The Buddha's Four Noble Truths: a Logical Basis for Philosophy

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The Buddha's Four Noble Truths: A Logical Basis for Philosophy

The Buddha Shakyamuni was born in the 6th century BCE in the area presently known as Nepal. During his 80 year lifetime, he systematically developed a pragmatic, empirically based philosophy which he claimed would lead its followers towards an enlightened existence. Buddhism is commonly called a religion; however, it differs from the usual definition of a religion in that it has no deities, does not promote worship of demigods, and is based on logical reasoning and observation rather than spiritual faith. At the heart of Buddhist philosophy is the Buddha's enumeration of Four Noble Truths: Dukkha (suffering), Samudaya (origin of suffering), Nirodha (cessation of suffering), and Magga (path to cessation of suffering). The Buddha's Four Noble Truths are based on archetypal traits that were elucidated through careful empirical observance and intensive introspection. These Four Noble Truths form a logically coherent set of axioms upon which the whole of Buddhism is based, and provide a solid foundation for a philosophy which is applicable several millennia after its formulation.{1}

"What we call a 'being,' or an 'individual,' or 'I,' according to Buddhist philosophy, is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies...." - Walpola Rahula{2}

In order to fully understand the Four Noble Truths, it is necessary to investigate the Buddhist view of the individual and its makeup. In some respects, the manner in which Buddhism deals with the mind/body problem is much more advanced than most religious views, and closer to science's understanding of the mind and body. Rather than postulating the existence of an eternal soul with no physical manifestation, the Buddha taught that the person is really a collection of five skandhas or aggregates. These include rupa (matter), vedana (sensations), sanna (perceptions), samkhara (mental formations), and vijnana (consciousness). The aggregate of matter encompasses all tangible aspects of the world. The aggregate of sensations is akin to the process of sensory input; e.g., the activation of retinal cells in the eye. Vedana does not include the process of perception, however; the act of perceiving the senses, i.e., recognition of external sensations, is within the realm of the sanna. Buddha classified mental activities (samkhara), i.e., ideas and thoughts, as being disparate from the state of mental consciousness (vijnana). Consciousness, in the Buddhist view, is the awareness of the sensations and perceptions that the person experiences, while the mental formations are the volitions, whims, thoughts, and ideas that a person has. The breakdown of the individual into the skandhas is strikingly similar to the classifications used in the modern field of psychology. Matter, sensation, perception, cognition, and consciousness are common nomenclature in both paradigms.

"There is this Noble Truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering, association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering...." - Shakyamuni Buddha{3}

The First Noble Truth, the Truth of Dukkha, is based on Buddha's observation that all people in the world are in a state of dukkha. Dukkha, which translates literally as ‘suffering' from the Pali, does not mean pain or distress as the word ‘suffer' usually implies. Instead it is used to convey the idea that the very act of living is one of imperfection and impermanence, and hence is a situation that must be remedied in order to achieve true happiness. There are three types of dukkha: dukkha-dukkha (suffering in the conventional sense), viparinama-dukkha (suffering caused by the ephemeral nature of happiness in life), and samkhara-dukkha (suffering caused by existence itself)....
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