The academic philosophical fraternity may have a problem with classifying the founder of Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama ( † 400 BCE ? ) as a philosopher. Is Buddhism a philosophy, or a religion? Stripped from the cult-like devotion that followed the Buddha’s example and instructions, and focusing strictly on his analysis of the human condition and his suggestions on how to manage this condition, I think there are good reasons to qualify the Buddha as a genuine philosopher.
It is of course true that the Buddha is revered as a prophet of religious importance by millions of devout followers, much like Jesus and Mohammed. The Buddha has made metaphysical claims about various realms of existence, supernatural beings and rebirth. Perhaps this is the part of Buddhism that requires a leap of faith, which is therefore the part that makes it a religion, including the usual gamut of rituals, holy temples, hierarchised membership structures and centralised official guidelines.
But the Buddha did not rely on an almighty God and never proclaimed divine laws in his suggestions on how we can live happier lives, or why we should strive to live a particular life. The Buddha does not claim to have received his insights from a divine being (he became enlightened while meditating under a fig tree). Rather, Buddhism focuses on personal spiritual development. Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life and do not worship gods or deities. Buddhists don’t communicate with a divine being through prayer, but communicate with their own minds and bodies through meditation. In that sense, Buddhism is as much a philosophy as Plato’s, David Hume’s and Nietzsche’s writings.
Buddhism’s bottomline may sound as follows: You’ll never get what you want, and that hurts. If you stop wanting, the hurt will disappear, and you will feel happier.
The Buddha explained what he saw as the human condition, and how to overcome its inherent frustrating and painful side-effects, as follows:
The Buddhist believes that our desires, cravings and attachments keep us stuck in a cycle of rebirths (samsara). The only way to get out of that cycle, is by eliminating desire, craving and attachment. The way to eliminate desire, craving and attachment is by following the Noble Eightfold Path.
Compassion represents emotions, like love, charity, kindness and tolerance, while wisdom represents our intellectual capacities. The balance is crucial. To develops only the emotional, neglecting the intellect, one may become a good-hearted fool. To develop only the intellect while neglecting the emotional may turn one into a cold-hearted intellectual.
The Buddha spent 45 years fine-tuning and explaining practical suggestions on how to liberate ourselves from suffering, which we can group into three essential elements of Buddhist practice: moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.
[ 1 ] Ethical Conduct : All of the Buddha’s teachings are underpinned by the general idea of universal love and compassion for all living beings. Ethical conduct is a direct reflection of this basic idea, and aims at promoting a happy and harmonious life both for the individual and for society. Right Speech encourages us to speak the truth only, while making sure we respect and do not harm anyone in the process. Right Action is behaviour that is respectful and virtuous, at all times. Right Livelihood encourages us to make our living from honourable work, which does not bring harm to any others.
[ 2 ] Mental Discipline : Buddhism encourages us to take control of our thoughts and bodily processes, by closely paying attention, monitoring and controlling what is going on in our minds and body. Right Effort encourages us to always keep a positive mindset, and to push away negative ideas. Right mindfulness means that you are in touch with your body and mind. Meditation is an exercise that helps us to do so. Right Concentration encourages us to concentrate on right, positive thoughts and steer away from negative thoughts. Doing so may lead to the highest stage of Dhyana, in which all sensations, even of happiness and unhappiness, disappear, and only pure equanimity and awareness remain.
[ 3 ] Wisdom : Right Thought means focusing on selfless renunciation or detachment, thoughts of love and thoughts of non-violence with regard to all living beings, as opposed to focusing on selfish desires. Right Understanding means understanding things as they are, seeing things in their true nature, like the Four Noble Truths.