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I've been learning lately about Buddhism and I have several questions about it. I haven't actually read any of the sacred books, just some stuff on the internet and now I'm reading What Makes You Not a Buddhist as an intro to Buddhism, so I might have some misconceptions about it.

So let's get to the questions:

1) In What Makes You Not a Buddhist the author says that asking a Buddhist about the meaning of life is inappropriate because it implies that somewhere there's a final purpose of being. Do Buddhists believe that there's no purpose in living? And if there is, what is it based upon. Where is the motivation to do anything if it isn't building up to something? Why be good/smart/compassionate/... ? And why not commit a suicide instead of learning and understanding things so that you don't suffer - wouldn't that be faster?

2) If I understand correctly Buddhism says that we don't exist, we're just made up of different parts and our conception of ourselves is just an illusion. But if Descartes was right when he said "I think, therefore I am.", then I don't see how that works with Buddhism - someone here must be wrong (I think). Do Buddhists believe that there's no essence that is "me" (like soul in Christianity), just random parts connected together in a certain point of time? If yes, then what is that thing that thought of the illusion of existing(Is it our mind? Does it also not exist?)?

3) One of the four seals is: All compounded things are impermanent. In the book author says that all things are compounded so saying "All things are impermanent" is equivalent. How is that even possible if anything we understand about the world is true? Everything is made out of atoms and atoms are made out of subatomic particles and perhaps those are made out of sub subatomic particles and so on (I don't know), but in the end, there must be a basic building block that makes those things and that's bound to be constant. It's hard for me to understand how everything could be a compounded because that means that it's made out of smaller things put together. But if those things are also compounded, this process goes on infinitely. But there's no infinity in nature.

I'll really appreciate the answers.

EDIT: Thank you all for the great answers. They really helped me understand some things better. Because I hate deciding on which answer is the best, I'll let the community do it - after some time I'll pick the one with most upvotes.

  • Welcome to Buddhism SE. These look like interesting topics but there are three questions here. Could I suggest that you split them up and ask 3 separate questions. – Crab Bucket Jan 31 '15 at 17:48
  • @CrabBucket Thanks for the suggestion, but I think Bakmoon answered the question and I don't want to be redundant. – starman Jan 31 '15 at 20:49
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Do Buddhists believe that there's no purpose in living?

No.Buddhists believe the purpose in living is to free one's self from suffering.

And if there is, what is it based upon?

The universal need for happiness.

Where is the motivation to do anything if it isn't building up to something?

Now that you know the Buddhist goal is to be free from suffering this is where all the motivation goes to. Buddhism teaches the Eight Noble Path that when practiced,cultivated,developed and perfected will lead to happiness.

Why be good/smart/compassionate/... ?

Because choosing to do good is better than choosing to do bad.Also Buddhists believe in karma so the more bad things you do the more suffering follows.

And why not commit a suicide instead of learning and understanding things so that you don't suffer - wouldn't that be faster?

Because Buddhists believe if you commit suicide you'll just get reborn but the problems stays the same, if not worse.Not only is it pointless but by committing suicide you are creating a lot of bad energy.More bad karma than you can handle even.As killing is a very heavy karma and that includes killing yourself.You may also acquire the habit or tendency to commit suicide in future lives and trap your self in a never ending circle of suffering.

This is why it is Better to understand things so you don't suffer.But even if you can't understand anything.It's still better to Not commit suicide.Because that's will save you enormous amount of suffering.

Do Buddhists believe that there's no essence that is "me" (like soul in Christianity), just random parts connected together in a certain point of time?

Yes no Essence (like soul in Christianity).

If yes, then what is that thing that thought of the illusion of existing(Is it our mind? Does it also not exist?)?

It's one of the random parts connected together in a certain point of time you mentioned before. Though it's not random it follows a pattern of cause and effect.In other words it's conditioned.

"All things are impermanent" is equivalent. How is that even possible if anything we understand about the world is true?

I don't understand.What do you see in the world that makes you think everything is permanent.People are born and die.Food are bought and rots.Leaves turn green and falls.Flowers bloom and wither.2 years olds eventually become 80 years olds.You were thinking of jogging now your thinking of what's on tv.You were cold now your warm.You were standing now your sitting and now your standing up again.You had the intention to read about Buddhism now you have the intention to write a post.Even an atom is always moving.Always.Nothing stays fixed the way it is FOREVER.A tv might look a tv now but in 100 years it's probably molten liquid.

One of the reason people mistaken things for being permanent is because of not being able to see things from a wider time scale.

  • Much better answer than the chosen one. The OP was asking at the end "if everything is impermanent then why doesn't 1+1=2 change?" My answer to that would've been... mathematics, physics... these things are concepts. Concepts used to describe Laws of the universe that do not change... one of those Laws being that all form, sensation, conception, volition, and consciousness (aka skandhas) being subject to change. – Ahmed Feb 1 '15 at 2:21
  • @Ahmed Whether Dharma is 'permanent' can be debatable. For example in Is the Dharma Itself Impermanent? one answer distinguishes between 'permanent' and 'eternal'. And one of the Qualities of Buddha Dharma is 'timeless', but Dharmas in Buddhist phenomenology suggests they're conditioned/empty (have no 'self'). IMO the Sabba Sutta suggests that "1+1=2" is just a (conditioned) idea. – ChrisW Feb 1 '15 at 13:08
  • @ChrisW Yeah that's basically what I was saying. The concepts are just concepts (3rd skandha, subject to 3 characteristics) that struggle to encapsulate the law. If the word Dharma refers to Buddhadharma then it is not permanent. If the word Dharma refers to the "knowledges pertaining to Buddhahood" then it is definitely impermanent. Pointless discrimination IMO. – Ahmed Feb 2 '15 at 4:33
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1) Do Buddhists believe that there's no purpose in living?

At large, there is no one absolute purpose "built in" the universe. Meaning, there is no single prize to be taken, no silver bullet to be obtained, no single problem which, when solved, would trump all other problems.

Where is the motivation to do anything if it isn't building up to something?

Because subjectively some experiences are still better than others. Being healthy is better than being sick, being at peace is better than being troubled etc. Plus, of course, there is the fun of creation, art; playing and dancing with the world.

Why be good/smart/...

Because making better choices leads to better experiences.

/compassionate?

Because we make each other's experience. If you are nice to me and I'm nice to you -- we just made our lives a bit better by cross-helping.

And why not commit a suicide instead of learning and understanding things so that you don't suffer - wouldn't that be faster?

If you only think about yourself then perhaps in some sense it seems like a valid cop-out. However like I said our lives are co-dependent. Buddhism is concerned with subjective experience of people who exist, not of people who no longer exist ;) So if you commit suicide you A) may induce suffering in your friends and relatives, B) leave others behind to suffer their own lives, which you could improve if you stayed, and C) the informational/causal chains that shaped your life to be what it is continue to function and will eventually lead to assembly of a situation similar to yours in many ways, and that new person will face same challenges, so in effect you would have merely deferred the problem.

2) If I understand correctly Buddhism says that we don't exist, we're just made up of different parts and our conception of ourselves is just an illusion. But if Descartes was right when he said "I think, therefore I am.", then I don't see how that works with Buddhism - someone here must be wrong (I think).

The fact that thinking happens does not mean there is a single independent agent that does the thinking.

Do Buddhists believe that there's no essence that is "me" (like soul in Christianity), just random parts connected together in a certain point of time?

Correct. Well, not all parts are necessarily material. There is also pieces of information that assembled together to form this person. Also, if you really think about it, the parts did not connect together "in a certain point of time". They keep coming together all the time.

If yes, then what is that thing that thought of the illusion of existing(Is it our mind? Does it also not exist?)?

It's like two mirrors reflecting each other, or a videocamera filming the screen showing its own output. Basically, a feedback loop, albeit a very complex one.

3) It's hard for me to understand how everything could be a compounded because that means that it's made out of smaller things put together. But if those things are also compounded, this process goes on infinitely.

"Compounded" should not be understood literally, as in physically consisting of multiple pieces. It means "brought together" or supported by a number of factors. Think multiple causal chains converging. For a compounded phenomenon to arise, all its necessary constituent factors must be present. As soon as one or more of the necessary factors goes out of effect, the compounded phenomenon ceases. (These factors are not necessarily objective either. For observable phenomena some of the factors reside on the observer's side.)

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Welcome to Buddhism stackexchange. Your questions are a bit different from each other so I will answer them separately for the sake of convenience.

1) Buddhists believe that things are without meaning in them selves, rather than just believing that things are without meaning period. Meaning isn't something that resides in things, but is a product of our own minds, so it isn't predetermined or fixed, so instead of going out and looking for meaning in the world and in our lives, we choose to make our own meaning. From a Buddhist perspective, we should find greatest meaning in seeking enlightenment, which is a perfect and permanent happiness.

2) Buddhism doesn't say that we don't exist. Buddhism says that there is no such thing as an ultimately existing self. However, conventionally, there is a self. Self is a concept that we project onto a set of experiences. There is a bundle of physical and mental experiences that are in constant flux without any underlying core, but we can still refer to the bundle as a whole as being a self on a conventional level. If you go looking for a self that isn't just a designation however, you won't be able to find it, so we say that on an ultimate level, there isn't a self even though on the conventional level there is,

3) The word being translated as compounded is the word Samkhara, and in this context it doesn't mean being made of parts. It means something that is produced from a set of causes and conditions. I personally prefer to translate it as fabricated, produced, or conditioned in this particular context.

  • Buddhists don't "choose to make our meaning"... There is a very clear and obvious purpose within Buddhism. I can't believe this answer got chosen. Orion's is a little better at answering OP's huge delusions about Buddhism and facticities of life.. typical of pop Buddhist books.. – Ahmed Feb 1 '15 at 2:15
  • I never said that Buddhists make their own meaning of Buddhism. I said that we determine the meaning of our lives. That's a bit different because you can't talk about something having a single well defined purpose unless it was intentionally created for a particular purpose, and Buddhism doesn't accept a teleological understanding of the world. – Bakmoon Feb 1 '15 at 3:18
  • Id argue that there IS a simple teleological aim with Buddhism... all sects. The four noble truths suggest that the aim is happiness as you said (right effort) as a foundation for liberation (stages of insight) transforming ones consciousness permanently (Enlightenment) from the chain of being (right view)... And then helping others do the same (mahayana) as a Buddha – Ahmed Feb 1 '15 at 3:26
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    There is a teleological aim in Buddhism, correct. But the questioner wasn't asking about the meaning or purpose of Buddhism. They were specifically asking about the meaning and purpose of life, which definitely does not have a teleological aim according to Buddhism. – Bakmoon Feb 1 '15 at 3:38
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    I think we should take this discussion over to the chat feature (chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/15162/buddhism) so we don't fill up the page. I'll put my response there. – Bakmoon Feb 1 '15 at 4:15
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While others have provided full answers already, I'll choose and pick a few questions to suggest different perspectives.

"Do Buddhists believe that there's no purpose in living?"

Buddhists may believe there is some specific purpose in living. But I don't see anything related to "purpose/reason/meaning of life" anywhere in buddhist texts. I never saw this question being brought to the Buddha or the Buddha tackling it. So, from Buddhism (and in general), we're still clueless as to what is this (living) all about, what is the point of it, or what we're supposed to be doing here.

Not knowing what is this all about, we recognize there is suffering, we recognize it is undesirable and we recognize we are moment after moment subjected to it. Those of us who also recognize the possibility of becoming permanently free from it, may chose to make this their personal purpose.

Bhikkhus, if wanderers of other sects ask you:

"For what purpose, friends, is the holy life lived under the ascetic Gotama?"

— being asked thus, you should answer them thus:

"It is, friends, for the abandoning of the fetters ... for the uprooting of the underlying tendencies ... for the full understanding of the course … for the destruction of the taints ... for the realization of the fruit of true knowledge and liberation ... for the sake of knowledge and vision ... for the sake of final Nibbāna without clinging that the holy life is lived under the Blessed One."

Then, bhikkhus, if the wanderers of other sects ask you:

"But, friends, is there a path, is there a way for attaining final Nibbāna without clinging?"

— being asked thus, you should answer them thus:

"There is a path, friends, there is a way for attaining final Nibbāna without clinging."

And what, bhikkhus, is that path, what is that way for attaining final Nibbāna without clinging? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view ... right concentration. This is the path, this is the way for attaining final Nibbāna without clinging.

Being asked thus, bhikkhus, you should answer those wanderers of other sects in such a way.

-- Annatitthiyapeyyala Vagga

"Why be good/smart/compassionate/... ?"

Because "it is good, it leads to the welfare and happiness of beings, it leads to Nibbāna".

"If I understand correctly Buddhism says that we don't exist, we're just made up of different parts and our conception of ourselves is just an illusion..."

If by "you" or "me" or "soul" it is understood that those things are fixed and eternal, yes, Buddhism instructs one to see how this fixed thing is no where to be found in the aggregates that composes what we refer to as "I". So, it is a misunderstanding to say that according to Buddhism we don't exist.

"but in the end, there must be a basic building block that makes those things and that's bound to be constant."

That was (and still is) the belief of a few scientists, specifically, physicists. Apparently, however, this building block was never found. Let alone something constant.

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And why not commit a suicide instead of learning and understanding things so that you don't suffer

  • My Dad once said to me that suicide really hurts the other people in a family who are left behind, who lose their family member to suicide. When he told me that, I understood him to be saying that I'd be hurt if he killed himself, and that he'd be hurt if I killed myself, and so (to not hurt each other) neither of use should kill ourselves.

  • The first of the 'five precepts' is to abstain from killing. There are verses in the Dhammapada,

    129. All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

    130. All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.

    I think you owe as much compassion and non-violence towards yourself, as you owe anyone else.

  • Finally, there are the four noble truths which explain how to avoid or escape from suffering. The idea of killing myself makes me think, "You are at suffering: you are feeling attachment (to the idea of death), you are feeling aversion (to your view of life), you are at risk of becoming overwhelmed by suffering, at risk of succumbing to suffering. Buddhism teaches that, instead, you should detach from the desires and aversions that are causing this, be kind to yourself and others, be wise.

    If suffering (i.e. 'dukkha' or a feeling of dissatisfaction) is an illness, it's an illness you can want to recover from or become immune to, not an illness that you're meant to kill yourself over.

wouldn't that be faster?

Rather than 'faster' the question to ask may be, "Which is better?"

Also the Buddhist view of 'rebirth' implies that death is no final solution.

If I understand correctly Buddhism says that we don't exist

That's not quite right. Buddhism says that various things are not the 'self'.

Saying exactly what the self is, even saying whether the self is or isn't, is something which the Buddha avoids doing: these questions about the self are among the unanswered questions. It's an interesting question but I think that Buddhism recommends that you let that question go.

Do Buddhists believe that there's no essence that is "me" (like soul in Christianity), just random parts connected together in a certain point of time?

Sort of yes in the sense that it's not possible to identify something which is both 'eternal' and 'me'. Things change, my body changes, maybe I'm changing, and who knows about a hundred years from now?

It's not entirely "just random parts" though: people do things deliberately, and the things which people do have an effect, consequences ... there's a view of 'karma' which says that things aren't entirely random.

A central view in Buddhism is that of 'interdependent causation'.

there must be a basic building block that makes those things and that's bound to be constant ... there's no infinity in nature.

I'm not sure whether your statement is correct (people's intuitive understanding of quantum physics is unreliable). There were (early) Buddhist theories about atoms, too, but I don't see why they're helpful.

I think that Buddhism is best when it's talking about, when it's applicable to the things we can experience, not just metaphysics.

For some further explanation see for example the Wikipedia article on Saṅkhāra.

There's a line about it in the Dhammapada again:

277. "All conditioned things are impermanent" — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering. This is the path to purification.

I think the idea is that things are unsatisfactory because they're impermanent: i.e. you suffer when you lose them -- that's an example of the second noble truth.

And, apparently, understanding that they are impermanent is the way that leads to the end of suffering -- that's an example of right view.

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The meaning of life is a phrase from a different tradition, but if we put square pegs in round holes, then the meaning of life in a Buddhist context is to complete one of the paths of liberation and solve the fundamental problem of suffering. Depending on sect, the path of liberation varies wildly, as does the exact formulation of the fundamental problem. (In Mahayana, the fundamental problem is ignorance about who we really are)

Next two questions regard non-self. You have to keep in mind why this question was being asked. The Indic thinking of the Buddhas time was something like-- some part of you is eternal and unchanging, therefore you will never die, and you have a Indic-style soul and may eventually go to heaven or at least be reborn one village over when you die. Saying subatomic particles exist and are constant, unchanging is something of a nonsequitor unless you can think of a way for subatomic particles to be the foundation for evidence for a soul, reincarnation and after-death heaven.

Now switching over to my Mahayana influenced personal, secular beliefs, I think the non-self bit is true and the consequence is that we personally don't exist, we will die and not be reborn one village over, but the mass of humanity exists. The fundamental problem is how do we solve the problem of misery for all of humanity, because that is the only meaningful, real identity we ever had. That naive notion of an immortal soul was the cause of our misery-- we spent all our efforts trying to preserve that immortal soul and keep it from harm, when the real problem is the world of misery that surrounds us. Once we realize that there isn't such a strong difference between us and the surrounding collective consciousness, our motivation for action shifts.

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