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Introduction - The story.  The teaching  The Four Noble Truths  The Sources of Suffering  The End of Suffering  The Path to the End of Suffering  Commentary

The Story

The Gautama Buddha lived two and half thousand years ago, in the area of modern Nepal. Born a prince, prophecies at his birth said he would either be a "world turning king or an unprecedented wisdom teacher". His father, the king, wanting his son, whose name was Sidartha Gautama, to fulfil the great king version of the prophecy to come true, kept his son in isolation, strictly controlling his education. Sidartha married, had children and lived the most luxurious life available at the time.

One day, as he approached the age of thirty, Sidartha, came across a poor man wracked by age, disease and pain. In his protected life he had never seen suffering. It left him profoundly disturbed. He could not understand its existence. He wanted to know why it happened, and, out of compassion, how to end it.

After some time thinking about it all, asking his teachers and father, he found no answers. He left his family and wealth to find the sources and end of suffering. He spent seven years on a pilgrimage seeking teachers and doing their various disciplines. 

Along the way he was joined by five companions, together they decided to fast, living on one sesame seed a day, until they received the incomparable wisdom of total enlightenment (mahanirvana is the the term in Buddhism). After a long period Sidartha became sick and close to death and he realised that in death enlightenment might be different. He realised that his goal was to understand the suffering of life and that he must gain the knowledge from within life, not without. This became known as "the Middle Way or Path" Also known as the  "Golden Mean". The idea was that asceticism should not be life threatening or drain your mind/body/spirit of its strength. In fact, "physical fitness was essential to spiritual progress". 

A passing woman, seeing him in such a bad state donated a bowl of rice. Sidartha divided the rice into portions and began to eat. He decided he would not move until he had found the truth he was seeking. Sitting under a fig tree, which became known as the Bodhi (enlightenment) tree, he waited. His five friends felt betrayed by his willingness to eat. They felt he had given in to weakness, so they left. 

He struggled with all kinds of temptations which are characterized in myth by battles with the Goddess Maya representing the everyday world of the senses. But the psychology based on practical techniques handed down by the various traditions suggest that the metaphysics of the myth were really stories to placate and cater to the uneducated and/or immature.

The Teaching

Introduction - The story.  The Sources of Suffering  The End of Suffering  The Path to the End of Suffering  Commentary

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha, as Sidartha became known, realised during this profound meditation the four Noble Truths of suffering.

  1. Life is suffering.
  2.  
  3. What the causes of suffering are - desire and fear.
  4.  
  5. That there is the possibility for ending suffering.
  6.  
  7. And, the path to the end of all suffering.
There have been millions of words written about these truths as they have travelled around the world. So here is a personal summation. There are a some of books mentioned below which give different perspectives on them - one a traditional Chinese from Taiwan, a Modern Western view, and the source of Zen (as the Japanese call it) or Chan (as the Chinese call the same tradition).

There is a very practical interpretation of these truths, the lofty spiritual version we will talk about soon. Each of us knows we are suffering in one way or another, we generally know the cause of that suffering and how we might end it. The knowing of how to end it tells us the path to its ending. Put concretely - You don't have the car you want, wanting it causes you discomfort, getting it would end your suffering, the path to the end of that suffering would be a pay raise, a gift or a lottery win and achieving the car.

The Buddha's realisation is that getting the car would only end one moment of suffering, not the whole category of experience. He understood that it was the desire itself that was the problem. The reality he passed on is the freedom from all suffering.

1. There is Suffering.

Introduction - The story.  The teaching  The Four Noble Truths  The End of Suffering  The Path to the End of Suffering  Commentary

Some people think Buddhism is pessimistic because it starts with this premise that all life is suffering. For Buddhists this is a simple observable fact. They consider many of us live life without awareness of suffering in general. We are aware of the individual moments of problems but we are acclimatized to suffering as a simple practical problem or which has been imposed by the outer world beyond our control. We accept its reality so completely we simply live with it.

The movement toward wisdom begins with a general dissatisfaction with life that arises from a realisation there is level of suffering which is unacceptable. This realisation of suffering leaves everyday life hollow and pushes you to action.

2. The Causes Of Suffering.

Introduction - The story.  The teaching  The Four Noble Truths The End of Suffering  The Path to the End of Suffering  Commentary

The Buddha's great realisation is that suffering, sorrow and pain are caused by two essential impulses from within us. They are of equal importance - our desires and our fears.

These two distort our sense of self pulling us away from our centre or seat of identity in the reality of the moment here and now. Our thoughts, emotions and actions in reaching out for things and people and/or avoiding them leaves us lost to ourselves, identifying with imagined possibilities rather than existing worlds. These imagined possibilities try to control the world and the self, trying to stop the flow of change both out there in the world and within.

He does not say that there is no real suffering, that it is all imagined illusion (although some teachers go that far). Rather he is saying that our experience of the reality of our life (including our passions, health etc) is distorted by the internal hierarchies which are based on history of desires and fears. That hidden under the desperation of the chase and escape of living is the reality of you in the moment - breathing, feeling, watching and listening.

3. That Suffering Can End.

Introduction - The story.  The teaching  The Four Noble Truths  The Sources of Suffering  The Path to the End of Suffering  Commentary

This is where Buddhism is optimistic. It believes that all suffer can end. If you do not realise that suffering can end then you are stuck in  the darkest of hells (depression?).

As with many traditions, the founder represents the example which leads others to the same knowledge. The Buddha is proof that freedom from suffering is possible. What make his teaching unprecedented and different from so many who have come later, is that he doesn't offer rescue. Rescue focuses all the power on the teacher as saviour.

The Buddha avoided talking about metaphysics, when other teachers use it to justify their status as special. These other teachers say things like they have a direct line to a god, goddess or spirit either by being the incarnation of them or having special connection as their messenger.

Buddha said it all came from understanding, that he was an ordinary person who gained an insight which is available to anyone. In fact, it is only available to you when you find it yourself. You can't ride on his robe to get there. However a master, a teacher, someone who has already arrived can guide you to it.

However, the position of the Gautama Buddha as example means that his path of sitting still and waiting for insight with senses alive and breath as the focus of mindfulness stands as the most cliché and reality of the Buddhist path. 

4. The Pathway to Ending Suffering

Introduction - The story.  The Teachings  The Four Noble Truths  The Sources of Suffering  The End of Suffering  Commentary

The difference between mainstream Buddhism and the other approaches and traditions which seek to alleviate suffering is that the Buddhism has no rescue philosophy or beliefs. No god or goddess will pull you out of the muck and Maya of life's dirty world. There are, however, various ways that some populist forms of Buddhist cater to people's need for security and shortcuts.

In the first discourse, teaching, the Buddha laid out the way to the end of suffering. In Buddhism there is an eight-fold or step path which only you can walk. Gurus and teachers can only act as coaches, point to the uniquely subject realisation of the wisdom within.

First there is the, aforementioned, 'Middle Way'. It was the name the Buddha gave his teachings. Below is the traditional ordering of these ingredients and there meanings. Below that we will look at the esoteric problems and meaning.

The Ingredients of the Path

Introduction - The story.  The teaching  The Four Noble Truths  The Sources of Suffering  The End of Suffering  The Path to the End of Suffering  Commentary

Right Understanding.

This deals with the knowledge of yourself as you really are, including the noble truths. Leading to - 

Right Thoughts.

detachment (In our approach this equals Passionate Detachment.) and renunciation, loving kindness and non-violence as opposed to selfishness, ill-will and cruelty. Leading to naturally to the following three perfecting your morality -

Right Speech.
Right Actions.
Right Livelihood.
Right Effort

This deals with the cleansing yourself of the evil states and developing goodness through directing your effort and energy in the right direction.

Right Mindfulness.

The greatest cleansing technique is introspection, contemplation.

Right Concentration.

Or one-pointedness of mind.

Commentary

Introduction - The story.  The teaching  The Four Noble Truths  The Sources of Suffering  The End of Suffering  The Path to the End of Suffering

Many of the public teachings of Buddhism start with right speech, right action, right livelihood and right thought based on right effort focussed on right mindfulness and concentration leading finally to right understanding. And so it becomes another simplistic moral teaching for the masses with the Buddha becoming a metaphysical source of justification.

The problem is that trying to talk about what right understanding is, when it is an experience, is very difficult. And not nearly as difficult as getting the experience. The Buddha, himself, struggled in the first weeks after his 'awakening' with whether it would possible or useful to share his experience. It has remained a source of tension throughout the history of the tradition.

The Buddha and the traditions that arose after and from him came to understand that what he was talking about is in the actual structure of identity, of the self. Part of it is the confusion between wants and needs and that many fears and desires are unreal, imagined. He taught that only you could experience reality and that to know reality you must quiet down the chase and escape which is the source of the mind's jittering, chattering energy.

In the contemplative traditions of Dyana, Zen or Chan (in Pali, Japanese and Chinese respectively) this truth is achieved through a fundamental restructuring of the identity, self. An instant experience based on mindfulness which must be sort yet can't be found by seeking, because it is outside and inside our basic nature.  Thus demonstrating the problems with talking about the most esoteric and fundamental experiences. The legends of Zen masters and their 'koans' (questions with no rational answers) are all around achieving, reinstating and reminding the walker on the journey of the fully mindful state.

There is a natural flow from right understanding. If the understanding is right then it will change the way you live in the world and all the other ingredients will naturally be affected, without effort, because all you are, think and do will have new meaning.

This site is about developing mindfulness through everyday modern living. It is as if to say that in order catch "mahanirvana" (great awakening) you need to be as mindful, as open minded, as possible in order to get it. In Christian terms, if you are going to notice God's grace you must be aware and listening to his creation.

It may mean that you don't change your actual actions and behaviours just their meaning to you and, therefore, to those around you and to the world.

References

The Buddha and His Teachings - Publisher "The Corporate Body of the Buddha Education Foundation", Taiwan, 1988, reprint: 1998. overseas@budaedu.org.tw

This book and organisation is an evangelical group for Chinese Buddhism. The book is a give away. A traditional translation of the Buddhist teachings. There are plenty of these kinds of books around anyone will do.

The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui Neng Translation by A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, Publisher "Shambhala Publication Inc.", Boston, 1990. http://www.shambhala.com

These two are very often read and published together (as here) because the first is referred to in the second. Hui Neng (or Leng) was the founder of the Chinese interpretation of the mindfulness/contemplative tradition "Chan" or "Zen" (in Japanese), known in the text as the "sudden tradition". Though written about fifteen hundred years ago, it, like the book below, cuts to the very core of experiential Buddhism - the real thing in my opinion. Like the book below, this text is anti-traditional, anti-hierarchical and iconoclastic, almost scientific in its belief in experience as the foundation of knowledge.

Buddhism Without Beliefs - Stephen Batchelor, Publisher "Riverhead Books - Penguin Putnam Inc.", New York, 1997, paperback: 1998.

This book, like the one before, is an encapsulation of the teachings, the dharma, of the Buddha for a time and place - the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

 

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