Buddhism has found its way into mainstream modern society. Despite its age, this philosophy and spiritual practice continues to speak to us because of its elegant simplicity. Buddhism originated in Northern India over 2500 years ago. It consists of the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. The philosophy of Buddhism had a noble birth.
According to legend, Siddhartha Gautama’s father was the ruler of the Sakyas. Sakyas existed in what is now modern Nepal. Before he was born, it was prophesied that Siddhartha would become either a universal monarch or a great sage. Asceticism, as practiced religiously at that time, was the denial of physical needs and mortification of the body. To keep Siddhartha from becoming an ascetic, his father confined Siddhartha to the palace, showered him in luxury, and shielded him from the outside world. Siddhartha was taught by Brahman priest. Brahman continue to be the highest group within the Hindu Caste system. Siddhartha enjoyed exceptional health and was trained in sport and fighting. As was customary in that culture, the prince married young. The prince’s wife was named Gopa and the couple had a single son together.
Despite the advantages of wealth, familial affection, and physical prowess, Siddhartha was dissatisfied. He felt drawn to see what was beyond the walls that held him. Curiosity led Siddhartha to explore beyond the walls of this father’s palace. It was in the streets, beyond his father’s home, that Siddhartha encountered three simple things that were to change his life. Siddhartha encountered a sick man, an old man, and a dead corpse. When Siddhartha learned that everyone experiences illness, aging, and death, he became unable to rest.
As he returned to his father’s palace, Siddhartha met an ascetic walking peacefully along the road. This chance meeting inspired the young prince to leave his family and travel as an ascetic himself. It was his desire to discover the cause of human suffering. Siddhartha lived as an ascetic, practicing extreme self-denial, for several years. He practiced such extreme deprivation that he became extremely ill. However, the truth he sought continued to evade him.
Seeing the futility of extreme asceticism, Siddhartha returned to a more normal lifestyle. It was only after choosing to turn from the extreme path of asceticism that he found what had evaded him. One day the prince sat beneath a Bodhi tree, entered a trance state, and obtained enlightenment. This is the point at which Siddhartha is said to have become the Buddha or the “enlightened one.” The Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life teaching others to reach enlightenment. Thus, Buddhism was born.
The Four Noble Truths
Buddhism is based on four general beliefs referred to as the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble truth, Dukkha, is generally translated as the Noble Truth of Suffering. However, Buddhism is based not on the concept of suffering so much as the concept of realism. Although Buddha taught that life is suffering, this was not intended to be a pessimistic statement. This is simply a statement of truth: That with life there is suffering. Buddha identified suffering as an element of ordinary life. Buddha believed that suffering occurs due to illness, aging, separation from those we love, and distress due to the knowledge of the impermanence of happiness, health, and life. Suffering is also derived from man’s inability to accept reality. The human concept of perfection and the desire for perfection rather also creates elements of suffering.
The Second Noble Truth is Samudaya: “The Arising of Dukkha.” In the simplest of terms, the second noble truth is that suffering (Dukkha) arises from the thirst of human nature. The thirst of human nature can be seen in the desire for pleasure and perfection. It is the greed for happiness, sensual pleasure, and the things that we value that creates suffering.
The Third Noble Truth is Nirvana: “The Cessation of Dukkha.” The third noble truth tells us that suffering can be stopped. When suffering is stopped, we enter Nirvana. The third noble truth teaches us that by conquering the thirst of human nature we can end suffering.
The Forth Noble Truth is Magga: Magga is “The Path” to ending suffering. Magga is often referred to as the “Middle Path.” You may have heard it referred to as “The Eight-Fold Path” or “The Noble Eight-Fold Path.” Buddha taught that by following the Middle or Eight-Fold Path one can end personal suffering. Buddha used the idea of the middle path, because he had attempted to live by two extreme paths. Buddha found that both extremes led to dissatisfaction and suffering. It was only through the middle path that Buddha had obtained enlightenment.
You should understand that Buddhist believe that a person remains in a cycle of reincarnation until they reach enlightenment. Once an individual transcends suffering and reaches Nirvana, he/she is released from the cycle of reincarnation.
The Eight-Fold Path
Practitioners of Buddhism seek to end personal suffering and obtain enlightenment through the practice of the eight-fold path. Although Buddha offered the image of a path, practitioners are not expected to learn one element at a time. Practitioners of Buddhism understand the interconnection between the eight elements. Each element is seen to support the others. The steps along this path are identified as:
Right Understanding: Right Understanding is seeing things as they really are. Right understanding is understanding the four noble truths.
Right Thought: Right Thoughts are thoughts of personal detachment, love, and nonviolence. People who are not practicing Right Thoughts are driven by selfish desire, ill-will toward others, violence, and hatred.
Right Speech: Right Speech is speaking in ways that create harmony. Right Speech includes refraining from telling lies, refraining from speaking slanderously about others, and refraining from gossip and abusive language. Right Speech is kind, meaningful, and helpful.
Right Action: Right Action is behaving in ways that increase harmony. Right Action is acting in an ethical honorable manner. Right Action is refraining from stealing, harming others, and behaving violently or destructively.
Right Livelihood: Right Livelihood is choosing a livelihood or occupation that causes no harm. When one practices Right Livelihood, he/she is not causing harm by selling weapons, killing animals, cheating, or selling people things that harm them.
Right Effort: Right Effort is to place effort into creating positive mental states. A person that practices Right Effort would be someone who focuses on things that create positivity and refrains from focusing on things that cause them to be angry, have negative thoughts, or to develop negative emotions like envy.
Right Mindfulness: An individual is practicing Right Mindfulness when he/she is aware of ideas, thoughts, feelings, and physical aspects of the body and environment. There is a diligence and level of attention to one’s mind and body required in practicing Right Mindfulness.
Right Concentration: Right Concentration is referred to as single-mindedness. There are four stages of Right Concentration. In each stage the practitioner moves further and further away from suffering and into a state of trance.
Buddha spent 45 years teaching people how to reach Nirvana through the understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the practice of the Eight-Fold Path.
Many practitioners have followed Siddhartha Gautama’s path. Two of the most significant practitioners in modern time are Thich Nhat Hahn and Terrzin Gyatso. Thich Nhat Hanh was significant in expanding the practice of Buddhism to the West. He was born in Vietnam, founded six monasteries, and is often referred to as, “the Father of Mindfulness.”
Terrzin Gyatso, born in Thibet, is the 1th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is perhaps the best-known living modern Buddhist. All Dalai Lamas are considered reincarnations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenreziz. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. To understand the significance of the Dalai Lama, you need to understand the concept of the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach Nirvana, and therefore exit the cycle of reincarnation. However, a Bodhisattva chooses not to leave the world. The Bodhisattva chooses to continue in the cycle of reincarnation so that he/she can help others to become enlightened.
There are many readings on Buddhism available to curious individuals. I am listing some of the most engaging and readily understood books. However, please be aware that there is a huge selection of books that one can choose from to gain a better understanding of Buddhism.
- The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh
- On the Path to Enlightenment by Matthieu Ricad
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
- Radiant Mind by Jean Smith
- What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
- How to Practice by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Tune into the body: Imagine a tiny light in your minds eye. With this light you can focus on any part of your body. Now imagine directing this light down your body. Focus on what you feel in your body at each point the light hits. Notice if your body is tight or relaxed. Notice if you are hot or cold. This is an exercise to help you become aware of how you feel within your body. An awareness of your physical state helps you to cultivate Right Mindfulness.
Change your tune: Notice when a negative thought pops into your head. Notice when you begin to tell yourself negative things in your mind. This is referred to as negative self-talk, and it is detrimental to both your mental state and your ability to cultivate Right Thought. Now, when you notice yourself having a negative thought, I want you to think of a happy or silly song. When you have a negative thought or make a negative statement in your head, stop that thought, and replace that thought or statement with the silly song. You will quickly find it difficult to maintain negative thoughts in the face of a sunny song.
Truly experience a moment: When one practices Mindfulness, one is being fully present in the moment. It is perhaps easiest to practice a moment of mindfulness doing something you enjoy. For this exercise, choose to be fully present in one short activity that you enjoy. You may choose to eat a piece of cake. You may choose to gaze at a sunset. You may choose to have a conversation with someone you love. For the experience you have chosen, pay attention only to the thing you have chosen to be mindful of. If you chose to eat a piece of cake mindfully, give yourself over fully to this experience. Notice the texture, smell, and color of the cake. Do not allow your mind to move forward to what you need to be doing next. Do not answer the phone or read the paper. Simply fully immerse yourself in the experience before you in this moment. Practicing mindfulness allow us to become single-minded. This practice allows us to reduce distraction and fully accept the reality of any given moment.
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” —Buddha
This quote simply states the power of Right Thought. If we think positive thoughts, we will become joyful.
“In order to carry a positive action, we must develop here a positive vision.” —Dalai Lama
This quote from the Dalai Lama explores the connection between elements of the Eight-Fold Path. To exhibit Right Action, we must have Right Thought.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” —Dalai Lama
Buddha taught that compassion or empathy is an essential element to being happy. This quote is a reminder of this essential.
“Buddhism maintains that the common reaction of the human mind to pleasure and to achievement is not satisfaction; it's craving for more.”—Yuval Noah Harari
In this quote, Yuval Noah Harari is restating the Second Noble Truth. It is the Buddhist belief that human greed or thirst for pleasure causes suffering.
“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”—Buddha
This statement expounds upon the concept of Right Speech. Buddhists believe that speech that has no meaning has no true value. The value of speech comes from the ability to propel the world forward toward improved peace and harmony.
About the author
Nalda has led a rich and varied life. She has worked as a college professor, a mental health counselor, a psychosocial rehabilitation therapist, a research assistant, a retail associate, and a starving artist.