Bellow are my professor's final notes on the Buddhism unit:
Final Thoughts – Buddhism
I will normally try to limit my final thoughts to a few core ideas and comments. My thoughts on Lesson 1 were a little more extensive because it was the first lesson. I intended to make these remarks somewhat more succinct. But it is still early in the class, the ideas are somewhat complex, and the readings on the self are somewhat esoteric. And I got a little carried away.
The Four Noble Truths clearly state what Buddha saw as the primary problem of life, it was suffering. In fact, suffering was integral to life as we normally know it. Suffering was caused by desire to hold on to our experiences. So the question becomes, why do we try to hold on to things. To the Buddha, it resulted from our ignorance of the true nature of reality. Buddha comes from the root, budd, which means awake. So what Buddha taught was that our normal view of reality was based on ignorance of the true nature of reality. The Noble Eight Fold Path was designed to guide us toward an awakening; an awakening to the truth of existence. And a key aspect of that truth was the impermanence of all things. If everything is in flux, and nothing is permanent, it is fruitless to try to hold on to it. In essence, we can’t. And the frustration that results from our inability causes suffering. This sounds like a simple thing to grasp. We see things come into being and pass away every day. But he is asking us to now only understand this on an intellectual level, but with our whole being. And for that to happen, a radical change in how we experience and process reality is necessary. That radical change was called enlightenment.
At the heart of that change was the acceptance of the idea that impermanence is not only a fundamental property of the world at large, but also a property of what we know as the self. According to Buddha, there is no entity called soul. We often see the term illusion referred to when Buddhists are speaking of the soul. This is because they do not believe that there is an entity that is the soul. They say that what we perceive of as the soul is actually the result of the interaction between 5 heaps or skandhas. These are our fundamental characteristics. There are different names for these skandhas, but all essentially refer to the same things. I listed them in the lecture. And because those properties are always changing we are not the same people today as we were yesterday. There is no "ghost in the machine". That is why they say to think there is, is an illusion. A modern way of putting it is that the self is an emergent property. It is not contained in any one skandha, but the interaction of the 5 heaps or skandhas results in what we perceive as the self. I thought the example in the reading about the chariot described the idea really well. Another way to look at it would be to look at sugar. Sugar is made up of different kinds of molecules, none of which are sweet. But the interaction of these molecules results in something that is not in any one of them, and that is sweet. Sweet is an emergent property. So specifics concerning the self may change. But the self as an emergent property will continue as long as that interaction continues, and thus gives one the perception that the self is an entity. Personally, I would say that illusion may be too strong of a word. The self has a reality; it’s just not a continuing entity. The self changes from moment to moment.
This view of self is important to Buddha’s approach because to accept there is no self is the hardest part of accepting impermanence of reality. If we can accept that, we can accept that everything else is impermanent. And it is easier to accept that we cannot hold on to the present. Also, if there is no continuing entity to create the continuing desire, desire will fall by the wayside, and with it, suffering. Both were constructed on an illusion of the nature of reality, and an illusion concerning the nature of the self. Destroy the illusion, and you destroy its creations. And we will then be able to fully experience each moment without the tint of desire. We will experience life in a pure way.
So what does this mean for reincarnation? At death the skandhas disperse and cease to exist. Thus what we perceived as the self also ceases to exist. But, according to Buddhists, if one has not achieved enlightenment, there is something that remains. It is not substantial, but has an existence. The grasping and striving continues to exist in, for want of a better phrase, a karma-ladened character structure. That character structure passes over to another life. Buddha described the process to the passing of a flame from one candle to the next. But if one has achieved enlightenment, that grasping does not exist, and there is nothing to pass over. Nirvana is the result. Just what Nirvana is, is somewhat unclear. The term literally means the “blowing out of existence”. There will be no transmigration because there is nothing left to pass over. It would seem it is “annihilation”, but Buddha would not say that. When asked once what it was, he simply said: “Bliss, yes bliss, my friends is Nirvana.” That would seem to indicate that it is something to be experienced. But that is not the case either. There is nothing left to create to perceive, so it is not a state of existence. Nor is it a place. That would indicate it has a definable existence. Perhaps the best description is the following statement based on a passage from the “Udana” and found in John B. Noss’ “Man’s Religions”. “All he (Buddha) knew, or all he cared to say, was that Nirvana was the end of painful becoming; it was the final peace; it was an eternal state of neither being nor non-being, because it was the end of all finite states and dualities. Human knowledge and human speech could not compass it.”
Buddha’s path to this complete change in the way one views reality is not easy. On the surface one would think that few would or even could devote themselves to this quest. But as Buddha’s teachings spread over Asia they changed. The goal of Nirvana is still there. And the core ideas we’ve discussed are still there. But there has been quite a bit added to this quest to make it easier.
The achievement of enlightenment brings an end to suffering as one sees reality as it really is (according to Buddha). Zen refers to this state as achieving the Buddha mind or experiencing the Buddha nature. You are seeing the world as Buddha saw it, and are experiencing every moment of life without tint. You are “mindful” of each moment and each experience. You fully experience life, but have no desire to hold on to that which you can’t. Then when you die and you enter Nirvana, which is the end of existence. Your identity does not survive death anyway, but when one enters Nirvana, that is the end of the cycles of death and rebirth for that character structure. However, it should be noted that achieving enlightenment is not the only way to enter Nirvana. The immediate goal of many Buddhists (those who practice Mahayana) is to accumulate enough merit (good karma) to eventually enter Nirvana, not enlightenment.
Generally, people divide Buddhism into two main branches, Theravada or the Lesser Vehicle, and Mahayana, or the Greater Vehicle. Some also see Tibetan Buddhism as a branch unto itself due to its uniqueness. Theravada is closer to the teachings of Gautama and to what we have been studying. Other than a few statements concerning reincarnation, Gautama said very little about life beyond this life or spiritual beings. Mahayana, on the other hand, contains many different beliefs and many different spiritual beings. As Buddhism moved over Asia it absorbed local gods and local beliefs, and helper beings came into existence. Their function is to help people accumulate merit in order to improve their station in live during the next incarnation and to eventually reach Nirvana. In Mahayana, there are 3 major classifications of helper beings whose function is to help people achieve Nirvana. One group contains the Manushi Buddhas. Gautama is viewed as a Manushi Buddha. Manushi Buddhas are teachers who lived on earth, achieved enlightenment, taught others how to achieve it also, and entered Nirvana when they died. Their help comes in the form of the teachings they left behind. Another group contains the Dhyani Buddhas. They are in a sort of Heaven (it’s another plane of existence) and are prayed to for advice. The most popular group contains the Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are beings who have achieved enough merit to enter Nirvana, but have vowed not to enter until the last person has entered. They exemplify the Buddhist spirit of giving freely to others.
And even if one is not concerned with accumulating merit, the Noble Eightfold Path provides a sound guide for a living a fulfilling life. For example, within the Noble Eightfold Path are the 5 Precepts. They are do not take human or animal life, do not take what is not one’s own, do not engage in sexual conduct outside of marriage, do not engage in slander or untruths, and abstain from intoxicating substances. There are another group of guidelines called the 4 Great Illimitables. These are things one cannot indulge in enough. They are loving kindness, compassion, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity or fairness.
I want to emphasize that in no branch is Buddha worshipped as a god. He was a teacher. And while Mahayana does have spiritual beings (some would say gods), there is no single god over all. In fact, Buddha himself is sometimes views as somewhat agnostic. His focus was on how to end suffering in this life, no on alternative planes of existence.
And some would say that desire is part of human nature. Buddha would say that it is not. It is the result of a mistaken view of reality; a view born of ignorance the true nature of reality. He also downplays the power of reason. It is a part of who we are, but does not play the prominent role it does in Greece . He feels that this enlightenment or awakening experience must be comprehended on every level of one’s being. To grasp it intellectually is not enough. When we are awakened, we realize our natural state is one of well-being and one in which we can be fully engaged in life as it really is. We are “mindful” of every moment. As you can see, he assumes that our natural state is one of well-being. Life as we experience it is suffering, but suffering is not meant to be a part of life. And finally, we are not immortal. Our identities die with us. We have a mind that is unique that creates a unique problem and thus destiny for us. But we are not special creations. We are part of the natural world.
One last thing to note.
I know that many of the writings in the lesson are confusing. That is because they are trying to describe something that is not part of how we normally perceive life. Thus our language is ill-equipped to this new way of viewing existence. The best we can do is to use those symbols and ideas we are familiar with to “point the way”.
As with Epicureanism and Stoicism, this brief overview does not cover everything. But I hope it helps you with some of the core ideas of Buddhism as they relate to the topic of this lesson.