Buddhist Philosophy Primer

Adapted from What the Buddha Taught (Walpola Rahula, 1959)
by J. Sante (Sep 2014)

With the exception of karma and the wheel of rebirth, Buddhism is a non-religious philosophy which requires no belief, focusing only on what the practitioner experiences directly. This primer provides a practical overview of this philosophy in a systematized, jargon-free way for the beginner.

We only leave two words in the Pali original, dukkha (commonly translated in a confusing and limited way as 'suffering') and karma (volitional action).

The Four Noble Truths:

  1. Dukkha (suffering) exists
  2. The arising of dukkha
  3. The cessation of dukkha
  4. The way leading to the cessation of dukkha

1. Dukkha Exists

Here 'dukkha' includes pain, sorrow and misery but also much wider connotations such as imperfection, impermanence, emptiness and insubstantiality.

Even high states of meditation and sensual pleasures constitute dukkha in the Buddhist sense, for they are impermanent and will soon pass, producing pain, suffering and unhappiness.

The above conceptions of dukkha are easily understood. But the most fundamental view of dukkha in Buddhism is this: the ever-changing physical and mental energies which comprise a human being also constitute dukkha.

Buddhism does not recognize an individual soul, spirit or ego. Instead we are all comprised of our sense organs, the turnings of our thought, our volitional choices (karma), and our consciousness (the Aggregates). There is no ‘being’ or ‘I’ behind these aggregates, simply their motion within individuals and throughout reality. Further, we are indistinguishable from the external reality which our sense organs perceive.

2. The arising of dukkha

Dukkha arises out of a 'thirst' or 'craving' for sense pleasures, existence and becoming, or non-existence. It is bound up with a passionate greed, and finds fresh delight now here and now there.

It is this 'thirst', desire, greed or craving manifesting itself in various ways which gives rise to all forms of dukkha and the continuity of beings. It includes desire not just for wealth and power, but also ideals, views, conceptions and beliefs.

As with the First Noble Truth, the above concepts are simple but we must now delve into the deeper philosophical side of the Second Noble Truth, involving karma and rebirth.

There are four conditions necessary for the existence and continuity of beings: (1) ordinary material food, (2) contact of our sense-organs (including mind) with the external world, (3) consciousness and (4) mental volition or will.

This last is the will to live, exist, re-exist, continue, to become more and more. The terms 'thirst', 'volition', 'mental volition' and 'karma' all denote the same thing: the will to be.

This 'will' falls under the Aggregates mentioned in the first section. This brings us to an important and essential point in Buddhism: the arising of dukkha is within dukkha itself and not outside. Similarly, the germ of the cession of suffering is also within dukkha itself.

Karma is often misunderstood to be the fruits of action, but here it means only 'volitional action' itself. Good karma produces good effects, and bad karma produces bad effects. 'Thirst', volition, karma (good or bad) has one force as its effect: force to continue -- to continue in a good or bad direction. An enlightened being, though he acts, does not accumulate karma because he is free from the false idea of self, free from the 'thirst' for continuity and becoming, free from all other defilements and impurities. For him there is no rebirth.

We have seen that a being is simply an aggregate of physical and mental forces or energies. Death is the total non-functioning of the physical body. Do all these forces and energies stop altogether at death? Buddhism says 'No'. The thirst to exist, to continue, is a tremendous force that moves whole existences, and is the greatest energy in the world. Within Buddhism, it continues manifesting itself in another form, this is called rebirth or re-existence.

As long as there is this 'thirst' to be and to become the cycle of continuity goes on. It can stop only when its driving force, this 'thirst' is cut off through wisdom which sees Reality, Truth, Nirvana.

3. The cessation of dukkha

The Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha. This is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of dukkha, more popularly known as Nirvana.

To eliminate dukkha completely one has to eliminate the main root of dukkha, which is 'thirst' as we saw above. Therefore Nirvana is also known by the term 'Extinction of Thirst'.

One may naturally ask what is meant by Nirvana. This can never be answered completely and satisfactorily in words, as language is too poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality which is Nirvana. It is therefore generally expressed in negative terms such as 'Extinction of Thirst', 'Uncompound', 'Unconditioned', 'Absence of desire', 'Cessation', 'Blowing out' or 'Extinction'.

Here are a few definitions from the original Pali texts:

'It is the complete cessation of that very 'thirst' giving it up, renouncing it, emancipation from it, detachment from it'

'Calming of all conditioned things, giving up of all defilements, extinction of 'thirst', detachment, cessation, Nibbana'.

'O bhikkhus, what is the Absolute? It is, O bhikkhus, the extinction of of desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion. This, O bhikkhus, is called the Absolute'.

'O bhikkus, whatever there may be things conditioned or unconditioned, among them detachment is the highest'.

Because of these negative terms, it is easy to regard Nirvana as negative, as self-annihilation. Nirvana is definitely no annihilation of self, because there is no self to annihilate. If at all, it is the annihilation of the illusion, of the false idea of self.

According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent, and there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like Self or Soul, within or without. The realization of this truth, e.g. to see things as they are without illusion or ignorance, is the extinction of the 'thirst' and the cessation of dukkha, which is Nirvana.

4. The way leading to the cessation of dukkha

The Way leading to the cessation of dukkha is known as the 'Middle Path', avoiding the extreme of the search for happiness through sensual pleasures and the extreme of asceticism and self-mortification.

The Middle Path is generally referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path because it is composed of eight divisions:

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

These eight factors aim at promoting and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline: Ethical Conduct, Mental Discipline and Wisdom. We will group them by these essentials.

Ethical Conduct: Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood

Ethical Conduct is built on the concept of universal love and compassion for all living beings. According to Buddhism, for a man to be perfect there are two qualities that he should develop equally: compassion on one side and wisdom on the other. Here compassion represents love, charity, kindness, tolerance and such noble qualities on the emotional side, while wisdom would stand for the intellectual side or the qualities of the mind.

Right Speech means abstention (1) from lying, (2) from backbiting and slander that may bring about hatred, disunity and disharmony, (3) from harsh, rude, malicious and abusive language, (4) from idle useless and foolish babble and gossip. Abstaining from these means speaking truthfully, with benevolent, pleasant and gentle, meaningful and useful.

Right Action means abstaining from destroying life, stealing, dishonest dealings and that we should also help others to lead a peaceful and honorable life.

Right Livelihood means that one should abstain from making one's living through a profession that brings harm to others, such as arms dealing, killing animals, cheating, etc and should live by an honorable profession, blameless and innocent of harm to others.

The above moral conduct is considered as the indispensable foundation for all higher spiritual attainments. No spiritual development is possible without this moral basis.

Mental Discipline: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration

Right Effort is the energetic will (1) to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising and (2) to get rid of such evil and unwholesome states that already arisen within a man, and also (3) to produce, to cause to arise, good and wholesome states of mind not yet arisen and (4) to develop and bring to perfection the good and wholesome states of mind already present in a man.

Right Mindfulness (or Attentiveness) is to be diligently aware and mindful to (1) the activities of the body (2) sensations or feelings (3) the activities of the mind and (4) ideas, thoughts and conceptions of things.

The practice of concentration on breathing is one of the well-known exercises for mental development. Regarding activities of the mind, one should be aware of all movements of the mind: whether one's mind is lustful or not, given to hatred or not, deluded or not, distracted etc.

Regarding ideas thoughts, conceptions etc, one should know their nature, how they appear and disappear, how they are suppressed, and so on.

Right Concentration is a form of meditation leading to the four stages of trance (dhyana).

In the first stage of dhyana, passionate desires and certain unwholesome thoughts like sensuous lust, ill-will, languor, worry, restlessness and sceptical doubt are discarded, and feelings of joy and happiness are maintained, along with certain mental activities.

In the second stage,

In the third stage,

In the fourth stage of dhyana, all sensations, even of happiness and unhappiness, of joy and sorrow, disappear, only equanimity and awareness remaining.

Wisdom: Right Thought and Right Understanding

Right Thought denotes the thoughts of selfless renunciation or detachment, thoughts of love and thoughts of non-violence, which are extended to all beings.

Right Understanding is the understanding of things as they are, and it is the Four Noble Truths which explain things as they really are. Thus Right Understanding is ultimately reduced to the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. This understanding is the highest wisdom which sees the Ultimate Reality.

The above account of the Path is a way of life to be followed, practiced and developed by each individual. It is self-discipline in body, word and mind, self-development and purification. It has nothing to do with belief or ceremony, and is not what is called 'religious'. It is a path leading to the realization of Ultimate Reality, to complete freedom, happiness and peace through moral, spiritual and intellectual perfection.

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