name reflects stereotypes and misunderstandings. Typically people will think of Chinese and Japanese monks in strict meditaion, however Buddhism is really a generic term for various philosophic, religious, ethical, and sociological forms based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. They come from the main doctrine of the Four Noble Truths which says that there is suffering (which may more accurately be frustration), suffering has a cause, the cause of suffering must be removed, and the methods of removal is by following the Middle Path, known also as the Noble Eight-Fold Path. The last of the four truths enables one, in eight stages, to realize nirvana. It is by the practice of Right View, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Endeavor, Right Mindfulness, and Right Contemplation. Although there are many aspects of Buddhism that should be learned to understand fully what Buddhi!sm entails so that we may not misconstrue ideas of it, a more concise look at the above will suffice in giving a grasp of the nature of Buddhism. A short, fundamental history of Buddhism shall also be in order.
The fundamental philosophical assumptions of Buddhism are that life is a stream of becoming; that there is nothing permanent in the empirical self. (Yosh, 21) There is universal causation, although Buddhism does not wrestle with the concept of first causes. One thing is dependent upon another. Man is viewed realistically as a combined composite of phases of life; feeling, dispositions, consciousness, and form. All these forms change according to the law of karma. The basic assumptions in ethics are the universality of suffering and the belief in a solution. The cause of suffering is traced to ignorance and selfish craving, and upon the eradication of ignorance and selfishness nirvana is attained. Nirvana is described negatively as freedom from ignorance, selfishness, and suffering, and positively as the attainment of wisdom (prajna) and compassion (karuna).
As Buddhism spread, different treatment and ideals were given to these central metaphysical issues and Buddhism split into two main sects; the Theravada, which later became Hinayana or “Lesser Vehicle,” named such because is was for the few and stressed individual enlightenment, and the Mahayana, called “Greater Vehicle” because its central theme stresses devotion to the salvation of others or universal enlightenment. The Hinayana, which represents the logical development of the principles of the canonical (or scriptual) works and is, therefore, considered orthodox, develops the doctrine of the transitory-ness of substances and individuals. The Mahayana, on the other hand, propounds a more positive philosophy that asserts the reality of the Absolute, that in its ontological aspect can be termed only bhuta-tathata, the “suchness” of beings, the essence of existence. Reyna, 40-2
The Hinayana adopts a semi-religious, “anthropomorphic” concept of one supreme Creator-god and many subordinate deities none which are either omnipotent or omniscient, and are introduced merely for the purpose of meditation. The historical Buddha is glorified, even, deified, and so the need for an object of worship and reverence is met. Buddhism as a religion, which is the goal of Mahayana, aims at positive and religious expression and gives a large place to bhakti or devotion. It permits the worship of popular gods which are considered aspects of or transitory manifestations of the One Supreme. For the Mahayana the historical Buddha is a manifestation of the Moral Ideal; he is not the One Reality, but a god among many others.
As to the number of Buddhas who have appeared in the present world kalpa (cycle) the Buddhist schools differ. Guatama Buddha declared that he was not the only Buddha or enlightened being, but that several Buddhas had made known the Law of the Worlds before him and many would after his Parinivana (final and irreversible release). He did not mention the number of Buddhas, but by the middle of the 3rd century B.C., the Buddhist elders had declared the Buddhas who had preceded Gautama were twenty-four, the last five of which are believed to have appeared in the present kalpa. (Reyna, 53) They, together Maitreya( the Buddha yet to come), constitute the seven Buddhas of the present world cycle according to Hinayana conception. The Mahayana, on the other hand, maintains that buddhas and bodhisttvas are innumerable. Bodhisattva, according to Mahayana, are those who have attained wisdom but postpone their entrance into nirvana preferring to be reborn many times in order to continu!
e to teach men the way to liberation.
Chief among the philosophical schools arising out of Buddhist thought are four: The Vaibhasika (direct realism) and the Sautranika (indirect realism which belong to the Hinayana, the Yogacara (idealism ) and the Madhyamika (relativism, sometimes called nihilism) which belong to the Mahayana. Because of limited space, the schools will not be discussed. Nonetheless, Gautama Buddhas teachings shall be discussed further.
Buddha taught his followers the four “Noble Truths” (Arya Satya)concerning suffering, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the way that leads to the destruction of suffering. This did not lie either in habitual practice of sensuality or in the practice of self-torture. There was a “Middle Path” called the “Noble Eight-fold Path.”
The first Noble Truth that all life is suffering-duhkha (fron duh, difficult and kha, condition)- is the human situation, that which provokes the existential problems of disease, old age, and death. These are the necessary consequences of the nature of the world and the nature of men. From the practical point of view, Guatama Buddha points out that all component things are bound for decay and mans attachment to the perishable results in suffering. This attachment that is inherent in the human race is a spiritual disease, the symptom being that it results in a burden of sorrow. No discussion of or accusation of guilt accompanies his diagnosis, for the Buddha declared his mission is not one of religious conversion or of metaphysical speculation, but one of objective inquiry into the cause and alleviation of suffering on the practical, psychological level.
It should be noted that rather than translate dukkha as “pain” or “suffering,” one can also take it to mean “frustrating,” “ill” or “disvalue,” indicating that the truth of dukkha is registered not by feelings but by spiritual insight. Identifying it with merephysical or emotional suffering it is thought that since dukkha was not a “distinctively spiritual ill,” the first noble truth could not be an original principle of Buddhism but must be later monatic addition. Attempts to define dukkha simply in terms of socially structured suffering can similarly misleading. Nor can it be conceived simply as unrest or agitation, though these are essential aspects of it. Disagreeable sensations, emotional suffering, or social deprivations may occasion spiritual dissatisfaction with the habitual life of the body and the mind, individual and social. To speak of dukkha in this sense is not to speak of discontent of body and mind, but rather of discontent with body and mind, an existen!
tial suffering grounded in the temporality of human existence. In lament terms, life is frustrating, especially if we remain ignorant and misunderstand ourselves and our karmic situation. Yosh, 108
As a result of suffering and frustration, the second of the Four Noble Truths takes up the cause of suffering or frustration. The cause of suffering is self causally conditioned desire or ignorant craving, derived from karmic residue of past lives. So, Karma produces ignorance, ignorance is in itself the cause suffering and frustration. By understanding the cause as in ourselves, it is possible to begin relief; understanding cause in ourselves, there is possibility of controlling this bondage and eventually removing it completely. This second truth teaches of the twelve links in the chain of karmic causation-the Doctrine of Dependent Origination or Pratityasamutpada.
Having discovered mans problem and determined its cause, the Buddha propounds the third Noble Truth-liberation from suffering and limitations of existence can be achieved. Since there is causal conditions which bring about suffering and frustration, it is logical that there be conditions to liberate oneself from these conditions.
The last of Four Noble Truths prescribes the way. The “way” is the Noble Eight-fold Path that is followed scrupulously is guaranteed to eradicate the cause of the disease of dreaming ignorance and to bring about release from the universal law of moral causation, and thus to make possible the attainment of awakened perfection of nirvana. Yosh, 115
The Noble Eight-fold Path is the path that leads to no-desire, desirelessness being the one acquisition that is certain to break the chain of causation linking one with the sufferings of birth and rebirth. The way of salvation prescribed by the fourth Noble Truth is eight-fold, namely (1) Right view, believe in the Four Noble Truths and the view implicit in them; (2) Right Aspiration, the resolve to overcome extremes, the right love for others, harm no living being, and suppression of all producing desires; (3) Right Speech, the non-indulgence in unnecessary conversation, loose or hurtful talk, or in ill-will generally; (4) Right conduct, compassion toward all creatures; (5) Right means of livelihood, the choosing of the proper occupation in the employment of ones time and energies, the pursuit of ones livelihood in ways consistent with Buddha principles; (6) Right effort, the untiring and unremitting intellectual alertness in discriminating between wise and unwise desires!
and attachments; (7) Right recollection, or “Mindfulness,” well-disciplined thought habits resulting from diligent application to the right topics; and (8) Right contemplation, absorption, the cesarean of thinking, the achievement of mental tranquillity that is the advanced stage on the road to Enlightenment. The Noble Eight-fold Path is often called the Middle Path, not alone because it avoids extremes between asceticism and sensuality, but also because it denies another pair of extremes-skepticism, denying the possibility of transcendental knowledge and the assertion of undemonstrable metaphysical speculations.Yosh 115-118
In what way the Buddhist nirvana distinguishes itself from the Vedanta moksa has never been satisfied. The Buddha, himself, did not give a direct answer to the question of nirvana since it was a subject of speculation. He thought that we must renounce the task of plumbing the significance of nirvana simply because it evades definition. The Buddhist of various schools understand nirvana differently. The early Buddhist, namely the Theravadins, meant by it by dissolution of the skandas, which has led some scholars to understand the term as annihilation. Nirvana for Sarvastivadins (pluralistic realists) is an uncompounded thing, an eternal entity positive in nature but stone-like without life and consciousness. The Yogacara conception of nirvana is one of life and not the stillness of death. The Vijnanavadins apply the word sunya or void to nirvana, but sunya appears in their works as an adjective rather than a substantive. In the Mahayana texts nirvana is described as beau!
tiful gardens, rivers, precious stones, etc., but such conception cannot be found in the teaching of the Buddha nor in the Hinayana texts. Nonetheless it appears that for Gautama Buddha nirvana does not mean annihilation, but is some indescribable reality which is to be realized. Reyna, 78
Etymologically, nirvana means “to blow out,” “to cease to draw breath,” “extinction,” and the simile of a lamp which is extinguished is often used to illustrate the blowing out of the fire of desire which, for want of rule, is quenched and pacified. The goal is a deathless state, the final end of craving, the one and final extinction of passion, of wrath, of stupidity. But nirvana is not mere extinction-it is a tranquil state to be realized by one who “from all craving is free.” In the negative aspect nirvana is the state of no suffering, and in its positive aspect, it is a state of knowledge, of love, of selflessness.
Nirvana has two aspects- it is both individualistic and universal or cosmic. The bringing to an end of the miserable process of existence and re-existence, which in nirvana may represent the state of calm and equilibrium achieved by a monk for his own sake, portrays that nirvana may be realized in this life, in the here and now. In the Samyutta Nikaya we read that if a monk is freed by his “turning away from material shape, from feeling, perception, the impulses. . .for dispassion in regard to them, for their cessation. . .it is fitting to call him a monk who has attained Nirvana here and now.” (Reyna, 79) Nirvana may also be known as full and perfect enlightenment which implies the striving toward nirvana for the sake of beings. Perfect enlightenment is universal in that it reaches fulfillment only when all beings enter nirvana. Nirvana for Buddha is seeing reality as it is-that state of quiescent unity where the two shores of a worldly and a transcendental existence no !
longer hold. There is no stream of rebirths flowing between the separated shores-no samsara-no nirvana-the whole scene of the two banks and the river between has vanished. For the enlightened mind there can be no such thing as either existence or nonexistence, for to see or to think of anything as “other,” a distant reality different from ones own being, would mean that relativity still exists and that, therefore, full Enlightenment had not yet been attained. The two spheres of experience-that which is conditioned, the sphere of existences (samsara)and that which his unconditioned (nirvana) can be given no logical connection, for nirvana would thereby become conditioned. The outlook on psychic reality of the practicing Buddhist is based on the actual experience s of his own yoga-practice (the technique of doing away with every kind of fixed notion and attitude of mind), and these lead inevitably to a complete spiritualization not only of the idea of bondage, but also to t!
hat of nirvana. To speak seriously, therefore, of nirvana as a goal to be attained is simply to betray the attitude of one still wandering in the illusion of duality. From the perspective of Illumined One, “such verbalizations as nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and ignorance, freedom and bondage, are without reference, void of content. That is why the Buddha refused to discuss nirvana.” (Reyna, 80)
In light of what is discussed about nirvana, we are assured that its connotation do not reflect solely on stereotypes such that of pop cultural songs, one named of which is called, “Nirvana.” Instead, an outline of the history of Buddhism and the basic four noble truths has shed light in what we began at first to have believed to be mysticism and deep meditation reflected by those in China and Japan.We have learned that Buddhism is really a generic term for various philosophic, religious, ethical, and sociological forms based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. And, these teachings have spread so exponentially such that different schools have attained differing philosophies. Nonetheless, the basic ideas of The Four Noble Truths give us a general overview of Indian philosophy.
Buddhist Philosophy 418, Karl Potter Reader
Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies
Garfield, Jay. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Oxford University Press. New York, 1995
Reyna, Ruth. Indian Philosophy, Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co, Bombay-New Delhi. 1971
Yoshinori, Takeuchi. Buddhist Spirituality, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, New York. 1993