I’m not Buddhist (I’m more of a mystical Christian of sorts), but I deeply appreciate Buddhist philosophy and included a lot of it in my book Your Yesterday Is My Tomorrow, which is a tale about a man in a mental institution who believes he has discovered his past lives and his love for a goddess, whose voice he hears (and the doctors, of course, believe he has schizophrenia), and sort of has the subtitle, “What if a buddha married a god?”
I recently taught Buddhism to my Introduction to Philosophy class, and sent them this email, which I thought I’d share with you:
Before I review some terms about Buddhism, I want to say how much I have a deep love, philosophically, for Buddhist philosophy. As I mentioned when I told you a little about myself the first day, one of the things that first got me interested in academia and philosophy in the first place was the possibility of Buddhist-Christian dialogue. There has actually been a lot of books on this subject, ranging from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ to reflections by Christian theologian John Cobb on the “emptiness” of God.
I have always found the Buddhist idea that suffering is caused by desire very profound.
Denver, I attended Buddhist-Christian services at a very liberal church. They did not “combine” the religions, for that would threaten each one’s uniqueness, but members of each tradition gathered together and prayed and meditated, and read something from each tradition. I wish that could happen more between different religions–gathering together.
Buddhism, being nontheistic (no eternal God) and with its doctrine of anatman (no soul) is, of course, very different from Christianity. However, because Buddhism so heavily emphasizes compassion (arising out of our interconnectedness), there are some ethical similarities with Christianity (and other religions, for that matter) which make for fruitful ethical dialogue. And Buddhism has much to say about protecting our environment, as we’ll hopefully talk more about next time. (Environmentalism is also one of my ethical concerns.)
Here are some key terms from the exam study sheet that we went over in class:
anatman=no-soul: The Buddhist teaching that we ultimately have no soul, no eternal, non-changing self. This idea, radically different from our Western idea of an eternal soul (Plato, Christianity, etc.), does help promote compassion, for once you see that you are not a separate self, this causes you perhaps to see that everything is interconnected, hence someone else’s suffering is my suffering, and this helps foster compassion.
(By the way, the book points out a similarity with David Hume’s bundle theory of the self: the idea that there is no enduring “self”–that what we call the self is simply a bundle of sensory impressions. Hume, an enlightenment thinker we’ll get to later, was a classic agnostic against religion and science, and also an empiricist–believing all truth came only through sensory experience.)
buddha=awakened one or enlightened one. This is ontologically distinct from our idea of a “god,” because in Buddhism, anyone can become a buddha. Anyone can become enlightened. Indeed, some schools say we all have buddha-nature within us. However, enlightenment is a very difficult road and a very big claim, since buddhas are omniscient, that is, all-knowing (able to see the cause of others’ suffering, etc.).
Four Noble Truths=the basic teaching of all forms of Buddhism: there is suffering, suffering has a cause, suffering has a cure, and that cure is the 8-fold path (right V.I.S.A.L.E.M.C., which we talked about in class).
As I mentioned, the idea in Buddhism is that suffering pervades all existence, even what we consider to be happiness, because we cling to things or states that cannot last. Since everything is impermanent and changing, such clinging invariably produces suffering when those things decay and die. Suffering is caused by desire (tanha=thirst) and ignorance. End desire, and you end suffering.
middle way=the best way to achieve enlightenment is a “middle way” between the opposite extremes of sensual pleasure (delight in material things) and extreme denial (asceticism, self-mortification)
nirvana=literally “extinction.” This is enlightenment or awakening. What is extinguished is not the self, but the false sense of the self as permanent, enduring, and unchanging. It is also the extinction of desires. Once again, if you end desire, you end suffering.
Siddhartha Gautama=the historical buddha. Raised in luxury, he then tried extreme asceticism. Finally, he found that theMiddle Way
was the best way to enlightenment. Once enlightened, he taught and established orders of monks and nuns, founding what became the religion of Buddhism.
Also, the following two terms that we had before with Hinduism apply to Buddhism as well:
As we mentioned in class, Buddhism accepts the basic Hindu worldview of reincarnation (samsara) fueled by karma (action/reaction). However, there is a big distinction, since Hinduism claims that a soul is reincarnated, and in Buddhism there is no soul or self that is reincarnated. As we talked about in class, the example of one billiard ball hitting another one can help with this–there is nothing “in common” to the two billiard balls. But the actions of the one caused the reaction in the other. Rebirth or reincarnation in a Buddhist context is similar to this. Or the example of a forest fire consuming different trees and plants–desire itself, like a fire, is what spreads through existence and reincarnates, causing suffering, not any “soul” or “self.”
The following term we’ll go over in class on Tuesday, when I distinguish between Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism and talk more about distinctions between various types of Buddhism:
bodhisattva=in Mahayana Buddhism, this is one on the path to enlightenment. Bodhisattvas vow to attain enlightenment in order to help all beings end their suffering. (Some traditions say that the bodhisattva deliberately is reborn, or comes back, not out of selfish desire (tanha), but rather out of a pure desire (bodhicitta) to help all beings end their suffering. But other traditions argue that buddhas, too, can come back, so a bodhisattva is one who is merely on the path to buddhahood.)
I hope this was helpful!
If you have any questions, email me and I’ll answer them for the whole group.
Have a great weekend!