Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Improving Buddha’s Eight-fold Way

Religions tell people what to do. Not as much as a boss tells his employees what to do or a military leader tells his troops what to do or a parent tells his children what to do, but in a more general way. It takes too many man-hours to dictate detailed actions to another human, so some abbreviated method of conveying instructions is necessary. And the type of behavioral effect that a religion tries to accomplish is different from the other three examples. The religion is trying to coerce people into following rules which, if followed by the large majority, will lead to some organized path forward for the society. Leaders of a society may follow these or be visible in some actions of following them, but it is not so important for the leaders of a society to exactly follow the rules that have been laid down for the large majority. They are exceptions in society already by their position and power, and can be exceptions for religion as well. Alternatively, they can have some convoluted reasons why their actions are consistent with the behavioral teachings of the religion. There is rarely any quantitative limits or conditions that allow one person to measure if another is following the behavioral rules, so feigned conformance is not necessarily difficult.


Thus the audience for the behavioral rules is the large majority of the people, but Buddha had a caste system in mind when he came up with his. To understand his rules, and then contemplate both their current-day applicability and how they might be improved, it is useful to first delve into their origin.


Who was Buddha? He started as Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakyas, the son of a king of a small region located in present-day Nepal, and had all the benefits that good genes and good training can provide. Legend has it that Buddha’s father was warned by a soothsayer that Buddha might leave the kingdom he was to inherit for monasticism, and his father tried to reduce the likelihood of this by limiting the prince’s environment to happy and pleasurable things, not allowing any suffering people or the dead to be seen. Two important points arise from this background. One is that as a prince, he became used to ordering others and making plans for their work. This leads to the tendency to value things in the future. People grow up valuing the past, and then prefer to copy some part of the past and regard that as what constitutes good. Others grow up valuing the present, and then make immediate decisions about what is good and what is not based on their feelings, moods, opinions, and conditions. The third set, those who think in terms of the future, see benefit in what will happen later on, but also learn a more expanded view, that of a ruler. A ruler might think in terms of the benefits of his people, although many rulers have not. Siddhartha seems to have absorbed the style of thinking relating to the future, with benefits couched not in his personal life, but in those of others, perhaps those who lived in his kingdom at first.


Siddhartha is often described as extreme in all good qualities, and perhaps he had them as a child and a young man, being smart, or the smartest in the kingdom according to the court, being handsome, or the most handsome in the kingdom according to the court, and so on. This would mean that extremes or being top of the list is something that he might have sunk into his mind at a young age. The extension of this concept is that extremes are of value. These four influences came together to Siddhartha as he strove to form a worldview. The extreme of time is eternity. Since everything dies or passes away or dissolves or otherwise ceases to exist as an entity, nothing in the world is worth anything. This is the essence of nihilism, which is a psychological affliction affecting those who think values exist in the future and who comprehend infinity.

Siddhartha then sought an escape from his own version of nihilism, by incorporating his father’s goals of eliminating suffering and death in Siddhartha’s environment as his own goal, but expanded to the extreme. Siddhartha wanted a way to help others escape from suffering, which is, after all, a feeling that exists in the mind. He reckoned that teaching people to not care about anything in this world, in miniature emulating his departure from a life of luxury into complete poverty, would be the way out, and so he began concocting a plan to help other people be more like himself, who he had learned at an early age in his palace was an ideal person.


He had learned the religious dogma of the day, which says that people, indeed all sentient beings from insects to humans, are reborn into new lives. As noted in earlier posts, this makes no sense and there is no way to come up with any self-consistent beliefs in this, but twenty-five centuries ago, the science and the critical thinking methods we have today were as distant as the Andromeda galaxy. So Siddhartha figured out that having some particular thoughts in one’s mind, and behaving according to some rules, would stop this rebirth cycle. This was all imaginary, but Buddha was very intelligent, and had learned persuasion very well, so his concept of an end to rebirth, meaning to himself an end to suffering, became very popular and remains so today.


So, in some implicit statement of self-praise, he decided that to escape suffering, that is, rebirth, another person would have to imitate his life and give up the world. Then there was a set of following steps, things to think and not think, things to do and not do, that were the magic that would stop rebirth. Siddhartha came up with eight steps, all somewhat vague, but all explicated during his long tenure as one of the Indian subcontinent’s leading religious thinkers. The first step, abbreviated as right view, means someone would have to accept the idea of rebirth and suffering and getting out of it, which led to a long time, perhaps eternity, in a better state called nirvana, which is the opposite of being alive. The second step, abbreviated as right resolve, means imitating Siddhartha’s flight from the palace, in other words, leaving their lives, families, occupations and whatever and becoming a Buddhist monk. Then the next six steps are all about how to be a good monk and achieve nirvana.


The main part of the behavioral rules, translated into English as the Noble Eightfold Path, is for monks. For ordinary people, the idea is to follow some more basic rules and try to be reborn as someone who could be a monk, and then make the escape to nirvana. For example, women suffered prejudice in those times, so the prescription for a woman was to follow some rules for her whole life and hope to be reborn as a man, who could then become a monk.


It is easy to understand the psychological origins of the Buddha’s philosophy and behavioral prescriptions as they are rooted in his childhood experiences, and these have been logged and passed on. If we ask, how should the Noble Eightfold Path be modified for present day life, when we no longer believe in reincarnation, there are a few preliminaries to discuss.


The most essential is the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path, the right view, or better, the right worldview. Instead of reincarnation being the basis for it, a finite life must be, as there is no consistent way out of this. If we train someone as a future valuing person, in other words, one who thinks about the future and decides what to do today on the basis of what consequences these actions will have, then it is important to explain that infinity is not something worth considering. Otherwise we simply return to nihilism. Short term benefits are wonderful to contemplate, and in fact these are exactly how we should determine what to do, but extending the evaluation period to eternity and then allowing nihilism to depress us is not a good replacement for Buddha’s “right view”. Better to find a worldview that incorporates the finiteness of existence yet still allows future thinking, the hallmark of high productivity in non-routine situations.

One middle way is to set a finite period and look at benefits during that period. With a moving period, humanity can get to the end of time without having to gobble it all down at once. The worldview associated with that is that we are an interconnected set of entities, but the types of connections vary with era, and need to be revised for each era. Buddha’s era was one of a struggle for survival, and this affected people’s lives on a daily basis. As we go forward into more and more affluence, with survival being almost guaranteed in many regions, something quite different from Buddha’s rules of behavior may be needed.


Buddha’s second rule, herding people into monasticism in order to reach nirvana, is also unnecessary as that purpose is obsolete. Monasticism does have many attributes, however, and perhaps some of them have some relevance for today. It harks of stoicism, in the original Greek version of it, which stated that anyone could find happiness if they had the proper view of the world, used logic, and followed some behavioral rules. It might be that Greek stoicism would be a good source for adapting Buddhist behavioral canons to the modern era. Greek stoicism emphasized understanding Nature, which today translates as an appreciation of science. What could fit better in an era where science is expanding on a daily basis?

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