Morality Paper

This essay has a total of 2828 words and 14 pages.


The story of Buddhism might be said to have begun with a loss of innocence. Siddhartha
Gautama, a young prince of the Shakhya clan in India, had been raised in a life of royal
ease, shielded from the misery and cruelties of the world outside the palace gates,
distracted by sensual pleasures and luxurious living. But one day the fateful encounter
with the real world occurred, and Siddhartha was shaken to the core. There in his own
kingdom, not far from his gardens and delights, he encountered people suffering from
sickness, old age and death; he brooded over these things, deeply disturbed that such was
the fate of all beings. Then he encountered an ascetic holy man, a renunciate dedicated to
liberation. The prince then undertook the great renunciation, forsaking his family,
fortune and kingdom in pursuit of the path of liberation. The central, profound question
that burned in Gautama was this: “How may suffering be ended?” (Eliade, p.
471-475; ‘Mahapadana suttanta’)

He became a wandering ascetic, practiced yogic disciplines and meditation, studied with
various teachers, and attained high states of consciousness; but still he did not find
the answer to his question. He practiced severe forms of asceticism, almost to the point
of death by starvation, all without gain. Finally he sat under a bodhi tree, determined
not to rise from meditation until he had gained the insight he sought. Not long after, he
attained enlightenment; he became the Buddha -- the Awakened One. He had ascended through
various stages of meditative awareness, he had seen all of his past lives, and he had seen
directly into reality, into the nature of existence and the causes of suffering and
rebirth. He pondered whether to try to teach these insights, so subtle and difficult to
grasp to others; perhaps it would be futile. But finally he decided that at least some of
the people would be able to understand; perhaps more importantly, they could be shown the
path to arrive at these insights themselves. He gave his first sermon to a few disciples
in the Deer park at Benares, and then continued to wander and teach for the next
forty-five years, until his death at the age of eighty.

He was born in the 6th century BCE, a time of great turmoil and political change in India;
many were unsatisfied with the Vedic religion, and new teachings had emerged, among them
the Upanishads. The Buddha stood largely outside the Vedic tradition, criticizing many of
its central teachings. Nevertheless, he had been influenced by that tradition and his
teachings in turn would have a profound effect on later teachers in the Hindu tradition,
such as Shankara; even in such Hindu classics as the Bhagavad Gita, some reaction can be
seen to Buddhist teachings. But later centuries would see the Buddha’s influence
wane in India and instead spread to other Asian countries. Today Buddhism has spread
throughout the world. Various sects have arisen as later teachers have reinterpreted and
expounded upon the Buddha’s basic teachings. Buddhism may be considered a religion,
a philosophy, a way of life, or all three; here we will deal mainly with Buddhism as a
philosophical system.

II. Buddhist metaphysics

The Buddha’s main concern was to eliminate suffering, to find a cure for the pain of
human existence. In this respect he has been compared to a physician, and his teaching
has been compared to a medical or psychological prescription. Like a physician, he
observed the symptoms -- the disease that human kind was suffering from; next he gave a
diagnosis -- the cause of the disease; then he gave the prognosis -- it could be cured;
finally he gave the prescription -- the method by which the condition could be cured.

His first teaching, the Four Noble Truths, follows this pattern. First, the insight that
“life is dukkha.” Dukkha is variously translated as suffering, pain,
impermanence; it is the unsatisfactory quality of life which is targeted here -- life is
often beset with sorrow and trouble, and even at its best, is never completely fulfilling.
We always want more happiness, less pain. But this ‘wanting more’ is itself
the problem: the second noble truth teaches that the pain of life is caused by
‘tanha’ -- our cravings, our attachments, our selfish grasping after pleasure
and avoiding pain. Is there something else possible? The third noble truth says yes; a
complete release from attachment and dukkha is possible, a liberation from pain and
rebirth. The fourth noble truth tells how to attain this liberation; it describes the
Noble Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana, the utter extinction of the pain of existence.
(The eightfold path is described in a later section.)

Another main teaching of Buddhist metaphysics is known as the Three Marks of Existence.
The first is Anicca, impermanence: all things are transitory, nothing lasts. The second is
Anatta, No-Self or No-Soul: human beings, and all of existence, is without a soul or self.
There is no eternal, unchanging part of us, like the Hindu idea of Atman; there is no
eternal, unchanging aspect of the universe, like the Hindu idea of Brahman. The entire
idea of self is seen as an illusion, one which causes immeasurable suffering; this false
idea gives rise to the consequent tendency to try to protect the self or ego and to
preserve its interests, which is futile since nothing is permanent anyway. The third mark
of existence is that of Dukkha, suffering: all of existence, not just human existence but
even the highest states of meditation, are forms of suffering, ultimately inadequate and

The three marks of existence can be seen as the basis for the four noble truths above; in
turn the three marks of existence may be seen to come out of an even more fundamental
Buddhist theory, that of Pratityasamutpada: Dependent Origination, or Interdependent
Co-arising. This theory says that all things are cause and are caused by other things;
all of existence is conditioned, nothing exists independently, and there is no First
Cause. There was no beginning to the chain of causality; it is useless to speculate how
phenomenal existence started. However, it can be ended, and that is the ultimate goal of
Buddhism -- the ultimate liberation of all creatures from the pain of existence.

Sometimes this causality is spoken of as a circular linking of twelve different factors;
if the chain of causality can be broken, existence is ended and liberation attained. One
of these factors is attachment or craving, tanha, and another is ignorance; these two are
emphasized as being the weak links in the chain, the place to make a break. To overcome
selfish craving, one cultivates the heart through compassion; to eliminate ignorance one
cultivates the mind through wisdom. Compassion and wisdom are twin virtues in Buddhism,
and are cultured by ethical behavior and meditation, respectively. It is a process of
self-discipline and self-development which emphasizes the heart and mind equally, and
insists that both working together are necessary for enlightenment.

If Buddhism can be seen as a process of personal development, one may well ask: what is a
person, if not a soul or self? In keeping with the ideas of dependent origination,
Buddhism views a person as a changing configuration of five factors, or
‘skandhas.’ First there is the world of physical form; the body and all
material objects, including the sense organs. Second there is the factor of sensation or
feeling; here are found the five senses as well as mind, which in Buddhism is considered a
sense organ. The mind senses thoughts and ideas much the same as the eye senses light or
the ear senses air pressure. Thirdly, there is the factor of perception; here is the
faculty which recognizes physical and mental objects. Fourth there is the factor variously
called impulses or mental formulations; here is volition and attention, the faculty of
will, the force of habits. Lastly, there is the faculty of consciousness or awareness. In
Buddhism consciousness is not something apart from the other factors, but rather
interacting with them and dependent on them for its existence; there is no arising of
consciousness without conditions. (Rahula, p. 24) Here we see no idea of personhood as
constancy, but rather a fleeting, changing assortment or process of various interacting
factors. A major aim of Buddhism is first to become aware of this process, and then to
eliminate it by eradicating its causes.

This process does not terminate with the dissolution of the physical body upon death;
Buddhism assumes reincarnation. Even though there is no soul to continue after death, the
five skandhas are seen as continuing on, powered by past karma, and resulting in rebirth.
Karma in Buddhism, as in Hinduism, stems from volitional action and results in good or bad
effects in this or a future life. Buddhism explains the karmic mechanism a bit
differently; it is not the results of the action per se that result in karma, but rather
the state of mind of the person performing the action. Here again, Buddhism tends to focus
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