Eastern Belief Systems: Buddhism
Updated: Jan 6
A few weeks ago, we posted the first of a series of entries on Eastern Belief Systems, precisely because referring to spirituality as we often do in general, and to Yoga in particular, without proper knowledge about the traditions involved in their progressive evolution is like trying to bake a pizza without using any dough –it may be possible, but it just doesn’t hold. So today we explore the current of Buddhism, its main teachings and ideas, as well as some of the (dis)similarities of this philosophy with Hinduism.
Under the Bodhi Tree
In many regards, Buddhism can be defined as one of the predominant spiritual traditions of Asia, practiced in places as diverse as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, China, Burma, Thailand, Japan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, or Korea for more than a thousand years now. Modern times have disseminated Buddhist thought to places exceeding the limits of what we used to call ‘the East,’ but the birth of this tradition can be allegedly traced back to a singular human in Nepal, Siddartha Gautama, somewhere around the sixth century B.C.
Gautama Buddha is thus credited with having single-handedly 'come up' with the philosophy of Buddhism after taking a long and insightful meditative nap under a now infamous Bodhi Tree. It was at that spot that the Buddha reached enlightenment, devoting the rest of his life to the dissemination the message that would later come to us in the guise of systematized Buddhism.
The Psychology of Buddhism
Our previous entry on Eastern Belief Systems dealt with the fundamental aspects of Hinduism –notably its highly ritualistic nature and its emphasis on mythology– and if you read that piece alongside this one, it will make it easier to understand where these two Asian-produced traditions differ. For we can say that where Hinduism is highly mythological and ritualistic in nature, Buddhism is primarily a psychological philosophy that takes a ‘do it yourself’ approach to enlightenment. There is no 'Supreme God' handing us 'good stuff or bad stuff' depending on the day of the week. There is only 'the way'; and the way is always already there for us to follow, provided we learn to see it clearly.
Unlike other traditions that busy themselves with thorough explanations of metaphysics –outlining things like the origins of the universe and of life, its systematic organization, an understanding and elaboration on ‘the divine' or the existence of 'divine will,' or any of those more abstract things– the Buddha was something of 'a worldly person.’ He was far more preoccupied with how we humans engaged in this thing we call ‘doing life’ than with explaining any of those more elaborate and often remote ideas. These elaborations would come much later in the evolution of Buddhism. But at the time of his life, the Buddha was more worried about what he saw, which was a bunch of humans failing to adequately engage with life as it was and living lives marked by suffering, pain, and frustration –all in ever-repeating cycles. His whole deal, then, was to offer us a method to deal with suffering in any form.
The essence of Buddhism, then, gets at the roots of our suffering, the nature of our ignorance when it comes to observing and then dealing with frustration and pain, and at ways to overcome all of this using some of the terminology familiar to Yogic thought but with a more psychological twist. His objective was to provide a less intellectual approach to illumination through teachings that enabled us to realize that this thing we call 'reality' or 'life' cannot be approached by any rational means. We must learn to experience reality as it is being experienced or miss the entire thing. Once we're able to grasp the true meaning of this realization, enlightenment follows. And this is precisely the type of insight that brought Siddhartha Gautama to Buddahood while siting under the Bodhi tree.
On Noble Truths and the Roots of Human Suffering
The teachings of the Buddha have since been summarized as the so-called Four Noble Truths –something like, the main four things every human should remember not to forget in order to awaken to life and it’s unparalleled potential to satisfy all of our needs.
The first of these four noble truths is called ‘suffering,’ or ‘dukkha.’ It is because of our inability to merely observe and recognize what is that we suffer; or, put differently, it is because of our obsession with control and our desire to impose a particular way of seeing and being onto things, of making transitory states permanent and unchangeable –as per the second of the Four Noble Truths, ‘clinginess’ or ‘trishna’– that we suffer, that we experience unrest.
The nature of life and of the world we inhabit is ephemeral, transient, cyclical, eternally in movement and eternally in change. And so, according to the Buddha, it is really in our hands to realize that any attitude of attachment to any one person, moment, idea, state, or thing will inevitably lead to disappointment. The nature of life and of the experiences it comprises (all of them) is to be and then transform into something else. And so, the goal for us is to learn to do life by experiencing each moment as it is being.
Fortunately, the Third of the Four Noble Truths the Buddha left us tells us that this suffering habit of ours can be dealt with. There’s hope in the world, and said hope is known as ‘Nirvana’ –Buddhist for ‘liberation,’ which is not unlike a Hindu’s notion of ‘moksha;’ or, in plain words, freedom from the endless cycle of clinging to partial truths and half pictures and then repeating the same mistakes and frustrations over and over again. Liberation grants us the ability to see and understand things for what they really are and break free of the bond of 'maya' or illusion.
The Fourth Noble Truth, then, outlines the path to follow to attain liberation, which as usual has several steps to it. Learning to discern the real from the unreal, and therefore, to see things clearly –to really get to know things– is the first step in the list. Meditation is, of course, another; as are, as well, series of more or less ethical guidelines as to how to always bear in mind the right course of action. To these, one must add the by now famous notions of love and compassion, a message spread by the Buddha himself in deciding to postpone his absorption into nirvana to pass his teachings and method on to us. This message is now embodied by the teachings of the Dalai Lama, for example, and, in a way, borrows as well from religious interpretations of the teachings of the Buddha that evolved a little after him.
What's most important to know from the method and message outlined by Buddhism is its eminently individual nature: suffering exists as long as our vision is unclear; suffering therefore has a cause; our individual relation to this cause can be changed; the path to changing this relation is as follows... The teachings of the Buddha have therefore allowed for a measure of flexibility and variation when it comes to their interpretation, which explains not only how Buddhism became so popular in lands so far removed both culturally and intellectually, but aso the differences between the several schools of thought that developed in the aftermath of the Buddha's death. And so, as Buddhism reached places East and West with different worldviews and customs, it also evolved in highly syncretic and interesting ways. The essence of its spiritual teachings, however, remains: do not lose yourself to over-intellectualization, nor think that any one God up there is going to come to save you. This is it. Either you work at it, or you don't. The only way in is through, which is why learning to experience firsthand everything that is as it is being is such a key step in Buddhism and in any of the Buddhism-inspired currents that developed after it –notably Zen.
Not Just Another Form of Hinduism
The main differences between Buddhism and Hinduism, then, have to do with the latter's more overtly religious take on spirituality and the way to enlightenment, as well as with the notion of a separate 'self'; that and the emphasis on suffering or bliss. And so, where Hinduism speaks of a 'supreme God' (Brahman) and a human 'soul' (Atman) as two entities that are connected, yet different, Buddhism does not. For the latter, Brahman and Atman are senseless terms, terms that only confuse us and that we should give up to worship an idea of 'god' that is not different from the reality of life as it is experienced by us everyday.
Similarly, while most of the discourse of Buddhism emphasizes suffering as the point of departure, the orientation of Hinduism is that of attaining liberation as bliss. Bliss is therefore the destination, and the paths leading us there are myriad.
Still, regardless of their takes on it, these two eastern traditions and their methods for the progressive evolution of spiritual awareness are intrinsically related. They may differ as to how to 'get there' or what to expect from the experience of actual enlightenment, but the orientation is the same: Karma is real, your actions have consequences, life has a purpose, reincarnation happens, liberation is possible, so... you better work diligently at it now!