Monday, July 02, 2007

Brief Look At Buddhism - Part 1: Basic Tenets

Having visited Sri-Lanka whose majority are Buddhists, I developed a small curiosity to learn about that religion. My first impression was that Buddhism was unlike anyother religion I have known before. Buddhism started 2500 years ago, around 500 years before Christianity.

The first important observation is that Buddhism is an atheist religion compatible with atheism. The Buddha (literally means "The Enlightened One") denied the existence of God as a supreme being that controls our humans' fate to either Heaven or Hell. Hedonism is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism. The goal of Buddhism is the state of eternal pleasure (called "Nirvana"), which can be achieved through methods described in Buddhism. The Nirvana idea is similar to the idea of Heaven in most religions (strictly speaking, religions like Christianity and Islam that advocate Heavens are considered as Hedonist religions). But unlike Christianity, Nirvana can be achieved through "personal effort", NOT bestowed by an upper authority called God!!

Buddhism introduces the concept of rebirth. Nirvana and rebirth are interconnected. Rebirth is the equivalent of suffering. Nirvana is the equivalent of the end of suffering, which is the goal of Buddhism. Buddhism starts with few axioms (assumptions) called "The Four Noble Truths". They are called "Noble", because they make the person who understands them a Noble person (at least that's what is claimed).

The first Noble Truth is that "Life means Suffering": Buddha based his visions on the indisputable(?) fact that any person who lives has to suffer one way or another at some point. The second Noble Truth is that "Suffering is caused by Desire": Buddha elaborates on the first truth and tries to explain why people suffer. Desiring transient (earthly) things causes suffering. So if someone wants to get something, but they don't get it, they will feel the suffering. Similarly, the process of acquiring things includes suffering. To get something, you have to pay something... Finally, it is by human nature that we have a never ending desire, that is whenever we achieve one thing, we will start looking for the next thing!! This concludes that life is a series of endless suffering. That's why Buddha has said: "Contentment is the greatest wealth".

The third Noble Truth claims that ending of suffering is possible by eliminating its cause (ie. releasing oneself from seeking earthly things). This axiom is simply conforming to the cause and effect philosophy. The fourth Noble Truth, is that to be able to release yourself from suffering, you can follow "The Eightfold Path", which is a path to the Nirvana.

Buddhism states that desire to live causes a person to live again through a process called "Rebirth". Since living, by the Buddhist definition, is equivalent to suffering, then being reborn means the continuation of suffering. Rebirth can be viewed as transferring the mental energy from a deceased body, to a newly formed living form (fertilized eggs in the case of humans). It is believed that a human can be reborn as a different species on earth, species in distant planets in this galaxy, or even a completely different dimension than this universe. But when a person eliminates his desire to live, he will not be reborn, and thus reaching a state of inexistence... Such state is free from suffering, thus is considered as the goal of the Buddhist. This state is called Nirvana.

Edit: Since some variations of Buddhism accept theism, the general statement "Buddhism is atheist" cannot hold. Although it can be noted that the most spread variations of Buddhism are atheist, particularly Theravada variation which is the oldest and most conforming to the original teachings of The Buddha.

16 comments:

No_Angel said...

nice intro into the four noble truths.
a few notes atheistic religion is a misnomer since atheism doesn't adhere to a doctrine. There are two major branches the Mahayana (dharma) which is considered theistic, and Theravada (which is what i assume ur referring to since it is whats practiced in sri lanka while the former is practiced in north & east Asia.
even so buddhism is open to the idea of god and adopts gods of local tradition (tibetan 6 realms of god) but the difference is that ex nihil attribute of the abrahamic god.
personal i find esoteric budhism pretty interesting so i hope u'll include that later on.

Devil's Mind said...

As far as I have read, The Buddha the founder of Buddhism challenged the existence of god, and was very critical to the concept of an Omnipotent God.

And yes, you are right, most books I found are based on Theravada version of Buddhism.

The reason that some variations of Buddhism are theistic is mainly due to the influence of Hinduism. Hinduism is a different religion than Buddhism, but it has influenced Buddhism by its theistic concepts. (I cannot verify this, so consider it with a dose of skepticism.)

The Observer said...

I have been waiting for this!

Reading this post haved me thinking, if life on earth is suffering, and if the goal of Buddhism to reach inexistance, which can be literally true if in truth we don't have souls which is a big possibility.

So you can easily reach Nirvana if you suicide!

Maybe a bit of suffering is good, and here it points us towards Christianity!

Yazan Ashqar said...

Good post. I've been interested in Buddhism for a while, though i think that if everybody turned buddhist, life would be really boring. peacful philosophies and religions could share the same thing. Anyhow, There is something that interests me in Buddhism, which their reliance on numbers in many aspects of their philosophy, Namely, the numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10, while other religions have the number 7 sacred. For Example:

Number 3:
- Three Lifetimes
- Three Bodies of the Buddha
- Three Evil Paths
- Three karmas
- Three Poisons
- Three Pure Land Sutras
- Three Realms
- Three Refuges
- Three Vehicles

Number 4:
- Four Aspects of Buddha Dharma:
- Four Elements
- Four Fruits of the Arhat
- Four Great Bodhisattva
- Four Great Vows
- Four Noble Truths
- Four Pure Lands
- Four Reliance (Standards of Right Dharma)
- Four unlimited Mind
- Four Virtues
- Four Ways of Learning Buddhist Dharma
- Four Wisdoms of a Buddha
- Four Groups
- Four Siddhanta

Number 5:
- Five Natures:
- Five Offences:
- Five precepts: prohibiting:
- Five Skandhas:
- Five constituents of the personality:
- Five Corruptions

Number 6:
- Six Directions
- Six Dusts
- Six Organs
- Six Paramitas
- Six Paths of Existance

Number 10:
- Ten Expanded Directions
- Ten Sins:
- Ten Great Vows
- Ten Precepts
- Ten Stages of Bodhisattva's Progress
- Ten Virtues
- Ten Stages before Attainment

If anybody found more combinations,,let me know.

Devil's Mind said...

Just because I have five fingers on each hand and two balls doesn't mean that for me five and two are sacred numbers!! So I don't see the numbers as described by you to have any significance beyond counting....

Buddhism might have meanings for numbers, but those things you mentioned are not enough proof in that regard - in my opinion.

Anyways, since you are interested in Buddhism, you might help by pointing out any possible misconceptions I might have presented, or another type of insight you might have.

Observer said: "So you can easily reach Nirvana if you suicide!" - Based on my personal understanding, and the top view of the Four Noble Truths, I would say, YES - if you lose the will to live and commit suicide, you shouldn't be reborn.

"Maybe a bit of suffering is good," - A very tough question, especially after knowing Buddhism, it seems as a more complex question. We might consider that without knowledge of suffering, we cannot know happiness. So maybe suffering is sometimes good, because it enables us to experience happiness. So as you said, its a "Maybe"!!

Yazan Ashqar said...

Since Buddhism is a man created religion (if we assume that the others are from God), then the redundancy of numbers in several forms and how they are used in their philosophic teahings should have a meaning (i didn't say they are sacred, i wanted to find out, i said the number 7 is considered sacred, much like the golden ratio, which can be found everywhere in nature).

In buddhism, they consider for example, 108 to be a sacred number. Check these links: (http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1461749) and ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/108_(number) ).

In Buddhism, the number 4 holds a special place, The Damba Tree of Life has four limbs and from its roots four sacred streams of Paradise that represent the the four boundless wishes of compassion, affection, love impartiality. It also represents the four directions of the heart as well.

I found that actually number 7 has also an importance in buddhism. Seven is the number of ascent and of ascending to the higest; attaining the center. The seven steps of Buddha symbolize the ascent of the seven cosmic stages transcending time and space. The seven-storied prasada at Borobadur is a sacred mountain and axis mundi, culminating in the transcendent North, reaching the realm of Buddha. and so on.

Red Queen said...

Devil's Mind interpretation of Buddhism is so fraught with mis-interpretation that anyone truly wanting to learn about Buddhism would be sorely led astray.

If the reader wants a basic, straightforward presentation of the basics of buddhism, I would recommend a read through of information found at the following site: http://zencomp.com/greatwisdom/ebud/ebdha104.htm

Personal interpretations should be viewed with caution and questions directed to someone who actually has a much clearer understanding of the subject.

It's site's like this one by Devils mind that lead to the Chinese whispers form of spiritual understanding, which is no understanding at all.

Devil's Mind said...

Thank you Red Queen for your input. Well, sure, I am not a specialist in Buddhism... All I did was read the very basics, and made (my own) conclusions based on the basics of Buddhist thought.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what kind of books you are reading, but Nirvana is a state of enlightenment, beyond the sufferings of samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth. Enlightenment is completely different from hedonism.

Devil's Mind said...

Didn't The Buddha describe Nirvana as a state of happiness?! Or at least a state where there is no suffering?!

If the answer is yes to any of the two above questions, and if Nirvana is the goal of the Buddhism, then without a doubt, Buddhism is a Hedonist religion.

Yes, maybe enlightenment and hedonism are different things... But maybe enlightenment is one way to achieve happiness, and thus accomplishing hedonism.

Anonymous said...

Nope.. Suiciding won't bring nirvana. If you read further about Buddhism you will find out that committing a suicide is a great sin. According to Buddhism it is really hard to have a human birth. So it is like demolishing a thing what we have achieved so hardly. However, in Buddhism, nirvana means freedom from the constant cravings that we experience in life.

It means freedom everything that leads us to dissatisfaction, like desire, jealousy, greed, ignorance, etc. After a person attains this sense of freedom, he moves into a state of total ecstasy. All karmic debts get settled and he doesn't need to go through the cycle of birth and death again.

Yeah i agree about your point the number thing. & yes again. It is the only religion ( actually it is a philosophy ) which doesn't have a GOD. It gives priority to think and believe in ourselves. Freedom to make decisions. Think good and do good things will bring you merits. Thinking bad and doing bad things will gain sins. Buddhism gives more priority to intelligence. You can learn and understand logically what Buddha has told. It is up to you whether to follow or not.

TK said...

Suicide is what ISLAM believes will let one attain "heaven", LOL!

Buddhism's first law is basically "thou shalt not kill". Anyone else OR yourself. It is negative karma and would result in complete loss of merit and more lifetimes of suffering. Human birth which is the only way to achieve enlightenment is considered a precious gift.

Enlightenment is not "heaven" nor is it ecstasy, it's complete understanding and thus freedom from suffering, and therefore total peace.

Buddhism of today doesn't claim there is no "God", it is more agnostic, in that there may be an omnipotent creator and there may not be. It is not a faith so much as a mind training practice, a philosophy. It provides tools and methods to help one find peace in this lifetime. Some forms of Buddhism have incorporated previous deity aspects of the animistic religions of the locale to which they were imported, just like Christianity incorporated much pagan belief into it's various doctrines in order to more easily convert the heathen masses.

The four noble truths don't "make one noble" they are noble because they are the most basic truths of life. The terminology is more comparable to "The Golden Rule" : is it really "gold"? Your opinion that it makes people who believe it "noble" is a great example of ego self and the suffering it causes. Life is suffering means that as long as we are alive and live with an ego self and dualistic thinking (good/bad) we will suffer because we will crave ground and balance. Please look into that a little more thoroughly.

Anonymous said...

Enlightenment is not anylyzing any of these points.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your conclusion that suicide if done will fully leads to nirvana is a contradiction to the Budhism principle it self. If you look at the 8th fold paths right action is one and right action prohibit taking of lives including own (suicide). So what do you say?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where you got your ideas about Buddhism, but no matter which form of Buddhism you look at, it is absolutely NOT about hedonism and eternal pleasure.

Sorry - you've got it completely and utterly wrong.

Anonymous said...

The blog entry has many errors; recommendation: remove it and re-write it once you have more understanding (the blog entry does nothing to help in providing information on buddhism). Some points:
1. Buddha didn't deny the existence of God. Buddha's teachings did not address the existence or non-existence of God.
2. Buddhism and Nirvana have nothing to do with hedonism or eternal pleasure.
3. Nirvana is not similar to heaven.
3. Rebirth is not the equivalent of suffering.
4. They're not called 'noble' because they make the person who understands them 'noble'.
5. Rebirth is not transferring the mental energy.
6. 'Inexistence' is not non-existence.
7. Buddhism is not a philosophy (as one poster put it); it's a religion. It's not about 'mind training', albeit mind-training is at the core of some of its techniques.