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II Theological foundations of Buddhism

II.I The Core Buddhist Doctrine

The first teaching that Buddha gave after having received enlightenment under the pipal tree contains the core Buddhist doctrine shared by all of the different Buddhist traditions: The Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path ; important to remember, given the period in which the Buddha lived, is that his teachings were recorded orally for centuries, and because of this oral tradition, there are a lot of numbered categories which made it easier for people to memorize and recite; in this section, we will analyze the main core of Buddhist beliefs,without going too much into detail, given the huge amount of sources and notions and the little space to discuss them. The writings in which such precepts can be found are the Pāli Canon, a collection of scriptures typical of the Theravada tradition.

II.I.a. The Four Noble Truths “catvāri āryasatyāni”

The Four Noble Truths are the starting point from which Buddhism develops, we can think of them as the basic premises that each individual must understand in order to be able to start his path towards enlightenment and peace (Nirvana), they are:

I. Life is Suffering (Dukkha): man is caught in a vicious cycle characterized by the three mental states of Desire, Aggression and Ignorance; in this infinite cycle, the very human existence is nothing but suffering and unsatisfactoriness- Samsara (this word has consequently being shaped in later yanas to adopt several meanings, such as the one of the infinite cycle of Birth- Death; we will adopt the one of “world based on suffering”, in order not to make things too complicated).
II. We suffer because we crave (Samudaya): as long as we will desire impermanent things, our happiness will also be impermanent.
III. We can escape suffering (Nirodha): suffering can end by eliminating all craving,desire andattachment.
IV. Escape Dukkha through the Noble Eightfold Path (Magga): this is the moment in which the second pillar of Buddhism comes into play.

II.I.b. The Noble Eightfold Path“āryāṣṭāṅgamārga”

Once explored the reasons behind Suffering, Buddha shows a number of practices to undertake in order to free ourselves from it, moving away from Samsara towards Nirvana;this path is the Middle Way between deprivation and indulgence discovered by Siddhartha after his period living as an ascetic, it consists in:

1. Right View: understanding the Four Noble Truths (the essence of life) and the

concept of Karma (lit.- “action”- it is the spiritual principle of cause-effect where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual- Wikipedia)

2. Right Intent: peacefully renouncing to earthly pleasures in order to create for ourselves the right environment in which meditation on the three marks of existence (impermanence,suffering and non-Self) can take place.
3. Right Speech: not hurting people with words, not lying, not talking behind their back.
4. Right Action: this point consists of The Five Precepts (do not harm living creatures,do not steal,do not engage in sexual misconduct,do not lie or harm people with words,do not take intoxicatingsubstances)..
5. Right Livelihood: earning one’s living through a profession that brings no harm to others, thus avoiding professions such as the trading of weapons or slaves (we can see here how Buddhism clearly goes against any kind of war).
6. Right Effort: the energetic will to prevent evil states of mind from arising, get rid of unwholesome states already present within the person, and produce wholesome ones not yet arisen.
7. Right Mindfulness: being constantly aware of sensations and feelings, thoughts, ideas, conceptions,as well as their impermanence.
8. Right Concentration: practicing the four stages of meditation (Dhyana) which will ultimately clear the mind thus leading to Nirvana (the enlightenment reached under the tree by the Buddha) and liberating us from Samsara.

Below, one of the fundamental passages of the sacred Buddhist texts able to give an overall idea of the what the eightfold path leads to:

“…) Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the ancient path, the ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging & death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging & death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging & death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging & death. I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of birth… becoming… clinging… craving… feeling… contact… the six sense media… name-&-form… consciousness, direct knowledge of the origination of consciousness, direct knowledge of the cessation of consciousness, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of consciousness. I followed thatpath.”

— The Buddha, Nagara Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya ii.124,

II.I.c. A critical analysis

From this core doctrine we clearly see how Buddha’s teachings constantly instructed followers to avoid killing (this being one of the five precepts that all Buddhists should follow not to bring negative karma upon them) and, most importantly,to focus on overcoming personal and collective suffering through Metta (loving-kindness)

“By Love alone is hate appeased” – Metta Sutta.

The state of peace beyond Samsara cannot be reached by any violent mean, as the very violent action would prove our mind not to be pure, since still attached to the three mental states characterizing Samsara (desire, aggression,ignorance). This idea is explicitly stated in one of the most famous sermons, the Kamcupamasutta:

“Even if thieves carve you limb to limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching”.

Killing, and consequently war, seems thus to be forbidden, even if to protect the Three Jewels of Buddhism (The Buddha,The Dhamma – the teachings of The Buddha- and The Sangha – the monastic order-); an example of such approach can be found in the “Yodhajiva Sutta”, in which a soldier asks the Buddha if soldiers who died in battle would be reborn in one of the heavenly realms. The Buddha replies that a warrior who dies in battle cannot be reborn in the heavenly realms because his mind (at the moment of the “departure”) is polluted by hatred and delusion, intent on killing thus violating one of the five precepts. The very concept of “Holy War” is here rejected as being not consistent with the core ideas of Buddhism; “Buddhist War is thus a misnomer, for no war is compatible with Buddhism” [Hijacking the Buddhadharma: Violence and War in Buddhist societies; Alejandro Chavez-Segura, 2014].

II.II The Four Yanas of Buddhism

Much like every religion, Buddhism developed throughout the centuries and grown into different strands known as “yanas” (paths); as the understanding of the fundamental state of Being and the goals of its realization changed, so did the idea of “peace”. Let’s briefly summarize some key differences in order to understand how the very concept of peace in Buddhism has evolved:

Theravada: (School of The Elders)

The oldest form of Buddhism, coming directly from the oral teachings of the Buddha; it bases its school of thought primarily on the Pali Canon (such as the Suttas seen until now in this essay). Great importance is given to solitary meditation and the individual as single identity as opposed to the “chaos” of the ordinary world; therefore, peace is seen as the peace of mind of the individual, who through meditation tames the mind from Samsara. War is nothing but the external manifestation of the lack of moral perfection and meditative realization characterizing a country’s society.

Mahayana: (Great Vehicle)

This yana, moves away from the more rigid quasi-ascetic path of the earlier form (for this reason it is called “Great Vehicle”, being able to attract more followers), and introduces the concepts of Wisdom (Prajna) and Compassion (Karuna); the perfection of these human values culminates in the figure of the Bodhisattva, a person who once achieved Nirvana devotes his life to helping others achieve enlightenment as well. Mahayana shifts away from absolute monastic life towards communal life. In this context, peace doesn’t mean escaping earthly existence, rather finding the real meaning of it and helping others in finding it as well. War is still deeply dismissed, as shown in the “Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra” (Sutras are the texts on which Mahayana relies), in which we find the instructions on how a Bodhisattva should behave regarding war: “In an era of the sword, he (the Bodhisattva) should use his power to stop the combat, and teach kindness and peace.”

Vajrayana: (Thunderbolt vehicle)

Vajrayana developed out of Mahayana, with its most popular form, the Tibetan one (Dalai Lama), being popular worldwide; resting on the Tantras, this strand distances itself even more from asceticism, arguing that existence is good, and that the human body,senses,mind,society and world are sacred expressions of this goodness. Here, peace is embedded within every experience, and meditation becomes the mean through which we understand this world, rather than distance ourselves from it. War, in this yana as well, is condemned, as deductible from the “Karaniyametta Sutta”:

“The good man should cultivate the wish of all beings in whatever state being happy,safe,joyous,free from deceit,anger, or ill will (…) like a mother protects his child”

Importantly, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhisms introduce the concept  of Emptiness (Shunyatta), for which the world is interdependence, thus showing personal and social peace as two sides of the same coin; this factor will be useful to bear in mind for the next section of the essay.


The most recent of the yanas is the most socially involved, it focuses on the need for an enlightened society able to contain compassionate action and personal wisdom as opposed to the current one dominated by Samsara. Shambala completely distances itself from any solitary form of meditation, but instead focuses on the ways in which the pacific Buddhist message can be spread across all layers of society and across all societies. Since the 70’s its members have been involved in the establishment of organizations all over the world, having as their main objective the teaching of Buddhist philosophy and the pursuit of ways in which modern capitalist systems and Buddhism can co-exist.

II.III Modern Buddhist Thought

As we have seen, Buddhism doesn’t have a proper book symbol of its thought, since the main mean of learning are the words of its teachers; here the importance of contemporary spiritual leaders in order to understand how modern Buddhism deals with today’s challenges. Let’s see three important figures of the XX century.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

Buddhist monk and activist, he was one of the most famous opponents of the Vietnam War and widely appreciated Buddhist figures. His thought (the part we need) can be summarized in this piece of a 2016 interview on the Vietnam war:

“Millions of Vietnamese were killed in the Vietnam war, and yet with the practice of compassion we do not hate the Americans who came and killed us (…) ,because they are victims of a policy (…) based on fear. The roots of war are wrong perceptions and fear: and if we realize that, we do not blame the person who made us suffer anymore (…) ,that person who has made you suffer, he has a lot of suffering in him (…), he has been in an environment that has watered the seeds of violence (…), so he is a victim, and when you have seen that, your anger will be transformed, and you will have compassion to him.”

Another important statement of his to consider is the one made in a 2008 interview with Time magazine, when he was asked to express an opinion on the protests carried out by the monks against the oppressive Burmese regime; in his answer, Nhat Hanh further underlines the equation internal peace=external peace we saw before, giving his view of a socially engaged form of Buddhism.

“There are non-violent ways to express oneself, and not to accept harm from those who are oppressing people (…) ,the act of non-cooperation. (…) If you practice meditation you are aware of the suffering both inside and outside of you; and when you’re in touch with the suffering your compassion arises, and with that you would take action.”

Preah Maha Ghosananda

Cambodian Buddhist serving as a key figure in the phsychological revival of his country after the bloody Khmer Rouge dictatorship; personally negoting the peace agreement leading to the end of the regime. He accepted not to sentence Khmer Rouge politicians for war crimes and crimes against humanity (despite being under heavy pressure by both internal politicians and the UNO) since forgiveness and compassion are two of the main pillars of Buddhism, and “only by forgiving its past the country could have returned to live once again”. Ghosananda showed how to break the vicious cycle of Samsara caused by the reciprocal seek of vengeance.

Dalai Lama XIV

Head of one of the four strands of Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana yana), he rejected

anger towards the Chinese government, despite its violent action in the suppressing of Tibetan uprisings, instead insisting on peaceful dialogue, seeking for greater autonomy within China rather than independence. He also appeased the four lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, renouncing to part of his power.