Foundational Concepts in Buddhist Thought

by Jim Eubanks

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); and
3) selflessness (anatman). 

The doctrine of dependent origination implies that all things arise from the same Source (Chinese: Dao) and pass back to this Source, revealing their impermanence of form.  Rather than talking in terms of “being” or “nonbeing,” two Western terms stemming from ancient Greek philosophy, Buddhism is better explained by a concept of an underlying, penetrating Source from which all things arise from and pass back into.  Continuity and practical meaning of form (including everyday language and labels) 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 Path,” where no extreme view are taken as acceptable accounts of reality.  Instead, the world as we know it is one of transformation and change.  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.  This example also helps to explain the Buddhist notion of rebirth.

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 original state of wholeness and oneness with the universe.  This is the obstacle that is dealt with through sincere and wholehearted practice, such as that found through meditation.  During meditative practice, the human mind enters a state of simple but profound awareness.  This awareness, once cultivated, allows one to see the world as it is, free from emotions and prejudices that may cloud one’s understanding.  Meditative practice helps us acknowledge and distance ourselves from our false sense of self and our persistent fears that propagate craving and attachment.  Such things are the very source of our unsatisfactoriness.  The reality of unsatisfactoriness is not considered a pessimistic concept, but rather a fundamental reality of human existence.  Until our reality is acknowledged and confronted, it cannot be transformed in a meaningful way.  The Buddhist path (the “Middle 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.  If human existence is grounded in the same reality of interconnectedness and interdependence as all other things, then humans are a reflection of this reality.  Cultivating personal insight through Buddhist practice leads to the recognition that the notion of “self” or “soul” has no independent, permanent validity, 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 eternal punishment).  By embracing selflessness, a freedom emerges in the Buddhist practitioner that grounds itself in the realization that the Universe, including the human realm, is already unified.  Furthermore, this knowledge of the way things really are gives rise to the emergence of true human autonomy.  Without exposure and insight to reality as it is, one cannot be considered “free.”  With this freedom of exposure and insight comes a clear moral responsibility in followers of the Buddhist Path.