Writes: NN Ojha
Sixth century B.C. has a special place in the history of mankind. Some of the leading thinkers ever produced by human race lived in this century. It saw Pythagorus and Heraclitus in Greece, Confucius and Lao Tze in China and Vardhman Mahavir and Gautam Buddha in India.
Gautam Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha Gautam in 567 B.C. on full moon day of ‘Vaisakh’, the second month of traditional Indian lunar calendar in the terai region of present day Nepal adjoining the Indian state of Bihar. In 2016 the day corresponds with 21 May when Buddhists world over shall celebrate his 2583rd birth anniversary. A born philosopher Buddha refused to believe without scrutiny what the wise men of his times had to say. His eventful life turned into folklore by his followers has been written about extensively in sacred books of the faith he founded, painted in frescos on walls of Buddhist monasteries and engraved on rocks and in caves in India (which incidentally included what is today Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Afghanistan), Srilanka, Nepal, Tibet Central Asia and the countries of the far east in Asia.
What motivated Buddha for his retreat to the forest of Uruvela leaving behind the royal comforts of the palace, a young bride and an infant son was his concern for all pervasive suffering that he felt was synonymous with existence.. His mission was to find the path that would lead to deliverance from suffering. The light of knowledge dawned upon him after years of penance and meditation and he became from Siddhartha Gautam to Gautam Buddha or Gautam the enlightened one. From the terminology used in Buddhist scriptures it may appear that it was a sudden burst of knowledge that occurred all of a sudden during his meditation. It didn’t. HG Wells gives a more accurate account in his Outline of World History thus. “When the mind grapples with an intricate problem, it makes its advances, it secures its position step by step, with but little realisation of the gains it has made, until suddenly, with an effect of abrupt illumination, it realises its victory. So it would seem it happened to Gautam”.
Buddha’s philosophy that started with his first sermon and continued to evolve for the next four decades is too voluminous to be recounted here. However the four noble truths and the eightfold path of ethical conduct Buddha spelt out in the first sermon truly summarise the entire system.
The four noble truths are; that there is suffering (dukha), that suffering has a cause (samuday), that the cause of suffering can be eliminated (nirodh), and, that when the cause is eliminated suffering shall get eliminated too (marg).The four noble truths are the foundation on which Buddha built the edifice of two of his most important philosophical principles, theory of momentary existence (kshanikvad) and theory of dependent origination or causation (pratityasamutpad).
Through the principle of momentary existence Buddha just reversed the proposition accepted by all schools of indian philosophy prior to Buddha that whatever is transient and impermanent is an unreal illusory appearance while permanence is an essential attribute of reality.. Contrary to this Buddha asserted that wHat appears as permanence is actually an illusion born out of continuity of a series of fleeting, transient moments. ‘Like a burning stick when moved round leads to the appearance of a glowing circle because of continuity of the round motion’. Or, ‘like a flowing river in which the water that flowed a moment before is not the same as the water that flows this moment or shall flow the next moment but continuity of the flow makes us believe that it is the same river’, or, ‘like a burning lamp in which a different particle of the cotton of its wick and of the oil burns for each passing moment but the continuity of the flame makes us believe that the same lamp is burning’. In one stroke Buddha dealt a fatal blow to the exalted concept of an eternal, immortal ‘atman’ (soul) and ‘bramhan’ , the supreme reality of the Vedas venerated by generations of philosophers in India.
The first noble truth, that there is suffering virtually flows from the principle of momentariness. Our life is a series of desires and all objects of desire being momentary their dissipation leaves us with a sense of deprivation which in turn causes suffering. Desire for objects or associations that are momentary stems from ignorance as to their true nature. Elimination of ignorance leads to elimination of desire and its consequence, suffering. This is the crux of Buddha’s philosophy.
This takes us to the eight fold path suggested by Buddha which helps destroy ignorance and leads to cessation of suffering. It is basically a code of ethical conduct largely common to all schools of Indian philosophy and is particularly close to the Yoga system of Patanjali. The path consists of practice of right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right deeds, right mode of livelihood, right efforts and right rapture. Buddhist canonical literature gives detailed explanation of each of these and followers of Buddha are encouraged to practise these in their day to day life.
A keen observer of human psychology Buddha was aware that each human being had his own threshold of moral conviction and it wasn’t fair to expect every one to be perfect in observance of the eightfold path. Prospects of imperfection however didn’t upset him as he was convinced that even partial observance wasn’t devoid of moral dividends.
Observance of the eightfold path led one in the direction of redemption from suffering by breaking the shackles that bind men to this world. Ten such shackles identified by Buddha are delusion (about ones ego), , scepticism (about the truth of the doctrine of the four noble truths and eight fold path), sensuality (predilection for indulgence in sensuous pleasures), malevolence (ill will towards others), lust (for worldly possessions), resentment (towards teachings of the Buddha), glamour (resulting in temptation for mundane riches), arrogance (of ones own power and status), self righteousness (looking down upon others) and ignorance (as to true nature of things).
While perfection in observance of the eightfold path leads to breaking of all these shackles there is no need for despair even if success is partial as each stage of success is a step in the right direction. Buddha has spelt out four such stages. The first stage is reached when the shackles of delusion and scepticism are broken. This is called the stage of ‘srotapann’ in which the individual is convinced that good conduct is desirable. The second stage comes when the individual has broken the shackles of sensuality and malevolence (in addition to the first two). This is the stage of ‘sakradgami’ when one has ‘entered the mainstream (of ethical advancement). In the realm of spirituality the individual having attained this stage is considered ‘better than a sovereign of this earth’. Having broken the shackles of lust, resentment and glamour in addition to the foregoing four the individual becomes ‘anagami’ or some one who will be subjected to the cycle of birth and death just once more. Finally when the remaining three shackles of arrogance, self righteousness and ignorance are broken the individual attains the stage of ‘arhat’ in which the cycle of births and deaths ceases and suffering comes to an end.
Buddha was a no nonsense man who refused to go by anything that couldn’t stand the scrutiny of hard headed logic or wasn’t helpful in letting an individual become a better human being. The plethora of religious rituals enforced by a powerful clergy on ignorant masses obviously didn’t fit the bill. The intellectual wrangling by philosophers over metaphysical issues with no relevance for any of the fundamental existential challenges facing mankind were also equally unworthy of being pursued. Buddha declared as ‘useless’ ten common questions of metaphysics concerning existence or non existence of soul, God, hell, heaven,and rebirth which dominated the philosophical discourse during his times. Wrangling over these questions and leaving the fundamental issue of human suffering unattended was according to Buddha as foolish as discussing whether an arrow is made of silver or copper even as the man through whose body it has pierced is writhing in pain.
While the critics couldn’t challenge the popularity of Buddha’s philosophy due to its simplicity practical appeal his emphasis on ‘suffering’ as the core issue concerning mankind is often termed as pessimism at its worst. Critics accuse that the Buddhists ‘seek to blacken what is dark and darken what is grey’. The criticism is unfair. Buddha didn’t stop at just lamenting over suffering. He also took the next step of suggesting a way out. Far from blackening what is dark Buddha sought to brighten up the darkest reality of human existence, namely, suffering by reassuring that there was a way ou within the reach of every one. His abhorrence of metaphysics was echoed more than two Millenia later by Alfred Jules Ayer who wanted to ‘exorcise metaphysics from the realm of philosophy’.
Having experienced the riches of the palace and later having gone through physical penance in the forest of Uruvela Buddha realised the futility of extremes and gave to mankind his unique philosophy of the middle path that combines what might be the best of stoicism and utilitarianism.
Buddha discouraged hero worship and reposed complete trust in the inherent capability of every human being to attain the highest standards of moral perfection. His counsel to his disciples was, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves; be ye a refuge unto yourselves; betake yourselves into no external refuge; hold fast as a refuge to the truth; look not for refuge to any one besides yourselves”. It puts the individual in complete control over his moral aspirations and spiritual destiny leaving no room for a clergy to play the intermediary. Therein lies the strength and the unique appeal of Buddha’s message of hope for redemption from suffering to mankind.
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