In Buddhist teaching, the notion of an independent, individual self is the root of the illusion and suffering because it gives rise to distinction between self and other, and with that to likes and aversions… it leads us to behave in ways that create suffering for ourselves and for others, in ways that disregard our deep interconnectedness.
Indian and Asian Beginnings
The canonical stories paint a very colorful and detailed picture of the life that the future Buddha, young prince Shakyamuni Gautama, led before his quest for enlightenment. Sheltered by his father from any sight that might make him question or abandon his care-free life of luxury, he had not one but three palaces, and was surrounded by beautiful women, entertaining him with music and dances and waiting to fulfill his every wish. Shakyamuni was described as the best wrestler and archer, trained in all the sports and arts of his time.
Led by curiosity to leave the palace, he encountered in succession a sick person, and old person and a corpse, which, for the very first time, brought home to him the reality of sickness, old age and death. The last person he encountered on this excursion was a religious renunciant, whose serenity and contentment made Shakyamuni realize that his own life-style, which could be seen as the fulfillment of every modern dream of a good and healthy life, did not give him lasting fulfillment and happiness. And so he left his palace, his wife and young son in the middle of the night to embark on an ascetic path of renunciation in his search for enlightenment.
Enduring every kind of hardship and almost starving himself to death, he now saw his former life of physical comfort and mental complacency as the enemy to overcome. However, after six years of extreme austerities, he realized that self-denial did not bring him any closer to understanding and happiness. This is when he decided to take the middle path between self-mortification and self-indulgence, and, not withstanding the criticism of his fellow-ascetics, he bathed, had some food, and then attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at the rise of the morning star.
This enlightenment experience, which practitioners of Buddhist meditation strive also to attain, is described as a state of total freedom and perfect peace. It is said that the Buddha remained seated for seven days, rapt in bliss and joy, until compassion eventually moved him to rise from his seat of bliss in order to share his discovery with his companions and others. Tradition holds that, from this point on, the Buddha became the teacher of both devas (divinities) and human beings.
The teaching, called the Dharma, was revolutionary. In the Hindu tradition, dharma referred to the duty of every member of the society to live according to the norms prescribed by the caste system. The birth into one of the four castes was seen as determined by karma – by a fate beyond one’s control, a result created by actions in previous lives. In the Buddhist usage, however, dharma is primarily the liberating truth realized by the Awakened one, and connected to this, the teaching leading to this truth.
A teaching such as…
I do not call one a brahmana because of one’s origin, or one`s mother. Such is indeed arrogant, and is wealthy: but the poor who is free from attachments, that one I call a brahmana. That one I call indeed a brahmana who is free from anger, dutiful, virtuous, without appetites, who is subdued and has received one`s last body (of birth)…..2
challenged the religious and political system of Brahamanism, since it ascribed nobility not to birth, but to an ethical way of life and a state of mind perfected by practice. This emphasis on behavior rather than status in the social hierarchy both overturned the fatalistic implications of karma and served to affirm that the worth of a human being depends on one’s actions, not on birth. Today, most Indian Buddhists do in fact come from the bottom rank of society, from the caste of the Untouchables.
In the discourse that is traditionally regarded as the first after his enlightenment, the Buddha, based on his own recent experience, affirmed the importance of the Middle Way between the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This was followed by the Four Noble Truths, a realistic teaching which holds that life, as most of us experience it, is marked by dukkha, by a sense of dissatisfactoriness, of unfulfilled longing or suffering. The cause of this dissatisfactoriness is craving for finite things – the high-powered job, the house of one`s dreams, the ideal partner, the vacation in the Carribean, etc, etc. From the Buddhist point of view, pursuing these kinds of things does not lead to true self-realization but only results in more craving, and therefore more dissatisfaction.
But human beings do not only crave for finite things. On a deeper level, they crave for “existence,” which means the desire to perpetuate ourselves in some form or other in the attempt to negate our own mortality. The opposite side of this is “craving for non-existence,” the sense that the only way out of the constraints of the human condition is by putting an end to it. For example, the high rate of suicide among young people who cannot bear the stress created by our highly technological societies is an indicator for the wide occurrence of this kind of craving.
All these different forms of craving are attributed to a basic ignorance about the way things are, about what we really are. In contrast to the theistic traditions, Buddhism does not hold that there is an individual self or eternal soul (atman), which is created by God and will eventually return to God. Rather, what we call the self, is the coming together of the “five constituents of being” (skandhas), namely bodily form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness. The Buddha clearly declared that no self can be found in any of these, that they come together because of karmic causes and conditions, and that they will disperse again when these conditions no longer pertain.
Like everything else in the world, we are marked by impermanence, and like everything else in the world, we are thoroughly interconnected and depend on everybody and everything else for our own existence. In Buddhist teaching, the notion of an independent, individual self is the root of the illusion and suffering because it gives rise to distinction between self and other, and with that to likes and aversions, lust, greed and ill-will and anger. In short, it leads us to behave in ways that create suffering for ourselves and for others, in ways that disregard our deep interconnectedness. It is therefore the opposite of true self-realization.
But there is a way to end dukkha, and this way is the Eightfold Noble Path, which consists of a moral and responsible way of life, meditation and insight. The practice of this path transforms ignorance into wisdom and eventually leads to the total liberation or Nirvana, the state which the Buddha experienced in his enlightenment.
As the Buddha started to attract more and more disciples with his teachings, he founded the monk’s order on the premise that freedom from worldly cares would be the most congenial way of life to practice meditation and insight. The monks were supported by lay-people, who strove to create spiritual merits for themselves and their family members by giving alms to the monks and donations to the monastery. Since in the Indian society of that time, it was unthinkable for women to remain unmarried and live independently, the Buddha at first refused permission to found a nun’s order, but later agreed, even though the nuns order was placed under strict supervision by the monks. Also, the number of precepts the nuns had to observe was much higher than that of the monks.
Even though the teachings of Buddhism went against the Brahmanic value system, the Buddha never called for political action against priests or rulers. On the contrary, he was dependent on the ruler’s support and protection, and on numerous occasions, the rulers sought him out for spiritual, economic and political advice. When Buddhism entered China in the 2nd century CE, it had to adapt to the Confucian way of thinking in order to make an inroad into the culture. The Confucian system was based on strictly hierarchical relationships that were modeled on the workings of the universe. The ruler, the son of heaven, was conceived to be as far above his subjects as the sky over the earth, husbands were in a similar way just as far above their wives, children had to respect and serve their parents, and younger brothers elder brothers. The only relationship considered as equal was that between friends. Disturbances in these relationships were thought to have potentially disastrous consequences for the harmonious functioning of society and of the universe.
Since Buddhism as a celibate monastic tradition went against the Confucian ideal of filial behavior, which involves taking care of one’s parents and producing sons to pass on the family name and carry out the prescribed rituals of ancestor worship, Chinese Buddhists propagated funeral and memorial rites conducted by the monks as the most filial and efficient way of ensuring deceased family members a safe passage to the other world. In this way, they also secured the financial support of their monasteries. At the same time, the notion that lay persons were not only there to support the practice of the monks and nuns but they themselves could also achieve enlightenment in their own right, gained popularity in China with the translation of the Vimalakirti Sutra.
Vimalakirti is described as a householder and city elder, whose enlightened way of life does not even exclude visits to the prostitutes of the town and who easily beats even the disciples of the Buddha in dharma combats. And since Buddhism could not have established itself in China without the support of the rulers, it propagated the idea of the emperor as the Chakravartin, literally, the “Turner of the Wheel,” the enlightened universal monarch who spreads the Dharma. This title originally designated the Buddha himself, but was first conferred to the Indian monarch Ashoka, who had adopted Buddhism as state religion in the 3rd Cent. BCE. In this way, Buddhism spread through the patronage of the rulers, who sponsored the building of monasteries, text translations, and works of art, including the splendid Buddhist rock carvings in places such as Loyang or Yungang.
The two Chinese Buddhist traditions most well-known in the West, traditions that spread with all of their Chinese cultural accompaniments first to Korea and Japan, are Ch`an ( Japanese, Zen) Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism. Ch`an is the Chinese word for the Sanskrit Dhyana, and means the meditative stages arrived at by Shakyamuni in his search for enlightenment. The beginnings of the Zen tradition are attributed to the legendary coming of the Indian Patriarch Bodhidharma to China in the 5th century, who, after having told the Chinese emperor that his material sponsorship of Buddhism was of no merit whatsoever, went off to sit in a cave facing a wall for the remaining nine years of his life. A four-line verse dated from c. 1008 describes Zen:
A special transmission outside of scriptures
Does not rely on words or letter
Pointing directly to the human mind
Sees into one’s nature, becoming Buddha.
Differently from the Zen-tradition, which emphasizes meditation and individual effort to attain the enlightenment-experience, which, as described above, is direct and intuitive, the Pure Land tradition holds that, ultimately, salvation is only possible through the saving grace of Buddha Amitabha (Japanese, Amida), who comes to guide people from their death-bed to rebirth in the Pure Land. While these two schools are clearly distinguished from each other in both Japan and the West, Chinese Buddhists have always practiced a mixed form, which combines Zen-meditation and study of the Zen texts with chanting of Pure Land texts and prayers.
With this very short overview of the Indian and Asian background, we can now turn to the development of Buddhism in the West.
Maria Reis Habito is a Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas Texas. This article was published on their website as Buddhism in the West: Self Realization or Self Indulgence.
Image: Old Age, Sickness and Death, by Akuppa John Wigham, cc by 2.0, from Flickr.com