Buddhist origins: a systematic psychology for liberation

by David Ross Komito

Buddhism is distinguished from any other religion or spiritual system by a view of Reality and the human condition which was discovered by a person called Shakyamuni, who lived in India a little over 2,500 years ago. His view was not a revelation sent to him from some divine source but a realization or a change of consciousness and perception which resulted from a process of self-cultivation. He described the culmination of the process as becoming "enlightened" or as "waking up" to an awareness of Reality from the dream of appearances. The name Buddha is applied to Shakyamuni because it refers to his "awakened state." It is a tenet of Shakyamuni Buddha that anyone can become a Buddha by transforming how they think, speak and act. 

The Buddhist view is that just as our dream dramas are a product of our history, desires and circumstances, so our everyday experience can be described as being dreamlike because our everyday experience is as much determined by our desires, aversions and confusion as it is determined by the objective reality of the various phenomena we perceive. What the Buddha discovered when he woke up was that there is a cause for our living in our confused, dreamlike state rather than our living in Reality. And because our confused state of awareness is the result of a cause, if this cause could be removed our resultant dreamlike awareness would disappear and we would be able to perceive Reality as it is in itself. 

Why would anyone care if they perceived a real world rather than a dreamlike world? After all, many people spend a tremendous amount of time and money getting away from supposed "everyday reality" by watching television, taking vacations, drinking alcohol, and so forth. The Buddhist answer is that the way most people live their lives makes them unhappy rather than happy because their behavior is based on negative habit patterns and the confusion arising from erroneous notions about what is Real. If people could perceive Reality for what it is, they would think, speak and act in ways which made them happy. And in fact happiness is what most people seek. So if confusion, which is the root cause of unhappiness, is removed, unhappiness would cease. The Buddha also saw this connection between confusion and unhappiness when he woke up. 

So then, what is this confusion all about? At root, the Buddha said that it was a matter of not seeing that everything depends on something else. For example, if everything has a cause, then everything depends on its cause or causes, and nothing is independent. Moreover, things are not just dependent on the causes of the past, they are also dependent on the elements out of which they are assembled and the names by which we come to recognize them as being different from other things. Because the things we experience are dependent in these three ways they are not independent. However, we spontaneously perceive them as if they were independent. That is what the Buddha meant by confusion. Perceiving things as lacking independence, or as the Buddha said, being "empty" of independence, is seeing them as they really are. When a person awakens from the dream of perceiving things as independent to the Reality of perceiving things being interdependent, they also have awakened from their confused states. 

Awakening from confusion is also called "liberation" from unhappiness, because behaviors arising from confusion lead to unsatisfying, unhappy results, while behaviors arising from correct notions about what is Real can lead to happiness. Buddha affirmed the law of cause and effect, i.e., that all causes must produce results, and since it is observable that we experience both happiness and unhappiness which cannot be accounted for by the actions of this life, there must have been causes for happiness and unhappiness which preceded this life. And since it makes no sense that our happiness or unhappiness would be the result of the actions of anyone but ourselves, so we must have lived before the arising of this current body. And if it is the case that we lived before the arising of this current body, so it would logically follow that we will have other bodies in the future. This is called "rebirth" or "reincarnation." 

Over the centuries Buddhists have explored the problem of rebirth, usually seeking to avoid the unhappiness associated with continued rebirth in unfavorable circumstances. Buddhists have also developed differing ideas about what it is that gets reborn. After all, if unenlightened people such as ourselves only perceive appearances and not Reality, then our perceptions about ourselves must also be suspect. For example, we generally feel like independent beings who remain the same in spite of the changes in our bodies and minds as we age. What is it that feels the same? If we are confused about the things we perceive, wouldn't it make sense that we are confused about the part of us that "feels the same?" And if we don't even clearly know about ourselves as we are in this moment, how are we going to understand what it is that gets reborn? Different traditions of Buddhism have answered these questions differently in accordance with the needs of differing cultures and times. This is the source of apparently differing philosophical views in Buddhism.

Although differing philosophical views have developed over the centuries, the goals of liberation and enlightenment have been consistent among Buddhists, even if the religious practices for achieving these goals also have varied. Buddhists refer to these differing views and practices as "vehicles" because they carry one to the goals of liberation and enlightenment. There are two main types of vehicles: cause vehicles & effect vehicles. Followers of cause vehicles assert that liberation and Buddhahood are achieved by accumulating their causes, which are wholesome habits of perception and behavior. Followers of effect vehicles assert that liberation and Buddhahood can only be effects of these accumulated causes if they are potential in all beings. Thus they assert that liberation and Buddhahood can be achieved through practices which remove the confusion that covers these potentials of liberation and Buddhahood. In a sense, followers of both vehicles are doing similar things, there simply being a difference in their emphasis on particular practices and philosophical views. 

The Theravada tradition of Buddhism, that of the "elders," is a cause vehicle which emphasizes the achievement of liberation through the practice of wholesome habits of perception and behavior. It also emphasizes the philosophical view that confused ideas about what is a person are the main things which create negative behaviors; so this tradition emphasizes insight into the real nature of the person as a method for liberation from unhappiness. Although historically followers of this tradition lived throughout Asia, in recent centuries they mainly have been found in South and Southeast Asian countries, such as the current Sri Lanka and Thailand. In the United States, this tradition’s teachings often are referred to as "vipassana," or "insight meditation." 

At one time the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, the "Great Vehicle," could be found in all the countries of Asia, although in recent centuries followers of this tradition mainly have been found in Central and North Asian countries such as Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. Mahayana emphasizes dependence on and devotion to saintly teachers called "Bodhisattvas" who have achieved high levels of self-cultivation. Mahayana also emphasizes the philosophical view that people not only are confused about the nature of the person, but they are confused about the nature of all the phenomena they perceive, and removing all these sorts of confusion is required for achieving Buddhahood. In Mahayana there are cause vehicles, effect vehicles, and conjoined cause and effect vehicles. Mahayana traditions which emphasize devotion to the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas are examples of cause vehicles. 

There are several traditions of conjoined cause and effect vehicles in Mahayana. Shingon in Japan and tantra, or Vajrayana, in Tibet and Mongolia are conjoined cause and effect vehicles which assert that liberation can be achieved through practices which reveal or uncover the Buddhahood which is potential or covered in each person. For example, rituals such as chanting and visualizing one’s Buddha-nature are employed to uncover this potential. At the same time, these rituals transform negative habit patterns, thus accumulating the causes of awakening. Tantrayana is an alternative term to Vajrayana.

Zen is a Mahayana effect vehicle. Originally developed in China and later also practiced in Korea and Japan, this tradition asserts that the potential Buddhahood within each person is covered by the inattentive and thinking mind. Thus, stilling the mind through meditation practices is emphasized because restraining and focusing the mind will reveal the potential Buddha within. 

All Buddhist traditions have agreed that confusion is the root cause of unhappiness and that its removal liberates one from unhappiness. But one of the problems with being confused is that one is too confused to know how to go about removing confusion! That is why all traditions emphasize the importance of a teacher to guide one through this process. The Buddha founded the world’s first monastic order, and over the centuries Buddhist monks and nuns have had the opportunity to devote themselves to practices which remove confusion and bring about liberation. Having the greatest opportunity to practice self-cultivation they usually also have been the most qualified to serve as religious teachers and guides for the householder Buddhist communities who also wished to engage in practices leading to liberation.

Traditionally the Buddha is considered the greatest of all teachers. Since his departure from life in this world, his recorded teachings and the community of monks and nuns have been the source of guidance for Buddhists. These three -- Buddha, his teaching and the community of his followers -- are referred to as the "three gems." Taking refuge in the three gems, relying on the three gems for guidance in achieving liberation, is what makes a person a Buddhist. 

Buddhists believe that mental consciousness is the essential feature of Buddha-nature. They also believe that all living beings are conscious, sensing beings, and so have a Buddha-nature and are potentially Buddhas. Thus, reverence for all human and non-human life has characterized Buddhists historically. They were among the first vegetarians in India and Buddhist art has often emphasized the interdependence of humans and their natural environment and the need for modest utilization of the earth’s resources -- messages which are of profound importance in our time of ecological imbalance and resource depletion.