Buddhist Principles

by Jim Eubanks

Buddhist principles stem from keen observations of the world as it is.  This affinity for an accurate awareness of the natural world has its roots in the ancient Sanskrit concept of rta, meaning “natural order” or that “every event has a cause.”  Consequently, causation plays a central role in Buddhist thought.  Because every event has a cause, the Universe is seen as interdependent and interconnected, and all things that arise relate to all other things, a concept known as dependent origination.  This concept of dependent origination and its place in Buddhist thought is one of the major reasons for the mutual interest between Buddhism and modern science, especially psychology and neuroscience.

Given that all things emerge from a kind of cosmic continuity, Buddhism is well known for its emphasis on non-dualism.  Instead of viewing the world in terms of “good” versus “evil,” “liberal” versus “conservative,” “us” versus “them,” Buddhism recognizes that the orientations and views humans take stem from particular perspectives that each yield their own conclusions (perspective relativism).  Though this is a kind of relativism, Buddhist morality avoids moral relativism by acknowledging the Universal reality of interconnection and interdependence.  A Buddhist cannot act in any way he or she pleases, in a selfish manner, because hurting others does not acknowledge this basic reality of interconnection and interdependence.  The acknowledgement of perspective relativism is useful for its practical applications in everyday life, and to avoid the pitfalls of extremism that arise when one forgets he or she can only view the world from his or her unique but limited perspective.  The Buddhist Path, a “Middle Path,” rejects extremism.

When considering how to obtain reliable information from the world of which we are part and parcel, Buddhism embraces three primary epistemological (how one comes to know) methods:

1) testimony of an authority;
2) account of an authoritative text; and
3) personal experience (experiential verification)

All of these components must be considered, and no single source of knowledge is sufficient to generate an informed understanding of the world.  However, method (3), experiential verification, plays a particularly prominent role in Buddhism.  This is often demonstrated in the Buddha’s famous admonition, “Be a light unto your selves.”

Acknowledging (1) and (2) above as valid epistemological methods allows for a social dimension of knowledge to become part and parcel of an individual’s understanding, and this helps to prevent individuals from accepting extreme views through their personal experiences alone.  It serves the same function as professional associations today, which help govern the overall direction of individual practitioners in a way that preserves the integrity of the entire profession.  The particularly important method of (3) experiential verification necessitates consistent Buddhist practice—usually contemplation and meditation--as this refines the ability of a person to trust his or her senses through the cultivation of awareness and the implementation of mindfulness in everyday life.  Buddhists posit that cultivated awareness is a requisite for trusting the information gathered from the senses, so that emotions and prejudices do not cloud one’s judgments.  The refinement of one’s ability to accurately perceive the world and thus trust his or her senses is a primary reason why meditation is central to Buddhist practice.

From a moral standpoint, dependent origination implies that nothing in the Universe occurs at random, or apart from anything else.  “Randomness” and “accident” are names given to events that are too complex for the human mind to fully understand.  Though a person does not always intend to take a particular action (what we would call an “accident”), there are very specific causes that converge and allow given consequences to emerge.  Thus, while most events are beyond the personal control of human beings, the insight of dependent origination allows us to better understand the types of actions that will elicit positive or harmonious consequences, and those that will lead to negative or disruptive results.  This is acknowledged by modern physics, and is what Buddhists call karma.  In Buddhism, unlike Jainism, karma is seen to occur in all actions, and even when someone has achieved enlightenment (“realization”), one’s actions create karmic results, though such a person is said to create harmonious karmic results because of his or her cultivated insight and awareness. 

Related to dependent origination and karma is the Buddhist concept of “merit.”  Merit, stated simply, is positive karmic effect that stems from harmonious action. The knowledge that such positive karmic results extend to all things, and specifically, all sentient beings is reason for the Buddhist practitioner to highlight the significance of merit in his or her practice.  Merit, understood in this way, is not an “accumulation” or “storing up,” but rather is continually discharged to all things through the unmediated and harmonious actions of the Buddhist practitioner.  Dedicating the merit that is discharged during Buddhist practice to all sentient being, for example, is a symbolic recognition of interdependence and interconnectivity. 

The question of “rebirth” necessarily follows a discussion of karma.  What exactly is rebirth?  Unlike reincarnation, which assumes the existence of an existentially discrete or independent “self” or “soul,” rebirth implies that character dispositions or personality carry over in some form after death, until that consciousness achieves enlightenment.  Upon enlightenment, it is understood in Buddhism that a person will make a transition into a harmonious phase of existence because of his or her understanding of reality and actions that stem from this understanding, but the transition is not independent or separate from everything else.  This is a common source of misunderstanding in Buddhism at this time: that upon enlightenment, one “exits” existence.  This, however, does not take into account central Buddhist concepts, such as dependent origination, interconnection, and interdependence.  One’s liberation after enlightenment is necessarily a liberation from the unrealities one created oneself through ignorance and delusion of views and understanding; not a literal liberation into a different realm, or into non-existence (something that exists cannot “vanish,” but can only transform).  Buddhist practices that focus on achieving liberation in other realms or dissolving the self into a state of non-being, such as some Tibetan and Chinese and Japanese Pure Land practices, do so for the functional benefit of the practice itself. 

A modern or Western interpretation of “rebirth” is that it simply implies that one is not “annihilated” upon death, and that one necessarily remains interconnected with the rest of existence.  Thus, while loyalty to experiential verification calls one to refrain from speculating on what exactly happens after death, it can at least be known--through modern physics--that like all things, human beings are not “created or destroyed.”  Whatever the case, we can at least know that we will remain an integral part of the Universe in some form, though not in our current form, which includes the “self” or “consciousness” we know now.  This is a valid and widely held interpretation of rebirth in the Buddhist West.

In remaining loyal to experiential verification, Buddhism does not ponder on the question of God or Gods, as such metaphysical inquiries are beyond the realm of human sensory ability and knowledge.  Thus, it is important to recognize that while Buddhism does not answer or speculate about the question of theism, it does not deny it either.  From the Buddhist perspective, humans are charged with dealing with the issues of everyday life on earth, because here and now is the location of positive human transformation.