Buddhism: Central Doctrines | 3


Central Doctrines

As Buddhism gained followers and monks began to form distinct groups, often united on the basis of doctrinal commonalities and matters of monastic discipline, Buddhism was marked by a doctrinal explosion.

By the first millennium of the Common Era, substantial new texts began to appear:

- commentaries on the Buddha’s sermons, new Vinaya texts, and entirely new texts that were claimed to have been hidden by the Buddha himself.

This doctrinal profusion is truly one of the hallmarks of Buddhism.
That said, however, certain key doctrines also are shared by all Buddhists.

Underlying virtually all of Buddhism is the basic doctrine of Samsāra, which Buddhism shares with Hinduism:

Samsāra is really a fundamental worldview or ethos, an understanding of the world that holds that all beings, including animals, are part of an endless (and beginningless) cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

Furthermore, Buddhism holds that the physical universe is itself made up of infinite world systems, spread out infinitely in space, and that these world systems, like the individual person, are also subject to the cycle of birth and rebirth.

It was, in many ways, the realization of the horror of Samsāra that led to the Upanishads and the śramaṇa movements. These movements attempted to devise a religious mode of action and thought that would provide a way out of this endless cycle of rebirth.

The Buddhist view of the cosmos is predicated on Samsāra and holds that there are both different world systems and different realms that are arranged in a tripartite structure:

1. the “sense-desire” realm at the bottom,
2. the “pure form” realm above that, and
3. the “formless” realm at the top.

Within these 3 divisions are further sub-realms into which a being can be reborn:

1. human realm,
2. animal realm,
3. hungry ghost (preta) realm,
4. various hells,
5. demigod realms
6. deva (divine) realms.

Although it is not the highest realm, the human realm is considered the most promising because in this realm are both suffering, which acts as a motivation to advance, and free will, which enables humans to act on this impulse.

It is important to note that Buddhism holds that even the divine beings, despite their power, are subject to the laws of Samsāra.

Karma (which means “act” or “deed”), another concept shared with Hinduism, is the linchpin of the whole religious system of Buddhism, in that karma is what determines the quality of each rebirth and keeps the individual in the Samsāra.

On its most basic level, karma is the natural law of cause and effect, inherent in the very structure of the world, a cumulative system in which good acts produce good results, bad acts bad results.

Beings are then reborn in good or bad realms, depending on their cumulative karma in each birth.

Karma is frequently described in Buddhist texts as being a seed that will eventually grow fruit, which is, naturally, dependent on what sort of seed was sown.

The Buddhist understanding of karma, though, further stipulates that it is not just the act that determines the karmic result but also the motivation behind the act.

Thus, good acts done for the wrong reason can produce negative karmic results, and likewise bad acts that might have been done for good reasons (or accidentally) do not necessarily produce negative karmic results.

Indeed, Buddhism holds that bad thoughts are every bit as detrimental as intentional bad actions.

Negative karma is most typically created through intentionally harming other beings and through greed.

Positive karma is most easily created through compassionate acts and thoughts and through giving selflessly (which is, ultimately, motivated by compassion).

The doctrine of impermanence (anitya) is rooted in the 4 visions that prompted Siddhārtha to abandon his life in the palace:

What he realized, when he saw old age, disease, and death, was that all beings are in a fundamental state of flux and, ultimately, decay.

This is, in an important sense, a fundamental corollary to the reality of Samsāra—the human being, just as the world, is constantly evolving, decaying, and reforming.

Furthermore, it is the failure to recognize this flux that causes beings to suffer, since they grasp on to that which is impermanent—life, love, material objects, and so on— wishing it will last.

The Buddha condenses this basic idea in a simple pronouncement (in Pali):
yad aniccam tam dukkhaṁ (whatever is impermanent is suffering).

Since everything is necessarily impermanent, then everything ultimately involves suffering, which he succinctly expresses in the phrase sabbam dukkha (everything is suffering).

The doctrine of no self (anātman; Pali, anatta) is frequently misunderstood in the West:

The Buddha does not mean that human beings have no personality but, rather, that because everything in the world is impermanent, there can be no permanent self.

In this way Buddhism significantly breaks from Hindu doctrine, which holds that there does exist a permanent self that is reborn time and time again in Samsāra.

But if there is no permanent self, what is it that is reborn? It is karmic residue alone.

In his second sermon, the Buddha explains that what we think of as the self is only a collection of personality traits (skandhas):

They create the impression that there are both objects to be perceived and a person to perceive the objects, when in fact all of these objects are impermanent, constantly changing.

One of the clearest expressions of this basic Buddhist idea is demonstrated in a conversation between the monk Nāgasena and King Milinda, contained in the Milindapañha:

Nāgasena uses the example of a chariot to illustrate no self,

explaining to Milinda that although one can point to, ride, or see a chariot, it only exists insofar as it is a collection of parts—axles, wheels, reins, and so on—

- and that since no single part can be called the chariot, there is no essential, independent thing called a chariot, just as there is no essential, independent self.

Often called “the chain of conditioned arising” or “the chain of becoming,” pratītya-samutpāda (Pali, Paṭiccasamuppāda) is broken into 12 links and is one of the most important Buddhist doctrines, one about which Buddha’s disciple Sāriputta says,

Whoever understands conditioned arising understands the dharma.”

This is a more elaborate understanding of karma and Samsāra, a vision of cause and effect in which everything in the world is dependent on some other thing for its existence, succinctly expressed in this simple formula, which occurs in any number of Pali texts:

When this is, that is / This arising, that arises /
When this is not, that is not / This ceasing, that ceases

In other words, one thing begets another. Birth begets life, which begets decay, which begets death, which begets birth, and around and around.

To get out of the circle, one must break the chain somewhere, most efficiently at its weakest link, ignorance, which is done by applying oneself to mastering the dharma.

The Four Noble Truths is really the doctrinal foundation of Buddhism, a kind of basic blueprint of the Buddha’s teachings, delivered in his first sermon at Sarnath after attaining enlightenment.

The 1st Noble Truth, suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha), posits that suffering exists in the world.
This we see in the story of Siddhārtha in the palace:

The young prince is made aware that the world is not all wonderful, as it appears to be in the palace, but in fact that the rosy life was just an illusion.

In the first sermon, the Buddha says that birth is duhkha, old age is duhkha, sickness is duhkha, death is duhkha—in fact, everything is duhkha, including things that seem to be pleasurable.

The first Noble Truth is intended not to engender a pessimistic worldview in Buddhists but, rather, to alert them to the reality of the world and to promote a clear, truthful view of that world.

Furthermore, the response to the reality of suffering, as we see clearly in the Buddha’s own desire to realize and share the dharma, is to show compassion (karuṇā) and kindness (maitrī) to all living beings.

The second Noble Truth is the arising (samudaya) of suffering:

Since suffering exists, the Buddha posits, it must have a cause, which is most simply expressed as taṇhā (thirst or desire). This thirst takes many forms: the desire for life, for things, for love.

Although on its face this, too, may seem to engender a pessimistic worldview, in which the individual must stifle all sensual pleasure,

it is important again to stress that the Buddha advocates a middle path, between sensual indulgence and extreme asceticism.

Pleasurable experiences should be experienced for what they are, without grasping:

Indeed, the Buddha pronounces that it is precisely because humans mindlessly grasp things and experiences, always rushing to the next, that they fail to fully experience their lives, including that which is pleasurable.

The point then is not to deny the sensual but to fully experience sensations and thoughts as they are happening.

The third Noble Truth is cessation (nirodha) of suffering. Just as the Buddha saw that if suffering exists it must logically have an origin, so, too, must it have an end:

The end of duhkha is, logically, related to its source; nirodha comes as a result of ending craving, of stopping the grasping after things that are impermanent. When one stops grasping, one stops generating karma, and it is karma and karma alone that keeps beings trapped in Samsāra.

The absolute elimination of karma is Nirvāna, eternal freedom from the bondage of Samsāra.

Of all Buddhist concepts, Nirvāna has perhaps been the most misunderstood:

Although it is frequently equated with heaven or described as a state of bliss, Nirvāna is actually the absence of all states:

The Sanskrit word literally means “to blow out, to extinguish,” as one would blow out a candle. Nirvāna then refers to the absolute elimination of karma.

Since karma is what keeps us in Samsāra, what constitutes our very being, the elimination of karma logically means an elimination of being. This is the end of duhkha, the end of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, beyond all states of existence.

Despite the fact that Nirvāna is the Buddhist understanding of ultimate salvation, the Buddha himself had little to say on the topic, often warning his followers of the dangers of grasping on to the end goal at the expense of living a focused, compassionate life:

He describes it as the “extinction of desire, the extinction of illusion” and also as the “abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these 5 Aggregates of attachment; that is the cessation of duhkha.”

When asked once if Nirvāna were a state or not a state of existence, however, the Buddha responded that this was an unanswerable question and left it at that.

The point again is that the focus should be on mindful progression on the path, not on the destination:

The person who spends too much time obsessively focusing on Nirvāna—or on any aspect of existence or doctrinal complexity—is, the Buddha said,

like the man who, upon being shot by a poison arrow, asks who shot it, how did he aim, what sort of wood the arrow was made of, and so on:

The point is that the man must first remove the arrow before the poison kills him.

That said, however, later Buddhist schools inevitably took up the question of Nirvāna, frequently engaging in long philosophical analysis of the possibility of describing it in positive terms.

In some Mahayana schools Nirvāna is, in fact, often described as a kind of state of blissful calm.

The fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path (mārga; Pali, magga):

Often envisioned as the Wheel of the Dharma with 8 spokes, this is the middle path between extreme asceticism and extreme hedonism, a systematic and practical way to realize the truth and eliminate suffering.

The 8-fold Path is traditionally divided into 3 distinct phases that should, ideally, be progressively mastered:

The first phase is śīla (ethics) and involves purifying one’s outward behaviour (and motivations for such behaviour). The Buddha describes 3 elements in śīla (the 1-3 steps of the 8-fold Path):

(1) right action, (2) right speech, and (3) right livelihood.

Next comes samādhi (meditation), which is broken down, likewise, into 3 elements:

(4) right effort, (5) right mindfulness, and (6) right concentration.

The third phase is prajñā (wisdom) and is broken down into 2 elements:

(7) right understanding and (8) right intentions.

Prajña is not just knowledge or things one learns:
Rather, it is a profound way of understanding being in the world.

Prajña is often described as a sword that cuts through all illusion, a mental faculty that enables one to fully experience the world as it is without grasping.

A later Mahayana school uses an image of geese reflected on a perfectly still pond to describe this state:

The average person looks at the pond and, upon seeing the reflection of a flock of geese, immediately looks up.

But the person who has perfected prajñā does not look up but, rather, fully experiences the thing that he or she is seeing in the moment, the reality of the reflection, without distractions.

In a sense such a person does not think at all but only sees the world as it is—what the Buddha called yathā-bhūtaṁ (in a state of perpetual flux).

With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism sometime shortly after the turn of the first millennium, new and increasingly more complex doctrines emerged, extending the original teachings of the Buddha:

In particular, new understandings of both the character and activity of the Buddha emerged, and new doctrines evolved that held that the Buddha had not, in fact, completely left the world when he died and attained Nirvāna but was still an active presence in the world.

This is first articulated in the doctrine of the various bodies (kayas) of the Buddha:

The first of these bodies—which are not, in fact, conceived of strictly as physical forms but rather more like the different ways in which the Buddha continues to be present in the world—is the Dharmakaya, or “body of the teachings.”

This is the Buddha’s form as wisdom, truth, and the real nature of reality (emptiness).
This is that which characterizes the Buddha as the Buddha.

Sometimes called Buddha-ness, Dharmakaya is the whole collection of wonderful qualities that are known as the Buddha. It also refers to the teachings, in their essence.

The second body is called the Nirmanakaya, or “transformation body” (also sometimes called the Rūpakaya, or “form body”). This is the earthly form, or manifestation, of the Buddha.

Finally there is a higher form of the Buddha called the Sambhogakaya, or “enjoyment body,” the form of the Buddha that those who have attained enlightenment enjoy and interact with.

Related to this idea of the multiple bodies of the Buddha was the emergence of the concept of the Bodhisattva—an enlightened being who works for the welfare of all those still caught in Samsāra—which is perhaps the hallmark of the Mahayana schools.

Although Bodhisattva was a common word in the earliest of Buddhist texts,

these pre-Mahayana schools held that once the Buddha had attained Enlightenment, he taught the dharma to his disciples and then, on his death, entered Nirvāna, or pari-Nirvāna, thus ending his existence in the realm of Samsāra forever.

The Buddha’s immediate disciples were known as Arhats (worthy ones) upon attaining enlightenment, and they too entered Nirvāna upon death.

The Mahayana, however, were critical of this position—
- they derisively called the Arhats Pratyekabuddhas, or “solitary Buddhas”—

- and posited that the Buddha and all other enlightenment beings postponed final Nirvāna out of their compassion for the sufferings of other beings,

choosing to remain in Samsāra to perfect their own Buddhahood and work for the benefit of all other beings, until each one attains enlightenment.

There are a number of important elements here:

For one thing, all beings were now conceived as at once having the innate potential to become a Buddha and also sharing in a kind of universal enlightenment as well.

The path then was reconceived as being the path of the Bodhisattva,

a path that takes many, many lives but is intent on developing Bodhichitta (the awakened mind and the very quality of enlightenment), a quality that fundamentally shifts one’s attention away from the self to a selfless concern for the well-being of others.

Each Bodhisattva takes a vow to help other beings and to continue to do so indefinitely, a vow that involves cultivating a set of 6—later expanded to 10—perfections, or paramitas.

The 10 perfections are

(1) dāna (generosity), (2) śīla (morality), (3) kṣānti (patience and forbearance),
(4) vīrya (vigour,), (5) dhyāna (meditation), (6) prajñā (wisdom),
(7) upāya (skilful means), (8) conviction, (9) strength, and (10) knowledge.

Once a Bodhisattva has mastered these 10 perfections, then he is fully realized as a Buddha.

With the rise of the ideal of the Bodhisattva came also the development of a complex pantheon of Enlightened Beings. Three of the most popular and most important Bodhisattvas are Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri.

Eventually the Buddha’s teachings will lose their potency owing to the natural decay of the world. When things become unbearable, Maitreya will be reborn and will provide for the welfare of all beings and promote a new set of teachings.

The quintessential Buddhist saviour figure and the embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteshvara is perhaps the most popular of all Bodhisattvas:

His name is significant: He is the “lord who sees all,” in the sense that he sees all suffering and responds immediately.

He saves us from dangers:

fire, drowning in a river, being lost at sea, murder, demonic attack, fierce beasts and noxious snakes or insects, legal punishment, attack by bandits, falling from steep precipices, extremes of weather, internecine civil or military unrest, and others.

Especially associated with wisdom, Manjushri is a key figure in numerous Mahayana scriptures, and he has been the focus of significant cultic activity throughout Mahayana Buddhist countries:

The name Manjushri means “gentle glory,” although he is called by many names and epithets, some of which refer to his relation to speech (Vagiśvara, “lord of speech”) or to his disarming youth (Kumārabhūta, “in the form of a youth” or “having become the crown prince”).

Because he is destined soon to become a Buddha, Manjushri is often called “prince of the teachings.”

A concept that first appears in the Prajña-paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts, the idea of emptiness (śūnyatā) extends the Buddha’s teachings about dependent origination and posits that all phenomena are dependent for their being on some other thing:

The 1stcentury thinker Nagarjuna introduced the most radical understanding of this concept,

arguing that just as the terms “long” and “short” take on meaning only in relation to each other and are themselves devoid of independent qualities (longness or shortness),

so too do all phenomena (all dharmas) lack their own being (svabhāva).

If a thing were to have an independent and unchanging own being, Nagarjuna reasons, then it would follow that it is neither produced nor existent, because origination and existence presuppose change and transience:

All things, physical as well as mental, can originate and develop
only when they are empty of their own being.

Nevertheless, Nagarjuna contends, elements do have what he calls a conventional reality, so that we still interact with them, think thoughts, and so on, even if ultimately they are empty of reality.

Related to this is the concept of skilful means, upāya, which refers to the Bodhisattva’s employment of whatever means are necessary to help beings toward enlightenment.

Language, for instance, is itself empty, in that it depends on external references to make sense, but language is necessary to communicate and is therefore a skilful means through which to spread the dharma.