Theravada Beliefs

I am tempted to write: For the last part of our description of the Theravada universe, we have set ourselves the daunting task of showing how our minds can become the cause of the universe. But you see, formulating the question in such a way would be wrong.

We would be asking a purely metaphysical question, which, as we saw earlier, the Buddha wanted nothing to do with. He was concerned with the fact that to live is to suffer, not with an abstract issue of the origin of being. However, we cannot cast aside the fact that our illusory selves are constantly bombarded by bundles (askaras) of dharmas out of the never-ending chain of dependent origination, and that our suffering is clearly tied in with that phenomenon. So we need to rephrase the question in some way so as to make room for both: the fact of our suffering and the fact that our suffering is based on the self-deception of there being a permanent and reliable universe.

Clearly, the way in which I'm asking the question already implies much of the answer, but I don't see any other appropriate way of asking it so that neither the question nor the answer will be pointless. More than seeking an answer to a new question, we are really asking for a description, whose basic parameters are already known to us.

decaying woman

After his chariot ride, Siddhartha could not look at beautiful women without imagining them as aging and turning into corpses.

A good way of proceeding to an answer is to take another look at dependent origination (paticca-samuppada), this time not so much as a cosmology as a phenomenon within ourselves. One aspect of existence inevitably leads to another, and, as we said above, if we want to be true to the Buddha's analysis, we need to start with the given condition of our suffering (call it "A"). Then we are going to raise the question of what makes this suffering possible and come up with an answer, call it "Condition B." (This is called a "transcendental argument.") However, we do not stop there, but ask what makes "Condition B" possible, and conclude that it must be "Condition C." Thus we proceed backward from condition to prior condition until we have arrived at the full complement of twelve of them, to which we refer as Nidanas.We begin by recognizing that suffering (dukha) is manifest in Jara-maraṇa (old age, decay and death).

  1. Jara-maraṇa: Old age, decay, and death. Whoever we are and wherever we are, our earthly existences are subject to dissolution. This was the Buddha's devastating conclusion after his celebrated chariot ride, and it changed his life forever. He found that he could no longer look at people, no matter how youthful and healthy they appeared, without immediately picturing them as decomposing. Now, he could have simply accepted the situation as it was and encouraged everyone to make the best of their time, but he saw it as an evil that must have a cause. Therefore, he concluded, by eliminating the cause the evil would be eliminated. So what is a necessary condition for having this life that is beset by suffering?
  2. Jati: Birth. This answer seems rather obvious, but, then again, it is certainly true. "I wish I had never been born!" some people cry out in utter desperation, assuming that if their birth could have been prevented, their suffering would have been prevented as well. But--and here the matter gets fascinating--the Buddha insisted that neither could have been prevented, Thus, the Buddha's point is anything but an inane triviality.
  3. Bhava: Coming into Existence. The word bhava has meanings that range all the way from "being" to "enduring" to "becoming." In this case, it probably combines the ideas of becoming and being; thus I called it "coming into existence." If there were no such thing, there certainly could be no births. Still, according to many commentators (e.g., Surendranath Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy, vol. 1), we have not exhausted the meaning of the term in this context with "becoming" and "being." Those concepts do not go far enough in telling us why we must be born. Just because there is such a thing as "becoming," does not mean that "I" must become something. So, in order to provide more force, bhava must also include the notion of karma, viz. the duty to be born. That is to say, I must be born ("come into existence") because of the actions in a previous life. So bhava is not just being and becoming; it includes the necessity of becoming, grounded in the irresistible force of karma. But what makes bhava possible?
  4. Upadana: Clinging. If bhava entails the constant cycle of death and rebirth, we need to find out what makes it possible for us to undergo this perpetual flux that afflicts our own being and becoming? Why do we think that we keep being reborn into the world as new-beings-as-determined-by-karma? Contemplate for a moment the two concepts of "becoming" and "change." They clearly go hand-in-hand with each other. So, as we acknowledge our "coming-into-existence" (bhava), we recognize change. But here's the catch: We would not be able to recognize change if we did not begin with a supposedly fixed starting point. We cannot be aware of change if we don't contrast it with stability. So, for example, we could not tell that an object had moved if we did not know its original location and then thought of its new location in relation to that starting point. We would not be aware of the fact that we are aging, if we did not take some earlier time in life as our standard against which to judge our present state. In each of such cases we are assuming that there is some point, whether in space or in time, that we can use as a reference coordinate. But doing so means that we are thinking of that point as fixed and unchanging in itself, with everything else changing in respect to it. And, thus we are "clinging" to an imaginary stability. Siddhartha deciding his course of action.
  5. Trishna: Desire. (Pali: Tanha) The attitude of clinging to the world becomes even more poignant under the heading of "desire." Now, as I keep insisting, "desire" is not to be equated with simply intending to do something or wanting something. Such an equivalence, as many an undergraduate has pointed out in empty triumph, would lead to the contradiction that we should desire Nirvana and must get there by renouncing all desire. This is nonsense. "Desire" means wanting to have something for yourself and keeping it. It carries the connotation of "grasping." On the other hand, having a purpose, a resolve, or an intended outcome for your life and actions does not fall under the heading of "desire." So, as we continue to ask for prior conditions, we must inquire: What makes trishna possible?
  6. Vedana: Feeling or Sensing There could be no desire if there were no feelings at all. Desire is a feeling and, if there were no such things, trishna would be eliminated along with the rest of them. So we ask: What makes vedana possible?
  7. Phassa (Sparsha): Sensory Contact. I can feel my chair; I can feel hunger; I can feel dizzy, etc. All those feelings are possible because I have senses that are in touch with what goes on around me. And what makes phassa possible?
  8. Ayatana: The six sensory faculties. It seems clear that sensory contact with anything would be impossible if we did not have our six senses. (In case you're wondering, the Buddha counts the usual five senses plus the perception of mental objects, such as images in our heads, to make up the six. He is not referring to psychic powers or ESP here.) Furthermore, having those senses carries with it the implication that they present us with something objective. It is at this point that, having turned inward earlier, we are now letting ourselves undergo the illusion of turning outward again to the world as it presents itself to us. And we keep on asking: What makes ayatana possible?
  9. Namarupa: An individual body. If I'm saying that I'm seeing, hearing, feeling, and smelling an elephant, I'm assuming that I have a material body(rupa) with which to carry out such an investigation. And, furthermore, such a body could be named (nama). This means that it can be described as an individual entity in distinction to other bodies or entities. What makes Namarupa possible?
  10. Vinnana (Vij˝ana): Consciousness. Clearly, I believe that I have a body because my consciousness confirms that fact for me. This term goes beyond mere unmediated sensory awareness, such as feeling hungry, and includes some basic knowledge and awareness, such as "Food will make my hunger disappear." What makes such consciousness possible?
  11. Sankhara: Patterning or Mental Building Blocks. Dasgupta translates this term as "conformation," which is good, but does not communicate any more in today's language what he intended it to say, I believe. Sankhara appears to be the act of the mind to cluster together things that belong together and to separate those that do not. In other words, we make our consciousness possible by finding forms, sequences, sets, and other regularities. All of these mental categories are brought to the table, as it were, by our minds. (One is seriously reminded of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.) And what makes this patterning possible?
  12. Avijja: Ignorance. (Skrt.: avidya). But all of this is a house of cards. True enough, you cannot have one thing without its prior conditions. However, if you recognize that in the final analysis all of these nidanas are based on a mental mistake, the entire structure collapses. We are looking here at the ultimate in bootstrapping, the kind of argument that constructs reality by assuming something unreal. And that is why we are suffering, according to the Buddha. We have bought into the false premise that we are real, and the result is that we accept old age, decay, and death as final, and, therefore, we have resigned ourselves to the supposed inevitability of suffering. The Buddha exhorted his serious followers to learn to see beyond this falsehood, which is not easy, so that they might escape the cycle and, thus, be liberated from suffering.

         No ignorance → no patterning.
                    No patterning → no basic knowledge.
                           No basic knowledge → no individual body.
                                     No individual body → no six senses and their objects.
                                               No six senses → no sense contact.
                                                         No sense contact → no feeling.
                                                                       No feeling → no desire.
                                                                              No desire → no clinging.
                                                                                      No clinging → no coming into existence.
                                                                                                  No coming into existence → no birth
                                                                                                           No birth → no old age, decay and death.                                                                                                       
                                                                                           No more suffering!





PAGE 1: Introduction

PAGE 2: Derivation and Early Schools
PAGE 3: Contrast to the Mahasanghikas
PAGE 4: Patronage of King Ashoka
PAGE 5: Contrast to the Sarvastivadins
PAGE 6: Contrast to the Pudgalavadins
PAGE 7: Theravada Basics
PAGE 8: Life of Bikhus
PAGE 9: Life of the Laity
PAGE 10: The Laity and the Temple
PAGE 11: Theravada Beliefs
PAGE 12: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 13: Theravada Beliefs (cont'd)
PAGE 14: A Brief Christian Response