An Introduction to Buddhism and its key philosophical doctrines under 2 Key Domains
Buddhism is a commonly referred to term when the discussion is about Indian Philosophy and the rise of religions distinct of and critical of the orthodox Vedic pantheon prevailing in the Indian subcontinent. The roots of early Buddhism as developed by Gautama Buddha himself stretch to 563 BC, the assumed date of his birth. He was born in a royal family in a region termed as Kapilavastu. His father was the ruler of the region and thus he was named as Prince Siddhartha. Buddhism is considered to be initiated almost at the same time during Mahavira’s birth, who is considered as an important deity in the philosophy of Jainism. Siddhartha was too unique and critical in his thought about the fundamental nature of things since the age of sixteen, he possessed a deep introspective thinking ability due to which he used to question almost everything he witnessed in the palace and in its outskirts, in the city. At the age of sixteen, Siddhartha was permitted to venture in the outskirts of the city for the foremost time by his father and upon witnessing the sight of an old man, a sick man and then a corpse, Siddhartha was completely shaken away to the core.
Later, after witnessing the three attributes of life such as misery, decaying and ageing of the body and finally death, he witnessed the sight of an old hermit, on whose face there wasn’t a single mark of anticipation, fear, doubt or regretful feelings. Upon seeing such peace and tranquility on his face, Siddhartha immediately realized that he was living a life devoid of any purpose and merely engaging in aimless and baseless selfish materialistic desires of the world. So, he decided to end his relation with all the worldly ties of his kingdom, his kinship, his wife and his son and renounced the palace on the same night and set out in the quest of liberation and attaining self-actualization by performing intense body-mortification. He still couldn’t attain liberation as he failed in his attempt of body-mortification for a period of six years and thus developed another alternative path of self-discovery which involved less severity. In this second attempt, he was successful and he attained complete liberation and enlightenment (deep knowledge about the fundamental nature of things and the purpose of birth) and thus he was termed from then on as the Buddha or ‘The Enlightened One’. He gave his first sermon at Sarnath where his listeners were five saints with whom he had practiced body mortification earlier, but then they took dissent to his later methods as they didn’t see any potential in them.
Buddhism gradually spread to the regions of Nepal, Burma, Ceylon, China, Japan, Korea, Siam and Tibet. Buddha followed the method of oral instruction for his teachings and for many generations, his disciples also adopted the same method of oral instruction to spread his message further. Buddha’s teachings are compiled in the Tripitakas or the three baskets of teachings which contain his views, as suggested by his closest disciples. These three baskets of teachings are named as Vinaya-Pitaka, Sutta-Pitaka and Abhidhamma-Pitaka respectively. Of these the former deals with rules of conduct, the latter deals with sermons with parables and the third deals with problems of philosophical interest. All three of these are inscribed in the Pali dialect.
Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism
Since the followers of Buddhism gradually began increasing, they were subjectively divided into two schools of Buddhism, namely the Hinayana and the Mahayana schools of Buddhism. The Hinayana school is considered to be more orthodox and faithful to the teachings of the Buddha. This school of thought flourished in the regions of Ceylon, Burma and Siam. Its literature is written in Pali and is very vast. It is also termed as the southern/Pali Buddhism.
Meanwhile, the Mahayana school of Buddhism flourished in the regions of Tibet, China and Japan. The literature of this school is particularly written in Sanskrit due to its prominence as a language during those times. Many works of this school have been translated into Chinese and Tibetan. This school of thought is also termed as northern/Sanskrit Buddhism.
The Noble Truths in Buddhism: The Teachings of the Buddha
Basic Concept and the Anti-Metaphysical Attitude
Buddha was chiefly a teacher of ethical principles and a reformer, and not merely a philosopher. He believed in practical applications of any stated principle and not merely preaching about something which cannot be proved completely. He completely avoided answering questions about the nature of the soul, the body, mind and the soul and about life and death as there wasn’t enough evidence to prove them as plausible. Buddha believed in having such a conversation which could lead the aspirer nearer to his goal i.e. Arhatship or Vimutti, the state of freedom from all suffering. The sole motive of the Buddha was to end suffering arising out of worldly presence and materialistic desires.
The Buddha always entertained questions and discussions related to the sorrow, its origin, its cessation and the path leading to its cessation. The answers to all these questions on sorrow and its cessation and how to attain that cessation are answered by the Buddha in his four noble truths or the arya-satyani. These four noble truths are as follows: a) Life in the world is full of suffering b) There is a cause of suffering c) It is possible to stop suffering d) There is a path which leads to the cessation of suffering.
- The First Noble Truth on Suffering
The Buddha was left aghast and in a state of despair after witnessing the sights of disease, old age and death as young Prince Siddhartha and therefore he renounced the world and he became Buddha. After witnessing all these natural elements of life, Buddha realized that death, sorrow, grief, wish, despair and everything that is born of attachment is misery. Many other Indian thinkers also agree to this view of the Buddha as the basic practice followed by all other Indian philosophical disciplines is that of renouncing the world and following the path of penance, meditation and asceticism in order to attain liberation and enlightenment. But, the Carvakas or the materialists do not agree to this view as they provide instances of pleasure even while possessing materialistic things and even those of pain. But, in general, pain and suffering is associated with worldly presence and materialistic desires and thus they are correlated with those having short-sighted visions of short-term happiness.
2. The Second Noble Truth on the Cause of Suffering: the Chain of Twelve Links
Buddha explains the origins of life’s sufferings as a consequence of natural causation (Pratityasamutpada). According to this, nothing is unconditional: the existence of everything depends on some conditions and since the existence of every event depends on some conditions, due to which our misery is initiated or arises in its origin. Therefore, one can derive a cause and effect relationship between pain, suffering and worldly existence. All of these causes of suffering and pain, according to Buddha, are arising due to birth.
A man is said to be born in order to become the force of the blind tendency or predisposition which causes him/her to be born. The reason justified for constant births is the clinging or grasping (upadana) towards the objects in the world which makes the desire to be born to arise again and again till the realization of non-attachment and a deep aspiration to be liberated doesn’t arise. He further states that this persistent possessive feelings and attachment towards objects arises due to previous instances of attachment and pleasant feelings (vedana) related to it. Further, he states that since this pleasant experience is related to the five sense organs of the body, had they not been in form, there wouldn’t have arisen any of such experiences, and had there not been the body-mind organism there wouldn’t have been any sense organs and furthermore if the organism itself didn’t form in totality and in consciousness and had it been dead or devoid of consciousness, there wouldn’t be any sort of pain or suffering at all. But, again Buddha explains that the birth of an organism is an effect of the impressions (samskara) of our past existence. The birth contains all the lasting impressions of the previous births and all our past deeds and thus the present birth makes the individual pay for all the past deeds in the form of karma. Also, he states that the impressions which we make for rebirth are due to ignorance (avidya) about truth.
Therefore, as summarized we can understand that: 1) suffering in life is due to a) birth which is caused of b) the will to be born which is caused of c) the mental clinging for objects and clinging is caused of d) thirst or desire for objects and this is caused of e) sense experience which is caused of e) sense-object contact which is caused of f) the six organs of cognition/sensory organs and these organs are formed out of the g) embryonic organism which can’t develop without h) consciousness which is formed of i) the impressions of past births which are due to j) ignorance (avidya) of truth.
These cause-effect relationships give us twelve links as a part of the chain of causation. These twelve links of the chain of causation are termed differently by different Buddhists, some refer to it as the twelve sources (dvadasa nidana), some refer to it as the wheel of existence (bhava-cakra). Some of the devoted Buddhists still follow these twelve links by turning wheels as a symbolism to the wheel of causation.
The Buddha has therefore divided these twelve links into a time frame of three periods, which comprises of past life, present life and future life respectively. In the past life domain, he has placed ignorance (avidya) and impressions (samskara), the present life domain comprises of the initial consciousness of the embryo (vijnana) , the body and mind and the embryonic organism, the six organs of cognition, sense contact, sense experience, thirst, clinging, tendency to be born and rebirth, old age, death are included in the future life domain.
3. The Third Noble Truth about the Cessation of Suffering
This particular noble truth focuses on the cessation of suffering and follows from the second truth that misery depends on some conditions and given if these conditions are removed then there would be no misery. According to this noble truth, liberation from misery is a state which can be attained in this life itself, if certain conditions are fulfilled.
It is believed that when a person contemplates and comprehends truth perfectly, and also controls his passions, then the four stages of concentration help him achieve perfect wisdom, and thus is liberated from the shackles of worldly attachment. He is then said to have attained nirvana and become an Arhat or a venerable person. Liberation or nirvana is often misunderstood as a state of inactivity, but it is actually a state of maximum truthfulness, maximum knowledge and of contemplating the truths one observes internally and externally and then reason them within the mind.
The Buddha explains that action is done under the influence of attachment, hatred and infatuation, but primarily it is done under the influence of attachment. Attachment leads to desire to be born and thus causing rebirth, while actions devoid of attachment do not lead to rebirth and karma.