Buddhism is a family of religious and metaphysical positions that are in some way originated from the instructions of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. There is always a vulnerability of over-generalizing the homogeneousness of Buddhist views, but I attempt neither a comprehensive nor a comprehensive examination of Buddhist thought; I merely need to specify something of the Buddhist approach to the self. Prominently, I say little about the Four Noble Truths, even though Buddhism is chiefly a hands-on philosophy, not because they are inconsequential, but because my interest is predominantly with whether autonomy as an educational aim is consistent with a Buddhist notion of the self.
Eight eminent Brahmins who examined the birth of the prince declared that he would be a universal ruler or would retire from the worldly matters and become a Buddha. At the age of sixteen Prince Siddhartha married Princess Yasodhara and lived a content married life for thirteen years in deluxe conditions created by his father to shield him from the realities of life. However while being driven in his horse carriage outside the palace, on four subsequent days he saw an old man, a sickly man, a corpse, and an ascetic, four signs, which changed his worldly views, and he renounced the world in search of the Truth.
In the texts Buddha’s dogma is represented as a body of knowledge, expressed in schemes and rational sequences of ideas accessible to normal consciousness. To be sure, this familiarity has its source in an enhanced state of consciousness, in meditation. Though its inevitability springs from an extramundane vision of total self-extinction, the content of this certainty seems to be accessible to the normal understanding. Buddhist institution challenges and enriches the limited sense of realism that takes superiority in the dialogue between Buddhism and science. This challenge needs to be appreciated in order to portray Buddhism an equal partner in the dialogue rather than the measly object of scientific critique.
Buddha’s lessons communicate not suprasensory involvement but a body of rational thought. They divulge a love of concepts, abstractions, enumerations, and combinations, fully consonant with the Indian philosophical institutions on which it draws. But though Buddha’s doctrine is accessible to normal consciousness, it cannot be operative without suprasensory experience. The rational thinking of our finite mind is not an adequate vessel for it. The core of the doctrine is observed only by meditation, and rational formulation can give no more than a pale silhouette or intimation of it. The source and context of this doctrine must not be forgotten as we now turn to its simple rational expression.
The Four Noble Truths
Buddha’s vision of existence is expressed in the truth of pain:
- “This is the truth of pain: birth is painful, old age is painful, sickness is painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful, not getting what one wishes is painful.
- “This is the truth of the cause of pain: that craving which leads to rebirth, combined with pleasure and lust, namely the craving for sensual pleasure, the craving for existence, the craving for nonexistence.
- “This is the truth of the cessation of pain: the cessation without a remainder of that craving, abandonment, forsaking, release, non-attainment.
- “This is the truth of the way that leads to the cessation of pain: it is the Noble Eightfold Path.”
This insight springs, not from observation of the particulars of existence, but from a vision of the whole. It imitates not a doubtful mood, but a serene insight—for in knowledge lies redemption. Placidly Buddha describes the state of presence in ever-new variations.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century mindfulness has been positioned at the core of modern Buddhism and viewed by many contemporary interpreters as an essential component of Buddhist doctrine and practices. More recently, the practice of mindfulness has become speedily popularized, radically secularized and removed from its Buddhist context, employed mainly as a remedial tool or applied for the improvement of well-being.
The first half of the eighteenth century saw the discovery and circulation of sacred texts (in the three major languages of Buddhism—Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan) that ignited the European imagination and thereby inaugurated the linguistic undertaking to appreciate these languages. These discoveries themselves occurred in the background of economic colonial expansion (in contradistinction to earlier phases of interaction governed by theological colonialism) followed by European nations in every region of the world, but the push was particularly deepened across the vast Pacific and onto the Indian subcontinent.
This paper examines the thought of mindfulness using an historical lens, aiming to identify some of the main parameters and consequent implications involved in the changes and developments of this Buddhist contemplative method—from its early beginnings over 2,500 years ago to the present day. Distinct attention is given to the historical progresses in the colonial period, when various Buddhist traditions encountered the main European discourses of the time, resulting in the birth of modern Buddhism.
Transcend Ignorance by Knowledge
The Buddha taught that he heart of the matter is that men, like all living creatures, are blind, ignorant, misled by the things to which they cling, by what never is, but is forever caught up in absolute transience, in coming and going, in never-ending becoming.
A ‘bodhisattva’ is one who has attained the highest level of Buddhist accomplishment prior to nirvana. The bodhisattva is a teacher who foregoes final liberation in order to help the rest of us to accomplish liberation. This concept is part of the Mahayana or ‘greater vehicle’ tradition of Buddhism. The idea is contemplated less selfish than the ideal of the arhat, who pursues liberation individually.
The aim of Buddhist practice is to be rid of the delusion of ego and thus free oneself from the fetters of this commonplace world. One who is successful in doing so is said to have surmount the round of rebirths and to have achieved enlightenment. This is the final goal in most Buddhist traditions, though in some cases (particularly though not exclusively in some Pure Land schools in China and Japan) the attainment of an definitive paradise or a heavenly abode is not clearly distinguished from the attainment of release.
Thus there is only one means of liberation: to surpass ignorance by knowledge. But nothing can be changed by insight into particulars here and there. It is only the essential state of vision in which we see the whole that transforms and saves. Salvation lies in liberation from attachment to things, in release from all vain craving-these deliberate insight into the condition and origin of this whole existence and the means of withdrawing it. Ignorance itself, blindness, attachment to the finite, are the source of this existence; perfect knowledge is its annulment.