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PHIL 104

(ASIA 104/RELS 104)

San Jose State University

Instructor: Bo Mou

Topic 6


The Essence of Buddhism

Buddhism originated in India within the religious and social context of Hinduism, almost as Christianity did within
the context of Judaism in Palestine. Buddhism has a historical founder known as Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha
(6th century B.C.E.). Buddha is a title, meaning the 'Enlightened One'. Theoretically, anyone who is enlightened is
Buddha, and all beings are potential buddhas according to Buddhism.


The Four Noble Truths

The Buddhas basic doctrine is concerned primarily with the individuals inner transformation, achieved by means
of insight into the Four Noble Truths, which is the central doctrine of Buddhism:

All life (birth, old age, sickness, and death) is (filled with) suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha); [symptom]
The cause of suffering lies in clinging to or craving for things that cannot be permanent (such as sensual
pleasure and self-existence) (trsna); [sufficient condition/cause]
One can be liberated from suffering or become enlightened (nirvana) by eliminating such craving; [necessary
The way to eliminate such craving and achieve nirvana is the Noble Eightfold Path.[solution]

Noble Eightfold Path which holistically consists of eight aspects/layers:

Right way of viewing;

Right thinking;
Right speech;
Right conduct;
Right way of living;
Right effort;
Right mindfulness;
Right meditative-concentration.

The systematic and habitual meditation on the Four Noble Truths through the Noble Eightfold Path is the
fundamental task of the Buddhism life, for it is the supreme path toward the attainment of the Buddhahood.
Therefore, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path constitute the essence of Buddhist thought.


Three Fundamental Signs of Being (tri-laksana)

Suffering (dukkha)
This is considered as the most fundamental (physical and mental) phenomena of life in this world in which every
living being is subject to misery (i.e., birth, old age, sickness, and death). It is rooted in the very existence of all
living beings in this world. Particularly, suffering springs from the sensual pleasure of man. In this way, Buddhism
emphasizes the fact of the suffering and its cause, and always attempts to analyze them in every aspects.
Impermanence (anicca)
This is considered as the universal and fundamental phenomena among all existing things in this world. All things
are involved in becoming, continuation, change, and death; and so all existing things are transient, and there is no
permanence. The organic change in all living beings is always determined by pre-existing conditionaing. Gautama's
teaching of Anicca was intended to avoid two extreme doctrines, realism which consists in the belief in being and
nihilism which consists in the belief in non-being, and advocated the doctrine of the Mean whose central idea is that
everything is a becoming and a process.

Non-self (anatman)
In contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism takes it that there is no eternal and permanent soul as substance in man.
Buddhism emphasizes that self is not a changeless entity, but it is really empty. The identity of an individual
consists only of a continuity of moments of consciousness like a river which maintains its constant form of identity,
although in each moment every drop of water in the river flows and never remains static. In such a way Buddhism
explains the human consciousness without reference to soul as an external substance.
Three Jewels of Buddhism


The Buddhas (the Gautamas) life (the Buddha)

The Buddhas teachings (the dharma)
The Buddhist community (the sangha)

The Doctrine of Samsara and Karma

'Samsara' means reincarnation or or transmigration or the wheel of birth and death: the cycle or chain of birth and
death. 'Karma' means law of cause and effect, deed, or action. There is no samsara without karma; reincarnation
takes place because there is a causing factor. Whenever a person does anything (acts, speaks, or even thinks), it
must produce its result, no matter how far in the future. This result is the effect or retribution of that action as the
karma. The being or the whole life process of an individual is made up of a chain of cause and effect. A person's
present state of life is determined by his/her past karma, and his/her future destiny will be determined by his/her
present karma, good or bad. So what he/she does now will bear its fruit in a future life. Because the process of birth
and death will be repeated again and again indefinitely, the samsara itself is considered to be the chain of
The root cause of the chain or of all these sufferings is Ignorance (Avidya), the fundamental illusion that
individuality and permanence exist, when in fact they do not. From Ignorance come the craving for and cleaving to
life; the individual is thus bound to the eternal samsara. The only hope for escape this chain of sufferings lies in
replacing ignorance with Enlightenment (Bodhi). All teachings and practices of various Buddhist schools are
attempts to contribute to the Enlightenment. The result of the Enlightenment is achieving Nirvana, an emancipation
from the process of rebirth. The word 'Nirvana' literally means 'blowing out', as of a lamp, or 'extinction'. In
Nirvana as all idea of an individual personality or desire or ego cease to exist and there is nothing to be reborn; with
the extinction of suffering, there remains only absolute quietness and peace, which is Nirvana as the ultimate state
of Buddhahood. That is, anyone who has extinguisued his/her desire or ego is the enlightened one (Buddha)
Buddhism further stresses Nirvana in terms of Tathata (Suchness) and Sunyana (Nothingness or Emptiness).
Suchness is the authentic state of one's Mind which captures things as they are beyond all predications such as
existence or non-existence and one or many. It transcends the ordinary senses, ideas, and definitions. It is thus
called 'Sunyata', which means Emptiness, for it is empty of all permanent/fixed attributes that were imposed via
Sunyana cannot be understood by ordinary intellectual process but only through Prajna, a kind of transcendental
wisdom or religious intuition. Prajna is radically different from the ordinary way of reasoning or intellect. It is the
true source of all knowledge, according to Buddhism.

Questions to Think About

(1) How does Buddhism characterize nirvana?
(2) Explain how, generally speaking, the Hinduist and Buddhist metaphysical understandings of the nature

of the world bear on their respective understandings of the human life and destiny.
(3) Compare the Buddhist account of change/becoming with the Yi-Jing philosophy on changing/becoming.