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Buddhism from a Philosophical Standpoint
When one attempts to put religion under the inquiry of philosophy, there is an important thing that must be clarified. One must be aware that philosophy is both a science of systematic thinking and a way of life. As a science, philosophy explores the ultimate causes and purposes of all things that exist. It entails adherence to rigorous logic and impassioned critique of nearly all things that may be put into question. Which is why, it is a strict rational science (if not the most rigorous one).
However, one needs to equally remember that philosophy can also pertain to a principle about life, or a life-influencing belief system. To be sure, this second notion of philosophy enjoys more usage than the previous one nowadays. For instance, many self-help books promising to teach people new philosophies to help them emerge successful in life end up in bookstores as top-sellers and/or top-grosser. One can call both of them – the philosophic inquiry into things and the less rigorous adherence to some principles about life – as philosophies in their own respects.
Studying religion from a philosophical standpoint entails an inquiry figuring in two levels as well. Religion must be seen both as a subject that can be assessed, and a way of life that has to be lived. As an object of philosophic inquiry, religion must be evaluated according to the tenets it holds or the doctrines it teaches. As a way of life, religion must be seen in the context of ritual or ethical practices stemming from a belief system. Thus, in studying religion, one is able to gather philosophical analyses from certain practices and beliefs.
In a way, it is the result of combining the two basic understandings of philosophy into a single framework. Rationale and Methodology The aim of this paper is to present Buddhism from the standpoint of philosophy. This means that some of the basic questions that philosophy asks shall be answered in the light of what Buddhism teaches. What could those basic questions be? First, there is a question about ontology. Under this specific inquiry, one looks at how Buddhism perceives all things that exist.
Next, there is cosmology; an inquiry which enables one to ask: how does Buddhism understand the world? Other concerns include anthropology (read: how do they understand man? ) and ethics (read: how do they assess what could be morally acceptable or not). But ultimately, since Buddhism is acknowledged as one of the major religions of the world right now, a philosophic inquiry should include exploring their basic notions about God; and thus, theology. After all, religion is essentially about a “belief in Spiritual Beings” (McCutcheon, 2007, p.
22) translated most frequently into a belief in a kind of God. Buddhism: History and Core Doctrines Buddhism is a religious movement which started approximately 500 years before Christ (Griffiths, 1997, p. 15). It first spread across most of the Indian peninsula, only to be dispersed outside the region later on. At present, its influence is embraced not just by Indians but also by those coming from countries which comprise the South and South East Asia region, a few areas in Japan and some provinces of China.
It needs to be mentioned that Buddhism is a religious phenomenon characterized by diversity in forms and practices. Buddhism, says one author, is a “very differentiated” religion (Griffiths, 1997, p. 5). One may not find the same strain of Buddhism found, say, in South East Asia, and another one coming from, say, a southern province of India. Right now, there are a myriad of groups claiming to adhere to a unique practice of Buddhism on their own. In effect, it makes Buddhism a kind of religion that seems neither to teach nor require uniformity of doctrines from all its adherents.
Buddhism is a religion that draws heavily from the inspiration lent by its recognized founder, Gautama Sakayamuni (later on to become Gautama Buddha) – a person who exemplified for them a life of total freedom and perpetual meditation in order to arrive at an utterly blissful state called Nirvana. By and large, it is about an adherence to a lifestyle that seeks authentic enlightenment; and not about a longing for the Transcendent which most religions of the world are concerned with. For this reason, some thinkers are entertaining the idea that Buddhism is, after all, “not a religion but a way of life” (Humphreys, 1997, p.
13). Buddhism, as many authors have noted, is a movement associated not so much with a set of doctrinal teachings as a “body of teachings with spiritual benefits” (Williams, 1989, p. 2). In fact, many Buddhism-inclined literatures encompass teachings not really about religious worship, but about way of living, ritual practices, devotional meditation (Mitchell, 2002, p. 1), among others. Owing much from the teachings which Gautama Buddha has left, Buddhism teaches that life is in a state of perpetual quest for enlightenment marked by a feeling of constant dissatisfaction (Williams, 1989, p.
34). Buddha himself was a testament to this. After leaving home at an early age, Gautama ventured on a life-journey to seek for enlightenment; a precious state he could not seem to find in the world as he got to know it. As he tried to quell the gripping loneliness and instinctive drive to satisfy pleasures, Gautama sought answer and solace through meditation. His meditation led him to see that impermanence, dissatisfaction and a fluid sense of self constitute the basic truths of reality (Williams, 1989, pp.
34-36). He further taught that a human person is really nothing, but only takes form as someone constituted by five different “aggregates” namely, “form (material constitution), sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness” (Williams, 1989, p. 37). One should now that one of the chief elements that defines the uniqueness of Buddhism lies in how they consider all things to be illusory, since they subscribe to the idea that “things are not what they seem” (Griffiths, 1997, p. 20).
Some of their other teachings about life include the following: value for the principle of moderation, belief in Karma and perpetual recurrence of everything that exists, belief in life’s four noble truths (life is suffering, the cause of suffering is cravings for pleasure, freedom from suffering is temperance from pleasures, and a way to stop suffering is by following the eight-fold path), and the practice of the noble eight-fold paths (right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right living, right conduct, right mindfulness and right concentration) in one’s life (Mitchell, 2002, pp. 45-47). A Philosophical Analysis
Judging from the ideas raised in the Introduction of this work, it is clear that one must consider Buddhism a type of philosophy – that is, as a way of life. Many authors have already proceeded to claim that this particular religious phenomenon is chiefly characterized by the numerous practical precepts which serve as guides towards an enlightened living. It is good to note that Buddhism, pretty much like philosophy, is concerned with the pursuit of enlightenment or truth. An enlightened self – immortalized perhaps in Western Philosophy by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – is surely the goal why one enters into philosophical discourses.
In so far as Buddhism offers its own distinct ways to attain enlightenment as well, it is therefore with good reasons that one should classify this religion as philosophical in many ways. Buddhism however does not stop at stipulating suggestions for right living alone. As a system of belief, it also offers perspectives about the whole of reality. Like philosophical discourses, Buddhism is a belief system that speaks of its perspective about the ultimate realities like human existence, cosmology, human knowledge, ontology and theology.
Surely, there is a need to look into these briefly Buddhism’s take on reality encourages an attitude of detachment on account of a belief that “everything is impermanent” (Griffiths, 1997, p. 16), and therefore in a state of constant flux. Much of Buddhism’s view about reality rests on the belief that the world is full of ‘diversity’, and the more is able to ‘reveal’ or appreciate it, the closer is one to the truth about the ever passing universe (Williams, 1989, p. 3).
This idea is interestingly shared by an ancient Western philosopher that went by the name Heraclitus, who taught that “fire”- an element in a perpetual state of movement – is the basic element that constitutes reality. Buddhism, one need to remember, is not so much concerned with the rigorous definition of reality. But in so far it embraces an attitude of non-attachment in relating to all things, Buddhism has to anchor this belief system on a formidable reason – that one’s attachment over things is futile given the fact that all things pass away.
In fact, most of what Buddhism teaches is drawn from this ontological belief; and this doctrine of impermanence must be seen as a recurrent theme in its whole system of perspective. As far as Epistemology is concerned, the doctrine of impermanence is also maintained. Buddhism teaches that nothing can be known with exact certitude because all things are ephemeral and thus, as mentioned a while ago, “they are not what they seem” (Griffiths, 1997, p. 19). Everything is subject to change and passes away.
Thus, one may not arrive at a definitive knowledge about things at all. Which is why, Buddha maintained that “dissatisfaction” is a constant theme that defines the feelings of all who search for knowledge or truth (Mitchell, 2002, p. 33). No one is able to know what reality is; and its appearance is often misleading. One may notice that this epistemology is actually consistent with Buddhism’s anthropology, or, its understanding of human nature. If one checks the teachings of Buddha about man, one can clearly see the doctrine of impermanence as patent in it too.
Buddha believes that human nature is nothing but a constitution of events called materiality, sensation, conceptualization, volition and consciousness (Griffiths, 1997, p. 20). This type of anthropology views man not as an existing individual substance (which most of Western Philosophy have understood what human nature is), but an “impermanent self” constituted by personal events (Griffith, 1997, p. 20). Cosmology for Buddhism follows the same line of logic. Constant flux is patent in its belief that the world follows a rhythm of birth and rebirth, of cycle and current, of existence and passage.
The bulk of Buddhism’s teachings therefore solemnly enjoin its adherents to develop an attitude of detachment. Anchored on a belief that nothing in this world ever remains the same over a period of time, Buddhism points that the path towards Nirvana – or ultimate sense of bliss – lies in a state of total freedom from what this world actually offers. Lastly, it is quite interesting to point out that Buddhism rarely engages in a question about the ultimate reality or God. Broadly speaking, the whole philosophy of impermanence is at odds with a concept of deity.
The general theory about God stipulates that ‘It” is a Supreme Being defined by eternality, omniscience, omnipotence and changelessness. In a belief system where the central truth about reality rests on the ephemeral nature of all things, the concept of God is really something hard to conceive (Griffiths, 1997, p. 22). How can there be such a Being when the general characteristic of all things – supposedly including God – is change and flux? More importantly, one can ask: how can one consider Buddhism a religion at all if one is not willing to reconcile its theology with its ontology?
Griffith believes that the metaphysics of impermanence makes Buddhism deny the existence of God all together (Griffith, 1997, p. 23). But the image of Buddha as the exemplification of their quest for a transcendent end, translated in Nirvana, is perhaps the only figure of deity Buddhism actually posses. Conclusion Buddhism is both a philosophy and a religious movement. As a philosophy, it offers its adherents a way of life observed in a tradition marked by meditation, introspection, constant purgation of desire and an unending quest for enlightenment.
As a religious movement, it is concerned with the pursuit of “transcendent ends” (Slater, 1978, p. 6) they call Nirvana. Buddhism offers its own understanding of reality too. Its doctrines are highly influenced by the teachings of its founder Gautama Buddha. In this paper, it has been noted that their belief system can also be evaluated under the categories which Western philosophy uses – metaphysics, epistemology, cosmology, anthropology and theology.
These aspects are given meaning by a pervading concept of impermanence and dissatisfaction. Buddhism draws largely from a belief that everything in the world is impermanent, and that all people are enjoined to meet it with an attitude of detachment and self-control. The path towards true enlightenment happens only when one is able to see beyond what reality offers, and seek the true meaning of existence that lies only within. References Humphreys, C. (1997). A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism.
Chicago: NTC. Griffiths, P. Buddhism. In Quinn, P. & Taliaferro, C. (Eds. ), A Companion to Philosophy of Religion. Massachusetts: Blackwell. McCutcheon, R. (2007). Studying Religion. An Introduction. London: Equinox. Mitchell, D. (2002). Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Slater, P. (1978). The Dynamics of Religion. Meaning and Change in Religious Traditions. San Francisco: Harper and Row. Williams, P. (1989). Mahayana Buddhism. Doctrinal Foundations. New York: Routledge.