Buddhism/Basic Doctrines

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School of Theology > Department of Buddhist Studies[edit]

Early Buddhism - Basic Doctrines[edit]

The vast literature of Buddhist Sutras outlining the various doctrines are mind boggling. The focus of this course will be to examine Buddhist doctrines as presented in the discourses of the Sutta Pitaka, with greater emphasis on the following topics:

Impermanence, No-self or Anatta, and Suffering or Dukkha.
  • The Analysis of Empirical Existence (Khandhayatanadhatu)
  • The Doctrine of Dependent Origination
  • The Doctrines of Kamma (Karma)
  • Buddhist Ethics
  • Nirvana and the Path Leading to its Realization

You are encouraged to study of the life of the Buddha - emphasizing his magnanimous qualities. This is especially useful for understanding the basic doctrines propounded in the core of Buddhist teachings.


The Doctrine of Dependent Origination

Determinism has been expressed in the Buddhist doctrine of Interdependent Origination, which states that every phenomenon is conditioned by, and depends on, the phenomena that it is not. This doctrine is common to all Schools of Buddhism. A common teaching story, called the Indra's Net, illustrates this point. A vast auditorium is decorated with mirrors and/or prisms hanging on strings of different lengths from an immense number of points on the ceiling. One flash of light is sufficient to light the entire display since light bounces and bends from hanging bauble to hanging bauble. Each bauble lights each and every other bauble. So, too, each of us is "lit" by each and every other entity in the Universe. In Buddhism, this teaching is used to demonstrate that to ascribe special value to any one thing is to ignore the interdependence of all things. Volitions of all sentient creatures determine the seeming reality in which we perceive ourself as living, rather than a mechanical universe determining the volitions which humans imagine themselves to be forming.

In the story of the Indra's Net, the light that streams back and forth throughout the display is the analog of karma. We can also view that the resulting 'illusion' is a set of probabilities. A shifting flow of probabilities for futures lies at the heart of theories associated with the Yi Jing (or I Ching, the Book of Changes). Probabilities take the center of the stage away from things and people. A kind of divine volition sets the fundamental rules for the working out of probabilities in the universe, and human volitions are always a factor in the ways that humans can deal with the real world situations one encounters. If one's situation in life is surfing on a tsunami, one still has some range of choices even in that situation. One person might give up, and another person might choose to struggle and perhaps to survive. The Yi Jing mentality is much closer to the mentality of quantum physics than to that of classical physics, and also finds parallelism in voluntarist or Existentialist ideas of taking one's life as one's project.

The Doctrines of Karma

In Buddhism, only intentional actions are karmic "acts of will". Will in philosophy refers to the quality or instance that produces conscious and intended actions. It was seen as the underlying reality of all perceptions. Buddhists subscribed to the concept of intentional actions that will be subjected to the 'Law of Karma'.

The 'Law of Karma' refers to "cause and effect", but Karma literally means "action" - often indicating intent or cause. Accompanying this usually is a separate tenet called Vipaka, meaning result or effect. The re-action or effect can itself also influence an action, and in this way, the chain of causation continues ad infinitum.

When Buddhists talk about karma, they are normally referring to karma/action that is 'tainted' with ignorance. Buddhist theory holds that every karma (every intentional action) will bear karmic fruit (produce an effect somewhere down the line). Karma is the only thing that is fundamentally real. Volitional acts drive the universe. The consequences of this view often confound our ordinary expectations - much in the way quantum physics has results that are strongly counterintuitive.

There is also a completely different type of karma that is neither good nor bad, but liberating. This karma allows for the individual to break the uncontrolled cycle of rebirth which always leads to suffering, and thereby leave samsara to permanently enter Nirvana. The Buddhist sutras explain that in order to generate liberating karma, we must first develop incredibly powerful concentration, and proper insight into the (un)reality of samsara. This concentration is akin to the states of mind required to be reborn in the Deva realm, and in itself depends upon a very deep training in ethical self-discipline. This differentiation between good karma and liberating karma has been used by some scholars to argue that the development of Tantra depended upon Buddhist ideas and philosophies. Karma is related to the notion of Buddhist rebirth - sometimes understood to be the same thing as reincarnation - which has its roots in the principle of Karma.

Recommended Reading:[edit]

  • What the Buddha Taught - Ven. Walpola Rahula
  • Buddha and His Teaching - Ven. Narada
  • Life of the Buddha - E. J.Thomas
  • Essentials of Buddhism - Ven. P Gnanarama.

Coursework[edit]

You are invited to write, in not more than 1200 words an opinion of what you think on the subject below:

Explore this statement: "The reflection in the mirror is complete in itself." When a mirror fell and broke into many pieces, how do you explain the reflections in each and every one of the fragments?