Buddhism is quite different from all other major religions. While other religions offer to its followers the answers to metaphysical questions and doctrines to devote oneself to, Buddhism presents to those interested primarily a different way of seeing things. This is because Buddhists say that the Buddha was first and foremost interested in the human condition: how human beings see and experience reality.
According to Buddhist scripture, after contemplating the nature of human experience, the Buddha discovered that suffering is intrinsic to life but that there was also a path to the cessation of suffering. Part of this path, known as the Noble Eightfold Path, involves seeing the world with “Right View”. This means that individuals must see reality for what it is. Only when an individual sees in this way will they reach enlightenment. Here, enlightenment is not a vague spiritual mental state but essentially a way of seeing with the proper perspective. In this way, the goal of Buddhism is not to reveal truth about how reality came to exist but to cause a radical shift in perspective about how we see reality.
When looking out at the world, we see that reality is filled with items, objects, organisms and other people. We instinctually see them as permanent and whole things: this thing underneath me is a chair and I am the thing sitting on it. However, Buddhism teaches that this is a false way of seeing things because there are no independent things with existences of their own. Instead, things only exist because of their interdependence. Buddhists see the connection between things and the interdependence of everything in reality because everything that exists can be broken down to causes and conditions.
One way to envision this is to consider a car. When we see a car, our mind instinctually recognises it as a car. However, we must ask ourself what is it about the car which makes it a car? If the steering wheel is removed, we can confidently say that the car is still a car. Additionally, we would not regard a part such as the steering wheel as the car. Thus, the car is not a thing that exists by itself but a thing that’s existence depends on other conditions. When you now consider the steering wheel, you can ask yourself what is the steering wheel? If the material that covers the steering wheel is taken off we would still regard it as a steering wheel. And so even the parts are dependent on conditions and causes. Buddhists say that once someone reflects on interdependence, they see that everything can be broken down in parts, and parts of parts, until infinity. Nothing in reality has an existence of its own.
This applies too to ourselves. Again, when we think about who we are, we see ourselves as permanent and fixed independent things. However, on closer inspection, we see that, like a car, our self has no intrinsic existence of its own. If we were to try and identify what the self is, we may first point to the brain. We must then consider what is it about the brain that makes us who we are. If it is our personality, we must remember that personality can change over time yet we still attribute the same self to ourselves at 6 years old and 26 years old. If it is our memories, we must recognise that some memories can get lost and we are still our self.
Thus, the self does not exist but is a dynamic play of relationships between various things, like personality and memory, that cause a sense of self. We may also identify our self with our thoughts but indeed, modern neuroscience suggests that many of our conscious thoughts are complex rationalisations for the flood of instincts, motives and memories that emanate from other parts of the mind.
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.The Guest House by Jalaluddin Rumi
Enlightenment comes when one recognises that things in reality exist because of their interdependence on other things. Buddhism teaches that seeing in such a way is seeing reality as it is. Buddhists would also claim that this “right view” of the world is helpful when navigating through life. By seeing others as dependent on their genetics and their environment, we are less likely to view them through labels. Their religion or political views are not who they are and their ideas and beliefs are their adjectives rather than their nouns. Tolerance and compassion are the results of viewing others in this way. This compassion also extends to ourselves when we view ourselves as interdependent works in progress rather than independent finished products. We may know that we have flaws and seeing ourselves in such a way allows us to be conscious of our freedom to change and evolve.
As nothing in nature exists on its own, we see that reality is made up of sequences of momentary events. Buddhists believe that there is nothing in the world but only changing phenomena like how there is no self but only the changing relationships of our memories, personality and instincts. Even our skin is the result of change: the skin we are made up of in this current moment is different from the skin we were in last week because of growing and dying skin cells. Everything is impermanent and impermanence is a fundamental part of reality.
Like the Stoics, Buddhists understand that seeing reality in this way is valuable for our psychological health. This is because it helps us to not get carried away with good fortune and not get crushed my misfortune. Buddhists believe that by seeing the world as a flow of continually changing events, we become more grateful for any success we achieve and more resilient to any tragedy that befalls our life. This teaching is especially apparent in the Buddhist story of the farmer.
There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.”
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
For some, however, reflecting on the transience of reality can be anxiety-inducing when we remind ourselves that our own life is impermanent. But many Buddhists believe that death is not something that should be feared, and that life should be used to prepare for death. Buddhism teaches that reflecting on impermanence is the primary way to be prepared for death and that once you appreciate the fact that life is temporary, you become more inclined to live more fully. Thus, the goal of contemplating life’s impermanence is not happiness, but a liberation from the fear of death.
“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death… We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.”Michel de Montaigne
Reflecting on the impermanence of life also gives way to enlightenment as seeing that change is the only constant is seeing the nature of reality as it is. Buddhists say that recognising impermanence contributes to a better life because it makes you realise that everything you need for a happy life is in the present. If in a few minutes we were to get a call that a loved one has been involved in a serious accident, we would do anything to go back to this modern moment before the call. By conducting this thought experiment, we recognise two things: that change can happen at any time and that the moment that we live in now is enough to make us happy. And like interdependence, viewing reality through the glasses of impermanence allows us to reflect on the fact that we can change and grow.