Those who have followed the excerpts I have been publishing from my ‘Book in progress’ on the history of moral thought will know that there were several gaps in the chapters. That was because I left till the end a series of chapters on the Indian and Chinese traditions. These are now almost complete, and I will publish, as before, monthly extracts from each remaining chapter. Some of the chapters have been renumbered as you can see from the complete set of extracts.
This extract is from chapter 5 which explores the ancient Indian traditions, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism.
Siddharta Gautama was born in what is now Nepal some time between the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century BCE, into a prosperous, aristocratic family, part of the powerful Shakya clan. For most of his early life, he had been shielded from the reality of the poverty and degradation that surrounded him. In his late twenties he was finally forced to confront sickness, suffering and death, coming face to face with an old man, a mortally sick man and a dead man. So shocked was he by these encounters that Gautama left his family and comfortable home life, taking to the road to become a wandering ascetic, debating the nature of suffering with yogis and mendicants. Six years of asceticism and self-denial brought about no change to his sense of dissatisfaction and his frustration at not finding meaning in life. He turned to meditation. For forty nine days and nights he sat under a fig tree, now known as the bodhi-tree, or ‘tree of awakening’, in Gaya, a small village in north east India. After 49 days of meditation he gained enlightenment, understanding both the cause of worldly suffering and the means of transcending it. ‘I have obtained nirvana’, he claimed.
That, at least, is the traditional story of the Buddha (‘the enlightened one’), as Gautama came to be known, and of his enlightenment. In fact we know almost nothing with certainty about a man who lived two centuries before Aristotle. The main sources of his life and teachings are a variety of different, and often conflicting, traditional biographies, the earliest of which, the epic poem Buddhacarita, dates from the 2nd century CE. Of the actual words of the Buddha nothing is left. Early in its history, Buddhism divided into innumerable sects, possibly more than 30, each with its own story of Gautama’s life, each with its own canon of scriptures.
Whatever the historical truth, there are certain teachings now accepted as genuine by virtually all Buddhists. By tradition, the Buddha gave his first talk at the Deer Park in Sarnath, in the vicinity of Varanasi, or Benares, on the banks of the Ganges, where he gathered his first five disciples. The so-called ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ is to Buddhists as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to Christians. Like the Sermon on the Mount, the Buddha’s discourse is likely to have been patched together by later followers, shaped to reflect subsequent readings of his thought, and the changing needs of Buddhists, and then projected back to establish a canonical text.
At the heart of the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ are the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that the world is permeated with suffering, or duhkha, a concept that refers not just to pain and sorrow but also to dissatisfaction and unfulfilment. Duhkha is one of the Thee Marks of Existence (trilakshana), or features of earthly life. They stamp our lives so indelibly that those who ignore their reality will find nirvana always to be beyond their reach. The other Marks of Existence are anitya, or impermanence, and anatman, meaning ‘no self’ or ‘egolessness’. Anitya expresses the belief that everything in the phenomenal world is in a state of flux. This includes human beings themselves. Hence anatman, or lack of self. All human existence, for the Buddha, is a series of discontinuous moments. The image he presents is of a row of unlit candles. The first candle is lit, used to light the second, but is itself then extinguished; and so on it continues down the row. Human existence, too, consists of a series of moments lit up and snuffed out. Each moment of consciousness gives birth to the next and then ceases to be, so no person is constant from one moment to the next. For Buddhists, the belief that humans possess a self, that there is an essential ‘me’, is part of the illusion of permanence that must be discarded if an individual is to achieve enlightenment.
The second of the Buddha’s Noble Truths was that the cause of all suffering is human desire, the thirst for that which cannot satisfy, including the desire to be a self. Originally a place of bliss, the world had been reduced to a place of suffering by human capitulation to desire a sentiment that was, half a millennium later, to be echoed in Christian thought, though in Buddhism the cause of degradation is not sin, as in Christianity, but ignorance. Suffering can only be ended through renunciation of all desire, the third of the Noble Truths. Renunciation of desire is the path to nirvana, or liberation from rebirth, the Buddhist version of the Hindu idea of moksha. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth in a new form that is the inevitable burden of human life. Only through enlightenment – moksha or nirvana – can one break that endless cycle. What rebirth means when one does not possess a self, and when every individual’s life lacks continuity from one moment to the next, let alone from one birth to the next, is a conundrum that Buddhists have endlessly debated, and upon which arguments have endlessly foundered.
The fourth Noble Truth upon which Buddha insisted was that desire can only be renounced through following the ‘Eightfold Path’, eight principles of actions that lead to a balanced, moderate life. These include the acceptance of the Four Noble Truths; the resolve to live according to the Buddhist way; the wisdom to adopt the right kind of livelihood, rejecting for instance jobs that involve killing, such as being a butcher, hunter, or a soldier; and the determination to act ethically by avoiding killing, stealing, prohibited sexual activity, unjust speech, and intoxicating drinks.
There is, at one level, something Aristotelian about the Buddha’s conception of the good life (or there would be were it not anachronistic to describe as Aristotelian the ideas of a man who lived two centuries before Aristotle). Reason rather than revelation is the starting point for his thinking, and ethics rather than metaphysics its endpoint. The Buddha rejected Vedic metaphysics (even though his teachings drew upon certain Hindu metaphysical concepts), and even more Brahmanical ritual, especially the sacrificing of animals. What he demanded was a commitment to ethical behaviour. Buddhist ethics, too, wrenched itself away from Hinduism, neither rooted in the privileges and tyrannies of caste identity, nor seeking to justify the caste system, though it never properly challenged it either. It emerged, rather, out of a concern for the welfare of humanity as a whole. There is a reasonableness, even triteness, about Buddhist prescriptions that again is reminiscent of Aristotle. The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as the ‘Middle Way’ between the extremes of asceticism and hedonism, of poverty and luxury, an idea that finds an echo in Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’.
Yet Buddhism is also fundamentally different to an Aristotelian conception of the world and, despite its humanist approach, is in certain ways much closer to a theistic vision of the human condition. There has been a tendency, by some of its advocates, especially in the West, to overplay the rational and humanistic quality of Buddhism. At its core Buddhism is a doctrine of salvation. Unlike Aristotle, the Buddha did not view ethics as a means of building the good life on this Earth, but rather as a means of escaping the bad life of this Earth. His teachings embody a deeply pessimistic view of the world as a place of unremitting hurt and disappointment. Suffering without end in a futile round of rebirths after rebirths – that is the fate of most mortals. Escape comes through nirvana.
Buddhism never specifies what is meant by ‘nirvana’. It defines what nirvana delivers us from but not what it delivers us to. It is, as the philosopher of religion Edward Conze puts it, ‘a transcendental state which is quite beyond the ken of ordinary experience, and of which nothing can be said except that in it all ills have ceased, together with their causes and consequences.’ It is paradise without a deity or a theology, a paradise not discovered outside, but realized within.
The Buddha’s teachings were in large part a response to the social changes that were then convulsing India, in particular the new urbanization, the transformation of class structures and the emergence of the state. In Europe and the Middle East, similar developments helped give rise to the monotheistic faiths. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in times of great social dislocation, when the foundations of traditional ethics no longer appeared sure. God seemed essential to many as a source of moral concrete. Monotheism, particularly Islam, flourished in parts of Asia, primarily through invasion and conversion. The indigenous response to the kinds of social upheavals that helped create monotheism in the West came not in monotheism but in non-theistic forms of faith, of which Buddhism was the first. There has been a great debate over the centuries about the extent to which we should look upon Buddhism as a philosophy or as a religion. It is perhaps best understood as a philosophy that historically, and socially, played role of faith. It did so not just in the sense of offering a source of spirituality and solace, but in the sense also of defining, as the monotheistic faiths did too, the meaning of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and of acting as the mortar in the foundation of social order.