Sunday, June 3, 2012


As is the case with my other posts about the world religions, I'm relying on my summer school text by Hopfe/Woodward to explain important details about dates, leaders, schools, and texts.  Here I want to discuss how the religion answers basic questions that face all humans.

On page 133, the text says: "Among the unique teachings of the Buddha was that the soul did not exist.  According to Buddha, people live in a state of anatman the absence of enduring souls).  What is called a soul is actually a combination of five mental or physical aggregates: the physical body, feelings, understanding, will, and consciousness.  This combination, which makes up the human personality, is bound up in the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that is typical in Indian religions. . . . The person who follows the Eightfold Path will break the bonds that tie one to life and will achieve release from the cycle.  The word used to describe this release is Nirvana, which basically means 'extinguished' or 'put out like a candle.'  Thus the goal of basic Buddhist practice is not the achievement of a state of bliss in some heaven."

The denial of a soul is related to the first noble truth, which is that all is impermanence.  There is no "being," but only moments that arise and then go out of existence.  This is consistent with the empiricism at the heart of Buddhism.  Buddha relied on an empirical approach to knowledge, which means that sense data is the highest authority.  We cannot "sense" being, but only moments of sensation.  A western philosopher named David Hume, who was also an empiricist, arrived at a similar conclusion about the soul and said that when he looks inside all he sees are mental images, not a soul or self.

The goal of Buddhism is practical in that the aim is the end of suffering.  Suffering will end, according to this view, when all desire is overcome.  The real end of desire requires even coming to see that the self who desires is not real.

Buddhism teaches that no being is eternal, although there has been an eternal or beginningless line of moments independently co-arising.  My question: if we begin with empiricism can we avoid this conclusion?  There are many western intellectual today who claim to hold to materialism and also common sense realism (there is a material world that exists outside of our senses and is basically the same as what we experience).  My claim is that Buddhism is more consistent with empiricism than this western amalgam of common sense realism and empiricism.

If we don't accept empiricism and sense data as our highest authority, what other options do we have?