Buddhism an Atheistic Philosophy for Self Elevation of Spirit

· Buddhism

What is Buddhism?

(5930 words)

Siddhartha Gautama’s Early Life

Siddhartha Gautama was born about 583 BCE, in or near what is now Nepal. His father, King Suddhodana, was leader of a large clan called the Shakya. His mother, Queen Maya, died shortly after his birth.

When Prince Siddhartha was a few days old, a holy man prophesied the Prince would be either a great military conqueror or a great spiritual teacher. King Suddhodana preferred the first outcome and prepared his son accordingly. He raised the boy in great luxury and shielded him from knowledge of religion and human suffering. The Prince reached the age of 29 with little experience of the world outside the walls of his opulent palaces.

Siddhartha’s father wanted him to become a king like him. So, his father made it his goal to assure that Siddhartha would never be exposed to painful human conditions of misery, sickness, and suffering. The king indulged Siddhartha in every type of sensual pleasure and material wealth. These efforts were meant to shield Siddhartha from pain, in hopes he would choose to be a king later in life.

As Siddhartha matured, he began to venture outside the walls of his father’s kingdom. By doing so, he was exposed to various painful conditions. In particular, he encountered four examples of human suffering and pain. These encounters are referred to as, “The Four Sights.” The four sights would have a profound impact on Siddhartha’s lifestyle and very existence.

The Four Sights

The First Sight

One day, Siddhartha left the village in a chariot with a chariot driver. They came upon a rather decrepit, old man. Siddhartha was shocked at this sight. He asked the chariot driver who the man was and what was wrong with him. The driver explained the man was simply old and that all people experience old age in one form or another. This man was the first sight. Upset about what he saw, Siddhartha and his driver went back to their village.

The Second Sight

The next day, again, Siddhartha set out with the chariot driver, headed out of the village toward the city. They came upon a man who was sick and covered with sores, the second sight. Once again, Siddhartha questioned the chariot driver. The chariot driver explained the man is sick and that everyone can become diseased or sick at any time. Siddhartha became so deeply shaken that he and the driver return home right away.

The Third Sight

On the next trip out of the city on the third day, Siddhartha noticed a funeral procession, which is the third sight. He thought it was a parade but observed the participants looking sad and unhappy, as if they were suffering. Of course, he asked the chariot driver what was happening. The driver said that a person died and that all living beings will eventually die. Siddhartha went back to the village, devastated by what he had just learned about death, unhappiness, and suffering.

Dwelling on the pain and misery he observed, Siddhartha pondered. How could anyone ever live happily with all the sickness, death, and misery in the world? Furthermore, he wondered why anyone would want to be born or want others to be born into such a weary existence.

The Fourth Sight

On the fourth day, Siddhartha encountered a poor man (the fourth sight, an ascetic) who wandered the countryside without a home or material things. Siddhartha noticed the man looked quite peaceful and serene. The chariot driver described how the poor man abandoned a worldly life for a more tranquil existence.Siddhartha liked this idea. He pledged to live the rest of his life roaming in hopes of encountering wise men who could help him discover ways to end pain and misery. He also vowed to discover the true meaning of life. The next night, for one last time, Siddhartha looked at his wife and young son as they slept. Then he left on his quest for life’s meaning and to discover how to end misery and pain.

These four sights, then, facilitated Siddhartha’s “Great Departure”-his exit from living a worldly life. And so began Siddhartha’s 50 years of Buddhist teaching and searching for truth, motivated by The Four Sights. [1]

This is the essence of Siddhartha Gautama’s philosophy of his quest to seek the answer to the elimination of life’s suffering, misery and pain by seeking the life of an ascetic and  finding the answers to the end of suffering through meditation and self improving one’s own soul until one has found tranquillity as he had observed in that ascetic he met. It was a matter of will power and determination to achieve that perfect tranquillity, or Nirvana, and thus becoming a Buddha. Mind over matter.

The Essence of Buddhism

In his 29th year he renounced the worldly life and exchanged his princely career for that of a homeless mendicant. After six years of hard striving he at last attained his goal: deliverance from the round of rebirths, or Samsara. The Buddha describes this time in his own words as follows:

Bhikkhus, before I had attained to full enlightenment, myself being still subject to birth, decay, disease, death, sorrow and impurity, I too was seeking after that which is subject to birth, decay, disease, death, sorrow and impurity. And so, bhikkhus, after a time, while still young, a black-haired lad, in my youthful prime, just come to budding manhood’s years, against the wishes of father and mother weeping and lamenting, I cut off hair and beard and, clad in the yellow robe, went forth from home to homelessness. Thus vowed to homelessness, I was striving after the highest good, the incomparable path to supreme peace.

At first the future Buddha learned under two great yogis who had attained to a high state of supernormal psychical powers and faculties. But neither of them could satisfy him, as their teachings did not lead to real everlasting peace and deliverance of mind. So he left them again after having fully realized their teaching. Thereafter he met five ascetics, who were practicing the severest forms of self-torture and mortification of the flesh, with the hope of gaining deliverance in this way. The future Buddha became one of their party. He subjected himself with utmost perseverance to extreme fasting and self-torture, till at last he looked like a mere skeleton. And utterly exhausted, he broke down and collapsed. He now came to understand that bodily mortification is vain and useless, and will never lead to peace of heart and to deliverance. He henceforth gave up fasting and bodily mortification and sought refuge in moral and mental development. And with calm and serene mind he began to look into the true nature of existence.

Wherever he turned his eyes, he found only one great reality: the law of suffering, the unsatisfactoriness of all forms of existence. He understood that the destiny of beings is not the outcome of mere blind chance, nor does it depend upon the arbitrary action of an imaginary creator, but that our destiny is to be traced back to our own former actions, or kamma. He beheld the sick and the leper, and he saw in their misery and suffering only the result of actions, or kamma, done in former lives. He beheld the blind and the lame, and he saw in their debility and helplessness only the painful harvest of seeds sown by themselves in former lives. He beheld the rich and the poor, the happy and the unhappy; and wherever he turned his eyes, there he saw this law of retribution, the moral law of cause and effect, the Dhamma.

The Four Noble Truths

This Dhamma, or universal moral law discovered by the Buddha, is summed up in the Four Noble Truths: the truths about the universal sway of suffering, about its origin, its extinction, and the path leading to its extinction.

  1. The first truth, about the universality of suffering, teaches, in short, that all forms of existence are of necessity subject to suffering.
  2. The second truth, about the origin of suffering, teaches that all suffering is rooted in selfish craving and ignorance, in tanha and avijja.It further explains the cause of this seeming injustice in nature, by teaching that nothing in the world can come into existence without reason or cause; and that not only all our latent tendencies, but our whole destiny, all weal and woe, results from causes which we have to seek partly in this life, partly in former states of existence.The second truth further teaches us that the future life, with all its weal and woe, must result from the seeds sown in this and former lives.
  3. The third truth, or the truth about the extinction of suffering, shows how, through the extinction of craving and ignorance, all suffering will vanish and liberation from this Samsara be attained.
  4. The fourth truth shows the way, or the means by which this goal is reached. It is the Noble Eightfold Path of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right bodily action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration of mind.

From these Four Noble Truths we shall pick out and clear up such points as are essential for a general knowledge of the Dhamma. In doing so, we shall at the same time refute a number of widespread prejudices concerning the Buddha’s teaching.

The Noble Eightfold Paths

Let us, however, first outline the Noble Eightfold Path, for it is this path of righteousness and wisdom that really constitutes the essence of Buddhist practice — the mode of living and thinking to be followed by any true follower of the Buddha.

  1. The first stage of the Eightfold Path is, as already stated, right understanding, i.e. understanding the true nature of existence, and the moral laws governing the same. In other words, it is the right understanding of the Dhamma, i.e. of the Four Noble Truths.
  2. The second stage of the Eightfold Path is right thought, i.e. a pure state of mind, free from sensual lust, from ill-will, and from cruelty; in other words, thoughts of self-renunciation, of goodness, and of mercy.
  3. The third stage is right speech. It consists of words which are not false, not harsh, not scandalous, not frivolous, i.e. truthful words, mild words, pacifying words, and wise words.
  4. The fourth stage is right bodily action, i.e. abstaining from intentional killing or harming of any living creature, abstaining from dishonest taking of others’ property, abstaining from adultery.
  5. The fifth stage is right livelihood, i.e. such a livelihood as does not bring harm and suffering to other beings.
  6. The sixth stage is right effort. It is the fourfold effort which we make in overcoming old and avoiding fresh bad actions by body, speech and mind; and the effort which we make in developing fresh actions of righteousness, inner peace and wisdom, and in cultivating them to perfection.
  7. The seventh stage is right mindfulness, or alertness of mind. It is the ever-ready mental clarity whatever we are doing, speaking, or thinking and in keeping before our mind the realities of existence, i.e. the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and phenomenality (anicca, dukkha, anatta) of all forms of existence.
  8. The eighth stage is right concentration of mind. Such a kind of mental concentration is meant, as is directed towards a morally wholesome object, and always bound up with right thought, right effort and right mindfulness.

Thus the Eightfold Path is a path of morality (sila), of mental training (samadhi), and of wisdom (pañña).

Morality therein is indicated by right speech, right bodily action, and right livelihood. Mental training is indicated by right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration of mind. And wisdom is indicated by right understanding and right thought.

Thus this liberating Eightfold Path is a path of inner culture, of inner progress. By merely external worship, mere ceremonies and selfish prayers, one can never make any real progress in righteousness and insight. The Buddha says: “Be your own isle of refuge, be your own shelter, seek not for any other protection! Let the truth be your isle of refuge, let the truth be your shelter, seek not after any other protection!” To be of real effect, to ensure an absolute inner progress, all our efforts must be based upon our own understanding and insight. All absolute inward progress is rooted in right understanding, and without right understanding there is no attainment of perfection and of the unshakable peace of Nibbana.

Belief in the moral efficacy of mere external rite and ritual (silabbata-paramasa) constitutes, according to the Buddha’s teaching, a mighty obstacle to inner progress. One who takes refuge in mere external practices is on the wrong path. For, in order to gain real inner progress, all our efforts must necessarily be based on our own understanding and insight. Any real progress is rooted in right understanding, and without right understanding there will be no attainment of unshakable peace and holiness. Moreover, this blind belief in mere external practices is the cause of much misery and wretchedness in the world. It leads to mental stagnation, to fanaticism and intolerance, to self-exaltation and contempt for others, to contention, discord, war, strife and bloodshed, as the history of the Middle Ages quite sufficiently testifies. This belief in mere externals dulls and deadens one’s power of thought, stifles every higher emotion in man. It makes him a mental slave, and favors the growth of all kinds of hypocrisy.

The Buddha has clearly and positively expressed himself on this point. He says: “The man enmeshed in delusion will never be purified through the mere study of holy books, or sacrifices to gods, or through fasts, or sleeping on the ground, or difficult and strenuous vigils, or the repetition of prayers. Neither gifts to priests, nor self-castigation, nor performance of rites and ceremonies can work purification in him who is filled with craving. It is not through the partaking of meat or fish that man becomes impure, but through drunkenness, obstinacy, bigotry, deceit, envy, self-exaltation, disparagement of others and evil intentions — through these things man becomes impure.”

“There are two extremes: addiction to sensual enjoyment, and addiction to bodily mortification. These two extremes the Perfect One has rejected, and discovered the Middle Path which makes one both to see and to know, which leads to peace, to penetration, enlightenment and liberation. It is that Noble Eightfold Path leading to the end of suffering, namely right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration of mind.”

Inasmuch as the Buddha teaches that all genuine progress on the path of virtue is necessarily dependent upon one’s own understanding and insight, all dogmatism is excluded from the Buddha’s teaching. Blind faith in authority is rejected by the Buddha, and is entirely opposed to the spirit of his teaching. In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha says:

Do not go merely by hearsay or tradition, by what has been handed down from olden time, by rumours, by mere reasoning and logical deductions, by outward appearances, by cherished opinions and speculations, by mere possibilities, and do not believe merely because I am your master. But when you yourselves have seen that a thing is evil and leads to harm and suffering, then you should reject it. And when you see that a thing is good and blameless, and leads to blessing and welfare, then you should do such a thing.

One who merely believes or repeats what others have found out, such a one the Buddha compares with a blind man. One who desires to make progress upon the path of deliverance must experience and understand the truth for himself. Lacking one’s own understanding, no absolute progress is possible.

The teaching of the Buddha is perhaps the only religious teaching that requires no belief in traditions, or in certain historical events. It appeals solely to the understanding of each individual. For wherever there are beings capable of thinking, there the truths proclaimed by the Buddha may be understood and realized, without regard to race, country, nationality or station in life. These truths are universal, not bound up with any particular country, or any particular epoch. And in everyone, even in the lowest, there lies latent the capacity for seeing and realizing these truths, and attaining to the Highest Perfection. And whosoever lives a noble life, such a one has already tasted of the truth and, in greater or lesser degree, travels on the Eightfold Path of Peace which all noble and holy ones have trod, are treading now, and shall in future tread. The universal laws of morality hold good without variation everywhere and at all times, whether one may call oneself a Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Muslim, or by any other name.

It is the inward condition of a person and his deeds that count, not a mere name. The true disciple of the Buddha is far removed from all dogmatism. He is a free thinker in the noblest sense of the word. He falls neither into positive nor negative dogmas, for he knows: both are mere opinions, mere views, rooted in blindness and self-deception. Therefore the Buddha has said of himself. “The Perfect One is free from any theory, for the Perfect One has seen: Thus is corporeality, thus it arises, thus it passes away; thus is feeling, thus it arises, thus it passes away; thus is perception, thus it arises, thus it passes away; thus are the mental formations, thus they arise, thus they pass away; thus is consciousness, thus it arises thus it passes away.”[2]

Buddhism is Atheistic

Buddhist Belief

Buddhism, as a religion, lays great emphasis on the adherence to the basic beliefs. The basic Buddhist belief comprise of the basic teachings and concepts of Buddhism. Lord Buddha urged His followers to concentrate on the Four Noble Truths, which helps in attaining freedom from suffering. In the following lines, we have provided more information on the basic Buddhism beliefs:Basic Points of Buddhism
Chief monks belonging to both the Theravada sect and the Mahayana sect met in Sri Lanka in the year 1966 and approved the following “Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and Mahayana”:
  • Buddha is our only Master.
  • We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.
  • This world is not created and ruled by a God.
  • The purpose of life is to develop empathy for all living beings without prejudice and to work for their good, happiness, and peace. Last but not the least; we need acquire acumen that will lead to the realization of Ultimate Truth.
  • We accept the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
  • All accustomed things (samskaara) are transient (anitya) and dukkha and all conditioned and unconditioned things (dharma) are without self (anaatma).
  • The Thirty-seven qualities helpful in Enlightenment are different aspects of the path taught by the Buddha.
  • There are three ways of attaining Enlightenment, namely as a Disciple, as a Pratyeka-Buddha and as a Samyak-sam-Buddha. The life of a Bodhisattva, who is striving to become a Samyak-sam-Buddha, is the highest, noblest and the most heroic.
  • The different Buddhist beliefs, practices, rites and ceremonies, customs and habits followed in different countries “should not be confused with the essential teachings of Buddha.”
Buddhism – Theistic or Atheistic
Buddhism does not believe in the existence of a God who created the universe.As per Lord Buddha, one should emphasize on the practical ways of life, which will help a person in attaining enlightenment. However, at the same time, Buddha did not rule out the existence of a God or gods altogether. With the growth and spread of Buddhism, local deities and religious practices were included in it. Today, Tibetan Buddhist cosmology talks about a large number of ‘Divine Beings’, believed to be representative of the psychic life. One of the six realms of the Tibetan cosmology is the realm of Gods, who must take birth on earth as humans to attain enlightenment.Buddhist Deities
Theravada sect of Buddhism does not believe in the existence of deities. However, as per the Mahayana sect, celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas occupy the universe as Gods and Goddesses. The most popular Buddhist deities include the Laughing Buddha, the Medicine Buddha, Kuan Yin, the Green and White Taras, etc. (This can been seen as a corruption of the basic tenets of Buddhism.)Human Nature
As per Buddhism, there is nothing such as a soul or atman. Rather, a human being is believed to be constituted of five elements, namely physical form, feelings, ideations, mental developments and awareness. These components combine to form a human being at the time of birth. However, since Buddhism believes in reincarnation and karma, one finds a little contradiction here. (Reincarnation is a throwback to Hinduism from which Buddhist philosophy emanated.)The Purpose of Living
The main aim of life, as per Buddhism, is the extinction of suffering. By recognizing the four noble truths of life and following the noble eightfold path, one can end the suffering in life. (Buddhism teaches man to blank out sufferings and misery by creating a state of mind that produces tranquillity. Perhaps a self disillusionment?)The Noble Eightfold Path
In Buddhism, it is believed that one can escape from the vicious cycle of birth and death by following the noble eightfold path, consisting of the following eight steps:
  • Right Actions
  • Right Concentration
  • Right Effort/Exercise
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Mindfulness/Awareness
  • Right Speech
  • Right Thoughts
  • Right Understanding
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths, forming the essence of Buddhism, are:
  • The Noble Truth of Suffering (Dukkha)
  • The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Samudaya)
  • The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
  • The Noble Truth that leads to the Extinction of Suffering (Magga) [3]

Discussion of the Basic Buddhist Beliefs

In order to appreciate the differences of the Buddhist philosophies against other religious philosophies we have to acknowledge these basic Buddhist beliefs:

(1) “This world is not created and ruled by a God.

Buddhism does not believe in the existence of a God who created the universe.

Hence, Buddhism does not recognise a god who created this world, and therefore Buddhism is an “atheist philosophy or ideology.” So by definition Buddhism is an philosophy and not a religion as no deities or gods are involved. The deities accepted by some Buddhist sects like Buddhism in China are therefore a corruption of the basic Buddhism.

(2) “Buddha is our only Master.

In accepting Siddhartha Gautama as their “Master” Buddhists have in fact created an immortal (a Saint) of Siddhartha and have revered him as s god-like mortal. Other Buddhists have further introduced their own deities into Buddhism which is a corruption of the basic concept of Buddhism for there is no god in basic Buddhism. That is because other cultures have always worshipped gods and to have a religion without a god was not in keeping with their native cultures.

By denying the existence of god, or a god who created the Universe, and declaring that they only accept Buddha as their only Master, they are in fact declaring their “exclusivity” and their “superiority of Buddha as superior to all other religious icons. A concept not generally appreciated by most people.

(3) Buddhism, not a religion in the normal definition of a religion, but a philosophy with only 4 Noble Truths and Eight Noble Pathways to guide Buddhists to try to achieve Nirvana, there does not appear to be any real religious or philosophical doctrines to adhere to. Therefore, as each community of Buddhists begin to find their way to seek tranquillity, each group sets their own agenda and rituals that suits their community be it in India, or Ceylon, or Thailand or Vietnam of China, or Japan because there are no regulations to limit their modification (or corruption) of the original concept of Buddhism. Hence the development of the different schools of Buddhism and sects of Buddhism of which there are many with different schools of thought, rituals and different independent hierarchical orders. But all of these orders are united under the banner of the Buddha.

Buddhist Sects

Buddhism is separated into two groups at its foundation, Theravada (or Hinayana) and Mahayana. Mahayana is split into three further classifications of (1) East Asian (simply known as Mahayana,) and Vajrayana which includes Tibetan Buddhism and the Japanese Shingon school.

Three Schools of Buddhism are:




Monastic Fraternities, Nikayas, the 3 surviving are: 

Theravada-in South East Asia

Dharmaguptaka-in China Korea and Vietnam

Mulasarvastivada-in the Tibetan tradition

Doctrinal Schools [1]

Twenty sects

The sects, Hinayana, split the “Sthaviravada sect” into 11 other sects.

The Mahasamghika sect split into 9 other sects.

East Asian Schools of Buddhism

Chinese Buddhism (Vinaya School), The Korean Buddhism (Gyeyul), Vietnamese Buddhism, and Japanese Buddhism (Ritsu) all use the vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka. While the Japanese Buddhist sect (Jojitsu) and the Chinese and Japanese Kusha school is influenced by philosophical aspects of some Buddhist schools.

Theravāda subschools

The different schools in Theravāda often emphasize different aspects (or parts) of the Pali canonand the later commentaries, or differ in the focus on and recommended way of practice. There are also significant differences in strictness or interpretation of the vinaya.

This practice is mainly found in and around the sub continent of India i.e., Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Tantric schools

Their influence in is Tibet and also in parts of Japan.

Mahāyāna schools

These schools have much influence in Tibet, China and Korea.

New Buddhist movements

The numerous new Buddhist movements shows the changing face of Buddhism in Asia. [4]

It is therefore almost impossible to discuss the differences of all the4se different sects and schools of Buddhism and illustrates that even Buddhists cannot appreciate such differences emanating from Siddhartha’s simply philosophy of attempting to resolve the problem of suffering and misery in mankind.

Mahayana vs. Theravada

Perhaps one way to appreciate the differences in some of these Buddhist sects it to examine some the the divergent differences between the two major schools of Buddhist thought as expressed in this quote:

“Significant differences abound between the two principal schools of modern Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. Among the many distinctions that exist, a few could be considered especially integral to an understanding of how these mutually exclusive divisions contrast with each other. Before treating these specific dissimilarities, however, it must be established that the one, fundamental divergence between the sects, which could possibly be understood as resulting in the following earmarks that make both brands unique unto the other, is that Mahayana practice stresses an inclusiveness that stands antithetically to Theravada’s doctrinal preservation. Where the former sort’s adaptability has both attracted new practitioners and altered itself to complement modernity, the latter’s staunch resistance to change has allowed it to remain an uncompromising vessel of original Buddhist thought, battered by, yet having weathered well, two millenia worth of transformation.” [5]

The link will provide further reading on the differences of Mahayana and Theravada. [5]

The Basics of Buddhism

Little wonder why so many people are unclear about Buddhism because when ever Buddhism is discussed we are barraged by such esoteric terms as the Dhamma and the Sangha or the Pali or the numerous Schools of Buddhism or the different sects of Buddhism, and told about the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Paths of Buddhism, till we are so confused that we cannot see the wood for the trees.

Fundamentally Siddhartha only sought to solve the misery and suffering of man by the self disciplining of man’s own mind through meditation,  contemplation and improving one’s own thoughts and ideals until one reaches tranquillity or peace of mind. This same conclusion has also been well expressed by Leonard Bullen an Australian who led the Buddhist Movement in Australia:

“Let us see, then, what Buddhism really is, Buddhism as it was originally expounded and as it still exists underneath the external trappings and trimmings.

Although generally regarded as a religion, Buddhism is basically a method of cultivating the mind. It is true that, with its monastic tradition and its emphasis on ethical factors, it possesses many of the surface characteristics that Westerners associate with religion. However, it is not theistic, since it affirms that the universe is governed by impersonal laws and not by any creator-god; it has no use for prayer, for the Buddha was a teacher and not a god; and it regards devotion not as a religious obligation but as a means of expressing gratitude to its founder and as a means of self-development. Thus it is not a religion at all from these points of view.

Again, Buddhism knows faith only in the sense of confidence in the way recommended by the Buddha. A Buddhist is not expected to have faith or to believe in anything merely because the Buddha said it, or because it is written in the ancient books, or because it has been handed down by tradition, or because others believe it. He may, of course, agree with himself to take the Buddha-doctrine as a working hypothesis and to have confidence in it; but he is not expected to accept anything unless his reason accepts it. This does not mean that everything can be demonstrated rationally, for many points lie beyond the scope of the intellect and can be cognized only by the development of higher faculties. But the fact remains that there is no need for blind acceptance of anything in the Buddha-doctrine.

Buddhism is a way of life based on the training of the mind. Its one ultimate aim is to show the way to complete liberation from suffering by the attainment of the Unconditioned, a state beyond the range of the normal untrained mind. Its immediate aim is to strike at the roots of suffering in everyday life.

All human activity is directed, either immediately or remotely, towards the attainment of happiness in some form or other; or, to express the same thing in negative terms, all human activity is directed towards liberation from some kind of unsatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction, then, can be regarded as the starting point in human activity, with happiness as its ultimate goal.

Dissatisfaction, the starting point in human activity, is also the starting point in Buddhism; and this point is expressed in the formula of the Four Basic Statements, which set out the fact of dissatisfaction, its cause, its cure, and the method of its cure.

The First Basic Statement can be stated thus:

Dissatisfaction is Inescapable in En-self-ed Life

In its original meaning, the word which is here rendered as “dissatisfaction” and which is often translated as “suffering” embraces the meanings not only of pain, sorrow, and displeasure, but also of everything that is unsatisfactory, ranging from acute physical pain and severe mental anguish to slight tiredness, boredom, or mild disappointment.

Sometimes the term is rendered as “dissatisfaction” or “unsatisfactoriness”; in some contexts these are perhaps more accurate, while at other times the word “suffering” is more expressive. For this reason we shall use both “suffering” and “dissatisfaction” or “unsatisfactoriness” according to context.

In some translations of the original texts it is stated that birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, and pleasure is suffering. In English, this last statement fails to make sense; but if we restate it as “pleasure is unsatisfactory” it becomes more readily understandable, for all pleasure is impermanent and is eventually succeeded by its opposite, and from this point of view at least it is unsatisfactory.

Now the Buddha-doctrine teaches that dissatisfaction or suffering is inescapable in en-self-ed life; and the term “en-self-ed life” needs some explanation. In brief, the doctrine teaches that the self, considered as a fixed, unchanging eternal soul, has no reality.

The central core of every being is not an unchanging soul but a life-current, an ever-changing stream of energy which is never the same for two consecutive seconds. The self, considered as an eternal soul, therefore, is a delusion, and when regarded from the ultimate standpoint it has no reality; and it is only within this delusion of selfhood that ultimate suffering can exist. When the self-delusion is finally transcended and the final enlightenment is attained, the ultimate state which lies beyond the relative universe is reached. In this ultimate state, the Unconditioned, suffering is extinguished; but while any element of selfhood remains, even though it is a delusion, suffering remains potentially within it.

We must understand, then, that the First Basic Statement does not mean that suffering is inescapable; it means that suffering is inescapable in enselfed life, or while the delusion of selfhood remains.

We can now move on to the Second Basic Statement, which says:

The Origin of Dissatisfaction is Craving

If you fall on a slippery floor and suffer from bruises, you say that the cause of your suffering is the slippery floor. In an immediate sense you are right, of course, and to say that the cause of your bruises is craving fails to make sense.

But the Second Statement does not refer to individual cases or to immediate causes. It means that the integrating force that holds together the life-current is self-centered craving; for this life-current — this self-delusion — contains in itself the conditions for suffering, while the slippery floor is merely an occasion for suffering.

It is obviously impossible, by the nature of the world we live in, to cure suffering by the removal of all the occasions for suffering; whereas it is possible in Buddhism to strike at its prime or fundamental cause.

Therefore the Third Basic Statement states:

Liberation May Be Achieved by Destroying Craving

It is self-centered craving that holds together the forces which comprise the life-current, the stream of existence which we call the self; and it is only with self-delusion that unsatisfactoriness or suffering can exist. By the destruction of that which holds together the delusion of the self, the root cause of suffering is also destroyed.

The ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, then, is to annihilate the self. This is where a great deal of misunderstanding arises, and naturally so; but once it is realized that to annihilate the self is to annihilate a delusion, this misunderstanding disappears. When the delusion is removed, the reality appears; so that to destroy delusion is to reveal the reality. The reality cannot be discovered while the delusion of self continues to obscure it.

Now what is this reality which appears when the delusion is removed? The ultimate reality is the Unconditioned, called also the Unborn, the Unoriginated, the Uncreated, and the Uncompounded. We can, inadequately and not very accurately, describe it as a positive state of being. It is characterized by supreme bliss and complete freedom from suffering and is so utterly different from ordinary existence that no real description of it can be given. The Unconditioned can be indicated — up to a point — only by stating what it is not; for it is beyond words and beyond thought.

Hence, in the Buddhist texts, the Unconditioned is often explained as the final elimination from one’s own mind, of greed, hatred and delusion. This, of course, also implies the perfection of the opposite positive qualities of selflessness, loving-kindness, and wisdom.

The attainment of the Unconditioned is the ultimate aim of all Buddhist practice, and is the same as complete liberation from dissatisfaction or suffering.” [6]


[1] Siddhartha Gautama’s Beginnings: http://www.helium.com/items/527523-the-life-of-the-buddha-the-four-sights

[2] The Fundamentals of Buddhism: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanatiloka/wheel394.html

[3] Buddhism is Atheistic: http://www.buddhist-temples.com/buddhism-facts/buddhist-belief.html

[4] Schools of Buddhism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schools_of_Buddhism

[5] Mahayana vs. Theravada: a Multiform Comparison: http://www.freewebs.com/haastexts/Mahayana%20and%20Theravada.htm

[6] Buddhism: Mind Training: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bullen/bl042.html

[x] Karma: http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/karma.htm

[x] Basic Teachings of Buddha: http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/footsteps.htm

[x] Fundamental Buddhism: http://www.fundamentalbuddhism.com/noble-eightfold-path.html

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