Those who have followed the excerpts I have been publishing from my ‘Book in progress’ on the history of moral thought will know that there were several gaps in the chapters. That was because I left till the end a series of chapters on the Indian and Chinese traditions. These are now almost complete, and I will publish, as before, monthly extracts from each remaining chapter. Some of the chapters have been renumbered as you can see from the complete set of extracts.

This extract is from chapter 5 which explores the ancient Indian traditions, primarily Hinduism and Buddhism.


Siddharta Gautama was born in what is now Nepal some time between the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the fifth century BCE, into a prosperous, aristocratic family, part of the powerful Shakya clan. For most of his early life, he had been shielded from the reality of the poverty and degradation that surrounded him. In his late twenties he was finally forced to confront sickness, suffering and death, coming face to face with an old man, a mortally sick man and a dead man. So shocked was he by these encounters that Gautama left his family and comfortable home life, taking to the road to become a wandering ascetic, debating the nature of suffering with yogis and mendicants. Six years of asceticism and self-denial brought about no change to his sense of dissatisfaction and his frustration at not finding meaning in life. He turned to meditation. For forty nine days and nights he sat under a fig tree, now known as the bodhi-tree, or ‘tree of awakening’, in Gaya, a small village in north east India. After 49 days of meditation he gained enlightenment, understanding both the cause of worldly suffering and the means of transcending it. ‘I have obtained nirvana’, he claimed.

That, at least, is the traditional story of the Buddha (‘the enlightened one’), as Gautama came to be known, and of his enlightenment. In fact we know almost nothing with certainty about a man who lived two centuries before Aristotle. The main sources of his life and teachings are a variety of different, and often conflicting, traditional biographies, the earliest of which, the epic poem Buddhacarita, dates from the 2nd century CE. Of the actual words of the Buddha nothing is left. Early in its history, Buddhism divided into innumerable sects, possibly more than 30, each with its own story of Gautama’s life, each with its own canon of scriptures.

Whatever the historical truth, there are certain teachings now accepted as genuine by virtually all Buddhists. By tradition, the Buddha gave his first talk at the Deer Park in Sarnath, in the vicinity of Varanasi, or Benares, on the banks of the Ganges, where he gathered his first five disciples. The so-called ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ is to Buddhists as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount  is to Christians. Like the Sermon on the Mount, the Buddha’s discourse is likely to have been patched together by later followers, shaped to reflect subsequent readings of his thought, and the changing needs of Buddhists, and then projected back to establish a canonical text.

At the heart of the ‘Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ are the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that the world is permeated with suffering, or duhkha, a concept that refers not just to pain and sorrow but also to dissatisfaction and unfulfilment. Duhkha is one of the Thee Marks of Existence (trilakshana), or features of earthly life. They stamp our lives so indelibly that those who ignore their reality will find nirvana always to be beyond their reach. The other Marks of Existence are anitya, or impermanence, and anatman, meaning ‘no self’ or ‘egolessness’. Anitya expresses the belief that everything in the phenomenal world is in a state of flux. This includes human beings themselves. Hence anatman, or lack of self. All human existence, for the Buddha, is a series of discontinuous moments. The image he presents is of a row of unlit candles. The first candle is lit, used to light the second, but is itself then extinguished; and so on it continues down the row. Human existence, too, consists of a series of moments lit up and snuffed out. Each moment of consciousness gives birth to the next and then ceases to be, so no person is constant from one moment to the next. For Buddhists, the belief that humans possess a self, that there is an essential ‘me’, is part of the illusion of permanence that must be discarded if an individual is to achieve enlightenment.

The second of the Buddha’s Noble Truths was that the cause of all suffering is human desire, the thirst for that which cannot satisfy, including the desire to be a self. Originally a place of bliss, the world had been reduced to a place of suffering by human capitulation to desire a sentiment that was, half a millennium later, to be echoed in Christian thought, though in Buddhism the cause of degradation is not sin, as in Christianity, but ignorance. Suffering can only be ended through renunciation of all desire, the third of the Noble Truths. Renunciation of desire is the path to nirvana, or liberation from rebirth, the Buddhist version of the Hindu idea of moksha. Like Hindus, Buddhists believe in the cycle of birth, death and rebirth in a new form that is the inevitable burden of human life. Only through enlightenment – moksha or nirvana – can one break that endless cycle. What rebirth means when one does not possess a self, and when every individual’s life lacks continuity from one moment to the next, let alone from one birth to the next, is a conundrum that Buddhists have endlessly debated, and upon which arguments have endlessly foundered.

The fourth Noble Truth upon which Buddha insisted was that desire can only be renounced through following the ‘Eightfold Path’, eight principles of actions that lead to a balanced, moderate life. These include the acceptance of the Four Noble Truths; the resolve to live according to the Buddhist way; the wisdom to adopt the right kind of livelihood, rejecting for instance jobs that involve killing, such as being a butcher, hunter, or a soldier; and the determination to act ethically by avoiding killing, stealing, prohibited sexual activity, unjust speech, and intoxicating drinks.


There is, at one level, something Aristotelian about the Buddha’s conception of the good life (or there would be were it not anachronistic to describe as Aristotelian the ideas of a man who lived two centuries before Aristotle). Reason rather than revelation is the starting point for his thinking, and ethics rather than metaphysics its endpoint. The Buddha rejected Vedic metaphysics (even though his teachings drew upon certain Hindu metaphysical concepts), and even more Brahmanical ritual, especially the sacrificing of animals. What he demanded was a commitment to ethical behaviour. Buddhist ethics, too, wrenched itself away from Hinduism, neither rooted in the privileges and tyrannies of caste identity, nor seeking to justify the caste system, though it never properly challenged it either. It emerged, rather, out of a concern for the welfare of humanity as a whole. There is a reasonableness, even triteness, about Buddhist prescriptions that again is reminiscent of Aristotle. The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as the ‘Middle Way’ between the extremes of asceticism and hedonism, of poverty and luxury, an idea that finds an echo in Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’.

Yet Buddhism is also fundamentally different to an Aristotelian conception of the world and, despite its humanist approach, is in certain ways much closer to a theistic vision of the human condition. There has been a tendency, by some of its advocates, especially in the West, to overplay the rational and humanistic quality of Buddhism. At its core Buddhism is a doctrine of salvation. Unlike Aristotle, the Buddha did not view ethics as a means of building the good life on this Earth, but rather as a means of escaping the bad life of this Earth. His teachings embody a deeply pessimistic view of the world as a place of unremitting hurt and disappointment. Suffering without end in a futile round of rebirths after rebirths – that is the fate of most mortals. Escape comes through nirvana.

Buddhism never specifies what is meant by ‘nirvana’. It defines what nirvana delivers us from but not what it delivers us to. It is, as the philosopher of religion Edward Conze puts it, ‘a transcendental state which is quite beyond the ken of ordinary experience, and of which nothing can be said except that in it all ills have ceased, together with their causes and consequences.’ It is paradise without a deity or a theology, a paradise not discovered outside, but realized within.

The Buddha’s teachings were in large part a response to the social changes that were then convulsing India, in particular the new urbanization, the transformation of class structures and the emergence of the state. In Europe and the Middle East, similar developments helped give rise to the monotheistic faiths. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all arose in times of great social dislocation, when the foundations of traditional ethics no longer appeared sure. God seemed essential to many as a source of moral concrete. Monotheism, particularly Islam, flourished in parts of Asia, primarily through invasion and conversion. The indigenous response to the kinds of social upheavals that helped create monotheism in the West came not in monotheism but in non-theistic forms of faith, of which Buddhism was the first. There has been a great debate over the centuries about the extent to which we should look upon Buddhism as a philosophy or as a religion. It is perhaps best understood as a philosophy that historically, and socially, played role of faith. It did so not just in the sense of offering a source of spirituality and solace, but in the sense also of defining, as the monotheistic faiths did too, the meaning of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and of acting as the mortar in the foundation of social order.


  1. “There has been a tendency, by some of its advocates, especially in the West, to overplay the rational and humanistic quality of Buddhism. At its core Buddhism is a doctrine of salvation.”

    I could not agree more. And it is interesting that atheistic ‘scientists’ in the US trend toward a subtle endorsement of Buddhist ideals.

    • I don’t think they’ve “overplayed” those qualities, rather, they’ve simply dispensed with anything not compatible with a naturalist or materialist metaphysics, hence many of them identify with what they call (a bit misleadingly or confusingly) “secular Buddhism.” For instance, they don’t believe in the mechanisms of karma, rebirth, or nirvana, for that matter, nor do they, typically, believe mind or consciousness is distinct from the brain, often assuming or subscribing to reductionist positions on the so-called mind-body problem in philosophy. Representative here, are folks like Stephen Batchelor and the philosopher Owen Flanagan. Of course they’re free to do with Buddhism what they will, but sometimes they argue something to the effect that they’re describing what the Buddha “really” taught, that is, anything beyond naturalist assumptions and premises was added later, an accretion peculiar to the religious environment in which Buddhism arose, or arguments similar to this.

  2. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say the cause of all suffering in Buddhism is desire, at least desire simpliciter. It rather seems to me that is a kind of desire, one that implies the kind of “attachment” one finds in the Gita or inordinate desires, hence the translations of tanha and trishna (diacritics unavailable). The desire of freedom from karma, of liberation, and so forth, are perfectly proper desires, as are the desires, say, to be virtuous, or in the case of Buddhism, to follow the triune Eightfold Path (having to do with ‘right views,’ like the Four Noble Truths, the ‘chain of dependent origination,’ and the ‘three marks of existence, as well as morality and meditation: an emphasis on ethics or virtues without the other two parts paints a distorted picture of the tradition). Of course it may be true that, in the end, one need not have such desires insofar as their purpose(s) has been duly served, so in that sense we could speak of abandoning all desires, but the usual rendering misses the logic of the original Pali or Sanskrit translations (‘craving,’ ‘thirst,’ etc.: the desire is linked to particular kinds of experiences, it would therefore be perfectly proper do desire that experience or those experiences shorn of that linkage). Moreover, it is not just desire but desire AND ignorance (avidya) that serve as a two-fold cause of suffering. There’s much else here I would quibble with, especially the characterization of Buddhism as a “deeply pessimistic philosophy,” a characterization belied by the Buddhism “on the ground” as it were. In other words, travellers, tourists, foreigners, and the like frequently comment on the unusally kind and comparatively happy disposition of those who live in predominantly Buddhist countries (think of Pico Iyer’s writings on the Vietnamese or encounters with Tibetans, etc.). Where are all the pessimistic Buddhists? Is it because they don’t really believe in what their religious tradition teaches them? Not a few Buddhist philosophers have explained precisely why Buddhism is not pessimistic, “deeply” or otherwise.

    Better than a comparison of Aristotle and Buddhism is one between the Stoics or what Nussbaum called the Hellenistic “therapies of desire,” which relied on an medical or therapeutic analogy that was uncommonly similar in both cases. There are a couple of nice articles available on this as well, one comparing Stoic and Buddhist approaches to anger, for example.

    And I believe “salvation” has too many connotations associated with Christianity to be useful, and thus it’s helpful to think of the differences in meaning between salvation and liberation or emancipation, There may be similar functional equilavences (as placeholders, if you will), but these two concepts, in the end are, I think, rather different, and that is one reason why seasoned scholars of both Hinduism and Buddhism with a background in “comparative religions” do not typically use the notion of “salvation” in the context of Asian worldviews like Hinduism and Buddhism.

    Incidentally, there are philosophical and pedagogical (or even spiritual) reasons for there not being a definition of nirvana, having to do with the sort of consciousness experience (para- or suprarational, or nonconceptual and nonpropositional, etc.) that this points to. Similar approaches are found in the Daodejing, in Advaita Vedanta (with the notion of nirguna Brahman), and at the pinnacle of Patanjali’s characterization of the highest attainments of yoga (asamprajñāta-samādhi). Of course this is predicated upon an understanding of certain forms of consciousness that most contemporary philosophies of mind would deny are possible or don’t make sense given their philosophical and scientific (or metaphysical) commitments. One helpful approach is found in Robert K.C. Forman’s edited volume, The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1990). The characterization of nirvana as a “paradise within” is misleading owing to the connotations suggested by paradise, none of which apply to nirvana. When, for instance, Advaita Vedantins describe the experience of (nirguna) Brahman (or atman-Brahman) as “being-consciousness-bliss,” it’s simply a concession to the limits of language and so as to render the appeal of this emancipatory quest more psychologically appealing or palatable.

    I suppose I’ll wait to say more after reading the book. In any case, thanks for posting this and I look forward to learning more.

  3. By the way, despite the Buddha’s clear desire to distance himself from what he found disturbing in Vedic Hinduism, philosophically, the distance between his views and, say, Advaita Vedanta may not be as great as one might believe or is commonly assumed, at least with regard to the doctrine of “no-self/soul.” On this, see the excellent work by Miri Albahari, Analytical Buddhism: The Two-Tiered Illusion of Self (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

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