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Staff notes
Section 1: Introduction
Buddhism, an overview
What does it mean to be human?
Factfile – the human being
Section 2: The human condition
The Three Universal Truths
The Wheel of Life
Dependent origination: cause and effect
The Four Noble Truths
Section 3: The goals
Kamma and skilful actions
Section 4: The means
The Three Jewels – The Buddha
The Dhamma
The Sangha
The Noble Eightfold Path
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
Buddhism is unique among world religions as there is no belief in a personal
God. Buddhism is based on human experience and potential. Buddhism
teaches a way of life that avoids extremes. It offers ‘a Middle Way’ between a
life of self-indulgence and a life of self-denial. So in place of belief in an actual
God, Buddhism concentrates on the actions of the individual person.
Buddhists believe that all existence is dependent upon conditions – in other
words, that nothing can exist in isolation. For example, a fish cannot survive
without water and a human cannot survive without air to breathe.
Buddha taught that there are three conditioned marks of existence. These are
also known as the Three Universal Truths, and they are called
Anicca, Anatta and Dukkha.
Consider this body! A painted puppet with jointed limbs, sometimes suffering and covered
with ulcers, full of imaginings, never permanent, forever changing.
This body is decaying! A nest of diseases, a heap of corruption, bound to destruction, to
dissolution. All life ends in death.
Look at these grey-white dried bones, like dried empty gourds thrown away at the end of
the summer. Who will feel joy in looking at them?
A house of bones is this body, bones covered with flesh and with blood. Pride and
hypocrisy dwell in this house and also old age and death.
The glorious chariots of kings wear out, and the body wears out and grows old; but the
virtue of the good never grows old, and thus they can teach the good to those who are
If a man tries not to learn he grows old just like an ox! His body indeed grows old but his
wisdom does not grow.
I have gone round in vain the cycles of many lives ever striving to find the builder of the
house of life and death. How great is the sorrow of life that must die! But now I have seen
thee, housebuilder: never more shalt thou build this house. The rafters of sins are broken,
the ridge-pole of ignorance is destroyed. The fever of craving is past: for my mortal mind
is gone to the joy of the immortal NIRVANA.
Those who in their youth did not live in self-harmony, and who did not gain the true
treasures of life, are later like long-legged old herons standing sad by a lake without fish.
Those who in their youth did not live in self-harmony, and who did not gain the true
treasures of life, are later like broken bows, ever deploring old things past and gone.
Source: Dhammapada 147-156
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
The first mark of conditioned existence is Anicca, which means that everything is
constantly changing. Anything that has a beginning will not stay permanently the
same or fixed forever. Even the conditions that cause things to come into
existence are not fixed forever. They constantly change too.
Buddhists believe that impermanence is what life is all about. Nothing is
permanent because everything is constantly changing. Human beings find this
difficult to understand and so have a false sense of permanence which only leads
to ‘unsatisfactoriness’.
To try to make sense of this concept think about what you have done today. In
how many different places have you been? How many people have you spoken
to? How many changes have you made to your appearance since you woke up?
How many absolutely identical days have you experienced? If that seems like a
lot of changes then multiply it by the number of days in your life!
It is not just our lives which are constantly changing but everything around us.
Some things move so quickly they appear to be permanent while others change
so slowly they appear to stay the same. Look at the examples of a stream and a
mountain. The stream is a constantly moving flow of water; so it appears to be
one constant object but it is, in fact, composed of many different drops of water.
The mountain changes too, due to erosion, but this happens over so many years
that it appears to remain the same.
Most people want to see the world as an unchanging place. When anything good
happens people want it to last for ever, but when something bad happens they
complain about the experience and long for it to end. Neither experience will last
for ever; but it appears that way to many people.
The Buddha realised that impermanence was the key to a proper
understanding of the human condition. If people could understand this, they
would have less suffering in their lives. By refusing to see this, people
continue to be attached to things which only lead to disappointment and
suffering when the things change.
Buddhist teachers emphasise the need not to get too attached to pleasures as
they do not last and can lead to suffering.
The second mark of conditioned existence is Anatta, which means that if
everything is subject to constant change there can be no such thing as an
individual or separate self.
In relation to human beings, the concept of Anicca must be seen in
conjunction with Anatta. Unlike other religions Buddhism centres around the
belief that, since nothing is permanent, there can be no immortal self (soul).
Human beings are made up of five skandhas, or bundles of impermanent
existence – body, feeling, sensations, mental formations and consciousness. If
we take each skandha and examine it carefully the lack of permanence
becomes clear. The physical body changes from the moment of conception to
the moment of death. The same is true of an individual’s feelings and
perceptions. So what you call yourself is not a permanent entity but rather an
association of past ideas with present thoughts and feelings.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
In the Buddhist scriptures – in The Questions of King Milinda (a Greek king of
the second century) – Nagasena explains the concept of Anatta by using the
metaphor of a chariot to explain how the skandhas make the appearance of a
Self but are not a Self. He asks the king to explain what part is the actual
chariot and when he cannot do this Nagasena claims that there is no chariot.
King Milinda explains that the concept of a chariot depends on all the parts
and not just on each individual part.
Buddhists of course understand that there are two levels of truth when it comes
to accepting Anatta. On an everyday level it is convenient to talk about my ‘self’
and your ‘self’, because the human brain needs categories in order to make
sense of what is being experienced. However, on an ultimate level, there is no
such thing as ‘self’ since everything is interconnected with everything else!
The third mark of conditioned existence is Dukkha, which means suffering. There
is a general unsatisfactoriness about life because it changes, and we change also.
Because we exist, we suffer.
We see, and are part of, suffering in everyday life. We grow old, we are subject to
illness, and eventually we die. We watch loved ones do the same. We also see
the sufferings of other individuals in the situations of war, poverty and famine.
We also suffer because everything is subject to change or impermanence –
Anicca. Good things cannot last. Take the example of the simple pleasurable
experience of eating chocolate. The pleasure is there as we eat it, but is the
pleasure still there an hour later?
Finally we suffer because of our human limitations. We do not have the answer to
everything, even though we may seek it. We do not know what our future holds
for us, even though we may want to know.
Buddhism teaches that there are three mental poisons or fires which lead to
continued suffering – greed, hatred (tanha) and ignorance (avidya).
Buddhists believe that this conditioned existence is endless. It is often depicted
as a cycle, the Cycle of Samsara, or the Wheel of Life, which shows the distorted
image that humans have of reality. We fail to see things as they really are.
Buddhists say that we therefore experience life from a standpoint of ignorance –
and it is with ignorance that the Wheel of Life begins and continues.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
Student Activities
Why is Buddism unique amongst world religions?
What do Buddhists mean when they say that all existence is dependent
upon conditions?
What are the three marks of conditioned existence?
Copy and complete the following passage. Unscramble the words
underlined as you go along.
Buddhists believe that there are three marks of neconiotidd existence.
These are anicca, tanata and dukkha. The first is anicca, which asnem
impermanence. Everything that we know stycantonl changes. We too
change. We do not stay the meas and as such there can be no such thing
as an vidinualid and separate self. This is the second mark of stexiceen –
anatta. Finally, since humans fail to sareeli and accept that this is the way
the drowl really is then we suffer. This is the third kram – dukkha. There is a
general storunnessifactias about life because it changes and we change
also. Because we exist we ruffes.
In the Buddhist scriptures, Nagasena uses the analogy of a chariot to
explain the concept of Anatta. Do you think this is an effective analogy?
Give reasons for your answer.
Take each of the five skandhas and explain how each of them constantly
changes. You may illustrate your answer with drawings and diagrams.
Can you give any arguments to support the idea that there is an individual
Do you agree with Buddhists when they say that there is a general
unsatisfactoriness about life because it changes, and we also change?
Give reasons for your answer.
Do you think that the three marks of existence are a pessimistic or
a realistic way of looking at life? Give reasons for your answer.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
Further research
 Sunyata
 The story of Kisagotami
 Nagasena
 King Milinda
 The five skandhas.
There are suggestions for websites and other sources on page 61.
Further reading
Buddhist Scriptures, by E Conze: pages 146–151
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
Dependent origination: cause and effect
Remember that, according to Buddha, each thing originates because of
another thing that has gone before it. Things have existence but they are not
permanent or eternal. We exist – this is not an illusion. However, to think that
we are eternal and have a separate core self is an illusion.
Material and mental things have causes and this chain of becoming is
constant. Your experiences result from a series of causes and effects that
begin in your mind. Dependent origination was a means for the Buddha to
teach his followers how they are agents of their own fortune, and how the
Noble Eightfold Path offers them a way to free themselves from suffering.
Dependent origination is very often depicted as a wheel of life. It is a
symbolic representation of what life is really like. It is not meant to be
interpreted literally. At the centre of the wheel of life are the three mental
poisons or flames which fuel this samsaric cycle – greed, hatred and
ignorance. They are usually depicted as a cock, a snake and a pig biting
each other’s tails to show that they feed off each other.
The two circles beyond the centre show the Six Realms. These are:
The realm of the gods – devas
These beings live a life of luxury and pleasure and want for
nothing. They are not gods in the sense of, for example, the
Christian, Jewish or Islamic concept of god.
The realm of asuras
These are usually called angry gods: gods who would like the
position of devas and will go out of their way to get what they want.
The realm of pretas
These are called hungry ghosts. They are constantly hungry and
thirsty. They never feel full no matter how much they have been
given. They can never be satisfied.
The animal realm
Consciousness here is not as great as within the human realm.
Ignorance is greater. Animals hunt and kill. They prey on each
other to survive.
The human realm
The realm of hells
This is the exact opposite of the devas.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
Finally, the outer ring depicts the twelve links or nidanas which show how
cause and effect create continual rebecoming. It shows why the whole Wheel
of Samsara keeps turning.
Outside the wheel stands the Buddha pointing to the moon, which symbolises
freedom – nibbana. The wheel is held by a formidable master with three eyes,
fangs and a crown of skulls. He is called Yama, the Lord of Death, who has
ultimate control over the fate of those who live in samsara. Their lives are
conditioned through their ignorance to see reality as it really is.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
In the next few pages you are going to look at the twelve links of dependent
arising, or interdependent origination. This is the outer circle of the Wheel of Life
depicted on the previous page.
1. Ignorance – A blind man hobbling along
This is shown as a feeble blind man stumbling
from one difficulty to another. He can’t see
where he is going because he is blinded by his
own ignorance. He is completely mistaken
about the way things really are – being
unaware that nothing is permanent including
the self. He is feeble because although
ignorance can have a powerful hold over
people (and ignorance is seen as the source of
all suffering), it can be overcome by wisdom.
2. Predispositions (kammic formations)
- A potter at his wheel
From the standpoint of ignorance you engage in
actions of body, speech and mind. All of these
have kammic consequences, not just now but in
the future too. All of these shape a new life just like
the potter takes a lump of clay and creates a new
3. Consciousness – A monkey scampering up a tree
Consciousness arises from intentional activities.
Consciousness remains after the death of the
physical body unless it is ended with liberation – nibbana
at the point of death. The monkey climbing up and down
the tree symbolises the movement from one life to the
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
4. Name and form – Two people carried in a boat
From consciousness come names and forms. Name and form
refer to the newly conceived being’s embryonic mind and body.
One traveller stands for ‘Name’, the mental consciousness that
is coming from a previous life to join the sperm and egg. The
other traveller symbolises ‘Form’, the small embryo that will grow
into the new body for this consciousness.
5. Sensations – An empty house
From names, forms and consciousness come the
senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and mental
activity. They are shown as an empty house because
at this point the senses are not functioning: complete
on the outside but empty on the inside.
6. Contact – A man and woman embracing
The senses develop – seeing things, hearing
things, smelling things, tasting things,
touching things and mental activity. Naturally
they do not all develop at the same time. This
is shown as a man and woman embracing or
kissing to symbolise the initial contact that
happens to each of the senses in order to
begin to develop.
7. Feeling – A person with an arrow in his eye
Through contact with external things (seeing,
hearing, smelling, touching, tasting and mental
activity), feelings and emotions begin. These
feelings and emotions include things like pain,
pleasure, love, hatred, likes and dislikes.
Feelings and emotions create attachments or
aversions to things in the world.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
In this link you will have received the results of previous kamma and you will also
produce kamma which will have results in the future. Kamma has consequences
although not always apparent and immediate.
An arrow sticking in a person’s eye shows the immediacy of an action and a
8. Craving – A person drinking alcohol
Feelings create cravings. When you experience
pleasure you want it to continue. You seek further
pleasure. When you experience pain you want it to stop
and you try to avoid it.
A person drinking alcohol symbolises this link as you
seek pleasurable experiences to make you feel good
and try to separate yourself from bad experiences. This
is a powerful addiction. It has a hold over you. You are
compelled to act this way.
9. Attachment (grasping) – A monkey snatching fruit
From cravings come attachments. You attach to ideas
and objects in the world and how they make you feel.
You cling to desires to have and to hold or avoid and
escape from. These are not thought-out actions, they
are the automatic response of craving and grasping
that you have been accustomed to throughout your life.
The monkey snatching fruit symbolises that: as your
desire grows, you tend to grasp at pleasurable objects,
just as a monkey snatches at fruit.
10. Being (becoming) – A pregnant woman
From the attachments come being or becoming. As your
craving and grasping increase in strength throughout
your life, rebirth or rebecoming is assured. All of this is
leading to the next life coming into existence; it is almost
like kammic seeds being planted. A pregnant woman
symbolises this new life.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
11. Birth (rebirth/rebecoming) – A woman giving birth
Birth arises from the previous link. The kammic seeds
come to fruition. Your dying consciousness, clinging to
life and wanting new life, and your kamma, are pushed
into a new life.
12. Ageing and death – A person carrying a corpse
From rebirth or birth comes the whole
experience again. From ignorance you are
forced to carry the burden of unwanted
suffering. A person carrying a corpse
symbolises carrying this burden.
Remember birth will be in one of the six realms.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
Student activities
For activities 1 and 2 students should try not to refer to their notes.
Collect a series of pictures of the twelve links or nidanas. Arrange them
into the correct order. Check with your tutor that you have got this
Now glue the correctly ordered pictures onto sheets of A4 paper. Write
an explanation of each link beside the appropriate picture.
Collect a picture of an empty wheel of life. Add in as much information
and detail as you can. You may discuss your answers with your
Do you agree or disagree with Buddha that we are agents of our own
fortune? Give reasons for your answer.
What kinds of people do you think the six realms are describing? Which
do you think describes you and your situation? Give reasons for your
It is sometimes thought that Yama is holding up the wheel like a
mirror to us. When we look at it we see our reflection. Do you think
this is a good analogy? Give reasons for your answer.
Further research
Cause and effect
The wheel of life – variety of depictions
Jakata tales
The six realms within Tibetan Buddhism.
Further reading
Buddhist Scriptures, by E Conze: pages 19–33 – Buddha’s previous lives;
pages 146–51 – The questions of King Milinda;
pages 186–9 – Wisdom
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
At the end of the last section we began to look at dukkha, or suffering, which is
part of what Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths.
All living beings suffer – dukkha.
This suffering is caused by craving and attachment to things –
Suffering can be overcome – nibbana.
The way to achieve this is by following the Noble Eightfold Path –
A common Buddhist analogy is to illness and medicine. A doctor identifies the
illness, diagnoses why the patient has the illness, and then offers a cure by
prescribing a medicine.
Buddha is the doctor who makes the diagnosis – dukkha.
The illness is craving, or tanha.
The cure is nibbana.
The prescription is the Noble Eightfold Path.
We are now going to look at the second noble truth – craving, or tanha.
If a man watches not for NIRVANA, his cravings grow like a creeper and he jumps from
death to death like a monkey in the forest from one tree without fruit to another.
And when his cravings overcome him, his sorrows increase more and more, like the
entangling creeper called birana.
But whoever in this world overcomes his selfish cravings, his sorrows fall away from him,
like drops of water from a lotus flower.
Therefore in love I tell you, to you all who have come here: Cut off the bonds of desires,
as the surface grass creeper called birana is cut for its fragrant root called usira. Be not
like a reed in a stream which MARA, the devil of temptation, crushes again and again.
Just as a tree, though cut down, can grow again and again if its roots are undamaged
and strong, in the same way if the roots of craving are not wholly uprooted sorrows will
come again and again.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
When the thirty-six streams of desire that run towards pleasures are strong, their powerful
waves carry away that man without vision whose imaginings are lustful desires.
Everywhere flow the streams. The creeper of craving grows everywhere. If you see the
creeper grow, cut off its roots by the power of wisdom.
The sensuous pleasures of men flow everywhere. Bound for pleasures and seeking
pleasures men suffer life and old age.
Men who are pursued by lust run around like hunted hares. Held in fetters and in bonds
they suffer and suffer again.
Source: Dhammapada 334-342
Buddha said that the unsatisfactoriness we experience is caused by
craving, or tanha. All suffering and unsatisfactoriness comes from our need
to attach to things. For example, we need to examine our expectations of
material items like that new fashion garment, or the latest electronic gadget,
or our expectations of a new emotional relationship with someone.
It is not the desire for these things which is wrong, it is the expectations we
place on them, because we assume that having them will lead to permanent
How long before the garment wears out or tears? How soon before the
gadget is no longer state of the art? In that new relationship, does that initial
feeling of love or lust endure?
Remember Buddhists believe that our view of reality derives from a
standpoint of ignorance. We fail to see things as they really are –
impermanent and changing. Because of this mind-set of ignorance we
become attached, and therefore we try constantly to fulfil our desires. We
have an addiction to worldly life. This keeps us tied to Samsara.
Craving creates more craving, and the craving derives from the three mental
poisons of greed, hatred and ignorance. These three are also likened to
flames which fuel this endless Cycle of Samsara.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland
Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies
Intermediate 2; Higher
World Religions – Buddhism
The Human Condition
Student activities
Make a list of four things that make you happy and four things that make you
unhappy. Explain from a Buddhist point of view why these things will not
make you permanently happy and unhappy.
Describe your understanding of the Buddhist teaching on craving or tanha.
When was the last time you felt like this and why?
List six sufferings which you can see in the world. Beside each one write
down what you think causes it. Also give a Buddhist response to each.
Buddhist response
Further research
The Four Noble Truths
The three yanas.
© Learning and Teaching Scotland