Indian Philosophy – The Buddha, Life & Desire

Suffering & Desire

Gandhara Buddha

We left off last time with the Jains, who practice severe discipline to escape from entanglements with material existence.  Mahavira argued for a physical conception of suffering rather than a psychological one such that any material interaction, intentional or unintentional, has negative consequences.  This is why Jains practice non-violent measures such as wearing masks, as unintentionally killing insects and microorganisms has a negative karmic impact on the individual, even if they are unaware of it and did not intend it.


Let’s say that Susan and Steve are quite addicted to delicious, satisfying waffles.  Sadly, waffles are not the healthiest food in existence, and so Susan and Steve suffer pain and dissatisfaction after eating nothing but waffles for years on end.  Susan gives no thought to her problems, or anyone else’s really, but Steve worries about his health and addiction to waffles a great deal.  For the Jains, what is bad for you is bad for you regardless of whether or not it is intentional, and so a Jain could use this imaginary example to show that Susan and Steve’s health suffers the same even though one intends to change while the other does not.

Buddha Java Indonesia

Gautama Siddharta (563 – 483 BCE), a shramana (striver) like Mahavira, left his home for the jungle and tried Jain-like practices with the forerunners of Jainism before it became an official school, but he left frustrated and dissatisfied.  Gautama, also known as Siddhartha, also known as The Buddha, also known as Buddha, found that Jain beliefs and practices gave him feelings of self-loathing rather than liberation, and so he meditated until he discovered that the cause of suffering is psychological rather than physical.  Buddha taught that desire and fear fill existence with suffering, what Buddhists and others call samsara, but we can grow through wisdom to find freedom and happiness, what Buddhists and others call nirvana, moksha and samadhi.

Buddha guarded by Nagas

While a Jain might argue that Susan and Steve have the same health problems, a Buddhist would argue that both have the conscious, intentional desire for waffles and then act on that desire again and again, and that this intention is the cause of their problem, not the waffles themselves, who intend nothing.  Thus, Steve intends to change after intending to eat waffles, which is better than Susan intending to eat waffles without intent to change.  Susan might be ignorant, but her actions are not unintentional.  One follower of Mahavira argued that if an uncivilized savage roasts and eats someone, mistaking them for food, then Buddhists would have to admit that the savage did no wrong, and thus made a good breakfast.

The Life of the Buddha

Buddha Hyderabad India

According to the tradition, Gautama Siddhartha was the son of a king who ruled the Gautama region of Northern India, what is today in Nepal, the same region and living at the same time as Gautama, founder of the Nyaya school of Logic and Debate.  When Siddhartha was born, the king’s wisest adviser told him that his son would be either the greatest of kings or the greatest of sages, the great ruler of the physical or the mental.  The king did not want his son to be his successor, so he kept his son in a palace and gave him all the luxuries in the world, hiding death, disease and pain from him, surrounding him with servants, peacocks and happiness.  Siddhartha received the finest education and training several academic and military subjects, and received everything he desired, but by 29 he had become bored and snuck out to see the city outside the palace, taking along his most trusted servant.

buddha four sights
Siddhartha Buddha departing

Outside the palace walls, the prince first saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a dead man.  Horrified, he asked his servant about each, and each time the servant said that this is what happens to everyone, even the crown prince himself.  Then he saw a holy man practicing meditation, and his servant told him that this fourth man was working on the problems of the first three.  The Buddha was immediately envious of something more wonderful than he had ever possessed in the palace, and so he left home to become, in the Buddhist tradition, the greatest sage of all ages.

Buddha Po Lin

Many sages and schools had many formulas for finding one’s way to the One itself, the truth and meaning of it all.  The Indian tradition generally prizes liberation from attachments, accompanied by discipline.  The Vedanta wrestle over how much this is anthropomorphic devotional worship and how much this is beyond human and inhuman.  The Vaisheshika and Nyaya seek atomic, universal truth.  The Charvakas say that everything outside of immediate sense is illusion.  The Jains say that everything is perspective and disentanglement of the mind from matter.  Many great strivers had come before Buddha, but he is the last of the great sages of the golden age of ancient Indian thought, and by following and popularity he is unquestionably the greatest, the most revered Indian philosopher of all time and one of the most popular philosophers in history.

Temple and Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya

After leaving home, Siddhartha first tried meditating with masters of the Upanishads, but he was not happy to simply pacify the mind and attain tranquility.  Then he tried asceticism, fasting and severe practices in the jungle for six years, but he found that this brought no great enlightenment and in fact brought him much frustration and self-hatred.  He left the jungle disappointed, and sat underneath a large tree on the bank of Neranjara River, across from a place where priests, ascetics and others made fire sacrifices to different deities.  Siddhartha tried the Upanishadic meditations for pacifying the mind again, but with the strength he had acquired from proto-Jain asceticism, and found himself in a state of freedom from hate, greed and confusion.  He realized that enlightenment is not a conception of reality, a form of truth, but maintaining awareness itself.  He then came out of this state and spent most of his time for the next 45 years reflecting and teaching, explaining with words and concepts why words and concepts are not the truth itself.