Buddhism

    In this set of lecture notes I want to discuss the chief religious and metaphysical doctrines of Buddhism, and show how they are related to Buddhism's view of moksa, and its ethical theory.

    After long years in quest of how to attain liberation, the Buddha became enlightened through the discovery of the four noble truths. The first of these is that all existence is suffering, pain, anxiety, etc.  The reason for this is essentially the impermanence of things, coupled with the desire for them.  Not to get what one wants is painful, to get it produces anxiety over loosing it or boredom, and to loose it is also painful/

    The second noble truth is that suffering is caused.  It is caused, as I said, by 1) the fact that all things are impermanent, and 2) therefore, that all of our desires are for impermanent things.  From all this, one might conclude that the root of suffering, according to the Buddha, is desire for impermanent things.  That is true in a way, but the deeper root of it is ignorance of (1).  The Buddha thinks that once one really, in one's heart, realizes that (1) is universally  true, then the desire for impermanent things will cease and a person will not longer experience pain.

    The third noble truth is that suffering can be stopped.  The Buddha held that what comes to be is conditioned--it depends on its causes.  The Buddha said "This occurring, that follows; therefore this not occurring, that will not follow".  Obviously, this is valid only if the "this" is both a sufficient and necessary condition for the "that".  The sufficient and necessary conditions for suffering are 1) the impermanence of every desirable state, and 2) our desires for such states.  These occurring, suffering follows; these not occurring, suffering does not follow. We cannot alter (1), the fact that all desirable things are impermanent.  In fact, our desires are based on our false belief that not every desirable state is impermanent, and this is what brings us grief.  Only by coming to realize the impermanence of things will we cease to desire them, and from this the cessation of suffering will follow.  This cessation of suffering is moksa on the Buddhist view; they call it "nirvana".

    The fourth noble truth puts forth the means for attaining to the realization of the impermanence of all things, and these consist of mental and moral exercises.  The most essential of these, however, are really the mental exercises.  From the right way of thinking the Buddha believed that right acting will follow.  The right way of thinking consists in paying close attention to one's own thoughts--that is, to the causal chain that makes one kind of thought or desire follow upon another kind of thought or desire.  The Buddha held that we cause our own suffering because we are enchained by a certain way of thinking that is based, ultimately, on ignorance (avidya) concerning the true nature of reality and of the self. Basically, it is the belief that we have a permanent self and that obtaining certain sorts of goods will make us happy, that are the root causes of all morally bad actions and of all suffering.  So, the careful control of our thoughts which arises from the careful observation of them is what will ultimately produce in us a true realization that we have no permanent self, and from this there will follow a lack of those sorts of desires that lead to immoral actions and to suffering.

    I think it is easy to see how the Buddhist no-self doctrine supports the Buddhist view of Nirvana, but one might have difficulties with understanding how the doctrine can support any truly satisfying ethics, as well as having doubts about the truth of the doctrine itself.

    Here, without entering into the reasons latter Buddhists gave for the no-self doctrine, I wish to simply explicate it, consider some objections to it, and then go on to consider how it relates to ethics. 

    Some people believe that the Buddha himself did not teach the no-self doctrine but rather simply taught that the self is constantly changing.  Hiriyanna is one of these.  I do not have the expertise to weight in on this matter, but will simply say this.  It seems to me that the teachings of the Buddha concerning the nature of moksa and how to achieve it, do not demand the no-self doctrine as it was developed in latter Buddhism.  Having said that, however, I am going to simply assume what the tradition has, namely, that the no-self doctrine is an essential part of the Buddha's original teaching.

    What then, is that doctrine? It is not the doctrine that human selves are constantly changing.  Such a doctrine, after all, is consistent with supposing that humans have a self.  Furthermore, it seems that such a doctrine is obviously true.  At any moment it does seem we are slightly different from the way we were a moment before. To take just our mental side, it does seem our thoughts and emotions are constantly, or nearly constantly, changing, though I suppose that it is not crazy to hold that we are sometimes engaged in thinking the same thought for a rather lengthy period of time.  But the no self doctrine, as I said, is not the doctrine that we have selves that constantly change--rather, it is the doctrine that we have no selves at all but are simply a series of causally related homeless thoughts.  Thus, for the Buddhist, it is not the case that a man who sees a beautiful woman across a room and then desires to talk to her is some sort of enduring entity that first has as one of its features the thought "there is a beautiful woman over there" followed by having as another feature the desire to talk to her, etc.  Rather is it the case that there is just this thought "there is a women over there", which thought is not had by anyone one (it is "homeless" so to speak), and that this though produces, at the next moment, a desire to speak to the woman, where this desire, like the thought that produced it, is not possessed by any being that possessed the thought that gave rise to it!!!

    The Buddhists applied the no self (anatta) doctrine universally not only to selves or souls but to material objects as well.  Thus it is really equivalent to the doctrine that there are no substances.  What we take to be substances possessing attributes (e.g. a tree), is really just a bundle of distinct qualities (color, touch, smell, etc.), existing in the same space (so to speak), which qualities themselves are but aggregates of quality atoms (atomic colors, touches, smells, etc.)  I will discuss the subtle arguments the Buddhists gave for this doctrine in the next set of lecture notes.  Now what I wish to do is raise some objections to the doctrine as it bears on selves as well as noting the responses the Buddhists gave to these objections.

    The most obvious objection concerns memory.  If there are no selves which have thoughts and desires, how can we explain such commonly held beliefs as that there person who is now typing this is the same as the person who lectured on it three days ago?  The Buddhist answer to this is to reduce memory to causation.  Since the thoughts that constitute all there really is to me at this moment were caused by a certain set of past thoughts, we can take it that those past thoughts have left their imprint on certain present ones.  Thus, I suppose, my memory of lecturing to this class on Buddhism last week is noting but an impression a current thought of "mine" has of some past thought or set of thoughts that are all part of the same causal stream.  There are obvious difficulties with this of course, and one is that it would seem to entail that all memories are really false memories.  I mean, suppose that, in some miraculous way, a child remembered what her mother did.  Since the child is not her mother and could not have true memories of having done things before she came to exist, it would seem that in this instance the child would simply have false impressions of doing things her mother did, not that she would really remember doing things her mother did.  For how can one person X, remember what another person Y, did?  But, the Buddhist view would seem to have the same problem.  No thought in the stream of thoughts that makes up me can be the same as any other thought, particularly since all of them come to be and cease to be in a moment.  Thus, the impression some thought I am having now of lecturing to you last week is, literally speaking, false!! 

    Another objection to the Buddhist doctrine concerns self awareness.  It seems I am aware of myself. But how can this be if I have no self?  The answer of the Buddhist is that each thought is aware of itself!!!!  But this cannot be right, it seems to me.  I don't think thoughts are any more aware of themselves than colors are colored or round shapes are round. 

    A final objection to the Buddhist doctrine of the self concerns the apparent fact of our being in more than one mental state at the same time.  It sometimes seems to me that I both think one thing, for instance, and feel another.  Right now, for example, I am thinking about Buddhism and also feeling hungry.  But surely thinking about Buddhism and feeling hungry are not the same mental state.   If, though, I am not a substance which possesses different mental states, how can my awareness both of being hungry and thinking about Buddhism be accounted for?  We cannot say, it seems to me, that "thinking about Buddhism" is the same mental state as "being hungry", nor can we say that the state "being hungry" could be thinking about Buddhism, or that "thinking about Buddhism" could be hungry!!  The Buddhist answer to this is that the rapidity with which one thought or desire follows another thought or desire can give rise to the illusion that two of them are happening at once.  So it is not that being hungry or thinking about Buddhism occurs at the same moment. Rather, a certain "thinking about Buddhism" occurs, and that might be followed by another "thinking about Buddhism", followed by a "hunger pain", followed by another "thinking about Buddhism", followed by another "hunger pain", etc.

    Having considered the Buddhist no self doctrine as it applies especially to selves, I would like to consider its implications for ethics.  There can be no question about the nobility of the Ethics Buddha taught.  Compared to all that one finds in India before it, it represents a huge advance.  The Buddha did teach a compassion for all human beings, a compassion that is simply boundless.  He said we should regard all other sentient beings as a mother does her only child.  He said we should overcome hatred with love, not with more hatred.  He said we should simply radiate love and kindness to all. But how does this doctrine relate to the no self doctrine?

    Buddhists who have considered the matter have argued that the no self doctrine is the best support for an ethics of compassion.  All moral evil comes from selfishness--it comes from the greedy desire to possess things. Since there are not enough goods for everyone to have all that they want, and since people often want the same thing (consider the case of two men who want to marry the same woman), greedy desires lead to jealousy, envy, hatred, and often to out and out violence. But the Buddha teaches that all things are impermanent and that we have no self.  Thus, his teaching reveals the false notions that are at the root of all selfish desires.  But once these false notions that are at the root of all selfish desires are seen to be false, the selfish desires will vanish, as well as the evils they bring in their train.

    That sounds convincing, but here is the problem with it. One might agree that the Buddhist doctrine, if true, could root out desires that cause violence and strife, but it is hard to see how it could support altruistic desires for the welfare of others. If I am not to have any desires, then it seems I should not have any desires for the good of others.  After all, such desires well only further attach me to the world, which is what I am supposed to be fleeing. Furthermore, if I have a desire to help another get things he wants or even needs to survive, then it seems that I am furthering his attachment to the world and so am not really helping him at all.  (Consider this analogy--giving a drug addict drugs is not helping him).

    This simple objection is at the heart of all protests against Buddhist Ethics, and I must say I find the objection formidable. In fact, I am not sure the Buddhist can get around it.  But, here is what Buddhists tend to say in response to it.  They first point out that it seems reasonable for an enlightened person to care about others since, after all, they are suffering too.  Again, since I have no self, it is no more reasonable to care about what will happen to me in the future than about what will happen to you.  Further, all evil comes from false beliefs, and so we should forgive and be kind to those who do us wrong, not hate them.

    But this does not seem to get at the root of the problem, which is just that it does not seem a person without desires can really care for others.  Here the Buddhist distinguishes between attached and non-attached desires. As I understand it, the Buddha taught that you could enjoy goods that come your way as long as doing so does not harm another and as long as you do not cling to such goods.  Realizing all things are impermanent, you should live in the now, so to speak, and not try to hold on to any joy that comes your way.  Similarly, you should love others but not in an attached way.  You should enjoy their good qualities, their beauty, their talents, etc. but not try to possess them or to mourn their passing. Maybe he had in mind the kind of peace some persons with terminal illness achieve.  They still enjoy their lives, and hold as precious the moments they have with those they love, but are not under the illusion that any of this will last.  Hence, they don't try to cling to life or those they love, but always live every moment with an awareness of its passing beauty.  Well, I have not put that at all well, perhaps because I really don't understand it, but it is the best I can do.

    Schweitzer has another thing to say that is relevant to all this.  According to him the Buddha was one of the first human to recognize the intrinsic goodness of good qualities, so to speak.  The Buddha did not think that good qualities should be sought simply because they will lead to further goods for their owner.  Rather they should be sought because they are intrinsically good and it is good, in and of itself, to possess them.  A person of a good moral character is very happy in his goodness, and feels a kind of transcendence over the world.  Being full of kindness, but unattached, he can radiate this goodness outward to all, and so bring about changes in the world that improve things.  Schweitzer thinks this is all very noble, but believes that Buddha's discovery of the intrinsic value of moral goodness was really not consistent with the Buddha's world and life negation.  He said that ethics is always the secret ally of world and life affirmation and that, in his Ethics, the Buddha allowed a dangerous enemy into his religion.  The Hindus later used the Buddhist ethics to overcome Buddhism in India according to Schweitzer, but they were able to do that only because they appropriated the noble ethics that the Buddha had first taught the Indians.  I think there is much truth in what Schweitzer says, but this is a deep problem that great scholars still disagree over.