Human nature and destiny – the central concern

a) Human nature

As Buddhism is not centred on God, it seems best to start with the human condition and potential. Human nature is viewed in both negative and positive ways, and as not fixed but capable of change. Humans are prone to greed, hatred and delusion (symbolised on the ‘Tibetan Wheel of Life’ as a cockerel, snake and pig). That one of our biggest problems is delusion about the way things are is a teaching shared with other traditions of Indian origin.

However, humans are also capable of change for the better, by starting to live lives that are ethical and compassionate, taking control of our thoughts and emotions by means of meditation and self-discipline and learning to see things more clearly and wisely.

In common with other Dharmic traditions, most Buddhists assume that we live many lives rather than just one – this is known as samsara (‘wandering on’), the cycle of life, death and rebirth, a constant process of ‘rebecoming’ (punabhava) which occurs during this life and on into the next. The process of rebecoming is fuelled by karma/kamma (‘action’), all our morally significant actions which have consequences in this life or the next. Human life is characterised by the ‘three marks’, in Pali these are known as dukkha, anicca and anatta.

Dukkha is translated as ‘suffering’, ‘ill’, ‘unsatisfactoriness’ or ‘dissatisfaction’. Basically, our lives are not as good as we wish they were. There is plain suffering itself, pain and illness, whether physical or mental, poverty and hunger, war and violence, unjust and unequal treatment, negative discrimination, natural disasters. Even if our own lives are comfortable, we know that those of others are not. Then there is the fact that the good things in life that bring us happiness do not last forever, they come to an end at some point, or we lose interest, and eventually we ourselves also come to an end in death. Third is the unsatisfactory nature of our limitations – our abilities are limited, we cannot be in more than one place at a time, each of our choices rules out other possibilities. The translation ‘dissatisfaction’ suggests that much of the problem is in our attitudes, whereas ‘unsatisfactoriness’ suggests that the problems are with life in the world in itself rather than with us as individuals.

The second mark of life, Anicca or impermanence, focuses on the fact that nothing lasts forever. Everything in life is impermanent, which is part of the sadness of life when applied to good things, but can be comforting or energising if applied to bad circumstances.

The third mark of life is Anatta (or in Sanskrit, anatman), which means ‘no self, soul or inner essence’. Other religious traditions may find refuge from impermanence in an eternal God, in the case of Abrahamic traditions, or in the idea that behind the impermanent, changing material body and mind there is an eternal, inner essence, soul or self, but not Buddhism. This teaching distinguishes Buddhism from other Indian traditions. Peter Harvey expresses ‘no-self’ well: ‘no permanent, substantial, independent, metaphysical self can be found’ and ‘a “person” is a collection of rapidly changing and interacting mental and physical processes’(1994:23-4). It is not saying that you don’t exist, but that you exist in a constantly changing way, and dependent on other things, people and events.

Analysis in reflection and meditation is claimed to reveal that a human being is made up of five skandhas/khandhas, which can be translated as ‘heaps’, ‘aggregates’ or ‘collections of components.’ These are: the physical body (rupa), feelings (vedana), perceptions/cognitions (sanna), impulses/constructing activities (sanskaras), and consciousness (vinnana). The names in brackets are in Pali. All of these are changing and impermanent and there is nothing else. A famous analogy in a text known as The Questions of King Milinda compares the ‘self’ to a chariot. A chariot is made of components such as wheels, axles etc put together in a certain way for a certain purpose – ‘chariot’ is not another component, but simply a label to express the collection of components and their current use. If the ‘chariot’ was broken up, the bits would still be there but no chariot, yet nothing has actually disappeared. The same with the ‘self’ – it is just a label not an entity, and the word used just for convenience, as it is easier to say ‘I’ than ‘this collection of atoms, feelings, thoughts/perceptions, willed impulses and consciousness in its current state’.

‘No self’ is considered one of the difficult concepts in Buddhism to grasp. Part of this is because of the difficulties of translation (‘self’ in Indian philosophies tends to imply something separate from the body, eternal and unchanging, whereas it need not in English). A second reason is that many other religions do have the concept of an eternal self or soul which is the true ‘you’. A third reason in Buddhist thought is our own psychological attachment to the idea of ourselves as being permanent and unitary. In Buddhist thought, everything changes, including people, including you. From death to rebirth is just a more extreme change in the ongoing process.

Some Mahayana texts and thinkers add further perspectives on human nature. One philosophy, called Madhyamaka, teaches that all things including people are characterised by shunyata or ‘emptiness’. Nothing, not even the components or ‘dharmas/dhammas’ into which Theravada thought analysed people and chariots, has ‘self-existence’. The simplest way of explaining this is to say that nothing is anything in or by itself, but only in relation to other things. A teacher is only a teacher if she has students and vice versa. Once retired she is not a teacher any more but no-one has disappeared from the universe. Another school of philosophy teaches that the ultimate truth about human nature is that at the deepest level it is Buddha-nature, and that all are, or will be, Buddha(s). More on this can be found in the section on Buddhist philosophies.

b) Human destiny

Given the presumption of many lives, there are both interim and ultimate destinies for human life-processes. Most Buddhists expect rebirth into another form after death. Many Buddhists prefer the term ‘rebirth’ to ‘reincarnation’ as the latter suggests a soul moving to a new physical body, which is not what Buddhism teaches. However, others do use the term reincarnation. As the idea of an immortal soul getting a new body (whether in reincarnation or resurrection) is more familiar, people often wonder how rebirth can work without a soul/self. The idea to grasp is that of process – the new life starts as a result of the old life. One analogy is to think of the energy of one snooker ball causing another to move – there is no ‘inner ball’ that jumps from one ball to the other.

Traditionally there are said to be six realms into which rebirth can occur – as a human or an animal, but also into the temporary paradise realm of the gods (with a small g), or the less happy world of another category of beings with god-like powers, called angry or jealous gods or demons, or the two miserable realms of the hungry/unsatisfied ghosts, or temporary hells. These are pictured in the well-known Tibetan ‘wheel of life’, and Buddhists may understand these on a spectrum of literal to metaphorical truth (some human lives are ‘hell’). There are also other levels, more refined and hard to imagine (but possibly experienced in advanced meditation), above and beyond these six.

However, rebirth even as a fortunate human or a deity who has everything is not the ultimate goal in Buddhism, as these are also part of the world of suffering, impermanence and no-self, and the heavenly or hellish lives will come to an end when the karma fuelling them runs out. Though not the happiest, human birth is considered to be the most conducive to spiritual progress, as animals, ghosts and beings in hell are too focused on basic survival or utter misery and gods and jealous gods are too focused on their pleasures or their plots to reflect deeply on the meaning of life and make the efforts to do something about it.

Theravada perspective

The ultimate goal for Theravada Buddhists is for the whole process of karma and rebirth and going around in circles to cease. This cessation is known as nirvana/nibbana which literally means ‘blown out’ – the end of all that suffering, birth and death. Nirvana is mostly described in negative terms like cessation, extinction, stopping, the unborn, the deathless. It is not made, it is uncaused and unconditioned (whereas everything we know has causes and conditions), invisible, without shape or size. It can sound like total annihilation, that suffering is escaped by no longer existing in any sense, death as understood by ‘non-religious’ materialists (who did exist at the time of the Buddha and are not only a ‘modern’ phenomenon). That might seem a desirable goal if repeating the sufferings and deaths of millions of lives is contemplated, and some have interpreted nirvana in this way. However, the Buddha criticised both annihilationists and eternalists, and asserted that nirvana ‘is’. There are positive words used like peace, calm, joy, bliss, and poetic imagery like water to a person overwhelmed by heat and thirst, or the magic wishing jewel of Indian stories. That nirvana ‘is’ can be known (it is claimed) from the testimony of those who have experienced it, such as the Buddha himself and many of his early followers. It is experienced while still in a human body as well as after death (presumably, given the Buddha’s refusal to answer the question about whether an enlightened Buddha exists after death). But it is so removed from normal experience that there are no words to describe it even for the best of teachers like the Buddha, and not even worth those without the experience trying to imagine it. It has been suggested that it is a form of consciousness, but not as we know it, not only while the enlightened person is still alive, but also after death (parinirvana/parinibbana).

The name given by Theravada Buddhism to someone who achieves nirvana/nibbana is an arhat/arahant, a ‘worthy one’. In the Buddha’s lifetime, hundreds of his followers, women as well as men, are said to have achieved this goal. The Pali Canon includes 107 poems by senior monks and 73 poems by senior nuns celebrating the joy of their liberation (in the case of the women, including freedom from the oppressions suffered by the female gender). Such people are enlightened, like the Buddha, but not called ‘Buddhas’ because that term is reserved for the very rare individuals who discovered the truth and the way themselves – only one such person in our era according to Theravada.

The teaching on human nature and destiny has been summarised in two well-known and memorable formulations, the Four Noble Truths and 12 links of paticcasamupada ‘dependent origination’. The Four Noble Truths are recorded as the first teaching of the Buddha after his enlightenment, the ‘Deer Park Sermon’ given to a group of fellow shramanas.

1. The truth of dukkha (see ‘three marks of life’ above) – life is characterised by suffering/unsatisfactoriness, in birth, sickness, getting old, death, sorrow, physical and mental pain, having to put up with things and people we don’t like, not having the things and people we love, not getting what we want. This does not deny the happiness, beauty and joys of life, but these also cause suffering because they do not last.

2. The truth of the origin of suffering. This teaches that the fundamental cause of suffering is tanha or craving, our own selfish desire. Not just in the obvious sense that we don’t always get what we want, but in a deeper sense that this is the motor behind continuous rebirth into samsara, and thus more suffering. Craving includes both wanting to live forever and wanting to die in the sense of complete annihilation, as well as wanting all the good things in life. It is as if we are samsara addicts, wanting more even though it will only bring more suffering.

How this works is explained in another formula, the 12 links of paticcasamupada ‘dependent origination’ which traces everything back to ignorance as well as craving. Ignorance causes karma formations, causes consciousness, causes ‘name and form’ i.e. existence in samsara, which means we have six senses (Western five plus mind), which means we come into contact with things, which means we develop feelings, causing cravings, then grasping at what we crave, so we become involved in the process of becoming, so we are reborn into samsara again, so we have to endure more suffering, decay and death. It is perhaps easier to follow in reverse order, asking: why do we have to suffer and die? Because we are born into samsara. Why are we born into samsara? Because we are caught up in the process of becoming…

The 12 links have been interpreted in many ways (whole PhDs have been written on the topic) but the thing to grasp is that our human condition is brought about by a collection of interrelated causal conditions over which we potentially have some control ourselves. It’s not down to fate or God or completely random.

3. The truth of the cessation of dukkha. If you know what causes something, you can start to do something about it. The chain of causation can be broken. The Third Truth focuses on the craving highlighted in the Second Truth, but other links can be broken too, especially ignorance, or attempting to stop feelings turning into cravings. That we can be set free from the craving that causes suffering is the ‘good news’ of the Buddha’s teaching.

4. The truth of the way to stop dukkha. This is what you have to do. The Fourth Truth is basically that you must live a Buddhist life, the whole point of which is to tackle the problem of the first Truth. In the formula of the Four Noble Truths, it is summarised as the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’ (though there are other summaries to be found in the Pali Canon, including a tenfold path, and many other lists of factors that lead to enlightenment, so perhaps this particular formula has become seen as too fixed). There are eight things that have got to be put right – right views, intentions, speech, conduct, livelihood, mindfulness and concentration. It has often been commented that the first two are about becoming wiser – sorting out ideas and attitudes, the next three are basically about ethical behaviour, including in the way one earns a living, and the final three about disciplining the mind through working on one’s mental bad habits, cultivating calm and awareness, and practising more formal techniques of meditation. All together work on the basic problems of ignorance and craving, or greed, hatred and delusion.

The Four Noble Truths have been compared to a doctor’s diagnosis – this is what’s wrong with you, this is what has caused it, you can do something about it, and this is what you have to do/take. Most textbooks on Buddhism highlight the Four Noble Truths as ‘the’ teaching of the Buddha but there are a number of things to remember about them. The Buddha taught many other things. This particular sermon was aimed at his ascetic shramana audience, people who were probably already expert meditators and could be expected to have a realistic possibility of following the path to nirvana in their current lifetime. Although generally accepted as ‘basic Buddhism’ and ‘what the Buddha taught’, this formulation is as found in the Pali Canon, from the Theravada tradition, and although many Mahayana texts also refer to this teaching, and accept it as the Buddha’s foundational teaching, they do so in a somewhat different overall context. Bearing these comments in mind, the Four Noble Truths would not be the first thing taught to Buddhist children, nor would the vast majority of Buddhists, even ordained ones, expect to be able to follow the eightfold path to its conclusion in their current life.

Mahayana perspectives

A differing view of the ultimate human destiny is one of the main distinguishing features of the Mahayana vision. The goal of becoming an enlightened arhat/arahant is seen as insufficient. The ultimate aim for all beings, not just the rare extraordinary one in an aeon, is to become a Buddha, someone whose goal is liberation for all beings. This means choosing the path of the bodhisattva/bodhisatta ‘being of enlightenment’ or ‘Buddha-to-be’. In non-Mahayana Buddhism this name is used of ‘the’ Buddha before he became enlightened, and as in stories about previous lives of ‘the’ Buddha, the Mahayana bodhisattva starts with a vow to work endlessly throughout countless lives towards gaining enlightenment in order, as ‘the’ Buddha did, to save others. In a way which makes sense if no-self and emptiness are understood, a bodhisattva rather gloriously vows to gain enlightenment and save all beings while simultaneously realising that no beings as such exist. The bodhisattva path involves many lifetimes attaining the perfections of giving, morality, patience, vigour, meditation, wisdom, skilful means, power and knowledge until supreme Buddhahood is achieved. Thus in Mahayana we hear of many other Buddhas in addition to Shakyamuni, who are however not historical in the sense that he was. One very popular in China and Japan is Amitabha (Sanskrit) or Amida (Japanese) Buddha who is said to have made a vow to become a Buddha and then create a wonderful universe (a ‘pure land’) where life is much easier and it is much easier to become enlightened, which he then did. Devotees of Amida hope that when they die, he will appear and take them to his ‘pure land’ if they have had faith in and devotion to him in this life. Whether this destiny is an interim step to nirvana or a more poetic way of talking about the ultimate human destiny is debated. As well as such Buddhas, Mahayana has many bodhisattvas who are far advanced on their path, and thus have almost the same powers as a Buddha, such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, or Tara.

The other main Mahayana teaching is that when Buddhas come to the end of their final life, they do not pass away into a nirvana that has no connection with the samsaric world, but are still present in a heavenly or spiritual form, so that Buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas are available to help struggling humans. That the twin ideas that all can be Buddhas and that Buddhas are still around were seen as new developments in Buddhist thought is recognised by the scriptural texts that teach this, for example the Lotus Sutra claims that these were taught by the historical Buddha, but only to a select audience, and kept secret until the time came to reveal them.

A further Mahayana development teaches the idea of the Tathagata-garbha ‘embryo/womb of the Buddha’, that not only are all beings potential Buddhas, but from an eternal perspective, already are, as all have Buddha nature, it is just that we do not realise it. So the goal of life is not so much to become something new, but that all the efforts are needed to see what we always have been.

If you aim is to have a good rebirth, you would focus on being generous, moral, detached from materialistic possessions, supporting the monastics and engaging in Buddhist practices. If your aim was to become an arhat, you would follow the eightfold path, and probably take monastic vows. If your aim is to reach Amida’s Pure Land when you die, you would have faith in and pray to Amida (plus being a good person, depending on which group you belong to). If you want to become a Buddha, you follow the bodhisattva path, if (as in forms of Japanese Zen) you wish to realise your already existing Buddha-nature, you would practice the forms of meditation conducive to this.

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Buddhist worldview traditions


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