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The Buddhist Tradition

Introduction to Buddhism and Western Perception

In Western traditions, there has long been an outstanding habit of interpreting and describing Buddhism in comparison to nihilist philosophy – to percieve it as an essentially atheistic faith that attempts to reduce the human condition to that of an unguided, meaningless existence devoid of objective or sacred realities. Though these predicates stem-forth from a process of logic that is not devoid of truth, there lays no small bit of analytical misconception in the roots of such descriptions; though many students of Buddhism would assert that gods and divine beings are of limited utility or else non-existent, the faith itself predicates from a position that assumes that a privileged position exists for all living things in the participation towards a sacred reality.

The friction between traditional Western interpretations of Buddhism and the reality of the faith as it understands itself can thus be said to originate in the fact that the privileged position of God as both guide and source of redemption and revelation in the cosmos seems, at the very least, to have been usurped or denied by Buddhist teachings. And indeed, within Buddhism, such a position as a supreme authority of all matters spiritual has in fact been relegated away from sources external to the souls of humankind – be those sources gods, angels, devas, or what have you. One central tenant of the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama - the faith’s primary mentor; better known simply as “the Buddha” - has long been that ultimate freedom from suffering can only be had through a spiritual transformation that can only be accomplished through personal perseverance – that it is something which cannot be gifted or implanted in the individual by an external source.

To understand this overarching argument, it helps in no small way to come to an understanding of the philosophical frameworks and claims to truth that are presented through the central scriptures encapsulated within the Pali Canon – the collection of transcribed teachings, sayings, and logical positions expressed by the Buddha – something which may be done using both standard philosophical terminology, as well as through the anthropological terminologies developed by Frederick Streng and Frederic Bird respectively.

Chief among this collection of understandings are those statements which are known as the Four Noble Truths, for it is from these that one may proceed in formulating contextual insight into the underlying metaphysics of the faith; it contains both Siddhartha’s insight into the “problematic in the human condition” [Streng, pg. 44-45], and the “ultimate reality” of the cosmos [Streng, pg. 44-45], as well as providing the stage for humanity’s “means towards ultimate transformation” [Streng, pg. 44-45]. The second set of understandings is that which is called the Eightfold Path – a collection of moral insights that may be understood as either a treatise in philosophical ethics, or the elaborated teachings on the means towards transformation. The third set comprises the skandhas, or five aggregates, which may be comprehended as being both a metaphysical description of the human self or soul, and an epistemological framework that seeks to articulate the nature of the faculties of human comprehension; from either perspective, they provide an understanding of the nature of the self which may help support and direct one’s introspective journeys.

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha are as follows:

1) Suffering is an inevitable feature of existence in an ever-changing world.
2) Suffering originates from trsna – one’s personal attachments and desires.
3) Suffering may be eliminated through the abandonment of trsna.
4) The road away from trsna and suffering is through the Eightfold Path.

From these, one may make a number of observations regarding the Buddhist conception of the metaphysics humanity's existential reality. The first truth, for instance, lays the groundwork for an understanding of existence that seeks to address its dissatisfactory nature by arguing that the seeming impossibility of lasting happiness originates with the nature of existential reality itself. The second truth continues the elaboration by ascribing the tension between the human condition as it truly is and one’s psychological ideal of lasting happiness to trsna - one’s personal attachments to, and desires for, aspects of the ever-changing and impermanent reality that surrounds us – and thereby provides the foundation for the third and fourth truths, which seek to provide a means away from the problems created by this tense dichotomy.

To employ Streng’s terminology, Buddhism ascribes the problematic in the human condition to that tension that lies between human expectation and metaphysical reality; the human desire for lasting happiness is argued to be an impossibility in an impermanent and transitory cosmos. And indeed, one may perceive here the origins of the opinions that would describe Buddhism as a nihilistic faith - for such a description of reality would seem to mesh well with the positional arguments of traditional European nihilism, such as those of Frederich Neitchze – though such perceptions can only be reasonably sustained if one ignores that Siddhartha provided more than a simply positional description of reality, but also suggested a means of escape through the third and fourth truths.

And indeed, those same truths provide one with Streng’s “means to ultimate transformation”, as well as the implied existence of an ultimate reality that transcends the existential conundrum - nirvana, for it is through the Eightfold Path that one is provided with the opportunity to break the aforementioned tension through the metaphysical transformation of the self. At one level, this spiritual enlightenment can be seen as simply the psychological reconditioning of the practitioner in order to avoid problematic expectations – if one eliminates one’s overbearing attachments to things, one is surely on the road towards avoiding hurt or pain when those things are taken away or lost. At an entirely different level, however, the ultimate goal of this path towards spiritual enlightenment is both more subtle and more radical, for the problematic condition has been argued to persist as long as the underlying tension exists between self and other. The logical course then is to eliminate one of the two poles that serve to create the problematic tension, and the path to nirvana seeks to accomplish this through nothing less than the elimination of the self, or (more properly stated) the elimination of the illusion of the persistent self.

The Skandhas and the Eightfold Path

Here again we run across the inklings of a line of thought that may suggest the promotion of a radically nihilistic creed; after all, if one advocates the elimination of the self, one would seem to be advocating nothing less than a suicidal pathology disguised as religion. However, it is highly necessary to make a distinction between the “Western” conception of the nature of the self, and the Buddhist conception. In Western traditions, such as those presented through Christianity and Islam, the self – in its deepest most essential form – is equated with the soul, which is itself conceived as eternal and unchanging. In the Buddhist tradition, however, this conception of the existence of a permanent self is held to be at odds with the reasoning of the Four Noble Truths; if all human beings were possessed of a permanent, unchanging self after all, one should reasonably be able to find happiness in attachment to other eternal selves. This would however fly in the face of the observations made by the Buddha, and suggests another line of reasoning; perhaps, in fact, the self is not permanent and unchanging, but rather forever shifting, evolving, and undergoing essential change. If that be the case, then the most fundamental attachment that serves in the creation of the problematic tension is the attachment to the idea of the permanent, unchanging soul. If one were to use the original Sanskrit terminology, the severing of the problematic tension and the achievement of nirvana is only possible if one abandons the illusion of atman (the permanent, eternal self), and comes to the realization that one is anatman (a changing, shifting “non-self”).

In more concrete terms, Buddhist philosophical thought generally holds that the development of this illusion of the permanent self is the systematic product of one’s epistemological makeup – it is the result of the aggregation of five stages of awareness, referred to as the skandhas:

1) Form
2) Sensation
3) Perception
4) Volition
5) Consciousness

Simply put, the human ability to acquire sense-data is built-atop one’s bodily form. Sense-data is then interpreted through one’s central nervous system, giving rise to perception. Volition then arises out of the drive to respond to these perceptions, and consciousness ultimately develops out of the awareness of ones existence. It is at this final stage that the illusion of atman takes hold, for, in spite of the obviously transitory nature of one’s form, sensations, perceptions, and volitions – which change quite evidently as one ages – the human desire for permanency drives the creation of an illusion that these transitory aspects give rise to a somehow stable, unchanging consciousness. The path to nirvana is thus said to be contingent on the acceptance of one’s status as anatman, a changing, shifting self without permanent features; without such an acceptance, one may otherwise risk becoming attached to some aspect of oneself, or develop the pathological desire to somehow crystallize oneself in an everlasting form. Nirvana itself, then, is perhaps best thought of not as a place, so much as a state of being that belies consciousness or positional understandings; one who is in a state of nirvana is separated from the cycle of illusion that leads to trsna, the accumulation of karma, and inevitable suffering (duhka).

To steer away from trsna (directed either towards the self or others), Buddhism offers the aforementioned Eightfold Path – a series of suggested practices or courses of action that are aimed to aid practitioners in avoiding karma (action) that would cause them to become distant from the truths encapsulated within the dharma (in the Buddhist context, “teachings”). Rather than offering proscriptive maxims however, the Path consists of a list of ideal states of being and practices that are useful in the pursuit of enlightenment; though they may meet the formal definition of what Bird might term regulative ritual activity, they are of such a philosophical quality that it is up to individuals or communities to decide how or whether to construct true rituals around them. They are:

1) Right thought – cultivating good patterns of thought and intent
2) Right view – consideration of the dharma when deliberating one’s actions
3) Right mindfulness – maintaining heightened consciousness of one’s actions
4) Right meditation – practicing meditation in a proper form
5) Right action – committing actions that are consistent with the dharma
6) Right speech – speaking in accordance with the dharma
7) Right livelihood – obtaining one’s livelihood in accordance with dharma
8) Right effort – putting conscious effort into ones good acts

As may be apparent, the Eightfold Path is comprehensive not only as regards human action, but also in its consideration of the psychological state of mind with which actions are performed as well and the psychological context of the deliberative process. Ultimate transformation – enlightenment – is not held to be something that may be achieved simply through good acts; a proper disposition is also required. Thus, a “good” act, such as giving to the poor, is not in complete harmony with the dharma if it is performed in expectation of the “reward” of nirvana, simply due to the fact that the expectation of reward represents both a desire for good in exchange for doing good and an attachment to the idea of “rewards”; the Eightfold Path may be a tool that may be used to sever the problematic tension, but it is not one that can be wielded without constant diligence.

The most practical, communicative example of the Eightfold Path, and the one most common across the many Buddhist schools, manifests as the rituals associated with the bihksu and bihksuni (Buddhist monks and nuns). Though the particularities of day-to-day monastic activity varies from place to place, one particular commonality exists in the acts that preceed an individual's joining of the sangha (cloister or monastic community) no matter its cultural or geographic setting - the process of renunciation. During the renunciation rituals that the layperson may expect to participate in prior to becoming a member of the sangha, a particular emphasis is placed on renouncing one's ties to material possessions in anticipation of a rigorous, even ritualized, following of the Path. Often, this comprises the complete shaving of one's head, the taking-on the vestments of the local temple, and the pronouncment of the bodhisattva vow; these acts certainly serve to symbolicly sever one's ties to any previously held vanities or material goals, but also communicate one's newly constituted status. If there is any truth in the work of Frederic Bird, then one might certainly admit that these rituals serve to communicate one's new identity to oneself and the community, but also serve to communicate the regulatory expectations of monastic life; the very public shedding of one's possessions, combined with the vow to walk the spiritual path that leads to Buddahhood, is certainly an effective communication of the maxims and ideals that underlie the faith and philosophy.

Should one consider all of these essential qualities of Buddhism in a mindful fashion, it should then seem that the charge of nihilism is one that is not apropos (though in some cases, atheistic or agnostic beliefs may indeed be present as part of an individuals overall conception of the cosmos and the dharma); though Buddhism may not present a portrait of existential meaning that is directed towards (or emanates from) either a tangible or ideal entity, it finds meaning in a truth of the individual’s journey towards a state of spiritual transcendence that is accomplished through personal achievement. One may consequently say that, contrary to the nihilist position of the absolute absence of objective meaning in the cosmos, the dharma rather suggests the omnipresence of meaning within all living things, a meaning that need only be nurtured in order to flourish forth.


Amore, Roy C. and Julia Ching. “The Buddhist Tradition” in Willard G. Oxtoby (ed) World Religions: Eastern Traditions. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. Pg. 199-315.

Bird, Frederic. “Ritual as Communicative Action” in Jack N. Lightstone and Frederic Bird (eds.) Ritual and Ethnic Identity: A Comparative Study of the Social Meaning of Liturgical Ritual in Synagogues. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1995. Pg. 23-52.

Streng, Frederick J. “Creation of a Community through Sacred Symbols” from Understanding Religious Life (3rd edition). Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1985. Pg. 43-61 + notes (1 page)

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