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The Buddha And The Fundamental Doctrines Of Buddhism

The historical details of the life of the Buddha, like those of the lives of many of the world's religious founders and saints, are probably unrecoverable, buried under layers and layers of mythology and doctrinal revisionism. While there is little doubt that at the origin of Buddhism lies a strong, charismatic founder, the particular contours of the person and life of that founder can only be purely speculative. The oldest Pali and Sanskrit texts do not relay a sustained narrative about the Buddha's life but rather give only snippets and fragmentary references that seem to emphasize his human features. This has led some to argue that Buddhism is fundamentally an "atheistic" religion, although for a variety of reasons this is a distortion of Buddhist belief. There are indications that even in his lifetime Gautama was accorded great respect and veneration and soon after his death was worshipped in the form of relics, pilgrimages to sites of significance in the Buddha's life, and eventually in images that became the centerpieces of devotion.

The first known formal biography or hagiography of Gautama Buddha was the Buddhacarita, written in Sanskrit probably around the first century C.E. by Ashvaghosha. Over subsequent centuries other life stories were produced in India and Sri Lanka incorporating more and more legendary and mythical materials. The later texts in the hagiographical tradition in Buddhism increasingly stress the miraculous and supernatural elements of the founder. Indeed, in many of them Shakyamuni is portrayed as this era's Buddha, the latest in a string of many prior Buddhas and the forerunner of a future Buddha known as Maitreya. By the time of the rise of Mahayana Buddhism in the early centuries C.E. the historical Gautama was wholly eclipsed by a complex "Buddhology" that elevates the Buddha to cosmic and, for most ordinary Buddhists, divine stature.

While there are a variety of understandings of who the Buddha was among the various adherents and sects of Buddhism, all are agreed on the basic outline of his life story. He was supposed to have lived sometime during the period from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C.E., born into a family of the Kshatriya, or warrior-king, class in the clan called the Shakyas in northeastern India. Many accounts say his birth was attended by miracles and that he was born with signs on his body indicating a destiny either as an enlightened Buddha or as a world-conquering emperor. His parents, preferring the latter career path, kept him isolated from the outside world and educated him to be a prince. Gautama grew up under these pampered circumstances, married, and had a son he named Rahula ("Fetter").

This sheltered life of royal luxury came to an end when the young prince was taken by his charioteer on four excursions outside the confines of the castle. On these trips he saw, for the first time, the suffering nature of a life where sickness, old age, and death are inevitable. On his last tour he also saw a mendicant who was attempting to find an alternative to such a life. These "four sights" provided the impetus for the future Buddha to immediately leave the householder way of life and go in search of the means to liberation from suffering.

The middle centuries B.C.E. in North India were a time of great religious and intellectual ferment and experimentation. Many of the religious assumptions prevailing at that time were integrated into the Buddha's teaching and subsequent Buddhism, including the belief in karma and rebirth, the cyclical nature of time, the pervasiveness of suffering, and the positing of an alternative to suffering and rebirth.

Upon leaving his previous life as a prince, Gautama is said to have joined several of the many different groups of world renouncers living in the wilderness areas of India, including one group of radical ascetics. The future Buddha perfected the methods taught in this group, learning how to live on but a grain of rice a day, until he became skeletal and weak—but not enlightened. According to legend, Gautama abandoned the way of radical asceticism, just as he had early renounced the life of hedonistic pleasure in the castle, and soon discovered a "middle way" between these two extremes. In deep meditation under a "tree of enlightenment," the Buddha reached his own enlightenment and nirvana, the "extinguishing" of ignorance, suffering, and rebirth.

The first sermon or teaching of the newly enlightened Buddha was, according to the legends, given at the Deer Park in Sarnath in northeast India to members of the group of ascetics with whom Gautama had associated earlier. This first "turning of the wheel of dharma" encapsulates the fundamental tenets of all forms of Buddhism and consists of what are called the Four Noble Truths.

The first of these is the universal fact of suffering and dissatisfaction (duhkha). A standard formula declares that "birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with what one dislikes is suffering; separation from what one likes is suffering; not getting what one wants is suffering." Such unhappy circumstances are sometimes called "obvious suffering" and are also bound up in another central doctrine of all forms of Buddhism: the insistence that there is no "self" or "essence" to things and beings (an-atman). This belief directly contradicts the concept in Hinduism of an atman, or fundamental and underlying self (which was not conceived of, however, as the ego or temporary persona that undergoes rebirth). In the Hindu texts known as the Upanishads, realization of one's true nature, one's true self or atman, as identical to the ultimate ground of the cosmos (the Brahman), was the end of the mystical pursuit. In contrast, the positing of an-atman became one of the distinctive, even unique, features of the Buddhist religion. Suffering occurs in part by grasping and clinging to a self that does not, according to Buddhism, exist.

According to Buddhist doctrine, what we call the "self" is merely a composite of five "aggregates" or "heaps" (skandhas). These are "form" (the body in particular and physical and material form in general), feelings (pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral), discrimination (that which processes and categorizes sensory and mental information), karmic predispositions (including, among many other mental factors, will or volition), and consciousness (meaning not only mental awareness but also the "consciousnesses" associated with the five senses). The "self" is but an ever-changing conglomeration of these five aggregates—a process rather than an essential entity.

Another dimension of the first Noble Truth of universal suffering is called the "suffering of change." Even the pleasant things and circumstances of life are not lasting, and when they are lost we suffer. Thus a second central concept of Buddhist metaphysics also tied up with the truth of suffering is that of impermanence, or anitya. Buddhism posits the impermanence and changing nature of all caused and compounded or composite things and beings. Suffering occurs when one mistakes impermanence for permanence and, again, becomes ignorantly attached to things and beings in the false belief that they will last.

A third dimension of suffering is sometimes identified: the "pervasive" suffering that accompanies birth in "samsara"—a word that literally means "to wander or pass through a series of states or conditions." Samsara describes the beginningless cycle of cosmic or universal death and rebirth and the fact that phenomenal existence is transient and ever-changing. "Pervasive" suffering points to the recurring experience of birth, life, death, and rebirth in such a universe.

The second Noble Truth states that suffering has a cause and is not therefore eternally and hopelessly hard-wired into the nature of things. Suffering, according to Buddhism, is created by our own ignorant and habitual responses to life. The chief cause of suffering is variously identified as "thirst" (tanha), "craving" (trishna), or the "three poisons": "desire" or "attraction" (raga), "aversion" or "hatred" (pratigha), and "ignorance" (avidya).

Suffering occurs because of a series of interrelated causal factors that are summarized in another important Buddhist doctrine, that of "dependent origination." In essence this doctrine declares "that being, this comes to be; from the arising of that, this arises; that being absent, this is not; from the cessation of that, this ceases" (Samyuttanikaya 2.28). In its classical form, dependent origination consists of twelve conditioned and conditioning links: (1) ignorance, (2) formations (the construction of new karma), (3) consciousness, (4) mind and body, (5) the six sense fields, (6) contact of the senses with the sense fields, (7) feeling, (8) craving, (9) grasping, (10) becoming, (11) birth (i.e., rebirth), and (12) aging and death. Each link depends on the one before it. Aging and death (12) depend on birth (11), for if one were not perpetually reborn one would not repeatedly grow old and die. Birth depends on becoming (10, in the sense of the ripening of karma created in the past); becoming depends on grasping or clinging (9), which in turn depends on craving (8). Craving arises due to pleasant and unpleasant feelings (7), which depend on the contact of the senses (6) with the objects or "fields" of the senses (5), which could not exist without a mind and body (4). Mind and body depend on the consciousness of the six sense fields (3, the five senses with the mind as the sixth), which are determined by the volitional forces (2) that come into play due to ignorance (1). When ignorance ceases, karma is no longer produced, and all other links in the chain are stopped, right up through old age and death.

This brings us to the third Noble Truth, which declares that there is an alternative to suffering, the state called nirvana. The term literally means an "extinguishing" or "blowing out" and has sometimes been misunderstood as some kind of nihilism. Nirvana is indeed often described in negative terms: the permanent cessation or extinction of suffering and its causes (craving and the three poisons), of the false idea of and attachment to self, of mistaking the impermanent for the permanent, and of rebirth in the world of samsara. But nirvana is also depicted in positive form, as a state of absolute peace, serenity, tranquility, happiness, and bliss. One who achieves such a state is known as an arhat, or "worthy one," and various important milestones along the way are also delineated. One who has had the experience of penetrating into the true nature of reality is called an arya (noble one) and a "stream-enterer," for he or she is from that time forward moving inexorably toward nirvana. A "once-returner" has only one more lifetime before achieving the goal, and a "non-returner" will attain nirvana in this lifetime. A distinction is also sometimes made between "nirvana with remainder" (indicating that the person has reached the goal but is still embodied) and "nirvana without remainder," or "final nirvana" (parinirvana), which the arhat enters after the death of the body.

The fourth Noble Truth is the declaration that there is a path or method for achieving the state of nirvana. Just as suffering has its causes, so too can the end of suffering be brought about by entering and perfecting the "Eightfold Path," which are sometimes also grouped into what are called the "Three Trainings." The first "training" is in wisdom and covers the first two steps of the Eightfold Path: (1) right view (meaning, among other things, a proper understanding of the Four Noble Truths) and (2) right resolve (the determination to end one's suffering). The second training is in ethics and includes (3) right speech (abstaining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and idle speech), (4) right action (abstaining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct), and (5) right livelihood (abstaining from professions that involve harming other beings). The third training is in meditative concentration and covers (6) right effort (persistence in the training of meditation), (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. Given the crucial importance and centrality of meditation to the Buddhist path, texts go into great detail about the increasingly subtle states of mind associated with right mindfulness and right concentration.

After the first sermon at the Deer Park, the Buddha is said to have traveled and taught in India for many decades. During the Buddha's lifetime, he also apparently inaugurated one of the central institutions of Buddhism, monasticism, the most ancient continuous institution in history. From the earliest period of Buddhism, the community, or sangha, consisted of laymen and laywomen on the one hand and monks and nuns on the other. But it was especially the monastics who were encompassed in the term sangha. The monastic rules of discipline, or vinaya, may go back to the Buddha himself but were in any case codified in a series of councils held after the Buddha's passing away. Being a Buddhist traditionally means that one "takes refuge" in what are called the three jewels—the Buddha, the dharma (i.e., the teachings and the attainments those teachings lead to), and the sangha (sometimes meaning exclusively the monastics and sometimes meaning the whole of the Buddhist community).

The Buddha was said to have lived to the age of about eighty, at which time he "passed into his parinirvana." According to the texts, relics from his body were distributed and subsequently buried at the base of distinctively Buddhist places of worship called stupas, which, together with the monasteries and pilgrimage sites, formed the spatial centers of the new religion.

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