Concept of Man in Buddhism – Part 2

images(This is the final part of the blog – An introduction to the Buddhist concept of man and development)
Law of dependent origination or Paticcca samuppāda & The Four Noble Truths

The structural aspect of man as outlined in Part 1, needs to be viewed in the context of the Law of Dependent Origination (also known as the Law of Conditioned Genesis), so as to understand the Buddha’s exposition of the factors that determine man’s existence and nature.

According to the Buddha, all compounded things, i.e. all things that arise due to causal factors, have a pattern of existence. They are given birth to (Uppada), exist (Thithi), and cease (Bhanga).

The Law of Dependent Origination is succinctly given as follows:

Due to Ignorance (avijja) arises Volition (Sankhāra); through Volition arise Consciousness (Viññāna); through Consciousness arise matter (nāmarūpam); through matter is conditioned the six sense organs (salāyatana); through the six sense organs is conditioned contact (phasso); through contact arises sensations (vedanā); due to sensations arise desire (tanhā); through desire is conditioned clinging or grasping (upādāna); due to clinging/grasping is conditioned birth (jati); birth gives rise to suffering such as decay, death, lamentation etc.

Through the Law of Dependent Origination, the Buddha expounds the Four Noble Truths which consists of the summum bonum of Buddhism:

i. Suffering (Dukka)
ii. Cause of Suffering (Samudaya)
iii. Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
iv. Path to cessation of suffering (Arya)

We saw that Man is a conglomeration of the 5 aggregates. These aggregates are conditioned on the basis of the Law of Dependant Origination. Thus there is nothing permanent. Everything in the world is subject to change. One thing disappears conditioning the appearance of the other in a series of cause and effect. The whole notion of ‘Self’ is due to ignorance (avijjā) of the true nature of the world. As we witnessed above, ignorance gives rise to the idea of self which results in volitional activity that cause birth and thereafter suffering.

There are 3 kinds of suffering:

i. Ordinary suffering(Dukka-dukka)- All kinds of suffering such as birth, old age, sickness, death, dissociation from beloved ones, association with unpleasant persons and conditions, not getting what one wants, grief, lamentation, despair etc are suffering.
ii. Suffering due to change (Viparināma Dukka)– A happy or pleasant condition does not last forever. When the conditions change there is suffering. A happy or pleasant condition is always followed by an unhappy and unpleasant condition which gives rise to suffering.
iii. Suffering due to conditioned states or volition (Sankhāra Dukka)- We saw that Man is a conglomeration of physical and mental forces/energies which are called the five aggregates. The Buddha expounds that the five aggregates of attachment are themselves ‘dukka’ or suffering. The five aggregates and dukka are not two different things but the five aggregates themselves are dukka.

Cause of Suffering
Greed or attachment (tanhā) is elucidated as the most immediate and palpable cause of suffering.

There are 3 types of tanhā- kama tanhā, bhava tanhā and vibhava tanhā. The first is the greed or attachment to sense pleasures including concepts/ideas. The second refers to attachment for existence such as attachment to one’s life and the third refers to an attachment for annihilation of life. However, attachment itself arises due to vedanā which as we saw in the Law of Dependent Origination is ultimately a result of the idea of self due to ignorance.

An important point to note here is that tanhā is the cause of much suffering in the world today. Most, if not all of the world’s economic, social and political problems are due to greed. Those who try to settle national and international disputes and talk of war and peace only in terms of economic and political terms deal only on the superficialities.

Cessation of Suffering
The third noble truth is that there is an emancipation or liberation from suffering. In short, the elimination of tanhā which is the root cause of suffering, results in the elimination of suffering, the cessation of becoming and the realization of the ultimate truth or reality- a state called nirvāna which is the summum bonum of Buddhism.

“O bhikkhus, what is the Absolute (Asamkhata, Unconditioned)? It is, O bhikkhus, the extinction of desire (ragakkhāyo) the extinction of hatred (dosakkhāyo), the extinction of illusion (mohakkhāyo). This, O bhikkhus, is called the Absolute.” (Rahula, 1996:23)

“The abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these Five Aggregates of Attachment: that is the cessation of dukkha” (Rahula, 1996:37)

While a complete definition of Nirvāna falls into the category of Avyakatā (unanswered questions), it is to be noted here that the Buddha has expounded that the concept of Nirvana is beyond words, beyond faith and beyond reasoning. Therefore, it is made clear that language cannot explain the true nature of Nirvāna. We saw above how man is a conditioned being, the result of the conditioning brought about by the 5 aggregates and the four main elements. In the state of Nirvāna the conditioning ceases due to the extinction of desire, hatred and illusion. The conditioning that leads to the process of karma and rebirth is extinguished.

Path to cessation of suffering
The path to cessation of suffering is enunciated in eight-fold noble path. It is important to note here that Buddha expounds the path leading to the cessation of suffering but does not attempt to enunciate the state of cessation of suffering, i.e Nirvāna. It is akin to showing someone the road leading to a certain place. But the place is not the result of the road.

The Eight-fold Middle Path consists of:
i. Right understanding (sammā ditthi)
ii. Right thoughts (sammā samkappa) Paññā

iii. Right speech (sammā vācā)
iv. Right action (sammā kammanta)
v. Right livelihood (sammā ājiva) Sīla

vi. Right Effort (sammā vāyāma)
vii. Right Mindfulness (sammā sati) Samādhi
viii. Right Concentration (sammā samādhi)

An elaboration of each of these aspects is not ventured into here as an elaboration is beyond the scope of this article. But suffice to say that the eight-fold path incorporates different aspects of life- economic (Right livelihood), political (right speech, right action), moral (right understanding, right thought, right effort) and spiritual (right mindfulness, right concentration). The distinctions above are merely to emphasize the all-encompassing character of the eight-fold path. It must be remembered that each factor reinforces and buttresses the other and therefore in practice, these factors cannot be taken in isolation and categorized as economic factors, political factors, moral factors & spiritual factors. In other words, the Noble eight-fold path taken together incorporates the many facets of life.

Sīla, Samādhi, Paññā
The four noble truths are to be comprehended, abandoned, realized and developed respectively by an individual simultaneously by the practice of sīla (conduct), samādhi (discipline) and paññā (wisdom). A brief introduction to these concepts would be useful to understand its applicability in life.


Sīla refers to a life of discipline. It comprises a synthesis of Rights Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood as enunciated in the noble eight-fold path. It involves the discipline of the body and mind, which is an essential pre-requisite to the realization of wisdom which comes about as a result of the spiritual development arising from moral rectitude.

Mallikarachchi quotes thrice from the Digha Nikāya and states as follows :

“And what monks is, right speech? Abstaining from speaking untruth, abstaining from malicious speech, abstaining from harsh speech, abstaining from frivolous talk, this, monks is called right speech.” (Mallikarachchi, 2003:70)

“And what monks, is right action? Abstaining from taking what is not given, abstaining from sexual misconduct- this monks, is called right action.” (Mallikarachchi, 2003:70)

“And what monks, is right livelihood? Here monks, the noble disciple does away with wrong livelihood and lives the right livelihood that is allowable, this monks, is called right livelihood.” (Mallikarachchi, 2003:70)


Samādhi involves the three aspects of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. By Right Effort, is meant the need to cultivate an energetic will towards the fulfillment of goals, in here referred to as the goals explained in Buddhism. This is necessary for the following:

a. to prevent the generation of evil states of mind;
b. to annihilate evil states of mind that have already arisen;
c. to cause the generation of good or wholesome states of mind;
d. to develop the good or wholesome states of mind that have already arisen.

Being diligently aware of oneself and one’s surroundings is referred to as Right Mindfulness. According to Mallikarachchi (2003), this involves:

a. being aware of the activities of the body (kāya)
b. contemplation on senses (vedanā)
c. activities of the mind (citta)
d. phenomena including conceptions and things (dhamma)

The Buddhist texts contain a deep elucidation on how to cultivate Right Mindfulness. However, this is beyond the scope of this article.

The development of Right Concentration involves four steps. The first stage involves the destruction of unwholesome thoughts such as worry, restlessness and ill will. The second stage involves the suppression of all intellectual activities and only feelings of joy and happiness will remain. In the third stage, even the feelings of joy and happiness disappear. In the final stage, the person will cease to experience the sensations such as happiness and unhappiness and only equanimity and awareness remains.


The translation of Paññā is ‘wisdom’. According to Mallikarachchi, the Buddhist teachings also involve an epistemological doctrine, in addition to its moral and spiritual dimensions. This epistemological aspect is identified as Paññā. It involves two items of the Eightfold Path- Right Understanding and Right Thought. Sīla and Samādhi alone do not suffice to attain the summum bonum of Buddhism-Nirvana.

Right Understanding means to see things as they are in their true form in terms of the Buddhist doctrine of Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha (suffering) and Anatta (no soul). It means the understanding of the four noble truths- suffering, the cause of suffering, cessation of suffering and the path to cessation of suffering.

Right Understanding is not possible without Right Thought. This involves the complete riddance of unwholesome thoughts leading up to the realization of dhamma. It should be noted that dhamma is an all encompassing word in Buddhist teachings. It includes everything that arises due to cause. The only thing that does not arise due to cause is Nirvana. The following paragraphs from Ven. Walpola Rahula in his explanation of the Anatta concept of Buddhism elucidates the point:

“In the Dhammapada there are three verses extremely important and essential in the Buddha’s teaching. They are nos. 5, 6 and 7 of Chapter XX (or verses 277, 278, 279).
The first two verses say:
‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ (Sabbe SAMKHĀRA aniccā), and ‘All conditioned things are dukkha’ (Sabbe SAMKHĀRA dukkha).
The third verse says:
‘All dhammas are without self’ ( Sabbe DHAMMĀ anattā).”

Here it should be carefully observed that in the first two verses the word samkhāra ‘conditioned things’ is used. But in its place in the third verse the word dhamma is used. Why didn’t the third verse use the word samkhāra ‘conditioned things’ as the previous two verses, and why did it use the term dhamma instead? Here lies the crux of the whole matter.

The term samkhāra denotes the Five Aggregates, all conditioned, interdependent, relative things and states, both physical and mental. If the third verse said: ‘All samkhāra (conditioned things) are without self’, then one might think that, although conditioned things are without self, yet there may be a Self outside conditioned things, outside the Five Aggregates. It is in order to avoid misunderstanding that the term dhamma is used in the third verse.

The term dhamma is much wider than samkhāra. There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma. It includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the non-conditioned, the Absolute, Nirvana. There is nothing in the universe or outside, good or bad, conditioned or non-conditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term. Therefore, it is quite clear that, according to this statement: ‘All dhammas are without Self’, there is no Self, no Ātman, not only in the Five Aggregates, but nowhere else too outside them or apart from them.
(Rahula, 1996:57-58)

Therefore, based on a concept of man, the Buddhist philosophy ventures to expound a complete exposition for the development of man consistent with its foundational frame-work.

Venerable Walpola Rahula. (1996) What the Buddha taught. Dehiwela: Buddhist Cultural Centre.
Mallikarachchi, D. (2003) Buddha and Marx on Man and Humanity. Published by the Author.


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