What is the fundamental doctrine of Buddhism?

That there are a vast number of Buddhist scriptures is well known. So no one can say definitively which sūtra or sūtras are representative of Buddhism. Largely for this reason many schools of Buddhism emerged in China, each based on the perspective of particular sūtras or treatises.

Nonetheless, there is a fundamental doctrine common to all Buddhism—what the Buddha discovered about life and the universe—the truth of conditioned arising, also known as dependent origination.

Simply put, conditioned arising means that things originate from causes and conditions, or alternatively, combinations of different factors produce all phenomena. For instance, for an article to be written, reach the hands of a reader, and help the reader understand something about Buddhism, the sequence of causal relations (causes and conditions) may appear simple but is actually exceedingly complex. First, a writing system must be developed and the author must master it. The author must absorb and accumulate knowledge. Then the author must have good health, enthusiasm, and understanding. Other necessary factors include the manufacture and use of stationery; proofing, typesetting, and printing; and handling and delivery of the mail. Finally, to satisfy the author’s purpose in writing the article, the readers need to be interested, intelligent, and motivated to read. This example of conditioned arising is only the simplest and the most obvious. If we investigate further, we will see that any single relationship is necessarily connected to innumerable other relationships. Such interdependency among relationships is what is meant by “causes and conditions.”Things arise when causes and conditions come together, and things pass away when causes and conditions disperse. This is the doctrine of dependent origination and extinction.

Because everything in the universe arises and passes away according to conditions, everything is impermanent and constantly changing; hence, Buddhists consider all phenomena provisional, temporary, and illusory. From a tiny bubble to the whole Earth, or even the stars, nothing is everlasting. If nothing is permanent and substantial, this proves that everything is empty. This is what is meant when it’s said in Buddhism that all phenomena are “dependently originated and [therefore] empty of [inherent] nature”(yuan sheng xing kong).

Because of this doctrine, Buddhism is often known as the “way of emptiness.”But many people gravely misunderstand the true meaning of emptiness. Emptiness means that nothing is fixed or unchanging. It means non-substantiality rather than non-existence. Many people misinterpret emptiness to signify that nothing exists. Buddhists use the concept of conditioned arising to analyze things and to demonstrate their lack of substance. For instance a car, if analyzed from the perspective of a chemist, is no longer a car but a compound of various elements and the bonds among them. Viewed from its outside appearance, a car is still a car, unless it has been damaged to the point that it is ready to be recast in a smelting furnace.

Buddhists say that everything arises from conditions and hence is empty of self-nature in order to analyze and shed light on the essential nature of things. It reminds us that we are living in a world of non substantiality and illusion, and therefore had better not become captive to transitory fame, wealth, or desire for objects. To realize this is to see through the illusory nature of phenomena or to drop the endless greed for fame, wealth, and objects. The existence of phenomena is never denied. Although Buddhists say that phenomena are devoid of substance, they recognize that their lives do not exist apart from illusory phenomena, because those not liberated from birth and death still produce karma and receive karmic results. Karmic force is also illusory, yet it can propel beings to higher or lower states to experience happiness or suffering.

At this point, please be reminded that the illusory manifestation and existence of all phenomena stem from the karmic forces engendered by sentient beings. So if one thoroughly realizes the conditioned and empty nature of phenomena, one will not be lured and burdened by illusory phenomena, becoming their slave. One will be at ease and free from afflictions and delusions. This is the fulfillment of the practice of liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Anyone who is no longer pushed around by external phenomena can stop producing karma, which binds us to the cycle of birth and death. He can leave behind birth and death, or he can choose to control his own birth and death.


Orthodox Chinse Buddhism: A contemporary Chan Master's answers to common questions, What is the fundamental doctrine of Buddhism?, p.24-p.26

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