Basics of Buddhist Philosophy
Buddhism as a philosophy and religion stemmed from early India and spread across East and South-East Asia. Today, there are many sects of Buddhism, but all of them are based on the teachings of the Enlightened One; the Buddha. The Buddha was born in India as a Hindu and most agree that he was (and remained) a yogi. For this reason, yoga and Buddhist philosophy share many similarities. You can read more about Yoga Philosophy in my previous blog post called Basics of Yoga Philosophy.
The 4 Noble Truths
The Buddha traveled across Asia with a mission; to teach others how to end suffering in their lives. He did this by sharing the wisdom of the 4 Noble Truths;
1. Dis-ease is an inevitable part of life.
Some ponder on the difference between suffering and dis-ease. If the Buddha taught how to eradicate suffering than how is that possible if dis-ease is inevitable? What is the difference between suffering and dis-ease in the first place?
Suffering is created through mental formations (whether conscious or unconscious) like negative thoughts, emotions, ideas, judgments, etc. Whereas dis-ease like diagnosable diseases, pain, unfavorable outcomes, etc. are inevitable parts of life we all have to deal with. Suffering is an entirely internal experience within our control, whereas dis-ease is an external experience out of our control.
For example, say you’re driving to work one morning and due to another driver’s recklessness you get into a car accident. The situation is out of your control. You break your arm and are taken to the hospital. It’s very painful. There are two basic ways to respond in this scenario. Response one: The pain is quite intense so you focus all your attention on your broken arm. You think about how bad it is and resist the pain wishing it had never happened. This makes the pain feel worse and you suffer tremendously out of resistance to what has happened. Or response two: You accept the scenario you’re in. You acknowledge that you can’t change the past and that your arm is broken, so no point resisting and wishing the pain would stop. You can, however, direct your awareness towards the things that might help the pain fade into the background or on helping your doctor by answering questions to the best of your ability.
While you can’t control most external circumstances, you can control your internal experience and your response to the situation. You may be in a state of dis-ease, but you don’t have to suffer. Dis-ease is an inevitable part of life, suffering is all created in the mind. With training, it can be eradicated. This is a critical understanding of Buddhist philosophy.
2. The self, which is what feels dis-ease, is an illusion.
This can be hard to grasp for those who have never been introduced to Eastern philosophies. A simple way of explaining this is to ask a series of simple questions. Try asking yourself these:
What are you made of?
Are your clothes you?
Is your body you?
If you were to lose an arm, would that arm still be you?
Is your mind you?
If you were to lose part of your cognitive function (say you were hit on the head really hard) and could no longer remember your past, are those lost memories still you?
Who are you really? What are you really? …but a make-up of ever-changing materials and energies?
The simple fact is, the self as we typically think of it, is an illusion. It is a consequence of the way our brain, our senses, and our languages function: by way of definition. In order to think, see, or speak about anything, we need to define its boundaries. We operate in black and white, but the nature of reality is entirely in spectrums between complementary opposites. We say black, white or grey, but it's really an indefinite spectrum with no perfect definition between one shade and another. Everything is a spectrum of One, a varying vibration of energy with no real borders between anything.
The self is the same. In our minds, the self has a clear boundary, but when you really observe it carefully, you see the there is no defined boundary. What makes up our body is constantly shifting and changing as we eat, excrete, , sweat, metabolize, move, breathe, and evolve. Even our minds, in both their physicality (the brain) and their energies (thoughts and emotions), are constantly changing as we learn, memorize, forget, observe, think, and feel. Both body and mind are indefinite. So ask yourself again: “Is your body you?”, “Is your mind you?”, “What are you?”… If you’d like to read more about the concept of self, you can continue reading in my previous post called Self and Non-self.
3. Everything is impermanent, including the self and dis-ease.
We tend to think and behave as though most things are permanent. When we feel pain, when we feel negative emotions, when anything that brings us dis-ease enters our life, or anything damages our egotistical sense of self, we treat it as though it won’t go away on its own. We behave as if we need to make it go away, often ourselves more frustration and suffering in the process. We can’t just be with it. We need to be comfortable all the time in order to be happy. How liberating would it be to remain happy even in uncomfortable circumstances? The Buddha, or any great yogi really, would call this true freedom. Not to do whatever one wants, but find happiness even when things aren’t going one’s way.
We also like to remain ignorant of the idea that life itself is impermanent. To see the impermanence of everything is to know that things come and go on their own. We can accept dis-ease, see the material self as a mere illusion, and know that death is simply a part of life.
We must also recognize that positive things, like happiness and contentment, are also impermanent. We cling to things in life we find pleasurable or positive, but our attempts are futile. Instead of accepting that everything is constantly changing and that endings are just new beginnings, we cling to the good things and resist the bad. Often our misunderstanding of self drives this clinging further. When we lose loving relationships we can’t let go because we identify a part of ourselves with our relationship to that person. When we grow old, we create suffering for ourselves as we watch our bodies age, because we are so identified with our physicality.
To see all as impermanent, especially the self and dis-ease, is to cling to nothing and accept everything. It is to simply be easy-going about life and able to take on anything that comes our way. I sometimes call this surfing the waves of change.
4. We can end our suffering.
If we are able to accept that dis-ease is inevitable, that the self is an illusion and that everything in life is impermanent than we are ready to walk the path towards enlightenment; the end of suffering. We can learn to keep the indefinite body and mind in proper health as it grows, changes, and ages. We can learn to act ethically to ourselves and others. We can find bliss in the simplicity and grandiosity of being alive (Nirvana).
Attaining Enlightenment: The Noble Eightfold Path
The Buddha teaches that these 4 Noble Truths must be rightly understood to begin the path toward enlightenment. This pathway is defined by 8 practices called the Noble Eightfold Path:
1. Right Understanding (of these 4 Noble Truths)
We must understand the 4 Noble Truths and be mindful of them as we participate in our lives.
2. Right Thinking
Other translations of the Pali name of this Noble Path would call this “right intention” or “right aspiration”. This practice refers to the thinking or intention of following the path toward enlightenment and all that it entails.
3. Right Speech
Right speech refers to abstaining from lying, using words to manipulate, using words to abuse, or participating in mindless chatter. We often forget how powerful our words are, whether in the form of our own thoughts or in our conversations with others. Being mindful of all that we say, using our words only when they need to be used, and using them with good intention is of utmost importance.
4. Right Action
Right action can be considered karmic action, though, not in any mystical misinterpretation of the term. Karma simply means that our actions have consequences. Acting out of ill will results in negative consequences, whether directly or indirectly caused. Specifically, right action refers to abstaining from killing, violence, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
5. Right Livelihood
Right livelihood has a number of varied interpretations, but in my own words, I would describe it as intending and acting to support of life. To live with positive energy, to abstain from killing animals for food, to support the livelihood and positive energy of others, and generally contribute to the positive life energy of the world around us.
6. Right Effort
Right effort is a delicate balance between striving and non-striving. It is to put forth the effort to prevent unwholesome mental states and negative karmic actions, but know that over-doing, over-thinking, and over-striving, even with positive intention, can do more harm than good. Right effort comes from the knowing of what we can and can’t control. Is it to do our best, no more, no less, and accept the outcome.
7. Right Mindfulness
Mindfulness is being aware of what one is doing, thinking, sensing, and being in the present moment. Right mindfulness means to always be aware of the present and ensure that one is living in accordance with the 4 Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Being constantly aware is a remarkably challenging feat. Hence, the final Noble Path…
8. Right Meditation
The purpose of meditation is to develop one’s ability to concentrate on a single point for an extended period. Developing the ability to concentrate enhances one’s capability for directing awareness, remaining mindful, and continuously applying oneself to the Noble Eightfold path. Deep states of meditation lead to Self-realization (note the capitalized S) and the state of Nirvana. The enlightened one(s) have developed their mental and physical capacities to a level at which they live in a constant state of Nirvana, this is enlightenment.
The Noble Eightfold Path, unlike the 8 Limbs of Yoga, are practiced simultaneously. The combination of all 8 eventually lead to enlightenment once sufficiently understood and practiced. Some see Buddhism as a pessimistic philosophy, but its actually quite the opposite. On paper, it may seem that way, but in practice, it is positively, simply liberating… freeing.
Connections and Differences Between Yoga and Buddhist Philosophy
While in Thailand, I spent time in various retreats practicing Buddhist meditation techniques and studying Buddhist philosophy with monks and scholars. I was lucky enough to hear the wisdom of some great teachers and experience the bliss of a void mind during long bouts of meditation at silent retreats. I spent a lot of time after these retreats pondering the differences between yogic and Buddhist philosophies and trying to bridge the gaps between them.
Generally speaking, yoga philosophy tends to place slightly heavier emphasis on the training of the body as well as divinity (specialness) of the spirit. While Buddhism places heavier emphasis on the mind and that the self is nothing more than an accumulation of earthly elements, that nothing is really special at all.
Though, there is a common understanding that there is a higher, collective, Self. Some might call is the universal spirit, the soul, or the collective unconscious. The self as we typically think of it is an illusion, but the universal Self is very real.
One Goal, Many Paths
I’ve come away from my time studying Yoga and Buddhist philosophy in Southeast Asia with an understanding that there is one universally true life goal: enlightenment. Every action we’ve ever taken has been to relieve ourselves of some form of suffering or dis-ease. Whether we’ve had the right understanding of what truly relieves suffering, or that dis-ease is inevitable, any goal we’ve ever set as individuals or as a society, any action we’ve ever taken, has been done so with the intent to lessen the suffering we experience. When we look beneath the surface of our wants and desires, of our personal and professional goals, all of them point toward the end of suffering, toward enlightenment.
While we all seek enlightenment, we all take different paths. We start at different points, choose different professions, adopt different philosophies, think and act in different ways, all thinking we’ve found the right way to live our lives and hopefully lessen the suffering we experience.
And we have. No one path is right for everyone. We all take all our own way and we all understand truth through different perspectives. We all encounter dis-ease, struggle with our sense of self, live in the wake of change, and do our best to live in a way we see as righteous. As we learn, as we grow, we discover new things and change our ways as we do. We are all on the path to enlightenment already, it’s just a matter of time. Be patient my friends.
Thanks for reading. Wishing you well,
References and Recommended Readings:
Reinhard, Khun. Introduction to Buddhism and to Buddhist Meditation – 2nd Edition.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are. Piatkus, 2004.