4.5 Type V: Buddhism. In the century or two before Buddhism arose in Northern India, the following views lying behind the philosophy of Shankara (who wrote in opposition to Buddhism after it had become established) had become orthodox among Hindus, and are reflected in the Upanishads. (1) Reincarnation: a person is reborn after a certain period of time in any given life. One is reborn as a human being, an animal, in a heaven as a god, or in a hell, depending on one’s karma, that is, on one’s actions in his previous lives. Even the gods, with the exception of Brahma, have finite life-spans, after which they are reborn. (2) Pantheism: Brahma, the highest God, who exists eternally, is actually identical with oneself, as well as identical with all other things, and realization that one just is Brahma, attained through meditation (an actual experiential awareness of the identity is sought), is the key to freedom (moksha) from suffering in this world. (3) One’s limited self in this world is in a way illusory, for one takes it to be one’s true self. So all the troubles and suffering in this world are illusory, and the world itself is. One’s true self, Brahma, in fact is in itself blissful, and entirely free, and one recognizes this in the deepest level of meditation.
Buddhism takes these views to be incorrect. First, there is no self to be reborn, the empirically observed self being a causal chain of events involving observable, passing things none of which lasts forever. This chain of causal events, involving the five aggregates (five sorts of existing things, i.e. body, feelings, perceptions, actions and tendencies to action, and conscious states) which makes up one’s self in this life, continues into further lives as long as one is subject to the illusion that there is a permanent self. When Enlightenment occurs, which is the recognition that there is no self, attained through meditation, one is no longer subject to this continuing rebirth, and upon death one is not reborn.
The chain of rebirths is turned into a psychological theory by Buddhists, rebirths as Gods, Demigods, Animals, Human Beings, Hell Creatures and Hungry Ghosts representing six states of mind reflecting different attitudes toward not getting what one wants. A god has everything he wants, and does not even envision a state of deprivation; a demigod has what he wants, but is aware he can lose it; an animal withdraws from the harsh world that would deny him into a kind of automatic, unreflecting activity, and is marked by a certain lack of intelligence in his reaction to things; a hell creature reacts with anger or despair at not getting what he wants, and is the most subject of all to illusion; a hungry ghost reacts with a certain helpless resignation, but lets the fact that he can’t get something that he wants wreck his whole life, so that he finds nothing at all satisfying; a human being reacts intelligently, making an effort and thinking through how to get what he wants where it is possible, and not allowing the fact that he can’t get some things to spoil the rest of his life for him, though he still is subject to grasping and craving. Only one reborn as a human being can attain enlightenment, for following the Buddhist way requires intelligent action. The Buddhist interprets these six realms as states of mind that a person may pass through even in a single day, as he responds differently to the various events of the day. So mythology is converted into psychology.
What about the end of this life? Perhaps the most interesting take on it would be that reincarnation is illusory, something that someone who believes in an eternal self would have to expect, but which there is no reason in experience to expect actually occurs. The traditional Buddhist line, however, is that rebirth actually does occur, carrying us over into new lives, as the mythology suggests, as long as we are subject to the illusion of a self. Again, this may be intended, in part at least, as psychology. The illusion of a self creates a persisting, complex sequence of mental events that is rather different from the series that occurs in an enlightened person, and this sequence passes through all the various, psychologically interpreted, rebirths of the six worlds. When one becomes enlightened, this puts an end to this process of ‘rebirth’.
In the second place, there is no God, for nothing is eternal at all, nothing is all powerful, nothing is outside a world within which it acts and experiences. So the identification with Brahman is a mistake, and actually the meditation in which people claim this occurs is illusory, for what actually happens is simply that one achieves a certain unconsciousness. The arguments for such a God that are presented as part of metaphysics, are all based on general principles that go beyond any possible experiential confirmation, and so, as empiricists who accept no reality beyond what can be presented in experience, Buddhists reject all such arguments.
The self experienced in this world is not a Self of the sort that the Orthodox Brahmin imagines, a self that is (1) eternal, (2) free (its actions not caused by its own nature or by external events), (3) blissful in itself (once it realizes its true nature), and (4) of ultimate, unconditional importance. The only self that exists is a self that is part of the natural world, and lacks every one of these four qualities. Thus life is necessarily involved with suffering, for everything one can have can be lost, and the enlightenment consists in recognition that there is no Self as imagined by the Brahmans. This realization leads to a kind of transmutation of suffering, so that it is no longer seen as ultimately important so that it wrecks one’s life.
In seeking release from suffering in meditation, the Buddha tried to find his true self, and ended up by concluding there was no such thing. He had, in his practice, followed the lead of earlier thinkers in persuading himself that only the true self was really of any importance, so that the affairs of the illusory self in the material world were of no moment at all. So when he finally saw that there simply was no Self of the sort he was seeking, he found himself free of any sense that there was an important self at all, and this proved to provide the peace for which he was looking. Suffering did not disappear, and it still made sense to avoid it as much as one could, but it was transformed in his experience into something acceptable, since he no longer believed there was a self which it was important should not suffer. Especially in China, later, the Sage would be seen as a person who saw himself as of no importance. It is reasonable for such a person to avoid suffering, but not to take insult even at unjustifiable suffering, or to view life as simply not worth it if suffering, or at least unjustifiable suffering, cannot be entirely avoided. The mere fact of unjustifiable suffering does not become an emotional problem.
Buddhists reject the apparent knowledge of the Self obtained in the deepest levels of concentration. Buddhist meditation is not a matter of seeing into the ultimate reality of the self. The attempt to do this leads to a kind of cessation of experience which some interpret as a kind of wordless, experience-less, direct contact with reality, involving no images or thoughts. But the Buddha rejected the notion that such a knowledge is even possible. This is simply a peculiar state of mind that it is useful to enter into now and again if one can do it, to steady oneself, and gain a kind of rest from the world, but which conveys no special knowledge of anything. All knowledge arises from experience, and involves conception, names, images, consciousness of something other than the consciousness itself (it may involve consciousness of another consciousness). Thus knowledge occurs within the natural causal order, and always depends on its causes if it is to occur.
Just as there is no Self that is the ultimate subject of experience, so there is no Self that is the ultimate subject of action. In the case of experience, there are states of consciousness, like the consciousness of the taste of an ice cream cone, and perhaps also consciousness of that state of consciousness, and so on, but there is no state of consciousness which is conscious of itself. Such a thing would, perhaps, be indestructible (it would maintain itself in existence), but it simply is not there to be found in experience. We are never conscious of such a thing. Similarly there are events, which are always caused by other events and situations, but there is no agent that brings about things of itself. If an agent brings something about, it does this because in that situation it is caused to do so. Ultimately causation is event to event, situation to situation, not thing to event. So there is no such thing as free will, if that is taken to be a person acting without being caused to do so.
In later Buddhism (Mahayana Buddhism) the doctrine that there is no Self is generalized to the doctrine that nothing is self-natured. That is, in general, nothing is eternal, since everything exists only as long as the causes necessary to maintain it in existence are present, and naturally ceases to exist once those causes are removed; nothing acts without being caused to act; nothing is valuable in itself, but things are only valuable when the causes of their being valuable are present, that is, there is something that finds them valuable, and the situation is such that they are valuable (say, useful to some end that a person actually has); and nothing is of itself happy, since things are only happy when the causal conditions are right, and happiness requires immersion in a world of other things, not an imaginary separation of the Self from the world—that is not even possible, since the reality of one’s limited self would simply cease to exist if all relations to other things were removed. The self is just a heap of other things. So given that there is always a cause for everything, and all things are conditioned by their causes, there is nothing with the characteristics of a self.
What we think of as our self, according to Buddhists, we tend to think of as having these four characteristics, as being absolutely important and valuable in every circumstance, as being blissful and content when it is not disturbed, as being immortal, and as possessing free will so that it is in control of itself and its actions are not caused by other things. It is this delusion about ourselves that produces much of our suffering, and gives it all the notion that it is somehow unacceptable that we should suffer. A Self is something toward which certain attitudes are to be considered reasonable. Most especially, it is reasonable to regard it as of ultimate importance, as important from the standpoint of the universe, so that our life (indeed, everything) is ruined or harmed irretrievably if it is somehow lost or damaged, or fails to be what it was meant to be. These attitudes toward the self and the things the self desires are summed up as "grasping." (Grasping is not the same as wanting or desiring, since one can want or desire without being desperate about it, without the view that something terrible is wrong if one's desire is not satisfied.) Given the facts that all things are impermanent and causally conditioned, there can be nothing towards which it would be reasonable to take a grasping attitude. If it is what one has, then one must inevitably lose it, and to take a grasping attitude is to condemn oneself to not even enjoying it when one has it; if it is what one is that is grasped (I must be a certain sort of person), then it must be recognized that what one is depends on environment and history as much as it does on one's own "will," that even one's own will is not "free" in a sense that gives one absolute control over oneself. The grasping attitudes and the metaphysical belief in a non-experienced self of absolute importance to the universe, indestructible and everlasting, with absolute control over itself, mutually support one another, and since grasping arises naturally, the false metaphysics of self-natures arises naturally. A Buddhist must commit himself to constant practice of meditation, watching his thoughts for the arising of these illusions, and when they arise he must recognize and label them as illusion, else one falls back into ignorance and grasping. So the practice of “awareness” is a part of the Buddhist way to salvation.
In some traditions Determinism is seen as entailing the rationality of Fatalism—If it is already fated that I will die there is nothing I can do about it, if it is fated I shall live, there is no reason for me to try to do anything about that. The answer to this developed by Chrysippus, an Ancient Greek Stoic, is that it is only fated that I will die given that I don't go to the doctor, and in fact I won't, since that is fated, but it is under my control to do so or not. Determinism does not rob me of control, it only suggests that it is causally determined how I shall exercise this control. But a more involved argument can be made—the state of the world in 1940, assuming determinism, is sufficient to insure that I won't go to the doctor, and so will die. I have no control over the state of the world in 1940, not even over any part of it, since I was not born until 1945. Observe that there are several sets of determining causes, one in 1940, one in 2000 bce, one in 1950, and one holding this evening, just before I make the fatal decision. We might be inclined to say that the last is the real cause, but that is perhaps because we are used to dealing with causes that are conditioned by their environment, and so cannot even formulate what the causes might be in 1940, but can say that it is my masculine stubbornness etc. that will be the cause tonight. . . There is less of a chance for something to go wrong in the intervening mechanism. . . But a real determinist will set all this aside, and regard the cause in 1940 as just as necessitating a cause as the one tonight. But the cause in 1940 brings about its effect only by bringing me about, and the state of character in me that produces the fatal decision. So we might argue that the Stoics win again, and you can't remove my effect on events from the picture. In the Christian tradition, it seems determinism is often viewed as a threat to control, free will as giving as control, despite the arguments of the Stoics. Christians generally are not Compatibilists who hold that Determinism and free will could be true at the same time. (Some Christians, classical Calvinists, for instance, are Determinists, but they deny free will.) Notice that all of this seems to assume that causality depends on unconditioned causal laws, universal laws which make the universe as a whole predictable, despite the fact that we never experience the universe as a whole, and so can never be in a position to make the prediction in question, or see the absolute, unconditioned necessity that a given action occur.
The Buddhist goes the other way. Nowhere in his tradition is determinism regarded as entailing fatalism, but then his determinism is not the global determinism of the paragraph above, but a local determinism, asserting that every event has a cause which necessitates it given the conditions that held when the causes occurred, that is, given conditions that we can never entirely specify or entirely know. So, though it is argued that my eventual fate depends on what I do, and not on purely external causes, it is not suggested that a non-deterministic free will is necessary to give me control of my actions. Rather, it is argued that if causality (and so determinism) did not hold, then our hopes for salvation (enlightenment) would be dashed, since we could not then identify the causes of suffering, the causes of enlightenment, eliminate the one and establish the other. If our behavior is not caused, we cannot gain control over it, for controlling our behavior is a matter of bringing it about through our actions. If our choices are uncaused, they are chance events, and purely chance events are just as unavoidable and necessary as events already determined by causes we can't change—uncaused events cannot be anticipated or prevented, and so one is justified in fatalism with regard to them. So perfect global freedom of will, paradoxically, means that locally, within the limitations of our actual experience, our free acts have to be viewed as coming out of nowhere, and so not at all under our control!
Perhaps what is going on here is this: the Christian views Determinism and Free Will of the incompatibilist sort in the context of the Christian conviction that the natural course of events, following the line natural causation would impose, leads to sin and damnation (given the Fall and the corruption of nature). So, only the intervention of the supernatural, or an uncaused willing, leaves open the possibility of salvation. The Buddhist has a plan to get to salvation, rooted in an analysis of the causal antecedents of suffering, and a psychological technology for eliminating these causes. The Buddhist undertakes to use natural causation, rather than pinning his hopes on avoiding it, and she trusts natural processes to lead in the right direction. That is part of what is meant by saying all human beings have the Buddha nature—they all naturally tend to see the truth, and ignorance requires an active participation of the will to maintain itself. So the notion that her efforts at attaining enlightenment might be foiled because she later freely wills to do things that fly in the face of all her deliberate training of her character to virtue is reason for anxiety, not rejoicing. What is wanted is the causal continuity of personality, so that our meditation and practice will be seen to work.
Buddhist notions of virtue give a picture of how Buddhists think one should lead one's life. Many virtues on the Buddhist list are like Western virtues, so friendliness or good will, not harming others, faith (in the efficacy of Buddhist techniques for attaining Enlightenment), and so on. The Buddhist moral code is laid out in ten "precepts," which proscribe dehumanizing sex, killing (including any sort of violence, even "killing the other person's opinions"), theft (including theft of time from others, that is, laziness), the use of drugs that lead to delusion (including the use of escapist literature and the like, and the use of escapist fantasizing—but caffeine is all right), lying (including any form of self-deception or exaggeration), anger, boasting (bolstering one’s own self-image by comparing oneself to others, and so undermining others' images of themselves), slander (to support one's own self-image), and any activity that would discredit Buddhism in the eyes of the world at large. It commends giving and helpfulness to others. But several Buddhist virtues sound odd to the West, at least outside the Mystical traditions there. Two important virtues are mindfulness, that is, the continual practice of awareness of what is really going on right now and right here, which leads to a sort of self-control or centeredness, and flexibility and adaptiveness to whatever is actually going on. Rigidity is supposed to arise from grasping, which is, of course, to be avoided at all costs. Strong emotions are suspect, since they often are rooted in grasping, but not always rejected, especially if they are connected with a desire for enlightenment, so that they further the practice of Buddhism. Momentary emotional reactions are mostly considered all right, as long as one remains mindful. It would be long-term emotion that supports grasping. Another virtue that is recognized within the Christian tradition, but is not much valued nowadays, is humility, a just assessment of one’s self, recognizing all one's shortcomings, together with one's relative unimportance. Boastful, defensive, and over assertive behavior, putting oneself forward and talking oneself up, are all looked upon as furthering grasping after an image of oneself. We try to convince ourselves we are such and such by getting everyone to agree we are. It is a mark of an Enlightened person that she views herself as someone of no importance. This means that her faults are of no importance, too, of course. Humility is not a matter of depression or a lousy self-image. It is in fact pretty cheerful and carefree. If I am of no importance, then I have nothing really significant to worry about.
To act rightly, the Buddhist Sage relies on his sense of what is best, which is developed and honed by practice and instruction in dealing with various situations. To act rightly, one does not act by the rules, except insofar as one may, in training, follow rules, even rather strictly, to shape oneself into an expert. (In fact, rules are adopted only because they give, under the right conditions, good results. Every moral rule can and should be broken if the conditions are not right for it to take a good effect.) The expert does what seems right, trusting his expertise. What is needed first is to see what is actually going on, from the points of view of everyone involved. Once this awareness is obtained, then one can see how one might help, at least if one’s training in dealing with this sort of thing is sufficient.
Buddhism is a deliberately proselytizing religion. It seeks converts, and attempts to spread itself abroad, like Christianity, and unlike Paganism. One of its techniques for gaining adherents is to lay Buddhist interpretations on pre-existing non-Buddhist religious practices, so that a new adherent need not abandon his old customs entirely to become a Buddhist. (Christianity does something similar, and many Christian holidays are adaptations of old non-Christian holidays, so, for instance, a Roman festival on December 25 was taken over and reworked into Jesus’s birthday celebration. Many elements of our Christmas celebration were originally from one Pagan tradition or another. The Christmas tree was from Nordic Paganism, for instance.) This meant that the message of the Buddha came to be overlaid with thick encrustation of practices and doctrines from pre-Buddhist religions of Types II through IV. So you find innumerable Buddhist Gods, which are worshiped much as Pagan Gods are, a detailed account of heavens and hells and multiple reincarnations, and so forth. These practices and beliefs all receive allegorical interpretations at the hands of the Order of Monks (the Sangha) which maintains the Buddhist tradition and is considered its most authoritative interpreter, but the common people often know little of this, and regard it as almost incomprehensible anyway, and proceed very much as Pagans, while attempting to follow the Buddhist ethical rules in hope of attaining to a heaven in their rebirth, not in the hope of attaining to enlightenment. Enlightenment is better, but really hard, and hard even to understand properly, and they leave it to those who want to become monks.
But the most dangerous development to the integrity of the Buddhist style of religion was the invasion of Type IV religious thought, which infected the thinking even of the Monks. The idea in Mahayana Buddhism is that ultimate reality is Emptiness (sunyata), which is simply emptiness of self. That is, everything that is is a not-self. This is fair enough in terms of the Buddha’s own views, but the Monks tend to take this Emptiness as a kind of positive thing, which underlies the world. That is, they tend to turn it into the Brahma of Hindu religion, or the atman of Shankara. This is easy to do, because this Brahma/atman is supposed to have no positive characteristics at all by which it can be conceptualized, which fits emptiness. Emptiness is described as not-raccoon, for instance, because no raccoon is a self, so raccoons are emptiness, perhaps, but emptiness is not raccoon, as though it were essential to what is not-self to be raccoon! Rather, Emptiness is present as the underlying reality in all things, and is not itself any of them. If one pursues this, it looks as if emptiness is very like Brahma, indeed. Moreover, it is only when I realize that I am empty of self, that I am Emptiness, that I am saved and attain to Nirvana, and that sounds just like the Hindu, who says he must recognize that he is Brahma to be saved. Emptiness is, moreover, present in everyone, and considered as Emptiness, it cannot ever be distinguished from any other Emptiness, for each is empty of all self-nature, and that is it. So a kind of Monism or Pantheism arose within Buddhism. (I hope it is clear that Emptiness is not actually anything at all, any more than non-coke-bottleness is. Human beings and palm-trees do not enjoy some common underlying nature just because neither one is a coke bottle! But this is a difficult point for most, and it is considered by many Buddhist Masters a common mistake among Monks not to see it.)
Mahayana Buddhism can also be mistaken for a kind of Idealism, for Mahayanists do hold that there is nothing to be identified as real which is not experienced by us. If it is not such as to be experienced, it doesn’t exist. This is the Buddha’s original view, and underlies his argument that there is no self. It should not be read as Idealism, though. The Buddha thought that there were material things, but he thought we could know about them because they, under the right conditions, produced experiences of themselves, that is, states of consciousness of themselves. Moreover, and most important, the Buddha did not think that states of consciousness could exist without a material underpinning. For visual states, one needs eyes, and so forth. But Buddhists did talk about the world as commonly perceived as illusory, generated by the mind, and only the world as perceived by an enlightened sage was thought to be things as they really are. An enlightened sage, it might be reasoned, is one who sees Emptiness where others see the illusion of self-natured things. So the commonplace world must be an illusion produced by the mind, while Emptiness just is the mind of the sage, the Buddha-Nature, free of this illusion. That is a big jump in logic, and in fact there is no reason why Emptiness should not cover material things as well, which are part of the causal order (that assumption is part of the proof that all things are Empty). But it was made, and is, again, a common misconception, according to Buddhist Masters, among the less accomplished monks.
A modern Buddhist movement, sometimes called “Critical Buddhism,” among Mahayana Buddhists (i.e. all current Buddhists except those in Ceylon) has adopted a kind of “back to the scriptures” attitude, and rejects the Mahayana doctrines of the Buddha Nature (i.e. Emptiness) to be found in all beings, and the like as a false intrusion of Type IV religion, which any real Buddhist should utterly reject. People in theistic traditions often have a good deal of trouble seeing what all the fuss is here, of course. To them, given the way a sage in the different traditions turns out, Type IV and Type V religions are almost indistinguishable. But then, imagine how a Buddhist would react to an impassioned controversy between a Catholic and a Protestant.