Buddhism, 2600 years on

Not being a student of the history of Buddhism, there is little I can say about the transmission of Buddhism from India to so many countries throughout Asia, and now to the remainder of the world, other than commenting on how remarkable this phenomenon is. To my mind, the flourishing of Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and practice within such a diversity of cultures is an indication that Buddhism must have something worthwhile and important for humankind in general, not just for the Indian people of two and a half thousand years ago. And so, in this talk, I wish to present, as well as I am able, my understanding of what it is about Buddhism that is so important for modern society.

I was raised without any religious background. I trained in medicine at the University of Melbourne during the so-called “mind-expanding” 1960’s, and my world-view was, and very much remains, scientific. I have found the Buddhist teachings to complement the ever-growing scientific world-view rather than contradict it. I worked in hospitals in Australia,New Guinea, and Englandand, after a brief term in aMelbournepsychiatric hospital, as a doctor, not as a patient, my interest in the mind and its potential grew strongly. It seemed to me that psychiatric diagnosis and treatment at the time, mostly drugs and shock therapy, was inadequate because we knew so little about the mind. But I didn’t know the answer. I wanted to know what the mind was; I wanted an explanation for the psychedelic experience; and I wanted to identify the causes of mental illness and why it was so prevalent in our society. As medical researchers understand, if we can identify the cause, we are well on the way to knowing the cure.

For me, Eastern philosophy, in the form of Taoism, had hinted at possible answers to these questions, and, almost accidentally, I began to explore Tibetan Buddhism in the early seventies at a one-month intensive meditation and instruction retreat at Kopan Monastery on a ridge over-looking Kathmanduvalley. My approach to these teachings was quite critical. Wary of unfounded dogma and outright superstition, during the month my fervently expressed doubts about topics such as reincarnation and karma elicited support from the sceptics and pity from the converted among the 200 other young Westerners attending the course. Two years later, when a converted American lady, who had sat in front of me during the course, saw me in monk’s robes, she did a great double-take: “YOU! In robes? I can’t believe it.” I had resolved my doubts about karma and reincarnation and, for myself, ordination as a Buddhist monk was the most logical step forward.

During that first course I was forced to put the concepts of reincarnation and karma on hold until I learned more. But I found Buddhist psychology to be instantly acceptable, simple, and precise in explaining the many questions I had about the mind and how it functioned. With insufficient time to go into the details, I shall try to paint the overall picture as I see it.

I will begin by briefly mentioning Sigmund Freud’s description of our psychological make-up because I feel it is an accurate description that may help us to understand Buddhism. Freud observed that we all possess innate, instinctive drives seeking pleasure. He called this the id, and he described the uncontrollable urge to seek happiness and avoid pain as the pleasure principle. Gratification or frustration of the pleasure principle, the most dominant feature of an infant’s mind, mostly occurs in the relationship between the infant and its mother. The pleasure principle persists throughout life, but is modified by what Freud called the reality principle – the demands of external reality. These necessitate postponement of immediate pleasure with the aim of greater pleasure in the long run.

The reality principle is an acquired function of mind closely related to maturation of ego functions. Freud explained that the self-identity, or ego, begins with the infant’s recognition of its own body as separate from the external world, and gradually evolves through resolution of conflict between the pleasure and the reality principles.

Resolution of the Oedipus complex that develops between the child and its parent of opposite sex, and rapid identification with the parent of same sex, gives rise to the superego, which confronts the other contents of the ego. The child’s struggles to repress instinctual aims are a form of renunciation, and this gives the superego a prohibiting aspect. Throughout life, we continue to identify with teachers, heroic figures, and admired persons, who form our moral standards, values, and ultimate aspirations and ideals. The standards, restrictions, commands, and punishments that were imposed by the parents from without are internalised in the superego, which then judges and guides our behaviour from within, even in the absence of the parents. This structure of the mind, along with the description of narcissistic, immature, neurotic, and mature ego-defence mechanisms is easily understood and is very much in accord with what the Buddha taught. The essential point that Freud missed is that we are all innately mistaken in our idea of self, of what we are, and this misconception is the root of all our problems.

Buddha stated the obvious: our minds are dominated by the powers of attraction to pleasant objects and pleasant experiences, and repulsion towards unpleasant objects and unpleasant experiences. We can accept this just by looking at our society: our day-to-day behaviour is dominated by seeking pleasure and avoiding displeasure. Unable to always get what we want, and avoid what we don’t want, our mood fluctuates between hope for good and dread for the unpleasant. But our hopes and our fears make us vulnerable. Conmen or conwomen easily talk us out of our wealth with false promises to fulfil our hopes; advertising agencies convince us that we can buy happiness; lotteries and other gambling institutions prey on our addiction to hope; the food and alcohol industries grow rich by promising happiness in packages and bottles; politicians appeal to our hopes with their promises and exploit our dreads by blaming their opponents for our troubles; and unscrupulous and misguided religious teachers, or political fanatics, exploit our hopes and our dreads by leading us on false paths where we give up our wealth, or even our lives, to feed their greed, their lust for power, or simply their sense of self-importance. The worst thing about hope and fear is that we tend to withdraw into a fantasy world and become isolated from others, which makes it more difficult to be happy. This may lead to our becoming lost in delusional and paranoid states.

There is nothing wrong in being happy and free from pain. All living beings, not just humans, desire, and have an equal right, to be happy and free from pain. The reality, however, is that we are not very successful in achieving what we want. Happiness is difficult to establish and, when found, it never lasts. Unhappiness is difficult to avoid, and it remains for a long time. Why is it that, despite our advances in technology, in material wealth, in medicine, in providing the physical comforts of life, and so on, most of us remain dissatisfied, anxious, depressed, and unhappy?

According to Buddhism, two types of ignorance are the underlying reasons for our lack of success in achieving what we want. These are ignorance of how things, especially the self, actually exist, and ignorance of karmic cause and effect.

Ignorance of the way things exist is not simply not-knowing how things exist in reality, but conceiving the opposite. This wrong idea is not something we have learned, we were born with it. With regard to our self, this ignorance is the mistaken idea that the self is an entity that exists in its own right, independent of the body and mind.

Buddha taught that, in reality, each of us is established to exist as an individual merely through the process of applying our name to our body and mind. In other words, our bodies and minds are empty of being the person, of being the abode of a self-existing person, and of being the possessions of an independent, self-existent person.

Just as a road sign bearing the name SYDNEY correctly points towards this city, but there is no findable thing, street, or place that is actually Sydney, our name correctly indicates our body and mind to be where our person is, but there is nothing findable within our body and mind that is actually our self, a ‘true me.’Sydneyexists and can be visited and experienced, but there is nothing which is Sydneyin its own right. Similarly, each of us exists and functions as an individual, but there is no self that exists in its own right. Thus, in Buddhism, “emptiness of self” does not mean there is no self; it means the self is established to exist merely through the labelling of “I,” or our name, upon the body and mind. Even though the merely-labelled “I” is empty of existing in its own right, and cannot be discovered by investigation, it is correct to say that whatever the body and mind do, the “I” does.

The problem is that, from the time we began to think, which occurred while still in our mother’s womb, we have cherished a false image of “I” projected by our innate misconception of self. We were born entirely self-centred, self-consciously frightened about the security of this imaginary self. For a while, it seemed to work; as babies we were treated as if we were the centre of the universe, just as we believed we were. Our demands for pleasure and to be free from what we didn’t like were fulfilled with loving care. The id and the pleasure principle were at work.

Then, as the reality principle gradually opposed the pleasure principle, our self-centred paradise was lost. But self-centredness remained and, upon the original mistaken self-image, we fabricated an ever-more complicated conception of self, believing all our good and bad attributes to be part of  a “true me.” In dependence upon this mistaken concept of self, there arose pride, longing desire, anger, jealousy, greed, spitefulness, a plethora of emotions that disturb the mind and are the foundation of our neuroses, our anxiety states, our depressions, and even our psychoses. The cure for this root ignorance is wisdom; for pride is humility; for longing desire is renunciation; for anger is patience and love; for jealousy is delight in another’s good qualities; for spite is affection. This is Buddhist psychology: the causes and the cures of mental disturbance are in our minds. The antidote to the self-grasping ignorance is the wisdom seeing emptiness of self, and the antidote to the self-cherishing ignorance, the sense that “I am more important than others,” is universal compassion. Transformation of the mind from self-grasping and self-cherishing through cultivation of wisdom and compassion is the meaning of the spiritual path, and this leads to attainment of our full potential: Buddhahood.

Ignorance of karmic cause and effect, again, is not simply not-knowing about karma, but the mistaken belief that there are no distant causes of our experiences or distant results of our actions. Buddha explained that every purposeful action we perform, such as giving food to a hungry animal, has its immediate effect on the object of the action, the alleviation of hunger, and a long-term result experienced by the actor, caused by a potency established upon the mind-stream at the time of the action. Long-term results are of three types: a rebirth result, a result similar to the cause in terms of our experience and our habitual behaviour, and an environmental result. In this example, the rebirth result would be birth as a human or a divine being. The result similar to the cause would be that we would not go hungry and we would have a natural tendency to be generous with food. And the environmental result would be, for example, a pleasant place where food crops ripen on time and in abundance.

Our minds carry a vast number of unripened karmic potencies from this and previous lives. Potencies established by harmful actions such as killing, stealing, and lying, bring about unpleasant results, and potencies established by helpful actions motivated by love, compassion, wisdom, and so on bring about pleasant results. It is vital to understand that every experience in life has the ripening of an underlying karmic potency as an essential condition for it to happen. Every meeting with a pleasant or an unpleasant object, every feeling of pleasure or displeasure, is conditioned by karma. Even the environment itself is a reflection of each individual’s karma.

Although our lives are conditioned by karma, they are not pre-determined by karma. A karmic potency can only ripen when the mind is in a similar state to the way it was when the action occurred. For example, a potency for an unhappy experience established by hurting someone with anger in the past can only ripen when the mind is in a harmful state. Learning about karma gives one the opportunity to choose to refrain from harmful states and cultivate benevolent states of mind. Thus we have a degree of freedom of choice that depends upon the strength of our knowledge of karma and our determination to oppose habitual harmful thoughts.

In Buddhism, morality means restraint from harming others, and actually helping them. Our superegos may restrain harmful behaviour through copying those we admire, through the law of the land, or through religious prohibition. But if the reason for avoiding harming others is not well understood, these forms of restraint are easily overcome by the powers of self-centredness, anger, desire, and so on. Someone may talk us out of our belief, those we admire may let us down, we may lose faith in God, or we may reject the law. On the other hand, wisdom and compassion empower one with the ability to choose from one’s own side whether to abide in pure morality or not. Understanding karmic cause and effect, and that things do not exist inherently as they appear, opposes the self-grasping ignorance. And when we see that all beings are just like ourselves, simply wanting happiness and not wanting pain, we can identify with their pain as our own, and the resulting compassion and determination to free them from suffering opposes the self-cherishing ignorance.

In conclusion, I wish to simply say that the foundation of the path to peace and happiness, to a healthy mind, is to live in the pure morality of restraint from harming living beings, without exception, and cultivating benevolent thoughts, words, and actions towards them. This universal truth is not the sole possession of Buddhism, but I believe the presentation of the emptiness of self, the wisdom of which provides the power to abide in pure morality, is unique to Buddhism.

Australians reflection on the 2600th Anniversary of The Buddha’s Enlightenment
By Ven. Thubten Gyatso (Dr. Adrian Feldmann, M.D)
Sydney Tall Hall, 29th May 2011

Video link

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1 Response to Buddhism, 2600 years on

  1. Andy Stevens says:

    Thank you so much for a great article, it is very refreshing, thought provoking and insightful.

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