Non-violence and the Buddhist Belief System

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  • 0:01 Skandhas
  • 1:01 Dukkha
  • 2:03 Anicca
  • 2:54 Anatta
  • 4:05 Five Precepts
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the Buddhist beliefs of human existence. In doing so, it will highlight the Buddhist terms dukkha, anicca and anatta. It will also explore Buddhism's Five Precepts.


In today's lesson, we're going to try to scratch the surface of the Buddhist belief in human existence and non-violence. With its many Eastern terms, this lesson will definitely be alien to the Western mindset. In fact, many scholars feel this concept of existence is the hardest of all Buddha's teachings to grasp. With this in mind, we'll work to keep our definitions as simple as possible.

Buddha taught that we as humans are made up of five skandhas, or in English, five aspects of being. To very, very quickly sum up these skandhas, they are our physical form, our feelings, our thoughts, our habits and our consciousness of the world around us. In very, very Western terms, we could think of this as everything that makes up what we would call 'self.' In fact, to help me remember it, I like to link skandhas to the English word 'self.'


With this belief in skandhas, Buddha added that everything about our humanness is marked with three characteristics. They are suffering, or dukkha, impermanence, or anicca, and egolessness, or anatta. Like I said, this lesson will be rather heavy on Eastern terms, so let's take one at a time. We'll start with dukkha.

As I've already mentioned, dukkha means suffering. However, it can also mean substandard or flawed. In Buddhist thought, anything or anyone who has not been freed to Nirvana, or enlightenment, in which one is free from the cycle of rebirth and redeath, is imperfect and marked with suffering and stress.

This is an extremely important concept in Buddhism. To put it in Western terms, it's the belief that we as humans just aren't quite up to snuff. No matter how pretty we are, no matter how nice we are, no matter how well we're built, we're still all at the mercy of dukkha!


Adding to the belief that we're all substandard, or dukkha, Buddha also added anicca. From the Pali language, or ancient language of India, anicca means impermanence. In short, this one says that humanity, and even the physical world, are in the constant state of flux or change.

Claiming this not be seen as negative or pessimistic, the Buddhist faith believes this state of continual change is what allows a person the possibility of Nirvana. In other words, since everything around us is impermanent and flawed, we shouldn't cling to it. Through this acceptance that nothing is really permanent or worth holding on to, Nirvana can be obtained. To completely oversimplify, we can remember anicca as 'I can change!'


The last of our three main terms is egolessness, or anatta. To put it in more familiar terms, anatta denotes the idea that we as humans are not autonomous or sovereign. Instead, we're just all part of the ever-changing and ever-fleeting whole. Unlike what the West teaches, Buddha taught that we're not uniquely made, nor are we special in our own right.

Also, none of us are what we like to call self-made men. Instead, we're really just the by-products of the imperfect skandhas, or again our physical form, our feelings, our thoughts, our habits and our consciousness.

Although this also sounds rather pessimistic and self-abasing to our Western minds, Buddha believed that understanding human insignificance could lead to freedom from the trappings of want and need. Once free from these, a person could reach Nirvana. Again, to way oversimplify this idea that our lives are rather insignificant, I like to remember anatta as 'I'm anatta all I'm cracked up to be!' Yes, totally corny, but still a way to remember it.

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