- Area: Humanities
- Program: Philosophy
- Type of Writing: Essay (Explorative)
- Type of Writing: Research (writing to present researched information)
- Course Level: 1000
- Paper ID: H.P.E.R.1.5
Buddha was born into riches and wealth as Siddhartha Gautama- prince of Nepal. Talented and intelligent, he was sheltered and protected from the horrors of the world in his extravagant palace. One day in his youth Siddhartha decided to sneak off the Palace grounds, what he saw would forever change his life. He had his first encounter with suffering- he witnessed poverty, death, disease and grief, thus disenchanting his life of privilege. Disillusioned and mind riddled with questions his family or servants could not answer, Siddhartha set out on the ascetic path to find sages and teachers to answer life’s questions. While he found many teachers and sages Siddhartha was never satisfied with the answers he was given. He became tired of wandering and settled with a group of other ascetic brothers until he was on the brink of death by self-inflicted starvation. It was then he came to an important conclusion- one could not hope to find The Way through indulgence or denial, he must take care of his body for it is a crucial tool in his quest. He continued his journey alone, dedicating himself to deep meditation. Legend says he sat under a fig tree, later deemed the Bodhi Tree- the Tree of Wisdom, proclaiming, “here I shall remain until I am answered or dead”. Through this meditation, Siddhartha finally found his answers. He was lifted into enlightenment and from this point on he was known as Buddha, or the enlightened one. Committed to his path Buddha built his philosophy, becoming the teacher and sage that is revered today.
While Buddha himself is not known to have recorded any of his own words, his disciples upon his death are said to have come together and to have agreed upon what they heard, which is why many of the Buddhist sutras begin with “thus I have heard”. His philosophy was passed on through oral tradition, generation to generation, for at least three centuries. Buddha’s philosophy is based on what he identifies as the Four Noble Truths, which could also be described as the Four Realities. Contemplation and realization of these Four Realities will lead to sainthood, or the state of the noble ones. The Four Noble Truths are: The Truth of Suffering, the Truth of Why We Suffer, the Truth of the End of Suffering, and the Truth of the Path to End Suffering. Finding truth in reincarnation, each truth compels a type of practice essential for one to become enlightened and escape the saṃsāra- the beginning-less cycle of repeated birth, mundane existence, and dying.
Buddha’s first truth, All Life is Suffering (dukkha), or the Reality of Suffering, promotes a practice of gradual realization of the reality of life through reflection, analytical meditation, and eventually direct experience. It highlights the importance of understanding the nature of suffering and the distinct types of suffering and happiness within saṃsāra. Buddha teaches that there are three kinds of suffering- physical suffering, mental suffering, and the impermanence of happiness in life. Physical ailments are unavoidable, starting with birth. While we may enjoy health at one point, eventually we age and suffer the human condition of disease and sickness. Mental suffering refers to depression, loneliness, or grief of separation or death. People also experience this mental suffering when they are unable to satiate their cravings for pleasure. Buddha believes that happiness is real but fleeting, the happiness of family and companionship is quickly dissolved into suffering through death and separation. The attachment one has to a person or a thing is what causes the impermanence of happiness suffering. For this reason, Buddha taught his followers to not be distracted by momentary pleasures, but to embrace the bigger picture of their experiences. While this may sound pessimistic, his ideology would be considered more that of a realist. He points out that all life is suffering, but he also gives guidelines to eradicating this suffering within the four noble truths.
The second of the Noble Truths, the Truth of Why We Suffer, or the Reality of the Origin, illuminates that we suffer because of the mental state of taṇhā. Taṇhā is the thirst, desire, or craving of that which is harmful. There are three kinds of taṇhā, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence. While the first of the three is speaking of worldly pleasures the second is interpreted as craving continued existence within saṃsāra, or eternalism. The third is a reversed type of desire, or an aversion to one’s own destruction at the moment of death, or annihilation. However, Buddha teaches that the underlying root of our suffering is not the craving or desire, but spiritual ignorance. Spiritual ignorance is the distorted perception of things under the influence of conceptual fabrications and affective prejudices, a misconception of reality. This distorted perception brings us to value attachments and habits that further degrade us, allowing one’s self to be swept up in dogmatism. The second truth demands renunciation of all mental states that generate suffering for one’s self or others. The relinquishing of spiritual ignorance, thirst/craving, and the three roots of the un-wholesome: greed, aversion, and delusion gives opportunity for positive mental states to cultivate. Coming to the realization of the origin allows us to continue to the third noble truth, an answer to the question “can suffering be ended?”
The Truth of the End of Suffering, or the Reality of the Cessation of Suffering, is the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel. After going into length about the what and why of taṇhā, Buddha’s philosophy gives us hope for relief. The third noble truth implores us to realize the destruction of suffering through peace, higher knowledge, desertion of grasping, cessation, the obliteration of craving, absence of lust, the tranquilization of mental formations, and ultimately: nirvana. He teaches that the answer to these problems are within us, not outside of us, we must learn to say no to excessive pleasure and release our attachments to obtain liberation from rebirth. Nirvana, being the essential goal, literally translates to blowing out or extinguishing. Nirvana is the liberation from saṃsāra, when karma finally runs out and the flame is extinguished, never to be reborn again. Several Buddhist texts suggest that nirvana may be a domain of perception known at the moment of enlightenment and during deep meditation after one has become enlightened. This perspective is considered to have the opposite qualities of saṃsāra, a state of complete bliss. Buddha purposely left description of nirvana vague and discourages questions about what it was like and what preceded existence, he felt that these questions alluded to a false attachment to self and served as a distraction from the path. True to his middle ground reputation, the Buddha does not ask for blind faith, he simply offers a path for one to find these realizations for themselves.
Much like a physician, Buddha diagnoses the problem in the first Noble Truth, gives the origin of the problem in the second, assures that it’s treatable in the third, and the fourth offers the treatment or cure. The fourth Noble Truth is the Path to the End of Suffering, or the Reality of the Path Leading to Cessation of Suffering. The Path to End Suffering is outlined in the eight steps separated into three “baskets”: wisdom, conduct, and contemplation. The eightfold path is offered as different parts of the entire Buddhist path to ennoble the disciple gradually, allowing that those not seeking enlightenment would not find it necessary to progress past conduct or ethical training to live a wholesome life. Furthermore, the eightfold path is also considered the eight mental factors that require cultivation simultaneously to reach liberation or enlightenment.
Wisdom is the first basket, containing the first two steps, Right Understanding, and Right Thought. Right Understanding, or Right Views, is a realization of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha emphasizes that it is not only intellectual understanding that is required here. While book smarts may help, the goal is direct insight and penetration into the nature of things. First one must clearly realize what is wrong. The second step in the eightfold path is Right Thought, or Right Intentions. This step requires the follower to become detached, selfless, and free of the malicious mindsets. One must embrace generosity and extend loving benevolence to all things. Setting intentions on a regular basis to only hold that which is helpful and loving towards others in the mind and heart is the basis to motivate actions.
Ethical Conduct imposes the next three steps associated with speech, behavior, and lifestyle. Right Speech implores one to abstain from lying, rude or malicious language, gossip, slander, or backstabbing. Buddha teaches to speak gentle, kind, or useful truth, or to not speak at all. This type of pragmatism however, not only asks us to only speak useful truth, but to discard anything that may cause disharmony. Right Action asks one to abstain from all dishonest practices- no killing or violence, stealing, abusing intoxicants by any means, and no promiscuity. This portion of the Eightfold Path encourages harmony and respect with others through action. In accordance with the previous steps one should not impose one’s will upon others and only do that which is helpful and benevolent towards all beings. Right Lifestyle or Right Livelihood is the fifth step in the Eightfold Path. Right Livelihood promotes choosing a career that develops one’s talents, and overcoming one’s ego by joining a common cause. Buddha warns against superfluous living and encourages one to provide only what is needed for a worthwhile life. His middle ground stance is not suggesting that we should suffer ourselves to the ascetic lifestyle and deny ourselves all things, but to search for meaningful life within comfort without extravagances. This is the final step for those seeking a meaningful life who do not wish to progress to enlightenment. All are invited to continue through the entirety of the path, but for basic practice purposes, Wisdom training and Ethical training are the guidelines for living a wholesome life.
The third and final basket, Contemplation or Mental Discipline, speaks of the importance of effort, mindfulness, and meditation. The Right Effort is the will to cultivate a wholesome state of mind. A wholesome mindset demands that one eliminate evil or unwanted thoughts, controlling the mind through this manner only leaves love and good intent within. Right Mindfulness is being aware of the processes involved in daily existence, body, mind, sensations, and experiencing thoughts and ideas. The practice is cultivated through meditations with observation of breath and bodily sensation. Living mindfully accentuates the necessity to release attachments, allowing every moment to come and go without indulgence. Obsessive behavior is unwelcome in practicing mindfulness because it distracts from the current experience. Living life day by day and moment to moment allows detachment from previous moments, allowing each experience to be its own. While detachment is often misidentified as being aloof, the practice of right mind is attentive, absorbing everything and allowing it to go when attention is brought to the next beautiful moment. Right Concentration is the progressive stages of Dhyana, or deep meditation. This type of meditation, unlike the mindfulness meditations, is progressive and far more difficult to achieve. Through this meditation, one is prompted to clear the mind of passionate desires and empty thoughts and feelings of joy until only pure awareness remains in a state of perfect calm and equanimity. Buddha teaches that an uncentered mind is easily distracted and thoughts bounce around like a fish out of water, the goal of this deep meditation is to come to a one-pointed concentration- calming the mind. In the moments leading up to Buddha’s enlightenment he claims he was able to calm the “mad monkey” of the mind, dismissing every other thought and becoming so centralized on his mission that the answer could not elude him. Bhikkhu Bodhi states it perfectly in his article The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering when he states, “Like a lake unruffled by any breeze, the concentrated mind is a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is” (Bodhi, 1999). Only through mastering this meditation and incorporating all eight steps simultaneously can one hope to achieve liberation from suffering and rebirth.
Buddha’s teachings extend far beyond The Four Noble Truth’s and the Eightfold Path, however these lessons serve as a cornerstone to all his teachings. His wisdom is revered and offers hope and serenity to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. While many factions have been created from his initial teachings, these truths and this path to liberation and enlightenment remain consistent throughout.
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