History of Buddhism
Indian Buddhism
16/04/2010 22:29 (GMT+7)
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     It is a tribute to the thought and enlightenment of Great Buddha that he philosophized within the broad spectrum of humanity and its basic concerns.  In his great wisdom Buddha taught mankind to have respect for all living animate beings.  That great moment of illumination of Buddha has been the greatest blessing for mankind in so far as successive order of cause and effect i.e. the doctrine of Pratitya Samutpad could explain the springs of life or the sprouting the life of an animate being which is liable to death.  Thus the relation of avidya to birth old age and death presents itself in a transparent manner. 

In this great philosophical insight the ontology of interdependence of cause and effect is explained as a relationship of conjoint conditionality.  The texts of Amritkanika equate life and death cycle with ignorance of conjoint conjunction.  An animate being rotates in the cycle of birth and death on account of avidya, i.e. not knowing the true nature of existence of life.  It is pertinent to mention that ancient wisdom always looked for essence and nature of human life.

If avidya is eradicated by performance of the meritorious deeds the continuity of cycle would be broken.  Life and death cycle ends by awakening from the slumber of avidya and longing for material objects.   Thus awakened Buddha according to Tantric Buddhism is one who has attained liberation both from avidya and trsna.   In fact tantric Buddhism aims to make individual self illuminated for enlightenment of the society thus making the individual an atmadipa.

Mahayana Buddhism is seen in the altruistic sense in so far as it preaches altruistic  service  par  excellence  (paramitanaya)  for  the  welfare  and  good of many.   They believe in mantra syllables for their efficacy in achieving the welfare and good of humanity. Though suffering is mechanically conditioned as long as avidya remains,   nevertheless among the average sentient beings excellent are those who perform excellent deeds.

The great exponent of Buddhist thought Nagarjuna emphasized the essencelessness of the phenomenal world.  He spoke of the need to evacuate psychophysical entities by Pratitya Samutpad.    The practitioners of yoga tantra endeavour to experience the essencelessness of Shunyata.

This is considered equivalent to wisdom of universal consciousness.  There is a laudable effort to discern individual freedom from collective freedom in Buddhism.  Sangha has been visualized as an instrumentality of realizing this ideal of collective freedom.  The best feature of Indian Buddhism is that it seeks equity and social equality to realize this end.  Indian Buddhism has struggled hard rejecting the caste system which was endemic to Indian tradition. 

The contemporary scholars of Buddhism have revitalized the process of reinterpretation of Buddhism with a view to provide a new definition to the role and function of Jnana [knowledge].   They have emphasized the necessity of seeing Jnana in its purest form as the activating source of action.  For them the perfection of human existence is the aim and the ideal of human action.1  The most striking aspect of Buddhism according to them is its overwhelming emphasis on anthropocentricity which they named as universal humanity.

Buddhism teaches that the eternal universal Dharma ought to be the only supreme sovereign of rulers; ethics must govern public affairs.  Poverty is the cause of disorder and discontent amongst people.  It can be eliminated by virtue of economic welfare of all people.  Therefore the ideology of the state must be rooted in righteousness.  The state must be for the welfare of all and for serving moral ends.

Buddhism has rightly been called a veritable link between tradition and modernity for in it we find a number of characteristics which contemporary mind attributes to modernity.  On closer analysis we find that concept of anatta itself is indicative of the fact that Buddhism had learnt to liberate itself from beliefs which could not sustain the scrutiny of reason and empirical verification.

Buddha seems to be the first one to preach (a) the non substantiality, momentariness and emptiness of all things on the basis of rational analysis (b) the indefinable oneness at the centre of and as the ground of all things yet transcending them, capable of being experienced only in the state of enlightenment.  The world must be looked upon as empty and the belief in self given up in order that the immortal and blissful may be attained.  The Mahayana Sutras call the knowledge of the Pure Great self, and non dual (advaya) as wisdom prajna.

According to Vivekananda the unique element in Buddhism was its social element.  He found Buddha teaching universal brotherhood of man and as the only great Indian seer and philosopher who would not recognize caste.  Buddha was a great preacher of equality of man.2

Buddhism considers that the view that one caste is superior to another is false and evil.  All the so called four castes, it says, are exactly the same, equally pure, and no one of them is superior to the others.  Therefore, there is no svadharma in the sense of an obligatory, hereditary profession as the Hindu Smrtis seems to enjoin.

Buddhism recognized that caste system arose historically due to racial prejudice and socio-economic conditions.  It was indeed a revolution in social thought when Buddha proclaimed that caste and class prejudices are obstacles to higher morality and knowledge and therefore to salvation.

In a lecturer in Shanghai in 1913 Dharmapala, speaking about social gospel of Buddha, said, “it has a definite ideal for its realization here and now, making life cheerful, energetic, serene, worth living for the sake of doing good, for the welfare of others, this is what the Tathagata proclaimed.3

In most systems of religion and philosophy the question of the nature of man and his destiny centers largely in the doctrines of the soul which has been variously defined.  Some call it the principle of thought and action in man or that which thinks, wills and feels, knows and sees and also that which appropriates and owns.  It is that which both acts and initiates action.  It is conceived as a durable entity the permanent and unchanging factor within the concrete personality which somehow unites and maintains its successive activities.  It is also the subject of conscious spiritual experience.

The Indian tradition has entertained kinds of pantheism with Brahman – eternal and absolute as the first cause of universe.  The manifestation of Brahman was some times personified and called Brahma – God or the great self.  Every human being had in him a part of Brahman called atman or the little self, Brahman and atman were one and the same substance.  Salvation consisted in the little atman entering into unity with Brahman.  The atman was conceived as an eternal substance exempt from the vicissitudes of change and incapable of entering into combinations with anything else except itself.4

Many theories meanwhile grew up regarding the concept of atman.  Many of these are to be found in the Brahmajala Sutta of the Digha Nikaya which is assumed to contain the whole of what is possible to assert concerning the self (atta) and the universe, treated from every point of view positively, negatively and both.  Thus one view asserts that self and universe are eternal (Sassata Vada).  The other view holds that self and the universe are in some respects eternal and in some not.  The third view maintains that self and universe have arisen without cause.  The other theoreticians maintain that soul exists as a conscious entity after death, yet others maintain that it exists but is unconscious.  It is further maintained that individual ceases to exist after death and is annihilated.  This annihilation is stated to be taking place (1) with the death of the body (2) with the death of the divine atman in the world of sense (kamaloka) (3) in the world of form (rupaloka) or (4) in one of the formless worlds (arupa loka).

However, it is only in the Upanisads that a formidable doctrine of self has been formulated and which remains fundamental in the context of Indian thought which needs investigation more than anything else while dealing with Buddhist teachings on the self.  It is assumed that there does exist a self (atman) in one’s personality and the problem is only to locate it.  It is also assumed that this atman is free from death (Vimrtyuh), free from (Visokah) and has real thoughts (Satyasamkalpah).  Some times the atman is identified with the physical personality and sometimes it is identified with the self in the dream state or in deep sleep.

In its conception as something physical it is believed that there are hundred and one channels radiating from the heart through any of which the atman may leave the body in sleep.  From one aperture at the top of head it may pass on to immortality.

Some theories state that atman can not be identified with any aspects of the personality physical or psychological and then proceed to the metaphysical assumption that the atman is an unobservable entity, a pure ego, like air it rises from the body and reaches the highest light and appears in its own form.  Yagnavalkya spoke of the unknowableness of the atman by any process of reasoning or by any of the standard ways of knowing.  The idea implied here is that the Supreme atman (Brahman) is unknowable, because he is the all comprehending unity, whereas all knowledge presupposes a duality of subject and object.  The individual atman is also unknowable, because in all knowledge he is knowing subject and consequently can never be the object.

However, other thinkers at the time of Upanishads believe that the atman could be known by all the usual ways of knowing, that it could be empirically perceived, be heard and metaphysically conceived of and rationally understood by thinking – a view which echoed in Sankara who accepts that atman can be known through arguments and reasoning.

Buddhist theory of anatta or non self seems to contradict all the previous theories of atman or self in one pervasive way.  He made no concession to the doctrine of self and denied the view that in man there is an atman or an autonomous self that is permanent and unchanging and is possessed of bliss.5   He denied equally emphatically that at death man is utterly destroyed.  He denied that man is divine but he said that man should and could become divine by good thoughts, words and deeds.  It is the concrete man and not the transcendental self that achieves perfection by constant effort and creative will.

The Buddhist argument against the doctrine of atman is two fold.  Firstly, no aspect of personality can be identified with the atman since it does not have the characteristic of atman.   The Buddha while accepting the definition of atman without assuming its existence or non-existence seeks to confirm it one way or the other by empirical investigation.  When the existence is not revealed through such an empirical investigation, he concludes that no such atman exists because there is no evidence for its existence.

The second argument of Buddha is that a belief in a permanent self would negate the usefulness of moral life.  In anattalakkhana Buddha stated the characteristics of his doctrine of the not-self (anatta).  He begins by emphasizing that if there were a self it would be autonomous but no such entity exists.

Responding to the question whether the body is permanent or impermanent it was answered that it is impermanent and that which is impermanent is sorrowful.  Therefore of that which is impermanent sorrowful and liable to change it is not proper to say “this is mine, this I am, this is my soul.”  Accordingly, it cannot be the self.

The same arguments are repeated for the other aspects of the personality, such as feeling (vedana) perception (sanna) dispositions or tendencies (sankhara) and consciousness (vinnana).  When a man realizes that all these things are not the self he turns away from them and by the extinction of desire he attains release.

Here we find for the first time indication of Buddha’s purpose in enunciating his doctrine.  All misery, in his view, arises from the delusion of self which causes man to strive to profit himself and to injure others.  The most effective therapeutic against the folly of seeking to gratify longings is the realization that there is no truth in the doctrine of permanent self.

The self – that precious self around which the whole universe revolves is but a fabrication of mind (Samoha Citta).  Isolation and opposition builds up this permanent “I” or some concept to escape the inevitable submersion in the stream of impermanence (anicca).6  Mind itself dissolves in a process of thinking.

We find therefore, that the second argument of Buddha leads us on to the conclusion that the belief in a permanent self would negate the sanctity and usefulness of the moral life.  It is at this juncture that one is constrained to admit that concept of anatta dictates a different perspective for the pursuit of human actions.  In fact this militates against the doctrine of predestination and hence the restricted possibility of freedom in human actions. Human actions assume a different meaning in the absence of a categorical belief in the existense of a soul.  The doctrine of annatta brings in a certain amount of agnosticism. Which repudiates the doctrine that there are propositions which men ought to believe without logically satisfactory evidence.

Poverty has been called blessing on account of supernatural abundance.7 But it cannot have any meaning if the very existence of the super natural whether soul or God remains beyond the reach of our present knowledgeable experience.  Wishful thinking has, indeed, always had a strong influence on the formation of dogma.  .

The question raised by the suffering humanity about the eternity of the world or the everlasting life have a much deeper meaning.  Through this question the seeker in fact is seeking confirmation as to the continuation of life through self or atman.  If suffering does not cease now, it may cease in the next life.  But Buddha’s concept of soulessness (anatta) render all other questions as meaningless.  Buddha said in this context, “This samsara beginning is inconceivable Monks; its starting point can not be known.”

Hence suffering must be eliminated in this life alone and within the framework of here and now:  Action must find its justification within the autonomous moral structure of the consciousness of the individual.  The man must himself be responsible for his happiness or suffering8 as the case may be through actions which his autonomy of self has dictated to him in the name of perfect and fulfilled human existence.



Bhuvan Chandel    

Professor of Centre for Studies in Civilization

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