Friday, August 23, 2013

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, part 5

Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The fourth noble truth of the Buddha is about the path that leads to the cessation, or at least a lessening, of suffering.  I find it interesting that the (third) truth about the cessation of suffering comes before, and not after, the description of the path.

Even if one accepts that the four noble truths need to be studied one after the other and that only if one accepts and understands the earlier truths that the later ones will make sense, the fourth noble truth contains elements of ethics which are the easiest to understand for most people, and the third noble truth describes a state which is generally incomprehensible and a matter of faith.

Anyway, on to the fourth noble truth and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

That path, called the "noble eight-fold path", comprises of:
  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration
The eight aspects are generally classified into three categories.  The first two comprising Prajna (wisdom), the third, fourth and fifth comprising Sila (ethics), and the last three comprising Samadhi (Concentration, or Meditation).
Let's focus on each of these eight "folds" one by one.
"Right View", as per Buddhist literature is: the belief and understanding in Buddhism itself.  From the Pali and Chinese Buddhist texts (ref Wikipedia):
And what is right view? Knowledge with reference to suffering, knowledge with reference to the origination of suffering, knowledge with reference to the cessation of suffering, knowledge with reference to the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: This is called right view.
In more detail, "Right View" usually entails understanding and accepting the following (again, from Wikipedia):
  1. Moral law of karma: Every action (by way of body, speech, and mind) will have karmic results (a.k.a. reaction). Wholesome and unwholesome actions will produce results and effects that correspond with the nature of that action. It is the right view about the moral process of the world.

  2. The three characteristics: Phenomena are impermanent, source of suffering and not-self.

  3. Suffering: Birth, aging, sickness, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, distress, and despair are suffering. Not being able to obtain what one wants is also suffering. The arising of craving is the proximate cause of the arising of suffering and the cessation of craving is the proximate cause of the cessation of the suffering. The quality of ignorance is the root cause of the arising of suffering, and the elimination of this quality is the root cause of the cessation of suffering. The way leading to the cessation of suffering is the noble eightfold path. This type of right view is explained in terms of Four Noble Truths.
Let's leave aside the circular reference of "right view" to the four noble truths themselves, as we are already discussing that in detail.  Let's briefly consider the other stuff:
  1. The doctrine of Karma not only presupposes a kind of "divine justice", its spiritual forms usually presume reincarnation as well.  If there was no justice in this life, then it will be done in another life.  Many have commented that this doctrine can and does lead to an apathetic view of others' suffering in the world ("They must have done something in their past lives to deserve this.").  As for divine justice, many religions believe in the existence of a divine judge.  Buddhism doesn't, at least explicitly.  Buddhist karmic record-keeping is more in the form of accumulation of impressions (sankharas) within the being/soul which then come out eventually (in some lifetime) and lead to consequences for the holder.

    Buddhists also claim that there is no-self.  That seems contradictory to the doctrine of Karma, as far as I can see.  The question to which I haven't received a satisfactory response from Buddhists is that if there is no-self, then who does the karmic record refer to, and what is the nature of the accumulated sankharas if not bound to an individual "soul"?  Why don't the sankharas dissipate and agglomerate randomly into new beings?  More dramatically, "who" is not born again after achieving Nirvana?

    Karma, or a similar belief, is very important for religious people of any kind.  All religions promise a reward for leading a moral life.  Without a reward for morality, in this world or especially in the next, morality becomes less attractive as a way of life.  The rewards of immorality are more obvious, so a firm assertion that immorality will finally have its punishment and morality will have its reward is needed to keep people from feeling too unhappy and resentful.

    Is this belief rooted in fact?  Absolutely not.  The doctrine of Karma can be shredded by any reasonably skilled philosopher.  There is no divine justice at all, because there is nothing "divine" to begin with.  Justice is a human construct, and is based on social and historical taboos and conventions and the prevailing morality.  And needless to say, human justice systems are imperfect at best, and perverse at worst (rewarding the criminals and punishing the law-abiding).

    To be even more succinct: A belief in Karma is the outcome of a wish for justice in this world.  It is because we perceive and recognize injustice that we need to believe that eventually justice will be done.

    Note: If the punishment is to be considered psychic instead of socio-legal, it can be of two kinds: neurosis (guilt, shame, regret, a bad conscience), and bad karma.  In response to the first category I will only say that Psychopathy is precisely the name of the condition where one suffers little psychical remorse of adverse emotional blowback after indulging in harmful or anti-social behavior.

  2. The three characteristics of phenomena, i.e. impermanence, suffering and non-self, are central tenets of Buddhist philosophy.  Some brief comments about all three:

    1. "Nothing lasts forever" is a fine statement.  Buddhists infer from this that therefore one shouldn't desire or get attached to anything.  Because, as per Buddhists, when that object of desire or attachment goes away, there will be suffering.  I have already commented upon the logical consequence of not having any desires (to wit: death).  To accept impermanence as a fact of life requires more fortitude and maturity than to simply turn away from impermance in horror and not desire anything at all.  It is cowardly, for example, to not even begin to love a person because he/she might leave you.  Yes there will be suffering, but the alternative is to simply wither away and die.

    2. "Suffering" is inherent in all phenomena is another of those noble-sounding assertions in Buddhism.  I have already talked about this in part 1 of my commentary.  I maintain that Buddhism is a religion of pessimists and life-renouncers who can only see the cloud in ever silver lining, and a shower in every rainbow, and a dusk in every dawn.

    3. "Non-self":  Buddhists talk a lot about how there is no such thing as the self.  A famous philosophical exchange from Buddhist literature is here.  There are various philosophical views about self and identity and I will address them in another series soon (part 1 of which is here).  That series will also address the above-referred philosophical exchange.  However, for the impatient, let me say that in essence I see nothing wrong in the conception of oneself (both subjectively and objectively) as comprised of and uniquely identified by: one's body, the contents and processes of one's mind, and one's interactions (all three traced over one's lifetime).

  3. The doctrine of suffering has already been talked about in part 1.
It can be confusing to see the structure of the four noble truths vis-à-vis "right view", so I will present it in a simplified way:
Four Noble Truths contain the Fourth Noble Truth which contains the Noble Eight-fold Path which contains "Right View" which refers to an understanding of both the Four Noble Truths with repeated emphasis about "suffering" (which is the first Noble Truth).
(to be continued)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Harman have you listened to Osho's discourses on Dhammapada - Es Dhammo Sanantano ?