Essay/Term paper: Buddhism's four noble truths
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Sarfo K. Mensah Jr.
Siddharta Gautama was twenty-nine years of age when he abandoned his family to search for a means to bring to an end his and other"s suffering. He studied meditation with many teachers. At the age of thirty-five, Siddharta Gautama sat down under the shade of a fig or bo tree to meditate; he determined to meditate until he received enlightenment. After seven weeks he received the Great Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Henceforth he became known as the Buddha. This Middle Way is a psychological-philosophical insight into the cause and cure of suffering and evil.
In The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh provides a citation from the Buddha, which gives insight into the cure of our distress.
"I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering."
When we recognize and acknowledge our own suffering, the Buddha â“which means the Buddha in us â“will look at it, discover what has brought it about, and prescribe a course of action that can transform it into peace, joy, and liberation. Suffering is the means the Buddha used to liberate himself, and it is also the means by which we can become free.
(Thich Nhat Hanh 3)
The teachings of the Buddha revolve around this central tenant known as the "Four Noble Truths". The Four Noble Truths (and the Eightfold Path which followed from them) represent the basis of the Buddha's teaching and form the central foundation of Buddhism. Historically, Lord Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have preached on these topics during his first public commentary following his enlightenment.
The First Noble Truth states "Life is Dukkha". Dukkha exists, even that this is the natural and universal state of beings. The translation of the word dukkha from Pali has a bearing on how many readers will come to comprehend the basic teachings of the Buddha. The word dukkha is often rendered, in English, as "suffering". The resulting conclusion, "suffering exists". To live, you must suffer. It is impossible to live without experiencing some kind of suffering. We have to endure physical suffering like sickness, injury, tiredness, old age and eventually death and we have to endure psychological suffering like loneliness, frustrations, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, anger, etc. We are subject to impermanence and uncertainty. Very often, we have to associate with things that are unpleasant and disassociate with things that are pleasant. All these are unsatisfactory and cause our distress. This may seem a bit cynical and might suggest to many that Buddhism is a dire, fatalistic philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first noble truth is a statement so true and so obvious that it cannot be denied.
Using other translations of dukkha might lead us to (at least slightly) different conclusions as to the meaning of the First Noble Truth. Another depiction of dukkha as dissatisfaction may come closer to the intent of the original statement. "Dissatisfaction exists" seems a little simpler, a little less critical. Life is flawed, so there. It doesn't mean we will never have enjoyable moments, only that we will not only have them. We must take the good with the bad.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching, gives us this insight into the truth of suffering.
To succeed in the practice, we must stop trying to prove that everything is suffering. In fact we must stop trying to prove anything. If we touch the truth of suffering with our mindfulness, we will be able to recognize and identify our specific suffering, its specific causes, and the way to remove these causes and an end to suffering.
(Thich Nhat Hanh 22)
Expressed in a slightly different way, one could arrive at the conclusion that everything in the world, no matter how wonderful it may seem, is ultimately unsatisfying. One more twist and we can arrive at the conclusion that it is not possible to satisfy ourselves with worldly things, no matter how sweet they may seem. This may be the best translation of them all. Of course, the fact that we cannot be ultimately and finally satisfied means all things are touched with dukkha, and we suffer because of this.
Beyond this basic conclusion, the Buddha further suggested that there are three kinds of dukkha. Everyday dukkha (dukkha-dukkha) relates to the ups and downs of daily living, birth, death, and physical pain. The dukkha of change or changing circumstances (virapinama-dukkha) recognizes that we have an innate desire to keep things the way they are, particularly when they are going well - but we cannot. We are continually forced to come into contact with people and circumstances we do not prefer, and apart from those we prefer. Dukkha caused by the innate flaw of our conditioned existence (samkara-dukkha) describes the dissatisfaction or difficulty that arises from the fact that we are not what we think we are - perfect, eternal, but are made up of the five skandha (aggregates) which become the hooks on which our attachments hang. It is these attachments that are at the root of our suffering.
The Second Noble Truth is that craving causes all suffering. When we look at psychological suffering, it is easy to see how craving causes it. When we want something but are unable to get it, we feel frustrated. When we expect someone to live up to our expectation and he or she do not, we feel let down and disappointed. When we want others to like us and they don't, we feel hurt. Even when we want something and are able to get it, this does not often lead to happiness either because it is not long before we feel bored with that thing, lose interest in it and commence to want something else. Put simply, the Second Noble Truth says that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your wanting. Wanting deprives us of contentment and happiness. A lifetime wanting and craving for this and that and especially the craving to continue to exist creates a powerful energy that causes the individual to be reborn. When we are reborn, we have a body and, as stated above, the body is susceptible to injury and disease; it can be exhausted by work; it ages and eventually dies. Thus, craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.
Mark Epstein in Thoughts without a Thinker provides an instance reinforcing the cause of suffering.
A wealthy patient confided to me that after having a gourmet meal, he craves a cognac. After the cognac, a cigarette; after the cigarette he will start to think about making love; after perhaps another cigarette. Soon, he begins to crave sleep, preferably without any disturbing dreams. The search for comfort through sense pleasures rarely has an end.
As the devil"s advocate one may suggest that if we stopped wanting altogether, we would never get or achieve anything. This is true. But what the Buddha says is that when our desires, our craving, our constant discontent with what we have, and our continual longing for more and more does cause us suffering, then we should stop doing it. He asks us to make a difference between what we need and what we want and to strive for our needs and modify our wants. He tells us that our needs can be fulfilled but that our wants are endless - a bottomless pit. There are needs that are essential, fundamental and that can be obtained and this we should work towards. Desires beyond this should be gradually lessened. After all, what is the purpose of life, to get or to be content and happy?
The Second Noble Truth explores the source of dukkha. Simply put, dukkha arises from attachments, craving, desire or thirst. The Sanskrit word that is associated with this concept is trishna or samudaya; the Pali term is tanha. . Our lives are unsatisfactory because of "Tanha" and "Avija". "Tanha" is very often translated as "Cravings", but a much better translation should be "Thirst". "Avija" means "Ignorance".
What is "thirst"? Thirst is our natural tendency to cling on to the pleasant and be adverse to the -unpleasant. Most of us spend most of our lives chasing after and clinging on to things that satisfy our desires, egos, lusts, etc, and trying to run away from things we find painful and unpleasant.
What is "Ignorance"? Not to know that all conditioned things are impermanent is "ignorance". Not to know that all conditioned things are unsatisfactory is "ignorance". Not to know that all things are "without essence of self" is "ignorance". And not to know the Four Noble Truths is "ignorance".
Is there a way to overcome "thirst" and "ignorance" then? That's the question the 3rd Noble Truth answers
The attachment, or thirst or desire being spoken of in the Second Noble Truth can spring from, or relate to many aspects of our life. We may desire sensual pleasure, or fine possessions. We may thirst for recognition, or wish to become something we are not.
This is all actually commonplace. It is difficult to live in a world, which apparently runs on advertising and marketing without being tempted by a wish for something. It would be hard to go through life interacting with others without wishing to deepen relations at any level with some people. It would be very taxing to strive to do good deeds and then never wish for recognition.
The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness achieved. This is perhaps the most significant of the Four Noble Truths because in it the Buddha reassures us that true happiness and contentment are possible. When we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time, enjoying without restless wanting the experiences that life offers us, patiently enduring the problems that life involves without fear, hatred and anger, then we become content and free. Then, and only then, do we begin to live fully. Because we are no longer obsessed with satisfying our own selfish wants, we find we have so much time to help others satisfy their needs. This state is called Nirvana. We are free from all psychological suffering as well. This is called Final Nirvana.
"What or where is Nirvana?" one may ask. It is a dimension transcending time and space and thus is difficult to talk about or even think about. Words and thoughts being only suited to describe the time-space dimension, but because Nirvana is beyond time, there is no movement and so no aging or dying. Thus Nirvana is eternal. Because it is beyond space, there is no causation, no boundary; no concept of self and not self and thus Nirvana is infinite. The Buddha also assures us in The Dhammapada that Nirvana is an experience of great happiness. He says:
Nirvana is the supreme bliss.
Thich Nhat Hahn"s, in The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching, gives us this lineation of Nirvana.
Nirvana is the extinction of all notions. Birth is a notion. Death is a notion. Being is a notion. Nonbeing is a notion.
(Thich Nhat Hanh 127)
The Third Noble Truth offers an exit, a release from the suffering of attachment. It is sometimes referred to as the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. The Sanskrit term associated with the Third Noble Truth is nirodha, literally cessation, or dissolution, or even "control". We control our cravings and are thus liberated from their dependence of us. We no longer suffer from our attachments. This cessation of suffering, in turn, is called Nirvana. When we accept the fact that change is an inherent part of life - that in fact everything is constantly eluding our aggressive grasp all of the time - and when we stop being frustrated, angry or vengeful at the realization, we can, we may attain Nirvana. This is where the 4th Noble Truth comes in. The 4th Noble Truth is a package of self-cultivation that enables the practitioner to attain the goal of "Nirvana".
Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker provides an illustration reinforcing the necessity of a conceptual view when one follows the Buddha"s example and tries to deal with one"s own emotional life. In this story, Hung-jen, the departing fifth patriarch challenged his pupils and followers of the seventh century A.D. to create a verse suggestive of their comprehension of the Buddha"s teaching"s. The most satisfactory verse would designate his heir. The foremost student, Shen-hsiu offered the following verse.
The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling.
An uneducated kitchen servant, Hui-neng presented an alternative to Shen-hsiu"s reply as:
The Bodhi is not a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists;
Where is a grain of dust to cling
This analysis conveys what has always been the major component of the Buddha"s teaching, the avoidance of idealization and denial in the perception of the empty and reflecting mind where as in Shen-hsiu"s, verse, the clear mirror effortlessly becomes an object of idolization.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path leading to the overcoming of suffering. This path is called the Noble Eightfold Path and consists of Perfect Understanding, Perfect Thought, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness and Perfect Concentration. Buddhist practice consists of practicing these eight things until they become more complete. You will notice that the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path cover every aspect of life: the intellectual, the ethical, the social and economic and the psychological and therefore contain everything a person needs to lead a good life and to develop spiritually.
The Eightfold Path includes:
1. Right Understanding, samyak drshti, by correctly or adequately understanding or integrating the teaching, making the teaching one with us, we become the teaching, the teaching becomes us. An intellectual grasp of the teaching of Dharma
2. Right Thought, samyak samkalpa, which involves the elimination of all ambitions, revenge, hatred, greed, lust and violence by cleansing our minds of knowing and ignorance appearing as dukkha, our mind or mental processing becomes uncluttered and focused on our unfolding actuality.
3. Right Speech, samyak vaca, which means being courteous, considerate, compassionate and full of sympathy , with a heart full of loving humanity and free of secret malice by forgoing judgments, imaginings, ungrounded assumptions and such, we are cleansed of falsehoods, scandalous speech, accusations and such against others.
4. Right Action, samyak karmanta, which means the avoidance of destruction of any living being, of taking what has not been given, indulging in sensuality, slander and intoxicating liquors, licentious behavior and such, by taking actions fully in accord with universal principles of ethical and moral behavior such as the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity, or Ahimsa, which was Mahatma Gandhi"s core teaching.
5. Right Livelihood, samyak ajiva, by choosing in today"s terms to affirm valuing, moral and ethical behavior in the practices we adopt for earning a living, for pursuing a trade or occupation compatible with "Right Action".
6. Right Effort, samyak vyayama, means to prevent new evil from entering one"s mind, to remove all evil already there, by examining how we think, how we act, how we are, etc. so that we dwell in positive, valuing thought forms leads away from not knowing and ignorance, we become harmonious in thought and action.
7. Right Mindfulness, samyak smrti, by staying within the framework established by the eightfold pathway, we stay aware, conscious of all that we are and all in which we live, all with whom we live. We maintain ourselves clearly on all planes of existence.
8. Right Concentration, samyak samahdi, by establishing and maintaining our focus of appearance, manifestation and being through appropriate concentration, usually named as meditation, dhyana, we are grounded in our unfolding actuality. This is the threshold of Nirvana, to develop the eye of wisdom.
It could be important to note that the Eightfold Path is often further subdivided into three major sections, trishiksa - literally the "threefold training". Trishiksa embodies training in moral discipline (steps 3, 4, and 5), training in mental concentration (steps 6, 7, and 8), and training in wisdom (steps 1 and 2). The first is "Morality". The idea here is to live a life where one tries to constantly practice kindness and love, and to live life such that one's conscience is clear. That comes from our practice of Perfect Thougths, Perfect Actions, Perfect Speech and Perfect Livelihood. Basically, we live life to the best that we can. The second group is "Concentration". With a clear conscience cultivated with "morality", we cultivate our minds so that it'll be calm, peaceful and concentrated. This comes from our practice of Perfect Effort and Perfect Concentration. The third group is "Wisdom". With a very strong, calm, concentrated and peaceful mind, we learn to work with ourselves, to gain insight into ourselves, to eventually overcome all our problems and all the inadequacies in our lives. This comes from our practice of Perfect Mindfulness and Perfect Understanding.
Anyone and everyone can achieve the highest goal in Buddhism, be they a worldly person or a monk. All one need to do is to make an honest effort to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. It is said that those who have realized the truth, like the Buddha Shakyamuni and his prominent disciples did not do so accidentally. They did not fall from the sky like rain, nor did they spring up from the earth like grain. The Buddha and His disciples were once ordinary sentient beings like you and me. They were once afflicted by the impurities of the mind, desire, ill-will and ignorance. It is through contacting the Dharma, through purifying their words and deeds, through developing their minds and through acquiring wisdom that they became free, exalted beings able to teach and help others to realize the truth. There is therefore no doubt that if one applies their self to the teachings of the Buddha, one can attain the ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is the ultimate goal of liberation, the everlasting bliss of Nirvana.
Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Beliefs. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1997
Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without a Thinker. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Breathe! You Are Alive. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1996
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1998
Maitreya, Ananda. The Dhammapada Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1995
Internet Resources -General Buddhism Links:
Buddhanet is a Buddhist information network and Buddhazine at: http://www.buddhanet.net/
Buddhism Pointers: A pointers file which lists a truly impressive array of Buddhist groups and
societies, journals, mailing lists, news groups and other resources is maintained at:
Buddhism Links: The National Capital Freenet (Ottawa Canada) has a special interest group on
Buddhism that lists many links. See: http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/dharma/
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Buddhist metaphysicsThe 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.
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 unsatisfactory.
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. 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 on psychological insights; the problem with bad or selfish action is that it molds our personality, creates ruts or habitual patterns of thinking and feeling. These patterns in turn result in the effects of karma in our lives.
Many other metaphysical questions were put to the Buddha during his life; he did not answer them all. He eschewed the more abstract and speculative metaphysical pondering, and discouraged such questions as hindrances on the path. Such questions as what is Nirvana like, what preceded existence, etc., were often met by silence or what may have seemed like mysterious obscurity. Asked what happens to an Arhant, an enlightened one, upon his death, the Buddha was said to have replied: "What happens to the footprints of the birds in the air." Nirvana means 'extinction' and he likened the death of an arhant to the extinction of a flame when the fuel (karma) runs out. He evidently felt that many such questions were arising out of a false attachment to self, and that they distracted one from the main business of eliminating suffering.
The Path to Liberation: the Buddhist Way of LifeThe Buddha intended his philosophy to be a practical one, aimed at the happiness of all creatures. While he outlined his metaphysics, he did not expect anyone to accept this on faith but rather to verify the insights for themselves; his emphasis was always on seeing clearly and understanding. To achieve this, however, requires a disciplined life and a clear commitment to liberation; the Buddha laid out a clear path to the goal and also observations on how to live life wisely. The core of this teaching is contained in the Noble Eightfold Path, which covers the three essential areas of Buddhist practice: ethical conduct, mental discipline ('concentration' or 'meditation'), and wisdom. The goals are to cultivate both wisdom and compassion; then these qualities together will enable one ultimately to attain enlightenment.
The path is laid out in eight steps, but one may practice all of the steps simultaneously, since they work together.
The first two steps or factors constitute Wisdom. Right understanding (or right views) is the grasping of true reality, as seen in the Buddhist teachings; it is not merely an intellectual understanding, although this helps. Rather it is a direct insight and penetration into the nature of things. Right thought (or right intentions) is that frame of mind which is selfless, detached and free of malice; that generosity of spirit which extends loving benevolence to all beings.
The next three steps on the eightfold path constitute ethical conduct. Right speech involves abstaining from lies, from rude or malicious language, from foolish gossip, and from slander or backbiting that may cause disharmony. One should speak a gentle, kind, and useful truth, or not speak at all. Right action requires abstaining from killing and all violence, stealing, dishonest practices, intoxicating drinks and improper sexual behavior. Right livelihood means that one should abstain from any profession that brings harm to others, such as weaponry, butchering animals or selling liquor. Also one's career should develop one's talents, overcome the ego by joining in a common cause, and provide what is needed for a worthwhile existence -- basic comforts and necessities, but not ostentatious luxuries.
The last three steps on the path are those which promote mental discipline. Right effort is the will to cultivate wholesome states of mind and eliminate evil or unwanted ones. Right mindfulness (or attentiveness) involves being keenly aware of the processes involved in one's daily existence, those of the body, the sensations, the mind and the experiencing of thoughts and ideas. Mindfulness is practiced in Buddhist forms of meditation such as vipassana, through techniques like observation of the breath and bodily sensations. Right concentration refers to the progressive stages of dhyana (this is closer to what is called meditation in most Hindu traditions). In this discipline, the mind is gradually cleared of passionate desires, then thoughts, then finally even feelings of joy, until only pure awareness remains, in a state of perfect calm and equanimity.
Other teachings speak of the Four Friends and the Five Hindrances that one encounters along the path; these are qualities in the heart which may aid or distract one from the process. The four friends are: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Loving kindness is universal love for all beings, without distinction. Compassion is the ability to empathize with others -- to feel what they are feeling. Sympathetic joy is the quality that takes delight in the happiness of others. Equanimity is a calm acceptance of all that happens, based on the insight of the impermanence of all things; in the end, the only thing that really matters is liberation, so the vicissitudes of life don't really have much significance.
The five hindrances are: sensual desire; ill will; sloth and torpor; restlessness and worry, or distraction; and skeptical doubt. Everyone has these hindrances in common, so it is important to find ways of eliminating them; they are like toxins or weeds which prevent the cultivation of those qualities essential for self-discipline and stand in the way of our liberation.
The Buddha's teachings on ethics and living a good life also extended to the realm of the social and political. He was ahead of his time in many ways; considering all people as equal, he rejected the caste system and openly encouraged women to become students and teachers. He taught that governments had a responsibility to lead by example, to teach people ethics and to eliminate poverty by providing opportunities for the people to become prosperous. He was clearly opposed to all forms of war, and taught that violence can never create security. In keeping with these teachings, Buddhism is rare among world religions in that its followers never attempted to spread their beliefs through the use of force. Unique among victorious leaders, the Buddhist emperor Asoka in the third century BCE renounced violence and war, and put Buddhist ethical virtues at the center of his government.
Regarding the Buddhist path as a philosophy, one may consider its epistemology: certain claims of knowledge have been made, but how can they be known to be true? As stated above, the Buddha himself never asked anyone to accept unproven claims on faith, and in fact discouraged them from doing so. He maintained that his teachings could be verified by direct insight and reasoning, by anyone willing to consider them and to follow the necessary path of self-discipline. Starting from a few basic assumptions, such as impermanence and dependent origination, he derived a complex and consistent system of philosophy which has stood for centuries. Later teachers have validated his claim that others could reach the same insights, and they have expanded upon his basic teachings with impressive intuitive depth and intellectual rigor.
In this way the Buddhist teaching has itself become a kind of interactive and self-evolving process, much like its idea of pratityasamutpada. However, the end goal is still Nirvana, which is an experience ultimately beyond all concepts and language, even beyond the Buddhist teachings. In the end even the attachment to the Dharma, the Buddhist teaching, must be dropped like all other attachments. The tradition compares the teaching to a raft upon which one crosses a swift river to get to the other side; once one is on the far shore, there is no longer any need to carry the raft. The far shore is Nirvana, and it is also said that when one arrives, one can see quite clearly that there was never any river at all.
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