We are what we think
All that we are arises with our thoughts
With our thoughts we make the world
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart
(From the Dhammapada, a collection of teachings attributed to the Buddha)
The historic Buddha lived around 2,500 years ago in what is now Nepal and North East India. Since that time people have formed very different ideas as to his human and super human qualities. These range from the view that he was a gifted teacher and thinker, to the belief that he is a transcendental, eternal and omnipresent being. Similarly, Buddhism itself has forked and diversified into a myriad of schools and traditions, so that it is misleading to talk of a single Buddhist philosophy. However, it is possible to isolate a set of core teachings that constitute a coherent and unified system of thought. This is what will be focused on here.
Buddhism has supernatural aspects, that is to say aspects which do not conform with the generally accepted views of Western science. These include a belief in rebirth, a belief that one’s actions (karma) can have consequences in later lives, and a belief that one can be awakened (enlightened) so as to cease the cycle of rebirth and suffering. These aspects of Buddhism will not be further addressed here except in terms of Buddhist ethics, but it should be emphasized that they are a very significant part of the Buddha’s teaching.
The Buddha lived at a time when there was no clear cut distinction between philosophy and religion. What was important for the Buddha and his contemporaries was to understand the nature of reality, and the implications that this had for the way one should lead one’s life. Without such understandings one’s ignorance would keep one trapped in the cycle of rebirth. Understanding could come from logical argument, but also from insights gained through penetrative meditation. It was this latter technique that was most important for the Buddha, who always emphasized that his teachings were based on insights from his personal experience.
‘I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That's all I teach’, so said the Buddha. The Buddha was not interested in metaphysical inquiry. Truth was of value to him only to the extent to which it was a means to release people from suffering. When asked such questions as ‘Is the universe finite?’ or ‘Is the universe eternal?’ he refused to answer. In the sutra (discourse) of the Poisoned Arrow he said:
If anyone should say “I will not follow the teachings of the Buddha until he tells me whether the world is eternal or whether after death an enlightened person exists or does not exists” these questions will remain unanswered until that person should die.
Suppose a man were wounded by an arrow thickly covered by poison, and his friends and relatives brought a surgeon to treat him. The man might say “ I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who fired it was a warrior, priest, merchant or farmer. Until I know the name of his tribe. Until I know whether the man who fired it was tall, short or medium height. Until I know where he lives.”
All this would remain unknown and meanwhile the man would die. So too, if anyone should say “I will not follow the teachings of the Buddha until he declares whether the world is eternal or whether after death an enlightened person exists or does not exists” that too will remain undeclared and meanwhile that person will die.
Why then do we study Buddhism as a philosophy? The answer is that in the course of his inquiry into the nature of reality and the causes of suffering the Buddha developed a number of important metaphysical concepts.
Before going further it is necessary to say something about the use of the word ‘Suffering’. ‘Suffering’ has traditionally been used as a translation of the Pali word ‘Dukkha’, but Dukkha is perhaps better translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’, for it embraces all forms of mental distress, unhappiness and feelings of loss. Suffering is different to pain. To explain this the Buddha used the metaphor of there being two darts stuck in his body. The first dart refers to the feeling of painful sensation, the second dart refers to the suffering that ensues when the mind reacts to this pain. We cannot avoid the pain, but we can do something about the suffering.
Dependent Origination and Impermanence
At the heart of Buddhist thought is the concept of ‘dependent origination’, that is to say that all things are dependently originated. Nothing at all, material or mental, sensory or conceptual, concrete or abstract, organic or inorganic, occurs independently of conditioning factors. Everything is in a causal chain. Everything exists due to the presence of certain conditions, and ceases once these conditions are removed.
A simple example of dependent origination is the flame of an oil lamp, which is dependent upon the oil and the wick. When the oil and the wick are present, the flame burns. If either of these is absent, it ceases to burn. This may sound obvious and trivial, but when we realise that the dependent origination extends to everything around us, and to ourselves, its significance becomes clearer. Dependent origination is the reason for the pervasive impermanence of things. Existence is a flux, a continuous becoming, changing and decay. The Buddha referred to impermanence as one of the three marks of existence, the other two being suffering and no-self.
The Four Noble truths
Suffering is a mental rather than physical phenomena. The Buddha asked himself what exactly causes suffering, and how can it be avoided? After a long period of meditation, he arrived at the following formulation, known as the Four Noble Truths:
- In life there is suffering.
- The cause of life’s suffering is desire (literally thirst).
- The cure is to overcome desire.
- The cure can be accomplished through the Eightfold Path.
Desire includes craving for and clinging to sensual pleasures, craving for being and craving for non being. Craving for being is the craving for all things which enhance the ego and make us feel important. It includes the craving for eternal life. Craving for non-being is the craving to avoid all unpleasant things, including those things which diminish our ego and make us feel small.
Impermanence is an integral part of suffering, because all factors of experience are transitory, and therefore no good thing can last. We crave and cling to objects, beliefs, power and people believing that this will bring us happiness, but their loss, or fear of their loss, is a continual source of anxiety and dissatisfaction.
As our cravings and aversions are instinctive and deeply rooted, the Buddha understood that irrespective of our intellectual understanding, we will continually fall back into treating life as a struggle to get what we want, and to push away what we don’t want. We need therefore to change our cognitive processes. To this end the Buddha developed a method of ethical conduct and mental practice known as the Eightfold Path, whose veracity he said could be proven by its capacity to liberate one from ‘greed, hatred and delusion’, i.e. the suffering caused by the desires and aversions that arise from ignorance of the true nature of reality. The Eightfold Path consists of: right view (understanding), right intention, right speech, right livelihood, right action, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
The third mark of existence, after impermanence and suffering, is ‘No Self’. This concept also arises from the idea of conditional arisings, for if all things are impermanent, there cannot be a permanent, unchanging ‘Self’. Of course the Buddha accepted that an individual has continuity from one moment to the next, provided by such things as memory, emotional patterns, habitual ways of thinking, desires and aversions etc. These create the personality. However, a person is just this, a collection of changing and interacting mental and physical processes, with characteristic patterns re-occurring over time, but lacking anything which is fixed or autonomous.
This idea that there is no enduring core substance, but that we are but composed of many different, related, and yet constantly changing elements was much later expressed by the Scottish philosopher David Hume as follows:
"We are never intimately conscious of anything but a particular perception; man is a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement".
Hume's use of the word bundle has given rise in Western philosophy for this concept to be referred to as the 'Bundle Theory of Self', which can be contrasted with the 'Pearl Theory of Self', the idea that we have some unchanging essence that survives from birth to death, and possibly beyond.
Over time the idea of no-self got extended by generations of Buddhist thinkers into what is now known as the concept of ‘Emptiness’ (Sunyata). This takes the underlying idea of non-self and applies it to all things. To quote the Dalai Lama:
"One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own experience in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possessed self-enclosed, definable, discrete and enduring reality. For instance, if we examine our own conception of selfhood, we will find that we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego, independent of the physical and mental elements that constitute our existence. The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error but also the basis for attachment, clinging and the development of our numerous prejudices. According to the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To intrinsically possess such independent existence would imply that all things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with or exert influence on any other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect – turn a key in a car, the starter motor turns the engine over, spark plugs ignite and fuel begins to burn. Yet in a universe of self-contained, inherently existing things, these events could never occur! So effectively, the notion of intrinsic existence is incompatible with causation; this is because causation implies contingency and dependence, while anything that inherently existed would be immutable and self-enclosed. In the theory of emptiness, everything is argued as merely being composed of dependently related events; of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in dynamic and constantly changing relations. Thus, things and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence."
(From ‘The Universe in a Single Atom’)
Like many religions Buddhism demands a high degree of ethical conduct from its members. The Buddha's teaching on karma (literally “Action”) asserts that people reap what they sow, if not in this life then in a future one. Good actions lead to a good rebirth, bad actions lead to a bad rebirth. Whether an action is good or bad depends primarily on the intention behind it. Karma is a universal principle, which means that the universe is essentially a just place. Each person is responsible for their own destiny. No one (or god) can save anyone else.
Three parts of the eightfold path specifically relate to ethical behaviour: right speech, right action, right livelihood. Ethical conduct is also laid down by the five precepts: to abstain from taking life, to abstain from taking what is not given, to abstain from sexual misconduct, to abstain from false speech. and to abstain from intoxicants.
How We Know What We Know
As well as the nature of existence explained by dependent origination (the Buddhist ontology) there is a Buddhist theory how we acquire knowledge of the world (a Buddhist epistemology). This has been described as a form of pragmatic empiricism. Empiricism being the theory that knowledge comes via sensory experience. Pragmatism being the theory that something is true not because it necessarily corresponds to an external reality, but because it is practical, for example because it predicts how the minds responds to experience. The importance of this for Buddhism is that if we are to see things as they truly are we need to understand our cognitive faculties, how our mind continually ‘manufactures’ things, which then become the object of cravings and desires.
Buddhism has a model of the mental process based on what are called the five aggregates (skandhas) – form (or matter), sensation, perception, volitional reaction and consciousness. Form includes the physical world, the material body and the physical sense organs. Volitional reactions are the mental activity that takes place in the mind, leading to the formation of intentions.
There are six senses, the five Western traditional ones (seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling) plus mental consciousness. Mental consciousness is included because the inputs to the mind include our thoughts and emotions.
A tangible example of the five aggregations in action for someone with toothache would be:
- Matter - The tooth as physical matter.
- Sensation - Pain as a feeling.
- Perception - The ideation of the tooth and the perception of pain.
- Volitional reactions. - Resentment of pain and the desire for physical well being.
- Consciousness of all of the above.
Perception is the moment when we apprehend phenomena as things. That is to say it is the process of discrimination when the feeling is identified (named) and transformed into a mental object (or objects). It is the process by which a model of ‘present reality' is created in the mind. Once a perception is established the mind responds to it. In Buddhist thought the response can be one of three kinds – positive, negative or neutral. Positive reactions involve desire and grasping, negative reactions involve aversion and pushing away.
Both positive and negative reactions in turn give rise to new thoughts and emotions, which when perceived give rise to further volitional reactions. We therefore become involved in a continuous cognitive cycle, fuelled by our volitional reactions. A cycle of desire and aversion, which the Buddha said is the cause of our suffering. The aim of Buddhist practice is to break this cycle by modifying one’s volitional reactions, so that they are neutral. In the example of the tooth this would mean registering the perception of pain and noting what it is, but not responding to it with resentment and the desire for physical well being, knowing that it is impermanent.
In summary we can say that although the Buddha refrained from metaphysical speculation for its own sake, his teaching’s rest upon the following philosophical ideas:
- All things are the effects of causes and the causes of effects.
- All things are transitory.
- All things are devoid of a substantial self.
Bedsides these ontological principles the Buddha also had a theory of how our cognitive processes work, and how these processes are connected to suffering.