Sometimes this causality is spoken of as a circular linking
of twelve different factors; if the chain of causality can be broken, existence
is ended and liberation attained. One of these factors is attachment or craving,
tanha, and another is ignorance; these two are emphasized as being the weak
links in the chain, the place to make a break. To overcome selfish craving, one
cultivates the heart through compassion; to eliminate ignorance one cultivates
the mind through wisdom. Compassion and wisdom are twin virtues in Buddhism, and
are cultured by ethical behavior and meditation, respectively. It is a process
of self-discipline and self-development which emphasizes the heart and mind
equally, and insists that both working together are necessary for enlightenment.
If Buddhism can be seen as a process of personal development, one may well ask: what is a person, if not a soul or self? In keeping with the ideas of dependent origination, Buddhism views a person as a changing configuration of five factors, or 'skandhas.' First there is the world of physical form; the body and all material objects, including the sense organs. Second there is the factor of sensation or feeling; here are found the five senses as well as mind, which in Buddhism is considered a sense organ. The mind senses thoughts and ideas much the same as the eye senses light or the ear senses air pressure. Thirdly, there is the factor of perception; here is the faculty which recognizes physical and mental objects. Fourth there is the factor variously called impulses or mental formulations; here is volition and attention, the faculty of will, the force of habits. Lastly, there is the faculty of consciousness or awareness. In Buddhism consciousness is not something apart from the other factors, but rather interacting with them and dependent on them for its existence; there is no arising of consciousness without conditions. Here we see no idea of personhood as constancy, but rather a fleeting, changing assortment or process of various interacting factors. A major aim of Buddhism is first to become aware of this process, and then to eliminate it by eradicating its causes.
This process does not terminate with the dissolution of the physical body upon death; Buddhism assumes reincarnation. Even though there is no soul to continue after death, the five skandhas are seen as continuing on, powered by past karma, and resulting in rebirth. Karma in Buddhism, as in Hinduism, stems from volitional action and results in good or bad effects in this or a future life. Buddhism explains the karmic mechanism a bit differently; it is not the results of the action per se that result in karma, but rather the state of mind of the person performing the action. Here again, Buddhism tends to focus on psychological insights; the problem with bad or selfish action is that it molds our personality, creates ruts or habitual patterns of thinking and feeling. These patterns in turn result in the effects of karma in our lives.
Many other metaphysical questions were put to the Buddha during his life; he did not answer them all. He eschewed the more abstract and speculative metaphysical pondering, and discouraged such questions as hindrances on the path. Such questions as what is Nirvana like, what preceded existence, etc., were often met by silence or what may have seemed like mysterious obscurity. Asked what happens to an Arhant, an enlightened one, upon his death, the Buddha was said to have replied: "What happens to the footprints of the birds in the air." Nirvana means 'extinction' and he likened the death of an arhant to the extinction of a flame when the fuel (karma) runs out. He evidently felt that many such questions were arising out of a false attachment to self, and that they distracted one from the main business of eliminating suffering.
is laid out in eight steps, but one may practice all of the steps
simultaneously, since they work together.
The first two steps or factors constitute Wisdom. Right understanding (or right views) is the grasping of true reality, as seen in the Buddhist teachings; it is not merely an intellectual understanding, although this helps. Rather it is a direct insight and penetration into the nature of things. Right thought (or right intentions) is that frame of mind which is selfless, detached and free of malice; that generosity of spirit which extends loving benevolence to all beings.
The next three steps on the eightfold path constitute ethical conduct. Right speech involves abstaining from lies, from rude or malicious language, from foolish gossip, and from slander or backbiting that may cause disharmony. One should speak a gentle, kind, and useful truth, or not speak at all. Right action requires abstaining from killing and all violence, stealing, dishonest practices, intoxicating drinks and improper sexual behavior. Right livelihood means that one should abstain from any profession that brings harm to others, such as weaponry, butchering animals or selling liquor. Also one's career should develop one's talents, overcome the ego by joining in a common cause, and provide what is needed for a worthwhile existence -- basic comforts and necessities, but not ostentatious luxuries.
The last three steps on the path are those which promote mental discipline. Right effort is the will to cultivate wholesome states of mind and eliminate evil or unwanted ones. Right mindfulness (or attentiveness) involves being keenly aware of the processes involved in one's daily existence, those of the body, the sensations, the mind and the experiencing of thoughts and ideas. Mindfulness is practiced in Buddhist forms of meditation such as vipassana, through techniques like observation of the breath and bodily sensations. Right concentration refers to the progressive stages of dhyana (this is closer to what is called meditation in most Hindu traditions). In this discipline, the mind is gradually cleared of passionate desires, then thoughts, then finally even feelings of joy, until only pure awareness remains, in a state of perfect calm and equanimity.
Other teachings speak of the Four Friends and the Five Hindrances that one encounters along the path; these are qualities in the heart which may aid or distract one from the process. The four friends are: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Loving kindness is universal love for all beings, without distinction. Compassion is the ability to empathize with others -- to feel what they are feeling. Sympathetic joy is the quality that takes delight in the happiness of others. Equanimity is a calm acceptance of all that happens, based on the insight of the impermanence of all things; in the end, the only thing that really matters is liberation, so the vicissitudes of life don't really have much significance.
The five hindrances are: sensual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness and worry, or distraction; and skeptical doubt. Everyone has these hindrances in common, so it is important to find ways of eliminating them; they are like toxins or weeds which prevent the cultivation of those qualities essential for self-discipline and stand in the way of our liberation.
The Buddha's teachings on ethics and living a good life also extended to the realm of the social and political. He was ahead of his time in many ways; considering all people as equal, he rejected the caste system and openly encouraged women to become students and teachers. He taught that governments had a responsibility to lead by example, to teach people ethics and to eliminate poverty by providing opportunities for the people to become prosperous. He was clearly opposed to all forms of war, and taught that violence can never create security. In keeping with these teachings, Buddhism is rare among world religions in that its followers never attempted to spread their beliefs through the use of force. Unique among victorious leaders, the Buddhist emperor Asoka in the third century BCE renounced violence and war, and put Buddhist ethical virtues at the center of his government.
Regarding the Buddhist path as a philosophy, one may consider its epistemology: certain claims of knowledge have been made, but how can they be known to be true? As stated above, the Buddha himself never asked anyone to accept unproven claims on faith, and in fact discouraged them from doing so. He maintained that his teachings could be verified by direct insight and reasoning, by anyone willing to consider them and to follow the necessary path of self-discipline. Starting from a few basic assumptions, such as impermanence and dependent origination, he derived a complex and consistent system of philosophy which has stood for centuries. Later teachers have validated his claim that others could reach the same insights, and they have expanded upon his basic teachings with impressive intuitive depth and intellectual rigor.
In this way the Buddhist teaching has itself become a kind of interactive and self-evolving process, much like its idea of pratityasamutpada. However, the end goal is still Nirvana, which is an experience ultimately beyond all concepts and language, even beyond the Buddhist teachings. In the end even the attachment to the Dharma, the Buddhist teaching, must be dropped like all other attachments. The tradition compares the teaching to a raft upon which one crosses a swift river to get to the other side; once one is on the far shore, there is no longer any need to carry the raft. The far shore is Nirvana, and it is also said that when one arrives, one can see quite clearly that there was never any river at all.
Buddhism joins with Christianity, Islam, and Vedanta-Hinduism in suggesting that human behaviors have several identifiable tendencies ~
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who does not cling to pleasures, like water on a lotus leaf, like a mustard seed on the point of a needle.
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who, even here, knows the end of his suffering, has put down his burden, and is unshackled.
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana whose knowledge is deep, who possesses wisdom, who knows the right way and the wrong, and has attained the highest end.
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who keeps aloof both from laymen and from mendicants, who frequents no houses, and has but few desires.
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who finds no fault with other beings, whether feeble or strong, and does not kill nor cause slaughter.
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana who is tolerant with the intolerant, mild with fault-finders, and free from passion among the passionate.
Him I call indeed a Brâhmana from whom anger and hatred, pride and envy have dropt like a mustard seed from the point of a needle.