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Essay/Term paper: The buddha's four noble truths: a logical basis for philosophy

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Religion

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The Buddha's Four Noble Truths: A Logical Basis for Philosophy


The Buddha Shakyamuni was born in the 6th century BCE in the area
presently known as Nepal. During his 80 year lifetime, he systematically
developed a pragmatic, empirically based philosophy which he claimed would lead
its followers towards an enlightened existence. Buddhism is commonly called a
religion; however, it differs from the usual definition of a religion in that it
has no deities, does not promote worship of demigods, and is based on logical
reasoning and observation rather than spiritual faith. At the heart of Buddhist
philosophy is the Buddha's enumeration of Four Noble Truths: Dukkha (suffering),
Samudaya (origin of suffering), Nirodha (cessation of suffering), and Magga
(path to cessation of suffering). The Buddha's Four Noble Truths are based on
archetypal traits that were elucidated through careful empirical observance and
intensive introspection. These Four Noble Truths form a logically coherent set
of axioms upon which the whole of Buddhism is based, and provide a solid
foundation for a philosophy which is applicable several millennia after its
formulation.{1}

"What we call a 'being,' or an 'individual,' or 'I,' according to Buddhist
philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or
energies...." - Walpola Rahula{2}

In order to fully understand the Four Noble Truths, it is necessary to
investigate the Buddhist view of the individual and its makeup. In some
respects, the manner in which Buddhism deals with the mind/body problem is much
more advanced than most religious views, and closer to science's understanding
of the mind and body. Rather than postulating the existence of an eternal soul
with no physical manifestation, the Buddha taught that the person is really a
collection of five skandhas or aggregates. These include rupa (matter), vedana
(sensations), sanna (perceptions), samkhara (mental formations), and vijnana
(consciousness). The aggregate of matter encompasses all tangible aspects of
the world. The aggregate of sensations is akin to the process of sensory input;
e.g., the activation of retinal cells in the eye. Vedana does not include the
process of perception, however; the act of perceiving the senses, i.e.,
recognition of external sensations, is within the realm of the sanna. Buddha
classified mental activities (samkhara), i.e., ideas and thoughts, as being
disparate from the state of mental consciousness (vijnana). Consciousness, in
the Buddhist view, is the awareness of the sensations and perceptions that the
person experiences, while the mental formations are the volitions, whims,
thoughts, and ideas that a person has. The breakdown of the individual into the
skandhas is strikingly similar to the classifications used in the modern field
of psychology. Matter, sensation, perception, cognition, and consciousness are
common nomenclature in both paradigms.

"There is this Noble Truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering,
sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief,
and despair are suffering, association with the loathed is suffering,
dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is
suffering...." - Shakyamuni Buddha{3}

The First Noble Truth, the Truth of Dukkha, is based on Buddha's
observation that all people in the world are in a state of dukkha. Dukkha,
which translates literally as "suffering' from the Pali, does not mean pain or
distress as the word "suffer' usually implies. Instead it is used to convey the
idea that the very act of living is one of imperfection and impermanence, and
hence is a situation that must be remedied in order to achieve true happiness.
There are three types of dukkha: dukkha-dukkha (suffering in the conventional
sense), viparinama-dukkha (suffering caused by the ephemeral nature of happiness
in life), and samkhara-dukkha (suffering caused by existence itself). Suffering
in the conventional sense of the word, such as that caused by pain, disease, and
poverty, is classified as dukkha-dukkha. The Buddha also noted that happiness
itself, being a fleeting emotion, usually resulted in an eventual loss of
happiness greater than the initial happiness. This loss of happiness is caused
by the removal of whatever situation or object precipitated the happiness in the
first place; therefore the transitory nature of life itself is the root of
dukkha, in this case called viparinama. This leads to the conclusion that
suffering is an inherent trait of existence itself, and is classified as
samkhara. And thus the question is raised that if suffering is inherent in life
itself, what is the cause (and the remedy) for this undesirable state of
affairs?

"There is this noble truth of the origin of suffering: It is craving, which
produces renewal of being, is accompanied by relish and lust, relishing this and
that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving
for nonbeing." - Shakyamuni Buddha{4}

While dukkha has a variety of direct causes, Buddhist doctrine teaches
that at the heart of all suffering is a basal craving or thirst called tanhâ.
Tanha is defined in the original texts as "... this thirst which produces re-
existence and re-becoming, and which is bound up with passionate greed, and
which finds fresh delight now here and now there ...."{5} There are three sub-
divisions of tanha: kama-tanhâ (desire for sensual pleasures), bhava-tanhâ
(desire for existence), and vibhava-tanhâ (desire for non-existence). These
three types of desire have a common effect - they result in the continuation of
suffering and the instantiation of the dukkha. The causal relationship between
the tanha and dukkha is delineated by the related concepts of karma and karma-
phala. Karma is the Sanskrit word for "action' or "doing' and it refers to the
actions of a person as a result of his or her mental volition. The result of a
person's karma is called karma-phala, commonly colloquialized as the fruits of
karma. The basic belief in Buddhism about the mechanics of karma is that when a
person has a craving (tanha) of any sort, they will try to attain the thing for
which they have the craving (karma), and in doing so will cause the existence of
dukkha in their life. This belief is another way of viewing the old axiom that "
what goes around, comes around," a simple observation about the nature of cause
and effect in relation to human actions.

"There is this noble truth of the cessation of suffering: It is the
remainderless fading and ceasing, the giving up, relinquishing, letting go, and
rejecting of that same craving." - Shakyamuni Buddha{6}

The goal of a Buddhist is to eliminate all traces of dukkha from his or
her life, thus becoming Enlightened. A person who has attained Enlightenment,
according to the Buddha, is in a state of Nirvana. Nirvana is commonly defined
as Tanhakkhaya, or the extinction of thirst. It is the end of all earthly
suffering and freedom from attachment to the Five Aggregates.{7} While commonly
misconstrued as final annihilation, nirvana is simply the final liberation from
the earthly existence, or as the Buddha put it, "... [it is] the extinction of
desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion. This, O bhikkhus,
is called the Absolute [Nirvana]."{8} One who is enlightened is able to realize
the absolute truth of any situation without the illusion of earthly existence
interfering.

"There is this noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering:
It is this Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say: right view, right intention,
right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness,
and right concentration." - Shakyamuni Buddha{9}

With the goal of Nirvana thus elucidated, the obvious question is "How
does one set about reaching Nirvana?" As with the rest of his philosophy, the
Buddha answered this question through careful empirical observations. In the
early days of his life, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury in which all of the
sensual pleasures were given to him. Finding this an unsatisfactory state of
affairs, the Buddha attempted to find happiness in a life at the opposite
extreme. He became a wandering ascetic, practicing self-denial and abasement
for a number of years. After searching for the answer in both hedonism and
puritanism, he realized that the path to Enlightenment must lie somewhere
between these two antipodes. Thus, the Buddha found the Middle Path or the Way
leading to the Cessation of Dukkha, Magga. He declared that eight qualities
were required to follow the path to Nirvana: Right Understanding, Right Thought,
Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,
and Right Concentration. The rational behind this eightfold path of the Magga
is simple - a person who follows it will be endowed with wisdom (right
understanding and right thought), compassion (right speech, right action, and
right livelihood), and mental awareness (right mindfulness and right
concentration). These are the qualities which are both necessary and sufficient
to attain final liberation, Enlightenment, and Nirvana.

Thus is laid out the very heart of the Buddhist doctrine. These four
aspects of the Buddha's philosophy are not lofty, abstract constructs which have
no empirical basis. They are, in the most sincere use of the words, "The Four
Noble Truths.'

FOOTNOTES********************************

{1} The idea of the cycle of death and rebirth, a central tenet to both
Buddhist philosophy and the Hindu religion, will not be brought into this
discussion of the Four Noble Truths. While reincarnation was very important to
Buddha's formulation of his beliefs, it is neither a necessary nor sufficient
condition for the Four Noble Truths to hold true. When examined from a purely
logical and empirical basis, the Four Noble Truths are still valid without the
introduction of reincarnation.

{2} Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. Page 25.

{3} Sherab Chödzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.

{4} Sherab Chödzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.

{5} Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. Page 29.

{6} Sherab Chödzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.

{7} B. Alan Wallace. Tibetan Buddhism From the Ground Up. Pages 40-41.

{8} Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught. Page 36.

{9} Sherab Chödzin Kohn. The Life of the Buddha. Page 19.



 

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