Friday, August 16, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 3

Parts 1 and 2.

The Buddha's second noble truth ("There is the cause/origin of suffering")  is expounded in greater detail in other Buddhist sutras.  In its more detailed version, the Buddha goes into the causation of suffering over time.
The Buddhists call it the doctrine of "Dependent Origination", or Pratītyasamutpāda.

According to this doctrine, there are twelve stages through which Dukkha (or suffering) gets established.

Many of these twelve stages explicitly presuppose the doctrine of reincarnation.  Buddhists believe that sankharas or conditioned responses propagate through a non-material medium across many lives.

For a person who does not believe in reincarnation, the Buddhist explanation of suffering falls flat on its face.  The Buddha has very little to teach us if his explanation of suffering's origin is off the mark.  That is his central teaching.  The rest of Buddhist teaching is more about ethical behavior and about being careful and mindful in one's thought, speech and action.  Good advice without a doubt, but hardly earth-shattering.

The more one studies in depth the twelve stages as enumerated by the Buddhists, the more it becomes obvious that they were more interested in creating a theology and a formal structure of terms than to seek out any truth.  Buddhist teachings and sutras are known for highly formalized, repetitive statements.  They are good for chanting, but don't do a lot for elucidation or insight.

Consider this translated tract from the Mahasatipatthana Sutra:
Herein, monks, an aspirant when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows, "I experience a pleasant feeling"; when experiencing a painful feeling, one knows, "I experience a painful feeling"; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling," one knows, "I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling." When experiencing a pleasant worldly feeling, one knows, "I experience a pleasant worldly feeling"; when experiencing a pleasant spiritual feeling, one knows, "I experience a pleasant spiritual feeling"; when experiencing a painful worldly feeling, one knows, "I experience a painful worldly feeling"; when experiencing a painful spiritual feeling, one knows, "I experience a painful spiritual feeling"; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling, one knows, "I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful worldly feeling"; when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling, one knows, "I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful spiritual feeling."
Thus one lives contemplating the physical senses internally, or one lives contemplating the physical senses externally, or one lives contemplating the physical senses internally and externally. One lives contemplating origination factors in feelings, or one lives contemplating dissolution factors in feelings, or one lives contemplating origination-and-dissolution factors in feelings. Or one's awareness is established with, "Sensation exists," to the extent necessary just for knowledge and awareness, and one lives detached, and clings to nothing in the world. Thus, monks, an aspirant lives contemplating the physical senses.
The third rung in the twelve rungs of Dependent Origination states that Consciousness leads to Name and Form (?).  Name and Form are not what is normally considered name and form, apparently, but the are supposed to refer to feeling, perception, intention, contact, and attention.  The fourth rung states that Name and Form lead to the six sense bases (?).  Really?
"And what [monks] is name-&-form? Feeling, perception, intention, contact, & attention: This is called name. The four great elements, and the form dependent on the four great elements: This is called form. This name & this form are, [monks], called name-&-form."
In Buddhism, to nip the chain of origination in the bud, one is supposed to attack Avidya (Ignorance) by becoming more and more aware of truth within and without.  But in practice, Buddhists typically start practicing one of the many Buddhist meditations based either on the Samatha or Vipassana cores.

Seeking knowledge or truth is a great pursuit, but I assert that any seeker who disregards the modern understanding of human behavior and plunges straight into an ancient meditation technique with an esoteric world view is not pursuing self-knowledge, but is after attaining a supposedly higher state of consciousness.

No philosopher in this age and day would find the fanciful spiritual conceptions and the obtuse taxonomy in Buddhism worthy of a serious response, but still we see many otherwise intelligent people regard Buddha as a great philosopher who elucidated the truth of suffering and pointed at a way out of it.

I think the reason for the recent popularity of Buddhism in urban educated classes is not hard to fathom.  It is that they have not studied Buddha's teachings at their source, or in depth, but have depended on hearsay.  Because they are themselves disenchanted with the world due to its stresses, and because they find enlightenment to be a worthy goal, and because they find their own religions and institutions to be hopelessly corrupt, Buddhism and the Buddha become their icons of "true spirituality" and "inner evolution".  The seemingly scientific and structured nature of Buddha's teachings give the impression that they are thoroughly modern and the correct results of painstaking research.  They are anything but.

As I have remarked in my other writings, I find Buddha's inquiry and search to be a great philosophical quest, but the results of his philosophical quest must be evaluated and questioned, not merely accepted or venerated.

Unquestioning veneration and scientific inquiry don't go hand-in-hand.  In fact, they are the exact opposites of each other.

Buddhist teachings, especially the noble eight-fold path, are simple on the surface.  But as soon as one goes below the surface, Buddhism reveals itself to be esoteric and non-obvious and presumptuous.

Buddhism is also known for discouraging "idle inquiry" and focusing more on practice and its results.  However, if Buddhist scriptures talk a lot of apparent philosophy in their primary sutras, then they open themselves up to scrutiny.  Moreover, any practice is built upon a bedrock of theory.  If the theory is suspect, what will the practice yield except a feel-good piousness and a practiced calm without understanding?

In the next part, I will focus on the third noble truth of the Buddha.


DR. VENKAT said...

I have often found re-incarnation hard to fathom. Being a physician, I observe deaths almost everyday. I have seen 'bodies' that were able and fit a day prior, deteriorate over 24 hrs. I have seen life being snatched from the jaws of the death
It is difficult to look at a dead body and question as to where the sole went. A heart that was beating, a lung that was breathing, a brain being aware/conscious/drowsy/comatose stopped functioning. Yes, perhaps this functioning of the brain included the 'mind', 'self' and 'soul'. But to suggest transmigration of the soul in this day and age is ridiculous. The absence of an after-life takes a lot of metaphysical questions off the table.
There is the universe. There exists birth, life, and death. And in sentient beings life brings its own joys and sufferings. Perhaps that is all there is.
I really admire Buddha and Mahavira for what they endured, that is something pretty remarkable. Where does one start in today's scientific age if one wants to undertake a similar journey?

Birju said...

thanks for sharing your thoughts. could you share where you are going with this? i am interested in what your thesis is - am i correct in reading that you feel buddhist thought is based on very shaky ground? are you of the thinking that the dominant scientific paradigm (Cartesian) is much more solid and consistent in comparison? thanks for elucidating.

Harmanjit Singh said...


"Where does one start in today's scientific age if one wants to undertake a similar journey?"

I think the canon of science has gathered more mass over time, but each age had its scientific investigators. You are right in calling this the "scientific age" because anything else won't be respected by academia, generally speaking.

For any kind of intellectual or philosophical quest about existence, it would be well to begin with reading others who have grappled with this. There are a lot of texts, and you will find "The Story of Philosophy" by Will Durant to be an amusing read.


I am trying to point out the dangers of following an other-worldly goal. Yes, the real world can be depressing at times, but the other world (the one advocated by spirituality as one's final abode or destination) is simply imaginary.

Birju Pandya said...

Thanks for sharing your viewpoint Harmanjit, appreciate the clarity and succinctness.