The dominant and official religion at the time was Brahmanism, which was based on the sacred scriptures, the Vedas and Upanishads. It asserted that all living beings are subject to saṃsara, a perpetual chain of life, death and rebirth, from which only the Brahmans could escape, by merging the individual soul (atman in Sanskrit) with the soul universal (Brahman), and this thanks to the sacrificial rites and the magic formulas, of which they were the only holders. The other castes, that is to say the great majority of people, found themselves thus excluded from any hope of deliverance.
A revolutionary thought
It was then that the thought of the Buddha appeared, particularly original and innovative, one could even say revolutionary. On the one hand, the Buddha does not recognize the authority of the sacred scriptures, and refutes the existence of the individual soul and the universal soul. On the other hand, it offers a radically different vision of the world, based on three founding principles: the Four Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of existence and the Principle of conditionality or interdependence (paṭicca-samuppada in Pali).
The Four Noble Truths form the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy:
- The first truth is the observation of human suffering, or dissatisfaction, imperfection, malaise (dukkha in pali)
- The second concerns the causes of this suffering, which are thirst or greed, anger or hatred, ignorance or illusion, also called the “Three Poisons”. These, by the law of karma, that is to say of cause and effect, inevitably lead to suffering.
- The third is the possibility of extinction, of cessation of suffering, by systematically eliminating its causes.
- The fourth is the path leading to extinction, to the cessation of suffering, consisting of right and good conduct of life, called the Eightfold Path of Wisdom.
By stating the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha demonstrated a true medical approach, in four stages: nosological diagnosis, etiological diagnosis, prognosis and treatment. He can therefore be considered a great doctor of the soul.
The message of the Buddha is clear and simple: the suffering of every human being, whoever he is, is linked to his conduct.
By the Three Characteristics of existence, he means impermanence (anicca in Pali; non-self: anatta in Pali) and suffering, which are intimately linked.
Impermanence is the law of change inherent in all existence: everything is constantly changing, nothing lasts, nothing is eternal. It is the attachment to things that one would like to be permanent that is the source of suffering.
Non-self means that each individual is not a real established entity, but only a temporary aggregation of constantly changing bodily and mental elements. It is the attachment to this illusion of me, of mine, that makes us suffer.
Last but not least, the principle of conditionality or interdependence occupies a central position in Buddhism: all phenomena are conditioned by each other, forming an immense mesh in the universe, interconnected, interdependent, interacting. The master Thich Nhât Hanh used the term "inter-being" taking as an example a sheet of paper, where the tree from which it draws the substance, as well as the earth, water, and the sun can be found. who feed the tree, the woodcutter who cuts it down, the factory which transforms it into paper, the paper mill which sells it and the schoolboy or the writer who uses it... We all "inter-are", we are all connected by invisible links. Hence the need to live in harmony, with benevolence and mutual understanding, between humans, but also with the animal, vegetable and mineral world.
Thus, the message of the Buddha is clear and simple: the suffering of every human being, whoever he is, is related to his own conduct, and it is by his own efforts, and not by gods or supernatural powers, that he will come to deliverance.