Buddhism is a tradition that has developed for 2,500 years, and it is tremendously
complex and rich. Obviously, we can't tell you every detail of Buddhist philosophy.
This is just a practical introduction to some important concepts of Buddhist philosophy
and what they mean in daily life.
Although faith is important, Buddhism does not insist on blind faith. Instead,
Buddhists are encouraged to examine teachings intellectually and experientially.
Of course, some things that Buddhism teaches can't be known through direct experience
or logic, at least for ordinary beings. But they can be known through the enlightened
experience of Buddha. Until we reach that levels ourselves, we have to take it
on faith -- but we can use reason to see if the teachings are at least logically
consistent and reasonable in principle, and if the teachers seem trustworthy and
spiritually mature. We can and must apply the teachings in practice, develop our
own spiritual vision, and verify the teachings in our own experience.
THE GROUND: Buddha Nature. Buddhist philosophy starts from the recognition that
the fundamental nature of the mind of all sentient beings is awareness, openness,
and limitless freedom. This inherent nature of the mind is called Buddha Nature,
and it is present equally in all beings, regardless of age, gender, race, etc.
However, this fundamentally pure nature of the mind, though present in all beings,
is obscured by the negative emotions, concepts, and habits that ordinary beings
are constantly engaged in. In other words, caught up in the thoughts and emotions
of ordinary life, we become confused about our true nature.
In particular, the fundamental negative emotions that obscure our enlightened
known as the "Three Poisons". In Sanskrit, they are known as the kleshas.
There are other kleshas, such as pride and jealousy, but they all arise from these
three fundamental roots. In brief, we can sum up the problems that veil our enlightened
nature as self-centeredness or "ego" (although this means something
different for Buddhists than it does for psychologists).
Based on these negative emotions, we engage in actions (karma) of body, speech,
and mind that give rise to suffering in our lives, just as planting a seed gives
rise to fruit in the future. It is important to understand that in Buddhism, suffering
is not seen as "punishment" for bad deeds, but simply a natural process
of cause and effect. Deeds based on attachment, aggression and ignorance naturally
give rise to suffering, while deeds based on a mind of non-attachment, non-aggression,
and wisdom naturally bring happiness into our lives.
In Buddhism, this process continues from one life to the next, through the process
of Rebirth. Though the body ceases to exist at death, the mind continues into
a future existence, and carries the seeds of karma into the next life. Different
conflicting emotions lead to rebirth in different realms, some of which are not
visible to humans, though others are.
The Six Realms:
Hell realms - anger
Hungry ghost - greed
Animal - ignorance
Human - passion
Demi-god - jealousy
God - pride
This process of rebirth happens with little or no freedom of choice for most of
us. Ordinarily, we have no more control over our rebirth than we do over our dreams.
However, through spiritual practice, it is possible to obtain control over this
process and direct your rebirths towards your continual spiritual growth.
Learn More: See Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and Khenpo
Karthar, Dharma Paths for a discussion of the Six Realms. Sogyal Rinpoche discusses
Buddha Nature and the process of death and rebirth in The Tibetan Book of Living
and Dying. A traditional discussion of these basic teachings is found in Gampopa's
Jewel Ornament of Liberation (translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen).
THE PATH: Overcoming Confusion. We need to recognize that although the nature
of our minds is obscured by confusion, it is not harmed by that confusion -- just
as a mirror may reflect all kinds of negative things but is not itself harmed
by the reflections. So we don't need to feel bad about ourselves. In fact, all
we have to do is relax and slowly penetrate the negativity that obscures our enlightened
nature, and our own Buddha-qualities will naturally shine out more and more. All
Buddhist practice is about unveiling the enlightened qualities that are inherent
in the nature of our minds.
The confusion that veils our Buddha Nature is based on "ignorance" (marigpa).
Ignorance is a fundamental misunderstanding and misperception of ourselves and
our world. We are continually projecting our own preconceived ideas and concepts
onto our experience, which blocks us from experiencing things the way they actually
are. This confusion gives rise to all of our negative emotions and karma.
"How things really are" is described in Buddhist philosophy as Emptiness
(shunyata). Emptiness is often MIS-understood in the West to mean "nothingness",
as if to say that nothing exists. This extreme view is known as "nihilism",
and it is a great obstacle to Buddhist practice. If you cling to the idea that
nothing exists, then you may behave in ways that only solidify your own ego and
cause harm to yourself and others.
On the other hand, emptiness DOES mean that things don't exist the way we think
they do. Things seem real and solid and permanent to us, but when we analyze closely,
we see that everything is impermanent and constantly changing. In other words,
they are "empty" of our confused projections. Recognizing this not just
intellectually but experientially removes our ignorance and confusion, and creates
a tremendous sense of space in our lives. An example that is traditionally given
is that of a person who mistakes a coiled rope for a snake, and experiences tremendous
fear and suffering because of that. However, through investigation, the person
realizes that it is just a rope, and that there was never a snake there in the
first place -- and the fear and suffering vanishes. It was based on illusion.
Through studying Buddhist philosophy, and developing helpful and correct concepts
about the world by contemplating the teachings, our spiritual practice can develop
more powerfully. Eventually though, we need to move beyond a merely conceptual
understanding and develop direct experience through meditation. This 3-step process
is how we grow in wisdom.
All Buddhist traditions emphasize a combination of meditation practice and study.
It is said that study without meditation is like having eyes, but no legs -- you
can see where you want to go, but you can't get there. On the other hand, meditation
without some study is like having legs, but no eyes -- you are walking, but you
have know idea if you are headed in the right direction or not.
Learn More: Lama Surya Das discusses many aspects of Buddhist practice in Awakening
the Buddha Within. The Dalai Lama has an excellent discussion of emptiness and
interdependence in The Meaning of Life from a Buddhist Perspective. Khenpo Tsultrim
Gyamtso discusses the philosophy of emptiness in The Progressive Stages of Meditation
on Emptiness. See also the discussion of the Buddhist path in The Jewel Ornament
of Liberation, especially the chapter on "Wisdom".
THE FRUIT: Enlightenment. The result of Buddhist practice is to unveil the Buddha
Nature within us, so that all its enlightened qualities of wisdom, compassion
and power can shine without distortion. One way of describing the qualities of
enlightenment is as the Three Bodies of the Buddha.
1) Dharmakaya. The "Wisdom Body" of the Buddha is the fundamental nature
of the mind as openness, space and awareness. This enlightened awareness, though
it has no form in itself, manifests as two "Form Bodies" in order to
benefit other beings. These enlightened manifestations happen spontaneously without
thought or effort, due to the compassion of the Buddhas.
2) Sambhogakaya. The "Enjoyment Body" represents forms of color and
light that are perceived in meditation, and that give teachings and blessings
to advanced meditators. Many of the deity practices of Tibetan Buddhism consist
of visualizing these pure forms of enlightenment.
3) Nirmanakaya. The "Emanation Body" is the form perceptible by ordinary
beings who have the good karma to come into contact withan enlightened being.
The most famous example of a nirmanakaya is Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived and taught
in India 2,500 years ago. However, other highly realized beings also take rebirth
in ordinary form in order to teach and lead other beings towards enlightenment.
The Tibetan word for such beings is Tulku.
However, let's remember that the qualities of enlightenment are our inherent potential
already. We don't have to struggle to be something we are not, but instead, we
can relax and become more and more who we genuinely are, beyond all the confusion
and negativity that dominate our lives. It's like the sun, which may temporarily
be obscured by clouds, but it's still shining -- even if only a little light is
getting through. Through meditation and study we dissolve the clouds, which become
thinner and thinner, and let more and more light shine, until one day our true
Buddha Nature shines forth without any veil. That is called enlightenment.
Learn More: Thrangu Rinpoche discusses the characteristics of enlightenment in
Buddha Nature. See also the discussions in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation.