Category Archives: buddhism

This category is about everything Buddha and Buddhism, which teaches that:
1) everything is marked by impermanence, to believe in any permanence is to suffer, and the the ultimate cause of suffering is the rejection of the non-permanent self.
2) Enlightenment (contentment) can be found through the understanding of the true nature of existence (trilaksana) as stated here, and by living in accordance to such an understanding.

Svabhava – the doctrine of no intrinsic nature

There is no intrinsic nature (svabhava) to conditioned phenomena. All conditioned (samskara) and unconditioned (dharma) phenomena are without self (anatman) and are empty (shunyata). All conditioned phenomena are impermanent (anitya) and unsatisfactory (duhkha).

With this as base Buddhism teaches enlightenment (or release) (nirvana) that ends all rebirth (samsara, reincarnation).

Chicken soup for the non-soul

“So if there is no self, non-self, non-soul or no- soul what is it that gets reborn or reincarnated?”

This is question I often get from Westerners new to Buddhism. How can there be no soul? Who or what is doing these good and bad things?

The Buddha always starts with the idea of impermanence. All real things are impermanent. Real things do no stay the same. This much most people can understand and agree with. Then the Buddha moves on to the idea of unsatisfactoriness. All real things are unsatisfactory. This too most people can agree upon also. But then most people get tripped up by the last statement of the truth of reality. All real and unreal things have no inherent self. Real things are seen to have no coherent core, just as unreal things (ideas and concepts of the of the imagination) do not have any core.

What makes a rock a rock is not anything. There is no “rock-ness” of things. If there is a rock-ness then would that not entail a permanent “something”?

There is also another suggestion here with this formulation – that there is something permanent but without a self. Real things are impermanent and unsatisfactory. But Unreal things are “permanent” and “satisfactory” in some way even though they are without a self. But what can be permanent if it is unreal?

This kind of formulation is not dissimilar to that of God or soul. Since God and soul are permanent and satisfactory. This is the conundrum. So, does God and souls exist or not? According to Buddha they must be unreal but unreal things have no self. But real things have no self either.

The only way forward, I feel, is to deal with these issues separately. Understand the nature of real things before we deal with understanding what the nature of unreal things are.

*Remember that book? Sorry. Clickbait title.

Enlightenment is the end of rebirth

There are six realms in Buddhism (mostly Tibetan Buddhism) into which one may be reborn. These are the realms of

  1. gods (through pride)
  2. demi-gods (through jealousy)
  3. humans (through lust)
  4. animals (through ignorance)
  5. hungry ghosts (through greed)
  6. hell-denizens (through hatred)

As you can see, rebirth is not a good thing. Westerners often mistake rebirth to be a positive notion. This partly has to do with shared terminology with Hinduism and Jainism (religions existent at the same time and place as Buddhism), and partly to the lack of any concept that is similar to it in Western cultures.

To be clear,

  1. the goal of Buddhism is to end rebirth (reincarnation) and
  2. enlightenment is the state in which all future rebirths have been extinguished.

Conditioned and unconditioned things

saṅkhārā aniccā — “all saṅkhāras (conditioned concepts) are impermanent”
sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā — “all saṅkhāras (conditioned concepts) are unsatisfactory”
sabbe dhammā anattā — “all dharmas (conditioned or unconditioned concepts) are not self”

I have had a tough time translating sanskara (conditioned) and dharma (unconditioned) in this passage. The question is the what is conditioned and what is unconditioned.

Perhaps it is better to translate sanskara as subjective concepts and dharma as objective concepts. As the fourth category of the skandha (personality) sanskara comes after feelings (vedana, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral) perception (samjna, identification of differences).

So this could be summed up as all subjective concepts are temporary and unsatisfactory. And all concepts – subjective and objective – are without substance.

But what does that say about objective concepts? That they are permanent and satisfactory? But since both subject and objective concepts are without substantiality we are left to wonder what we should be placing our trust in.

So, being equally insubstantial, the objective concept (as a concept) can only be a temporary solution as well. Here lies the paradox.

Why does the West fear empiricism and Buddhism?

Sensation and perception is a limited view and also the only point of access to reality we have. This said, then, we should think it is important. No sensation and perception necessarily means no understanding of and no interaction with reality.

This is, of course, if there is another reality that is unknown. But why complicate things when one reality is already complicated enough. Reality has no cause for being more complex than need be.

The onus is on others to explain why the metaphysical is needed.

I am happy with a mechanistic explanation of us. That the illusion of a self or rationality should be no less plausible than phenomena or representation. To react against the physical reality is really an unnecessary fear that brings about more grief than relief.

As a Buddhist correct understand brings about relief. The explanation is not that different to a philosophically material monist one. The self is not what it seems. A soul is as plausible as a non-soul. To discount non-self is not scientific, not open-minded. It is foreign. It is The Other.

Nirvana has no value

Central to the teaching of Buddhism are the three marks of existence (trilaksana).

The three marks of existence are:

  • saṅkhārā aniccā — “all saṅkhāras (conditioned things) are impermanent”
  • sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā — “all saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory”
  • sabbe dhammā anattā — “all dharmas (conditioned or unconditioned things) are not self”

Conditioned things (sankhara), according to Buddhism, do not make up the entirety of things. There are also unconditioned things. Together conditioned and unconditioned things are called the dharma – the entirety of the world.

Nirvana (the realization of the non-self or emptiness of everything, conditioned and unconditioned) is neither impermanent nor permanent, and neither unsatisfactory nor unsatisfactory. To say it is permanent would be to not understand its characteristics. To say it is satisfactory would be to not see the inconsistency of duality. The neutral, zero position of Buddhism is something rather hard to grasp. And by being unenlightened is to be not fully understanding the zero position, but be like somewhere between -1 and +1, other than 0. By having a value – positive or negative – we are not understanding the meaning of 0. The irony is, we cannot know zero without recourse to every other number, that is, zero means nothing without something.

Buddhist suffering is not pain and grief

The first of the Four Noble Truths attributed to Buddha is life is suffering (dukkha).

But what is meant by this? Is every moment in life suffering? Am I in perpetual sadness?

Obviously, no. I am happy, or at least not sad at this moment. For most of my life I have been fairly happy and content. I can see that others also are not suffering or in constant pain.

What Buddha meant by this that at any moment we are susceptible to suffering. This susceptibility is what is meant by dukkha. Actual instances pain and happiness are “clues” to impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the self as an illusion.

The Ten Bull Pictures – notes

The standard version of the Ten Bull Pictures used today is the version by Kaku-an, a 12th century monk. The oldest version of this is a 16th century copy in Kyoto, Japan.

The earliest series is considered the one by Seikyo, consisting of five pictures. The first picture starts at the fourth Kaku-an picture (and being slightly different) and ends on the eighth. In between are three pictures which are not found in Kaku-an’s version. A later version that Seikyo’s that was popular in China also has ten pictures but it also starts and ends at exactly the same pictures as Seikyo’s five pictures.

The conclusion to be drawn then is

  1. Kaku-an’s pictures are independent in design to both Seikyo and the Chinese versions
  2. Kaku-an’s pictures have a different significance to Seikyo’s

Particularly the second point starting earlier in the timeline means it says more about practitioners at the beginning of their journey. Also, by ending later, it says something about what the purpose (or Zen’s goal) is for enlightenment. These points are worth exploring.

 

Flux/Impermanent/Change

Everything is in flux. (Heraclitus, 6c BCE)

Everything, without exception, is impermanent. (The Buddha, 5c BCE)

Change is the only constant. (signature103, 2018)

5 reasons I choose not to talk about politics

I choose not to talk about politics because

  1. it generally does not change the outcome of elections, especially elsewhere
  2. it fuels so many unnecessary arguments
  3. I do not understand everything in politics (nor do I want to)
  4. I feel politicians never work for the benefit of the people … no matter what they say
  5. this is what The Buddha had meant by Right Speech
  6. [bonus reason] there are other more important things to worry about in this 13-billion-year-old universe with my less-than-hundred-year long lifespan.

Time to shut up. I have said too much about politics already.

When does a soul get created?

As a Buddhist, I do not believe in souls. Talk to most people – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and even Buddhists – and they talk as though something survives after death. Such is the power and attraction of the concept of the soul.

Out of curiosity, I asked an American Muslim when is the soul created. He said, “at the moment of conception”. And thereafter it remains either in Heaven or Hell (and also Purgatory if you are Roman Catholic). So the mystery, it seems to me, is that the eternal soul did not start off as eternal but was created out of the grace of God or gods (of which again in Buddhism are concepts).

The problem here is that we have no evidence for these, only that of the textual sources, and not any independent or direct proof of souls and gods as such. Apart from being told by someone else, namely the sacred texts and by those who believe in word of the sacred texts, there is no other proof. Buddhism’s claim that everything is impermanent can be verified by observation. While we cannot observe everything, the weight of non-contrary evidence is substantial. Inferential logic tells us that the soul is perhaps one of these “things” which stands counter to impermanence even though no one can show us any evidence for its existence.

This alone should sound off alarm bells in your head.

While I do not have a problem with the concept of the soul, I do have problem with the belief in the existence of a soul. But at the same time, it is normal to think and believe that such a thing exists. This is something humans do very well, and perhaps defines us from other animals. But it is also natural that some for the human species (Buddhists) to “see through” it, that is, to understand the nature of it.

So it is baffling that in this day and age, where our understanding of the natural physical world has progressed this far, to be still caught in the grips of such an illusion. Powerful indeed is this illusion, passed on from generation to generation through speech and action.

Souls are not created. The concept of a soul is. The concept is perpetuated by its continued reinforcement. The root is therefore in the nature of words and not in the nature of the thing.

SNS and real life

Most people tend to forget that SNS is a part of (modern) life, and should be dealt with in the same way as life.

What you wouldn’t do in real life you shouldn’t do on SNS either. This should be a general rule of thumb.

Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you is another rule.

Buddhist Texts

Just before the Buddha’s passing, he told his followers that everything he knows has been taught to them. However, he taught them orally, that is, he left no writings behind. While his followers did their best to continue the oral tradition of the teaching (an expression of impermanence) they eventually decided to put what he taught down in writing.

The written teachings became known as the Tripitaka or ‘three baskets’. The baskets consisted of rules of the community (sangha) are called the jataka. The “actual” words of the Buddha were called the sutras. And the commentaries are called the abhidharma. These were confirmed and laid down over several “councils”. The most important writings are the sutras. The Pali Canon consists of five divisions. They are 1) the long discourses (Digha Nikaya), 2) middle length discourses (Majjhima Nikaya), 3) the connected discourses, 4) the numerical discourses, and 5) the miscellaneous collections. In these, we get a sense of the time of the Buddha, the culture and society to which he belonged. Sometimes these are the only written records we have of this place and period.

The Pali Canon, being the oldest collection, is considered the most authentic. But these are not the only writings. From around the 1st Century CE, we see a new set of writings appear, those in Sanskrit – Mahayana sutras. These were developed in the North-West of the Indian sub-continent in present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Different from the Pali they were less concerned with the Historical Buddha than with the spiritual or Transcendental Buddha. The settings for his discourses in these are generally in celestial realms and concern deeper more abstract aspects of Buddhism. Furthermore, they develop upon the earlier teachings in ways that are beyond the contents in the Pali Canon.

Eventually, this led to the main divergence of Theravada (also derogatorily called “Hinayana”) and Mahayana Buddhism. The Theravada stresses the arhat ideal, which sees striving for one’s own enlightenment is important. Whereas the Mahayana chooses to stress helping others (the Bodhidharma ideal) to reach enlightenment. The Mahayana also uses emptiness over the term non-self where the nature of impermanence is extended to everything (though I do not think the Buddha had meant to limit the non-self to just beings).

Eventually, the various Buddhist schools developed their own texts. For example, the Dhammapada is popular with Theravadins. The Japanese Jodo Shin Buddhism takes the Tannisho by Shiran as an important exposition of their position. And Zen Buddhism has its Mumonkan (koans), art (Sengai and Enku), poetry (Basho, Buson, and Issa) and commentaries (Dogen and Hakuin). The abundance and variety of writing in Buddhism cannot be stressed more.

What the Buddha taught

Upon discovering the way to liberation from suffering the Buddha went to his former companions who had abandoned him. Noticing his changed disposition they listened and realized that he had reached their common goal.

He taught them that everything without exception is impermanent, that to understand otherwise is the cause of suffering, and that the most expedient way to liberation is to accept the impermanence of the self (non-self).

The Buddha summarised it (The Four Noble Truths) in this way:

      1. life is suffering,
      2. it is cause by our desires (thirst),
      3. to cease suffering one must detach from desires, and
      4. the way to do it (The Eightfold Path) is by having correct
        1. understanding
        2. thought
        3. speech
        4. action
        5. livelihood
        6. effort
        7. mindfulness
        8. concentration

He also taught the nature our personality (skandha) and explained what the chain of rebirth (paticca-samuppada) is in detail so that we can deal with it practically. He taught that we must end rebirth (samsara) and not to perpetuate it by sowing the seeds (karma) that bring about further becoming, and he showed that a careful moderate lifestyle will quell future becoming.

He taught this one teaching (Dharma) for forty-five years until he died from accidental food poisoning.

Today, as a religion, Buddhism is practiced by venerating the Three Jewels of the Buddha (the founder), the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (community).