Philosophical Background


Buddhism’s long history has allowed it to adopt unique forms in various cultures, mostly throughout Asia, but more recently in the West. A number of unifying Buddhist principles are shared by most Buddhist establishments, and these commonalities serve to connect the major traditions. This article will outline some of these shared Buddhist views so that the reader can familiarize him or herself with a general understanding of Buddhism. Due to the impossibility of articulating a single, universal perspective that adequately represents the various forms of Buddhism, even this general overview will reflect the form of Buddhism of which the author is most acquainted, Pragmatic Buddhism. Most conclusively, Buddhism, in all of its forms, aims to: 1) provide human beings with a practical and achievable path that leads to the alleviation of suffering or unsatisfactoriness through the recognition of dependent origination and its conclusions (the interdependence and interconnectivity of all things), and 2) cultivate human actions that stem from this understanding.

Buddhism originated in northern India over 2400 years ago. While many Buddhist traditions converge on aspects of the birth, life, enlightenment and death of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, it is recognized in modern scholarship that these stories are not verifiable, as we have no primary sources from Siddhartha himself. The stories concerning Siddhartha’s life were compiled in a retrospective manner, in an attempt to solidify the most meaningful aspects of the numerous interpretations found throughout the early oral traditions of Buddhism. The Buddhisms of today are the result of centuries of revision and refinement, which includes the incorporation of cultural elements unrelated to the historical message of Siddhartha Gautama, but that are nonetheless meaningful interpretations of the Buddhist message.

Order of Pragmatic Buddhists LogoThere are key aspects of the stories of Siddhartha’s life that serve to enhance an understanding of Buddhism’s purpose. Unlike most Western religions, where the central prophet or messiah figure’s significance stems from his or her historical existence and physical acts, the historical reality of Siddhartha is not important in Buddhism. Instead, the vital element in Buddhism is the efficacy of Buddhist methodology, an actual path that leads to the alleviation of suffering or unsatisfactoriness in this world. Unsatisfactoriness encompasses the pervasive question of the “self” and the basic nature of personal identity. This question of the self arises when we perceive ourselves to be separate from the rest of our world, in a way that is deeply disturbing. This erroneous view of the self as separate from the rest our world—as opposed to playing an integral, connected role—is what Buddhism addresses through its various contemplative and meditative methods.

Buddhism posits an interconnected and interdependent reality where humans are not separate, but connected in an inherently meaningful way. We are important precisely because we are here, and we function as a necessary aspect of our experiences. Our world and our experiences are not characterized by separation, but are the continuously generated syntheses between the perceiver and the perceived, an ongoing interplay of mutual dependence. This focus on interconnectedness and interdependence makes personal Buddhist action simultaneously a social action, a point repeatedly emphasized by comparative scholar Peter Hershock, also a practicing Chan Buddhist. We help and care for our neighbors not simply because we are told to do so, but because we see that they are integral to our world just like ourselves. Moreover, we see others engaged in the same basic struggle as ourselves: as sentient beings seeking a solution to unsatisfactoriness. Buddhism acknowledges that the realization (“enlightenment”) of dependent origination (causation) leads to understanding and action that provides solutions to unsatisfactoriness, and is achievable by all people.

The Life of Siddhartha Gautama

Most Buddhist traditions agree that Siddhartha Gautama was born to a wealthy king in Northern India. A seer is said to have predicted that Siddhartha would become a great king, or a great spiritual leader. In an attempt to cultivate the former, Siddhartha’s father, it is said, ensured that all forms of unsatisfactoriness stayed out of his son’s life. In his early adulthood, Siddhartha’s curiosity compelled him to climb his palace walls and discover the condition of average, everyday human beings. His encounter with four human conditions—a dead person, a dying person, a decrepit person, and an impoverished person—challenged Siddhartha’s understanding of his world. Having been ignorant to such human conditions, the question of human unsatisfactoriness and a solution for its alleviation preoccupied his adult life. Siddhartha renounced his nobility and wealth, and set out on a course that would lead to answers.

The first step for Siddhartha was to learn as much as possible about his contemporaries’ answers to the problems associated with human unsatisfactoriness. The Indian intellectual environment during this time encompassed all of the major schools of philosophical thought. Included in this milieu were the traditionalists, rationalists, and empiricists. On the extremes, there was strict materialism (radical empiricism) and the metaphysical beliefs of the Upanishadic tradition (radical traditionalism). Strict materialism encompasses the belief that the material world is all that exists, and that the human psyche (mind, consciousness) does not exist at all. The materialists, who asserted only what could be known through the senses and adhered to the philosophy of determinism (all things are on a fixed course and human action cannot affect real change), believed that:

  1. there was no such thing as a “self” or “soul”
  2. that the laws governing the Universe and their consequences (karma) did not affect the human mind--they did not believe in the actual existence of consciousness, much like the modern philosopher Daniel Dennett
  3. that there is no continuity after death, only annihilation.

On the other end of the spectrum were the metaphysical theories contained in the religious Upanishadic tradition. “Metaphysics” means “beyond the physical,” and it addresses ideas that cannot be proven through the senses. The Upanishadic school asserted:

  1. the existence of an individual soul (atman)
  2. the reality of human consciousness and karma
  3. the continuity of one’s personality after death.

Siddhartha committed himself to an intense study of the major schools of Indian thought in the accepted manner of his time: personal apprenticeship with verified Masters.

Though Siddhartha was confirmed to have mastered the various schools he studied, which included traditional yogic asceticism of the Upanishadic tradition as well as empiricism and the analytical traditions of the rationalists, he rejected the teachings he received from these schools, citing their extreme and narrow orientations as a significant limitation. According to Siddhartha, extreme and narrow views are not only incapable of providing effective solutions to our problems, they do not adequately describe the holism of our experiences. Extreme and narrow views exaggerate some points while ignoring others. Siddhartha’s study and mastery of the available traditions had not yet answered the basic human question that mattered to him the most: how do human beings alleviate persistent unsatisfactoriness in this world?

Siddhartha is said to have found solace by sitting in contemplation, or reflective quietude, and meditation (awareness cultivation) under a Bodhi tree. According to Buddhist tradition, it was under the Bodhi tree where Siddhartha realized the source of human unsatisfactoriness as perpetual craving and unnatural attachment. He recognized the alleviation of human unsatisfactoriness as awareness of dependent origination, the process by which all things in this world arise and pass away--known as “causation” in the West. While the traditions Siddhartha (who will now be referred to as “the Buddha”) studied focused primarily on a deeply personal realization experience, his pursuit involved a question that was pertinent to all of humanity; the results of his insight under the Bodhi tree necessarily involved all members of the human community. As Buddhist scholar David E. Shaner has pointed out, realization in the Buddhist tradition is necessarily a personal and social question, which involves not only oneself, but also one’s entire community of sentient beings.

In order for this personal and social realization to occur, it is necessary for one to embrace rigorous self-honesty about his or her current condition, and he or she must also determine a suitable methodology and worldview through which he or she can attend to the problems associated with unsatisfactoriness, especially the question of the self mentioned earlier. By embracing both of these key aspects, rigorous self-honesty and a perspective that yields meaningful solutions to the problem of human unsatisfactoriness, one authenticates his or her unique situation in this life, and a realization of interconnectedness and interdependence of all things results. Authentication of one’s contingency in this world is the condition necessary for realization to take place. The notion of authentication specifically refers to the awareness of one’s own contingency and acculturation, and the commitment and rigorous self-honesty necessary to embrace a more inclusive, holistic worldview that allows the dissolution of dualistic thinking--the belief that what we experience in our world is separate or disconnected. As we will see, authentication is akin to a meaningful notion of human liberation, and this relies on a connected experience.

After his personal realization, the Buddha spent the remainder of his life guiding others in what would come to be known as the Buddhist path.

Buddhist Principles: Dependent Origination, Nonduality, Karma, and Rebirth

Buddhist principles stem from an awareness of the binding conditions of humanity, especially as made known through unsatisfactoriness, and the realization of dependent origination. Additionally, Buddhist methodology seeks to address present problems in this world, and is therefore pragmatic in approach. The Buddha’s pragmatic approach was rooted in his keen observations and understanding of the contingency of all things. Such an understanding necessarily acknowledged that each person would require different degrees of teachings to arrive at realization, a pragmatic notion known as “skillful means” (upaya). Many of the metaphysical notions employed by the Buddha were intended as such skillful means, to reach varied audiences who related to such teachings. The historical record is full of examples of the Buddha altering his teaching methods to facilitate realization in his students.

The affinity for awareness of our experiences and present conditions has its roots in the ancient Sanskrit concept of rta, meaning “natural order” or “every event has a cause.” Consequently, dependent origination plays a central role in Buddhist thought. Because every event has a cause, the Universe is seen as interdependent and interconnected, and all things that arise and pass away relate to all other things--known succinctly as dependent origination. This particular concept and its central place in Buddhist thought is one of the major reasons for the mutual interest and agreement between Buddhism and modern science, a paradigm grounded in causation.

Given that a Buddhist perspective acknowledges that all things emerge from continuity, Buddhism is well known for its emphasis on nonduality. Instead of viewing the world in terms of “good” vs. “evil,” “liberal” vs. “conservative,” “us” vs. “them,” Buddhism recognizes that the orientations and views humans take stem from particular perspectives, which each yield their own conclusions, dependent on the contingency and present needs of the observer. All human beings are privy to a particular albeit limited perspective of the whole. But by staying mindful of the knowledge that our personal views are limited, and by retaining an understanding that all things are connected, we can contribute to personal and social harmony that acknowledges difference and variety as just unique manifestations of the whole. Comparative philosopher Thomas P. Kasulis, in his book Intimacy or Integrity: Philosophy and Cultural Difference, says it well:

...the better we can adjust the way we analyze and communicate, the more successful we will be in establishing fruitful, pragmatic, and effective relations with a diversity of others. There is something we will have to give up, however--namely, the idea that there is only one legitimate take on reality...I cannot argue orientations; I can only argue within them. (157)

Kasulis points out that from each of our perspectives, what we see is really what we see. The important point in Buddhism is that even among the differences, we recognize that these relative perspectives are to be holistically situated, where our individual views contribute positively to the harmony of the whole, whether it is to human society or environmental health. This inclusive perspective, where we keep our eye on the big picture even when we cannot see it, must be cultivated. Like any positive attribute we seek to incorporate into our mind-body, we must practice and act, as this teaches us how to become better at being good human beings for ourselves and others. Just like athletes who must train themselves to perform on the field, seeing the world in holistic terms requires active participation on behalf of the practitioner. Holism as such dissolves the problems that arise due to dualism, or the belief that things in this world are separate and disconnected. One such dualism is the problem of the “self,” where we perceives ourselves as existentially separate and disconnected from other people and our environment.

An awareness of dependent origination and nondualism are cultivated in Buddhism through prelinguistic awareness (also known as awareness of undifferentiated or pure experience). This cultivation of pure experience without the attachments and labels of thought and language is usually achieved through awareness cultivation practice, sometimes called “just sitting in mindfulness.” This allows one to develop an understanding of and appreciation for dependent origination as the “glue” of our experiences. Perceiving holism can be cultivated through a continuous engagement of pure experience--through regular practice--so that acceptance and more inclusive understanding can become integrated into the practitioner’s mind-body. Such an immediate awareness of our experiences allows us to see the dependent origination of all things; this particular view grants us the ability to let go of our cravings and attachments that propagate the cycle of unsatisfactoriness.

How does one embrace an immediate awareness of his or her experiences? Uncultivated, our perspectives are distorted by our acculturated attachments. Instead of experiencing our world in an inclusive, holistic way, we screen our experiences with judgement, preference and differentiation, mostly due to our biopsychosocial acculturation. These distortions stem from the labels that we attach to our experiences, our craving for and our fear of them. These labels are insufficient to describe our experiences, as our experiences are fleeting; they are integral to the continuous change of dependent origination. This is the world most of us live in most of the time, what philosopher Martin Heidegger called average everydayness. Nondualism is realized during practice such as awareness cultivation when one is able to let go of the desire to constantly discriminate his or her experiences. Most important is the understanding that nonduality characterizes our experiences; thus, even when going about our normal lives in the world of thought and language, where discrimination and labels are necessary for practical purposes and to weave the web of social interaction with others, we can know that our experiences remain unified. In this way, the practice of awareness cultivation in Buddhism is an exercise in realizing a more inclusive, holistic worldview, one characterized by nonduality. This achievement of increased awareness and a larger perspective does not occur without rigorous self-honesty (to identify current weaknesses), acceptance of personal perspectives that work well for us individually, and continuous practice (to literally “train” the mind-body how to think and act holistically). Buddhist practice, as awareness cultivation, is a powerfully effective way to realize nondualism.

When considering how to obtain reliable information from a world in which we are part and parcel, Buddhism recognizes three primary epistemological (how one comes to know) methods:

  1. testimony of another (usually an authority)
  2. account from an authoritative text
  3. personal experience (experiential verification)

All of these components must be considered, and no single source of knowledge is sufficient to generate an informed understanding of the world. However, method (3), experiential verification, plays a particularly prominent role in Buddhism. This is often demonstrated in the Buddha’s famous admonition, “Be a light unto your selves.” This idea of personal veracity of our experiences is also highlighted in pragmatism, where authentication is used to describe the personal investigation (contemplation) of one’s present views in such a way that he or she can choose--from among the viable options for that person--the views that work best to create sustainable harmony in one’s life and one’s society.

Acknowledging (1) and (2) above as valid epistemological methods allows for a social dimension of knowledge to become integrated into one’s understanding, and this helps to prevent individuals from accepting extreme views through their personal experiences alone. Avoiding the extremes leads to Buddhism’s middle way. It serves the same function as professional associations today, which help govern the overall direction of individual practitioners in a way that preserves the integrity of the entire profession, a concept described by Richard Rorty as intersubjective agreement. The particularly important method of (3) experiential verification necessitates consistent Buddhist practice--usually contemplation and meditation--as this refines the ability of a person to trust his or her senses through the cultivation of awareness and the implementation of mindfulness in everyday life. Buddhists posit that cultivated awareness is a requisite for trusting the information gathered from the senses, to curb any tendency towards dogmatic views. The refinement of one’s ability to calmly perceive the world and thus trust his or her senses is a primary reason why meditation is central to Buddhist practice. An end result of this cultivation process, exemplified in long-time practitioners, is a perceptible and deep calmness, or relaxation in the practitioner’s disposition and actions. We have now traced what might be called the “triple As” or the “threefold formula”: awareness, acceptance, and action.

From a moral standpoint, dependent origination implies that nothing in the universe occurs at random, or apart from anything else. “Randomness” and “accident” are names given to events that are too complex for human beings to fully understand from our limited perspectives. Though a person does not always intend to take a particular action, there are very specific causes that converge and allow given consequences to emerge. Thus, while most events are beyond our personal control, the insight of dependent origination allows us to better understand the types of actions that will elicit positive or harmonious consequences, and those that will lead to negative or disruptive results. This recognition of balancing actions (equilibrium) is acknowledged by modern physics, and is what Buddhists call karma.

Related to dependent origination and karma is the Buddhist concept of “merit.” Merit, stated simply, is positive karmic effect that stems from harmonious action. The knowledge that such positive karmic results extend to all things, and specifically, all sentient beings is reason for the Buddhist practitioner to highlight the significance of merit in his or her practice. Merit, understood in this way, is not an “accumulation” or “storing up,” but rather is continually discharged to all things through the mindful actions of the Buddhist practitioner. Dedicating the merit that is discharged during Buddhist practice to all sentient beings, for example, is a symbolic recognition of interdependence and interconnectivity.

The question of “rebirth” necessarily follows a discussion of karma. What exactly is rebirth? Unlike reincarnation, which assumes the existence of an existentially discrete or independent “self” (or “soul”), rebirth implies that character dispositions or personality carry over in some form after death. It is viewed in Buddhism that a person will make a transition into a harmonious phase of existence because of his or her action-oriented self-cultivation, where one puts into practice the conclusions of his or her personal authentication and realization. An understanding of dependent origination and an ability to integrate this understanding into his or her mind-body and everyday life leads to human liberation, whereby the fear, uncertainty and unsatisfactoriness of a dualistic perspective no longer hold us captive. Even though we cannot know the state of human beings after death, any transition that may take place for the realizing, unattaching person is necessarily a transition that remains connected to all other things, as the idea of an independent existence is rejected in Buddhism. This is a common source of misunderstanding in Buddhism: that upon realization, one “exits” existence. This, however, does not take into account the central Buddhist concept of the dependent origination of all things, and its two fruits: interconnectivity and interdependence. One’s liberation after realization is a freedom or release from the perpetual unsatisfactoriness created by dualistic craving and attachments in oneself. It is not a literal liberation into a different realm, or into non-existence (something that exists cannot be “annihilated,” but can only transform). The Buddha rejected both eternalism (the belief in permanent existence) and annihilationism (the belief in permanent destruction). Buddhist practices that focus on achieving liberation in other realms or dissolving the self into a state of non-being, such as some Tibetan and Chinese and Japanese Pure Land practices, do so for the functional benefit of the practice first and foremost.

A modern or Western interpretation of “rebirth” is that it simply implies that one is not “annihilated” upon death, and that one necessarily remains interconnected with the rest of existence. Thus, while loyalty to experiential verification calls one to refrain from speculating on what exactly happens after death, it can at least be known—through modern physics and awareness of dependent origination—that like all things, human beings are not “created or destroyed.” Whatever the case, we can at least know that we will remain an integral part of our Universe in some form, though not in our current form (nothing is eternal or unchanging), which includes the “self” or “consciousness” we presently know. This is a valid and widely held interpretation of rebirth in the Buddhist West.

In remaining loyal to experiential verification, Buddhism does not ponder on the question of God or Gods, as such metaphysical inquiries are beyond the realm of human sensory ability and knowledge. Thus, it is important to recognize that while Buddhism does not answer or speculate about the question of theism, it does not deny it either. From the Buddhist perspective, humans are charged with dealing with the issues of everyday life in this world, because here and now is the location of positive transformation.

Three Foundational Concepts in Buddhist Thought

There are three foundational concepts in Buddhist thought that stem from an understanding of the previous section on “Buddhist Principles,” which will help explain Buddhist morality. These elements are:

  1. impermanence (anicca)
  2. unsatisfactoriness (dukkha)
  3. selflessness (anatman).

The doctrine of dependent origination implies that all things arise from the same processual activity, or “way-making” (Dao) and pass back to this continuously moving, flowing activity, revealing their impermanence of form. Rather than talking in terms of “being” or “nonbeing”--dualistic terms stemming from traditional Western philosophy--Buddhism is better explained by a concept of transformation, from which all things arise and pass back into. Continuity and practical meaning of form (including conventional thought and language) are maintained through interconnection and interdependence. This idea of impermanence does not, however, mean that the world as we know does not exist, or that it is literally an “illusion”; it only means that the world has no permanent, independent reality that is apart from everything else. The Buddhist view is one that embraces a middle way, where no extreme views are taken as acceptable accounts of our situation and experiences. Instead, our world as we know it is one of transformation and change, governed by dependent origination. All things arise and pass away, transforming their states, yielding to the idea that particular states (or forms) are impermanent, fleeting, transforming and changing. A concrete example is the transition of firewood into ash and other various chemical compounds that are released into the air. Though the firewood is no longer firewood, it has not vanished, only transformed its constituents. This example also helps to explain the Buddhist notion of rebirth previously discussed.

Dukkha, often translated as suffering but more accurately translated by Buddhist scholar David Kalupahana as unsatisfactoriness, is a human obstacle that prevents the realization of one’s wholeness and oneness with his or her experiences (or oneness with his or her Universe). This is the obstacle that is dealt with through sincere and deferential practice, such as that found through meditation (awareness cultivation). During meditative practice, the human mind enters a state of simple but profound awareness. (The beneficial physiological changes that take place in the human brain are well documented in James H. Austin’s “Zen and the Brain.”) This awareness, once cultivated, allows one to see the world as interconnected and interdependent. Importantly, this holistic view of our experiences, free from negative emotions (anger, frustration, resentment) and predetermined expectations that may cloud our understanding, must be regularly engaged through dedicated practice. Though the communicative ability of human beings is always bound by our acculturation, our experiences during awareness cultivation can remain undifferentiated, granting us insight into a positive, inclusive worldview from which we can effect important changes in ourselves and our communities. Meditative practice helps us acknowledge and distance ourselves from our sense of (an independent) “self” and our persistent fears that propagate craving, attachment and dualistic thinking. Regular meditative training—even 15 minutes a day—literally teaches the human brain how to receive sensory experience without judging it, or attaching labels to it. Fears associated with craving and attachment, fleeting moments of our experiences that we wish to eternalize, are the very source of our unsatisfactoriness. Impermanence is our condition, but an empowering condition where positive transformation is possible.

As mentioned, a basic element of the human situation is acculturation, or cultural inheritances that are initially unexamined by us. As they are unexamined, these inheritances become our habits. Peter Hershock puts it this way:

Many of these habits are entirely personal in nature, reflecting our individual likes and dislikes. But because we are born into families and communities and cultures, many of the ways in which our ignorance is habitually patterned are “inherited.” We are taught what things are and are not by parents, teachers, and friends but also by our culture more broadly. By appreciating the emptiness [impermanence] of all things, we become aware that the world we live in did not arise randomly, according to inherently fixed principles, or according to the purely objective operation of natural laws. Rather, it has taken shape in conformity with our likes and dislikes, according to our values, through our intentions, to meet our needs and desires. In Buddhist terms, our world is an expression of our karma. (21) (bracketed italics mine)

Through a recognition and acknowledgment of our acculturation and habits, we come to see that they are mostly not our own, but were rather transferred to us from previous generations, or from our present culture without choice. By recognizing unsatisfactoriness, we come to see the central role our inherited habits play in its perpetuation. By cultivating a deep sense of the impermanence of all things, we can begin to deconstruct the negative aspects of our present condition, and replace them with positive characteristics.

The acknowledgment of unsatisfactoriness is not considered a pessimistic concept, but rather a binding condition of human existence. Until our situation is acknowledged and confronted, it cannot be transformed in a meaningful way. The Buddhist path provides a way out of unsatisfactoriness, and the solution is found in this world.

The concept of anatman, as selflessness, stems from the idea of impermanence. One of the sources of unsatisfactoriness for human beings is the belief in a permanent self, or soul that is independent and separate. Buddhism acknowledges that the implications of dependent origination apply to human beings, and consequently, human existence is conditioned by causative factors--some knowable and some unknowable. If human existence is grounded in interconnectivity and interdependence as our cultivated experience indicates, then we are governed by them as well. Cultivating personal insight through Buddhist practice leads to the recognition that the notion of “self” or “soul” has no independent, permanent reality, and the elemental human fear of separation passes away. This understanding of selflessness is critical to releasing us from the types of human fears that produce unsatisfactoriness (fear of death; fear of rejection; fear of punishment). By embracing selflessness, a freedom emerges in the Buddhist practitioner that grounds itself in the realization that our experiences are already unified. Furthermore, this knowledge of unity, along with dependent origination, gives rise to the emergence of human liberation. Without exposure and insight into our unique and personal situation, we cannot be considered to have “freedom.” Once we recognize our situation, we can determine effective solutions to our problems in creative ways, allowing our freedom to illuminate a meaningful and positive sense of solidarity with our fellow human beings. Realization in oneself necessarily includes others as well.

Buddhist Morality: Four Ennobling Realities. (Four Noble Truths) and the Eightfold Path

The Buddha’s realization experience empowered him with insight into four basic human truths about human unsatisfactoriness known as the Four Ennobling Realities. (Four Noble Truths) They are:

  1. Unsatisfactoriness exists for human beings
  2. the cause of unsatisfactoriness is craving, unnatural attachments and dualistic thinking that neglect an understanding of dependent origination
  3. there is a path that leads to the cessation of craving and unnatural attachments of the mind, and thus there is a way to positively transform unsatisfactoriness
  4. this path is Eightfold.

The Eightfold Path

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Peter Hershock has pointed out that the Four Noble Truths are not to be considered absolute, but rather act as markers that help to guide us to a meaningful resolution to our central human problems. Moreover, they are meaningful for us only when we apply them to our unique circumstances (17).

A breakdown of the Eightfold Path, found in David Kalupahana’s text Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis, groups (1) Right View and (2) Right Intention as “Intellectual Understanding,” and (3) Right Speech, (4) Right, Action, (5) Right Livelihood, and (6) Right Effort as “Moral Understanding.” The final two parts of the Eightfold Path, 7) Right Mindfulness and 8) Right Concentration, are considered “Meditative Understanding,” and are the result of regular and wholehearted Buddhist practice. All of the components of the Eightfold Path are intended to aid the Buddhist practitioner by implementing the conclusions of Buddhist thought as described in the above sections, so that his or her thoughts, words and actions eventually emerge as unmediated reflections of a deep understanding. Following the Eightfold Path simultaneously places the Buddhist practitioner on the path of realization; observing the Eightfold Path is living out the fruits of realization.

Circularity, Compassion and the Bodhisattva Ideal

Buddhism seeks to posit a viable alternative to the view that we human beings are separate from our experiences, thereby helping to alleviate the unsatisfactoriness--in all its various forms--that plaque humanity. The Buddhist worldview, with its emphasis on cultivating an awareness of dependent origination, avoids eschatological perspectives, where a linear progression is charted by its practitioners, or where an “end times” is awaited. Buddhism asserts a circular cosmology, where unique and contingent conditions arise from and pass back into a continuous, connected transformation. Buddhists see that what is here has always been here and will always be here, though it will continually manifest dynamic transformation. There is no cosmological beginning, a time when our universe did not exist, nor is there an “Armageddon” in Buddhism. There is only the here and now--the locus where we can effect meaningful change in light of our unique situations.

It is in the here and now where the Buddhist practitioners effect positive transformation in their world. During this change and transformation—during the betweeness of everyday life—authentic, realizing persons act as guides for other human beings in how they live out their lives, serving others by example. This altruism is a natural result of realization. One who sees our experiences as unified, acts in ways that cherish this holistic view.

The natural emergence of altruism in the person who sees our condition as connected allows for a unique concept to arise in Buddhism. The Bodhisattva ideal is the conclusion to realization. Though there are various cultural and sectarian differences in the understanding of the Bodhisattva, Buddhism as a whole acknowledges the living role of the realizing person as one of a guide for others, by being an example of the possibility of living life as an outstanding human being.

Perhaps the most important point is that average, everyday human beings are those who achieve realization. Authenticating themselves, freeing themselves from the cycle of unsatisfactoriness, these average, everyday persons share their positive and transformative approach with others through skillful means. Freedom from unsatisfactoriness does not require divine abilities or magic, nor material wealth, intellectual intensity or physical prowess. Anyone who accepts the personal responsibility of simple and modest, daily practice can work to discover the personal issues that prevent their own realization of dependent origination. The Buddhist practice of awareness cultivation aims to do just this. Meditation is the central Buddhist tool for this positive self-transformation.

Meditation is our simplest tool, // Breathing in... // ...Breathing out, // Seeing the world anew.

Chan/Zen Buddhism

"...Buddhist practice is always both a critique of self and a critique of culture. Although our individual values, intentions, and desires are central to our karma and the kind of life we experience, so are the broader values and patterns of conduct that we inherit from our culture." Peter D. Hershock, from Chan Buddhism

Chan Buddhism focuses on the method of sitting meditation as a primary way to understand the Four Ennobling Truths and the Eightfold Path as taught by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. According to legend, the emphasis on sitting was brought to China by the Indian monk Bodhidharma. While in China, Chan Buddhism emerged as a distinct approach characterized by a synthesis between Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism. After hundreds of years of development in China, Chan was transferred to Japan most notably by the Japanese philosopher-monk Dogen in the form of Soto Zen.

Today at the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism, we utilize the methods of Chan and Zen, along with American Pragmatism in a manner that takes the needs of the Western mind into consideration, one that appreciates personal and cultural background. As Westerners, Americans have specific needs in developing a meaningful Buddhist practice. Just like every phase of Buddhism's evolution, a new form arises to meet the needs of its new sociocultural environment. The measure of our success at CPB is found in the people who comprise us and our effectiveness in helping others. Though we stem from a wonderful lineage of teachers, it is our contemporary reach that empowers and defines our practice at the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism.

Though time and refinement are required to establish a distinctly American form of Buddhism, the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism is actively engaged in this process, and has adopted a weekly practice schedule that speaks directly to our contemporary situation in the United States. Following our formal meditation practice, CPB teachers give dharma talks, and then we engage in group discussion, a means of applying our practice to current issues. During this open forum, members and guests ask and discuss various questions pertaining to everyday life and how issues or problems might be addressed from a Buddhist perspective. CPB teachers offer Pragmatic Buddhist teachings and perspectives, aiming to guide and empower the questioner while engaging the entire group. This "Ask-A-Monk" format was devised by Jim Eubanks' dharma teacher, the late Ryugen Fisher (Shi Shen Long). Time during group discussion is devoted to our group Buddhist education, where CPB teachers discuss important topics in Buddhist studies. This portion of our program is associated with a particular reading. To see the current book we are reading, please click here.

Prior to the dharma talk and group discussion, CPB teachers lead the group in a bell meditation, a walking meditation, and sitting in mindfulness (zazen).

When practicing personal development at CPB, one engages Buddhism in a way that promotes positive perspectives, promotes bodily health, and allows the "letting go" of unhealthy or negative aspects of one's life that lead to unsatisfactoriness.

One of the primary goals of CPB is to present an historically perceptive Buddhism to Americans in a Western vocabulary. While particular language is often used in the Buddhist community, it can often hinder a practitioner's ability to make Buddhism meaningful. The Buddhist jargon is often confusing, and may require years of study in itself. The Center for Pragmatic Buddhism has created a vocabulary to achieve the practical purpose of conveying Buddhism in a way that makes sense today.


"On the pragmatic view I am putting forward, what we call "increased knowledge" should not be thought of as increased access to the Real, but as increased ability to do things—to take part in social practices that make possible richer and fuller human lives." Richard Rorty, from Philosophy as Cultural Politics

Pragmatism as embraced by Pragmatic Buddhism includes classical American pragmatism and neopragmatism. These two branches of the pragmatic perspective share an equal emphasis with our embracement of traditional Buddhism in the thought and practice at CPB. American pragmatism is a system of philosophy that values practical application and function over theory as a way to solve human problems. It stems directly from great thinkers such as William James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey, Charles Horton Cooley, A. N. Whitehead and George Herbert Mead.

Neopragmatism is most commonly associated with the late Richard Rorty, an internationally recognized philosopher, whose work emphasized the social and creative aspects of language. Neopragmatism rest on the idea of antifoundationalism, the idea that there is no privileged vocabulary or way of speaking or believing. Language is purely relational and does not "mirror" nature, or escape its own unique historical and cultural situation. Through the neopragmatism of the late Richard Rorty, the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism is developing an "American" approach to Buddhism, having revised the language employed to describe Pragmatic Buddhism and having embraced an indigenous system of thought alongside traditional Buddhism. This position is liberating, as it allows us the ability to redescribe our selves and our society through the playful and creative use of an ever-shifting language. Impermanence must indeed be applied to all things, including our forms of Buddhism.

All major forms of Buddhism alive and well today have survived by synthesizing a traditional approach with a novel, indigenous worldview; at CPB we have chosen to embrace American pragmatism and neopragmatism. Just as Buddhism emphasizes impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), selflessness (anatman), Pragmatism emphasizes contingency, openness and antifoundationalism (no essence or underlying substance). Both Buddhism and Pragmatism reject metaphysics, dualism and extremism (dogma), and instead embrace a "middle way."

Pragmatic Buddhism

"Remember that the historical Buddha himself rejected most of the central “traditions” of his day. He rejected the fundamental Hindu doctrine of atman, or the “eternal Self,” and posited anatman in its place: selflessness. But the reason Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) rejected this doctrine was not because of a rebellious and irreverent mind, but because he saw that the concept of atman was hindering meaningful personal and social development for the Hindu people. He sensed that the lure of the attachment to the idea of a permanent, eternal Self, when no experience of permanence and eternalism is possible, led spiritual seekers down a dead path. Tradition is simply a set of values and expectations that worked for a previous generation of peoples, but tradition says little of its value to us today when it is not appropriately weighed against the contemporary needs. This is just like the historical Buddha rejecting the traditions of his own day after seeing they no longer worked as well as they could. Instead, we must take the heart of the message and put it into whatever form works. This is Pragmatic Buddhism: mindfulness made meaningful for today's world."