A few days ago I posted a documentary on Buddhism and promised to write a post on it too. So here is a written post on Naturalistic Pantheism and Buddhism. It is the next instalment looking at various religious philosophies and what we can learn from them to inform our own world-view as Naturalistic Pantheists. So far we have looked at Druidry, Epicureanism, Stoicism and Philosophical Taoism.
Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautana, an Indian prince, around the 6th century BCE. The aim of Buddhists is to become enlightened or awakened (Buddha means “the awakened one”) and to become liberated from Samsara, the wheel of suffering, death and rebirth. It is split into several schools – Theravada (the school of the elders) and Mahayana (the great vehicle) and claims over 370 million followers worldwide. The well known school of Zen Buddhism is a subset of Mahayana Buddhism which spread to China, mixed with Taoism and later came to Japan and then the West. Buddhism is best known in the west for its practice of Meditation. Originally Buddhism was meant as a philosophy and practice and didn’t contain any kind of deity, but over time it has evolved into a distinct religion, with many rival schools, practices and ideas.
The Story of the Buddha
The story of the Buddha begins with a dream. His mother, a Queen, has a dream that a white elephant comes to her and gives her a lotus flower and then enters her side. Wise men interpreted the dream to mean that she would have a son who would grow up either to be a great king or to be a holy man. Ten months later, Siddhartha is born and soon after his mother dies. His father wants him to become the great king rather than a holy man and so keeps him inside the palace walls for 30 years pampering him with luxury. But one day he goes outside on a trip. He comes across an old man. He doesn’t understand this and his servant explains that we all grow old. On subsequent trips he encounters a sick man, a corpse and a holy man. He learns that everyone suffers – gets sick, grows old and dies. After seeing the holy man, he makes a decision to leave the palace and follow the life of an ascetic to try to understand suffering. He devotes himself better than anyone else to extreme asceticism in an attempt to answer his questions. Eventually he almost starves to death, and emaciated, he chooses to eat a proper meal. He realises that extreme ascetic self mortification, just like hedonistic self indulgence, will not help him. There is a middle way. He sits under a Bodhi tree and vows to meditate until he can find a solution. Mara, the demon god of desire, comes to tempt him but he overcomes Mara. He becomes enlightened and becomes the Buddha. He spends the rest of his life teaching what he has learned. He founds a monastic order and when he reaches the age of 80, he dies. Whether or not elements of this story are true does not really matter. Like all myths, it is a story meant to teach us important truths – about the reality of suffering and about the answer to that suffering. It illustrates the life of any Buddhist – trying to find happiness through pleasure, recognising the reality of suffering, working to overcome suffering, becoming enlightened.
The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
The Buddha’s teaching consisted primarily of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. It begins with Dukkha. Dukkha is usually translated as suffering, but a better translation would be “dissatisfaction.” It is not only the suffering and pain of sickness, old age and death; it is also the anxiety and stress that arises by trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing. There is a deep un-satisfactoriness in life that because things are impermanent, they never actually measure up to our expectations or standards. For many years I have personally felt a sense of dissatisfaction and discontentment with life, with religion, with everything and that has spurred me on in what feels like a constant search for answers. Because of this, I find Buddhism speaks to me in ways Christianity never did. So the first Noble Truth in Buddhism is Life is Dukkha. Life is full of pain, suffering, death, grief, despair, dissatisfaction, uneasiness, anxiety and stress. It is important to realise this not to become pessimistic, but so that we see the need to overcome it. The second Noble Truth is Dukkha has an origin. This origin is craving/ attachment (for pleasure, power, lack of pain, to be) and disturbing emotions rooted in ignorance about the true nature of reality (the three marks of existence). The third Noble Truth is that Dukkha can be overcome. It is the cessation of Dukkha, of suffering and the causes of suffering. This is the goal of Buddhist spiritual practice – Nirvana. When we truly understand the causes of suffering, we can eradicate these causes, the delusions we have, and be free of Dukkha. The final Noble Truth is the path to the cessation of Dukkha – how to overcome Dukkha by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path consists of 8 aspects of living which, when developed together, can lead to the cessation of Dukkha. They consist of wisdom, ethical conduct and meditation. They are –
- Right perspective – understanding how reality really is, how it works.
- Right intention – constantly aspire to get rid of bad qualities, renunciation of worldly things, commitment to spiritual path, commitment to non-violence against all living beings.
- Right speech – not lying, not being divisive, not being abusive or hurtful e.t.c.
- Right action – acting properly – not taking life, not stealing, not being sexually immoral e.t.c
- Right livelihood – don’t have a job that harms other living beings e.g. weapons, meat production, slavery, alcohol, poisons designed to kill.
- Right effort – working hard and diligently to abandon harmful words, deeds and thoughts.
- Right mindfulness – keep constantly mindful and alert of what’s happening around us and in the present moment.
- Right concentration – meditation
Buddhism contains different sets of ethics based on whether a person is a layman or a monk. The basic code of ethics for a lay person consists of the five precepts which are taken as an oath (rules for monks are much stricter) -
a) I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.
b) I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
c) I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
d) I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
e) I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness (this covers alcohol, drugs or any intoxicant).
The Three Marks of Existence
Buddhists strive for deep insight into the nature of life and reality. This leads them to see what the Buddha called “the three marks of existence.” The first of these is Anatman or “no self.” This idea says that there is no permanent, autonomous self within us – what we think of as our self, our personality or ego, is really a temporary thing created in any given moment by five aggregates (Skandhas) – physical form, sensations (& emotions), perceptions (& reasoning), mental formations (habits/ prejudices/ predispositions & will) and consciousness (awareness.) These things are constantly changing as they interact with the environment and therefore who we are, our permanent “self”, does not really exist because it is something that arises from these other things and constantly changes.
The second mark of existence is Dukkha or suffering. I have already explained this in detail so will move on to the third mark of existence – Impermanence. All things arise and pass away. All things are in a constant state of flux. Nothing stays permanently the same. We all grow and change, cultures change, people live, grow old and die, the seasons change, beliefs change, relationships change, every atom in the universe is constantly changing and being renewed into something else. Nothing lasts forever.
Related to these three marks of existence is the idea of Dependent Origination. This is the idea that everything is interconnected and everything effects everything else. Like the Heathen idea of the Web of Wyrd, Buddhists believe that nothing arises on its own or exists independently. Everything is, because other things are. Everything happens because other things happen. Everything arises because other things have arisen. Things are the way they are because they are conditioned by other things, just as we are the way we are because we are conditioned by other people and the environment we live in. Everything is interdependent with everything else – if you change one thing, you affect everything. Nothing can exist without other things first existing and giving rise to it.
Karma, Rebirth and Enlightenment
I have already written about Karma in a previous post here, so I will just focus on the concepts of Rebirth and Enlightenment in Buddhism. Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism does not teach reincarnation. Buddhism opposes the idea of an immortal soul and therefore there is nothing to “reincarnate.” Instead Buddhism believes in rebirth. This is the idea that everything we think, do or say in life, generates a mental imprint on our mind (karma) and it is this that then gets “reborn” in another life-form after we die. It is like a candle getting lit from an already lit candle – the flame does not get transferred but a new flame is created from the old one. I believe it is possible to reinterpret the idea of rebirth in naturalistic ways as the blogger Natural Buddhist does here. For example, if we want to interpret it as something that happens after we die, then rebirth could mean the truth that when we die, our atoms are not destroyed but live on as nature transforms them into many different life forms – trees, grass, flowers, soil, micro-organisms, insects and ultimately birds, animals and other humans. One day our atoms will even become parts of stars again. Or we could see it as rebirth through our descendants and those whom we touch through our lives – the way we bring up children will affect their lives and they will pass it on to their children and so on. If we do things that change society and our culture, that is likely to live on past our deaths and affect the lives of others long after we are gone. We can also see it as rebirth within our own lives. We are constantly changing and everything we do in this moment affects our brains and helps to create the person we will become in the next moment and the next week and the next year. Every atom in our body is replaced every few years, so we are literally being reborn many times during our lifetime…the question is what type of rebirth are we creating for ourselves.
Enlightenment or Nirvana is awakening to see the truths of existence and reality. The period of history known as “The Enlightenment” in the west was a time when science was set free from its constraints to discover the amazing world around us and it opened up our eyes to all sorts of new ideas and ways of seeing the world. It spurred technological development and a vast increase in humanity’s knowledge about the world and the universe. We are still being enlightened and benefiting from that Enlightenment today. Buddhist Enlightenment is similar in that we realise, at a very deep inner level, the truths that Buddha taught – about suffering, impermanence, interconnectedness, Anatman, karma, rebirth and the path out of Dukkha. For the Buddha, this can only come by following his path and doing lots of meditation. When we become enlightened, we will then be able to get off the cycle of Samsara – suffering, death and rebirth and when we die will go into non-existence. As Naturalistic Pantheists, we obviously do not accept the idea of Samsara, but having a deep understanding of Buddhist concepts like impermanence, interconnectedness, Anatman and suffering, and following the path of wisdom, morality and meditation that Buddha set out, will benefit us and help us live more aware, more compassionate and more ethical lives – and in my view, that is what is meant by living an enlightened life.
I’m going to do a post on Meditation in future because of its importance not only in Buddhism but to different spiritual paths around the world. In my opinion, the teachings of the Buddha have a lot to offer Naturalistic Pantheists. We may not be able to accept supernaturalistic concepts like Karma, Rebirth and Samasara without reinterpretation, but many of the other insights of Buddhism are as profound now as they were 2,500 years ago. Science in the 21st Century is coming to acknowledge many of the truths of Buddhism, whether the interconnectedness of ecosystems and evolution in biology, the ability to change our brains through meditation in Neuroscience or the reality of “no-self” in psychology. Perhaps this is because Buddhism at its core is an empirical philosophy emphasising practice and the investigation of our own minds, rather than belief in dogmas. While much of Buddhism has developed beyond its base of self-evident truths, if we can peel away the layers that history has placed upon the Buddha’s original teachings, we find something that can help us in our modern lives here and now. In my opinion, it’s emphasis on practising meditation, trying not to hurt any living being, recognising that we are all interconnected and teaching that we won’t find happiness through craving, attachment, hedonistic pleasure seeking or an ascetic life, are the greatest things Buddhism has to offer us as Naturalistic Pantheists.
Finally, I want to draw attention to a new school of thought within Buddhism called Secular Buddhism, which rejects or reinterprets the supernatural elements of Buddhism while accepting the rest of it. It looks very interesting and offers a lot for Naturalistic Pantheists. For more information please check out these websites -