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Sunday, 26 October 2014





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Buddhist philosophy’s timeless appeal

Anyone with a zest for learning philosophy should first study Western philosophy and then Eastern philosophy because there is a clear distinction between the two systems. Most Western philosophers tried to unravel the mysteries of the universe while their eastern counterparts were more concerned with ethics and spiritual life. This does not mean that Western philosophers were not interested in spirituality. Aristotle himself paid attention to human behaviour in his discourses on ethics.

When it comes to Eastern philosophy we come across three dominant figures. Confucius in China took a more active approach than Lao-tzu and promoted social order based on humanity, custom and personal morality. As a teacher he tried to produce political stability by cultivating moral harmony. He began teaching in his twenties or thirties. He was the first philosopher to devote his whole life to teaching. At 56 he retired from civil service. For the next 13 years he travelled widely to reform society. At 58 he returned to Lu, where he continued to teach and write until his death.

The mind is everything. What you think, you become.
-The Buddha

The next great Eastern philosopher came from India. He was Prince Siddhartha Gautama who later came to be known as the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama (c.563-483 BCE) lived during a period when Western philosophers such as Pythagoras were examining the cosmos. Prince Siddhartha was born into a society which paid homage to Brahminism. The Buddha was the first philosopher to challenge Brahminism. However, he did not claim to be a saviour, Messiah, prophet or son of God. Before attaining Enlightenment, he was a prince in a royal family in the present-day Nepal.


Unlike Western philosophers, the Buddha was not interested in dealing with entities beyond human experience. On many occasions he said that inquiring into the mysteries of the universe was senseless speculation. Instead he wanted people to question the goal and meaning of life. Having led a life of luxury he soon realised the futility of mundane pleasures. Then he sought true happiness for millions of people who suffered from various illnesses, old age and death.

Having realised that all sensual pleasures were temporary, he experimented with extreme asceticism by subjecting his body and mind to rigorous forms of suffering such as remaining without taking food for days. Then he realised that such a form of austerity brought no tangible results. Then he gave up practising austerity. Having discarded extreme forms of living Prince Siddhartha was determined to put an end to human suffering.

Then it dawned on him that the middle way was the true path to eternal happiness. To reach a state of permanent happiness he applied reason and his own life experiences. His attention was drawn to human sufferings such as illness, old age and death. He said the root cause of our suffering was the frustration of our own desires. As we are attached to worldly pleasures it is not possible to put an end to suffering.

Root cause

The next step in his reasoning is that the elimination of attachment will put an end to suffering. To achieve this state he said we should get rid of the root cause of suffering i.e. our selfishness. What he meant was that we should get rid of self- centredness and self-attachment. In modern psychology this is known as ego.

How can man overcome his attachments when his desires, ambitions and expectations are an integral part of life? The Buddha said that suffering results from man’s failure to recognise this baic truth. He suggested that the only way to end all suffering is to follow the Eightfold Path that would ultimately put an end to all suffering. The Eightfold Path is commonly referred to as the Dhamma Wheel which consists of right mindfulness, right understanding, right speech, right concentration, right effort, right livelihood, right intention and right direction.

The Eightfold Path is in effect a powerful code of ethics probably untouched by Western philosophers. It is the Buddha’s prescription to lead a happy life. Although man can lead a happy life by following the Eightfold Path he cannot avoid illness, old age and death. Therefore, the Buddha had to find a permanent solution. He said such a state can be achieved only through Enlightenment. In other words, one has to attain Nibbana which is variously translated as “non-attachment, not being” or literally “blowing out.”

Nibbana does not mean becoming one with a powerful god. It is an eternal and unchanging state of “not-being”. It is the ultimate freedom from all forms of suffering.

Buddhist philosophy spread to China and south east Asia challenging Confucianism and Daoism. It also spread to Greece in the 3rd century BCE but it had very little impact. Buddhist philosophical views can be found in later Western philosophies. However, with the dawn of the 20th century more and more Western ophilosophers are turning to Buddhist philosophy for inspiration.

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