Buddhism aligns with Jainism as both are early traditions that reject the authority of the Vedas as scripture and reject Vedic sacrificial practices.4 Still, in contrast to Jainism, Buddhism proposes a path rejecting the extreme austerities enjoined in Jainism. The tradition links the Buddhist rejection of asceticism to the well-known story of the Buddha’s attempts to reach enlightenment through fasting, which becomes a favored subject of Buddhist iconographic statuary centuries later. Frustrated with the lack of progress from fasting, the Buddha rejects austerities in favor of the “middle way" which becomes the signature descriptor of Buddhist practice. The “middle way" emphasizes the Buddha’s discovery that meditation itself—not the austerities of Jainism’s sleep deprivation, fasting, and bodily mortifications—leads one to awakening and enlightenment. Indeed, from the Abhidharma texts of the early tradition through the Mahayana and the Tantric practices of Tibet, Buddhism presents an extraordinary complexity of praxis centered especially around the core experience of meditation.
If Jainism promises a path of meditation and austerity that will lead to an extrication of subjectivity out of the messy world of matter, Buddhism, in contrast, reformulates the problem. Rather than using meditation to discover a transcendent subjectivity that can rise above material concerns, Buddhism calls into question the motives for postulating a transcendent self in the first place. In a profound psychological insight, the Buddha’s famous “no-self" doctrine (anatman, anatta) asserts that any notion of a self is driven by our desire to posit a stable sense of self persisting through time. This desire presents as human mental clinging to a notion that has no basis in phenomenological experience. Meditation as a practice allows one to gain insight into the fundamentally “empty” (rnnyata) character of all postulation of a self. That is, all phenomena arise interdependently; there is no foundational self that exists as a permanent refuge from suffering and impermanence. In specific practice, the aspirant uses
This typology, which classes together traditions rejecting the authority of the Vedas, is recognized early in the exegetical literature, with those rejecting Vedic authority called “nastikas,” literally, the “the ones who advocate there is not.” the fundamental insights of the Buddha, the Four Noble Truths of universal suffering and impermanence, as a referential frame for transforming our psychologically driven and incorrect conceptions of self through meditation on these truths.
Lest one worry that positing an idea of “emptiness” as the interdependence of all phenomena might lead to a slippery ungrounded ontology that lacks a capacity to underwrite a behavioral ethics, the tradition uses the Buddha’s initial insights themselves as foundation. These insights that disclose the essential impermanence of all phenomena do not open up to a wholesale relativism in this case. The Four Noble Truths themselves anchor the process of meditation.5 With this, meditation on the Four Noble Truths reveals the contingent nature of what appears—erroneously—so blatantly self-obvious: the postulation of a self. The practitioner seeking to realize in him or herself the Four Noble Truths in the Mahayana tradition,6 cultivates deep concentration (samadhi) on these truths by contemplating them with attention (sadara), without interruption (nairantarya) over an extended length of time (dtrghakala) (Woo 2009). This results in a three-step process including first intensification, then termination, and then the final result of direct meditative vision (yogipratyaksa) into these truths (Woo 2009). The process involves both a constructive activity, the contemplation of aspects of the Four Noble Truths, and a deconstructive component, a loosening and rejection of the layers of unwarranted mental postulations of an abiding self and its persistence through time.
The psychology employed in this meditative exercise certainly employs a cognitive element, both in the constructive contemplation of Buddhist truths and in the agile contemplative efforts to free the mind from the cultural overwriting (vikalpa) that traps one into believing in incorrect ideas that ultimately lead to suffering. It would be too much to try to outline here the transformations that the Buddha’s “no-self” doctrine undergoes as the tradition grapples with numerous ideas—explanations of reincarnation, how to reconcile a doctrine of momentariness with the experience of memory, ideas of an essence-like Buddha-nature that eventually takes a prominent position in later Buddhist exegesis. In terms of a psychology, the Buddhist exploration of meditation, from its early formulations in Abhidharma that put forth different practices for different psychological types (upaya) (one person might be instructed to meditate in a small cave, while another might be instructed to meditate under the
As Jeson Woo notes regarding the Four Noble Truths, “[s]uch aspects are considered true since they are subject to neither destruction nor alteration over time” (Woo 2009). Following the seventh century CE Indian Buddhist scholar Dharmakirti in this case.
open sky), to Tibetan practices of visualizing oneself as deity—all through, Buddhist praxis underwrites a keen appreciation of human psychology. As a tradition that locates meditation praxis as part of its founding mythos in the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Buddhism takes quite seriously the phenomenology of a psychological self that becomes a primary object of selfreflection; the practice of meditation unfolds and helps to formulate this psychology of subjectivity, even as it discounts the notion of permanent self (atman).