SCIENTIFIC OUTLOOK ON BUDDHISM (SAMYA MUKHERJEE)
GAUTAM BUDDHA AS A PHILOSOPHER
Gautam Buddha is considered to be one of the most important Asian thinker and spiritual master of all time and he contributed to many areas of Philosophy, including Epistemology, Metaphysics and Ethics. Buddha’s teachings formed the foundation of Buddhist philosophy, initially developed in South Asia, then later in the rest of Asia. Buddha expressed his philosophy when he said, “I teach only two things – the nature of suffering and the cessation of suffering”. He also taught the famous ‘Four Noble Truths’ and ‘Eightfold Path’, which allows people to achieve enlightenment. Philosophy is central to all forms of Buddhism because it claims that the main problems of life, stem from the mind and thus understanding is the main focus of all religious activities. However, calling Buddhism a philosophy is pretty accurate. Lord Buddha’s teachings are referred to as the ‘Dhamma’ (or Dharma in Sanskrit), which literally means the ultimate truth or the truth about reality. Lord Buddha encourages the followers to investigate his teachings for themselves.
Buddhist philosophy refers to the philosophical investigations and systems of inquiry that developed among various Buddhist schools in India following the ‘Parinirvana’ (i.e. death) of Gautam Buddha and later spread throughout Asia. The Buddhist path combines both philosophical reasoning and meditation. The Buddhist traditions present a multitude of Buddhist paths to liberation and Buddhist thinkers in India. Subsequently East Asia have covered the topics, varied as Phenomenology, Ethics, Ontology, Epistemology, Logic and Philosophy of time in their analysis of these paths. Early Buddhism was based on empirical evidence, gained by the sense organs (ayatana) and Lord Buddha seems to have retained a sceptical distance from certain metaphysical questions, refusing to answer them because they were not conducive to liberation but led instead to further speculation. A recurrent theme in Buddhist philosophy has been the rectification of concepts and the subsequent return to the Buddhist ‘Middle Way’. Particular points of Buddhist philosophy have often been the subject of disputes between different schools of Buddhism. These elaborations and disputes gave rise to various schools in early Buddhism of Abhidharma and to the Mahayana traditions such as Prajnaparamita, Madhyamaka, Buddha-nature and Yogacara.
Historical phases of Buddhist Philosophy : Edward Conze splits the development of Indian Buddhist philosophy into three phases –
1) The phase of the original doctrines derived from oral traditions that originated during the life of Gautam Buddha and are common to all later sects of Buddhism.
2) The second phase concerns non-Mahayana ‘scholastic’ Buddhism as evident in the Abhidharma texts beginning in the third century BCE that feature scholastic reworking and schematic classification of material in the sutras.
3) The third phase of development of Indian Buddhist philosophy concerns Mahayana metaphysical Buddhism, beginning in the late first century CE, which emphasizes monastic life and the path of a ‘bodhisattva’.
Various elements of these three phases are incorporated and further developed in the philosophy and world view of various sects of Buddhism that then emerged.
Philosophical Orientation : Philosophy in India was aimed mainly at spiritual liberation and had soteriological goals. In the study of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy in India, Peter Deller Santina wrote, “Attention must fire of all, be drawn to the fact that philosophical systems in India were seldom, if ever, purely speculative or descriptive. Virtually all the great philosophical systems of India : Sankhya Advaitavedanta, Madhyamaka and so forth, were concerned with providing a means to liberation or salvation. It was a tacit assumption with these systems that if their philosophy were correctly understood and assimilated, an unconditional state free of suffering and limitation could be achieved easily. If this fact is overlooked, as often happens as a result of the propensity engendered by formal Occidental Philosophy to consider the philosophical enterprise as a purely descriptive one, the real significance of Indian and Buddhist Philosophy will be missed.”
For the Indian Buddhist philosophers, the teachings of Gautam Buddha were not meant to be taken on faith alone, but to be confirmed by logical analysis (pramana) of the world. The early Buddhist texts mention that a person becomes a follower of Gautam Buddha’s teachings, after having pondered them over with wisdom and the gradual training also requires that a disciple investigate (upaparikkhati) and scrutinize (tuleti) the teachings. The Buddha also expected his disciples to approach him as a teacher in a critical fashion and scrutinize his actions and words, as shown in the ‘Vimamsaka Sutta’. About life, Gautam Buddha said, “No one can escape death and unhappiness. If people expect only happiness in life, they will be disappointed.” Things are actually not always the way we want them to be, but we can learn to understand them.
Buddhist schools and Abhidharma : The main Indian Buddhist philosophical schools practiced a form of analysis termed ‘Abhidharma’ which sought to systemize the teachings of the early Buddhist discourses (sutras). Abhidharma analysis broke down human experience into momentary phenomenal events or occurrences called ‘dharmas’. Dharmas are impermanent and dependent on other causal factors, they arise and pass as part of a web of other interconnected dharmas, and are never found alone. The Abhidharma schools held that the teachings of Gautam Buddha in the sutras were merely conventional, while the Abhidharma analysis was the ultimate truth (paramattha sacca), the way things really are when seen by an enlightened being. The Abhidharmic project has been likened as a form of Phenomenology or Processed Philosophy. Abhidharma philosophers not only outlined what they believed to be an exhaustive listing of dharmas or penomenal events but also the causal relations between them. In the Abhidharmic analysis, the only thing which is ultimately real is the interplay of dharmas in a causal stream; everything else is merely conceptual and nominal.
The Legacy of Gautam Buddha : It would be historically incorrect to say that Siddhartha Gautama saw himself as a religious leader or that he consciously set out to start a new religious movement. He considered himself a teacher who rejected the ways of traditional Hindu religious orthodoxy and offered his followers a different path. He considered the many Vedic rites and ceremonies to be pointless and abusive and he was also against the caste system, stressing the equality among all people. Siddhartha’s ideas have some similarities with the work of Kapila, an Indian sage who lived probably about two centuries earlier. Both were concerned with providing humanity with a relief from suffering. They discarded the remedies proposed by the Vedic rites, especially the sacrifices; they considered these rites to be cruel because of their strong connection with the slaughter of living beings. Both of them believed that knowledge and meditation were the true means of salvation. Also they both strived to attain a state of human perfection and their approach was purely agnostic. However, the parallels go no further. Kapila organised his views in a system of philosophy that has no hint of sympathy for mankind in general. The Buddha, on the other hand, delivered his messages with a living, all-embracing sympathy and deep concern for the poor and the oppressed. He preached in favour of the equality of men (which was largely forgotten in the Indian society during his time) and opposed inequalities and abuses of the caste system.
The meaning of the teachings and the messages of Lord Buddha is also a controversial topic. Some Buddhist schools say that its core is non-violence; others say compassion and some others say it is freedom from re-birth. There are also scholars who claim that Lord Buddha was looking to restore the pre-Vedic Indian religion, which was buried under centuries of distortion and dead ceremonials. Non-violence and compassion was one of the pillars of Jainism long after the times of Lord Buddha, while freedom from rebirth is presented in the Upanishads, also before the time of Lord Buddha. The one aspect of the message of Lord Buddha that seems original is humanism : The insight that human beings are ultimately responsible for their fate and that no supernatural forces, no magic rituals and no gods can be held accountable for our actions.
Lord Buddha, originally considered as a human being (wise and extra-ordinary, but only a man), gradually entered into the pantheon of the Hindu gods and came to be regarded as one of the many manifestations of the god Vishnu. A man of tolerance, intelligence, compassion, peace - what harm could it to do worship him as a deity? His followers perhaps thought that by making him a god, Lord Buddha would become more special, his image more powerful and unique. However, in the tradition of a country like India, which is filled with infinite number of gods and goddesses everywhere - to make Buddha a god was also to make him very ordinary, just one more god among thousands. Moreover, Buddha’s image became to co-exist with myth, ritual and superstition that corrupted his original message. Eventually, the Buddha was swallowed up by the realm of Hindu gods, his importance diminished and Buddhism finally died out in the land where it was born. So complete was the destruction of Buddhism in India during ancient times, that when western scholars rediscovered Buddhism, the records they relied on, came from countries near and around India : no valuable records were kept in the home of Buddhism. The message of Lord Buddha vanished from its homeland, but it remained alive in almost every other parts of Asia and from Asia it spread to the rest of the world.
The Middle Path - Neither affirmation nor Denial of Theistic Models on Philosophical Grounds : The idea that there are no gods and that the material world is all there was already held by some materialistic schools of India, particularly by the Charvaka schools – so in this sense it might not seem an original insight. But the approach of these schools was largely atheist since they all denied the existence of the supernatural entities. Both the theistic approaches of the Vedic religion and the atheistic approach of the materialistic schools rest ultimately on the same conviction : both hold that we can know whether or not the gods actually exist; one is certain of their existence; the other is certain that they do not exist. Lord Buddha claimed the impossibility of human knowledge of arriving to definite answers regarding this matter – so his view was an agnostic one, suspending judgement and saying that no sufficient grounds exist either for affirmation or for denial. This idea is so strong in Buddhism that even today in some of the Buddhist branches, who have incorporated the supernatural entities into their traditions, the role of human choice and responsibility remains supreme, far above the deeds of the supernatural. Lord Buddha explained the ‘Middle Way’ between ascetism and a life of luxury, the four noble truths (suffering, its origin, how to end it and the eightfold path or the path leading to the extinction of suffering) and the impersonality of all beings.
Key Buddhist Concepts : Gautam Buddha was not concerned with satisfying human curiosity related to metaphysical speculation. Topics like the existence of god, the afterlife or creation stories were ignored by him. During the centuries, Buddhism has evolved into different branches and many of them have incorporated a number of diverse metaphysical systems, deities, astrology and other elements that Lord Buddha did not consider. Inspite of this diversity, though Buddhism has a relative unity and stability in its moral code. Buddhism exercised profound influence in shaping the various aspects of Indian society – the ethical code of Buddhism was also simpler based on charity, purity, self-sacrifice, control over passions and truthfulness. It laid great emphasis on love, equality and non-violence.
One central belief of Buddhism is often referred to as ‘reincarnation’ – the concept that people are reborn after dying. In fact, most individuals go through many cycles of birth, living, death and rebirth. A practicing Buddhist differentiates between the concepts of rebirth and reincarnation. Buddhist philosophical thinking may truly function as liberating wisdom in meditation, it must turn into a wisdom that is part of the very way, as the mind perceives and spontaneously interprets its own experiences.
The ultimate goal of the Buddhist path is to release from the round of phenomenal existence with its inherent suffering. To achieve this goal is to attain ‘Nirvana’, an enlightened state in which the fires of greed, hatred and ignorance have been quenched. In conclusion, Buddhism can be found all over the world today. It is said to have over 500 million followers in many countries around Asia including Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and Cambodia to name just a few. It can also be found in European countries as well as the United States. One of the many reasons, Buddhism is so widely spread is because it has simple beliefs and because they are accepting any one, who wants to start practising religion. There are three basic principles which include the morality, purifying the mind and enlightens including the beauty of nature and your surroundings. Practicing Buddhists differ all over the world. Many Western practicing Buddhist avoid the rituals including bowling to the altar and chanting. Instead they live by the beliefs and practise through meditation and prayer. Strict Buddhists will go to monasteries and participate in the daily rituals and ceremonies. On any festival days or holidays, Buddhists are encouraged to celebrate by doing charity and good things for other people instead of drinking or any self-indulgence. Buddhists today also acknowledge other religions – there are Jewish Buddhists, Catholic Buddhists etc. that combine one religion with the beliefs of Buddhism and doing great things.
Buddhism has a special role to play in the modern world because unlike many other religious traditions, Buddhism uniquely propounds the concept of independence which accords closely with the fundamental notions of modern society. Even today the Buddhist ideals have a significant place in our life. The principles of equality, teachings of non-violence and individual purification are still working as usual. Evils such as pride, envy, wrath and lust have no place in our life even today. Thus today in 21st century, Buddhism continues to gain ever wider acceptance in many lands far beyond its original home. People throughout the world, are adopting Buddhist ways of peace, compassionate and responsibility, through their own choice and analysis.