Our Wisdom of the Ages section attempts to demonstrate the continuous stream of the ancient Wisdom Tradition throughout human history. As we continue to build the section we will regularly bring to the fore selections highlighting individuals, systems of thought, schools, movements, etc.. We now highlight our section on Buddhism, complete with a selection of works and articles.
Buddhism is one of the most profound, most all-encompassing spiritual philosophies of humanity. It traces its origins to Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. There are several “schools” of Buddhist thought and practice, where variations of the main themes occur, the main division being the northern and southern schools, or the Mahayana and the Theravada traditions. Within the Mahayana there are also other division, such as the Mādhyamika and the Yogācāra.
Buddhism was founded on Indian soil, specifically in the north of India, across the Gangetic plain. Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince of a small kingdom situated among several other neighboring kingdoms. As the story goes, he renounced his right to the throne and took on the life of a homeless spiritual seeker in the hopes of finding the solution to human suffering. He is said to have obtained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and after to have taught his spiritual philosophy to any who wished to learn. What we will attempt in this brief introduction is simply to trace a few of the key ideas that have become central to the Buddhist philosophy as we know it today. Buddhism is an exceedingly deep, often subtle and far-reaching philosophy, covering every aspect of human life and the nature of our reality, thus our exploration here is meant to provide but a foothold for new students.
We may begin with the Twelve Nidanas, along with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
It’s recoded in the suttas that the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree brought to him three great “knowledges,” the Tevijja (Pali) or Trividya (Sanskrit). These are: 1. the memory of past births, 2. the knowledge of the “cycle of existence”, or samsara, and 3. the knowledge of the eradication of defilements. This last knowledge brought with it a full understanding of the chain-of-causation, known as the Twelve Nidanas. This chain begins with the clear and inevitable human suffering, that of old and death, and traces the cause of this suffering back “upwards” or “inwards” to its root, ignorance (avidya). In full, the twelve are:
“old age and dying” (jaramarana), of which the cause is birth (jati); then from birth tracing the causes backwards through “becoming” (bhava) “clinging” (upadana), “craving” (trishna or tanha), “feeling” (vedana), “contact” (sparsha), “sense fields or bases” (sadayatana), “name and form” (namarupa), “consciousness” (vijnana), “formations” (samskara), and “ignorance” (avidya).
In the Lalitavistara (a biography of the Buddha belonging to the Mahayana tradition), the Buddha summarizes the chain of causation thus:
“Ignorance provides the causal condition for formations. Formations provide the causal condition for consciousness. Consciousness provides the causal condition for name and form. Name and form provides the causal condition for the six sense fields. The six sense fields provide the causal condition for contact. Contact provides the causal condition for feeling. Feeling provides the causal condition for craving. Craving provides the causal condition for clinging. Clinging provides the causal condition for existence [or becoming]. Existence [or becoming] provides the causal condition for birth. Birth provides the causal condition for old age and death, lamentation, pain, despair, and torment. Such is how this massive heap of pure anguish comes into being.”
With these causes understood, the Buddha was then able to formulate the core of his teachings, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Noble Truths may be numbered as:
1. The noble truth about sorrow and pain (dukkha), that is: “Suffering and sorrow exist in all manifested beings.”
2. The noble truth about the cause of sorrow and pain (dukkha samudaya), that is: “There is a cause for the suffering and the sorrow that exist.”
3. The noble truth about the cessation of sorrow and pain (nirodha), that is: “There is a way to render extinct the causes of the suffering and sorrow that exist.”
4. The noble truth about the path that leads to this cessation (aryastanga-marga), that is: “There is a path, by following which the causes of the suffering and sorrow that exist are rendered extinct.”
The Buddha had gained a precise understanding of the very causes of suffering and thus saw a method by which these could be overcome. This method is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, known as the Noble Eightfold Path (aryastanga-marga). The eight steps of this path are as follows:
1. right view/belief (samyag-drishti): “Recognition of the truth of the preceding four verities.” (the Four Noble Truths)
2. right resolve/intention (samyak-samkalpa): “Holding the objective to be attained clearly in the mind, holding it firm, with discrimination.”
3. right speech (samyag-vach): “Right words, or controlled and governed speech at all times and in all places.”
4. right action/behavior (samyak-karmanta): “Controlled and governed action at all times and in all places.”
5. right occupation/livelihood (samyag-ajiva): “Appropriate and honorable means of livelihood.”
6. right effort (samyag-vyayama): “An inflexible will to achieve the objective visioned.”
7. right contemplation (samyak-smriti): “An eager intellect, always open for a greater truth, and ready to learn; and the cultivation of a strong and retentive memory.”
8. right concentration (samyak-samadhi): “An unveiled spiritual perception, combined with great care in thinking, which is the keynote of all the preceding items, and which expressed in other words means right meditation with a tranquil mind into which wisdom thus enters.”
These teachings thus form the essence of the common practice of Buddhism. Walking this path, which avoids both the extreme of asceticism and the extreme of immersion in worldliness, has come to be known as the Middle Way.
In addition to these core-teachings, we may highlight another of the practical aspects of Buddhism, the Paramitas.
Dana: generosity, giving of oneself, etc.
Sila: virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct, etc.
Nekkhamma: renunciation, emancipation from worldliness, dispassionateness, etc.
Paññā: wisdom, insight, etc. (equivalent of the Sanskrit prajna)
Viriya: energy, diligence, vigor, effort, etc.
Khanti: patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance, etc.
Sacca: truthfulness (equivalent of the Sanskrit satya)
Adhitthana: determination, inflexible courage, etc.
Metta: loving-kindness, benevolence, etc.
Upekkha: equanimity, proper discrimination, etc.
In the northern schools, six are typically given (using the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms), thus:
Dana (sbyin-pa): generosity, giving of oneself, etc.
Sila (tshul-khrims): virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct, etc.
Kshanti (bzod-pa): patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance, etc.
Virya (brtsong-’grus): energy, diligence, vigor, effort, etc.
Dhyana (bsam-gtan): one-pointed concentration, contemplation, etc.
Prajna (shes-rab): wisdom, insight, etc.
To make these six into ten, four additional paramitas may be added (using the Sanskrit terms), thus:
Theosophical teachings (see the Voice of the Silence) include a slightly different set, adding Viraga (indifference to pleasure and to pain) to the original six, to which some have added:
Adhisthana: inflexible courage, “proper method or discipline in following the Path.”
Upeksha: equanimity, proper discrimination, etc.; also “the urgent wish to achieve success for the sake of being an impersonal beneficent energy in the world”.
Prabodha or Sambuddhi: awakening, illumination, etc.; also “a continuous exercise of the intellect in study of self, of others, and incidentally of the great religious literatures and philosophies of the world.”
thus making the complete ten.
As we begin to see, Buddhism is a very practical philosophy. It avoids many of the pitfalls of other world-religions by not appealing to blind-faith or purely scriptural authority, but promotes a reliance upon our own innate capacity for understanding. On this note, there is a famous passage in the Kalama Sutta, wherein the Buddha explains the criteria for the acceptance or rejection of an idea:
“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them. . . . Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blameable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”
Such is the Buddha’s teaching: do not follow even him and his teachings unless there is within you an inner recognition of the truth of them. Following blindly is not the path, for the path is about spiritual development, and part of that development is a discerning mind, a capable inner voice, and an expanded intuition. There is no “God” in Buddhism, no final “heaven” or “hell”, and in some interpretations no “Self”. There is, however, the circling world of birth and death, and thus a series of lives or reincarnations. There is the governing law of karma, and everywhere an order to things. There is also, as with the oldest teachings of India, the possibility of Liberation, of crossing over to the other shore, of enlightenment. Thus there is the possibility to truly understand this reality of ours and these lives of ours. The heart of the Buddhist philosophy would seem to be this: to follow the same path the Buddha followed, to seek the truth, never to be satisfied with fiction, but to push ever onwards through a measured and intelligent effort, through self-devised and self-induced efforts, seeking liberation and first-hand knowledge of reality. And further to this, to develop kindness, compassion, empathy, and all true human virtues.
The Lalitavistara tells us something else of profound importance, in regards to the path of the Buddha. We are told:
“Not merely for his own sake
Did he practice the all-pervasive concentration.
With compassion for others,
He practiced for their sake as well.
. . .
Motivated by compassion for others,
He sought to bring about vast benefits to the world.
He did not practice for himself,
Neither for pleasure nor to feel the taste of absorption.
Here we find the keynote of the Path of the Bodhisattva, the Path of Compassion, wherein the final rest and reward of that great Liberation called Nirvana is forsaken in order to remain to aid mankind. Gautama’s motivation is repeatedly portrayed as the liberation from death and rebirth, but here we have a taste of the expansiveness of that motive: it was not for himself alone, for his own liberation, but rather for the liberation of all. This is the path of Buddhism.
For more, see our full page on Buddhism, complete with original Buddhist works, articles, definitions, etc.
Click here for our complete Biography of Gautama the Buddha.
Click here to explore the Dhammapada, one of the seminal works of Buddhist thought.