Buddhism, A Spirituality Begun in Aporia and Wonder


‘What is the origin of spirituality in Buddhism?’ is the question that this study will explore. The question is not, ‘what is the definition of spirituality in Buddhism’. A single answer is not possible because of the many different belief systems that have emerged from later scholar analysis of the original suttas or lessons of the Buddha. To arrive at my thesis that Buddhism is a spirituality born in aporia and wonder, we will follow Siddhartha, the man who would become Buddha, on his journey into enlightenment.

What Buddhists in general can agree upon is that a person from what is now northern India, Siddhartha Gautama and the man who would become the most recent Buddha, was the progenitor and foundational source for Buddhism. Therefore, if there is spirituality in Buddhism, a belief system that originated with the Buddha, then it is appropriate to look at the Gautama Buddha himself and his youthful countenance, Siddhartha for preliminary answers to the question of the origins of spirituality in Buddhism. Going further than Gautama exceeds the scope of this project. That said, spirituality and Buddhism is a vast topic that requires significant additional study and thought. Govind Chandra Pande provides this summary of the spirituality that the Buddha inculcated:

Spiritual life consists in the effort to move away from ignorance to wisdom. This effort has two principal dimensions: the cultivation of serenity and the cultivation of insight. Ignorance is the mistaken belief in the selfhood of body and mind, which leads to involvement in egoism, passions, actions, and repeated birth and death. Wisdom is insight into the three characteristics of existence—no-self (anatta), impermanence, (aniccā), and dukkha—and the direct experience of timeless reality, leading to liberation and lasting peace. (Pande 1995, 10)

Pande’s summary will provide for us a basic understanding of the core elements that comprise early Buddhist spirituality. While this is important, what has received little attention is how the Buddha came to understand these elements of spirituality and their importance to his entire belief system. This is the journey on which this paper embarks. Why is this important? As we will discover, Buddhist spirituality is derived from a human, not the divine. Nor is Buddhist spirituality metaphysical.

To begin this journey with a man and a man alone suggests an important divergence from the discussion of spirituality in other belief systems, particularly those of the Abrahamic where God is omnipresent with humanity throughout the Bible and biblical scripture. The origin of the Buddha and the Buddhist suttas are without divine intervention, revelation, or metaphysical hypostases. The powers of Gautama Buddha and his path towards the spiritual are derived from his own abilities that he learns from masters, or acquires through sheer intellectual thought, praxis, and failure.

Therefore, and with the admonition of the Buddha himself, we must begin this journey by eschewing the temptation to derive metaphysical answers from everyday processes and actions.[1] We are beings in the world and must use what the world provides us to derive answers to questions we have about it. The world of the Buddha is a phenomenal world of experience and action. Karma is produced as the result of both intention and action, where intention supervenes action in the creation of good or bad karma.[2]

However, there will be questions such as the first and last cause in the universe that our minds cannot grasp. The Buddha reminds us that these questions are not worth pursuing because we are not capable of discovering their answers and therefore should be set aside.[3] All other questions, including those of the message of the Buddha himself are subject to query and analysis. In other words, the Buddha admonishes us not to put faith before reason, but to use our own intellectual and compassionate abilities to decide what to believe.

Above all, Gautama’s Buddhism is a humanism.[4] This humanism does not presuppose and anthropomorphic dominance over the world. Rather, that we are like all other existents, a product of dependent origination and co-origination. We are contingent beings like all other beings. Being contingent not only produces dukkha, suffering, lack, and unsatisfactoriness, but also produces the means for ascendance from the clinging, grasping, and craving for a permanent self or soul which we can never obtain. Impermanence as an understanding overcomes traditions and rituals that tend to stultify humans into a repetitious search for the same and the same in continuity. Rebirth or saṁsāra is simply the product of such ambitions towards permanence which causes the suffering of the world. It is this suffering or dukkha which must be overcome for Buddhist humanism to arise in full in the individual.

The pre-originary condition of the human is contingency, not permanency. The primordial methodology of Buddhism is both towards an understanding of the origins of dukkha, and a process of emptying of conditions, rituals, and thinking that attempt to maintain, shore up, preserve, and cling to that which cannot be permanently maintained.

Buddhism is a humanism that is both a freeing from attachment and a process towards a new form of consciousness that can exist in a world of dependent origination using the powers of compassion and intellect to intend and act wisely, and without undue harm to others. Even though Buddhism is a humanism, its compassion extends to all living entities. It derives humanism from the co-dependence of the world and the human in all thoughts and actions.

The later Mahayana Buddhism goes even further to declare that all sentient beings have Buddha nature or the ability to become enlightened.[5] Therefore according to Mahayana tradition, our humanism is not something we alone can possess, but is a fundamental capability of all sentient beings, and it is a derivation from consciousness itself. This is a new consciousness that has arisen from another that passes away during the process of enlightenment.[6] Our humanism therefore is interdependent with the processes that play out in the world around us. We extend our compassion not only to humans but with and to all with whom we interact. Given this basic understanding, our quest begins with the question of, ‘How did Siddhartha Gautama discover what has become known as Buddhism?’

By his own admission, Gautama was not the first Buddha and by his own prediction he will not be the last. He was human, not God, not deva or demon. He did not receive any revelation from a metaphysical other, nor did he derive his understandings from metaphysical or mystical sources.

Roger Gottlieb says about spirituality, “In its broadest sense, spirituality is an understanding of how life should be lived and an attempt to live that way. (5, Gottlieb 2013)” Gottlieb’s broad sense of spirituality requires an understanding. This understanding must come from somewhere. In Buddhism, the origin of this understanding is the Buddha himself.

To arrive at the origin of spirituality in early Buddhism, it is appropriate to begin with Siddhartha’s journey into enlightenment. We will follow not only the process that Siddhartha used to obtain his understanding, but we will also explore some of his key tenets for how to live life in the way that it should be lived. The two: the process of how he derived his understandings, and the understandings themselves are key to the genesis of spirituality in Buddhism.[7]

What he learned on this journey, Siddhartha translated into two fundamental constructs of Buddhism. The first of these are the four noble truths: that first there is dukkha; second, dukkha is caused by clinging, grasping and craving to make permanent ideas, things, and self in an impermanent world; third, there is a cure for dukkha; and fourth, that cure is the noble eightfold path. The process of the noble eightfold path is the way out of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness, lack) and prepares one for enlightenment or nibbāna (nirvana in Sanskrit). To prepare for our journey we must consider a definition for spirituality.


Peter C. Hill et al. discovered little “systematic conceptualization” between the concepts of religion and spirituality (Hill et al. 2000, 52). What he did find in common was that they develop over a lifetime, are “social-psychological phenomenon”, are “related to cognitive phenomenon…affect and emotion” and are “relevant to the study of personality” (Hill et al. 2000, 3-4). Both religion and spirituality also have relationships to mental health, drug and alcohol use, and social function (Hill et al. 2000, 4-5). As a humanism, Buddhism aligns with Hill et al.’s observations. Antoine Panaioti even called Buddhism, “the great health” (Panaioti 2013, 3). The great health he posited is the curative practice of the eightfold path to show the right ways of living one’s own life. While health, well-being, and the end to ignorance are foundations of Buddhist thinking, we cannot ignore compassion. Compassion for all living things presupposes a significant broadening of Buddhism from the idea of personal heath alone.

Given the fact that there are similar facets of religion and spirituality, can we differentiate one from the other? Hill et. al. found little consensus in the definition of religion (Hill et al. 2000, 63). Since Buddhism has no God or metaphysical constructs we are well advised to stay away from a discussion of whether Buddhism is a religion or not. Considering that there is some common ground between religion and spirituality we are better served to consider the spiritual aspects of Buddhism and leave religious definition to others.

What is spirituality? Rather than define spirituality in iconoclastic terms, Hill et al. consider specific criteria necessary to describe spirituality within a particular belief system or psychological experience:

The feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviors that arise from a search for the sacred. The term “search” refers to attempts to identify, articulate, maintain, or transform. The term “sacred” refers to a divine being, divine object, Ultimate Reality, or Ultimate Truth as perceived by the individual. (Hill et al. 2000, 66)[8]

Buddhism begins in the search for truth. The sacred is not divine. The sacred is the end to the experience of dukkha. This is no ultimate truth. Dukkha remains in the world. It is not vanquished, only shed by one who becomes enlightened. There is no ultimate truth in Buddhism. Enlightenment is both eternal (outside of time) and timeless. Timeless in that it has no end and no beginning.[9] Therefore, enlightenment cannot be an ultimate truth.

Enlightenment is. Dukkha is. To become enlightened one must live and this existence is without a separate and permanent self or soul. Buddhism is a quest to understand the reality of existence in an impermanent world, one that changes from moment to moment. Recall the uncertainty that Rene Descartes had whether an evil demon had created that which we think we see and feel rather than God. He felt certain of only one thing, that is that he was a thinking thing. This uncertainty is the uncertainty of impermanence, that we exist in a momentary world for which form and function are never permanent. Yet, we do understand the Newtonian proposition that action produces reaction. How far back this action-reaction regression goes gets murky and becomes inconsequential as I must observe this very moment to prepare for my next intention and action. This is all I can do. If I spend time theorizing about what led up to this moment or think about all the possible outcomes based upon the various possible intentions and actions I might perform, I might miss something important. While I am a thinking thing, I must not dwell in any other place than the present. Thinking involves process, something that is never permanent but is continuous as is the process of dependent origination.

Thing is the nature of existence, but Descartes retained the idea of a Christian permanent soul. Thing for the Buddha is not permanent, but as Frank Hoffman explains is, “continuity without the identity of self-same substance. (Hoffman 1987, 53)” Even our being is impermanent. Our body is in as much flux as our mind. In fact, the Buddha described us as five aggregates or processes he called the khandhas.[10] These processes never coalesce but they work both independently and synergistically towards our continuity in impermanence. Descartes’ uncertainty, even in his certainty that he was a thinking ‘thing’, is just one process of the Buddha’s khandhas that never leads to a thing in itself. If, as Hill et al. suggest, spirituality is partly a search then it is appropriate to follow Siddhartha on his own search for answers to his questions about dukkha. However, before we follow Siddhartha on his quest for spirituality there are other terms with which we must become familiar. These include awakening, enlightenment, wonder, and desire.

On Awakening

Awakening is a part of the experience component of spirituality. In the Pali Canon we become witness to an awakening. Buddhism is a belief system where process and the order of thoughts and actions are both significant and important. An awakening is a process that takes one from real or spiritual sleep into the realm of wakefulness. Wakefulness is the realm of consciousness. In Buddhism, the awakening to enlightenment is into a new form of consciousness that arises from the passing away from the old. This change in consciousness occurs during the process of enlightenment.

Enlightenment: Continuity Without Time

Time is the ‘through which’ spirituality as the search is investigated. However, nirvana is both eternal and timeless. This is why enlightenment cannot be an ‘ultimate truth’ if it is without end or beginning.

We are in fact an impermanent existent who exists. Our belief in and understanding of temporal continuity is associated with all the internal and external processes that provide us with information that we try (in dukkha) to order into a continuous stream but which only operate in concert for the moment. In Dukkha we mistakenly guide the five process aggregates (khandhas) to believe that there is something more to this idea of ‘continuity’. It is the idea that a permanence of some sort can be found in this process. In fact, what we are likely to do in our minds is conflate process and continuity.

Process is a change agent which fundamentally produces only change. Change is the result of dependent origination regardless of whether there is an intentional process or not e.g. chemical change. Intentional processes only eliminate the degrees of freedom for other processes to become possible and effect the chain of causes. We too have become victims of this conflation of process and change. We are no more the child as an adult than the can is a bar of metal.

As Hoffman explains, something that passes from the dying person to the new embryo has continuity but it is without the identity of self-same substance. No less is the person who has had a lifetime of experience producing karma, both good and bad. Frank Hoffman clarifies that early Buddhism explained continuity as, “[c]ontinuity of the stream of consciousness” (Hoffman 1987, 48). The stream of consciousness, not the actual consciousness is that which has continuity.

This confirms the notion that process (the stream) and consciousness are separate. Consciousness dies with the dying person, but the stream of consciousness must continue otherwise rebirth would not be possible. The continuity of the stream of consciousness requires that there be something associated with the process. A process without something to process is an empty process.

What early Buddhism says karma, or that which results from our intentions and actions good or bad, is derived from process. The karmic forces are independent from both stream of consciousness and consciousness but they contribute to that which is ‘continued’ in the embryo of rebirth.

Karma, however, must comport with the idea of dependent origination. This means that karma, once it has been generated, is irreversible as are the dependent conditions that produce the present moment. The production of the new, the embryo that results from egg and sperm, are subject to dependent origination just as much as the can from its steel bar. The karmic forces from the dying person, present at that moment in the stream of consciousness, becomes associated with the embryo. This establishes the originary state of the new individual which begins its own dependent origination process: birth, child, adult, death.

The ‘whole’ of the aggregates (khandhas) produce a sense of being in the moment from which we derive continuity from our memories. Memories (in the sense of how the aggregates add value to the ‘whole’) are both helpful and unhelpful in the context of impermanence. They are helpful because they can guide us to produce other than bad karma. They are unhelpful because they are brought forward to complicate the now with past assumptions. Disconnecting the unhelpful from the helpful is one of the fundamental goals of Buddhism.

The continuity we seek and have spoken of is brought about by the illusion of time. We know that the stream of consciousness is a continuous process that continues (in a contingent universe) with or without our earthly existence. It is a process and by itself contains no information that can help us understand the present moment. Our existence condition (khandhas) in the present is the only thing we have available to understand the present. Thus, the child’s present is different from the adult’s present because its capabilities are limited, even though we stand next to each other in the same place.

We must de-conflate process and substance to understand the nature of our own existence and reality. Even though we have accumulated memories, they are useful to serve us only in the present moment. The matching process of considering aspects of the past towards conditions of the present are no less a logical process than Emmanuel Kant described with his categories of reason. We use what we have learned against what is present today. What we cannot do is to conflate a permanence of the past with the immediacy of the moment. This means that reason only uses what it has learned that is relevant to the phenomenal moment. If reason carries forward the past as something that is conditioned by the past and not the present, the disconnect to the present occurs. This is dukkha. Emblematic of dukkha is the conflation of the immanent conditioned past to the present.

The Buddhist enlightened one disconnects the immanent conditioned past from the present. In other words, immanent consciousness is replaced by a new form of consciousness that is reflective, but only to the extent that brings forth that which is helpful at the moment. The continuous return to memories and instances of past existences to connect to the present to preserve a state of continuity has been severed. This is the end of the rebirth which is a cause of dukkha. Consciousness, recall, cannot be reborn. The stream of consciousness continues but consciousness dies away. The process of enlightenment serves to sever living consciousness as the desire of continuity, of continually bringing forward consciousness in the form of even a semi-permanent construct. If consciousness is severed from continuity, then one cannot be reborn. One lets go of consciousness that clings, grasps, and craves permanence, and returns the aggregates to the process of dependent origination—of presentism and mindfulness.

This transformation produces emptiness, the emptiness into an otherwise than being. The otherwise than being does not presume a separate ontology. It does not deny the ontology of the world and its objects but understands that there is no permanent ontological object that continues from moment to moment. Impermanence permits death without rebirth. Simply stated, if we can internalize the idea of dependent origination we can flow with it rather than try to buck the tide of change with notions of permanence. We can then let go of rebirth as an idea that is towards the perfection of the self and as an idea that does not comport with dependent origination. Deathlessness is a letting go of permanence.

Letting go of that which produces the notion of permanence to accept unconditionally impermanence is the first step towards the end of dukkha and the beginning of nirvana. Once the person escapes the rebirth cycle of saṁsāra, the person will not be reborn again.

An important question is whether this is extinction? The Buddha provides little instruction as to the state of the dead Tathāgata or Arahant. As Hoffman says, “Nowhere in the literature of the Nikāyas does the Buddha assert any view about the afterlife of the Tathāgata” (Hoffman 1987, 105). Nor does the Buddha say this is extinction, as Hoffman explains, “That is, there is no place in the Nikāya literature where the Buddha is depicted as saying parinibbāna is extinction” (Hoffman 1987, 108). What Hoffman explains is that deathlessness is not immortality or endless life, but it is eternal which means both timelessness and without ends. Practically this is conceivable because while one has the experience of the aggregates during one’s life, after enlightenment we do not know whether the Tathāgata’s aggregates ‘experience’ phenomenon after death. We have received no communication from the Buddha or other Tathāgatas after their final deaths. Nor is parinibbāna a transcendental state but is, as Hoffman explains, “As for parinibbāna, it could be amata [deathlessness] only in the sense of being a limit of the flux of rebirth, as the death-not the process of dying-of an Arahat” (Hoffman 1987, 117, Emphasis in original; item in bracket added).

As we have seen, Buddhism is in no way fatalistic. Dependent origination permits change independent from other beings. Nor is action predicated by a substrate determined by an omniscient god. What is now has been predicated by past actions and intentions with no discussed original cause and no prophesized end to origination. This permits a condition of nibbāna/parinibbāna that can be eternal—without ends, and deathless, which is timeless. If timeless eternality is the state of the universe, the shedding both of ends and time produces the condition of being in the moment for the moment is all that there is. Time is only an emergent process within consciousness that exists in dukkha.

Therefore, not only must one understand dependent origination as a process, but also understand that dependent origination is conducted in eternal timelessness. This means that if we shed both the notion of time in the context of continuity, and the context of continuity in the notion of time, we have reached a place of understanding where we may begin not only to live in a state of mindfulness in the present but we can also position ourselves to end the process of rebirth, which produces unsatisfactory repetition or saṁsāra. The end to saṁsāra means the end of dukkha which means the beginning of enlightenment. However, enlightenment emerged only after Siddhartha began to wonder.


Wonder that arises from aporia is the process through which the search (as previously noted by Hill et al.), “attempts to identify, articulate, maintain, or transform.” What is wonder?  Says Mary-Jane Rubenstein, “Thaumazein [wonder] arises when the understanding cannot master that which lies closest to it-when, surrounded by utterly ordinary concepts and things, the philosopher suddenly finds himself surrounded on all sides by aporia” (Rubenstein 2008, Location 214, Kindle edition, item in brackets added). It is that which cannot be resolved or solved quickly through pure thought or phenomenological analysis that produces the locus and the environs necessary for wonder. Wonder begins with a question, an uncertainty. Wonder may involve all the processes that make up a person in the moment of doubt.[11] Outside of the semantics of the question, wonder’s environs can produce urgency, angst, and obsession. Wonder is a feeling of disconnectedness to the world. This disconnectedness is only the beginning of the journey towards Buddhist spirituality. One may understand the Buddhist precepts of, for example, dependent origination, no soul, meditation, and dukkha, however, as Paul J. Griffiths says of the practitioner, “She learns, that is, not merely to assent to the proposition ‘everything is impermanent’ but also to directly perceive the impermanence of everything” (Griffiths 1995, 37).  Therefore, while the practitioner needs to know that everything is impermanent it is more important to know what impermanence means and how to perceive it. This knowing what requires considerable practice and consciousness alteration. Buddhist practices require great effort and therefore wonder in Buddhism is also a desire. Before desire, there is a catalyst for wonder.

Wonder’s Catalyst

Like any process whether chemical or mechanical, there is a catalyst or first step. The first step for the Buddha in his own process of awakening began in aporia which for him produced wonder. Wonder itself is a process. Wonder’s two volatile elements are the question and desire.

The catalyst to wonder is aporia, a cognitive-emotional uncertainty that contains both curiosity and anxiety. Aporia is a question about the state of the present moment and what it means. Aporia is the catalyst because it brings into focus one’s uncertainty which causes the desire to search for answers to the questions. A question without desire is simply a question. A question with desire is wonder.

To begin in the realm of uncertainty is important for Buddhism. Buddhism is an amalgam of psychology, soteriology, and science associated with the idea of impermanence. It is the Buddha’s ‘discovery’ of the primacy of impermanence in physics and in the world of existence, the life world, or what Jakob Von Uexkull called umwelt that is central to the understanding of Buddhist spirituality and process.

However, this discovery of impermanence in all things began in a peculiar aporia. To understand the pre-originary location for the Buddha’s aporia we must return to his youth as Siddhartha, during the first twenty-six years of his life as the son of what some scholars believe was a wealthy householder or as the ruler of a minor principality. Siddhartha was brought up to be the successor to his father. In this he was taught not only the local religions of the time, including Brahmanism, Jainism, and early Hinduism, but also the affairs and requirements of rule. However, legend says that when Siddhartha was born his father’s soothsayer proclaimed that this child will be a disrupter and not have much respect for tradition.[12] It is said that Siddhartha’s father feared this prophecy and so kept him from experiencing suffering of the people in everydayness by keeping him confined within the palace. When Siddhartha was married and in his mid-twenties he first saw illness, death, old age and a renunciant.[13]

His aporia began in the recognition that these persons all were experiencing suffering. Siddhartha had not experienced the same living in a hedonistic state of comfort as the son of a wealthy person. Unfortunately, we may never confirm the truth of these stories because little definitive is ‘known’ about the early life of the Buddha. However, we can see familiar human elements in this story.

To unpack the genesis of Siddhartha’s own aporia in everydayness terms, we begin with the worries of common parents and that is the uncertainty of the happiness and fate of their newborn. They do everything they can to both prepare the child for its life and in Siddhartha’s case, his hereditary and heraldic role in society. At the same time, parents do everything they can to keep the child away from misery, illness, and suffering.

However, Siddhartha saw and experienced things from which his parents could not shield him. We must be clear that while Siddhartha was a precocious and an extremely intelligent child and young adult, he was not the son of God, nor was he visited by a god or gods who endow him with special powers. Siddhartha was just a person. He was like all persons, born into a world of dukkha. His circumstances and intelligence were better than most—but he was nothing more than a human boy and young man.

The Buddha, however, had deva vision, or the ability to see and remembered his own past lives and the lives of previous Buddhas and other persons.[14] How did transformation take place? If there is no God or there were no gods who would nurture him, aid him, or provide him with supernumerary powers for him to become the omniscient being of the Buddha, how did this occur? We may never know how a Buddha becomes and gains deva vision, but we can ascertain some clues from Siddhartha’s enlightenment.

A fundamental lesson of Buddhism is that this was a personal transformation and not something produced by outside forces. This transformation involved process and practice and a profound change in understanding and consciousness, but was not something that was caused by metaphysics or a metaphysical being. The Buddha’s message to all who would listen was that enlightenment is something that can be achieved presumably by anyone who has the stamina and desire to maintain personal progress following the Buddha’s noble eightfold path. Buddhism is a highly-ordered process of thinking, which can, but does not always produce enlightenment. Enlightenment is the end to ignorance of critical ideas about existence, and involves the birth of a new form of consciousness that is both intrinsically ethical and compassionate towards others.

From the story of Siddhartha, we can derive the story of all children, and that is they eventually will experience aporia in the form of unexpected change. The Buddha’s aporia began, as we are told as a voyeur, someone who sees the suffering of others without experiencing the same in his own physical aspect. However, what Siddhartha the voyeur experienced was both vicarious and personal, a questioning of the status-quo beliefs of the time that there is a permanent state of existence. His questioning conjoined the historical local belief of rebirth to the suffering of all persons.

The problem that the Buddha saw is that there is decay within the human form in the aspects of sickness, age, death, and asceticism. He wondered, ‘If there is decay, then how can there be something that rides along with the existent that does not decay and even improves through ritual so that it can become again in the next life?’

What he derived from his thinking is that this permanent self or soul does nothing for the person in this or a next life to assuage sickness, old age or death. It is this aporia and the seemingly unsatisfactory answers that his contemporaries used to explain away this unsatisfactoriness that led Siddhartha away from the comfortable nest of his familial existence and into the world of suffering to discover his own answers.

Siddhartha could have let go of his aporia to follow that which was established beliefs of the time. However, these answers did not satisfy him. Like all who feel uncomfortable with knowledge that is presented as fact, his questions did not end with currently accepted understanding.

However, the aporic to be catalyzed requires a desire. Siddhartha’s desire was to find better answers to the questions of suffering and existence. Desire requires both action and determination to follow the question down through its logical and perhaps even illogical successor questions.


Desire, in the search for the origin of Buddhist spirituality is the search for truth. However, for Buddhism this search is towards the end of ignorance that there is a permanent self or soul. This complicates the idea of desire as we will see. The paradox of desire is that Buddhism understands desire differently and explains that to end suffering one must end that which is associated with desire: clinging, grasping and craving. Siddhartha did not know that clinging, grasping, and craving would be his answer to the causes of suffering when he began his journey. In fact, the desire to understand dukkha burned in him throughout his six-year journey as an ascetic before he abandoned even that mode of existence when he sat under the Bodhi tree to enter the deepest meditation.

How would the Siddhartha resolve the paradox of desire that it is both necessary and undesirable? Buddha’s disciple, the Venerable Master Ananda in the Iddhipādasam̩yutta explained this in his conversation with Master Knanda.  Master Knanda asked Ananda how could one seek enlightenment without desire? Ananda asked Knanda whether he had desired to go to the park that day. Knanda said he did. Ananda asked Knanda whether he still desired to go to the park after he got there. Knanda said no. Ananda then said about the one who seeks enlightenment, “He earlier had the desire for the attainment of arahantship [enlightenment], and when he attained arahantship, the corresponding desire subsided”.[15]

Stephen Collins asks whether it is possible to desire nirvana (Collins 1996, 186)? To answer he explains that the English word desire comes with baggage that Buddhists are wont to discard. He suggests aspiration is a better word (Collins 1996, 186). The problem with desire is that it can come with corruptions sāsava or without corruptions anāsava. Tanhā (thirst), and upādāna (attachment) are both corruptions that are associated with desire (Collins 1996, 187). Collins explains that rather than use desire, terms most often used in the context of ‘aspiration for nirvana’ are: abhinihāra, panidhi, pat̩t̩hāna, and saṅkappa (Collins 1996, 188).

Siddhartha did not seek nirvana in his quest to find answers to the issue of suffering. He became enlightened after he found these answers. His wonder turned to desire for answers and likely did so with the corruptions that Collins points out that are associated with desire. The paradox of nirvana is that if you desire it with corruptions you will not get there. When Siddhartha realized that clinging, grasping, and craving were the cause of dukkha, he shed these from him like one who withdraws wood from a flame. With this letting go of desiring desire he prepared himself for his enlightenment.

You must let go of desiring desire just as Knanda did with his desire to go to the park once he reached the park. However, the park is a place that one can direct oneself to. It can be something one does for a sound reason (without corruptions) or (with corruptions). Nirvana is a state of existence that comes from following a process and that includes letting go of the corruptions of desire.

Another that question arises is whether one can desire that which is unconditioned. Nirvana is both timeless and eternal. The Buddha reasoned that our world is conditioned and impermanent. In this world, our desire can only be towards the conditioned and the impermanent. Therefore, we can never achieve the ends for a desire for the unconditioned and permanent; yet we try.

Stephen Collins says that nirvana is both unconditioned and permanent in addition to being eternal and timeless (Collins 1996, 141). This produces an aporia and that is that if something is timeless it exists without ends. If something is eternal, time has no effect upon it. The notion of permanent becomes anachronistic in a state without ends or beginnings, even though eternality is persistency without the effects of time. What the Buddha had to do was to find a way for one who exists in an impermanent and contingent state to enter a state that is eternal and timeless. To do so, the Buddha understood that our entire cognitive approach to existence would need to be radically altered. In fact, he posited three steps towards this end. First, that we must let go, shed, and forego any thoughts of trying to attach permanence in an impermanent world.  Second, we must then train our minds to exist in a contingent and impermanent world by living in the moment, without the desiring of desire. Third, there is a meditative and somewhat mysterious process whereby our minds become prepared to accept the first two tenets in a way that gain us entry into the state of nirvana. The Buddha met these three requirements in the three watches of one night under the Bodhi tree.[16]

The Buddha understood that only nirvana is unconditioned. We cannot desire the unconditioned otherwise we will never achieve that which is unconditioned: nirvana.

Desire is a circular process. To keep desire going, one must continue to desire otherwise desire fades. We can only desire impermanent things even though we want to make of them a teleology: a permanence. We are locked into the cycle of desiring which the Buddha called dukkha. Therefore, desire is pejorative in that it keeps us in the circular loop of ignorance, desiring permanence where only impermanence is possible.

The paradox of desire is that we desire something which we cannot ever possess: permanence in a contingent world. On the other hand, we cannot desire something without ends or beginnings. It was the Buddha’s contention that once we recognize the futility of desire as a recurrent intention and action towards an objective that cannot be reached, we will begin to realize that this desire will ultimately bear no fruit. We have embarked upon a journey towards a destination that does not exist. The only thing we could desire that is not impermanent is nirvana, but nirvana defies notions of teleology and time.

The next question Siddhartha had to answer was if nirvana is an achievable state, how does one go about getting there without the false promise of desire?  Ultimately, he determined that we as process beings require a process to strip these processes of their cankers. This process he called the eightfold path. He recognized that one would need to commit to the process steps in the eightfold path. Therefore, one must desire to perform the process. This desire to perform the process is different from the desire for permanence. Desire one has within the eightfold path is only desire towards which can be accomplished and these are to follow the steps of the process. In other words, one continues to use the tools of desire in the impermanent and circular realm of saṁsāra even while on the route towards nirvana. The implication is that one must do this to stay on the path while at the same time conditioning oneself to shed the cankers of desire.

Siddhartha’s Obsession

Obsession is an excess of desire, in Siddhartha’s case brought about by the aporia he experienced after many attempts to solve the riddle of dukkha. The paradox of desire, and the eventual Buddha’s enlightenment into a state where desire is no longer necessary, is that Siddhartha became obsessed with the question in his search for answers. This obsession with the question sent him on journeys of discovery for which he contributed every ounce of emotional, intellectual, and physical energy he could muster. He learned meditation from two yogic masters and then determinedly perfected his meditative abilities. These processes gave him new skills of meditation, but not the answers he sought. He had gone as far as he could, he thought, with meditation so he determined to find out whether becoming an ascetic monk, as had many others of his time, would serve to answer his questions. He became the model for ascetics. He denied himself even the minimal sustenance required for healthy existence and became close to death. Even in extremis, he was no nearer finding his answers.

His journey was not unlike that of any mythical hero. His enemy was dukkha. It loomed large as he sought weapons to defeat its grip on his mind and the people at large. He became apprentice to not one, but two yogic masters and became even a stronger meditator than either. He practiced their techniques. He found them useful but they did not give him the answers he was seeking. He set off with these twin weapons through the desert of existence, suffering physical depravity, discomfort, penury, and starvation. Then he came to a moment where he knew he could go no further. To travel further in asceticism was folly for it gave him no answers and would kill him. Rather, he paused and determined to hone his twin yogic weapons further and attack the question in the most profound meditation he could muster in himself. He did this one night under the Bodhi Tree.

What happened then? We cannot know for sure because the Buddha could or would not detail the cognitive-emotive experience of his moment of enlightenment. We know the answers that he received and recounted during each watch of the night he received them, but not how they all fell into place. Is this not the conundrum of all epiphanic experiences? We could ask the same of Newton or Einstein, and they for sure could also give us general answers, but perhaps as to the moment of epiphany they would have as vague answers as the Buddha.

What we see in these processes towards personal or scientific enlightenment is a question that is both aporic and nagging. We see the question rub at core beliefs at the time. We see the desire and even obsession to learn, to understand, and then to gain as much knowledge about the question as possible. Different pathways are followed to their deadest ends. We see frustration that all this effort has been in vain. However, the desire does not leave. New pathways are established, even returning to one or more that has been tried before for additional clues. All this effort eventually succeeds in producing answers that are not only different from conventional wisdom, but profoundly different.

What to do with such a unique idea or process? Both the scientist and the Buddha stop to think what profound new knowledge means. Both know they must learn how to explain this new idea to others in a way that they too can understand it.

Siddhartha faced a similar challenge. When Siddhartha, now Buddha, emerged from his meditation under the Bodhi tree, he was unnerved. He was uncertain how to proceed as an existent in his own new existence. He had gained the answers he sought and a process how to get there. However, his discovery had profoundly changed him. His answers obtained, he had come into a state of existence that he could easily maintain for himself until his own passing. However, as with all contingent beings, his aporia did not leave him. This time the aporic unease was not about his question about suffering, but about his own future path of existence before his final passing into parinibbāna. What would be the best use of his own enlightenment: to continue on the path he had chartered with his enlightenment, or to walk back into the world of suffering and teach his noble eightfold path to others?  He chose the latter option and became a great teacher of the dharma.

Siddhartha’s began and ended his journey as a human. No metaphysical being revealed to him, nor did he receive a metaphysical revelation. He used his own experiences and what he had learned from masters to transform himself from Siddhartha to Buddha. His science was the science available at the time coupled with his profound understanding of the meaning of impermanence and its actions upon the world and its beings. His psychology began in the process of letting go of outmoded and ignorant ideas, beginning with prevalent local practices of self-completion and soul purification. He used the tools of both logic and meditation to scourge from him ideas that were not valid and led to dukkha or unsatisfactoriness. He did not deny sickness, old age, or death and their effects upon his body and his own temporality as an existent. He did not deny pain of injury or disease. They were, he concluded, a part of anyone’s existence. What he did help himself and others achieve is the end to the belief of permanence as our state of existence in this contingent world. His process called the noble eightfold path steers one towards an acceptance of and an existence in the impermanent state of being which is the condition of all existents. He then prepared the way for persons to become enlightened and the end to impermanence in the state of deathlessness called parinibbāna.

Enlightenment is derived from the fundamental soteriological process called saṁsāra.  The Buddha did not reject rebirth but needed to reconsider the process from its fundamental tenet: that is that a permanent soul passes from the dying person to the embryo of one to be born. Perhaps the simplest explanation of the process of rebirth without a permanent soul, is Hoffman’s idea that there can be continuity without identity of self-same substance.

Rebirth in this context is not reincarnation. The person is not reborn into an identical other or a discrete other with memories intact, but what is brought forward with each rebirth is the cumulative impact upon karma that previous rebirths bring to the evolving embryo. Karma is action, good or bad. Like a report card from school, good and bad karma helps determine into which kind of embryo the person is born into.

The challenge of such a karmic report card that follows continuity is not to construct a rebirth soteriology that is fatalistic. The murderer who is reborn may or may not be into an embryo with a propensity towards murder. Later Mahayana Buddhists explain that with the idea of Buddha nature: all sentient beings can become enlightened. Therefore, carrying forward a cumulation of bad karmic acts does not guarantee a lower rebirth. Nor is one necessarily doomed to the impermanent but interminable Buddhist hells for accumulating bad karma during one’s lifetime. The Buddha showed how Angulimala, a serial killer, could become enlightened during one lifetime.[17] What Buddhism taught is that enlightenment can stop both rebirth and the commission of bad karmic acts.

To deal fatalism another blow, the Tibetan (a branch of Mahayana Buddhism) concept of the Bodhisattva suggests that one who becomes enlightened can elect to return in rebirth, continuing the cycle of saṁsāra voluntarily. However, this sacrifice back into the cycle of saṁsāra is to be reborn again into an enlightened state where one can continue performing good karmic acts. The more enlightened persons in the world, the more impact that they can have on dukkha and unsatisfactoriness.

Therefore, saṁsāra is a fundamental soteriology of Buddhism and of the Buddha’s time, but it is not tied into any definitive caste system of moving up or down in rank in society depending upon the deeds of those from whom one has been reborn. However, this produces a problem. The ethics of existence in a Brahmanical caste system means the promise of higher rebirth tomorrow. If there is no such promise of soul perfection into the apex state of Brahmanism, why be ethical? Being ethical is part of the process towards achieving enlightenment. The carrot of Buddhism’s ethics is not higher rebirth but enlightenment in this lifetime. The Buddha rejected the caste system and with his noble eightfold path found a way to enlightenment that did not involve soul perfection or rebirth.

Summary and Discussion

The spirituality of Buddhism begins in aporia and wonder. Questions generated by aporia remain open and wonder remains as a desire until the questions are answered through the considerable effort and process that is the noble eightfold path. Only upon enlightenment can the one let go of the desire for answers to the question of dukkha.

However, even as one achieves that profound transformational state as we saw with the Buddha himself…aporia does not disappear. Existence without dukkha is not a blank meditative emptiness that awaits a final death. Even the enlightened exist in the world replete with dukkha. Compassion (karun̩ā) becomes the aporia for the enlightened.[18] The question of how to be compassionate to all other living things becomes the next question. This question is not one that is ever answered completely because it is asked anew with each encounter with another living being. Even the recluse monk must consider other life forms in an otherwise cloistered and solitary existence. While the enlightened one has ended ignorance of impermanence and contingent existence in saṁsāra, one never loses the need to ask questions. We can say, then, that an essential element that is associated with the beginning of spirituality in Buddhism is the question.

The spirituality of Buddhism is a humanism, but a humanism that is compassionate to all living things. Why a humanism? Buddhism seeks the highest use for humanity’s intellect and capacities for good. Buddhism considers what the human can become. This is not the egoistic human who accretes power for self. Rather this is a human who uses skillful means to help others achieve their own best use of their own talents and intellect, but always so in an ethical and compassionate way.

The later Mahayana branch of Buddhism has been especially mindful of the communitarian capabilities of Buddhism that may have been lacking in the Pali Canon suttas. For example, the serial killer Angulimala becomes enlightened, but neither the Buddha nor Angulimala set about processes to heal the villages Angulimala terrorized. However, we must consider the circumstances of the Buddha. He did choose compassion in his efforts to teach others the message of enlightenment. He was spread thin and even in his lifetime could only find and teach so many followers.

However, Mahayana Buddhism is right to take up the cause of compassion for all. Would the Buddha have embraced this idea? He considered compassion for all as a noble pursuit. However, he would also admonish his followers not to become engaged with only one or a few aspects of the noble eightfold path. All steps are required to achieve enlightenment. He would likely frown upon those who choose only mindfulness and meditation, for example, without also engaging in the other steps of the noble eightfold path. He might note to these practitioners his own unsatisfactory progress towards enlightenment through meditation alone. He would then admonish that the path towards personal enlightenment is a strict practice and process. That engaging in some parts of the process and practice and not others would lead to a muddle and not the end to suffering and dukkha which is the goal of the noble eightfold path.

Rather than try to define Buddhist spirituality, considering the many branches of modern-day practices, we turned back to the Buddha’s own journey into enlightenment to understand the origins of spirituality in Buddhism. While much of the early life of the Buddha is not known, we do know from his teachings as recorded in the Pali Canon that he went through a difficult ordeal to discover the path towards enlightenment and the end to dukkha. By beginning his journey in wonder as the question with desire to answer that question, his catalyst was aporia. Aporia is something that we all experience from time-to-time as uncertainty. Innumerable questions can cause this uncertainty. The question that the Buddha sought was whether there could be a better way than living in dukkha.

Spirituality according to Hill Et. al begins in a search. Answers derived from this search are transformational.  Siddhartha’s search began in aporia after seeing aspects of suffering in the world. What he discovered on his search for answers was not an ultimate truth. Rather, what he did discover is an end to ignorance with his understanding of dependent origination and the impermanence and contingency of being. His truth led him to discover that the end to dukkha is in a state of deathlessness that is outside of time and without beginning or end. To break the chains of saṁsāra one must discover and come into this timeless state. Deathlessness means that one will not be reborn.

It is appropriate to ask whether nibbāna, and parinibbāna, the state of the enlightened one after a final death is the core of Buddhist spirituality. Certainly, as Collins informs us, it is the aspiration of Buddhism. However, if we consider that Buddhism began in wonder, then we must ask whether wonder is the pre-originary location for the beginning of spirituality, Buddhist or otherwise. Rather than make this an affirmative statement, I suggest that wonder is a derivative of Hill Et. al’s definition of spirituality, and at least in the case of Buddhism, wonder originated the search for answers that blossomed into the process belief systems that have evolved over the past twenty-five hundred years since the Buddha asked his first question. We recall that Socrates was of a similar opinion when he said to Theaetetus who claimed to be often perplexed and amazed—that is because you are a philosopher; for philosophy begins in wonder. The Buddha became perplexed and amazed at the problem of dukkha. His wonder brought him to the philosophical, but also the scientific and psychological to articulate processes for how to live an ethical life free from ignorance.

Pali Canon References

  1. L. (Frank Lee) Woodward Trans. 2008. The Book of Gradual Sayings, Volume I. Oxford UK: Pali Text Society.
  2. W. (Thomas William) Rhys Davids Trans. 1899. The Dialogs of the Buddha, Volume II. Amen Corner, UK: Henry Frowde.
  3. B. (Isaline Blew) Horner, Trans. 2007. The Middle Length Sayings of the Buddha, Volume I. Lancaster, UK: Pali Text Society.
  4. B. (Isaline Blew) Horner, Trans. 2002. The Middle Length Sayings of the Buddha, Vol. II. Oxford: Pali Text Society.

Mrs. (Caroline Augusta) Rhys Davids, Trans. 1980. The Book of the Kindred Sayings, Vol. V. London: Pali Text Society

Other References

Readings in Philosophy of Law, edited by John Arthur and William H. Shaw. Boston: Prentice Hall.

Association, American Humanist. 2016. “What is Humanism?”. American Humanist Association, accessed 12/30/16. https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/.

Collins, Stephen. 1996. Nirvana and other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gottlieb, Roger S. 2013. Spirituality What is it and Why it Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Griffiths, Paul J. 1995. “Indian Buddhist Meditation ” In Buddhist Spirituality, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, 34-66. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company

Hill, Peter C., Kenneth I. Pargament, Jr. Ralph W. Hood, Michael E. Mccullough, James P. Swyers, David B. Larson, and Brian J. Zinnbaue. 2000. “Conceptualizing Religion and Spirituality: Points of Commonality, Points of Departure.”  Journal For The Theory Of Social Behaviour 30 (1):51-77.

Hoffman, Frank J. 1987. Rationality & Mind in Early Buddhism. Delhi, India: Motilal Banasaridass.

Kalupahana, David J & Indrani. 1982. The Way of Siddhartha. Boulder, Co.: Shambhala.

King, Sallie B. 1991. Buddha nature. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Panaioti, Antoine. 2013. Nietzsche and Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pande, Govind Chandra. 1995. “The Message of Gotama Buddha and Its Earliest Interpretations.” In Buddhist Spirituality: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetian and Early Chinese, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, 3-13. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company.

Rhys Davids, TW & William Stede. 1921-1925. Pali-English Dictionary. Sri Lanka: Pali Text Society.

Rubenstein, Mary-Jane. 2008. Strange wonder: The closure of metaphysics and the opening of awe: Columbia University Press.

Siderits, Mark. 2007. Buddhism as philosophy: An introduction. Indianapolis, In.: Hackett Publishing.


[1] As the Buddha later told the Kalamas, faith (saddhā) should not be blind. If something does not add up or one has reason to doubt, become your own teacher and learn. And when you find out that one or more articles of faith are compromised, abandon them. (The F. L. Woodward translation of The Book of Gradual Sayings, Volume I, VII, The Great Chapter §65, Those of Kesaputta (i-xvii) [§iii])

[2] Mark Siderits explains, “Karma is not a set of rules that are decreed by a cosmic ruler and enforced by the cosmic moral police. Karma is understood instead as a set of impersonal causal laws that simply describe how the world happens to work…A true causal law has no exceptions. Likewise, the laws of karma are understood not as rules that can be either obeyed or broken, but as exceptionless generalizations about what always follows what. (Siderits 2007, 9) Stephen Collins outlines some of the difficulty involving the application of karma, “But to use an ultimate explanation such as karma God’s will, fate, or the like is not ipso facto to offer any suggestion as to how the immediate situation may be dealt with. It is simply to say that the phenomenon in question exists or has happened, it is unavoidable; but it is not meaningless or unintelligible, it does not threaten to escape the webs of meaning which a given ideology provides for dealing with life.” (Collins 1996, 119-110).

[3] For example, in what is known as the ‘fire sermon’ the Buddha admonished Vacchagotta not to engage in the “speculative view” as to what happens to the enlightened one after death. (The L. B. Horner translation of The Collection Of The Middle Length Sayings, Vol. II, Part III (Majjhimapaññāsa), The Division On Wanderers (Paribbajakavagga), 72. Discourse to Vacchagotta on Fire (The Aggi-Vacchagouttasutta [486-487])

[4] Humanism as defined by the American Humanist Association: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity” (Association 2016). Since Buddhism is directed towards personal enlightenment and compassion for all, this definition of humanism is a good place to begin the discussion of the Buddha’s humanism.

[5] For a detailed discussion of Buddha nature consult: (King 1991).

[6] Said the Buddha, ‘Thus is it that through training one idea, one sort of consciousness, arises; and through training another passes away. This is the training I spoke of,’ said the Exalted One” (From the T. W. Rhys Davids translation of the Dialogs of the Buddha Volume II, Potthapada Sutta § 10. [182]).

[7] Unless otherwise noted, ‘Buddhism’ used in this study is Gautama’s Buddhism, early Buddhism as recorded in the Pali Canon penned two centuries after the Buddha’s death by anonymous monks. The Buddha wrote nothing down so these are the first known recordings of the Buddha’s words and deeds. Since they are not in the Buddha’s hands nor from actual observers of the Buddha, we can only speculate as to whether these words were his or an approximation.

[8] There is much in the literature about spirituality and religion as Hill and his colleagues note. Both ideas remain the subject for considerable debate. What hill does is not a meta-analysis, per se, but a review of the literature leading towards a common focus, especially in the concept of spirituality. His notion of spirituality is couched in contemporary terms and not in the exact terms that the Buddha might have used. Regardless of the time and cultural differences, Hill’s work will be used to help center the idea of spirituality for this discussion.

[9] Both Frank Hoffman and Stephen Collins express nirvana in terms of timelessness and eternal. (Hoffman 1987, 117, Collins 1996, 141)

[10] The process of the khandhas are the primordial state of the human, a state without singular self or soul because we are always changing. The state of otherwise than being in nibbana is the withdrawing of the fuels that fan the flames of the khandhas, the five process ‘groups’, ‘aggregates’ or ‘heaps’ (they include material form rūpa, feeling (vedanā), perception (san̄n̄ā), dispositions or coefficients of consciousness (sankhāra), and cognition or consciousness (vin̄n̄āṇa) that make up the human.

[11] The khandhas.

[12] According to Kalupahana: (Kalupahana 1982, 5)

[13] See David Kalupahana’s The Way of Siddhartha for more detail. (Kalupahana 1982).

[14] Here the Buddha describes his remembrances much the same as one who remembers one’s own past in this lifetime: “Then I went back again from that village to my own village.’ Even so, monks, does a monk remember various former habitations, that is to say one birth and two births. . . . Thus he remembers divers former habitations in all their modes and detail. (From the I. B. Horner translation of the Middle Discourses of the Buddha, Volume I,  Mulapariyāyavagga The Third Division, Tatiyavagga Chapter 39, Greater Discourse at Assapura, (Mahiassapurasutta) [278])”

[15] (The Book of the Kindred Sayings, Volume V, The Great Book Mahāvagga, 51, Iddhipādasam̩yutta, P. 1733, item in bracket added)

[16] There are three things that the Buddha said he discovered that evening. In the first watch of the night he discovered his past lives and that of other Buddhas. In the second watch he learned the process how things are reborn and die. In the third watch he discovered dependent origination.

[17] From the Second volume of the Middle Length sayings of the Buddha the story of Angulimala, the Angulimalasutta.

[18] karun̩ā is one of the four divine states, the other three are: mettā (the desire of bringing

others that which is welfare and good), muditā (heartedness, kindliness, sympathy), and upekkhā (equanimity the point between joy and sorrow) (Rhys Davids 1921-1925).