What is Buddhism? What are the fundamentals of Buddhism, and are there any reasons a non-Buddhist should learn about the philosophy of this large religion? What is the goal of meditation, and does it work? I hope to impart a cursory introduction of the mythical history, basic philosophy of Buddhism, and mindfulness.
Let’s start with a quick biography of the founder, Gautama Buddha.
A Pleasurable Childhood, a Search for Spirituality
Siddartha Gautama lived somewhere between 6th-century BCE and the 4th-century BCE. He was a prince whose father wanted to protect him from the evil in the world. The king kept his son confined to the palace. Through his young life, he was given every comfort and luxury available: dancing, soft beds, abundant food, and riches. The illusion went so far as to eliminate the elderly and sick from his presence so that Gautama was constantly surrounded by beauty and youth.
One day, Gautama sneaks out of the palace with his charioteer, Channa. They ride through the streets and come across a leper. Gautama asks “What is wrong with that man?” Channa explains that people the man is sick and that many people get sick. Gautama is dismayed by this fact. Next, they come across an elderly man. Again, Gautama asks “What is wrong with that man?” The faithful charioteer replies, “He is old. Everyone ages and loses their beauty eventually.” Their next visit is to the funeral of a dead man. Channa explains death to Gautama, who has remained oblivious until now. Lastly, they see an ascetic. When Gautama asks about this man, Channa explains that this man has renounced worldly life for spiritual life. With his worldview shattered, Gautama insists that Channa lead him out of town. Gautama leaves his lavish life in search of a more spiritual existence.
Freshly departed from royal luxury, Gautama begins training under ascetics. He studies the Upanishads, a compilation of texts that comprise the core of Hindu philosophy. He learns yogic meditation, extreme fasting, and other ascetic methods meant to bring one to a spiritual existence. However, after studying with several teachers and learning several different practices, Gautama found himself unsatisfied.
The beginning of his life was plagued by sensual overindulgence while his ascetic life swung to an extreme of self-mutilation. Seeing the fault in both of these extremes, Gautama proposed the Madhyamāpratipad, or Middle Way. As described, this way involves not overindulging in pleasure, yet not going to extremes to avoid pleasure. Meditation is important, but one need not fast indefinitely in order to achieve a spiritual existence.
At the age of 35, Gautama did what he is most famous for doing. He decided to meditate under a Bodhi tree until he understood the true nature of suffering. Under the Bodhi tree, Gautama became enlightened, discovered the Four Noble Truths, and achieved nirvana, extinction of self. Gautama became the Buddha.
Overview of the Philosophy of Buddhism
Any understanding of Buddhism must begin with a statement of the Four Noble Truths. The easiest way to understand them is to place them in the form below:
- Suffering is inevitable
- The cause of suffering is desire
- Cease desire, and you cease suffering
- The Noble Eightfold Path eliminates desire
The first truth is axiomatic and meant to be self-evident. For someone living in ancient India, and even today, this truth stands. Until a utopian society exists, suffering will be inevitable. Even in a utopia, there will still be death, grief, old age, lamentation, and distress. It is universal enough to not need justification.
The second truth is a justified empirical assertion of the root cause of suffering, desire. The concept of desire is important. There are several interpretations that work in place of desire. It can be called attachment, craving, want, etc. One should not confuse pain with suffering. Pain is also inevitable, but suffering can be overcome using the Eightfold Path. One can have hunger pangs from lack of food, but it is a very different thing to suffer from hunger. Suffering involves want, the longing for food when you have none. You can also desire not to be in pain. This desire causes suffering over and beyond the physical pain of starvation.
Take another example that might be more relatable. After dating someone for years, two lovers part ways. One person attaches themselves to the other, and still longs to be with them. The desire to be with someone who you can’t be with is in itself the source of suffering. There is no physical pain anywhere to be found, yet suffering thrives in emotional heartbreak.
Even when one fulfills their desires, one does not avoid suffering. Desire is not problematic from moment to moment as long as one can get what one desires. At best, life becomes a meaningless rat race in which a person is always chasing after the next desire to arise. At worst, desire creates a persistent source of suffering throughout a painful life.
Let’s pause on this point. If you are think the cessation of desire is nihilistic, you wouldn’t be the first to have this impression of Buddhism. What is life without love, passion, and hope? Don’t these feelings drive life and humanity forward? Apologetics aside, the devout Buddhist can still feel love, passion, hope, pain, hurt, and more. In theory, the successful practitioner of the Eightfold Path experiences love, joy, and pain intensely. The difference between a normal individual and the Buddhist is that the latter individual does not cling to these feelings, hoping that they never leave. Buddhist psychology and mindfulness have a rich history. Mindfulness training is perhaps one of the most practical and rewarding features of Buddhism, and can be easily adapted to anyone’s life, regardless of religious belief. More on mindfulness in a bit.
The third truth is just the conclusion of the syllogism presented in the first two premises. If you eliminate desire, you eliminate suffering. How do you eliminate desire? The Eightfold Path. What justifies this assertion? The answer, as the Buddha claims in a famous sutra, is simply that the process works. He even argues with a loyal follower on this point by asserting that if the program of the Eightfold Path doesn’t work, an individual should not follow it and should follow a different path taught by a different teacher. There is crumb of pluralism, pragmatism, and empiricism in the Buddha’s approach to spiritual enlightenment.
I still haven’t explained what the Noble Eightfold Path is, though. A discussion of all the spokes that make up the wheel of the Eightfold Path would be tedious and esoteric in a blog post like this, so rather than give a detailed account of the Noble Eightfold Path, I will show the 8 parts that make the dharma wheel of the Eightfold Path.
Take the following sentence as a demonstration of this principle.
DON’T THINK OF A PINK ELEPHANT.
Unless you are well trained in mindfulness, you can’t help but think of a pink elephant. If you try to think of something other than a pink elephant, you are aware that the only reason you are thinking of something else is because you are trying not to think of the pink elephant. Despite your best intentions and self-control, you are still thinking of the pink elephant. This is just one of many examples in which it is clear that one has no control over one’s thoughts.
This is the primary phenomenon that mindfulness training attempts to address. While the origins of meditation and mindfulness training are meant to eliminate desire by eliminating thought, it can be used by non-Buddhists to quiet the mind and take stock of the contents of consciousness. If one stops thought, what is left of the self? The answer, according to Buddhists, several philosophers, psychologists, and more, is nothing. In fact, it isn’t even that the self is eliminated, but rather that the fact of the illusion of the self becomes apparent.
Take a moment and try it. Sit down somewhere quiet, free from interruption, and close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply. Breathe in (1-2-3) and out (1-2-3). While breathing, begin to observe your thoughts. Don’t try to think of anything, just observe whatever might arise in your consciousness. As you begin to observe your thoughts, you might notice they go in an unexpected direction. You may end up down a rabbit hole, with no idea how your thoughts got there. If you find yourself focusing on a particular thought, bring yourself back to task, let the thought go, try to just observe the contents of your mind as you continue breathing slowly, deeply, evenly. Do this for about 5 minutes, and you will find yourself exhausted (or at least I did when I first tried it).
One of the things you might notice is that at first it seems like you are very easily able to keep your mind empty. It might seem like you aren’t thinking of something, but when you continue a few moments longer, it becomes clear that thoughts are constantly running through your mind. I’m not an expert (or even particularly knowledgeable) on this subject, but I’ve been told and read from various sources that it takes many years of rigorous meditation to reach a state of no-thought, where one truly does not have any thought in consciousness.
The trained Buddhist takes these thoughts and mental states for what they are: intransient, impermanent, uncontrolled, and constant. Imagine watching a fish swim by you in water. You swim and suddenly find yourself aware of the fish swimming across your visual field. You watch the fish as it swims by, but eventually it swims far enough away that you no longer take note of it. You don’t linger on the fish, but continue swimming and experiencing what is in front of you as you swim.
Like watching the fish, a Buddhist in meditation (or anyone practicing mindfulness training) observes thoughts as they arise, takes note of them, but then lets them pass on their own course. She doesn’t focus on any single thought, doesn’t let her mind travel down a rabbit hole of what-ifs and worries. Thoughts come, thoughts go. There is no need to do more than observe these thoughts as they make their way across one’s consciousness.