top answer: Overview – Buddhist Philosophy The story of the origins of Buddhism is fairly well-known in the Wes

  

Overview – Buddhist Philosophy

The story of the origins of Buddhism is fairly well-known in the Western world, thanks in part to films like “Little Buddha.” Buddhist concepts like karma, nirvana, and reincarnation, are familiar to Western ears, and the practices of yoga and meditation have a secure place in our culture. Interestingly, the origins of Buddhism date to virtually the same ancient time period as Taoism: the 6th century B.C.E. When Lao-Tsu was writing the “Tao Te Ching” in China, Siddhartha Gautama, regarded as the first Buddha, was born in northern India. There are many versions of the story of Siddhartha and the origins of Buddhism. But the general contours of the basic plot go something like this. Siddhartha was born in 563 B.C.E. to a family of wealth and privilege in northern India. After he was born, a seer or fortune-teller predicted that the baby would become either a great king or a great holy man. Wishing him to become a great king, Siddhartha’s father kept him from being exposed to any religious teachings and prevented him from seeing human suffering. Yet although Siddhartha had a comfortable upbringing where all his wants were provided for, he was still unhappy. At 16 his marriage was arranged, as was the custom, and his wife gave birth to a son. But his unhappiness continued. Eventually, at the age of 29, he decided to renounce his riches and embark on a quest for spiritual enlightenment, essentially by wandering the earth. Unable to gain any wisdom from the spiritual texts of his time, he made the discovery that the path to enlightenment is not through reading books but through meditation. The truth lies within oneself.

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 The theme of suffering became a major element in the Buddhist view of the world. Indeed, the fact that life itself fundamentally and inevitably involves suffering is the first of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by ignorance of the true nature of reality. As it was in Plato’s view of philosophy, knowing and understanding the true nature of reality occupies a central role in Buddhism. Indeed, Plato’s conception of enlightenment as “the ascent of the soul into the intellectual life” sounds like a good description of Buddhist enlightenment. There are interesting parallels between Platonism and Buddhism. Both rest on a claim about what is “real” and emphasize the need to free oneself from a false reality to see things the way they really are. In fact, the third Noble Truth is that suffering can be ended by overcoming ignorance and attachment, which are both themes present in Plato’s description of the prisoners in the cave who do not want to leave the comfortable world of shadows and illusions to get out of the cave and seek the Truth. Both approaches involve a rigorous program of training the mind. However, one is through the philosophical study of books and is focused on the rational mind. The other involves meditation and yoga as a way of freeing the mind so it can perceive the truth. Enlightenment under Buddhism, which is associated with reaching the peaceful state of eternal knowledge known as “nirvana,” where one is finally freed from the cycle of suffering, involves coming to the realization that everything is connected and learning what this life has to teach you. The fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism is that the path to the suppression of suffering is the “Noble Eightfold Path,” which means having right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right contemplation.

 The other concept that is essential to understanding the Buddhist worldview is karma. As was noted above, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. The physical body is merely a temporary vessel for the soul, which can be reincarnated many, many times – basically, until the soul achieves enlightenment and is released from this cycle of suffering by reaching nirvana. One’s karma, which can be understood as a person’s acts and their ethical consequences, is what determines the life form your soul will take when it is reincarnated. Good karma might lead to reincarnation as a spiritual leader or influential person in the hierarchical caste system that existed in Hindu India until the 20th century. Bad karma might result in a lowly existence as an animal or even an insect; one can be reincarnated into any being that has a soul. John Lennon famously sang about “Instant Karma.” However, for Buddhists, one does not reap the reward or punishment for having good and bad karma until the next life. Any suffering or bad luck one may experience now is on this view the result of poor ethical acts in a past life.

The word “Zen” is probably familiar to most people, connoting a tranquil, meditative state of mind. Surfers, snowboarders, and the like, including professional athletes like Tiger Woods, will speak of being in a “Zen” state in the moment of high-pressure situations. As a philosophical or religious tradition, Zen Buddhism has its roots in traditional Indian Buddhism, which we studied last week. As Buddhism spread through the centuries from northern India into China, where it arrived around the 5th century C.E. (“Common Era,” formerly “A.D.”), and then into Japan, Vietnam, and Korea, it interacted with the local cultures and took on new emphases and practices. Indeed, a shorthand way to think about Zen Buddhism is as a blending of Indian Buddhism with the Taoism indigenous to China.

 Like traditional Buddhism, Zen Buddhism rests on the foundation of meditation as the path to enlightenment. There are various forms of meditation in the Zen belief system, including “zazen” or sitting meditation, and “kinhin” or walking meditation. Like traditional Buddhism, not much importance is placed on the study of religious texts or on worldly accomplishments. But because a different way of life and different cultural background exist in East Asia than in South Asia, where Buddhism emerged in the context of Hindu beliefs, the emphases on karma and reincarnation that were essential to traditional Buddhism are not present in Zen Buddhism. In Zen, the emphasis is more on achieving a certain state of consciousness in the here and now, without all the baggage of past and future lives. Attaining a particular state of mind, through “practice” or meditation, is valued as an end in itself, rather than as something that will advance one’s karma at some future point. The key aim in Zen Buddhism is achieving an unmediated awareness of the nature of existence, both of the processes of the world and of one’s own mind, simply by clearing the mind of all manner of distractions and false ideas and developing self-discipline.

 This week’s reading is by a contemporary Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki. Originally from Japan, Suzuki (1904-1971) is credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to the U.S., arriving in San Francisco in 1959 to establish a Zen temple and training center. Unlike traditional Buddhist monks, Zen monks insisted on performing all the everyday, mundane tasks of life, including farming, carpentry, housekeeping, architecture, and the administration of their temples and training centers. The primary goal is being able to achieve the right state of mind within the context of real life by making meditation an integral part of one’s existence. While this may be an approach more suited to Americans than traditional Buddhism, as we shall see in Suzuki’s essay, there also are cultural norms in the U.S. that run counter to the practice of Zen.

Objective – Buddhist Philosophy

1) To grasp the basic approach of Zen Buddhist philosophy to the world and to our own minds and contemplate how Zen differs from traditional Buddhism.

 2) To consider whether Zen practice is compatible with our contemporary American lifestyle and explain why or why not.

Notes & Key Points

Notes on Reading

 One thing that you will notice about Suzuki’s essay, entitled “Beyond Consciousness,” is that Zen Buddhists are fond of the kind of contradictory or nonsensical utterances that we saw in the “Tao Te Ching.” For instance, on p. 167 Suzuki asserts that “Even to have a good thing in your mind is not so good.” Although this term is not used in our reading, these sorts of apparently contradictory or unanswerable statements or questions are called “koans.” A famous example is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The idea of a koan is to ask a question that does not have a rational answer, thus shutting down the rational part of our minds to enable us to access intuition or the subconscious mind. Indeed, Suzuki makes the surprising statement in the first paragraph of the reading that “Our true nature is beyond our conscious experience” (p. 167). Think about this for a moment. What might be meant by “beyond our conscious experience”? What would be an example of this? Notice how different this is from Plato’s approach to enlightenment, which proceeds entirely through our rational thought processes. For Zen Buddhists, the rational part of our mind has no answers at all.

 This theme of getting beyond the conscious mind continues on p. 168 with Suzuki’s discussion of “zazen” or sitting meditation. Unlike Plato or traditional Buddhism, which both make achieving enlightenment the highest goal, Suzuki states, “So whether or not you attain enlightenment, just to sit zazen is enough.” He even goes on to admit in the same paragraph that, hey, “in reality it is pretty hard to attain enlightenment.” What a great point. For Plato and for traditional Buddhism, the actual attainment of enlightenment or nirvana seems to be something that only rare individuals will ever attain. Suzuki, from the outset, recognizes that focusing solely on this supreme goal misses the point, which is simply to make Zen “practice” a part of your everyday life. On the bottom of p. 168 he states clearly that unlike most religions, Zen Buddhism “emphasizes the world of unconsciousness.”

 The second half of the reading from pp. 168-171 turns to the specific issue of Zen Buddhism and American culture. On the left side of p. 170 he identifies a key issue in American culture, which has to do with how we understand freedom as “freedom of activity” and not having to think. Think about your own lives, and whether this point makes sense. Suzuki remains optimistic, however, as he notes in the final paragraph of the reading on p. 171, regarding the potential of Americans to learn and benefit from Zen practice. In the end, as he puts it rather poetically, “Everyone has Buddha nature. We each must find some way to realize our true nature” (p. 171).

 

Key Points

· Suzuki mentions in a number of places the importance of having an “empty mind.” Near the bottom of p. 167, he describes the problem most of us are probably familiar with of not knowing how to rest mentally or shut off our brains. It is one thing to pursue meditation for simple relaxation. But does it make sense to say that “empty mind” is a path to enlightenment?

 

· A key passage occurs on the top right of p. 168, where Suzuki discusses the role of studying philosophy for the attainment of enlightenment. Would Suzuki agree with Plato that the study of philosophy will lead to “an ascent of the soul”? What does Suzuki say is the best way to “be a sincere Buddhist”?

 

· On the top of p. 169 Suzuki notes that “some may attain enlightenment and some may not.” This is a key paragraph. The issue, he says, is to “practice seriously.” Is it a problem in Suzuki’s view if most people do not attain enlightenment? Why or why not?

 

· Some key terms in the reading are “big mind” (pp. 169, 171) and “beginner’s mind” (p. 171). Focus on these sections and try to figure what Suzuki means by these terms and why they are important.

Zen Buddhism – Assignment

In a 500 word essay, look at the following 4 key points from Shunryu Suzuki’s “Beyond Consciousness” and answer the question(s) posed.  

· Suzuki mentions in a number of places the importance of having an “empty mind.” Near the bottom of p. 167, he describes the problem most of us are probably familiar with of not knowing how to rest mentally or shut off our brains. It is one thing to pursue meditation for simple relaxation. But how does it make sense to say that “empty mind” is a path to enlightenment?

 

· A key passage occurs on the top right of p. 168, where Suzuki discusses the role of studying philosophy for the attainment of enlightenment. Would Suzuki agree with Plato that the study of philosophy will lead to “an ascent of the soul”? What does Suzuki say is the best way to “be a sincere Buddhist”?

 

· On the top of p. 169 Suzuki notes that “some may attain enlightenment and some may not.” This is a key paragraph. The issue, he says, is to “practice seriously.”  Is it a problem in Suzuki’s view if most people do not attain enlightenment? Why or why not?

 

· Some key terms in the reading are “big mind” (pp. 169, 171) and “beginner’s mind” (p. 171). Focus on these sections and try to figure what Suzuki means by these terms and why they are important.

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