Meaning, Purpose and Truth


Exploring some of the ultimate questions that confront humanity, and responding imaginatively to them;


The ups, downs and meaning(s) of life’s journey.


Religious Experience

Spiritual feelings such as awe, wonder and praise can play a major part in Buddhism. This is particularly true for followers of the Mahayana, where devotional activities aimed at transcendent Buddhas and bodhisattvas are an important part of religious practice. However, although Theravada has a reputation for being slightly colder and more rational, these feelings still have an important role to play. It is true that in the Pali Canon a Sutta criticises the monk Vakkali who, full of devotion and love for the Buddha, wanted to look after his physical needs. To him the Buddha said: “What shall it profit you to see this impure body? He who sees the Dhamma / Dharma, sees me”. It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that the Buddha disparaged a reverential and devotional attitude of mind when it is the natural outflow of a true understanding and a deep admiration for what is great and noble. Similarly, “seeing the Dhamma / Dharma” should not be thought of as a mere conceptual grasp of doctrine, but rather a deep-seated heart-felt faith. Thus, Theravadins also take part in devotional activity, trying to avoid doing it out of habit or attachment to the process, but rather as an expression of faith in the teachings of the Buddha.

Feelings of awe and wonder are almost always expressed in devotional activities and are usually directed at the historical Buddha (Gotama / Gautama) or other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas (for members of the Mahayana).

There are several sorts of devotional activities Buddhists participate in, usually in shrines and temples in front of statues or images of the Buddha. The first of these is folding the palms together, and raising them to the level of the chest. This gesture is a general mark of respect in many cultures (for example, Thailand) and expresses deep reverence for the Triple Gem – Buddha, Dhamma / Dharma, and Sangha. The second activity is prostration before a Buddha image. This expresses deep veneration of the Buddha and helps to overcome egoistical feelings making one more receptive to hearing the Dharma with a clear mind. As Buddhists prostrate themselves, they attempt to recall qualities of the Buddha and develop respect for virtues such as loving-kindness, compassion, patience, concentration and wisdom. Finally, offerings can be made to the Buddha. These are not made because the Buddha needs them (as an Enlightened being, he certainly does not need incense sticks to be happy) or to win favour. Instead, offerings are made to show respect, create positive energy and develop qualities such as giving gracefully with a respectful attitude. The type of offerings made also symbolize key Buddhist teachings: lamps and candles symbolize wisdom; the fragrance of incense symbolises pure moral conduct and reminds one to cultivate this; water symbolizes purity, clarity and calmness, and reminds one to cleanse and calm the mind; fruit symbolises enlightenment and acts as a reminder that actions will have effects; and flowers represent impermanence with the lotus flower in particular representing the potential for Enlightenment

As can be seen above the relationship between questions of value and feelings is an intimate one. Blind devotional activity done out of habit and with attachment is criticised. However the correct response to the Buddha and the Dhamma / Dharma is to greet it with faith. This is not blind faith. In the Kalama Sutta the Buddha argues against ‘blind faith’ based simply on authority tradition or specious reasoning. The appropriate faith response is a quiet, heartfelt trusting in the Buddha and the Dhamma / Dharma (with the proviso that one will firmly penetrate it with one’s mind, experiencing its truth when one is able). The importance of faith is often emphasised in the Suttas / Sutras. In the Kasibharadvaja Sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya the relationship of faith practice and wisdom is stressed:

Faith is my seed, practice the rain

And wisdom is my yoke and plough

Modesty’s the pole, mind the strap

Mindfulness my ploughshare and goad

Religious experiences in Buddhism are varied with the emphasis on the experience itself. The Buddhist aim is to see things as they really are, usually through empirical investigation – experience. Therefore, to a certain extent every experience has religious connotations, even to the most basic occurrence. For example, if I experience emotional pain through dropping my new laptop, I can apply mindfulness and reflect on the impermanence of all things. Equally, if I am particularly happy when my fixed laptop is returned to me, I should note that this state will not last and that it is caused by attachment to material possessions. Experiences which are more closely related to religion usually occur during meditation, particularly for Theravadins. These experiences can range from having a deep sense of calm or seeing a bright light, to psychic powers as one works through the jhanas. In Mahayana, religious experiences can also have a more mystical element, believers can experience Buddhas and bodhisattvas first hand.

Ultimate Questions

There are a number of questions the Buddha refused to answer, including, is the world eternal, not eternal, both or neither? is the world finite, not finite, both or neither? does the Tathagata exist after death, or not, both, or neither? is the self identical with the body, or is it different from the body? These questions are similar to ultimate questions of other religions, so it is clearly of importance that the Buddha refused to answer them. He described them as ‘a net’ and refused to be drawn into such a net of theories, speculations and dogmas. Such theories and dogmas usually end in unease, bewilderment and suffering, and it is only by freeing oneself of them that one achieves liberation. It was because the Buddha was free of bondage to all theories and dogmas that he achieved enlightenment. By refusing to be drawn on dogmatic views the Buddha is demonstrating that these questions are simply not an important focus for Buddhists and that they are phrased in, and asked out, of spiritual ignorance. The questions relate to some kind of unchanging permanent Self. Since Buddhists hold that there is no such unchanging permanent Self, then the questions have as much logical sense as asking an innocent man if he has stopped beating his wife – they are unanswerable.

The ‘ultimate’ is not something often discussed in Buddhism. This is because the Buddha, after much meditation, concluded that everything in both the physical world and the phenomenological world is characterised by three things, the Three Marks: Dukkha / Duhkha (suffering); Anicca / Anitya (impermanence); and Anatta / Anatman (Not-Self). Therefore, if everything is changing and impermanent there is nothing permanent and unchanging like the ultimate ‘God’ in monotheistic religions, the soul in Christianity , or atman in Brahmanism. Theravadins consider Nibbana to be the opposite of the Three Marks, but Mahayanists view even Nirvana as being empty of Self.

The Anatta teachings have significant implications for the concept of ‘me’. Anatta / Anatman means not-self, the absence of limiting self-identity in people and things. Its opposite is the idea of a Soul or Self which survives transmigration – something that the Buddha explicitly rejected. What is normally thought of as ‘self’ is an agglomeration of constantly changing physical and mental constituents (the Five khandhas / Skandhas). This idea is vital to Buddhist soteriology since it is belief in a separate self that leads to grasping for things as ‘mine’ and it is this grasping that that leads to delusion that hides how things really are. In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha teaches that losing the delusion of self is equivalent to Enlightenment: “a wise noble disciple becomes dispassionate towards material form, becomes dispassionate towards feeling, becomes dispassionate towards perception, becomes dispassionate towards formations, becomes dispassionate towards consciousness. Becoming dispassionate his lust fades away; with the fading of lust his fear is liberated; when liberated there comes the knowledge. He understands, birth is exhausted, the holy life has been lived out, what was to be done is done, there is no more to come”. (3:66)

Mahayana Buddhists see Buddhas and many Bodhisattvas as being transcendent. This leads to devotional activities and worship. In Pure Land Buddhism, for example, faith in the Buddha Amitabha (or Amida) is emphasised. Adherents believe that faith and devotion will mean Amitabha will help them be reborn in the Pure Land he created in which Enlightenment is guaranteed.

Buddhism should be viewed as a response to suffering and the human condition. The Buddha taught that by direct experience he had come to understand the human condition and had discovered a means of transcending it – with the human condition being characterised by the Three Marks (Dukkha / Duhkha, Anicca / Anitya and Anatta / Anatman). Where beings are reborn within this samsaric cycle is not based on fate, but on their previous thoughts and actions (kamma); what keeps them in the cycle of rebirths is craving and ignorance of the way things really are. If one can eliminate these things one achieves liberation – Nibbana / Nirvana. The method of eliminating craving and ignorance is through moral behaviour, disciplining the mind through meditation and investigating Buddhist doctrine by reason. Therefore, the Buddhist response to suffering is practical advice on how to live life in order to escape it. The individual Buddhist’s response is to put faith in the teachings of the Buddha; if he follows them, he too will escape from samsara.

Religion and Science

Buddhism can be seen as having a great deal in common with science. Its general neutrality on the subject of the supernatural means that, as a religion, it is open to scientific discovery. With its focus on the nature of mind and its implications for the concept of reality, Buddhism offers explanations for metaphysical issues within psychology and studies of consciousness. Furthermore, there is some common ground between the methodology of scientific investigations and Buddhist thought. The Dalai Lama, for example, listed a “suspicion of absolutes” and a reliance on causality and empiricism as common philosophical principle shared between Buddhism and science. Similarly in the Kalama Sutta there is an insistence on a proper assessment of evidence, rather than a reliance on faith, hearsay or speculation. This is very similar to the Royal Society’s motto – “Nullius in verba” (often translated as “take no-one’s word for it”).

Buddhism has had a significant impact on the world of psychology. During the 1970s several experimental studies suggested that Buddhist meditation could produce insights into a wide range of psychological states. This has recently been revived following the increased availability of such brain-scanning technologies as MRI and SPECT. These experiments are enthusiastically encouraged by the present day Dalai Lama, who has expressed an interest in exploring the connection between Buddhism and science. There is also a great deal of research going into Buddhist meditation techniques, particularly mindfulness, being used therapeutically for depression, anxiety etc. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre the Department of Psychiatry works with the Oxford Buddhist Centre at Oxford in order to undertake this kind of research.

The relationship between science and faith is not such a difficult issue in Buddhism. As seen above there is a strong emphasis in Buddhism on testing all truth claims empirically. However, not everyone will be far enough advanced on the Buddhist path to test all claims, therefore some faith in the Buddha is needed initially to adopt his teachings. Many Buddhists, though, argue that this is no different to placing faith in scientists and scientific theories: when we first start learning science we are not able to empirically check theories on quantum physics etc; instead we must take them on faith and only fully investigate them when we have reached an appropriate level of knowledge and expertise.

There is a great deal of similarity between Buddhism language and empirical language, particularly in Abhidhamma / Abhidharma thought, where the world is broken up into constituent parts illustrating causality. Scientific language has in fact borrowed from Buddhism: the psychologist William James, for example, introduced the term “stream of consciousness”, which is a literal English translation of the Sanskrit vinnana-sota.

Most Buddhists do not see any problem with being both a scientist and following the Dharma. Science can be seen as ‘this worldly’ whereas Buddhism is really only concerned with escape from samsara. As long as the study of science does not interfere with an individual’s Buddhist practices, there is no problem. Some famous Buddhist scientists are: Niels Bohr, who developed the Bohr Model of the atom; British mathematician and Nobel Prize winner Alfred John Whitehead; and Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge can be seen as being soteriologically important. The aim of Buddhism is to see things as they really are to understand the nature of reality. Therefore, scientific discoveries relating to reality can only benefit Buddhism. Knowing about how samsara works is a very important step towards escaping from it.



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