Theravada Buddhist Thought and Practice

Western interpretations of the Buddhist Dharma—Buddha's law or teaching—often treat it as a philosophy. Although it is possible to view the Dharma this way, Buddha emphasized the centrality of religious practice over philosophy and doctrines. Intellectual understandings merely point at what must ultimately be realized through experience. Buddha posited a religious path attainable through a rigorous tripartite practice of wisdom, morality, and meditation. These three were the foundations of the Noble Eightfold Path, Buddha's outline for how to live the religious life.

Theravada Buddhism focuses particular attention on the life of the historical Buddha (c. 563-483 b.c.e.). Buddha ("The Enlightened One") was a human being who, through assiduous spiritual practices, was able to comprehend the true nature of the universe. The realization of this transcendent wisdom is the achievement of nirvana, or enlightenment. Buddha, therefore, is a model for humanity, an example ofwhat is possible by diligent practice of the Dharma.

The biography of the historical Buddha recounts the story of an entitled prince, Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, who is provided with material comforts and sensual pleasures by the king, his father. Wishing that his son will become a great leader, the king arranges for the prince to be sequestered in the palace, shielded from the pain and suffering that afflicts human beings. Over time, the prince— now grown and married with a young son—becomes curious about the world beyond the confines of the palace. Against his father's wishes, he ventures outside the palace walls on four separate occasions. Each time he encounters an aspect of human experience hitherto unknown to him. The four encounters—a sick person, an elderly person, a corpse, and a religious ascetic—result in the prince's realization of the fundamental suffering of human existence. The encounter with the ascetic prompts Prince Siddhartha's quest to attain an understanding of the world that would end suffering.

Prince Siddhartha subsequently decides to leave the palace and pursue the spiritual life of an ascetic renunciant. Single-minded in his resolve to attain spiritual liberation from the bonds of human existence by denying material needs, he nearly starves to death. As a result, he recognizes that liberation must lie somewhere between extreme hedonism and severe asceticism. He embarks on what becomes known as the Middle Path, a practice that allows sufficient bodily nourishment to carry out meditation and other spiritual practices. Through deep and persistent meditation he attains nirvana, thereby becoming Buddha. A reluctant teacher, he eventually accedes to the desire of others that he expound upon what he has learned. Thus begins Buddha's lifelong teaching of the Dharma.

Buddha's teaching centers on wisdom attained through enlightenment, a transcendent awareness of both the problem in the human condition and a means to its solution. This problem finds expression in the Three Marks of Existence, a description of the nature of life within the unenlightened world of samsara (the cycle of birth-death-rebirth). Individual status in the samsaric cycle is determined by actions (karma) and their moral consequences. Moral behavior leads to a higher spiritual rebirth, while immoral actions result in movement away from enlightenment. Buddha recognized that the samsaric world is fundamentally unsatisfactory and human beings eventually seek escape from it. According to the Three Marks, all existence is characterized by: (1) impermanence (anitya); (2) suffering (duhkha); and (3) absence of a permanent ground or essence (anatman).

Impermanence refers to the idea that all aspects of the samsaric world are in constant flux. While the world might appear to have stability and solidity, deeper scrutiny reveals that samsara is characterized by perpetual instability. Human beings mistake the temporary coming together of constituent elements (dharmas) for permanence. Thus, the world is best characterized not in terms of the atomistic existence of discrete enduring objects, but rather as a state of dependent origination, or interdependence—pratitya-samutpada. Samsaric entities—including human beings—exist as a result of cause and effect. Nothing has an intrinsic foundation or essence that gives rise to its own existence. Samsara itself is understood as constituted by conditioned reality, that is, arising from a series of causes and effects.

The second mark of existence is suffering. The Buddhist term duhkha refers to both physical and mental suffering—especially the latter. Duhkha signifies the anxiety and insecurity prompted by the impermanent, transitory nature of the human condition. Markers of impermanence include the cycle of birth, disease, old age, and death, as well as anticipation of the inevitable loss of happiness and other temporarily pleasant emotions. Buddha did not deny the reality of happiness, but simply noted that it too is fleeting and impermanent. Suffering results from ignorance of the true nature of the samsaric world as transitory, momentary, and subject to constant flux.

The third mark of existence, anatman (no-self), refers to the absence of a permanent self or eternal soul that persists after physical death. Human ignorance engenders a misperception of current identity or sense of self as an enduring, independent essence. This idea is illustrated in an

Indian Buddhist text that relates a dialogue between King Milinda and the monk Nagasena. In the Simile of the Chariot, Nagasena asserts that the self, like a chariot, has no essence. The King protests, so Nagasena describes the process of disassembling a chariot. Once the chariot has been reduced to a pile of parts, the King concedes that there is no essence of the chariot that persists. Like the chariot, human beings consist of constituent elements. These elements coalesce to form both animate and inanimate objects. Upon death, the dharmas disperse and re-form due to cause and effect, but no aspect of self, soul, or personality persists. Thus, anatman asserts that all existence is causally conditioned. The five aggregates of dharmas that constitute human beings are constantly arising and ceasing, but they do not produce a discrete, identifiable self or soul.

In accord with the worldview expressed by the Three Marks of Existence, Buddha taught that liberation from suffering may be attained though the Four Noble Truths:

1. All existence is suffering.

2. Suffering is caused by desire.

3. Cessation of desire results in the cessation of suffering.

4. The Eightfold Path leads to liberation (nirvana).

Like a medical analysis of the human condition, the Four Noble Truths mirror the steps of diagnosing a disease (suffering), understanding its cause (desire), identifying the cure for the disease (cessation of desire), and prescribing medicine that effects the cure (Eightfold Path). An outline of attitudes and actions necessary for spiritual advancement and enlightenment, the Eightfold Path offers a foundation for understanding Buddhist ethics in general and Theravada Buddhist bioethics in particular.

Buddha expounded the Eightfold Path as the mental and physical practices necessary to reach liberation from the samsaric world. The Eightfold Path consists of three components: wisdom (prajna): (1) right views and (2) right intention; morality (sila): (3) right speech, (4) right conduct, and (5) right livelihood; and concentration (samadhi): (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration.

Wisdom refers to the fundamental mental states necessary to practice Buddha's Dharma. Right views include knowledge and acceptance of the Four Noble Truths and other aspects of the Dharma. Right intention refers to cultivating qualities such as compassion, benevolence, and detachment from the fruits of actions, and a commitment to harm no living creatures.

Morality is conceptualized in terms of speech, conduct, and occupation. Right speech requires that Buddhists abstain from verbal abuses such as slander, lying, and gossip.

Right conduct refers to the avoidance of actions that harm others, such as killing, stealing, and sexual impropriety. Right livelihood extends the ideal of moral actions and prohibits specific occupations. Thus, one must refrain from work that leads—either directly or indirectly—to harming other living beings.

Concentration entails mental practices aimed at purifying the mind of evil and other distracting thoughts, and gaining mastery of mental processes and feelings in order to engage in advanced meditation.

The practice of the Eightfold Path is neither linear nor sequential. Rather, all eight aspects must be cultivated simultaneously. Through self-effort these practices eventually effect a spiritual transformation from ignorance to a state of transcendent wisdom—nirvana. One who has cultivated of the Eightfold Path and achieved liberation is known as an arhat (holy one)—the model of Theravada Buddhist religiosity that all endeavor to follow.

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