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Buddhism and the Human Predicament

abracad, · Categories: buddhism, science and spirituality

After being raised in a background of wealth and power and sheltered from the harsh reality of life it is said that upon first witnessing sickness and suffering the Buddha was so overcome that he renounced his privileged status for a life of contemplation.

The Buddhist conception of the human predicament is summed up in the first two of the four Noble Truths, taught by Buddha shortly after he attained enlightenment; ie:

  1. Life, and all its experiences, are ultimately unsatisfying. This is the truth of dukkha, often interpreted as life is suffering.
  2. The cause of this unsatisfactoriness is attachment and craving.
  3. By ending attachment and craving, life's inherent unsatisfactoriness will also end.
  4. Attachment and craving may be ended by following the Noble Eightfold path (a prescription of right outlook and behaviors). Essentially by seeing the world objectively, eg by the practice of meditation.

Superficially, Buddha's diagnosis may seem overly pessimistic. Many things in life bring satisfaction and pleasure. But even in the midst of an idyllic experience, or lifestyle, we are painfully aware of nature's inherent impermanence; the shiny new sports car will eventually rust; the young, healthy body will eventually grow old, sick and die… (Conversely, impermanence means that unpleasant experiences will eventually cease, maybe for the better.)

Modern Science and Buddhism

According to the theory of natural selection we are continually driven to survive in order to pass our genes on to the next generation. This manifests itself, in accord with Buddhist teaching, as almost constantly feeling unsatisfied and craving the next meal, sexual partner etc.

Evolution has granted us instincts that were useful in our pre-civilization days but may be harmful now. Eg the craving for high energy foods may cause us to gorge on junk food and lead to associated health problems; the fight or flight response that once saved us from predators may now be triggered by such mundane events as the daily commute, leading to stress and other mental problems. Buddhist practice can be seen as a means to subvert the effects of natural selection and adopt an outlook and lifestyle more suited to modern life.

Buddhist philosophy teaches that attachment (to life) causes us to repeatedly reincarnate and re-experience the craving-suffering cycle. However, reincarnation is not generally recognized by mainstream science; although some researchers such as psychiatrists Ian Stevenson and Brian Weiss have produced evidence suggestive of this phenomenon.

Inspired by Prof. Robert Wright's Coursera course Buddhism and Modern Psychology

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Filed in: buddhism, science and spirituality

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