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Historical Buddhism


Most Buddhist traditions agree that Siddhartha Gautama was born to a wealthy king in Northern India. A seer is said to have predicted that Siddhartha would become a great king, or a great spiritual leader. In an attempt to cultivate the former, Siddhartha’s father, it is said, ensured that all forms of unsatisfactoriness stayed out of his son’s life. In his early adulthood, Siddhartha’s curiosity compelled him to climb his palace walls and discover the condition of average, everyday human beings. His encounter with four human conditions—a dead person, a dying person, a decrepit person, and an impoverished person—challenged Siddhartha’s understanding of his world. Having been ignorant to such human conditions, the question of human unsatisfactoriness and a solution for its alleviation preoccupied his adult life. Siddhartha renounced his nobility and wealth, and set out on a course that would lead to answers.


The first step for Siddhartha was to learn as much as possible about his contemporaries’ answers to the problems associated with human unsatisfactoriness. The Indian intellectual environment during this time encompassed all of the major schools of philosophical thought. Included in this milieu were the traditionalists, rationalists, and empiricists. On the extremes, there was strict materialism (radical empiricism) and the metaphysical beliefs of the Upanishadic tradition (radical traditionalism). Strict materialism encompasses the belief that the material world is all that exists, and that the human psyche (mind, consciousness) does not exist at all. The materialists, who asserted only what could be known through the senses and adhered to the philosophy of determinism (all things are on a fixed course and human action cannot affect real change), believed that:


  1. there was no such thing as a “self” or “soul”

  2. that the laws governing the Universe and their consequences (karma) did not affect the human mind--they did not believe in the actual existence of consciousness, much like the modern philosopher Daniel Dennettthat

  3. there is no continuity after death, only annihilation.


On the other end of the spectrum were the metaphysical theories contained in the religious Upanishadic tradition. “Metaphysics” means “beyond the physical,” and it addresses ideas that cannot be proven through the senses. The Upanishadic school asserted:


  1. the existence of an individual soul (atman)

  2. the reality of human consciousness and karma

  3. the continuity of one’s personality after death.


Siddhartha committed himself to an intense study of the major schools of Indian thought in the accepted manner of his time: personal apprenticeship with verified Masters. Though Siddhartha was confirmed to have mastered the various schools he studied, which included traditional yogic asceticism of the Upanishadic tradition as well as empiricism and the analytical traditions of the rationalists, he rejected the teachings he received from these schools, citing their extreme and narrow orientations as a significant limitation. According to Siddhartha, extreme and narrow views are not only incapable of providing effective solutions to our problems, they do not adequately describe the holism of our experiences. Extreme and narrow views exaggerate some points while ignoring others. Siddhartha’s study and mastery of the available traditions had not yet answered the basic human question that mattered to him the most: how do human beings alleviate persistent unsatisfactoriness in this world?


Siddhartha is said to have found solace by sitting in contemplation, or reflective quietude, and meditation (awareness cultivation) under a Bodhi tree. According to Buddhist tradition, it was under the Bodhi tree where Siddhartha realized the source of human unsatisfactoriness as perpetual craving and unnatural attachment. He recognized the alleviation of human unsatisfactoriness as awareness of dependent origination, the process by which all things in this world arise and pass away--known as “causation” in the West. While the traditions Siddhartha (who will now be referred to as “the Buddha”) studied focused primarily on a deeply personal realization experience, his pursuit involved a question that was pertinent to all of humanity; the results of his insight under the Bodhi tree necessarily involved all members of the human community. As Buddhist scholar David E. Shaner has pointed out, realization in the Buddhist tradition is necessarily a personal and social question, which involves not only oneself, but also one’s entire community of sentient beings. In order for this personal and social realization to occur, it is necessary for one to embrace rigorous self-honesty about his or her current condition, and he or she must also determine a suitable methodology and worldview through which he or she can attend to the problems associated with unsatisfactoriness, especially the question of the self mentioned earlier.


By embracing both of these key aspects, rigorous self-honesty and a perspective that yields meaningful solutions to the problem of human unsatisfactoriness, one authenticates his or her unique situation in this life, and a realization of interconnectedness and interdependence of all things results. Authentication of one’s contingency in this world is the condition necessary for realization to take place. The notion of authentication specifically refers to the awareness of one’s own contingency and acculturation, and the commitment and rigorous self-honesty necessary to embrace a more inclusive, holistic worldview that allows the dissolution of dualistic thinking--the belief that what we experience in our world is separate or disconnected. As we will see, authentication is akin to a meaningful notion of human liberation, and this relies on a connected experience. After his personal realization, the Buddha spent the remainder of his life guiding others in what would come to be known as the Buddhist path.


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