Musings, thoughts, philosophical speculations on gaming, science, critical thinking, atheism and Buddhism.
Monday, October 3, 2011
The Four Noble Truths and the Three Marks of Existence.
So what, after all, does Buddhism actually entail? The philosophical tenets of Buddhism can be summed up with what it calls the 4 noble truths and the three marks of existence. What follows is my own understanding of these “truths”.
1. Sapient beings experience dissatisfaction. 2. Dissatisfaction arises from craving, be it things, sensations, etc. 3. Craving ceases when one realizes that everything is impermanent. 4. One can realize the impermanence of everything by following the Eightfold Path.
I have used the word dissatisfaction because it seems to be a more accurate translation of the actual word, dukkha, than the more commonly used "suffering." Suffering has a connotation of pain, and while that is related to dissatisfaction, it's not precise enough. Dissatisfaction itself is pretty obvious, I think, it's a state of not being content with what one has. This is seen most often when one contemplates unpleasant experiences, but it also happens with pleasant ones. It's not that pleasant experiences are an illusion or that they aren’t actually pleasant. It’s that they contain the seeds of dissatisfaction when one forgets that they, like the unpleasant experiences, are impermanent. The good, the bad, there is no eternal. There's nothing actually grim about this, it's just a fact of the universe. It's part of the reality of everything being in flux, as I mentioned in my last post. The fact of impermanence (annica) is neutral, but we humans have a habit of forgetting it, of craving (tanha) for the eternal, of expecting things to last forever. This is what causes our sense of dissatisfaction with the universe we live in, and causes us to seek artificial illusions of permanence in things like religion, politics, superstition, drugs, hedonism, and all kinds of other diversions.
None of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, what’s bad about them is the part of them that feed our self-delusion, the part that tricks us into thinking that they might last forever. We spend so much time craving an eternity that doesn’t exist, and that keeps us from fully enjoying the pleasant experiences when they are going on and also wallowing in the fear of eternal suffering when we are in the midst of an unpleasant experience that will subside sooner or later.
Siddhattha Gotama realized this somewhere around 2500 years ago. “Buddha” is not a name, but a title. It comes from the word bodhi, which is usually translated “enlightenment”, but really means awakened. Buddha means “the awakened one”, someone with awareness, who notices and understands things. He’s not a god, not a wizard, not any kind of supernatural entity, as later traditions portray him.
Sid was just a guy who did the hedonistic thing and then spent years after doing the ascetic thing, pursuing spiritual fulfillment and attainment. He finally realized that neither hedonism or asceticism were satisfactory, so he kicked back under a tree for a while until he realized that we humans sure spend a lot of time chasing after bullshit, and we don’t really need to do that. Once he awoke to this realization, he decided he wanted to help others realize it too. But what exactly is it that he realized?
Sid realized that we lie to ourselves constantly about the truths of reality, which is made up of the three marks of existence. I’ve already mentioned two of the marks, impermanence and dissatisfaction. The third is not-self (anatta).
In the Indian Vedic religion, there is a concept of an unchanging, permanent soul, called atman. It’s kind of like a form, in the Platonic sense. The idea is very similar, for things to exist, there needs to be an ideal in some other realm for it to be a reflection of, otherwise there would be nothing. Sid rejected this notion due to his recognition of impermanence and of applying it to the very concept of self itself, plus the fact that no one can directly observe a form.
This isn’t actually that hard to figure out. As with all things, we change and evolve over time. We gain new knowledge, we forget things, we change deeply held convictions. The me that exists today is very different from the me that existed when I was 7 years old. The me that exists today is different than the me from yesterday in many respects, and the me that exists in 20 years will be more different still. You can’t step in the same river twice, the ship of Theseus, grandfather’s axe, and other similar philosophical notions are related. So there is not a permanent self, there is a continuous process of becoming the new self, which goes on to become a new self, etc, from moment to moment (this process is called punabbhava, or just bhava, often incorrectly translated as rebirth). Now, in the Vedic religion that was dominant in Sid’s time, this was a supernatural notion related to transmigration of souls and reincarnation, and to be fair, Sid didn’t really bother dismissing it as nonsense, he just figured it was unimportant, since the same process goes on within someone’s life, and he was nothing if not focused on trying to help people live better lives.
The reason not-self is an important concept is that the popular notion of the self is made up of 5 aggregate attributes and those are causes of craving, but I will go into those in another post. The point is that Sid developed the eightfold path as a way to help people realize the causes of dissatisfaction, realize the impermanent nature of things, and to help them stop grasping at illusions.
Next post, the eightfold path, and possibly the 5 aggregates.