I have been following the course Buddhism and Modern Psychology on Coursera since March 2014. On the third week, the mid-term assignment was released and I submitted an essay. Well, it turned out to be a good one as I received 11/12 total score. This post contains the instructions, the questions, my essay, and the summary of the peer evaluation feedback.
Directions: Choose ONE of the following questions and answer it in an essay of no more than 800 words. In your answer, be sure to refer explicitly to the video lectures, as well as to any other course materials, discussions from the class forums, and/or personal reflections or experiences that may be relevant.Remember, a good essay will do more than simply state a position on the question. A good essay will also give specific reasons and evidence in support of that position, and will show why that evidence supports the position.
Question 1: The Buddha offers a specific diagnosis of the suffering that is part of human existence. Explain the Buddha’s diagnosis. Does this diagnosis ring true to you, or has the Buddha ignored some aspect of human life, or made some other mistake? Offer two specific reasons or experiences that support your answer, and explain how they support it.
Question 2: The Buddha makes the claim, which may draw some support from modern psychology, that the self does not exist. Describe the self that the Buddha says does not exist and explain the Buddha’s principal argument against it. Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha’s argument that this kind of self doesn’t exist? Or are you unable to take a position? Give two specific reasons for your view, and explain your reasons support either the existence of the self or the non-existence of the self, or why they explain why you are unable to take a position on the question.
I chose question 1 because I think it is easier to take examples from daily life, and it is easier to explain (because I remembered the way Venerable Chuan Guan explained the first noble truth, which was very interesting).
In the first sermon, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths to his first five disciples. The first noble truth is “The truth of suffering”, which means that the suffering exists in our lives. It doesn’t mean that our whole life is suffering, but the fact that we exists in this world, then there will be suffering.
What is suffering? To answer this, I quote from the Buddhist scriptures: “Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories of clinging objects.” (SN 56.11) Hence, there are 8 types of suffering as mentioned in the scriptures. This all types of suffering is there starting when someone start to exists (as in birth). Because of birth, those 7 others (aging, sickness, death, sorrow, association with loathed, dissociation from loved, not to get what one wants) come along as well. At the end of the quote, the Buddha explicitly says that “suffering is the five categories of clinging objects”, meaning that because of the five aggregates that exists in beings, there is suffering. This five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness.
Then in the sermon, Buddha continues with the second noble truth, “The truth of the cause of suffering”. In short, the cause of suffering is “the craving for sensual desires, craving for being, and craving for non-being”. Examples of craving for sensual desires is when one wanted to re-experience the sensation of eating, but when the sensation did not arise, he/she will suffer. Example of craving for being is when a worker crave to be a manager, but after a lot of suffering, he/she still cannot be a manager, and hence he/she suffer more. Example of craving for non-being is when someone enrolled in art major while he/she did not want to major there, this is just the want of his/her parents, and hence he/she will suffer a lot.
For me, I agree with Buddha’s statement as it was logical and it can be seen everywhere. I cannot simply accept the Buddha statement at first, because it seems that the life is full of suffering, but after some reading, I realise that suffering is part of the life, and it is not “life is suffering”. Because of our existence, then there will be suffering.
Last time when I was a kid, I used to watch the cartoon Tom and Jerry a lot. When I reached the point when I watched all of episodes, I felt bored and wanted to watch more new Tom and Jerry cartoon, but can’t. I feel disappointed, and hence the suffering. This shows that the suffering is the sorrow, but it is caused by craving for sensual desires, i.e. wanted something new to please the desire, but can’t.
When I’m applying for university and got the admission already, I was called for scholarship interview. I went to the interview but it did not turn up well. I was rejected and I was saddened by that, and hence the suffering. This shows that the suffering is the unpleasant feeling of sadness, which was formed mentally, and it is caused by the craving of being accepted as a scholar but got rejected.
In conclusion, Buddha’s diagnosis does explicitly include attachment to one’s existence as part of the problem. In the first sermon, Buddha diagnoses the four noble truths, which includes the noble truth of suffering and the noble truth of the cause of suffering. I agreed with Buddha’s diagnosis of the suffering which says that attachment to one’s existence is suffering and hence I gave 2 examples of when I craved for Tom and Jerry; and when I craved for being accepted as a scholar.
- Video lecture of the first and second noble truth (in this course).
- http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn56/sn56.011.nymo.html (SN 56.11)
Summary of peer evaluation feedback:
- Fairness and Accuracy: 3/3
- Answering the question: 2.5/3
- Evidence and Argument: 3/3
- Clarity: 2/3
- peer 1: [This area was left blank by the evaluator.]
- peer 2: This is a well thought out essay with good examples from life.
- peer 3: The Buddha’s ideas are clearly explained at the beginning of the essay, and then the author moves smoothly into personal examples. I found the Tom & Jerry example charming, and the more serious example of the university interview made it clear that Buddha’s diagnosis applies across the range of human experience. One thing you might consider in future essays is also bringing in the scientific ideas and theories we’re studying and talk about how those relate to the question and your understanding. I can see that English is not your first language, yet I had no trouble understanding what you were trying to say. Well done!
- peer 4: [This area was left blank by the evaluator.]
Whew, peer 3’s comment was epic. He/she could know that my first language is not English, meaning that I must improve my English. :)