Chapter 12: Buddhism

Dhamma: What the Buddha Taught

Douglas Sjoquist


Many people think of Buddhism as a religion rather than a philosophy and so one might wonder why there is a chapter on Buddhism in an introduction to philosophy textbook. However, metaphysical and epistemological ideas have always been a feature of religious thinking in India (and Asia more generally). Religion and philosophy were never thought of as separate and distinct disciplines. The Buddha’s teachings (called “Dhamma”) addressed fundamental questions about the self, the human condition, and the nature of existence—all of which are recognized philosophical questions within the Western tradition. At the same time, the Buddha emphasized an adherence to moral practice. It might be said that intellectual philosophy and religious practice are intrinsic to the Buddha’s teachings.

This chapter begins by placing the Buddha in the context of Indian history and Asian history. What were the prevailing ideas and practices in India that gave rise to Buddhism? Which philosophical/religious systems of his day did the Buddha embrace or reject? The chapter will also discuss some of the many misconceptions and misrepresentations of the Buddha’s teachings. By examining these misconceptions and misrepresentations, students will gain insights into what the Buddha actually taught in contrast to what people think he taught. Tackling these mistaken views on karma, for example, serves as a useful introduction to Dhamma.

The story of Malunkyaputta and the parable of the poisoned arrow can function as a preface to the Dhamma and will provide students with an orientation to both what is important to and irrelevant in the Buddha’s teachings. Inherent in the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the Three Marks of Existence is a rational investigation of self and existence – both features of philosophical inquiry throughout human history.

The Buddha never expected his followers to blindly accept the truth of his teachings. Instead, he encouraged his followers to verify the truth of Dhamma by making their own honest observations about self and existence. This chapter lends itself to a comparative analysis between what the Buddha taught and the wisdom and methodologies of philosophers presented elsewhere in this textbook. How do the three pillars of Dhamma (wisdom, mental discipline and ethical conduct), for instance, compare with other philosophical traditions such as Roman Stoicism, American Pragmatism, or the teachings of Pythagoras? How would the Buddha view our contemporary relationship with the environment? It is hoped this chapter will stimulate these kinds of questions and contribute to a greater sensitivity to and appreciation for Buddhist thought and practice. Some of these issues will be discussed in the “philosophical afterward” at the end of the chapter.

Pali: The Original Language of Buddhism

The original written language of Buddhism is Pali. This ancient language has its origins in India and is for all practical purposes a simplified version of Sanskrit, an ancient language also from India and the original written language of Hinduism.It might be said that the relationship between Pali and Sanskrit is analogous to the relationship between Italian and Latin. That the Buddha spoke Pali is more difficult to ascertain but scholars think he probably spoke something very similar to it.Whatever the case may be, the Buddha never heard the word “Buddhism” nor did he ever see the word in writing.

It should also be noted that the teachings of the Buddha were not written down until the first century BCE. That is to say, Buddhism existed in oral form for at least four hundred years. During that time monks trained in memorization techniques memorized the Buddha’s teachings. Ananda, a disciple of the Buddha, is said to have recited from memory all of the Buddha’s sermons at the first Buddhist council in Rajagaha, India and Upali, another disciple of the Buddha, recited for the council all of the Buddha’s 227 rules. This council was held shortly after the Buddha’s death in 483 BCE. Memorization of large quantities of doctrinal information was common in India at the time of the Buddha and this was how the Buddha’s teachings were passed on from generation to generation. Tradition says that at the fourth Buddhist council, convened by King Vattagamani (88-77 BCE) in Sri Lanka, the Buddha’s teachings and rules were written down for the first time. In addition to the sermons and rules of the Buddha, commentaries on the Buddha’s sermons by various disciples were gradually added over the years and these, too, came to be written down. In Buddhism, these written teachings, rules, and commentaries are known as the Tipitaka (“three baskets”) and constitute what’s called the Pali Canon. Historians believe that the teachings, rules, and commentaries were initially written at this council on palm leaves and then appropriately placed into three baskets. This is the origin of the word “tipitaka.” As a written language Pali died out probably around the 14th-c. Still, scholars study this language to gain access to the original teachings of the Buddha.

Historical Context

The traditional dates for the Buddha’s birth and death are 563-483 BCE, respectively. This makes him a contemporary of Mahavira (599-527 BCE), K’ung Fu-tzu (551-479 BCE), and Lao Tzu (570-517 BCE). Jainism, Confucianism, and Taoism, therefore, all came into existence in Asia about the same time as Buddhism. The area where the Buddha was born is actually now in modern-day Nepal. His mother gave birth to him in the Nepalese village of Lumbini. (Tragically, she died seven days later). Since his father was a king, he was a prince and brought up in a luxurious palace in the city of Kapilavatthu – also in Nepal. The Buddha’s given name is Siddhattha Gotama (in Sanskrit, “Siddhartha Gautama”). He was born into the Sakya clan and many scholars simply refer to him by the name “Sakyamuni” (meaning “sage of the Sakya clan”).

His family belonged to the nobility class. In India, this class was called the Khatiya (in Sanskrit, “Kshatriya”) class. Also, the Buddha’s family was Hindu. Hinduism was the dominant religion in India at the time but there was great diversity in philosophical thought among Hindus. World-views such as theism, materialism, agnosticism, determinism, nihilism, etc. all fell under the Hindu umbrella. The philosophical abstractness and the great variety in views made Hinduism virtually impossible for commoners to understand. Furthermore, many Hindu priests (called “brahmins”) taught that salvation was only available to brahmins. That is, one had to be born as a brahmin (and as a male) to attain freedom from the miseries of the world and from death. Brahmins also promoted the idea that rituals were the most effective means for securing assistance from the various deities that dominated the Hindu pantheon and the only people competent to perform these rituals were the brahmins themselves. It might be said that the priests had a spiritual stranglehold on the commoner. To complicate matters even further most commoners were uneducated and could not speak, read, or write Sanskrit – the language of the brahmins. It’s well-known that the priestly class had corrupted Hinduism by the time the Buddha entered the picture in India’s history. India was ripe for a new world- view. The Buddha experimented with the various practices and theories associated with the Hinduism of his day and he came to the conclusion that practices such as extreme austerities and solitude were harmful and that the dominant philosophical views were erroneous. He rejected, for example, the ideas of savior beings, divine assistance, sacrifices and rituals, a creator god, and the exclusivist views of priests as means to attain salvation. (It’s important to mention, perhaps, that during the time of the Buddha, the Hindu teachings represented by Upanishads had yet to reach fruition. These Upanishad teachings ushered in a Hindu reformation after the Buddha’s passing).

This chapter on Buddhism will examine the central teachings of the Buddha. It is vital that students note at the onset that a distinction should be made between what the Buddha taught and what is called Buddhism. Buddhism is a religion that represents an evolution of practices and thinking that evolved over a long period of time as it migrated from one geographical area to another and split into three traditions: the Theravada, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana.

There’s great diversity in Buddhism just as there is great diversity in the various traditions of Christianity or Islam. Ronald Eyre (1929-1992), a British theater director and narrator of the television documentary series called, The Long Search, proposed a thoughtful question: “If the Buddha of Sri Lanka or India and the Buddha of Japan were to meet would they recognize each other?” The question is apropos since what the Buddha taught is quite different from what some Mahayana schools (for example, the Pure Land sects in China or Japan) taught, for example. Buddhist scholars like to distinguish what the Buddha actually taught (that is, the Dhamma) and what came to be known as Buddhism. This chapter embraces the above scholarly position and will inspect only what the Buddha taught.

The Story of Malunkyaputta

An appropriate place to begin a discussion about Dhamma is to tell the story of an exchange between a monk named Malunkyaputta and the Buddha. The scene takes place at a monastery in Savatthi, India. Malunkyaputta had been bothered by many questions that he wanted the Buddha to answer. He felt the Buddha ignored the kinds of questions that for him were important. In essence, Malunkyaputta wanted answers to questions that would be considered central issues in metaphysics or other areas of philosophy as well as dominant topics in some religions like Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam. “Is the world eternal or not eternal? Is the world finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or is the soul one thing and the body another thing? After death does a Buddha exist or not exist?” He went to the Buddha and demanded that the Buddha answer these questions once and for all. Malunkyaputta declared to the Buddha that he would abandon his training and return to a normal life if these questions were not answered. The Buddha quietly listened to Malunkyaputta and then told the following parable:

“Suppose, Malunkyaputta, a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison and his friends and family brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow that wounded me until I know if the man who wounded me was tall, short, or middle height, dark or brown or golden-skinned, whether the man lived in a village or town or city; . . . until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow, whether the bowstring was made of fiber, reed, sinew, hemp or bark; . . . until I know with what kind of feathers the shaft that wounded me was fitted – whether those of a vulture, a heron, a stork, a hawk, or a peacock.’“ The Buddha went on in great detail and ended by saying that all these questions would still be unknown to that man and meanwhile he would die. He continued and said, “So, too, Malunkyaputta, if anyone comes to the Buddha and says he will not follow the Buddha until these questions are answered he, too, will die” (Majjhima Nikaya 63).[1]

The orientation of the Buddha’s teachings is clearly illustrated in this story. The above tale shows readers that the focus of the Buddha’s teachings was on the elimination of suffering and not on theory or beliefs.In other words, we as humans should concentrate our energies on removing the “arrow of suffering” rather than wasting our time on useless doctrinal speculations. Whether the universe is finite or infinite, created or non-created, etc. matters very little with regard to the realities of one’s suffering. The issue of one’s liberation from suffering is more important, for example, than knowing the nature of God or knowing whether the world was created or not created. The Buddha’s teachings emphasize realistic solutions to human problems.

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha was like a doctor/scientist who observed the problem with the human condition and presented a cure or solution. More precisely, he analyzed, investigated, and then offered a course of action. After his enlightenment he gave a sermon to five monks in a place called Deer Park. This sermon (“sutta”) is called “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Teaching.” At the beginning of this first sermon was the idea that we should avoid the extremes of self- indulgence on one hand and self-denial on the other. He said, “There are two extremes, monks, which must be avoided. What are these extremes? A life given to pleasures, dedicated to pleasures and lusts – this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, unworthy, and useless. And, a life given to self-torture – this is painful, unworthy, and useless.” We must, said the Buddha, follow the Middle Path “which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which produces calm, knowledge, enlightenment, and nibbana” (Samyutta Nikaya 56).[2] The Buddha’s teaching is often called the “middle path” because he taught that one should shun all extremes and instead live a life of moderation.

He then presented in this sermon what are called the Four Noble Truths:

  1. There is suffering (“dukkha”)
  2. Suffering has a cause
  3. Suffering can be eliminated
  4. There is a way to eliminate suffering

These Four Noble Truths might be considered the essence of the Buddha’s teachings on the human condition. Summarizing the Buddha’s own words he said, “I teach suffering, its causes, its cessation, and the way to end suffering.”

Regarding the First Noble Truth the Buddha said this: “Birth is suffering, decay is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering, to be united with the unpleasant is suffering, to be separated from the pleasant is suffering, not to get what one desires is suffering” (Samyutta Nikaya 56). The First Noble Truth implies that life is defective. Suffering is inevitable. To be born into the world means to experience suffering (mental, physical). To paraphrase from his book, Being and Nothingness, the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, would say “if we are born in the world we are condemned to be free.” The Buddha would say, “if we are born in the world we are condemned to suffer.”

The Second Noble Truth says that suffering has a cause: “It is craving (tanha) which renews being, and is accompanied by desire and lust, desire for this and that. In other words, craving for sensual pleasures, craving to be, craving not to be” (Samyutta Nikaya 56). The Second Noble Truth identifies the cause of suffering as craving. It should be noted here that some scholars translate the Pali word tanha as “desire” but this is misleading because it implies that the Buddha taught that all desires must be eliminated to end suffering. This is simply inaccurate. Desires can be wholesome (for example, the desire to help others, the desire to be a kind person, the desire to end suffering for one’s self and for others, etc.). Desires can be neutral like the desire to ride your bike or go swimming or eat when you’re hungry. Other desires are unwholesome ones and these are better translated as “cravings.” This translation of tanha better captures the essence of the Second Noble Truth. These unwholesome desires would include craving sensual pleasure, wealth, notoriety, and so forth.It might also include craving life and good health in the face of death or sickness, respectively. What gives rise to this craving in the first place is ignorance. We fail to see, for example, how our craving for those things, people, and activities that brings us pleasure leads to suffering.

Consider this. An object can fulfill a craving, or a person can fulfill a craving, or an activity can fulfill a craving. The fulfillment of that craving, however, brings with it attachment. In other words, we become attached to the things, the people, and the activities that brings us pleasure. This attachment is a human characteristic. It is natural. This attachment, however, gives rise to separation anxiety. We become anxious about losing the things, the people, and the activities that bring us pleasure. This anxiety is one example of suffering. It’s a complicated cycle that, in Buddhism, eventually leads to rebirth. The root cause of suffering, then, is craving, which arises out of ignorance and leads to attachment that leads to suffering.

The Third Noble Truth says, “It is the complete stopping of this craving, the elimination of passions so that craving can be laid aside, given up, harbored no longer, and gotten free from” (Samyutta Nikaya 56). If the cause of suffering lies in craving, ignorance, and attachment then the elimination of suffering involves abandoning them. We don’t rid ourselves of the objects, the people, or the activities; we rid ourselves of the craving and attachment to them. To eliminate suffering is to get rid of the craving and attachment and ignorance that underlie it and the Fourth Noble Truth prescribes a way to do this.

The Fourth Noble Truth says, “There is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering: it is, indeed, the Noble Eightfold Path: right views, right intentions, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration” (Samyutta Nikaya 56).

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path (Magga) is considered the path in Buddhism. The book called the Dhammapada (literally the “teaching path”) is a collection of sayings from the Buddha. It says in the book, “Of all the paths the Eightfold is the best; of truths the Four Noble are best; of mental states, detachment is best; of human beings the illuminated one is best” (Dhammapada, 273).[3] The Noble Eightfold Path represents the middle course one must tread in life. It’s the Buddhist prescription for ending suffering. That is, it is the path we must adhere to in order to avoid the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification and attain the awakened state like the Buddha. The NEP consists of eight principles that are usually categorized under the headings of wisdom (panna), ethics (sila), and mental discipline (samadhi). Let’s look at each.

Right View simply means knowing through personal investigation and experience what suffering is, its causes, that it can be eliminated, and the way to eliminate it. It implies a correct understanding of the law of kamma, for example, and a commitment to abandoning wrong views.

Right Intention is, perhaps, the most important feature of the NEP. The Buddha asked us to consider the intent behind thought, action, and speech. In other words, whenever we act, think, or speak we should be mindful of our intent behind those thoughts, actions, and speech. Is the intent to foster harm and ill will or is the intent meant to bring about good will and harmlessness to those around you and the environment? Before you act, think, or speak ask yourself, “What is my intent?” This is important to remember since the intent of an action creates kamma.

Right Speech requires that we refrain from lying, false accusations, idle gossip, and harsh or loud talk. We should not use speech to inflame passions or incite hatred, divisiveness, or violence. Instead, speech should be quiet, compassionate, and used to create harmony in one’s surroundings. Has you mother ever said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it”? If yes, she was probably a Buddhist and you didn’t know it.

Right Action constitutes five principles that all Buddhists should observe. They are 1) to avoid killing, and/or harming, 2) to avoid taking that which is not given to you (that is, no stealing), 3) to avoid false speech (see above), 4) to avoid sexual misconduct (such as adultery), and finally 5) to avoid intoxication by using drugs or alcohol. It is, of course, expected of Buddhist laypeople that these precepts be observed. For Buddhist monks, these precepts and many others are more strictly prescribed. For instance, monks must remain celibate. “Having thus gone forth and possessing the monk’s training and way of life, he abstains from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, gentle and kindly, he extends compassion to all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what’s not given, taking only what is given and expecting only what is given. He observes celibacy, living apart from the practice of sexual intercourse.” (Mijjhima Nikaya 272)

Not surprisingly, students typically ask many questions about these precepts associated with right action as it relates to them – especially to avoid killing, to avoid sexual misconduct, and to avoid intoxication. “What if a mosquito lands on my arm? Can I kill it?” “What if someone comes to my house who intends to steal or murder? Can I kill that person?” “Can my girlfriend and I have sex and still be Buddhist?” “Can my boyfriend and I have a beer before or after dinner?” One way to answer these questions is to first ask, “What is the intent of my action? Will my action bring harm to another person, the environment, or myself?” Secondly, another way to address these kinds of issues for laypeople is to assess whether they conform to the practice of moderation. The Buddha warned against self-indulgence. Notice, for example, that the prohibition is against intoxication – not drinking. The prohibition is against sexual misconduct not sex.

Right Livelihood is an extension of right speech and right action into one’s profession or livelihood. One must avoid deceptive practices, exploitation, violence, etc. Any occupation that brings harm to others, the environment, or oneself should be avoided. Clear examples of this would be occupations that harm or deceive others, such as engaging in human trafficking or working for an company that deploys deceptive sales tactics. One’s profession should carry with it a sense of service to others or to the environment.

Right Effort means one must be resolved to cultivating wisdom, right views, right actions, etc. One cannot simply expect that things will get better or automatically improve. Suffering will not go away like magic. There must be a mental resolve to expel evil thoughts and nourish wholesome ones. There must be a mental resolve to cultivate compassion, wisdom, and generosity. Nurturing spiritual ideals requires mental discipline.

Right Mindfulness is an important feature of training the mind.It goes beyond simply having a global awareness of your surroundings at all times. It means paying attention to how one’s actions, thoughts, and speech affect the environment and other people. It means paying attention to how a certain feeling or emotion has arisen in the mind. It means paying attention to how your current situation or circumstance (good or bad) has ties to past actions, words, and deeds. Right mindfulness means paying attention! Right mindfulness can mean “alertness” or “recollection” or “presence of mind,” too. In the Buddha’s teaching it refers to “egoless observing.” One approaches the present without mental prejudice or preconception.

Right Concentration simply refers to meditation practice. Meditation practice trains the mind to focus and develop the ability to sustain a one-pointedness. It involves unifying the mind for one purpose: enlightenment or awakening.

These eight principles known as the Noble Eightfold Path are practiced concurrently and in accordance with the practice of moderation. As one can see the NEP does not represent a belief system. The eight principles represent a process, a practical guide to end suffering. These eight principles are linked and can be thought of in three categories as mentioned above: panna (Right Views and Right Intentions), sila (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood), and samadhi (Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration). The categories and their respective principles are intended to be practiced together. They are mutually supportive or interdependent. One cannot expect to conduct oneself ethically without mental discipline and mental discipline has no foundation without ethical conduct. And, both ethical conduct and mental discipline are connected with wisdom and wisdom is developed through mental discipline and ethical conduct.

The Three Marks of Existence

It’s important to supplement the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in this chapter with a short discussion on the Buddha’s three marks of existence (tilakkhana). These characteristics do not appear as a separate and distinct sutta but they are mentioned so often in many suttas that scholars consider them essential elements in the Buddha’s teachings. They should be viewed as complementary teachings to the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Dhammapada says this regarding these marks of existence: “All created things are transitory; those who realize this are freed from suffering. All created beings are involved in sorrow; those who realize this are freed from suffering.

All states are without self; all those who realize this are freed from suffering” (Dhammapada 277-279). In the Anguttara Nikaya (meaning “gradual sayings”) the Buddha said, “Whether Tathagatas (Buddhas) arise in the world or not, it still remains a fact, a firm and necessary condition of existence, that all formations are impermanent . . . that all formations are subject to suffering . . . that all things are non-self.”[4]

The first mark of existence is impermanence (anicca). That is, existence is characterized by constant change. There is no permanence in anything. There is no permanence in our thoughts, in our emotions, or in our bodies. There is no permanence in the objects of our world. All is in a constant state of change.

Ask yourself this: can I hold one particular thought or do my thoughts constantly change? Do my feelings stay the same or do they constantly change? Does my body stay the same or does it constantly change? Do the things that come to me in my experience of the world have any permanence? Clearly the answer is, “no!”All that is created is transitory. This is an existential condition.

The second mark of existence is that all beings (including animals) are subject to dissatisfaction or suffering (dukkha). We saw in the First Noble Truth that to be born in the world is to experience suffering. Part of the reason for this is that everything is subject to impermanence. Everything that changes brings with it unhappiness or distress.This is also an existential condition.

The third characteristic is, perhaps, one of the most complex and difficult principles in Buddhism to grasp for Westerners brought up in a Judeo-Christian- Islamic environment. It has even generated controversy. It’s the concept called “no-self” (anatta). Normally, we think of ourselves as being the “owner” of certain features that would constitute a human being such as bodily processes, sensations, perceptions, consciousness, etc. In the Buddha’s teachings, however, there is no “owner” or “self” attached to these features. The Buddhist monk, teacher, and author, Ajahn Khemansanto, posed this thought: “Long ago Descartes justified the existence of self by saying ‘I think, therefore I am’ (cogito ergo sum). From the Buddhist point of view he almost had it correct but it should be, ‘I think, therefore I think I am’. What is this thinker? Is this one who is aware separate from the thoughts, actions, feelings, or perceptions of the one who has them?” (Even Against the Wind, p.219).[5]

We utilize the word “self” for linguistic convenience to refer to the collection of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and body but it is not a “thing” separate from those same perceptions, etc. Furthermore, those perceptions, feelings, etc. are always changing or impermanent. Simply, there is no self (that is, there is no permanent and separate entity acting as an owner of sensations, consciousness, thoughts, etc.). “Suffering exists, but not the sufferer. The act is done, but there is no doer. Peace exists, but not the one who is at peace. There is a path, but no one walks it” – Buddhaghosa (Visuddhimagga 513).[6]

Related to this third mark of existence is that Buddhists do not have a concept of a soul. Sometimes the Buddhist term anatta is interpreted as “no-soul.” In Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions it is assumed that humans have a soul that is separate from our bodies and when we die this soul continues to exist and goes to either Heaven or Hell. The Buddha put forward no such idea. There is no evidence that anything exists over and above our transitory bodies and minds that can be identified as a separate eternal entity or a ”soul.” This idea of no- self/no-soul is a core principle in the Buddhist ontology.

Common Misconceptions

One common misconception is that the Buddha preached a pessimistic world- view that devalues life. This wrong interpretation stems from the Buddha’s principal position that if one is born into the world one can expect to experience suffering.What some critics of the Buddha’s teachings ignore, however, is that he taught that suffering has causes and suffering can be eliminated.

Additionally, the Buddha taught a way to eliminate suffering! The Dhamma is not pessimistic; it’s realistic. Look at any image of the Buddha. Does he have the face of a pessimist?

A second misconception is that the Buddha was a god. The Buddha never presented himself as a god nor did his disciples think of him as one. He was a human being – albeit a very unique one – who became enlightened or “awakened” to the realities of life and then taught people how to discover their own awakening and overcome suffering associated with these realities. What are the realities of human life? According to the Buddha it is, first and foremost, that although we all want lasting happiness and pleasure, we find only frustration, disappointment, and impermanence in that which brings us pleasure and happiness. The word “Buddha” means “one who is awake” (to the nature, causes, and elimination of suffering).

A third misconception is that the Buddha taught reincarnation. There is no notion of reincarnation in the Buddha’s teachings like there is in Hinduism. There is no soul that migrates from one lifetime to the next. What the Buddha taught was the notion of rebirth. Life does indeed continue after death but it is kammic/karmic tendencies rather a soul that migrates from one life to another.

It seems there is great misunderstanding of the notion of kamma (“karma” in Sanskrit), as well. The Buddhist interpretation of kamma is distinguishable from the Hindu notion of karma. In Hinduism, karma can mean “action” or the consequences of a physical or mental action. It can also mean the sum of all consequences of actions. Furthermore, Hindus think of karma as a cause-and- effect relationship operative in human behavior. Buddhism generally accepts these ideas about karma found in Hinduism. However, in Buddhism the link holding the universal law of cause-and-effect together is intention. Actions only produce results under certain circumstances. In other words, the effect of an action is not primarily determined by the act itself but rather by the intent of the action. It is the conscious intention of actions that causes kammic/karmic effects to arise. For example, if you unintentionally run over a squirrel with your car on the way to school it does not necessarily mean that you’ll accumulate “bad karma” as a result. There has to be some conscious intent behind the action.

In today’s “New Age” thinking people often embrace the idea that a person who suffers from a certain fate (for example, someone who has cancer, someone who was murdered, someone with a birth defect, etc.) deserved that fate due to their actions in the past – perhaps even lifetimes ago. The Buddha warned his monks not to fall into that wrong thinking. Humans are conditioned not only by their kamma but also by genetics, their environment, physical laws, and the mind, as well. Most importantly, it is the intention of an action that causes a certain effect in the future.

This brings up two other points regarding the Buddhist notion of kamma/karma. John Lennon sang a song called “Instant Karma.” This idea of kamma/karma is also erroneous. The effect of an action is not instantaneous! In other words, an action and the effect of an action cannot happen simultaneously. The consequence of an action may not manifest until several days, years, or even lifetimes later. Secondly, the effect of an action is not necessarily an effect in kind. In some religions you find phrases like “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” or “as you sow, so shall you reap.” This, too, is erroneous thinking from the perspective of Buddhism. For example, if you cheat on your girlfriend the consequence of that action might be that she leaves you forever instead of reciprocating by cheating on you while in the relationship. For every intentive action there is a reaction but not necessarily a reaction in kind or in proximity to the action itself.

There are many misrepresentations and misinterpretations regarding Buddhist concepts. This applies to Buddhist art, as well. Many people have seen the imagery below. This is not the Buddha. This is an image of Pu-tai, a Chinese Buddhist monk associated with Ch’an Buddhism. He is associated with prosperity and longevity and is a well-known figure in Chinese popular culture. This imagery dates back to about the 10th-c. The image is commonly referred to as the “laughing Buddha” or the “fat Buddha.” This is not, however, the historical Buddha.


(Image: Douglas Sjoquist)

There are other misconceptions about Buddhism and what the Buddha taught (for example, all Buddhists are vegetarians, most Buddhists live in India, all Buddhists practice meditation) but the above represent the most commonly held ones.

Concluding Remarks

The Buddha did not create a theology, a cosmology, a cosmogony, or eschatology. There are no divinely revealed scriptures regarding what he taught. He did not develop a liturgy or prescribe any rituals. In other words, the Dhamma is not a religion in the way that many of think about religion. Rather, it is a path – a path that suggests mental discipline, living a life of moderation, being mindful of our intent behind thoughts, words, and actions, and practicing generosity and kindness will lead to insights on the human condition and eventually an awakened state. This awakened state in Buddhism is referred to as “enlightenment” (bodhi). What exactly is one awakened to? One is awakened to the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, the realization that suffering can be eliminated, and the complete understanding that there is a way to eliminate it. Ultimately, the goal is nibbana (literally, “to be extinguished”) – the highest kind of enlightenment.It says in the “Udana” (the third subdivision of the Khuddaka Nikaya): “There is, monks, that state where there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor the next nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, monks, I say there is no coming, no going, no staying, no decreasing, no uprising, no fixed, no moveable, it has no support. Just this is the end of dukkha” (Udana 8.1).[7]

Study questions

  1. It seems that Buddhism arrived in Indian history at an opportune time. Describe some of the characteristics of Hinduism – especially the Brahmin class – that made India eager to embrace a new teacher and his teachings.
  2. What is the name for the Buddha’s teachings? Why do scholars (and some Buddhists) make a distinction between what the Buddha taught and Buddhism?Do you think such a distinction has merit?
  3. Identify at least three common misconceptions about Buddhism. (NOTE: Include in your answer the concept of kamma and two other misunderstandings about Buddhism commonly found in the West). How do you suppose these misconceptions arise and why do you suppose they get perpetuated? Can the same be said about the teachings of Jesus and/or Muhammad?
  4. What message was the Buddha trying to convey in telling Malunkyaputta the parable of the poisoned arrow?
  5. Buddhism is often referred to as “the Middle Path.” Why?
  6. We all enjoy the simple pleasures in life like having coffee in the morning or putting on headphones and listening to our favorite music in the evening. Illustrate how engaging in a simple pleasure might lead to a form of suffering.
  7. According to the Buddha’s teachings, if various forms of suffering are tied to ignorance, craving, and attachment how, then, is this suffering to be eliminated?
  8. Arrange each of the principles associated with the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path according to the following categories: Wisdom, Mental Discipline, and Ethical Conduct. Illustrate how these principles (and categories) are mutually supportive.
  9. “Suffering exists, but not the sufferer. The act is done, but there is no doer. Peace exists, but not the one who is at peace. There is a path, but no one walks it.” – Buddhaghosa (Visuddhimagga 513). What Buddhist concept does Buddhagosa refer to in the above quotation? Explain.
  10. What elements in Western religious traditions are not found in the Buddha’s Dhamma? What elements in Western philosophical thought are not found in the Dhamma?Does the absence of these elements imply that Dhamma is neither a religion nor a philosophy?

Philosophical Afterward (Matthew Van Cleave)

Many of the chapters in this textbook address theoretical and conceptual problems. The problem of other minds, external world skepticism, the problem of free will and determinism—none of these issues concern the practical matter of how to live well. Rather, they are more intellectual than practical. Although much of the western philosophical tradition focuses on these intellectual and conceptual issues, the concern with practical matters, such as how to live well, has always concerned philosophers, as well. Going all the way back to ancient Greece, Socrates was first and foremost concerned with how to live well—with “ethics” in the broadest sense of that term. Today, ethics remains a flourishing area within the discipline of philosophy, alongside metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. Although contemporary philosophers have tended to intellectualize much of the discipline of ethics, there remains ongoing interest in older traditions that emphasize the practical and therapeutic over the intellectual.

Buddhism, and specifically the Dhamma, is clearly philosophical in this sense. As the story of Malunkyaputta suggests, we often don’t need a subtle intellectual understanding of things in order to reap practical or therapeutic benefits. Indeed, Malunkyaputta’s questions only inhibit his reaping the therapeutic benefits of the surgery. One philosophical tradition that exemplifies this therapeutic conception of philosophy is Stoicism. Since Stoicism is interestingly similar to the Buddha’s teaching about how desire leads to suffering and that living well involves taming our desires, it would be instructive to consider this similarity.

Stoicism began in ancient Greece and was imported to ancient Rome, where it was developed in the hands of influential Roman statesmen and emperors, including Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.[8] As we have seen in this chapter, the second noble truth identifies the cause of suffering with faulty desires and suggests that in order to live better we should constrain not only what we desire, but also the way we desire things. The third noble truth suggests that we can (and should) learn to desire without getting attached to things. Stoicism makes a very similar claim about desire: that we should only desire those things which are under our control. Stoics had an interesting way of reconciling free will with determinism. On the one hand, Stoics believed that everything that happened was fated (by god/nature) to happen and it could not have happened otherwise (this is determinism). On the other hand, they believed that if we could come to desire whatever it was that happened, then whatever happened is something that we would want and in this sense we would have freedom.[9] In contrast, we lack freedom when our desires are in conflict with what happens in the world. Thus, according to the Stoics, if we want to increase our freedom, we should learn to be accept with equanimity whatever happens. We should focus our energy on what we can control and although we cannot control what happens in the world, we can control our reactions to what happens in the world (our own minds). As Epictetus said, “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.”[10] The Stoics called this state of mind of calm acceptance of whatever happens apatheia. Indeed, some Stoics such as Epictetus pushed this acceptance to the extreme:

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks, you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.[11]

Thus the third noble truth and the Stoic notion of apatheia seem to share the idea that in order to live well, we should tame and control our desires so that we do not become attached to things that are not within our control and that we could lose.

This is both a serious but contentious claim about what human beings need to do in order to live well. Not everyone agrees that in order to live well we should narrow the scope and nature of what we desire, but this same issue is one that arises in other places within philosophy’s long history. Martha Nussbaum has argued that there was a longstanding debate on exactly this issue between the ancient Greek tragedians (like Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus), on the one hand, and Socrates and Plato, on the other. The tragedians, as Nussbaum reads them, are trying to show us that because of the scope and complexity of what humans desire, we will inevitably have to face tragic choices in life. These tragic situations cannot be avoided. Socrates’ response to the tragedians, as Nussbaum sees it, was to grant that they were correct in seeing that most human lives would involve tragedies—conflicts between things that we equally deeply value—but to suggest that we could escape the tragedy by narrowing the range of what we desire. For example, if we could reduce everything we valued to one kind of value, then there wouldn’t be any conflicts between incommensurable values (such as loyalty to family versus loyalty to state or religion). Consider love: if we could “ascend” to valuing only abstract beauty and not particular beautiful people, then there is no risk of loss or hurt. (This is exactly what Nussbaum argues is Socrates’ position in Plato’s Symposium and it also sounds remarkably similar to the Epictetus quote above.) Nussbaum argues that Plato is well aware of the fact that ascending to this kind of abstraction involves giving up something that is a deep part of our humanity and that safeguarding ourselves from loss in this way isn’t worth the price of making ourselves less human.[12] Perhaps there is a similar philosophical debate to be had regarding the viability of the third noble truth and of the Stoic ideal of apatheia.

There is another clear philosophical connection to be made with the Buddhist concept of anatta (no-self). Claims about what “the self” is connect with the traditional philosophical issue of personal identity (see the chapter in this textbook). One of the key questions that philosophers have asked about personal identity is how we can persist through time. Consider the fact that who you are now and who you were when you were 7 years old are radically different in almost every way. So, in what sense are we talking about the same person in these two instances? This is what philosophers have labelled “the persistence question” (see the personal identity chapter in this textbook). Some philosophers have taken the view that there is, in fact, nothing that persists through time and thus that we do not have a persisting self. Such philosophers seem to be in alignment with the Buddhist concept of anatta. One Buddhist text in which the doctrine of anatta is clearly stated (and that reads very similarly to philosophical writing about personal identity) is The Questions of King Milinda in which the Buddhist sage, Nāgasena, explains to King Milinda that just as a chariot is nothing in additions to all its parts, so the self is nothing—no extra thing—in addition to all of our parts. I quote that text here at length.

Now Milinda the king went up to where the venerable Nâgasena was, and addressed him with the greetings and compliments of friendship and courtesy, and took his seat respectfully apart. And Nâgasena reciprocated his courtesy, so that the heart of the king was propitiated. And Milinda began by asking, ‘How is your Reverence known, and what, Sir, is your name?’

‘I am known as Nâgasena, O king, and it is by that name that my brethren in the faith address me. But although parents, O king, give such a name as Nâgasena, or Sûrasena, or Vîrasena, or Sîhasena, yet this, Sire,– Nâgasena and so on–is only a generally understood term, a designation in common use. For there is no permanent individuality (no soul) involved in the matter.’

Then Milinda called upon the Yonakas and the brethren to witness: ‘This Nâgasena says there is no permanent individuality (no soul) implied in his name. Is it now even possible to approve him in that?’ And turning to Nâgasena, he said: ‘If, most reverend Nâgasena, there be no permanent individuality (no soul) involved in the matter, who is it, pray, who gives to you members of the Order your robes and food and lodging and necessaries for the sick? Who is it who enjoys such things when given?

Who is it who lives a life of righteousness? Who is it who devotes himself to meditation? Who is it who attains to the goal of the Excellent Way, to the Nirvâna of Arahatship? And who is it who destroys living creatures? who is it who takes what is not his own? who is it who lives an evil life of worldly lusts, who speaks lies, who drinks strong drink, who (in a word) commits any one of the five sins which work out their bitter fruit even in this life? If that be so there is neither merit nor demerit; there is neither doer nor causer of good or evil deeds; there is neither fruit nor result of good or evil Karma. If, most reverend Nâgasena, we are to think that were a man to kill you there would be no murder, then it follows that there are no real masters or teachers in your Order, and that your ordinations are void.–You tell me that your brethren in the Order are in the habit of addressing you as Nâgasena. Now what is that Nâgasena?

Do you mean to say that the hair is Nâgasena?’ ‘I don’t say that, great king.’

‘Or the hairs on the body, perhaps?’ ‘Certainly not.’

‘Or is it the nails, the teeth, the skin, the flesh, the nerves, the bones, the marrow, the kidneys, the heart, the liver, the abdomen, the spleen, the lungs, the larger intestines, the lower intestines, the stomach, the fæces, the bile, the phlegm, the pus, the blood, the sweat, the fat, the tears, the serum, the saliva, the mucus, the oil that lubricates the joints, the urine, or the brain, or any or all of these, that is Nâgasena?’

And to each of these he answered no.

‘Is it the outward form then (Rûpa) that is Nâgasena, or the sensations (Vedanâ), or the ideas (Saññâ), or the confections (the constituent elements of character, Samkhârâ), or the consciousness (Vigññâna), that is Nâgasena?’

And to each of these also he answered no.

‘Then is it all these Skandhas combined that are Nâgasena?’ ‘No! great king.’

‘But is there anything outside the five Skandhas that is Nâgasena?’ And still he answered no.

‘Then thus, ask as I may, I can discover no Nâgasena. Nâgasena is a mere empty sound. Who then is the Nâgasena that we see before us? It is a falsehood that your reverence has spoken, an untruth!’

And the venerable Nâgasena said to Milinda the king: ‘You, Sire, have been brought up in great luxury, as beseems your noble birth. If you were to walk this dry weather on the hot and sandy ground, trampling under foot the gritty, gravelly grains of the hard sand, your feet would hurt you. And as your body would be in pain, your mind would be disturbed, and you would experience a sense of bodily suffering. How then did you come, on foot, or in a chariot?’

‘I did not come, Sir, on foot. I came in a carriage.’

‘Then if you came, Sire, in a carriage, explain to me what that is. Is it the pole that is the chariot?’

‘I did not say that.’

‘Is it the axle that is the chariot?’ ‘Certainly not.’

‘Is it the wheels, or the framework, or the ropes, or the yoke, or the spokes of the wheels, or the goad, that are the chariot?’

And to all these he still answered no.

‘Then is it all these parts of it that are the chariot?’ ‘No, Sir.’

‘But is there anything outside them that is the chariot?’ And still he answered no.

‘Then thus, ask as I may, I can discover no chariot. Chariot is a mere empty sound. What then is the chariot you say you came in? It is a falsehood that your Majesty has spoken, an untruth! There is no such thing as a chariot! You are king over all India, a mighty monarch. Of whom then are you afraid that you speak untruth? And he called upon the Yonakas and the brethren to witness, saying: ‘Milinda the king here has said that he came by carriage. But when asked in that case to explain what the carriage was, he is unable to establish what he averred. Is it, forsooth, possible to approve him in that?’

When he had thus spoken the five hundred Yonakas shouted their applause, and said to the king: Now let your Majesty get out of that if you can?’

And Milinda the king replied to Nâgasena, and said: ‘I have spoken no untruth, reverend Sir. It is on account of its having all these things–the pole, and the axle, the wheels, and the framework, the ropes, the yoke, the spokes, and the goad–that it comes under the generally understood term, the designation in common use, of “chariot.”‘

‘Very good! Your Majesty has rightly grasped the meaning of “chariot.” And just even so it is on account of all those things you questioned me about–the thirty-two kinds of organic matter in a human body, and the five constituent elements of being–that I come under the generally understood term, the designation in common use, of “Nâgasena.”[13]

I will end this philosophical afterward with a question I had when reading this chapter. It is clear that the Buddha put forward the four noble truths and eightfold path and that he thought that these were crucial for humans to understand in order to live well. But how did the Buddha know this? This is an epistemological question; I am asking why we should believe that what the Buddha said was true. This question is especially pressing given that the Buddha doesn’t really try to give any arguments or reasoning for why what he said was true. What does seem to be clear from this chapter is that the Buddha discovered these truths from experience—from actually living it himself. It is here perhaps that we can tie the Buddha’s way of answering this question to an existing American philosophical tradition: pragmatism. American pragmatists (the big three being C.S. Pierce, William James, and John Dewey) suggested that what we mean by truth is simply what we can establish through experience. In short, if x works well, then x is true. Whatever might be our ultimate judgment about pragmatic theories of truth, there is another question that seems to me more pressing. The question is: Even if we grant that living in this way (following “the path”) worked for the Buddha, why should that mean it will thereby work for me? Of course, if I try it and find it works, then I have my answer. But why should I invest the time an energy into this particular path when there are so many other “paths” that other traditions think I should follow? These are questions that anyone who thinks deeply about what it means for humans to live well cannot avoid asking. Buddhism enters its answer into a mélange of other answers that have been offered by other philosophical and religious traditions. The role of philosophy is to sort through this mélange of answers for the truth.

  1. The Majjhima Nikaya. Nanamoli and Bodhi, translators: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
  2. The Samyutta Nikaya, Nanamoli and Bodhi, translators: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
  3. The Dhammpada, Easwaran, Eknath, translator: Nilgiri Press, 2007.
  4. Anguttara Nikaya, p. 236
  5. Even Against the Wind, Khemasanto: Dhammasala Forest Monastery, 2000.
  6. Visuddhimagga, Nanamoli, translator: Buddhist Publication Society, 1991.
  7. The Khuddaka Nikaya, Thanissaro, translator: Metta Forest Monastery, 2005.
  8. Juczak, Paul M. 2014. Worldy and Unworldly Philosophies: From the First Philosophers to the 15th Century. Open textbook available through author:
  9. Stoicism thus takes a “compatibilist” position regarding the problem of free will and determinism. See the chapter on free will and determinism in this textbook.
  10. Epictetus, Enchiridion, 8. Available at
  11. Epictetus, Enchiridion, 3 (emphasis mine). Available at
  12. Martha Nussbaum argues all of the preceding points in her magisterial work, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  13. Note that The Questions of King Milinda is not part of Dhamma, is not a sermon of the Buddha, is not found in Thai or Sri Lankan translations of Pali Canon, and is not in the sutras of the Pali Canon in Theravada tradition (except Burma). Full text of The Questions of King Milinda is available here:


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