In Arising of Buddhism Part 2, I continue the story I started in the last episode by talking about new religious movements around the time of the Buddha, their major spiritual questions, and how they answered them. This should give you a sense of how Buddhism compared to the other new religions of its time, and how the Buddha’s approach differed from those of his contemporary spiritual teachers.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Arising of Buddhism Part 2: New Religious Developments in India Around 500 BCE [2:05]
The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects [3:55]
Teachings of Several Prominent Alternative Schools [6:19]
The Buddha’s Take on Transmigration, Karma, and Liberation [10:13]
A Disclaimer about Summarizing Buddhism in One Page [16:39]
Arising of Buddhism Part 2
Let’s start with a brief recap to set the stage for today’s discussion: In the last episode, I gave you a brief overview of the history of civilization in India, and a sense of the dominant religious traditions of northern India from around 2000 BCE through the time of the Buddha. I then described the social and economic changes starting around 800 BCE that apparently paved the way for new schools of religious thought and practice, including Buddhism.
Now I’ll continue that story by talking about these new religious movements, their major spiritual questions, and how they answered them. This should give you a sense of how Buddhism compared to the other new religions of its time, and how the Buddha’s approach differed from those of his contemporary spiritual teachers. As I discussed in the last episode, northern India experienced significant social, economic, and political changes between 800 BCE and the time of the Buddha, who born somewhere between 563 and 483 BCE. Iron age technology increased agricultural productivity, allowing the formation of cities, bureaucracies, and armies. Expanded trade led to a development of a merchant class, and ambitious kings absorbed smaller political units; the traditional tribal or clan-based social structure was disintegrating. Concurrent with these disruptive social changes was the arising of the doctrine of transmigration – the idea that beings are reborn in the world after they die, over and over, for incalculably long periods of time.
The Growth and Proliferation of Alternative Religious Sects
Part of the religious response to changing social conditions at this time in India was the growth and proliferation of alternative religious movements, or sects. A followers of these sects was often called a sramana, which meant “striver.” The sramanas were seekers looking for spiritual fulfillment and answers, and they were generally suspicious of the Vedic religions – particularly the priests, or brahmans, who profited from the religious services they performed. Sramanas rejected the premises of Brahmanism, formulated new philosophies, and usually taught practices intended to liberate practitioners from the cycle of transmigration – or least relieve their concerns about it.
Many sramana groups were comprised of, or led by, parivrajakas, or “wanderers.” Parivrajakas renounced the restrictions of worldly life, including caste, social, and ritual expectations. They lived in forests, caves, or other humble conditions as mendicants without social status, and depended on alms. They devoted themselves full time to spiritual study and practice, either alone or within loose communities formed around teachers. (The Buddha himself followed this tradition, becoming a parivrajaka at age 29 and studying for six years with various teachers; more on that in subsequent History and Texts episodes.)
Most of the sramana sects focused on the big religious questions of the time:
- Did the individual transmigrate through multiple lifetimes?
- If individuals did transmigrate, could they affect their future rebirths? In other words, was there such a thing as karma, or the law of moral cause and effect?
- If there was such a thing as karma, how did it work, and what could people do to increase their chances of happiness in future lives?
- Assuming both transmigration and karma, is there anything people could do to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth entirely?
Teachings of Several Prominent Alternative Schools
A brief survey of a few of the prominent sramana schools around the time of the Buddha will give you a sense of the variety of religious views being taught. The Lokayata, or “materialists,” denied the existence of anything immaterial. Therefore, the individual was annihilated at death, because no immaterial essence existed to be passed on to another life. It follows, then, that there was no transmigration, and no need to worry about future lives. The materialists taught that contentment can only be found in this life, and people were foolish to deny themselves pleasure, or to engage in moral behavior or altruism in order to affect their future rebirths.
The Ajivakas, or “lifeless ones” – probably a name applied to them by others – believed in transmigration but not karma. That is, nothing you did had any effect on the conditions of your rebirth. In fact, everything was determined by an entirely amoral, impersonal cosmic principle called niyati, meaning destiny, chance, or nature. Morality, the Ajivakas held, was a mere social convention. The way to peace was simply to accept the course of one’s life.
The Jains were led by Nigantha Nataputta, later known as Vardhamana Mahavira, or “The Great Hero,” and the Jain religion still exists. Mahavira believed in both transmigration and karma, and he had a very unique view of they operated. He taught that our immaterial life principle or soul, called jiva, is trapped within our bodies. In fact, everything that exists has some kind of soul enmeshed in it, including plants, animals, inanimate objects, minerals, bodies of water, drops of rain, wind, and fire. Karma is an impersonal, natural law that keeps souls captive within matter.
Jains believe selfish and careless actions generate literally “heavy” karma that more tightly binds the soul to matter. Causing harm to another living being brings about the heaviest karma of all – and this a serious matter if you believe everything in the universe is, in a sense, alive! Therefore, Jain monks take the practice of nonviolence – ahimsa – to extremes, adopting practices like eating as little as possible, wearing a mask to avoid inhaling insects, and moving slowly so as to minimize violence to the beings of the air (the featured image for this episode is a Jain monk). Lay Jains follow a prescribed discipline of their own to minimize harm in their everyday lives.
Mahavira taught that non-selfish actions generate light karma that dissipates quickly, but only suffering willingly undertaken burns off karma already accumulated. Therefore asceticism, penance, and fasting are a large part of rigorous Jain practice. If a practitioner is successful in destroying all of his karma, upon death his soul is finally freed from his body and – being lighter than matter – rises up to dwell eternally in bliss. However, the soul always remains a distinct unit; the Jains disagreed with the Upanishadic concept of Brahman, or the universal Being with which a personal soul, or atman, is eventually reunited.
The Buddha’s Take on Transmigration, Karma, and Liberation
So, how did Shakyamuni Buddha answer the popular spiritual questions of his time? I will go into greater detail about the Buddha’s teachings in subsequent episodes in this History and Texts series; here I’ll do my best to give you a brief overview of the Buddha’s take on transmigration, karma, and liberation so you can compare them to the religious traditions I’ve already discussed.
The Buddha (the term “buddha” means “awakened one”) incorporated the doctrine of transmigration into his teachings, although he treated it more like a background assumption than a focal point. He taught that karma was a very real force at work in the universe, and in some ways his view of karma was similar to that of Mahavira, teacher of the Jains. Jainism and Buddhism developed more or less at the same time, and it’s impossible to know whether one influenced the other, or the influence was mutual. In any case, the Jain and Buddhist views of karma are similar in two respects: 1) karma is presented as an impersonal, natural law of moral cause and effect, and 2) selfish and harmful actions a believed to generate negative karma – that is, to have a negative effect on the course of your rebirth. However, in almost all other respects, the Buddhist view of karma is very different from that of the Jains.
According to the Buddhist scriptures, on the night of his pivotal spiritual awakening, the Buddha experienced several critical insights about karma. First, he had a vision of countless beings enduring the cycle of transmigration, and this allowed him to observe how karma determines the circumstances of one’s rebirth. He also noticed that one’s state of mind when committing an action – one’s views and intentions – significantly influenced the results of the action. I will let one of my favorite scholars, the Theravadin monastic Ajahn Thanissaro, explain further (note, Thanissaro uses the Pali word kamma instead of karma; this passage is from the book The Wings to Awakening):
“The Bodhisatta’s realization in his second insight that kamma determines how beings fare in the round of rebirth caused him to focus on the question of kamma in his third insight. And, because the second insight pointed to right and wrong views as the factors determining the quality of kamma, he looked into the possibility that kamma was primarily a mental process, rather than a physical one, as the Vedists and Jains taught. As a result, he focused on the mental kamma that was taking place at that very moment in his mind, to understand the process more clearly. In particular, he wanted to see if there might be a type of right view that, instead of continuing the round of rebirth, would bring release from it.” (Thanissaro, The Wings to Awakening)
This process of thinking led the Buddha to observe, within his own mind, that particular views led to distress and suffering. When he dropped those views, the distress and suffering stopped. The most distressing and harmful view of all, the Buddha noticed, was the identification of your “self” with your body, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness. (This was considered an exhaustive list of all the things that make up a human being, collectively called the skandhas, or “heaps.”) The skandhas are impermanent, and ultimately no inherent, independent, enduring self-essence can be found within them (or outside of them). That is to say, in Buddhist terminology, the self is “empty.”
Unfortunately, we assume we have an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature, and are therefore obsessed with questions of – as the Buddha phrased it – “I, me, and mine.” We assume there is some kind of homunculus inside us who calls the shots, endures any frustration and discomfort, and can take credit for any success.
We become stressed and miserable when we base our lives on the premise of an inherent self, because our “self” is actually just a conventional designation for an unfolding experience based on countless causes and conditions. We are a flow, but we cause ourselves great trouble by trying to locate the self and either win territory for it or protect the territory we have. It’s a losing battle, and it makes us very self-absorbed. We tend to generate negative karma through ignorant and selfish actions, and if we are still obsessed with “I, me, and mine” when we die, we are drawn into another rebirth by our residual greed, anger, or ignorance.
Fortunately, the Buddha taught, we can get free of suffering and the cycle of transmigration. Through meditation, the practice of mindfulness, and study of the Buddha’s teachings, practitioners can perceive the truth directly and shed all incorrect views – including the assumption that we have an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature. If someone manages to drop all wrong views, the Buddha taught, they can achieve nirvana, or a sublime and blissful state in which all self-concern is transcended. At this point such people became buddhas (awakened ones) themselves, and upon death they are not reborn.
A Disclaimer about Summarizing Buddhism in One Page
The Buddhist teachings of no-self and emptiness are very subtle and easy to misunderstand even if you’ve been practicing Buddhism for a while, so don’t be surprised if what I just presented doesn’t immediately make sense to you! It’s also very challenging to summarize in few minutes the essential teachings of Buddhism or any of the other religions I’ve mentioned in this episode. Hopefully I least gave you a sense of how the religions compared to each other and were related.
I should also note that the Buddhist teachings I covered in this episode are those of original Buddhism. Many different sects, schools, and types of Buddhism have evolved in the last 2,500 years, and what I just described is not necessarily how all Buddhists would explain their foundational beliefs – especially when it comes to the concept of nirvana, or the emphasis on transmigration.
Embree, Ainslie T. Sources of Indian Tradition, Second Edition. Volume One: From the Beginning to 1800. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. (Original copyright 1958.)
Mitchell, Donald and Sarah Jacoby. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Robinson, Richard R., Willard L. Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikku. Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. Fifth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2005.
Skilton, Andrew. A Concise History of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Windhorse Publications, 1994.
Snelling, John. The Buddhist Handbook. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1991.
Thanissaro, Bhikku. The Wings to Awakening: An Anthology of the Pali Canon. Barre, Massachusetts: Dhamma Dana Publications, 1996.