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Buddhism Assessed

Canonical Buddhism has often been explained in terms of the 4 Noble Truths and the 8-fold Noble Path. It can also be explained in terms of The Dependent Origination Theory or the Three Characteristics or other unorthodox ways.

The following is a summary of the basic Buddhism, using the Three Characteristic approach.

Central to buddhism is the concept of Three Characteristics (Trilaxana) which proposes that all composite things (matter or mind,i.e. everything excluding Nirvana) are:

1. Impermanent (anicca)
2. Of suffering/unsatisfactory nature (Dukkha)
3. Without Self entity/Empty (Anatta/Sunyata)

(1) is by now almost universal in the scientific world. But sciences only address the materialistic part of things whereas Buddhism claims anicca in the mental world as well. Implicit in this is also that there is no (permanent) soul in Buddhism.

(2) is a corollary of (1). If things are changing every moment then they are not as they appear to be (permanent) , thus they are unsatisfactory by nature. Both material and mental entities change continually according to causes and conditions. This is buddhist's objective way of looking at things as they are; it's not pessimistic nor optimistic. If one doesn't see 'sufferings' in all these changing conditions of things then one is not mentally suit to be a buddhist. To see 'sufferings', however, does not mean that one has to feel suffered for that. A true buddhist will enjoy life in a much more objective way than others because s-he realizes that happiness itself is the result of interplays of causes and conditions which are bound to change over time. Suffering will definitely ensue if one does not understand the ever changing nature of causes and conditions of happiness.

(3) is unique to Buddhism and is very difficult to understand. There are two types of Emptiness: Ontological and Psychological. Buddhism claims that a thing cannot exist INHERENTLY by its own self. Its existence depends on the existences of other things, ad infinitum. In other words, there is no permanent, pure element as a basis for the existence of anything. Things exist because of the inter-dependency on one another. This is the basic argument behind 'ontological Emptiness'.

It should be clear now that Emptiness in Buddhism is not 'nothingness.' In fact, Emptiness means All and Everything being co-dependent, co-arising. On the coarsest level, one can argue that material thing exists only if mind exists first. Material is thus dependent on mind. Mind is also dependent on its own self. Some buddhists refer to the primordial Truth as 'the original mind.' This is simply a mind devoid of all attachments, which is often regarded as the 'core' of a living entity or 'Buddha nature'; but this is just a way of language and should not be confused with Self or Atman in Hinduism for even the Buddha nature is also Empty.  

It should not be too hard to imagine that this core is interacting with the outside world through the brain, and that it is partially conditioned by the brain itself. To discover the state of the original mind then (certain functions of) the brain must be bypassed initially so that it will be able to correct itself (of wrong views) in the end. Only when certain portions of the brain is bypassed can the mind perform its task OBJECTIVELY to realize the Three Characteristics. [Note: This paragraph is purely author's own speculation.]

The second type of Emptiness is psychological; this one is more important than ontological Emptiness and is more relevant to Buddhism. Psychological Emptiness is the state of the mind Empty of all attachments to all dualistic thinkings. In fact, Buddhism asserts that all human's sufferings are due to attachments to dualistic thinking. After all, it is the discriminating mind that tell us that things are impermanent and of suffering nature. An enlightened buddhist is said to not attach even to the Ultimate Truth which s-he attained. To be permanently Empty is to attain buddhist enlightenment (Nibbana, Nirvana). Buddhist values wisdom so much that the pure form of which is said to be the one that drives an enlightened buddhist. The wisdom uses all the dualistic thinking to its advantage without being attached to them in the same manner as the lotus plant deriving its existence from the water in which it embeds , without being wetted by it. To work with an Empty mind should be the most productive and creative way to work.
It is the mind who attains Nirvana. Both the mind and Nirvana are Empty. It cannot be said whether a enlightened person exist or not-exist after the physical death, because that state transcends all dualities. For the sake of discussion, Nirvana can be termed 'Cessation Element' (Nirodha Dhatu). Buddhadasa had explained the state of Cessation Element and the rest very succinctly in terms of controllability. He said that all things are uncontrollable because they lack any 'Self' entity to be controlled. The mundane elements are uncontrollable because they change along according to their causes and conditions which also are uncontroll- able. The supreme element (i.e. Cessation Element) is also uncontrollable because it is BEYOND causes and conditions.
Some evolved schools of Hinduism (e.g. Vedanta) is now very similar to Buddhism in both the practice and the philosophy; the only major difference seems to lie on this final state. Hinduism claims that the state of purified mind is the enlightenment and that the mind enjoy eternal bliss by becoming one with the Ultimate Reality known by various names such as Param-Atman and Brahman. Buddhism claims no attachment even to this state of bliss. Buddhist does not claim to be attached to the non-attachment state either. As Buddhadasa once said: All the 84,000 discourses of the Buddha can be summarized into one sentence: Do not attach in ANYTHING.

There has been a lot of confusions about Karma (action) and rebirth in Buddhism. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a noted Thai buddhist monk whom many including myself believe to be a buddha, mentioned that Buddha Gotama (the historical Buddha) never taught about physical rebirth. Rebirth in Buddhism means instant mental rebirth due to craving and attachment. The fruit of Kamma (Vibahk or reaction) in Buddhism is also instantaneous , at the same moment as when the Kamma (action) is done. Buddhist should do kammas that will end all kammas so that there will be no 'rebirth' which is the basis for sufferings. We should not be too obsessive with the long-range kammas (especially the after-death ones) for they are at best uncertain and depend on other interfering factors. Instantaneous kammas is exactly action = reaction and is completely relevant to the Buddhist's Art of Living at the present moment.

The buddhist way of attaining Nirvana is to 'observe mental phenomena.' We should try to be objective with our own mind and observe how do our mind interacts with the external world and with itself internally to come up with attachment to dualistic thinkings. Bit by bit we will learn to let go of attachments. This process can often be enhanced by right-meditation techniques. Buddhist meditation is nothing but the process of objective observation of the nature of the mind. This process would be efficient only when the mind is calm enough, but not too calm. A naturally calm person thus has no need to go through all the formal technique of meditation. Meditative observation should ideally be done at every opportunity, even when answering the calls of nature. Logical reasoning alone is not good enough but it is the initial karma needed to develop trust so that more insights can be gained through the practice.  

Buddhism does not concern itself with metaphysics and cosmology. All Buddhism cares about is how to live a life at the present moment as free from sufferings as much as possible. As such, Buddhism can be regarded as 'The Art of Living.'
Buddhism can also be viewed from a short statement by the Buddha: "To avoid evil deeds, To perform good deeds, To purify the mind." To do good deeds alone is not good enough. The mind should also be purified so that it does not attach even to good deeds or whatever. In practice, however, Buddhism is not as pure as it should be. People often 'accumulate' meritorious deeds in a spiritualistically materialistic fashion. This practice is implicitly tolerated so that less spiritually advanced people will not go astray.

Hatred is possible only if there is love, and vice versa.