Buddha’s View of Life and the Beyond
Asupreme thinker and a supreme spiritual scientist, Buddha influenced the world of thought like no other. He was the embodiment of the age-old wisdom of India—one who fulfilled its meaning and goal by crossing the river of life, more than twenty-five hundred years ago. That is, Buddha attained “nirvana,” the ultimate truth of unity, the perfect wisdom. For the first time Buddha understood things as they are, not as they appear.
To educate others and thereby help them liberate themselves, as he did for himself, Buddha started teaching. To consider his teaching, we should also consider the fact that he was a product of his time during which the popular faith of Hinduism was in a state of decline. It was against the backdrop of a misplaced faith and practices that Buddha came up with a renewed set of teachings to suit the needs of his time. That being said, Buddha’s teaching was by no means different from that of the Upanishads—the philosophical core of Hinduism—regarding which he was not in dispute.
Throwing the popular religion of his day and its gods to the winds, Buddha prepared the right context to sow the seeds of his teaching that was open to all alike. “For the Buddha, religion did not mean theology, metaphysics, dogma, or even faith,” writes Eknath Easwaran. All that Buddha cared for was a radical change of man’s inner nature, upon which alone depended the spiritual progress, which he placed squarely on self-effort.
Buddha begins his teaching narrative, therefore, from the premise of our own life experiences. He points out that everything we experience in the world is in a process of constant change and therefore transient. That which is transient, according to Buddha, is painful. Buddha says that birth, disease, old age, and death are sufferings indeed. “Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?” he asks.
Here Buddha draws a legitimate conclusion, known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’, that life is sorrow and the cause of sorrow is ignorance and its product of selfish craving. In fact, ignorance of truth is the root cause of our suffering.
A brilliant physician of the mind, Buddha adopts a psychological approach in which he is guiding us step by step to climb the spiritual ladder. Having rightly diagnosed our problem as ignorance — ignorance about life and the world — Buddha is focused to remove it with the right understanding.
Buddha says that everything in the world is a compound of more than one element, and therefore, nothing stays by itself; everything depends on something else. Consequently, there’s no being but only becoming. Life is a series of such becoming states in which one state is the cause of another. This feature of relative existence, known as the ‘law of dependent origination’, is one of the central teachings of Buddhism.
What we experience is truly a chain of cause and effect, which is stated as a formula: “That being present, this becomes; from the arising of that, this arises. That
being absent, this does not become.” In other words, the becoming arises from a cause; if the cause is destroyed, the becoming is stopped. If it is not, the cause becomes the effect. This explains why our present is the result of the past.
Based on this law, nothing is permanent, including our mind and soul. Our seeming personality is, for Buddha, a compound of five elements. When they join together to form an aggregate, it gives the appearance of what we call a “living entity.” But it is an empty “form” to which we give a name, a mere sound, for convenience and counting.
Besides, nothing remains the same from moment to moment. Because everything is, including our world, a rapid succession of forms, giving rise to an illusory appearance which we mistake as real.
Buddha believes in the law of causation, where the causal energy is passed from one form to another to account for its continued identity. Buddha also believes in reincarnation, a product of karma. For Buddha, the causal evolution is controlled and sustained not by a God but by a universal law called dharma — the law of righteousness.
In short, Buddha paints a grim but realistic picture of what we call “life,” which is indeed an empty shell devoid of substance. It is here that Buddha invites us to urgently aim for nirvana — the end of worldly sorrow — for which the path that Buddha prescribes is the ‘Eight-fold Path’. Briefly put, the ‘Eight-fold Path’ is a call for intentional living — a life of reflection, discipline, truthfulness, and spiritual contemplation.
Where the life of the beyond is concerned, Buddha takes an absolute view of reality, not a theistic one. He denies the reality of a personal Creator-God. For this reason, Buddha has been accused of being an atheist, an agnostic, and a nihilist. Here is a scholarly rebuttal from Eknath Easwaran: ‘He was none of these; he was a supreme spiritual scientist. Ask him, “Is there a God?” and he will reply, “Why don’t you enter the depths of your consciousness and see for yourself? The answer is right within you.”’
Obviously, Buddha didn’t want to discuss that which is beyond the range of human intellect, which he considered both a waste of time and a major distraction. Nonetheless, Buddha did believe in the reality of an unchanging power behind the world of changes. Listen to his own words: “There is an unborn, an unoriginated, an unmade, an uncompounded; were there not, O mendicants, there would be no escape from the world of the born, the originated, the made and the compounded.”
Similarly, Buddha also believed in a permanent Self or Atman in every living entity. However, he didn’t want to preach it for two reasons: First, he feared that people would mistake the ego for the true Self. Second, the Self is beyond the range of human understanding for a meaningful discussion.
Buddha also denied discussing the nature of nirvana for the same reason. For Buddha, nirvana is to be experienced, which is incapable of being expressed in words, because it defies all notions about it.
Buddha’s religion was the ancient wisdom of the Hindus, the Upanishads, to which Buddha rendered a new meaning. Eliminating the elements of popular religion, Buddha taught a religion that was more scientific, more appealing, and more down-to-earth, and he laid it on the bedrock of dharma.
Dharma was indeed his Religion, his God, and his Truth. “Take refuge in dharma” was Buddha’s watchword. To borrow the words of Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, “Buddha was born as a Hindu, lived as a Hindu, and died as a Hindu.”