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Buddhism is a very practical religion that does not promote deification and theology. It is about straightforward and simple truths which, if followed in everyday life, can help people overcome suffering and achieve an inborn sense of happiness. Buddhism is also about respecting other living beings, living peacefully with everyone and being righteous in one’s actions, deeds and thoughts. Buddha’s teachings are based on what he experienced and learnt before he attained enlightenment.
After he achieved enlightenment, he taught people how to arrive at that enlightenment through their own experience and by following some practical teachings. The very nature of Buddhism makes it so different from other religions. Buddhism believes that instead of memorizing certain doctrines and dogmas and following them to the letter, one should realize the truths of life by practicing the Eightfold Path, which is the broad outline of Buddhist practices.
While Buddhism does not encourage blindly following rules and principles, it is important to know the teachings and philosophies of Buddha to understand the discipline that Buddhism is all about. The Four Noble Truths are the very foundation of this.
The First Noble Truth: Life Is Suffering
The first of the Four Noble Truths propounded by Sakyamuni soon after he attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree was: “Life is suffering”. A depressing statement, indeed! “Suffering” however does little justice to the original, many-layered Pali word, “dukkha”, which includes all things transient and conditional. In this sense, the most precious things and happiest of experiences in life ultimately bring dukkha – because they are impermanent and our attachment to them is strong.
The Buddha’s reflection was based on what he observed as Prince Siddhartha and later, a wandering monk – that the one factor uniting humanity was suffering.
The beginning of life is marked by suffering in the pain experienced by mother and child. As people age, their senses deteriorate and bodies grow weaker, causing suffering. Disease brings dukkha; finally, death is the cause of much grief and pain. No one can avoid the suffering involved in being born, aging and dying. Worse, dukkha, whether in the form of a fever or loss of a loved one has to be endured alone. No one can fully experience the suffering of another.
The Buddha spoke of three types of mental suffering.
The Buddha also reflected on the many kinds of happiness that exist – friendships, family life, good health, the joys of celebrating and sharing. But as real as these are, they are impermanent. Typically, people try escaping from dukkha by filling their lives with transient pleasures; when these fade, they are left struggling with reality.
The Second Noble Truth: Attachment Causes Suffering
The Second Noble Truth concerns the causes of suffering. Suffering is generated by our mind; according to the Buddha, our main problems are delusional in nature – when we show anger or ignorance, we create hardships for ourselves as well as others.
Attachment, Anger and Ignorance
Attachment to desire is a huge cause of suffering. It traps us in samsara, or cyclic existence. The concept of desire is sometimes misunderstood as desires for things. Desire comes in three guises – desire for sensual pleasures, the desire to become (something that we are not) and the desire to be rid of something.
When we eat delicious food, the desire for more is “kama tanha” or wanting sensual pleasure.
“Bhava tanha” (desire to become) is wanting to transform ourselves into something that we are not – when we strive to be happy or wealthy, when we project our importance, we experience bhava tanha. When disillusionment sets in, “vibhava tanha”, the desire to do away with things arises. But wanting to get rid of anger, fear and stress is also a desire. Bhava and vibhava tanha are mirror images.
Every action has a consequence. Harming others will eventually result in our being harmed. Anger makes us harm other beings; in that sense it often becomes a cause of self-inflicted suffering.
Ignorance brings suffering because not being omniscient, we act in ways that lead to problems. We cannot foresee consequences or truly understand others. Also, we cannot see the nature of reality. The gulf between our perception of it and the Ultimate Truth is enormous. This inability to comprehend reality traps us in samsara, where we must inevitably experience suffering in some form.
The Third Noble Truth: To Cure Suffering, Free Yourself from Attachment
The First Noble Truth states that life is filled with suffering, while the Second Noble Truth identifies the causes of suffering – altogether, a gloomy outlook!
After the Buddha realized these Truths, he spent six years more contemplating the nature of suffering. His understanding of this is the Third Noble Truth. In it, the Buddha offered a message of hope – that there is an end to suffering – by eliminating hatred and ignorance from our lives and by freeing ourselves from any kind of attachment and craving. We have to stop clinging to people, ideas and things. We can achieve detachment by removing the main cause of our suffering.
Anyone who wishes to attain this goal may do so.
The Buddha taught that beyond suffering lies great bliss. As we take steps towards removing the causes of suffering, we experience progressive levels of happiness. The path is a long one and may extend over several lifetimes. But staying on it leads to a tremendous sense of liberation. There are other benefits from adhering to this philosophy – one can live in happiness, untroubled by any kind of negativity. At the end of this path, when desire and ignorance would have completely fallen away, one may experience the same transcendental joy that the Buddha did.
This is the second consequence of the end of suffering, which is known in Buddhism as Nirvana or Enlightenment. Nirvana cannot be precisely defined. At best, we may think of it as a state of pure freedom, a complete and permanent cessation of suffering. Nirvana is not a reward to be attained after death. As the Buddha demonstrated, it can be achieved during life.
With Enlightenment comes great wisdom and compassion. Only the Buddha is known to have achieved these qualities. Such wisdom allowed him to understand the nature of reality, while his boundless compassion touched the lives of thousands.
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path Will Show You the Way Out of Suffering
Having realized the truth of suffering (Dukkha) in life, its cause and cessation, the Buddha proceeded to explain the final Truth, his prescription to freedom from suffering – the Noble Eightfold Path.
As Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha had seen a life of great luxury and knew that sensual pleasures alone could not save one from suffering. Later, he had lived the rigorous life of an ascetic and had realized that this too, did not necessarily lead to spiritual liberation. Thus, the Buddha taught that the path to freedom from suffering lies not in extremes, but in moderation, a philosophy that is known as the Middle Way.
The Noble Eightfold Path expands on this, setting out the path one must walk towards the cessation of dukkha. This is less a doctrine than a list of steps one must actively take, if its fruits are to be realized:
• Right Thought
• Right Speech
• Right Action
• Right Livelihood
• Right Understanding
• Right Effort
• Right Mindfulness
• Right Concentration
The first three steps of Right Thought, Right Speech and Right Action teach us what we should avoid – negative thinking and covetousness; lying, hurtful words and gossip; killing, robbing and sexual misconduct.
The fourth and fifth steps are Right Livelihood and Right Understanding – making a living with the right attributes mentioned above and acquiring true wisdom. The last three steps of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are with reference to meditation – persevering in the practice with joyfulness, keeping one’s mind in the present and maintaining a serene attentiveness.