what does buddhism require?
Jared Sperli stashed this in nyt
Now, when we address Buddhism, we must be very careful. The Buddhist world is vast, and Buddhism has been around in various forms for two and a half millennia. There are many forms of Buddhist practice and culture, many Buddhist communities of belief and practice and significant doctrinal differences among Buddhist schools. So generalization can be dangerous. Just as we need to be careful about lumping Unitarians and Catholics together when we ask whether Christians accept the transubstantiation of the host, we must be careful about lumping together, for instance, Theravada monks in Sri Lanka with lay Zen practitioners in San Francisco. And there is no central doctrinal authority or organization that covers all of the Buddhist world.
Still, there are some widely shared features of Buddhism that would make a philosophy of religion that took it seriously look quite different. First, since Buddhism is an atheistic religion, it doesn’t raise questions about the existence of God that so dominate the philosophy of Abrahamic religions, let alone questions about the attributes of the deity. Buddhists do worry about awakening (Buddhahood). How hard is it to achieve? What is it like? Is a Buddha aware of her surroundings, or do they disappear as illusory?
Buddhists also worry about the relation between ordinary reality, or conventional truth, and ultimate reality. Are they the same or different? Is the world fundamentally illusory, or is it real? They worry about hermeneutical questions concerning the intent of apparently conflicting canonical scriptures, and how to resolve them. They ask about the nature of the person, and its relationship to more fundamental psychophysical processes. Stuff like that. The philosophy of religion looks different if these are taken to be some of its fundamental questions.
G.G.: Given these widely shared features, would you venture to say what, over all, it is to be a Buddhist?
J.G.: To be a Buddhist is to take refuge in the three Buddhist refuge objects (often called “the three jewels”): the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. To take refuge is to see human existence as fundamentally unsatisfactory and to see the three jewels as the only solution to this predicament.
The first refuge object is the Buddha: the fact that at least one person — the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama — has achieved awakening and release from suffering. This provides hope in one’s own future awakening, hope that through practice one can achieve a satisfactory existence. The second refuge is Dharma, or Buddhist doctrine. The third is the Sangha, or spiritual community, conceived sometimes as the community of other practitioners, sometimes as the community of monks and nuns, sometimes as the community of awakened beings. The project of full awakening is a collective, not an individual, venture.
G.G.: The first and the third refuges seem to correspond to a way of life, justified simply by its results in relieving sufferings. What’s involved in the second refuge, the doctrines?
J.G.: The foundation of doctrine in all Buddhist schools is the so-called four noble truths, explained by Siddhartha in his first talk after gaining awakening. The first is that life is fundamentally unsatisfactory, permeated by suffering of various types, including pain, aging and death and the inability to control one’s own destiny. The second is that this suffering is caused by attraction and aversion — attraction to things one can’t have, and aversion to things one can’t avoid, and that this attraction and aversion is in turn caused by primal confusion about the fundamental nature of reality and a consequent egocentric orientation to the world. The third is that if one extirpates these causes by eliminating attraction and aversion through metaphysical insight, one can eliminate suffering. The fourth is the specification of a set of domains and concerns — the eightfold path — attention to which can accomplish that.
G.G.: It seems then that the Buddhist way of life is based on, first, the plausible claim that suffering makes life unsatisfactory and, second, on a psychological account — again plausible — of the causes of suffering. But what’s the “metaphysical insight,” the truth about reality, that shows the way to eliminating suffering?
J.G.: Buddhist doctrine regarding the nature of reality generally focuses on three principal characteristics of things. The first idea is that all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing, despite the fact that we engage with them as though they are permanent; the second is that they are interdependent, although we engage with them as though they are independent; the third is that they are without any intrinsic identity, although we treat ourselves and other objects as though they have intrinsic identities.
Now, many Buddhists and Buddhist schools are committed to much more extensive and detailed metaphysical doctrines, including doctrines about the fundamental constituents of reality, or dharmas, often conceived as momentary property instantiations, or about the nature of consciousness, or about cosmology. Buddhist schools and traditions vary widely in these respects. And of course there are vast differences between what lay Buddhists and what scholars understand about Buddhist doctrine. In Buddhism, as in Christianity, for many lay people the religion is about daily rituals and practices, and doctrine is left to scholars and clerics. And ideas that are complex metaphors to the erudite are literal for the laity.