Buddhist Philosophy/Introduction

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Buddhist Philosophy

  1. Introduction
  2. Details
  3. Meditation
  4. Mindfulness
  5. Sutra
  6. Schools
  7. Esoteric Buddhism
  8. Yinyana
  9. Developments
  10. Glossary
  11. Quips
  12. References and Links

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What is Buddhist philosophy? gives an introduction to some key points developed here. Buddhism will be explored from some of its less known attributes:

  • Influences on medicine and healing
  • Cosmology
  • Rasayana teachings
  • Development of a secular religion
  • Non-theistic ethics and morality


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Buddha was born at Lumbini, now part of present-day Nepal, in the year 566 B.C. His father was Raja Shuddhodhan and his mother's name was Mahadevi. He was born a Shakya tribal prince and his father consulted many court astrologers to predict his son's future before giving him the name Siddhartha Gautama. He was schooled to be a secular leader, but instead became the founder of the Buddhist religion. His mother died soon after childbirth, so he was raised largely by his aunt and step-mother.

Buddhism often traces its religious foundation to the life and inspiration of the Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddhism has been associated with peacefulness towards others, including animals (especially the monkey), and an emphasis on meditation. Many words originally largely associated with Buddhism are now part of Western usage, for example: Zen, karma, mantra, nirvana.

What led to the Buddha's enlightenment?

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The semi-mythological nature of the Buddha's life is also reflected in many Sufi tales of princes who gave up their kingdoms to follow paths of spiritual unfolding, although none of these stories are found in the historical record until much later and, as such, were probably influenced by the Buddha story.[1] The Buddha was born to the ruler of a small kingdom in Nepal and led a sheltered life. After seeing the four signs, he resolved to leave his life of ease and find the cause of overcoming of dissatisfaction, or dukkha. After study, ascetic and meditative practices, the Buddha developed an understanding or realization; the rest of his life was spent transmitting this realization.

Buddha expressed his philosophy quite succinctly when he said: "I teach only two things, Oh disciples: the fact of suffering, and the possibility of escape from suffering."

Buddha inspired the famous "Four Noble Truths," and the "Eightfold Path" which allows people to achieve nirvana. What is nirvana? Before this is answered, you must understand the concept of karma. Buddhist philosophy states that everything is subject to the law of karma. Buddha taught that positive actions build up one's karma, while negative ones detract from it. Buddhists try to achieve good karma and free themselves from bad karma by living a morally sound life, which is the intended outcome of the observance of Buddhist practices. Nirvana is the state of being free from mental defilements (klesha), which are chiefly hate, desire and ignorance; ignorance being the root cause of all of them. With the cessation of kleshas, all forms of suffering cease and a state of bliss and equanimity is attained. Buddhism teaches that life is part of a cycle of suffering called Samsara. If one achieves good karma, practicing the Four Noble Truths and following the Eightfold Path, then this cycle will end, and rather than being subject to the law of karma they will be free of it, living in a state of eternal happiness.

What were the Four Signs?

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The Buddha led a leisurely and protected life within a royal palace and even fathered a child. When he, against all advice, left the palace, he encountered four manifestations, or signs, of human suffering:

  1. An old person
  2. A sick person
  3. A dead person
  4. A wandering ascetic (comparable to the Western traditions of friars, or anyone who intentionally foregoes having a home and personal possessions to pursue a richer spiritual life)

Siddhartha was affected by what he saw and resolved to find out why there was suffering, the cause of the suffering, and how to end one's suffering.

The Sanskrit word "karma" literally means "action". Hetu is the Sanskrit for "intention" and phala refers to an "effect." Karma may be either "good" (positive) or "bad" (negative), and both categories of actions have their respective phala.

What are the Four Noble Truths?

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  1. Existence entails discomfort, or suffering (dukkha). All worldly life is unsatisfactory and disjointed.
  2. The cause of dukkha is attachment, craving or desire (tanha), collectively known as Samudāya.
  3. The cessation of dukkha comes from achieving Nirodha, the way out of suffering, which is to eliminate attachment and desire.
  4. The way leading to the cessation of dukkha (Marga): The path that leads out of suffering is called the Noble Eightfold Path.

Buddha taught that in order to achieve nirvana (Nirodha), people must free themselves from their own ego and give up all desire. Buddha claimed that by having so many desires (such as wanting pleasure, wealth, happiness, security, success, long life, etc.), we condemn ourselves to suffering, and will never escape the cycle of rebirth. This is why Buddhists believe that all suffering is self-created.[2]

What is the Eightfold Path?

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  1. Right View/Understanding
  2. Right Thoughts
  3. Right Speech, abstaining from lying, divisive or abusive speech, and idle chatter (Sutta Nipata 45.8)
  4. Right Action, abstaining from the taking of life, stealing and fornication (Sutta Nipata 45.8)
  5. Right Livelihood, abstaining from facilitating the suffering or death of others or complicity in the same, avoiding guns and poisons or anything else which exists only to cause harm (Sutta Nipata 45.8)
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration, more commonly known as meditation

What are the Three Jewels?

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The crowning achievements of the Buddha were:

  1. The Buddha ~ His lifetime of gaining wisdom, understanding and awakening
  2. The Teaching (Dharma) ~ The oral teachings and transmission
  3. The Community (Sangha) ~ The group of awoken teachers or disciples of the Buddha

The Thirty-One Realms (Bhumi 31)

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Buddhism claims that there are thirty-one realms where life is found. The human realm (manussa bhumi) is one of those 31 realms, and is included among the happy realms (sugati bhumi). The realms are divided into four main categories, which are:

  1. The suffering, or sub-human, realms (apaya bhumi): Hell (niraya), the realm of the Titans (asura), the Ghost realm (peta), and the animal realm.
    • Beings are reborn here because of their bad actions in past lives.
  2. The happy realms (sugati bhumi), or realms of sense (kama bhumi): the human realm and the six realms of gods (the use of the word 'god' is not related to the Western meaning of 'God').
    • Beings are reborn here as the result of their good deeds, mainly by practicing generosity, self-restraint/virtue, and meditation.
  3. The realms of form.
    • Beings who have successfully practiced meditation to the level of rupa-jhana .
  4. The formless realms.
    • Beings who have successfully practiced meditation to the level of arupa-jhama.

What are the Six Realms?

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The six realms are the six possible states of existence for sentient beings. There is an immense variation in the beings of each realm, but these beings will all share certain characteristics. We re-emerge in these states according to our karma. The 'lower realms' is a term used to refer to the states of Hell, hungry ghosts (petas) and animals. These three states are severely restrictive in the ability of a sentient being trapped in them to attain liberation, and because of this their suffering in Samsara is prolonged. The most basic reason for refuge is to attain a dwelling that avoids these realms.

The Heavenly, or Deva Realm

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These are the realms of existence inhabited by the devas or 'shining ones', and are marked by experiences of bliss and pleasure for long periods of time.

This is separated into two main states of existence - those with form and those without form. The deva realms are correlated to the eight jhanas/dhyanas, which are eight distinct meditative states. The first four of which are marked by an awareness of form - such as the meditator's body, while the last four are entirely mental experiences, where sensory input to the material senses is no longer felt.

Beings gain rebirth in these realms by a combination of right conduct and/or deep meditative experience during life. Once there, they have immense lifespans, especially in the higher states, and their perception of time is similarly different to humans - with their perception of a 'day' sometimes being equal to human millenia.

Being reborn in such a state is seen as being ultimately useless, since it is temporary and there is no apparent reason to work towards liberation from Samsara. When the karma of a sentient being living in such a state begins to run out, they usually have very little merit relating to pleasurable existences remaining in their stream or consciousness, and are eventually born in one of the three lower realms. As they die, they become clearly aware of this, and such an experience is said to be worse than all the suffering that could be experienced in any of the other realms.

The conflicted realm of Titans (Asuras, the jealous gods)

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Buddha Level: The Life of the Father, conflict between duty and resolution, the Four Signs

In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare,
terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo,
Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.
In Switzerland they had brotherly love,
they had five hundred years of democracy and peace,
and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.

—Orson Welles, The Third Man

For thirty years people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y!
The truthful answer is that I don't.
Everything about me is a contradiction and so is everything about everybody else.
We are made out of oppositions;
we live between two poles.
There is a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint.
You don't reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.

—Orson Welles to Kenneth Tynan, 1967

Human Developmental Stage: Early childhood

The passion or animal realm

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Buddha Level: Training the Buddha, stupidity and servitude

The main
passions of Mohammad
were women and perfumes.
This realm is about the patterns of instinct,
the needs of the animal. For food, and interaction.
It is interesting that some systems utilize this realm as a source
of wisdom and inspiration. Acknowledgement
is part of the key rather than denial, asceticism or willful
denial or indulgence that is the Middle way

Human Developmental Stage: Adolescence

Hell Realm

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Buddha Level: Trained and nowhere to go, wracked by torture and characterized by aggression

There is a wonderful story of a PureLand Buddhist Master who had a disturbing dream:

In the dream, the Master saw himself in the God Realm
He called his fellow monks together and with tears in his eyes
recounted the portent dream
pleading they pray that he be sent to the hell realms
to rescue the beings dwelling there.

A true Bodhisattva.

Human Developmental Stage: Young adulthood

The Craving or Hungry Spirit Realm

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Buddha Level: The extreme ascetic, characterized by great craving and eternal starvation

Human Developmental Stage: Maturity

Human Realm

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Buddha Level: The world transformed

Beings who are both good and evil; enlightenment is within their grasp, yet most are blinded and consumed by their desires

Human Developmental Stage: Old age


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  1. Walters, Jonathan S. (February 1999). "Suttas as History: Four Approaches to the "Sermon on the Noble Quest" (Ariyapariyesanasutta)". History of Religions. The University of Chicago Press. 38 (3): 247–284. doi:10.1086/463543.
  2. "Religions - Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths". BBC. November 17, 2009. Retrieved August 25, 2022.