Sunday, March 31, 2013

How does early Buddhism differ from Upanishadic Thought?

There are many important areas in which Buddhism and the Upanishads differ.

Firstly, in terms of cosmology, the Upanishads viewed the world and its origin as nothing other than Brahma, the universal or cosmic soul. To achieve liberation meant realising the truth of the world - that Atman (the individual soul as discovered through introspection) and Brahma are the same. For the Buddha, the concern is with man and liberation, which is internally driven rather than granted by an external God requiring prayer. This is why He was not concerned with the cosmos and it’s beginning, neither of which is relevant to reaching nibbana.

Secondly, concerning metaphysics, the Upanishads profess Monism. This philosophy can be summarised as “I am Brahman” (our own “Self” is the true Divinity), “The Self is Brahman” (all beings are identified with the Absolute Truth), “That art thou”(whatever we see or think about, we are That), “Knowledge is Brahman” (supreme intelligence is present inherently within us; our understanding of the truth is the Truth itself), “The whole universe is Brahman”, and “Here am I” (this identifies the Divinity in our Self in natural happenings, like breathing). In this philosophy, worldly appearances are illusory, since the apparent diversity is but one. Again, Buddhism is not concerned with metaphysical discussions of space, time and causality. Although Buddhism teaches such dhammas as samsara, kamma and nibbana, instead, these teachings are different from those in the Upanishads. On a number of occasions when asked some metaphysical questions concerning the world, the soul and the Tathāgata, the Buddha refocussed his questioners by reminding them of the need to delve more deeply into the realities of samsara (birth, illness, old age, death, etc).

In a third aspect, epistemology, or how we gain new knowledge, Upanishad philosophy states that knowledge comes when we realise that we and the Brahma are one so that the individual and cosmic souls merge. We cannot trust our senses and stimuli for knowledge, as they hide the Atman. Instead, since thinking is the basis for truth, so we must train our intellect and other mental faculties to interpret the world correctly. In Buddhism such debatable theories are considered not true. We are to develop our wisdom (pañña) so that we perceive the reality of the world, namely that all conditioned things are impermanent, unsatisfactory and without self.

Fourthly, from the ethical perspective, the writers of the Upanishads affirm that human life is a preparation for realising Brahma. To reach such spiritual perfection necessitates restraint of the senses, self-sacrifice and love for creation as the moral prerequisites.  In addition, study, honesty and even asceticism will permit the seeker of truth to attain bliss. The worldly perceptions of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight which make one separate from the True Self must also be transcended. Buddhism also stresses living a virtuous life, but through a “middle way” avoiding extremes like asceticism. The method proposed is the Noble Eightfold Path which may be summarised as “not to do any evil, to cultivate good, to purify one’s mind”. 

To conclude, for the benefit of all mankind, unlike the Upanishads, Buddhist teachings are for everyone and offer practical, empirical guidance to the important questions of our liberation. 

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)

Nibbana in Early Buddhist Teachings

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Elucidate the different implications involved in early Buddhist teachings on the concept of Nibbana.

Most significantly, the Buddhist concept of nibbana is a definite break from earlier and contemporary religious thought which was based around an eternal heaven as a reward for the soul who had lived an upright life.

What is achieved by reaching nibbana?
The individual sees the world as it really is - impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-self.
The false notion of an enduring self is eliminated, as are both suffering (dukkha) and the causes of suffering (desire, hatred and illusion). In earlier texts, at least, kamma no longer operates now. The two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence are avoided.
Forms, sensations, perceptions, mental activities and consciousness are all abandoned.

Who can reach nibbana?
According to the Upanishads, only the educated elite or Brahman priests could reach eternal bliss. The Buddha, however, taught that nibbana is a goal which can be reached by anyone, regardless of status. Additionally, it is not just for Buddhists but for all who follow the right Path.

When does one reach nibbana?
Again, unlike other religions, the Buddha taught that, under the right conditions, it can be reached in this present lifetime. Otherwise it can be realised after death.

How does one realise nibbana?
Nibbana is reached through successfully following the Noble Eightfold Path, seeing the world as it really is. For this reason, it represents the highest moral ideal and goal. Since this achievement depends entirely on individual effort, there is no need to rely on the benevolence or whims of a distant God who needs to be appeased.

What is nibbana like?
In answer to questions about the nature of nibbana, the Buddha stated that it was very difficult to understand. “Profound is this doctrine, recondite and difficult to comprehend”. We have some ideas about it, but it cannot be fully appreciated by one still in samsara. One reason is that no words can describe it, since language is created and used to express the experiences of our senses and our mind.

Some aspects we know about are that it is unconditioned, therefore permanent. It is beyond the sphere of logic where cause and effect, duality and relativity operate. It is also beyond good and evil, right and wrong, existence and non-existence. Those who reach nibbana in this life remain unaffected by the phenomenal world, their actions are no longer motivated or coloured by self-interest, yet they remain conscious of sights and sounds, and sensitive to pleasure and pain.

In general terms, the experience is one of tranquillity, with unlimited vision, freedom and attitude. There is happiness and mental well-being, but no fear or fiery passions. There is neither attraction nor repulsion, excitement nor worry. Thus it is a psychological experience rather than a metaphysical one.

What is it not?
Finally, knowing what nibbana is not also helps to understand it. It is not eternal as there is no eternal soul, but rather it is the annihilation of the ego-illusion. For the same reason, it is not self-annihilation. Although not being outside the five aggregates (khandhas), it is neither attached to nor identified with them. It is not located in a separate world, nor does it represent union with God. Additionally, it is not the result of anything – it just is.

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)

'Anicca' or 'Impermanence'

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Give an account of the word “impermanent”.

The word “impermanent” is not, of itself, difficult to understand. For example, it may be defined in the dictionary as “not lasting or durable; inconstant; not permanent; not indefinitely remaining unchanged”.

Our commonsense experience of the world illustrates this phenomenon regularly - we age, we get sick, objects we purchase breakdown, food turns rotten, friends move, jobs are lost, and so on. Nothing we seem to experience remains unchanged or permanent. This is often the source of our dissatisfaction with the world, as we try desperately to hold on to something permanent, something giving lasting pleasure, or we catch a glimpse of the possibility that we ourselves are also impermanent.

However, it is in Buddhist teaching that the word “impermanent” (anicca) takes on a deeper, more significant meaning. Here it represents one of the three features of existence, or the world of experience. In Buddhism, anicca is basic to all conditioned phenomena, a natural law. It does not involve metaphysics or mysticism, but is an empirical theory which can be investigated and analysed in an unbiased way. Anicca is the basis of the whole of Buddhist philosophy and ethics.

The Buddha gives us this explanation: “Impermanent indeed are the compounded things; they are of the nature of arising and passing away. Having come into being, they cease to exist. Hence their pacification is tranquillity.”

This law indicates that it is the nature of all compounded things to arise (come into existence), decay or change constantly, and to pass away (dissolve or cease). Further, behind the arising and ceasing there is no unchanging substance. This shows a link with anatta (no-self) previously discussed. Since there is no satisfaction to be had in clinging to impermanent things, there is a further link to dukkha (suffering), the third mark of existence. If you're seeking a dependable basis for long-term happiness and ease, anything inconstant will obviously be stressful - like trying to relax in an unstable chair whose legs could break at any time.

Before we conclude that anicca simply provides further evidence of a pessimistic approach to life by Buddhism, there are three additional aspects which should be considered.

Firstly, our goal for emancipation, nibbana, is actually unconditioned, unlike all compounded things. This means that it is beyond both permanency and impermanency.

Secondly, we can meditate on anicca as part of the process of changing and perfecting ourselves and our actions. If we were incapable of change, we would have no way to improve or reach nibbana. By carefully examining our desires and cravings in light of the three characteristics - to see exactly how they're inconstant, stressful, and not-self - we become less inclined to keep on producing and consuming them.

Finally, change can be a positive thing. It can promote growth, progress and creativity. Knowing that life is impermanent provides the opportunity to make peace and remove pride; knowing poverty is impermanent makes us rich; and knowing sickness and all other difficulties are impermanent means there will be recovery.

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)

Anatta or the concept of 'no-self'

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In your opinion, what would be the best way to explain the concept of “no-self” (anatta)?

Particularly in the West, people have been strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian teachings concerning the soul and its existence beyond this lifetime. This soul is the essence of the individual, created by a God, providing each with their uniqueness and subsequently going forth into eternity based on the state of the person at the time of death. According to this same “soul theory” while the individual and what constitutes them may change, the soul does not - it remains eternal and unchanged.

The grip of this idea of “self” or “soul” has been so strong, that Watson, a distinguished psychologist, stated: "No one has ever touched a soul or has seen one in a test tube or has in any way come into relationship with it as he has with the other objects of his daily experience. Nevertheless to doubt its existence is to become a heretic and once might possibly even had led to the loss of one's head."

These ideas are not unique to the era, but also formed part of the metaphysical teachings of the Upanishads dominant in India around the same time as the Buddha. According to them, the individual soul (Atman) was identical to the universal soul (Brahma) and final liberation meant merging the individual into the cosmic through meditation.

In stark contrast, the Buddha declared that clinging either to a notion of “self” or of “no self” leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. In other words, they are not conducive to liberation. When these views are finally dropped, one can be freed of agitation and unbound.

Buddhism does not deny the personality or individual. Rather it analyses them into various material and psychological aggregates (such as the five khandhas). However, each of these aggregates changes, so cannot be themselves be the unchanging “soul”. Further, there is no other unchanging substance (soul) to which the aggregates adhere or to which they relate, since such a substance would also need to constantly change. 

If such a “soul” were to exist it would need to be independent. According to the Paticca Samuppāda, nothing is independent or arises without causes and conditions. The Buddha includes here not only living beings, but also the cosmos as a whole, since there is nothing in the experience of the cosmos which is eternal or unchanging. Based on this empirical approach, (there is nothing within or without that can be called “I” or “me”) there can never be an independent soul.

Narada Thera explains it well (in “Buddhism in a Nutshell”) when he states that the Buddhist philosophical term for an individual is santana, that is, a flux or a continuity, which includes both their mental and physical elements. These elements are bound together by the kammic force of each individual. “This uninterrupted flux or continuity of psycho-physical phenomenon, which is conditioned by kamma, and not limited only to the present life, but having its source in the beginningless past and its continuation in the future — is the Buddhist substitute for the permanent ego or the immortal soul of other religions.”

So, as Narada Mahathera states (in “The Buddha and His Teachings”) it is more appropriate to think of the so-called “self” as a process, not an identity.

(Written by Gregory Quinlivan for a course entitled 'Early Buddhism Basic Doctrines' in 2009 through the International Buddhist College, Thailand.)