The Buddha as Phenomenologist

The Buddha as Phenomenologist

To many, Buddhism appears to be more a philosophy than a religion. For, unlike other religions that articulate doctrines of God and how to properly worship him, Buddhism is relatively unconcerned with deities.[1] Likewise, whereas other religions deify their founders or treat them as prophets uniquely connected to the divine, Buddhists claim that their message, the Dharma, stands independently of its relation to the Buddha and deny that it was revealed through a special act of God.[2] Buddhism appeals not to the intervention of some elevated deity, but on the human ability to see the truth. As a result, in Buddhism “one is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?”[3]

The Buddha is respected in Buddhism because he recognized a truth about the nature of reality, a truth others are capable of seeing for themselves. Indeed, the very name Buddha simply means “the awakened one”, and such an awakening is promised to all who would rouse themselves to undertake a similar journey. Buddhist monk and educator Walpola Ruhala explains, “the teaching of the Buddha is qualified as ehi-passika, inviting you to ‘come and see, but not to come and believe.”[4] Buddhist teaching is not meant to be a matter of faith, but a directly perceivable fact about the human condition.

According to legend, Siddhartha Gautima was the first Buddha. On one popular version of the tale, his father, king Suddhodana, tried to keep him at home by surrounding him with sensual amusements and pleasures. Siddhartha nonetheless managed to sneak out of the palace on several occasions. On his first excursion into the capital he saw a man suffering in old age. Siddhartha asked his charioteer what he was seeing, and his charioteer responded, “the destiny of all human beings.”[5] On his second trip, he saw a diseased man. And on his third foray into the city, he saw a corpse. Reflecting on his experiences, he came to see the futility of pursuing a life of sensual pleasure when old age, sickness, and death would inevitably overtake him in the end. As a result of this realization, he decided to quit his palace and pursue an ascetic life. But he remained disappointed, since, despite studying with famous masters and undertaking a stringent regimen, he failed to find enlightenment through extreme asceticism.

These experiences led Siddhartha to realize that a middle path between indulgence and asceticism was needed. Legend says that he recalled sitting under the shade of a tree in his childhood and feeling a pleasant awareness of his body.[6] He pondered whether this relaxed feeling would make for a more suitable method for attaining enlightenment. Some argue that this discovery was crucial for the development of Buddhism, since it allowed for the possibility of “physical pleasure of a nonsensual variety” which might “form the basis for… liberating insight.”[7]

Siddhartha then tried his new method by meditating under the sacred Bodhi tree, the tree of enlightenment.[8] As he meditated, he passed through the four stages of Dhyana (absorption):

“The first stage is a meditative absorption produced by detaching from sensual thoughts and unskillful attitudes.  The mind attains a state of unity while evaluating the object to which it consciously directs its thoughts, giving rise to a sense of rapture and ease born of seclusion. The second stage is an absorption free from the activity of evaluation and directed thought. There is singleness of mind and internal assurance, in addition to rapture and ease born of composure. The third stage—dispassionate rather than rapturous—is mindful and fully aware, with a feeling of bodily ease. The fourth stage is a state of pure equanimity and mindfulness, free of elation and sorrow, pleasure and pain.”[9]

Once Siddhartha reached this fourth stage of Dhyana, he came to three insights as he passed through the watches of the night. On the first watch, he saw his past lives. On the second, he observed how the whole world of living beings is caught up in the cycle of death and rebirth through karma. And finally, on the third watch, he perceived the principle that drives the cycle of death and rebirth, the principle of dependent co-arising (pratitya-samutpada), and perceiving it, freed himself from it.[10] The Pali Sutta reports the Buddha’s reflections on this last stage as follows:

“When the mind was thus concentrated… and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the asravas [pollutants that bind the mind]. I discerned, as it actually was, that ‘this is duhkha [suffering]… this is the origination of duhkha… this is the cessation of duhkha… this is the way leading to the cessation of duhkha…. These are the asravas…. This is the origination of the asravas…. This is the cessation of the asravas…. This is the way leading to the cessation of the asravas.’ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the asrava of sensual desire, released from the asrava of becoming, released from the asrava of views, and released from the asrava of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that, ‘birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’ This was the third knowledge I attained in the third watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose—as happens in one who is uncomplacent, ardent, and resolute.”[11]

            The Buddha’s awakening thus came as a result of his careful attention to the structure of conscious experience. This suggests a parallel in the Western philosophical tradition to what has come to be called phenomenology,[12] a school of thought that was also concerned with the examination of consciousness. Phenomenology is traditionally said to originate in the work of Edmund Husserl[13] who claimed that foundational philosophy ought to examine our experience of the world, rather than how the world stands in itself apart from human experience. Instead of trying to argue about the metaphysical structure of things, Husserl insisted that we instead begin with how things appear to us. By examining subjective experience we can have immediate acquaintance with the relevant domain of inquiry. Hence, Husserl’s rallying cry for phenomenology  was “to the things themselves,” though not things external to human consciousness, but those that appear within it. For precisely by studying appearance as appearance, we come to a field of inquiry fully graspable by mind. This suggests a similar orientation between the Buddhist project and that of phenomenology.

            But whereas the 20th century phenomenologists tended to relegate their investigations to the elaboration of the basic constituents of ordinary consciousness,[14] the Buddha attempted to use phenomenology to illuminate something much more fundamental: the relation of the conditioned to the unconditioned.[15] This again is a concern not unfamiliar to the Western philosophical tradition. Kant, for example, noted that the demand for the unconditioned was woven into the very nature of Reason itself, even though the nature of human cognition prevents us from ever knowing it. Similarly, Novalis lamented “Wir suchen überall das Unbedingte und finden immer nur Dinge.”[16] [We seek everywhere for the unconditioned but all we ever find are things.] Buddhism not only appears to be aware of this problem, but also seems to use a phenomenological method to offer a solution.

            By analyzing his experience under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha came to distinguish the conditioned from the unconditioned. He differentiated two classes of conditioned experience: nama-rupa.[17] The former, the domain of name (nama), is the domain of mental experience, what today we would likely call cognitive phenomenology. The latter, the domain of sensible experience (rupa), consists of physical experience, what today we would today likely call sensory phenomenology. These two domains were governed by an additional two patterns. “The first pattern was that of the six sense fields: the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and ideation, together with their respective objects. The first five sense fields belong to the category of form, and ideation to the category of name. In the second pattern, the five skandhas (aggregates), form was one category, whereas name was divided into four: feelings—pleasure, pain, and neither -pleasure-nor-pain; perception (the mental act of labeling things); mental formations (thoughts, intentions, and so forth); and consciousness of the six sense fields.”[18]

            The unconditioned, by contrast, in earliest Buddhism was seen as wholly other, a realm “simple and uncompounded.”[19] As such, the unconditioned could not be described, since any description would have to employ conditioned concepts. “Even terms such as all, exists, doesn’t exist, both exists and doesn’t exist, and neither exists nor doesn’t exist, the Buddha said, could apply only to the conditioned. The unconditioned lay beyond their range.”[20] Thus, for early Buddhism, “the conditioned and unconditioned are radically separate.”[21] The Buddha was said to argue that the conditioned could not come from the unconditioned, since suffering (Dukha) is essential to the conditioned, but cannot occur in the unconditioned. “Suffering could not possibly be produced by absolute freedom from suffering; because the nature of conditioning is such that causes are in turn influenced by their effects, the unconditioned could not itself function as a condition.”[22] Given that the two constitute completely separate domains, the Buddha suggests that the only way to pass from one to the other is to begin in the realm of the conditioned and “unraveling … [it] from within and bringing it to cessation.”[23] Once one sees the truth of dependent co-arising, one can quiet ones mind and stop the cycle.[24]

            This process of transcending the conditioned from within strikes me as akin to Phenomenology in the Hegelian sense of the word. Hegel claims by taking up the conditioned world of appearance and showing how its putative descriptions fail to characterize the unconditioned, which he calls the Absolute, we begin a process that will ultimately lead to genuine knowledge of the unconditioned. “Weil nun diese Darstellung nur das erscheinende Wissen zum Gegenstande hat, so scheint sie selbst nicht die freie, in ihrer eigentümlichen Gestalt sich bewegende Wissenschaft zu sein, sondern sie kann von diesem Standpunkte aus als der Weg des natürlichen Bewusstseins, das zum wahren Wissen dringt, genommen werden, oder als der Weg der Seele, welche die Reihe ihrer Gestaltungen, als durch ihre Natur ihr vorgesteckter Stationen, durchwandert, dass sie sich zum Geiste läutere, indem sie durch die vollständige Erfahrung ihrer selbst zur Kenntnis desjenigen gelangt, was die an sich selbst ist.”[25] [Now, because it has only phenomenal knowledge for its object, this exposition seems not to be Science, free and self-moving in its own peculiar shape; yet from this standpoint it can be regarded as the path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself.”][26] In this manner, Hegel seeks, like the Buddha, to internally unravel the conditioned nature of natural consciousness (natürliches Bewusstsein) in the hope that at the end of the process one will come to true knowledge (wahres Wissen).

Yet though the approach is similar, they appear to diverge in their ultimate accounts of the unconditioned. While it seems that the earliest forms of Buddhism maintained a sharp divide between the conditioned and the unconditioned, Hegel attempts to sublate the distinction entirely. For the entire process of the Phenomenology of Spirit is meant to demonstrate that the initial hypothesis of natural consciousness that there is a gap between conditioned human cognition and the Absolute is unjustified. “Es ist eine natürliche Vorstellung, dass, ehe in der Philospohie an die Sache selbst, nämlich an das wirkliche Erkennen dessen, was in Wahrheit ist, gegangen wird, es notwendig sei, vorher über das Erkennen sich zu verständigen, das als das Werkzeug, wodurch man des Absoluten sich bemächtige, oder als das Mittel, durch welches hindurch man es erblicke, betrachtet wird.”[27] [“It is a natural assumption that in philosophy, before we start to deal with its proper subject-matter, viz. the actual cognition of what truly is, one must first of all come to an understanding about cognition, which is regarded either as the instrument to get hold of the Absolute, or as the medium through which one discovers it.”[28]] But he notes that this natural assumption is flawed. He claims that by working through the Phenomenology we will come to see that “das Widersinnige ist…, dass wir uns überhaupt eines Mittels bedienen.”[29] [“what is really absurd is that we should make use of a means at all.”][30] For the Absolute is “an und für sich bei uns”[31] [“with us, in and for itself, all along”][32]. Indeed, as Hegel argues elsewhere, the very idea of an unconditioned completely removed from the conditioned appears to be incoherent. Even if the unconditioned were to be defined as wholly other than the conditioned, that distinction would itself constitute a relation between the two. I imagine that this observation was not absent from latter Buddhism, and I wonder to what degree this issue underlies the divide between various schools of Buddhist thought.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Robinson and Johnson, The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction 4th ed (New York: Wadsworth, 1997), 2.

[2] Ruhala, What the Buddha Taught rev.ed, (Grove Press: New York, 1974), 1.

[3] Dhp. XII 4. Loc cit, Ruhala, 1.

[4] Ruhala, 9.

[5] The Buddhist Religion, 12.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Another noteworthy element of the story is the temptation by the demon Mara. Mara tried to stir Siddhartha to doubt. When that failed, he called his armies to attack him. And finally, when that failed, he called in his three daughters to tempt him. This struggle with temptation is meant to illustrate the “four determinations” (discernment, truth, renunciation, and calm) needed for any spiritual aspirant. (Buddhist Religion, 15). Like the Buddha: 1) One must overcome doubts about the possibility of attaining enlightenment. 2) One must overcome the fear of the destruction of elements of one’s character by holding to one’s vision of the true Good. 3) One must overcome the desire to use one’s powers for one’s own pleasure. This is done through renunciation. 4) This then results in a state of calm necessary for attaining enlightenment. (Buddhist Religion, 15).

[9] The Buddhist Religion, 15.

[10] Ibid., 16-17.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] Robinson and Johnson contrast this phenomenological element with what would have been available to earlier shamanic cultures. 18-19.

[13] Though I have argued elsewhere that it is actually rooted in Hegel. After all, his most famous work is called the PHENOMENOLOGY of Spirit.

[14] For example, noesis (mental acts) vs noema (mental contents), intentionality, the life world, time consciousness, the lived body, etc.

[15] This points to a common evaluation of the phenomenological tradition by philosophers of a more esoteric leaning. The consensus seems to be that of the 20th century philosophical schools, phenomenology was close to being right but stopped short. See, for example, Evola, Ride the Tiger, Chapter 20.

[16] Novalis, Gesammelte Werke, (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2008), 359.

[17] The Buddhist Religion, 24.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 25.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Dependent co-arising was often expressed as nidana—the 12 preconditions. “These are (1) ignorance, (2) formations, (3) consciousness, (4) name and form, (5) the six sense fields, (6) contact, (7) feeling, (8) craving, (9) sustenance, (10) becoming, (11) birth (that is, rebirth), and (12) aging and dying, with their attendant suffering.” The Buddhist Religion, 25.

[25] Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970), 72.

[26] Phenomenology of Spirit, Miller Trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), ¶77.

[27] PhG, 68.

[28] Phenomenology, Milller trans. ¶73.

[29] PhG, 69.

[30] Phenomenology, Miller trans. ¶73

[31] PhG, 69.

[32] Phenomenology, Miller trans. ¶73

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