The Many Worldviews of Buddhism

Buddhism: One Philosophy or Many?

Buddhism is often presented as something like this:

Dissatisfaction is everywhere because of desire.  However, desire can be overcome to result in bliss. We overcome desire through (among other things) seeing everything as  impermanent, unsatisfying and without any underlying substance. This seeing applies to everything, including what we regard as our selves.

While this is presented as a single philosophy, it can be split into several worldviews.  Any of the below can be used by itself to overcome desire:

  1. Everything is transient.
  2. Nothing is fulfilling.
  3. Desire creates dissatisfaction.
  4. Overcoming desire brings bliss.
  5. Self is an illusion.
  6. “Things” don’t exist

The key here is worldview: we are to see our experience through the lens of any of the above.

Naturally we aim for the ideal of complete cessation, but any progress we make in realizing any of the above yields a corresponding improvement in the quality of our lives.  Put another way, we don’t need full cessation, but are happy to the extent we realize any of the above.

The Worldviews

Everything is Transient

If I value something, some combination of the below will happen:

  • I  lose it.
  • It changes so I no longer value it
  • I change so I no longer value it.
  • I die and lose it (along with everything else).

Nothing is Fulfilling

When I seek something, some combination of the below happens:

  • I don’t get it
  • It’s disappointing
  • I lose it
  • I take it for granted and chase the next thing

Desire Creates Dissatisfaction

My desires are not things to seek for happiness, but the reason for all my unhappiness.   Unhappiness is nothing more than thwarted desire and to live by desire means I’m forever running on the treadmill of life.  All my problems are due to one thing: desire. My problem isn’t that I’m disrespected, get ill or die: my problem is that I mind being disrespected, getting ill and dying.

Overcoming Desire Brings Bliss

This is the positive side of the above. Since all my dissatisfaction is due to desire, overcoming desire brings perfect satisfaction. If I stop minding anything, then I will no longer have any problems and cannot — by definition — ever have a problem.

Self is an Illusion

Desire is relative to a self which is a mental construct.  Undermine the self, and desire is undermined.  Past and future (and hence grudges, regrets, worries) only exist for a self.  Additionally, some desires (like prestige) are uniquely mental constructs that serve this uniquely mental construct of the self.

“Things” Don’t Exist

This is actually a strategy that can serve to undermine the self or desire by undermining the foundation upon which both reside.  Reality only exists for me as an experience, which is nothing more than a series of sensations and thoughts.  For example, there are no “cars”; there is only my experiences of colors and thoughts which I conclude “is” a car. This process is so quick and habitual, that I see “cars” as things and not processes.  Since everything in experience can be treated thusly — including memories, the desirability of objects, identifications, etc — everything can be deconstructed thusly,  including desire and self.


Is Buddhism a single treatment of desire with multiple facets, or a toolbox with multiple tools to tackle desire, to be used based on the challenges and strengths of the  practitioner?

Focusing on a single worldview is simple and one can delve deeply. Using multiple worldviews tackles the problem from a variety of angles and can correct subtle misunderstandings (or attachments!) that arise from applying a single worldview.

If you practice Buddhism and it’s working for you; great.  On the other hand, if you find Buddhism complex or cannot see how it hangs together as a coherent whole, then perhaps focusing on a single (or a few) aspects is for you.

A Note on Dependent Origination

Dependent Origination is big in Buddhism, but I avoided it for a few reasons.  First, I’m interested in Buddhism as a psychology, yet Dependent Origination’s most common formulation has metaphysical elements like Karma and Rebirth.  Second, Dependent Origination is complex and counter-intuitive. Granted, this doesn’t make it false, but it  makes it harder to treat it as a worldview. Imagine trying to view experience through a 12-point chain of causality or trying to figure which point on the chain one’s experiential process falls on…


  1. Great post! It looks like you are the real buddhist minimalist among us all 🙂 I would have liked to read more about your ideas on dependent origination and especially the skandha’s, but I’d have to agree that this seems to be the essence.

    You name your focal point ‘desire’. Other people use other words. Could you expand on that?

    The idea of choosing any one of the six as a philosophy in itself really appeals to me. I’ve encountered the same thing in other aspects of buddhist philosophy, the eightfold path being just one of them. They can be separated into individual “wholes” and they are all interlinked and they are “one” at the same time. Or am I talking rubbish?

    • Thanks!

      I think there’s a great deal to be found in Buddhism, but effective practice may require ruthless pruning, hence my angles.

      I’m not sure if I have that much useful to say about Skhandas or Dependent Origination, but I will think them over.

      I will start with the Skhandas, and if I feel there’s anything I can add (even if this means going off on a serious tangent) I will blog on it. I do want to point out that some of my previous blogs on Bundle Theory may express my take on the Skhandas.

      I’m not so sure if I can do that much for Dependent Origination. In fact, whenever I think of it, I keep thinking of Kaballah’s Sefiroth, which might be a worthwhile blog in itself if there’s anything I can make of it…

      I use desire to mean any want strong enough to cause pain if thwarted. In this sense, one can substitute Craving, Thirst, Hankering, or Attachment to Desire.

      You are not talking rubbish, I agree with you. You can probably make a path out of every facet of Buddhism, which is what got me to thinking about it. In fact, I think a writer once pointed out that to truly realize any of the 4 Noble Truths was to realize them all, and there was a school of Buddhism that supposedly did not have an 8-fold path, but defined its path as contemplation of the truths. Sadly, I cannot recall the name of the school, nor was I able to find any useful information on them back when I looked.

      • I checked the link. Thanks. It’s a great article. 🙂

        I thought of asking you to write about these things because I really like the way you write and I think it’s a bonus that you’re not attached to them in a way that many other buddhists are. Still, if I ask too many questions, please let me know.

        PS: Indeed, exactly the same thing is going on with the four noble truths. Thanks for pointing that out.

      • Thank you!

        Feel free to request that I write about anything — I don’t mind at all. If I don’t think I can add anything of value, I’ll let you know, but I’ll be more than happy to at least try.

        I agree with you on the attachments Buddhists have, which is another reason I’m writing. I went into Buddhism with a lot of skepticism. As a result, I did not swallow the Kool Aid, but kept a sharp eye out. I found good and bad, and discovered many authors were incredulous.

        No problem on pointing out the Four Noble Truth contemplation/realization.

        BTW, I obviously like the angle from which you approach Buddhism/Zen as well 😀

  2. I have reached similar conclusions to those above in an intellectual, not experiential way (the non-existence of things or the self, for example). If I understand correctly, actually “seeing” this (through meditation, I guess) seems to be an important part of the process. But I wonder if that’s just because, at the time this was made, there was no other way to reach those insights.
    So my question is: how important do you judge the difference between intellectual and experiential understanding? And do you think one is possible without the other?

    • By no other way, do you mean no technologies or medicines to bring about the experience? I think they had the philosophical framework to intellectually argue this…

      I think experience is the only thing required; life is what we experience. I also think experience and intellectual understanding can exist without each other. I can have an experience without believing it has any reality, and I can intellectually understand something without ever experiencing it.

      Having said that, experience and understanding can reinforce each other. Experience can be deepened (or shaped) by understanding and understanding can motivate me to experience. Who knows, for some people, a deep understanding that turns into experience (or an epiphany) may be possible. Perhaps the understanding can be an object of contemplation that brings about the experience?

      Also, I separate experience from understanding. I prefer not to say experiential understanding just because an experience can be had with no understanding as a framework, or at least if there is understanding, it may happen after the fact, as a way to explain the experience…

  3. I love your blog! I have just recently been introduced to Buddhism and read the book by Joseph Goldstein ‘One Dharma’. The more I think about it, the more it just makes sense… Your posts on this topic are truly enlightening – Thank you!

    • Thank you very much for the kind words!

      My views on Buddhism are not necessarily orthodox, but I think I’m in agreement with the broad outlines. I’m just saying this because you will likely run into situations in which I go against the stream and so I highly recommend a variety of sources so you can get a good perspective.

  4. How funny that we both brought up tool boxes!

    These concepts about desire are a huge component in the novel I’m working on. I’m coming at it from Plato rather than Buddhism, but I think they’re the same:


    Socrates: …You say we should not curb our appetites, if we are to be what we should be, but should allow them the fullest possible growth and procure satisfaction for them from whatever source, and this, you say, is virtue.

    Callicles: That is what I say.

    Socrates: Then those that are in need of nothing are not rightly called happy.

    Callicles: No, in that case stones and corpses would be supremely happy.

    Socrates: Well, life as you describe it is a strange affair. I should not be surprised, you know, if Euripides was right when he said, ‘Who knows, if life be death, and death be life?’ And perhaps we are actually dead, and that our body is a tomb, and that that part of the soul in which dwell the desires is of a nature to be swayed and to shift to and fro. And so some clever fellow, a Sicilian perhaps or Italian, writing in allegory, by slight perversion of language named this part of the soul a jar, because it can be swayed and easily persuaded, and the foolish he called the uninitiate, and that part of the soul in foolish people where the desires reside—the uncontrolled and nonretentive part—he likened to a leaky jar, because it can never be filled.

    —Gorgias, 492c-493b

    Plato’s answer to this problem is not what Socrates is saying here (according to my interpretation). Here Plato’s posing two opposite extremes and asking us to think about them.

    In other dialogues we find that to desire/love is to lack. To lack something is not good, but neither is blindly chasing desires.

    On the other hand, having no desire makes us something other than human, maybe less than human, maybe more, depending on how you see things. Life is desire. Nothing moves without desire. If you want to look at it poetically, the flowers love the sun, etc. Lots of beauty comes about because of this motion.

    So then which is it?

    Plato would say the only way to achieve happiness is to have knowledge of the Good. The Good is a semi-mystical thing, for sure, but the point is clear even without recourse to this. We must be able to recognize that certain desires are empty, that without knowledge of which are good and bad, we have no way to happiness. So we must curb certain desires, but others we should let flourish. (Don’t ask me which ones…that might take a whole tome.) 🙂

    I can see Buddhism working as a tool on certain aspects of life, especially those desires that we know to be empty. Acknowledging the desire and turning away from it so that we no longer desire it can be very powerful, and quite an accomplishment.

    • I want to hear more about your novel!

      I’ve tackled this subject in novel form a few times (always as part of NaNoWriMo). In fact, I think I’ve basically written the same novella 3 times 😛

      I love the snippet from Plato. Plato is interesting; when I re-encounter him, I keep reading new things into him. In particular, I’m fascinated by The Good, Knowledge (as seeing) and The Cave as a template for transcendence in general.

      If one takes the essence of humanity as being in control, then not having desires makes us more human, insofar as desires influence us and disturb our peace of mind.

      The relationship of desire and happiness is tricky. Is happiness satiation or the movement from a less satiated state to a more satiated one? If the latter, then happiness lies in the motion itself rather than the state achieved (which explains how we can take all our gains for granted).

      If so, this also means our traditional view of happiness requires a steady stream of desires so we can fulfill them.

      So is the state of freedom from desire something beyond happiness? Is achieving this state contingent on our willingness to let go of happiness? Is our traditional view of happiness an anchor that keeps us from fully embracing this change of relationship to our desires?

      • I’m really bad about describing my novel in a nutshell, but here’s a short post about it:

        Plato is amazing like that. I’ve read the Republic countless times and each time I read it I find something new…and a kind of mind-boggling structure to it all.

        I think your questions are interesting. I don’t know the answer, but I think Plato’s pointing at something. If we achieve a kind of state beyond happiness, are we dead? Is it really possible to have freedom from desire and still be alive?

        Let’s assume “happiness” is something more than just fulfillment of menial pleasures and means something more like “contentment” or “wholesomeness” or “fulfillment”…”being full”. I know the word “happiness” can be ambiguous, so I’m just proposing this for the sake of the metaphor. In any case, all I mean is for happiness to have greater force than the pleasure of sucking on a lollipop or something.

        The metaphor of a leaky jar is interesting because it addresses a lot of things about desire. What if we think about the possibilities?

        1. We could have a non-leaky jar with nothing in it.

        2. We could have a non-leaky jar filled partially.

        3. We could have a non-leaky jar filled all the way up.

        4. We could have a leaky jar with nothing in it.

        5. We could have a leaky jar that’s slowly leaking, bound to become empty at some time, maybe getting filled back up at other times, temporarily. Or some such version…I’m not sure how this one would go, but you get the drift.

        6. We could have a leaky jar under a waterfall, constantly being kept full.

        I’d guess that Plato would want us to strive for #3…if he buys into this metaphor at all. #4 is the worst possible scenario. #6 sounds pretty good, but who’s to say the waterfall won’t dry up someday? (#6 is what Callicles would call happiness…I suspect Plato would see only the defect of the leaky jar rather than the constant stream. In this he’s probably right.)

        Where do you think Buddhism lies?

        Thanks for talking about this with me. Hell, it may go into my novel!

      • Visited the link; your novel sounds interesting!

        Very interesting points on the leaky jar. Where Buddhism falls depends on one’s interpretation. Some interpret it as aiming for a non-leaky jar. Others say it’s our reaction to the leak itself that’s the problem, so it side-steps the whole jar. As for what’s inside, that’s another interesting question. What happens if one transcends desire? Buddhists generally refer to this as bliss, but what exactly is bliss? Is there an inner state of contentment or is it pure emptiness, and is pure emptiness such a bad thing (those who describe it as numbness have not experienced it and are likely experiencing some emptiness+a negative reaction, which isn’t emptiness).

        That would be awesome if this made it into a novel 😀

      • “Others say it’s our reaction to the leak itself that’s the problem, so it side-steps the whole jar.” This makes more sense to me. There’s no way to give up all desires, not really and literally, but there is the possibility of taking a different attitude toward them.

        Your questions about bliss are exactly what I’m wondering. I never understood the language there. Bliss, contentment…all these sound like Happiness with a capital H. I’m not sure I get these fine distinctions. 🙂

        On the other hand, if it is pure emptiness, I’m not sure I want that. Of course, I don’t know. As you say, it’s not numbness or some kind of negativity. But it seems like some amount of concern should be allowed in what we deem a good life.

        I might have to put this in my novel. It would make sense for a certain character to break this metaphor down into components and analyze it. 🙂 Thanks for providing the inspiration!

      • I think of Happiness as a set of mental states and the happiness of a life is related to how often one experiences some subset of those states. To this end, a question many should ask themselves is what kind of happiness do they want (knowing that each has its own set of trade-offs).

        This is why I don’t go so far as to say Buddhism is for everyone. It’s got some great things to say, but perhaps some people simply don’t want the kind of happiness Buddhism offers?

        But going even further, if happiness is defined as what happens when we believe we’re getting something good, then maybe there’s an even deeper level involving what states we consider as good. If so, then the set of happy states can grow or shrink, with corresponding effects on how we seek happiness.

        I’m more than happy to provide any inspiration or help — just keep me posted on the progress of your novel!

      • Layer upon layer of happiness! 🙂

        I had never thought of types of happiness…I guess I just assumed it was all the same. An interesting thing to think about.

        I will keep you posted. Right now, I’ve got a long way to go. I’m in the midst of a second draft, a process which is turning out to be much messier than I expected. But it’s all fun stuff.

  5. Hi again
    This links into my post about secular spirituality. Although I’ve practised Zen Buddhism for 30 yrs I still think of this practice as non-sectarian – and of course mindfulness (which originated with Buddhism) has become an accepted way of seeing the bigger picture, enabling millions of people to get some sense that they are not the centre of the universe! One hard lesson I’ve learnt from Buddhism is that you dont meditate to feel better; you meditate to know some fundamental truth about self and reality.

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