It's hard to find secular discussion of buddhism so I'm making this article completely secular. I will also use very few Pali words. While this makes it more approachable, it also makes it less accurate.
It may also seem strange that this is classified under "Philosophy". Although Buddhism could be classified as a religion I will try to focus on the philosophocal and phychological aspects.
Where did buddhism come from and should it be believed?
Buddhist philosophy was developed by a man called Siddhartha Gautama in (what is now) Nepal, in the 6th century B.C. The term buddha means "enlightened one", but to keep this text as secular as possible I will not use the term, instead opting for Guatama whenever I refer to him. This is very much in the teaching of Guatama himself, who eschewed any appeal to authority. We shouldn't believe anything in philosophy without introspection to verify if it is true.
Is Buddha real?
Scholars agree that Siddhartha Gautama lived. His father was either a type of king or an elected chieftain of a a small republic or oligarch. So he was born into immense wealth.
Some other historical events in his life are debatable. There isn't a lot of documentation of his early life, but it is said that he grew up in absolute luxury and was sheltered from all suffering, and then one day after witnessing an old man he left to become an ascetic, searching for enlightenment. For many years he lived with barely any food and luxury, but eventually he gave up after he realised ascetecism would not lead to complete enlightenment.
As the story goes, determined to find the way out of suffering, he resolved to sit under a bodhi and meditate until he knew the path. After endless days of meditation, he found enlightenment. The four noble truths was the first lesson that he taught, and is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism.
Should any of this be believed?
We don't really have enough conclusive evidence to know whether these events happened. No doubt they are subject to the fragility of memory and human embelishment. However we do have significant documentation of the teachings subsequent to these events. Whether or not you believe the path he took, you can assess the philosophy of Buddhism separate from Guatama himself. This is, in fact, what he recommends:
"When you know for yourselves that these qualities ... lead to welfare & to happiness — then you should enter and remain in them.”
The Four Noble Truths
Guatama taught his first lesson to the ascetics that he had lived with for many years. In this lesson he explained four key truths:
- There is suffering, and it is universal
- There is a cause of this suffering
- There is a way to end this suffering
- The way out of suffering - a way for us to live
It's apparent that these are not absolute truths - there cannot be absolute suffering if there is also a cessation of suffering. In this way the truths can roughtly be seen as a path. Once we understand each truth, we can move on and understand the next. Understanding isn't just a high level knowledge however. To move through the truths we must comprehend them in depth. The end of the path is one which buddhists would classify as the ultimate goal, and paradoxically this goal is described in the truths themselves: escaping from the human condition of suffering.
First truth: there is suffering
Test the validity. Is there suffering? And Why does it need to be understood?
Doesn't need to be detailed
stand under or embrace it rather than just react to it. With any form of suffering - physical or mental - we usually just react, but with understanding we can really look at suffering; really accept it, really hold it and embrace it.
Forms of suffering: suffering, unsatisfying, unreliable
Dukkha, the Pali word commonly translated as "suffering", has a few addtional qualities beyond just suffering.
It also has the qualities of being unsatisfying or unreliable. These qualities make the term more universally applicable - especially in cases that are pleasurable.
It's not apparent that pleasurable experiences can manifest suffering until you have a strong understanding of how impermanent they are. All experiences that are pleasurable will pass, transform, or change. They are therefore eventually and ultimately unsatisfying.
There is also little we can do to recreate pleasurable experiences in the same way and with the same intensity. The pleasure that we derive from an experience will be different or diminished, even if we go through the same process to recreate that experience (if we are able to recreate it at all). All experiences are also therefore unreliable.
Second truth: there is a cause of suffering
Test: is there a cause? and Why do we need to acknowledge the cause?
What is the cause.
attachment (or Impermanence?)
Third Truth: Cessation of Suffering
Doesn't need to be a far-off goal, can be recognised throughout the day and practiced. In this way, it is not a "stepping stone" that needs to be conquered before
Fourth truth: the path out of suffering
- Right Understanding
- Right Aspiration
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration