1. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born of the Sakya clan in northern India (in 560 B.C.). His father was a nobleman, of the Kshatriya class or caste. According to legend, at Gautama's birth it was foretold that he would either become a great political ruler of all India or he would become a spiritual redeemer. To make sure of his son's political future, Gautama's father protected him from the pain and suffering of human beings. Despite this "sheltering," Gautama is said to have witnessed "Four Passing Sights" -- a man wracked by disease, a man decrepit with old age, a corpse, and a monk begging alms. These sights so affected the sensitive Gautama that he resolved to leave his relatives and his life of luxury in order to discover for himself the truth of human life and suffering.
2. At first, he studied meditation with three Hindu ascetics. This did not answer his question. Then, he tried severe self-mortification and fasting, almost to the point of death. This too, he resolved, was not the answer. He determined that when it comes to the needs of the body, the "Middle Way," or the mean between excess and defect, is proper. One should give the body what is natural and necessary and no more. Finally, Gautama tried a new more intense period of meditation. This led to his enlightenment or awakening under the famous fig tree or, as it is now called, the "Bodhi" tree. Bodhi means enlightenment or awakening. The title "Buddha" means one who is wide awake. According to Gautama, men sleep away their lives in senseless and self-centered preoccupations; this self-centeredness can lead only to pain and suffering. The illusion of selfish craving blocks awareness of things as they really are. Self-centered striving is a painful dream from which humans must awake in order to have peace. After his enlightenment, Buddha was tempted by the evil one (Mara) to enjoy this nirvana or peace by himself; for, as Mara tried to deceive him, no one would listen to Buddha or understand what he was saying. But Buddha replied, "There will be some who will understand." Gautama possessed a rare combination of mind and heart; he was extremely logical and philosophical and at the same time extraordinarily loving and compassionate. In fact, one might say that the two branches of Buddhism that later arose, the Theravada (or Hinayana) and the Mahayana, were based on these two sides of the Buddha himself. Theravada Buddhism stressed meditation. Mahayana Buddhism stressed compassion.
3. Gautama taught for many years. His teaching was regarded as heretical by conservative Hindus. After all, Gautama disregarded many of the traditional Hindu religious views. First, he questioned the authority of the Brahmins or the priestly caste or class. In fact, he rejected all divisions into castes and the proscription of certain individuals as "outcastes." Many of Gautama's most famous disciples were at one time "outcastes." According to Buddha, each person can and must strive for enlightenment through his own efforts. Secondly, though he was extremely "philosophical" in his own way, Buddha had no patience with philosophical systems or metaphysics. What one does, not what one believes, is important. When asked about eternity of the world and life after death, Buddha replied that explaining such things will not solve the problem of human suffering here and now. Thirdly, Buddha had no interest in miracles and rituals. He taught that there was no quick road to salvation or nirvana. Neither god nor ritual can bestow salvation; salvation must be worked for by each person through self-discipline, practice, and meditation. Years after Buddha died, Buddhism was indeed transformed into a full-blown religion with rites, mysteries, and other such trappings. But this was not Buddha's original intention. When asked if he was a god, Buddha replied, "I am not a god." Buddha did not want to be prayed to or worshipped.
After nearly fifty years of teaching, Buddha died (480 B.C.) from eating a poisonous
mushroom accidentally served up by a friend. With great compassion and sensitivity
to his grieving friend, Buddha told him that he had had two exceptional meals
in his lifetime. The first was the meal he enjoyed under the fig tree after he
had attained nirvana. The second was this meal served by his friend, that opened
the gates to final release from suffering.
5. Buddha's first sermon at Benares contained the essence of his message. He taught there the "Four Noble Truths":
(1) Life is suffering (dukkha). Dukkha has the connotation of losing one's center or balance, like a wheel that has come off the axle, or a "dislocation," like a bone that has come out of joint. Dukkha is the suffering of existence that is not what it should be, that is out of whack, that is missing the point. Sickness and death are what they are; human life is impermanent and transient. But the pain associated with these and other parts of life is due to a subjective dislocation, an attitude that takes things the wrong way, that wants things to be different.
(2) The cause of suffering is self-centered craving (tanha). The cause of suffering is the need to refer all things to ourselves. According to Buddha, there are five skandhas or types of grasping that give us trouble; they are: the grasping of the body, or concern over this body that I call mine, "my body"; the grasping of perception, or concern with my way of seeing things, my perspective, my view; the grasping of feeling, whereby I am concerned with my feelings and subjective states -- I call them mine and I am attached to them; the grasping of emotions or impulses, that I am attached to; the grasping of ideas or thoughts, about which I am defensive, which I claim to be my own. According to Buddha, the body, perception, feeling, impulses, and thoughts are indeed real. The are constantly changing conditions of existence. What is unreal is the linking of these conditions to the notion of a "self." The illusion of a self (ego) only appears or "emerges" in an attitude of self-concern and selfish striving. The self is a name that we give to the point of intersection of all inwardly directed craving; we wish to appropriate the world for ourselves, to suck everything into the ego, to draw things into ourselves. What we call the ego or the self or the spiritual substance or "soul" is really the creation and the byproduct of a selfish and self-referential attitude. Self-consciousness is an attitude that creates the illusion of an individual soul; it is not a method that scientifically discovers the soul. According to Buddha, there is no such thing as an individual soul; behind the "heaps" of body, perceptions, and the rest, there is but one life or consciousness that flows through all living things. My outward existence is but one manifestation of innumerable manifestations of the hidden absolute life. Thus, for Buddha, preoccupation with "me, myself, and I" is the cause of all human suffering. One must overcome "subjectivity" and "self-concern" in order to obtain release from suffering, peace, or nirvana.
(3) In order to bring an end to suffering, one must bring an end to self-centered craving. If each desire is like a draft, that draws inward toward a point called the self, one must stop or even reverse this flow. One must stop referring all things to oneself. One must overcome subjective interpretations in the light of subjective needs and desires. One must see things as they really are, not simply as they are for us. One must reverse the flow so that one no longer draws things inward, but rather lets the absolute within swell up and flow outward in universal compassion toward all living things. As long as one draws to himself, the inner power of compassion is trapped; if the drawing ceases, the compassion is allowed to emerge. All living things partake of the same life, the same infinite stream that flows within. Self-centered striving is an obstacle to the discovery and release of this universal life.
(4) The way to cease craving is to follow the eightfold way or path. This includes right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
6. There are no simple explanations of the Eightfold Way, but some brief comments might be of help:
(1) Right views: Though Buddha had little interest in complicated theologies or doctrines, some beliefs are necessary. Quite simply, right belief is acceptance of the Four Noble Truths.
(2) Right intention: One must dedicate himself wholeheartedly to overcoming the dislocation of self-centered craving; one must want this emancipation more than anything else. One must not let his heart wander from this path.
(3) Right speech: One must stand guard over his speech, avoid lies and deceptions, cultivate honesty and truthfulness. One must refrain from unkind speech and practice speech that is kind and benevolent.
(4) Right action: One must examine his behavior, determine whether each action is selfish or self-less. One must practice other-centered rather than self-centered actions. Moreover, one must obey such precepts as: Do not kill. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not be unchaste. Do not drink intoxicants.
(5) Right livelihood: One must not engage in any occupation that opposes or distracts one from the path. For example, since all life is sacred, one may not become a butcher, etc.
(6) Right effort: One must pursue the path with the right exertion. On the one hand, one must strive diligently in order to practice the cultivation of virtues and the curbing of vices. On the other hand, one must not be "over-zealous" and run the risk of burning oneself out and abandoning the way altogether.
(7) Right mindfulness: One must elevate his thoughts, to see things as they really are beyond the haze of moods and emotions. One must clear up his mind, clean "the dust off of the mirror." One must rid his mind of self-centered thoughts, thoughts that separate, and replace them with thoughts that bind together, that see all beings together. One must make his concentration objective rather than subjective. One must think in terms of others as well as oneself.
(8) Right concentration: This is similar to raja yoga in Hinduism. Through self-discipline and rigorous meditation, one gradually overcomes self-centered ways of thinking. In the advanced stages, one learns to concentrate all of one's consciousness on a single object -- perhaps the flame of a candle. By so concentrating, all other thoughts and objects are extin- guished. Then, one must extinguish consciousness of even this one object. In this way, one extinguishes the last flame of grasping consciousness. This is readiness for nirvana. Nirvana is the complete bliss of "blowing out the candle" of the self, extinguishing all thoughts of the self. Having let go of all concerns, having relinquished all objects, one is finally empty. This emptiness is the peace of nirvana. It is not the emptiness of nothing, but a pregnant emptiness, an open-mindedness wherein there is room for all things. Having cleared itself of "my things," "my desires," "my thoughts," there is room now for everything. Nirvana is the empty room that makes room for all things, the heart that is attached to no one thing and is therefore ready to love all things.
7. As Buddhism spread to countries throughout the Far East, two main branches developed: Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada, the Buddhism "of the elders," emphasized solitary meditation and detachment from the world. The Arhat or sage, who had achieved bodhi or wisdom, was the central figure of Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhism referred to Theravada Buddhism as "Hinayana" Buddhism. The word yana means "raft." Hinayana means "little raft." Mahayana means "big raft." Mahayana Buddhists were critical of Theravada Buddhists, who seemed to restrict salvation to but a few -- the monks. Mahayana Buddhists, on the other hand, believed that salvation was for everyone; Mahayana Buddhism was seen as a big raft that could carry everyone -- all living creatures in fact -- from suffering to nirvana. The Mahayana Buddhists, who stressed universal compassion (karuna), were not content until the last blade of grass would be saved, would be carried over to nirvana. Thus, although Gautama had stressed both wisdom (bodhi) and compassion (karuna), the branches of Buddhism were less able to maintain this balance. Mahayana Buddhism had broader popular appeal and a greater following throughout the Far East.
8. For Mahayana Buddhism, the central figure is the Bodhisattva (enlightenment-being), who postpones his own enlightenment in order to help others. This concept is found in Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism, but is especially emphasized in Mahayana Buddhism. According to Mahayana Buddhism, the Arhat (the saint or sage or solitary enlightened one in Hinayana Buddhism) has not completely shaken off attachment to I or mine. The Arhat seeks and wins Nirvana for himself, sees himself as different from others, set off from others. This separating off or dividing himself from others is seen, according to the Mahayanists, as an indication that ego has not yet been extinguished, that the "turning-about" has not yet been achieved. In other words, once the ego and ego-concerns have been extinguished, to celebrate one's enlightenment would be missing the point; such celebration would be but another manifestation of "ego." According to the Mahayanists, one who has reached enlightenment does not see himself as different from others. He is more like them than he has ever been before. Before enlightenment, one struggles in the midst of others; one climbs the highest mountain to get a better view. After enlighenment, one is once more down below in the midst of others; one is different and sees differently, but one is not conscious of the difference. One is filled with universal love and compassion.
9. The Bodhisattva, according to the Mahayanists, must take the whole of creation with him into Nirvana. Unselfishness goes beyond giving material goods to the needy (although this is also necessary) to helping the suffering towards enlightenment (release from suffering). The Bodhisattva does not separate himself from others, either in the mind or in the heart; he must wait until everyone has been helped into Nirvana. The Bodhisattva sees no individual persons, yet is resolved to save individual persons; he sees the center of the universe as nowhere in particular and everywhere and therefore is not biased toward himself or any one; at the same time, he is "other-centered" and places the well-being of others ahead of his own. In him, love is not lust or desire or need to have or possess or bring others and things to himself, but a clear flowing stream that issues from his heart and toward others to cleanse and refresh them.
10. To be enlightened, one must see the truth that all things are empty. Sunyata means emptiness; sunya means relating to the swollen. Thus, things are empty or swollen or hollow. Our personality, built up from the five skandhas, is swollen but also hollow inside. Swollen can also mean filled with something foreign. According to this meaning, personality contains nothing that really belongs to it; it is filled with foreign matter. Thus, the "self" is empty and open in itself; it is in fact an emptiness, an opening, a place or space where things and people can enter. We tend, however, to fill this space with clutter, like a vacuum cleaner bag filled with dust and dirt and debris sucked in from the world. We call this debris our own; we feel we can not live without it; we name the whole collection "self" and we pride ourselves (self-esteem) on our self-possession. These attachments, bodily, sensational, perceptual, emotional, intellectual, though they cause us suffering, are tied so tightly to our ego (or rather, the ego is the tying) that we are unwilling to untie them. We are unable to "lighten up," "loosen up," stop taking ourselves so seriously, see ourselves in perspective, see ourselves as no more and no less important than others, see our needs as not absolute, see that this ego which we believe to be the center of the universe is not in fact the center, see that the center is nowhere or everywhere (as God in Christianity is nowhere and everywhere). Even more absurdly, our suffering as the result of self-preoccupation itself can become an ego possession that we can not let go of. We can become morbidly attached to our own misery (a pathological state).
11. Emptiness is not nothing; it is the absence of self (ego or center or point of reference) or self-effacement, self-extinction. It is openness. Intellectually, we are open when we do not cling to a yes or no, when we do not insist on defending an opinion (from our military bunker -- the ego); we are ready to listen and to learn because we have not shut out what we do not believe. We call this open-mindedness. Emotionally, we are empty when we are free of bias; we have emptied out prejudices, preferences, etc. The empty heart, uncluttered by particular concerns, has room for all. It is neither a storehouse for things nor a pure nothingness. It is a realm of infinite possibility. It is like the clear, empty, tranquil sky, where birds and clouds and rain enter and leave without restraint, without being captured or "possessed" or "owned" or "hitched to an ego." Emptiness is the pure "can be." As an empty room is full of room, so the emptied heart can let in everyone (without possessing).
12. Another word for reality without me, myself, and I connotations is suchness: reality as it is in itself without subjective references, interpretations, self-reference, etc. Enlightenment means emptying out rigid actualities, becoming full of possibility (openness), and viewing and loving the world as it is in itself (not as we wish it or need it to be). Enlightenment means waking up to see things as they really are for the first time -- not from a self-centered point of view, but from a universal or total point of view. Self-preoccupation is a self-centered sleepiness wherein the real world is never able to penetrate past the self-constructed dream world -- the idiosyncratic world of my interests, my suffering, my needs, my goals, my friends, my failures, my successes, my religion, my God. The real world is clear, transparent light; the self is a paintbrush or a colored glass that tints everything. Suchness is the plain, homely truth that things are what they are apart from our desires and claims.
13. Enlightenment is characterized by:
(1) Non-attainment: Nirvana can not be attained, obtained, gotten, caught, possessed, etc. Nirvana is not reaching a goal. Nirvana is not a thing, not an object. It is a way of being that has ceased to attain and grasp and desire. One could never know that one is in Nirvana. Nirvana is forgetting oneself in complete self-surrender. It would be extremely odd for one who does not think of himself, is not self-conscious, to think to himself that he has reached Nirvana. When one has crossed the water (on either the big or the little raft) one no longer distinguishes one shore from the other. Nirvana is not a higher, superior point of view; it is the extinction of point of view in order to be open to and to accept all. The process is not one of learning and becoming greater, but of unlearning and becoming no one in particular (open to everyone). Thus, one can be with anyone and can live in any place.
(2) Non-assertion: One is not "defensive." One is beyond yes and no. One is empty of all theories, philosophies, theologies, etc. Nirvana cannot be defined, explained, named, etc. It is not an object of consciousness; it is a different kind of consciousness -- a consciousness unattached to content. The Bodhisattva does not debate or defend a view. If consciousness can be thought of as a mirror and objects of knowledge as images in the mirror, becoming enlightened requires that one first "clear the dust from the mirror" (by ridding oneself of all vices or selfish habits), then empty the mirror of all objects, and finally let go of the mirror itself. The highest consciousness is the consciousness that dissolves and lets beings be and shine for themselves as they really are, unreflected by subjective consciousness.
(3) Non-relying: One must live without supports. One must accept radical insecurity. One must learn to let go of all things and of all persons. Generally, most of us, when insecure, grab onto the nearest life-raft. For one who is non-relying, peace does not depend on security. In fact, grasping for security and fleeing from insecurity can cause the greatest suffering and turmoil. Pain and suffering are the result of clinging and grabbing. One must learn to let go, even of oneself. The Buddhist believes that letting go of everything does not leave one with nothing; letting go releases everything and everyone, including oneself, to really be for the first time.
Nirvana is not a "trance" or a perpetual dreamless sleep. It is being
wide-awake (remember: Buddha is one who "woke up" from the daydream
of self-centered existence). One who has overcome self-concerns sees things as
they truly are. He does not see into a "transcendent" other world; rather
he finally sees this world as it really is, unfiltered by subjective concerns
and subjective desires. His "mind" freely includes and is wide-open
to all things; his "heart" freely includes and is wide-open to all living
things. He is free from intellectual and emotional partiality.
14. Of some interest is the "Unlimited," a method for cultivating the emotions. There are four stages to this method:
(1) Friendliness: wishing others well.
(2) Compassion: concentration on the sufferings of others, suffering with them, desiring to remove their suffering.
(3) Sympathetic joy: joyous sympathy with the happiness of others, feeling their elation, identifying with their joy.
(4) Evenmindedness: to treat all people alike, to steadily diminish one's personal preferences and antipathies.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Describe Siddhartha Gautama's life and its importance for Buddhism. What were the "Four Passing Sights"? Describe his coming to enlightenment.
2. How was Gautama's teaching regarded by conservative Hindus? Explain.
3. Name and explain the Four Noble Truths.
4. List and describe briefly the Eightfold Way.
5. Explain in detail right mindfulness and right concentration, the steps on the Way closest to nirvana.
6. How did Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism differ? What do the words Hinayana and Mahayana mean? What do they refer to?
7. Who were the central figures of Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism? Discuss their importance. Was Gautama himself closer to one than the other? Explain.
8. Explain emptiness. How do Westerners view emptiness? How do Westerners view non-possession? Contrast Aristotelian self-fulfillment with Buddhist self-extinction.
9. What is suchness?
10. Describe non-attainment? Why can one not "strive for" enlightenment?
11. Describe non-assertion? How might a Westerner view non-assertion? Discuss.
12. Explain the difference between non-relying and "self-reliance."
13. Is nirvana a state of "trance" or self-hypnosis? Explain. Does nirvana give one a glimpse of a transcendent realm? Discuss.
14. Explain the "Unlimited" and its importance for cultivating universal compassion.
15. Do Buddhists believe in a "spiritual soul"? Explain.
16. Describe the process of transforming selfish grasping into unselfish giving.
17. Name the five skandhas. How is the self or ego fabricated over and above these five skandhas? Why does this cause suffering? How can the process be reversed and suffering be reduced?
18. What is nirvana? What is nirvana not?
19. Using the metaphor of crossing the river by raft, describe Buddhism and nirvana. Explain in this way, also, the difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism.
20. Compare the notions of craving, suffering, and "happiness" in Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Hobbes, Kant, and Buddhism.