarily based on correct action, speech and thought, and good Buddhists devote their lives to seeking truth and knowledge.
The Buddha always said that in the past, at present or in the future, he addressed suffering and non-suffering. This emphasis by the Buddha indicates that the concept of suffering and non- suffering is the natural and universal key for understanding all human beings.
The Buddha was born, enlightened and worked in a strong ascetic culture that emphasized meditation and the Vedas; in contrast, the Buddha's teachings stressed humanitarian, ethical, epistemological and practical issues.
Before his enlightenment the Buddha had visited teacher after teacher learning what he could from each. He became conversant with the various philosophies of his time as well as the religious practices prevalent at the time. He practiced Yogic meditation and became aware of the extrasensory powers that could be developed through these practices.
The Buddha realized that these powers were misused by the ascetics who formulated metaphysical theories about the nature of reality. He also knew the limitations of such powers in attaining salvation. He decided to find out the way of salvation by himself through various kinds of training until his enlightenment occurred as the result of his diligent meditation.
The Buddha became a popular teacher and an important contemporary thinker who taught simple truths about behaviors that one can practice and benefit from in daily life. The main point of Buddhist practices is that they can be used for protection and the elimination of suffering.
Once the Buddha, taking Simsapa leaves in his hand, said to the monks gathered around him, " What do you think, my disciples, which are more, these leaves I hold in my hand or the remaining leaves in the Sisapa groves?"
The monks said: "the leaves that you hold in your hand are few in number; and many are in the Sisapa grove."
He said; " Just so, O monks, what I have realized and do not teach you is far more than what I have taught you. Because it would be no advantage to you, it does not contribute to the higher pure life, it does not lead to realize and retire the worldly passions, it does not lead to elimination of defilement, the cessation of suffering, to peace, to higher knowledge, to awakening, to Nibana (the state of empty mind without defilement at all). Therefore, I do not teach you. And what I teach you all is the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path leading to the cessation of suffering."
This passage indicates very clearly that all Buddhists should study the Four Noble Truths and use them for guidance in daily life.
Attaining the Truth can not be achieved through the Buddha or any holy one, but only by oneself. As the Buddha said: Purity or impurity belongs to each individual, and no one can purify or defile another. I am the one who shows the way. To walk on the way for salvation should be done earnestly by you all."
When the Buddha talks about suffering and non-suffering he was not being idealistic or metaphysical, but instead he was talking about natural phenomena which everybody can realize for himself or herself through true experience. Both suffering and non-suffering can be experienced by every person. These experiences do not arise accidentally, but they arise from a cause. Ignorance, desire and attachment are the causes of suffering; in contrast, mindfulness, meditation and wisdom are the causes of non-suffering.
By nature, the mind is pure. When it is contaminated by defilement it becomes impure. The pure mind is normal and non-suffering. When it becomes impure suffering appears. First of all, it is necessary for those who want to be without suffering to investigate and guard their mind and realize it as it really is. Whenever the mind is empty and pure one becomes in touch with reality. This is impossible when the mind is associated with the defilement.
The study of Buddhism makes one seek appropriate ways to make the mind pure and free from suffering. The five sense organs are the bases for the origination or non-origination of defilement which is the cause of suffering. If one uses mindfulness and awareness to purify the senses a network of useful truth will come thereafter and this network will help keep the mind pure. There is no appropriate place in human life for defilement but if one lives one's life with ignorance and delusion the network of defilement ( greed, anger, desire and attachment) will follow.
Thus, the Buddha taught us to guard the door of the five senses organs as follows:
When we see beautiful figures and colors with our eyes, when we hear pleasant sounds with our ears, when we smell fragrances with our nose, or when we taste sweet things with our tongue or touch soft things with our hands, we are not to become attached to these attractive things, neither are we to be repulsed by unattractive things. We must carefully guard the doors of these sense organs.
This is the way to keep mind normal and pure. The mind must find a middle way between negative and positive using mindfulness and awareness. When this happens the experience is like that of a man on the peak of mountain seeing the other mountains in all their pristine beauty.
There are another ways to purify the mind.
1. People should develop right ideas about the things that make up the world, and these ideas should be based on careful observation, and the understanding of causes and effects and their significance. Since the cause of suffering is rooted in the mind's desires and attachments, and since desire and attachment are related to the mistaken illusion of an ego-self, there can be peace only when the mind gets rid of these passions.
2. People can get rid of these mistaken observations and the resulting passions by careful and patient mind-control. With efficient mind-control they can avoid desires arising from the stimulation of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and even those desires that arise from the mind itself. By doing so, one can cut off the very root of passions.
3. All individuals should understand and use things in proper ways. That is, with regard to articles of food and clothing, they should not think of them in relation to comfort and pleasure, but only in their relation to the body's needs. Clothing is necessary to protect the body against the extremes of heat and cold, and to conceal the shame of the body; food is necessary for the nourishment of the body which is necessary if one is to use the body to train for freedom from suffering. Defilement can not arise from such desire for things when they are used in proper ways.
4. Everyone should learn to endure the discomforts of heat and cold, hunger and thirst; everyone should learn to be patient when receiving abuse; eventually the practice of endurance will quench the fire of passion which threatens to burn up all our bodies.
5. Everyone must learn to avoid the dangers that are associated with the senses. As we know, desire arises from the eyes when they see; from the ears when they hear; from the nose when a sweet fragrance is first smelled; from the tongue when it tastes something pleasant; and from all things that are agreeable to the sense of touch.
From this five doors to desire come the body's love of comfort.
Most people, being influenced by the body's love of comfort, do not notice the evils that follow comfort, and they are caught in a devil's trap like a deer in the forest caught in a hunter's trap. Indeed, the five doors of desires arising from the senses are life's most dangerous traps. When caught in these traps, people become entangled in defilement and inevitably suffer. It is important for people to know how to get rid of these traps.
Getting rid of the traps involves purification of the mind and removing the causes of defilement; these causes include ignorance, greed, anger, delusion, and desire, among others.
We know the nature of mind and how to keep it pure, clean and stable., the body and our speech should also be kept pure. The body and speech depend upon the mind. Thai people describe this relationship by saying that the mind is like a master while the body is like a servant. According to the theory of interdependent origination, body and mind are dependent upon each other.
In order to keep body pure and normal, one must abstain from killing and harming others, stealing another's property, committing adultery, drinking and using addictive drugs.
Speech must also be kept pure by abstaining from lying, verbal abuse, deceit, and the avoidance of idle talk. The suitability of words can be assessed by examining five pairs of antonyms: words that are suitable to their occasions and those not so suitable; words that fit the facts and those that don't fit; words that sound pleasant and those that sound rude; words that are beneficial and those that are harmful; and words that are sympathetic and that those are hateful.
Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill. When our minds are filled with sympathy and compassion, they will be resistant to the evil words we hear. We must not let wild words pass our lips, especially when these words grow out of feelings of anger and hatred. The words we speak should always be words of sympathy and wisdom.
It is very clear for us that the body, speech and mind comprise the basis elements of the study and practice of Buddhism. They make up the core of what the Buddha taught. They are reflected in the four noble truths, the ultimate truth of Buddhism.
The original text describing the four noble truths follows in italics:
1. This is the Noble Truth of Suffering: Birth is suffering; decay and old age are suffering; disease is suffering; death is suffering; association with what is unpleasant is suffering; separation from what is pleasant is suffering; failure to obtain what one wants is suffering.; briefly stated, the five groups of body and mind processes that make up the individual are due to grasping, and these five groups of grasping are themselves suffering.
2. This is the Noble Truth of the origination of suffering: it is this craving (tanha) that leads to rebirth, and is connected with satisfaction and pleasure, finding now and here, now there its objects of enjoyment, namely: craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-being.
3. This is the Noble Truth of the extinction of suffering: It is the complete fading away and extinction of this craving, its forsaking, giving up, the liberation and detachment from it.
4. This is the Noble Truth of the path that leads to the extinction of suffering: It is this Noble Eightfold path, namely right understanding, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration of mind.
This text indicates that the problems of human life are derived from human life itself. The end and the ways to end problems are found in human life itself. Although the text talks about human life, it can be used in daily life as criteria to use when we try to decide how to conduct our affairs properly.
The Buddha also points out what is to be done in each truth as follows:

The Noble Truth of suffering must be perfected realized.

The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering must be totally eliminated.

The Noble Truth of extinction of suffering has to be achieved.

The Noble Truth of the noble path leading to the extinction of suffering must be cultivated unto perfection.
The Buddha believed the realization of the Four Noble Truths made him attain enlightenment: "As soon as the absolutely true knowledge and insight as regards these four noble truths had become perfectly clear in me, there arose in me the assurance that I had won the supreme enlightenment unsurpassed. And there arose in me perfect knowledge and realization: Unshakable is my spiritual liberation, this is my last birth, and there is no more becoming for me."
The Buddha's proclamation was very interesting and wonderful. It represents the first time the founder of a major world religion achieved enlightenment by himself without intervention by a supreme being or supernatural power. The Buddha attained perfect freedom and encouraged others to work to achieve real liberation.
The details of each Noble Truth are also very interesting and provide light for study and practice. In the Noble Truth of Suffering, the Statement "briefly stated, the five groups of grasping brings suffering" is the starting place for the study of the concept of suffering. The five groups consist of (1) corporeality (body and other physical phenomena), (2) feeling, (3) perception, (4) thoughtful formation, and (5) consciousness. Naturally, the five groups (aggregates of the elements of existence and experience) are pure, normal and non-suffering. When the attachment of five groups takes the form of self, "me and mine" appears in the mind and it becomes impure and as a consequence suffering arises. It's a sacred duty for those who love freedom to guard the five groups to attempt to keep them in a pure condition.
The second Noble Truth refers to the threefold elements of craving: (1) craving for sensual pleasure (by eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or through touching tangible bodies); (2) craving for becoming (in the positive condition); and (3) craving for non-being (in the negative position). These are the causes of the origination of attachment or craving which leads body and mind to suffering. We can see very clearly the chain of interdependent origination of suffering through the process of ignorance, sensation, craving, grasping and then suffering. Suffering enters through the five doors of the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch) as the starting point of a causal chain that leads to desire.
In the third Noble Truth, the reference to "the complete fading away and extinction of craving" is the key to understand the ultimate truth of Buddhism, Nibana. The text states that one who will attain Nibana (a state of mind without any defilement) must destroy all craving completely and forever. The word "liberation" also suggests a state of mind that is free from the control of defilement and full of mindfulness, loving kindness and the highest wisdom.
In the fourth Noble Truth, the details of each element of righteousness must be studied in order to understand the process through which desires fades away and the extinction of all defilement based on craving and grasping is achieved.
1. Right Understanding refers to understanding (a) suffering (i.e., the five groups associated with grasping) (b) the causes of suffering (the threefold craving) (c) the extinction of suffering (through the extinction of craving) and (d) the Path leading to the extinction of suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path)
2. Right Thought refers to thoughts that are free from (a) lust, (b) ill-will, and [c] cruelty. In contrast, right thoughts are full of (a) thoughts of renunciation, (b) good will, and [c] compassion and mercy.
3. Right Speech leads one to refrain from: (a) telling lies, (b) tale-bearing, (c) harsh language (d) vain and frivolous talk, and -- in the right way -- to use the words that are (a) true (b) conciliatory, (c) gentle, (d) polite and (e) to speak what is profitable and necessary to bringing peace and harmony to one's listeners and society.
4. Right Action is to refrain from: (a) killing, (b) stealing, (c) unlawful and immoral sexual intercourse and -- in the right way --to be (a) humane, (b) honest, and (c) chaste.
5. Right Livelihood is to renounce the wrong way of living and to maintain oneself by following a right occupation and right way of living. The noble lay Buddhist disciples, who have advanced in their understanding of the truth, refrain from trading in arms, living beings, flesh, intoxicating drinks and poisons.
6. Right Effort means the great four efforts: The effort (a) to restrain unwholesome state of mind that would otherwise lead to evil actions, (b) to abandon the unwholesome states of mind, (c) to develop (d) to maintain the arisen wholesome states of mind and make them grow.
7. Right Mindfulness is the contemplation of (a) the body, (b) feelings, (c) mind, and (d) mind objects, or the states and content of the mind. This is the way to develop mindfulness and awareness in every walk of life. The contemplation of the body can be done in practical ways by mindfully breathing in and out while observing the process of respiration; with right mindfulness, one is mindful of all his postures, and he is mindful and aware while walking, standing, sitting, lying down, eating, drinking, speaking, or listening.
The contemplation of feeling can be practiced by closely observing one's feelings, and noting whether they are satisfactory, unsatisfactory or neutral.
One can watch over his thoughts and volition, and all the other pure or impure contents of his mind that arise and pass away from time to time.
One practices this mindfulness and strives for comprehension objectively, without seeking approval or acclaim at one's progress, and without being horrified at the realization of one's own wickedness. The man who practices right mindfulness is just aware of everything that happens, and he mindfully observes all that goes on in his mind so that he may know himself better.
8. Right Concentration or meditation. The development of mindfulness through the contemplation of body, feeling, mind and the mind objects makes one detach from unwholesome thoughts and enter into (a) the first absorption, which is accompanied by applied and continued thought, and which is born of detachment and filled with rapture and bliss. After stilling applied and continued thought, and by gaining inner tranquillity and concentration of mind, the person practicing right concentration enters into a state free from applied and continued thought, (b) the second absorption, which is born of concentration and filled with rapture and bliss. After the fading away of rapture, the meditating individual dwells in equanimity and mindfulness with clear awareness; and he expresses in his own person that feeling of which the noble one says; "happy lives he who is in equanimity and mindfulness" thus he enters (c) the third absorption. After giving up of pleasure and pain, and through the disappearance of previous joy and grief, he enters into (d) the fourth absorption, a state beyond pleasure and pain, purified by equanimity and mindfulness.
Consideration of the Noble Eightfold path in details indicates that it is appropriate not only for monks but also for lay persons who wish to follow the Noble Eightfold path to achieve the extinction of suffering. The Noble Eightfold path is not simply eight different ways to achieve liberation; instead, it is one collective way made up of eight constituencies, working in the co-operative, harmonious and holistic way to overcome the suffering.
Each constituency helps people become free from defilement. Thus, the word "right" before each one means freedom. The list begins with wisdom, is followed by morality and eventually ends with mindfulness and insight meditation. Each constituency is associated with wisdom. The eight fold path is a perfect and powerful train that will carry its passengers to everlasting peace and happiness.
Now let's come to analyze the question of whether or not Buddhism is a religion? If the definition of "religion" means a way to end the suffering of human beings, Buddhism is the foremost among all the world religions. However, many scholars will maintain that Buddhism is really a philosophy? If the definition of philosophy, "love of wisdom," includes the wisdom gained by human beings in their search for the extinction of suffering, Buddhism is a real philosophy because it contains many ways to achieve the wisdom necessary to free oneself from the fetters of defilement.
Does Buddhism contain metaphysical philosophy? If the definition of metaphysics includes the ultimate reality searched and found by human beings without blessings or help from supernatural powers, then Buddhism has an aspect of metaphysical philosophy in it because Nibana (an empty state of mind in which one is totally without defilement) is the ultimate truth.
Does Buddhism include the perspective of epistemological philosophy? If epistemology means the body of knowledge based on the six sense organs: eyes, ears, tongue, nose, tangible body and mind, up to and including the highest knowledge that destroys ignorance and permits the realization of Nibana, Buddhism is surely epistemology because the four noble truths are a great source of knowledge and wisdom leading to liberation.
Is there logic in Buddhism? If logic means the application of reason, Buddhism is an exactly logic because its laws of cause and effect are based on the interdependent origination theory that is at the heart of Buddhism.
Is there an ethical or moral philosophy in Buddhism? If ethical or moral philosophy refers to the existence of principles that can be used to determine what is right and what is wrong. Buddhism is a very rich moral philosophy. Almost all Buddhist precepts, meditations and the Noble Eightfold path provide excellent ethical and moral principles for individual and social peace.
Buddhism has it's own unique beliefs about human beings. Studying, analyzing, criticizing, and applying Buddhism with other religions and schools of thought about philosophy and even modern science can be done properly under appropriate conditions. The core principles of Buddhism relate to the suffering and non-suffering of human being and reflect the universal common sense of human race.
Buddhism supports and encourages other religions and schools of thoughts and philosophy all over the world that have the same purpose and which work to support physical and spiritual well being for all human beings. The Buddha gave clear instructions to the monks: go to preach the noble way of life for benefit and happiness of many people. Securing the happiness of the many is the main purpose for all those who work in accordance with Buddhist ideals.
Buddhism can be thought of as philosophy or religion or simply as a way of life. Descriptions of Buddhism will necessarily depend upon the particular definitions used and interpretations made by various scholars who come from many different backgrounds. However, every scholar agrees that Buddhism strives to bring light to the darkness that surrounds all living creatures.
Reference books
Buddhad?saBhikkhu, ?nap?nasati Mindfulness with Breathing, Dhamma Study-Practice Group Publication, Bangkok, with help from Evolution/Liberation,1988.
Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai. The Teaching of Buddha, Toppan Printing Co. (S) Pte. Ltd. Tokyo. Japan, 1966.
Christmas Humphreys. A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism, Curzon Press. London, 1975.
C. Ny?nasatta Thera. Basic Tenets of Buddhism, Ceylon, 1957.
Damien Keown. Buddhism & Bioethics, Macmillan Press Ltd. London, 1995.
Helena Roerich. Foundations of Buddhism, Agni Yoga Society, Inc. United States of America, 1971.