The focus of Buddhism is salvation. This aligns it with most, if not all, of the world religions. The soteriological goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering. A factor distinguishing the Buddhist concept of salvation is the distinct lack of a creator god. This is shared with many other non-monotheistic, and even other theistic, religions. What is not lacking from Buddhism, however, is the presence of transcendent forces–interpenetrating forces which determine, and more importantly, are determined by, the flow of life, time, and space. Mutual reinforcement is quite possibly the only certainty. If gravity is life to Einstein, change to Heraclitus, atoms to Democritus, and star-stuff to certain astrophysicists, then it is dependent origination to Buddhists.
Most readers with a passing interest in metaphysics have acquainted themselves with the notion of karma. Still others have heard of rebirth. While Buddhism does not posit, yet does not preclude, a creator god, it did spring forth from the soil of the rich philosophical traditions of India, in which supernatural forces and complex interconnected phenomena feature prominently.
Early Buddhist sects did not embrace the authority of the treasured Vedic texts of the Astika traditions, they nonetheless followed their founder in embracing the lexicon in the course of elucidating its nascent teachings. They drew upon the rich tapestry of Astika thought, including the host of gods, goddesses, and other mystical forces of the infinite life-cycles, all in their human-like yet otherworldly complexity. Buddhism could not have come from any other source. Yet the fruit of its teachings bears only a passing resemblance to the pantheistic, soul-centered soil from which it emerged. The search for the self that defined Astika teachings was discarded by a radical assertion: Perhaps there is no self. At least, not one that can be located.
The exercise of understanding Buddhist philosophy is enriched by comparing and contrasting it with its contemporary philosophies, both at its inception and through its development. For, just as the Astika traditions gave fertile ground for a Buddha-field to be planted, the foreign yet compatible air to the northeast of India, namely the Taoist winds waiting for Buddhist sages in China, gave further life to the Buddhadharma. The form of Zen that was tempered by Taosim, with its foci on non-action, detachment, and impermanence, bears a striking resemblance to the teachings of the Buddha, albeit with a new lexicon; Zen is Chan is Dhyana is Concentration.
Each page here contains deeper dives into the finer points, but this is the essence of Buddhist philosophy: Life is characterized by suffering.
No matter the person, you will experience suffering. With self-awareness inevitably comes disappointment. Whether this disappointment is caused by loss, by excessive clinging to something you know you will lose, ignorance of the world around you, or anger of the forces outside of your control. This suffering’s cause–namely, attachment, ignorance, and aversion–are the cause of suffering. The way to escape suffering, even if momentarily, is to cease these three poisons. The way to escape these poisons is not an intellectual conclusion, a vow, a commitment, or an appeal to anything external. The way is not a miracle, something that must be seen to be believed. The way is mundane, something accessible to all by virtue of possessing the “curse” of self-awareness. The way is practice.
Labels are always helpful, particularly when learning. The labels to know for any cocktail party conversation is that the Four Noble Truths, which culminate in the Eightfold Path, present a path out of suffering. Now, it is at this point, that you could stop, take some time to absorb the nuances of these concepts, and move on. You would surely be enriched, if only with understanding such a robust philosophy–one that presents itself as religion, as culture, as psychology, and even as a weapon, as most ideas eventually do. But if you decide to dig further, you will find a host of other ethical, psychological, epistemological, and metaphysical concepts waiting to fill in the blanks. Together, they form a delightfully, and maybe even unnecessarily, complex tapestry around a rather simple truth.
If you decide, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, to “commit philosophical suicide,” you will find a colorful bounty of myths, which build on the beautiful theater of divine characters in (now-Vedantic) tradition. Buddhists throughout history have understood the value of myth. To say that the Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama in an unknown year long ago, was not a man but an emanation of an eternal, divine concept is to say that there is a world beyond our own that deems our word worth interfering. The implication is that this divinity has something at stake in our liberation.
Take some time to explore…