Introduction to Buddhism
Course: Essentials of Buddhism
Lecture: Introduction to Buddhism
Introduction to Buddhism
Welcome to the summary course of Buddhism. It is very important that as Christians reflect upon our witness in the modern world, we recognize that the vast majority of non-Christians today are already members of another world religion – Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. Therefore it is very important that we address the Gospel to a particular context of people on the ground where they actually live in their living religious context. It is essential for Christians who wish to obey the Great Commission, that we give some attention to the challenges of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
Buddhism in the world
According to David Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity and editors of the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are currently estimated to be around 379 million Buddhists in the world today. That represents nearly 6 percent of the world population. So this is a particularly important context to which to address ourselves. Buddhism has become much more attractive in the western world. There are thousands of Buddhists that have migrated to other parts of the world and of course it is quite dominant in Southeast Asia. So it is important for us to think about Christianity as a global religion, that we think about how the Gospel is going to effectively address itself to the context throughout the world.
As we will see, Buddhism is not an easy religion to define. As a working definition, we will define Buddhism as “a religious and intellectual movement founded in north India by someone named Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th century B.C.” This movement teaches a dharma or a teaching about the eternal truth about reality, whose followers believe, provides complete liberation from all suffering. As we are going to see in this summary course, there are three major branches of Buddhism. I want to take time to develop each of these three branches of Buddhism. The term “Buddhism” comes from the word “Buddha” and many of us are familiar with the word “Buddha”. This is a term which means “the enlightened one.” It refers to the particular teaching that came from this person named Siddhartha Gautama.
To begin with, we will trace the historical emergence of Buddhism and how it responded to various challenges within Hinduism. Hinduism is the most important context to be aware of because Buddhism is one of three major dissent movements against Hinduism. There are several Eastern religions which were birthed out of Hinduism: Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism are the most important. Buddhism is particularly important because it is the most important and the most significant dissent movement against Hinduism. There are times in studying Buddhism where one will need to make reference to Hindu ideas and Hindu thought, to which Buddhism addresses itself and challenges itself. Hinduism has managed to absorb every religion which ever walked through the door, and incorporated them within its own structure. But Buddhism was unable to be absorbed fully by Hinduism and this makes it quite significant.
Buddhism arose at a time when India was really ripe for a new message. This occurred in the 6th Century B.C. at a time of great religions in search of change within India. New monarchies were being established and the military and political forces of these ambitious kings were more open to challenging the traditional spiritual dominance of the priest in India. India, as you probably know, is based on a very strict social strata of categorization known as the caste system. The priests, or the Brahmins, represent the highest social strata in India. The kings and the warriors, the Kshatriyas, represent a lower strand on the social structure of the Indian system.
This was a time when the Brahmins were being challenged. All of the dissent movements that challenged Hinduism, including Buddhism, were basic challenges to the power of the Brahmin caste in India. It is in this context that Siddhartha Gautama was born. The word “Buddha” as I mentioned, is not a name, but a title meaning “the enlightened one.” This title was later given to this man named Siddhartha Gautama, who was born sometime between 578 B.C. and 447 B.C.; the traditional date is 563 B.C. Gautama was born near what is today known as Nepal, very close to the Indian border. He was born, according to tradition, into a very powerful military family, a ruling family. He grew up in great wealth and great opulence, but he was not of the high priestly order.
According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gautama grew up in such a life of ease and luxury and protected in the palace, that he had never actually been exposed to any of the more difficult and painful aspects of human existence. So the most important early legend about the Buddha is about when Siddhartha Gautama went on a ride out into the village, outside the walls of his protected castle and was exposed for the first time to four dramatic shocks that he had never seen before. This is known as “the four sights.” This really represents like a Damascus Road type experience for Siddhartha Gautama because he left as a ruling prince, protected from the ravages of the world, and he returns a completely changed man. This becomes the very seminal experience that Buddhists will tell and re-tell in many ways as they reflect on the early life of Siddhartha Gautama.
On this day, Siddhartha Gautama goes out and he has four sights. He sights old age, disease, death and meditation. Let me explain each of these experiences. First he goes out of the palace. He is riding on horseback in a chariot. He sees an old man and has his first encounter with old age. Gautama says to his charioteer, “Who is this man with white hair, supporting himself on the staff in his hand with his eyes veiled by the brows, his limbs relaxed and bent? Is this some transformation in him, or is it his original state, or mere chance?” In other words, he had never really seen anyone of old age. The charioteer replied and said, “This is called ‘old age.’ It has broken him down. It is the murderer of beauty. It is the ruin of vigor. It is the birthplace of sorrow, the grave of pleasure, the destroyer of memory, the enemy of the senses.” He explains to Siddhartha Gautama that this man is an old man who once was a child, just like he had been. He also once crawled on the ground. He also at one point became a handsome youth. Now, in the same natural order of progression, he has reached old age. Siddhartha Gautama was shocked. He had no idea that his life was headed toward this experience called “old age.”
Secondly, Siddhartha Gautama encounters a person who is very sick with sickness and pain. A similar conversation takes place about sickness and pain. He discovers that everyone ultimately encounters at some point, sickness and pain. Thirdly, he encounters a person who has died. Of course, he discovers that everyone at some point will experience the ravages of death.
Siddhartha Gautama is deeply disturbed at these sights. He is at a point of despair. He tells his charioteer to “Return me to the palace. I’ve got to go back.” As he travels back to the palace, he amazingly sees a fourth man. This changes the whole experience of the first three. He had seen age, sickness and death. But now he sees a fourth man, a man meditating under a tree, someone who denounced both pleasure and pain in search for truth. He had seen what we now know to be a Hindu Sannyasa; that is, a world renouncer, someone who had become an ascetic, who had left everything in this world for the sake of finding higher truth. So he said, “Here is a man who lives outside of the protection of the palace, who lives outside all of the wonderful opulence of my existence. He knows about old age; he knows about sickness; he knows about death. Yet he seems so much at peace; he seems so much in touch with something higher.” This of course attracted Siddhartha Gautama.
This becomes the trigger point for this Damascus Road type experience. He enters into what is known in Buddhist tradition as “the first great renunciation,” renunciation of his position and his family. I am quoting from one of the early Buddhist sacred texts called the “Majjima Nikaya”. In that particular text Buddha records the following words: “In the spring of my life, despite the tears shed by my parents, I shaved my head, put on robes, renounced my home and became a monk.” This, of course, is the great turning point, the first great renunciation. He cut off his hair. He gave his jewelry and riches away. He traded his nice clothing for that of a wandering beggar. To this day, Buddhists are known throughout the world as bhikkus, which means “beggars.” They revere the tradition of begging, because this is how the Buddhists believe that Siddhartha Gautama began his journey toward enlightenment.
Because Siddhartha Gautama had seen the peace and serenity in the face of this Hindu Sannyasa, even though he was of the warrior caste, he put himself under the instruction of two famous Brahmin high-caste priest hermits known as Alara and Uddaka. These two men taught him various forms of meditation. We won’t take time in this summary course to explain the different methods that he was taught. He mastered these techniques and these teachings, these dharmas.
He was not satisfied with their teachings because they could not tell him how to put an end to rebirth and escape from the wheel of this life’s suffering. This is what is important, that we have a little bit of appreciation for the Hindu background. In Hinduism, the belief is that everyone is born into a wheel of suffering known as “the wheel of samsara.” Samsara is a word for “suffering,” the suffering of earthly existence. Part of the whole Hindu quest is to be emancipated or liberated from this wheel of samsara. This is called “Moksha” or “Mukti” in Hinduism. This is something that is part of the Hindu quest and would have been very familiar to these two Hindu sannyasins, world renouncers, that Siddhartha Gautama studied under in the 6th century. This is something that became a normal part of Buddhism, to find release from this wheel of suffering, called the “wheel of samsara.”
He did learn a lot about the power of meditation. He learned a lot of great things about the Hindu quest. But he did not believe at the end of the day that they gave him the satisfaction he sought. So he travels on down deeper into north India into a place known as “Gaya.” This is about 130 miles from modern day Varanasi. Varanasi is a very famous city, probably the most famous city in the Ganges Plain in north India. Varanasi is a city where Hindus go on pilgrimage for their final cremation. It is where they go and dip in the Ganges River for their sins to be forgiven.Varanasi is for Hinduism what Mecca is for Muslims, or what Jerusalem is for Jews. Varanasi is the central city of the Hindu religion. It’s ancient name was “Kashi.” The British called it Benaras, but today it is known as Varanasi.
It is important that Siddhartha Gautama goes to the heart of Hinduism and learns at even the highest level what really is the heart of the Hindu quest. This whole early story of Siddhartha Gautama is about him coming under the highest teaching of Hinduism. This is what makes his later dissent from Hinduism so powerful, because he had actually studied Hinduism at the highest level. He studied under five ascetics, who taught him the way of extreme asceticism. He learned meditation from the two earlier Brahmin priests and now he learned the way of extreme ascetics. They lived in the jungle. They lived on, according to tradition, just a single grain of rice per day. Gautama lived in this state for six years until he almost died of neglect.
At this point we come to what is known as “the second great renunciation.” These two renunciations really form the basis or the structure of how Buddhism situates itself within the world of religions. Remember, the first great renunciation was Siddhartha Gautama leaving the opulence and the luxury and the security of his palace and his life as a prince. The second great renunciation is where he left the five ascetics and he denounced their extreme asceticism as not being helpful. It rather weakened his mind, it weakened his body and he was not able to concentrate properly. So he adopted what is now known as one of the central motifs of Buddhist thought and might be the controlling idea that governs Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist thought and all of Buddhist thinking at the most fundamental level. That is what is known as the “middle way.” Buddhism is often known as “the middle way.” It positions itself between various extreme views of Eastern philosophy and claims it charts the middle way. This middle way is between the two great renunciations. On the one hand, it rejects extreme opulence, luxury, the pleasures of this life. On the other hand, it also rejects extreme asceticism, which would cut one off from the ability to focus and to think properly, and kind of destruction of the body.
Buddhism charts itself as the middle way between materialism and extreme asceticism. The Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, as he was known at that point, then went and sat under a famous tree that is known as “the bodhi tree.” This is a word which means “the wisdom tree, the tree of enlightenment” and he began to enter into deep meditation. During this period of meditation he had quite a lengthy time of challenges and barriers that he went through. But finally he began to enter into a deep meditative state where blissfully he entered into a special meditative trance known as Dhyana. He goes up into various stages where he first detaches himself from all of his senses. He then gets to the point in stage two where his mind is totally focused into a single point. Then in stage three his body experiences complete detachment from this world in bliss. He finally gets to stage four where he is freed from any of the dichotomies or dualisms of pain and pleasure or elation and depression. He finally enters into the stage where at the highest point he receives a windfall of knowledge known as “super knowledge.” Buddhist tradition believes that when you get to this stage, you can walk on water, you can know the mind of another person, you can hear voices beyond your normal reach, etc. Siddhartha Gautama became at that point a perfected saint in their belief and they believe that he received special knowledge which becomes the core of the Buddhist dissent against Hinduism. This is the meditation underneath the bodhi tree.
After this extreme meditation was over, Siddhartha Gautama believed that during that high meditative state he had a vision of the wheel of samsara. This, in other words, would be like having a vision of the whole of humanity and the whole of life existence. He began to get insights into the nature of human life and human suffering. At this point I am going to quote from one of the earliest Buddhist sacred texts, which is believed to capture the earliest words of the Buddha. It is from a text known as Dhammapada. This is verses 153, 154 of the Dhammapada. It goes like this: “Through many a birth I wandered in some samsara, seeking but not finding the builder of the house. Sorrowful it is to be born again and again. House builder, you are seen. You shall build no house again. All your rafters are broken. Your ridge pole is shattered. My mind has attained the unconditioned, achieved is the end of craving.” It is at this point that Siddhartha Gautama becomes the “enlightened one.” From this point on, he is no longer known as Siddhartha Gautama, but he is known as you probably know him and that is as “The Buddha,” that is, “the enlightened one.” He now has mastered the middle way. At this point there in Varanasi and to this day you can actually go to Varanasi and see the place. It is a place called “the Deer Park” and there is a very large Buddhist memorial marker there known as a “stupa.” This is a sacred spot, one of the most sacred spots in all of Buddhism, there in north India where they believe that Buddha first issued his teaching which is known as “dharma.” The word “dharma” is a very important word in Buddhism. It is a word that refers to the sum teaching of the Buddhist doctrine. They really characterize this as Buddha turning a wheel. They will refer it as “turning the wheel of dharma.” Essentially the idea is that as the Buddha teaches, he is turning out new insight and new teaching; and this wheel of dharma is being turned, which proclaims the middle way, neither asceticism nor hedonism, but a way which is open to all and leads to enlightenment and nirvana. We will discuss nirvana in a moment.
Teachings of the first Dharma
Let me first talk about how this turning the wheel of dharma is expressed in terms of Buddhist sacred literature. The earliest dharma is summarized in what is known as the first two sermons of the Buddha. These two sermons really divide what is known as 13 essential teachings of Buddhism. The first four are found in the first sermon. The next nine are found in the second sermon. The first sermon is summarized by what is known as “the four noble truths of Buddhism.” So we want to discuss that. The second sermon covers the three characteristics of the Buddhist way, the middle way, what is known as “the five aggregates.” This is what makes up the human existence. There is one foundational doctrine which governs all of Buddhism. So in these 13 parts we have really the summary of basic Buddhist teaching. At this point we will briefly highlight these two sermons and what is expressed in the two sermons. Then we will be able to show how Buddhism eventually emerges as a world religion.
The first sermon is essentially the Buddhist diagnosis of the human race. This is where Siddhartha Gautama, now has the Buddha, the enlightened one, explains what is wrong with the human race and what to do about it. Essentially he is like a spiritual doctor. He diagnoses the problem and then he gives the solution. These are known as “the four noble truths.” They are fundamental to all of Buddha’s thought.
The first noble truth is summarized by the word, dukkha The word “dukkha” means “suffering.” The first noble truth is simply this: “All of life is eventually sorrowful. All of life involves suffering.” This is important. You cannot even begin the journey toward release or toward salvation unless you first realize and are aware of how transitory and sorrowful life is. This reflects the early journeys of the Buddha outside of the opulence of his palace. He becomes aware of birth, death, sickness, the transitory nature of life. All of these things he encounters. This is the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian doctrine realizing that we are sinners and that life is fleeting and that we need some kind of deliverance; so this realization that life is sorrowful. He claims in this early sermon the noble truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha. Old age is dukkha. Sickness is dukkha. Death is dukkha. He is basically acknowledging that all of life is characterized by suffering. So that is the first noble truth.
The second noble truth is the cause of this dukkha. It is caused by desire. The key word in this second noble truth is the word, “tanha.” The word “tanha” means “thirst.” What the Buddha argues is that all of this sorrow is caused by the thirst or the cravings which are within the human existence: Craving which leads to rebirth; craving which leads to passions and desires for fulfillment; cravings for sensual pleasure; the cravings to become someone important, or to have a job or to accumulate wealth, or whatever. All of these things are fueled by this craving, this tanha. He argues that we all have these desires and the only way that we can really diagnose the human condition is to realize that these desires are what create all of our suffering.
Which brings us to the third of the noble truths. This is that the cessation of desire or putting out this thirst, this tauna, is the key to extinguishing the ego. This is where we see the Buddha realizing the key to stopping suffering is to stop desires. That is basically the gist of this. All of life is suffering because all of life is fueled by these desires we have. If we could stop the desires, then we could stop the suffering. This becomes the general focus of the third noble truth. Desire must be eliminated. If desire can be eliminated, then one will realize nirvana.
Nirvana is a word I promised we would come back to. This is a word that is developed in Buddhism to describe the release from the wheel of samsara. The word “nirvana” was once raised before Buddha and he was asked, “What does this mean, what is nirvana?” Buddha himself answered and said: “Nirvana is like the sparks that fly from the anvil when the hammer strikes it.” So you picture a man beating an anvil with a hammer and sparks are coming up. You see those sparks which burst in the light and seem very quickly to go into nothingness, is what the Buddhist says is nirvana. Another example he uses is that of an oil lamp. The oil lamp is often used as a symbol of Buddhism. The oil lamp represents the life that we have. We always fuel oil lamps with oil. This oil represents the desires that we have, the longings, the cravings that we have, this tanha, this thirst we have for life. Buddha says that nirvana is like the oil lamp that burns and eventually burns out, until a little whiff of smoke comes out and goes into nothingness. That is nirvana. The idea is that if you quit fueling desires, you quit putting oil into the lamp, eventually the light will get smaller and smaller and smaller - I am sure you have seen this with oil lamps – eventually the lamp will burn out. A little whiff of smoke will come from the wick; and that, said the Buddha, is nirvana. It is going into emptiness or nothingness. The word they use is the word “sunyata”, which means “emptiness or nothingness.” This is the third noble truth.
The fourth and final noble truth is that there is a path which can lead to the cessation of suffering. This is where Buddha really lays out his prescription to solve the problem. The first three noble truths are really diagnostic, they are diagnosing the problem of the human race. He points out that there is suffering in this world. He points out that this suffering is caused by desire and you have to stop these desires. This fourth noble truth points out that there is a way, a path, which leads to the cessation of suffering. This is known in Buddhism as “the eight-fold path.” The eight-fold path is essentially a spiritual journey with different markers along the way, eight major markers. By following this journey, one can eventually attain enlightenment. The noble path is generally divided into the following eight markers: Right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Normally and maybe a more helpful way to look at this is to see essentially the eight-fold path is divided into three subcategories. The first category has to do with gaining proper wisdom: Right understanding, right thought associate themselves with wisdom, understanding the importance of life, the proper qualities of the mind, etc.
The second stage of the eight-fold path develops proper conduct or morality: Right speech, right action, right livelihood. You free yourself in a wholesome state of mind and speech and work. You learn to treat others with morality. You refrain from telling lies and gossip. You don’t kill, you don’t steal, things of this nature.
Finally, the third phase of the eight-fold path is proper practice. This is the right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, etc. This is really a meditative section of the eight-fold path. The belief is that at the end of the eight-fold path, you would leave the wheel of illusion, leave the wheel of samsara and you would be able to go into the state of nirvana, which is emptiness or nothingness.
Early on it became clear that this could not be done unless one devoted many, multiple lifetimes to this. This involves being reincarnated back again, again picking up where you left off and continuing to pursue this spiritual journey over potentially thousands and thousands of lifetimes before one would finally be able to complete the eight-fold path. This could only be done through the kind of concentration and meditative techniques and learning and morality instruction that could happen through the monastic life. We will come back to this later and show you how the monastic life forms much of this. This is just to give you a sense of the four noble truths. That is the essence of the first sermon. This is the most fundamental basis for Buddhist thought.
The second sermon represents not just the Buddhist diagnosis of the human race, but particularly Buddhist dissent from Hinduism. This becomes a little more difficult to do in a summary like this because one would need to know a little more about Hinduism to understand what it is that Buddha is dissenting from. I will try to explain as quickly as I can in the time that we have, the nature of how this is a dissent. If you go through the entire course, then you will see this laid out very carefully for you.
The first part of the second sermon is known as “the three characteristics of the human condition.” These I think represent essentially the middle way we have already looked at. He points out that human existence is marked by impermanence, that we are absolutely without any permanent existence. Everything is instead in flux and change. Our mental and our emotional life is constantly changing. Everything is in the process of change, death and rebirth. So we are impermanent. We also live in this period of angst. We are experiencing old age and sickness and ultimately death. The result is a deep sense of sorrow, an inner disconnectedness with our existence because of that. I think the best English word would be “a sense of angst.”
Thirdly, and this of course becomes the most radical and defining doctrine of Buddhism, which is in direct contradiction to Hinduism, that is the declaration that there is no such thing as “the self, the ‘I’, the ‘ego’.” This of course is a very, very important doctrine because at the basis of all of Hindu thought is the belief that there is an irreducible essence to every person and everything in the universe. Hinduism believes that everything is animated by this irreducible essence known as “atman.” Atman is often translated as “self.” Many of you have probably heard of one of the titles of Ghandi in India, his title was “Mahatma”. “Maha” means “great.” “Atman” is “soul”. “Great soul.” So this idea of atman being soul is a very, very powerful doctrine in Hinduism. Everything ultimately comes down to this belief in Atman. If you read the ancient Hindu scriptures, especially if you read the Upanishads, you will discover that one of the great insights of the Upanishads is the belief that through Hindu practice, one would recognize that your irreducible essence, this “atman” is in fact identified with the essence which undergirds the whole universe, which they call in Hinduism, Brahmin. So the whole of Hinduism is really about learning to identify atman with Brahmin. This creates for Hinduism an anthological structure or a structure of ultimate being, a ground of being that is substantive in Hindu thought. Hindus do believe that at the end of the day, if you boil everything down, there is this eternal essence which undergirds the whole universe, Brahmin. They believe that your essence is the same as the essence that pervades the whole universe. That means there is a permanent reality in Hinduism. There is a core, there is an anthology, which can then produce the world that we have.
Buddhism is going to deny atman and Brahmin. It is going to say that there is no such thing as either of these. Instead, they are going to replace them with what is known as “the five aggregates.” The five aggregates represent what is the makeup of what we call “self.” They do not believe that there is any irreducible essence which lies at the ground of our being. Instead, Buddhists believe that all that we call life and existence, human existence, really boils down to these five aggregates, all of which are impermanent and have no first cause. The first is the body, the material form that we all live in. The second is our bodily sensations or our feelings, the sensations of the body. The third is our perceptions, what we learn to recognize as certain physical objects, so we have certain mental structures in our brains. These are all part of our perceptions. Fourthly is our mental life. We have certain mental states that we can enter into. We have attitudes, dispositions, etc. Finally, there is consciousness, the sense of being aware of one’s self and the ability to discriminate between myself and another person, “I and thou.”
Buddha believed that each of these five aggregates that make up human existence are all impermanent. None of them has a first cause. So there is no “self” that is migrating through from existence to existence as the Hindus taught. Instead, all you have is a heap of what they call “karmic constituents.” In other words, this is a heap of illusions that come together to form human existence . As soon as we realize that there is no substantive core, the better. Let me quote again from the Buddha and his writings where he says, quoting from the Samyutta Nikaya: “There is no being found here within one’s self, only a heap of karmic constituents. Just as the word, ‘chariot’ is used when we come across a combination of parts like spokes, wheels, frames, etc., so we speak conventionally of a human being when the five aggregates are present.” So in the final analysis Buddhism does not believe there is any permanent self to the human existence. That of course represents a very important philosophical starting point for Buddhism, which we will not have time to explore in this particular time together.
The final part of this second sermon is the one foundational doctrine which provides the basis for Buddhists’ understanding of what we perceive as reality in our existence. Naturally, people would ask, “Okay, if there is no self, if there is no reality to the world, why do we see things as real? Why do we experience things? How do we explain the world about us? How do we explain the mountains and trees, the rivers? How do we explain the fact that if I cut myself, I hurt and I have relationships and feelings and all of the rest?” All of this is accounted for through this one foundational doctrine which is known in Buddhism as “Pratityasamutpada.” Pratityasamutpada is a very long phrase. It simply means the doctrine of interdependent arising. What that means is that everything is linked to everything else and everything gives rise to something else. It is summarized this way: I am quoting again from an early Buddhist text: “When this is, that is. This arising, that arises. When this is not, that is not. This ceases, that ceases. “ Basically, they believe that the whole world that we know of, including your self, your own human existence, the world around you, everything is caught up in this massively interconnected web of misperceptions which interdependently arise, and each causes the other.
When the Buddha had this vision of the wheel of sansara, he saw that life was connected to these 12 causal links. This is the way that the doctrine of Pratityasamutpada, or this doctrine of interdependent arising, is explained. He believes that the whole of human existence can be explained through these 12 interconnected links. This is known as the Buddhist wheel of life, or the Buddhist 12 causal links, which were observed by Buddha during that highest, fourth stage of meditative trances when he received the various super knowledges, when he meditated under the Bodhi tree.
Essentially what they are, if you can just picture in your mind, 12 links like links of a chain. But rather than seeing these links as 12 links all linked together in a line, which would be a linear view of history and development, but a line of links which have a beginning and an end, which is impossible in Buddhism; you should instead see 12 large chain links that are linked together in a complete circle, each linked imperceptibly with the other into 12 links. This forms therefore a wheel and this is a picture of the wheel of life, the wheel of existence that we call the world that we live in and our place in it. Each of these links represents different aspects of human existence. I will just briefly mention all 12 of them to give you a feel for the kinds of things that are portrayed in this wheel of life; then we will make the point of how this ties into the Buddhist view of reality.
The first link is ignorance. Everything is characterized by ignorance. Second is karmic predisposition. That is, we have a predisposition to build up karma through our actions or deeds. This creates various kinds of karmic debt in our lives, which gives perception of human existence. The third link is consciousness. We all have a sense, an awareness that we exist. The fourth is name and form. We all have a name that gives a sense of a separate identity, which is part of the illusion. We all have a form, we inhabit certain kinds of bodies, etc. The fifth is dedicated to the five senses that we know of : Seeing hearing, taste, etc. The sixth has to do with contact, the sense that we have relationships, we have various kinds of connections with other things in the world. The seventh link is feeling and response. We have again, the ability to touch, to feel, to respond, we are relational creatures. Eight is craving or desire. We already discussed this craving and how we crave and long for a separate existence and independent existence. Nine is grasping after objects. Ten is action in the world, various ways we like to act to make a name for ourselves and to build security around ourselves. Eleven is rebirth. Buddhists, like Hindus, believe that life is a cycle and that one continues to be reborn to future existence based of your karma over the past life. Finally, old age and death, which is another thing that he saw on that famous chariot ride, which characterizes the nature of human existence.
These 12 links should be viewed, not in a long line, but in a circle, each linked to the other. Old age and death gives birth to ignorance. Ignorance gives birth to karma. You can start at any point on the circle. The point that is so important in this is that when Buddha had the vision of these 12 causal links – this is the vision of Pratityasamutpada, or the vision of interdependent arising - what he saw was that the 12 links were not all exactly the same. That is very, very important. What he actually saw was that of the 12 links, one of those links was in particular weaker than the other 12 links. Therefore, if you could focus on that link and break it, then of course, the whole of the causal connection would be broken and you would be free from the world; you would be free from the karmic-induced structures which create the perception of life and existence; and the whole thing would collapse like a house of cards. So when Buddha looked at this particular vision, he saw that particularly number eight - which you already know from the four noble truths – that the eighth link was the one which should be focused on, that is this craving or desire. You remember the four noble truths, the second noble truth was that suffering is caused by desire; and you have to stop this desire is the third noble truth. There was the fourth noble truth: The path to stopping desire is this eight-fold path.
So the whole of Buddhist thinking, meditation and morality and their living is all geared toward breaking this eighth link in the chain. Because once you break that, then you are free from the wheel of samsara; you are free from the existence of this life.
Differences between Buddhism and Hinduism
That is a brief summary of the wheel of samsara and the four noble truths, the two sermons that make up the essence of Buddhism. In summary, we should realize that Buddhism does not accept any first cause. Yet the fact that the Buddha was able to teach this teaching, this doctrine, this dharma, to his followers, represents a huge shift in Eastern religion. Eastern religion has often been accused of not having a proper ethic of compassion or of ability to serve others. But in this case, when the Buddha received his enlightenment under the bodhi tree, he could have entered into nirvana. Instead, the Buddha refused his nirvana and he came back on the wheel of suffering in order to help others. This is really radical thought. In other words, someone is on the wheel of suffering, is experiencing the delusion of this world, the various misperceptions which make up the reality as we see it and experience it and live it out daily in our lives. In the case of Buddha, through thousands of lifetimes he had finally reached this point where he was meditating under the bodhi tree and he was finally released from the wheel of samsara. At the point of release he does not step off and go into nirvana. He steps back on the wheel of samsara and he dedicates the rest of his life to teaching people the dharma. This creates a whole new ethical base for Buddhism; that out of compassion, one would come back and help others. That was something which was not prominent in Hindu thought. Buddhism of course denied the ultimate reality that was there in Hinduism, including the atman and Brahmin. Buddhism denied the fact that the high priestly caste were the only ones that could achieve enlightenment. Instead, they opened up the middle way to anyone who would be willing to deny extreme asceticism as well as deny the pleasures of hedonism or materialism.
In that sense, Buddhism was a dissent movement against the exclusivity of the Hindu path. That represents the emergence of Buddhism and the general structure of the basic seminal teaching of Buddhism as found in the two initial sermons of the Buddha.