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Practical Philosophy


An Interdisciplinary Study on the Buddhist Truths – Abstract


B.Contestabile    First Version 2023   Last Version 2024





The Buddhist teaching is a possible answer to the question of how one should live, the question which – according to Kant – is at the heart of practical philosophy. However, it is also a therapeutic philosophy with a strong normative claim. The Four Noble Truths can be interpreted as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis, and prescription and represent a detailed guide to the liberation from suffering.



Ein Bild, das Wasservögel, Vogel, Flügel, draußen enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung


René Magritte La Promesse


First Buddhist Truth


Now this, monks, is the Noble Truth of dhukka: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging aggregates are dukkha [www.accesstoinsight.org].



There are various interpretations of this text, but it is often associated with pessimism and an outdated ancient world view. In Factfulness (2018), Hans Rosling argues that pessimistic worldviews are characterized by unconscious prejudices. Despite all its imperfections, the world is in a much better state than we think [1a]. Stephen Pinker comes to a similar conclusion in his highly recognized publication Enlightenment Now (2018). Is it possible to empirically test such claims about humanity's state of happiness? One problem is certainly that the people who suffer the most don’t take part in surveys. However, there is a new idea that is likely to bring us closer to a realistic assessment.


In 2022, Population Ethical Intuitions, a study by Lucius Caviola et al. was published, that examined what average Western citizens (in this case Americans) think about the evaluation of happiness and suffering. The result was astonishing. On average, the participants – unlike the classic utilitarians – thought that a world is worth living in only, if there are significantly more happy than suffering people. In other words, they gave more weight to suffering than to happiness. Were the participants aware of what this means for their own world? If this asymmetry is applied to the best-known survey on life satisfaction, the World Happiness Report, then the overall assessment is negative [1b]. Perhaps the ancient Buddhist view is not so outdated after all, at least if the evaluation is based on empathy [1c].



Second Buddhist Truth


And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming [www.accesstoinsight.org].



The second Buddhist truth is more than a reflection on the functioning of the psyche. It describes the driving force of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In his book River Out of Eden (1995), Richard Dawkins uses the (controversial) metaphor of “God's utility function" when he talks about this force. This refers to the struggle of organisms to maximize the proliferation of their genes. Evolutionary selection has shown that the ability to suffer improves biological fitness. The intensity of pain sensations and the depth of suffering therefore increase in the course of evolution [2a]. We do not (yet) know whether this trend can be reversed by technological and social progress [2b]. It could also be that visions of secular salvation (paradise engineering) serve a similar social function as religious promises of salvation. They make the suffering in the present more bearable and postpone happiness into the future [2c]


"God's utility function" is also a cause of the population growth in recent decades. The absolute number of suffering people is greater today than at any other time in history up to the 20th century. The number of happy people is greater as well, but the suffering of some cannot simply be compensated with the happiness of others [2d]. Why does the second Buddhist truth not clearly name procreation as the prime avoidable cause of human suffering? The answer can be found in the context of the third Buddhist truth.



Third Buddhist Truth


And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving [www.accesstoinsight.org].



The third Buddhist truth says that suffering can be defeated by recognizing and eliminating its cause (craving). Isn’t the most obvious conclusion to eliminate the desire to have children and thus prevent the next generation from suffering? What seems trivial to us today was not obvious to the early Buddhists. Despite the parallels between the doctrine of rebirth and (epi-)genetics there is a crucial difference. Buddhists assumed that a stream of consciousness exists that passes into the next existence at the moment of death (and not at the moment of procreation). The possibility that the consciousness of the child goes back to the consciousness of the parents was also discussed (!) but rejected because children with the same parents develop different cognitive characteristics [3a].


Given the above assumptions, it is plausible that the Buddhists paid particular attention to the transition from life to death. It is also understandable that they regarded self-dissolution in meditation as a kind of exercise for the dying process. According to the Nirodha interpretation of the Pali Canon Buddha was convinced that the highest state of meditation (Pari-nirvāṇa) – achievable only in death – is the key to the cessation of rebirths, and therefore the key to the cessation of suffering. In some traditions, this end is interpreted as the dissolution of individual consciousness into a cosmic consciousness [3b] [3c].


Regardless of the ancient soteriology, Buddhist meditation can be perceived as a profound inner liberation. The positive experience of non-existence (of the self) is the key to cope with transience and death [3d]. Buddha describes the self as a composite, dependent and changeable phenomenon (anatta). We should be able to view it with the same equanimity as all other phenomena in this world [3e]:





This is what you should think of all this fleeting world:

a star at dawn,

a whirl in a stream,

a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

a phantom of a dream.


Diamond Sutra





Fourth Buddhist Truth


And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration (www.accesstoinsight.org).



The Eightfold Path is directed towards a way of life that supports meditation:

- Wisdom (pranja) justifies the path: right view and resolve.

- Ethical behavior (sila) fosters a favorable environment: right speech, action, and livelihood.

- Mental discipline (samadhi) creates the preconditions for spirituality: right mindfulness and concentration.


Although the connection between procreation and the emergence of a new consciousness was not recognized, the ideal of childlessness applied to monks. They justified their attitude with the attachment to the material world (samsara) which is inherent in parenthood, and which subsequently jeopardizes the meditative goal. It is true that such a strict interpretation of the Eightfold Path would put a definitive end to human suffering. In practice, however, most people were (and still are) overburdened by such strictness. From the very beginning, Buddhism developed through a symbiosis of monks and sympathizing laypeople. While the monks preserved and taught the knowledge, the lay community kept it alive. There are good reasons to believe that early Buddhism influenced the Hellenistic philosophers, especially the Cynics, Pyrrho, Epicurus and the early Stoics [4a]. In the present time, related ideas can be found in movements such as simple living, back-to-nature, deep ecology and antinatalism [4b] [4c].


In the 1st century BC, a branch (Mahayana) emerged in Buddhism that upgraded compassion relative to wisdom. Reflections on the contingency and impermanence of the self (anatta) had led to the conclusion, that the suffering of others is just as real and important as one's own suffering. The new ideal (bodhisattva) was now a person who renounces his/her own salvation to free others from suffering [4d]. In the Human Genome Project (1990-2003) the Buddhist idea of a profound connection between all humans finally found a scientific correspondence:


99.9% of the human genome are permanently being reborn [4e].


Today, an upgrading of compassion corresponding to the Mahayana-movement can be found in suffering-focused ethics, an umbrella term, which includes secular Buddhism and negative utilitarianism, among others [4f] [4g]. With the intensified exchange between Western and Eastern philosophy, the boundaries of Buddhism have become fluent.



Further information

Introduction to the study.

Complete study.