“I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach.” – The Buddha
Why is Buddhism relevant in the 21st century?
When I tell people that I’m a Buddhist I usually get that look. Yes, everyone in the West, and more specifically Scotland, has heard of Buddhism but few people have any kind of understanding of what it actually is.
I was drawn to Buddhism because of a lack of belief in our modern capitalist society, which is driven by greed and results in so much suffering. Neither can I subscribe to the atheist view that we are intelligent beings in a meaningless world. For me it follows logically that if the world has no meaning, then people have no hope, and a world without hope is no world at all. If we have no hope, we have nothing.
I’ve had people assuming that I spend half my day just sitting on a cushion saying “ohm” while my eyes are shut. I’ve had people genuinely interested to hear more about it and – of course – I’ve had people simply take the piss (which doesn’t particularly bother me, that’s their problem and it’s one of ignorance).
So, I thought it might be useful to put together this blog on Buddhism to cover some of the basics. There’s absolutely no way I can cover everything in one blog, but this should serve as a quick guide to the fundamentals of the Buddhist religion.
Who was the Buddha?
The Buddha was a human being just like you and I. The Buddha is not a God. Indeed, within Buddhism there is no God.
Siddhartha Gautama, or more simply the Buddha (the awakened one), was born in Northern India (present day Nepal) around 490 years before Jesus Christ (there is some disagreement over exactly when he was born).
The Buddha was born into a life of privilege, for he was a Royal Prince. As such throughout his younger years he was isolated from the real world of pain, sickness and suffering that lay beyond the boundaries of his Royal life.
One day aged around thirty-years-old the Buddha, who by this time was married and had a son, left the grounds of his Royal home and – for the first time – he was confronted by the sights of an old man, a sick person and a corpse. He realised the world was bound by suffering.
This encounter deeply troubled the Buddha as he realised these were inevitable fates for all people.
During this excursion the Buddha also saw a monk. Most likely this was a Brahmin monk, as this was the main religion in the area at the time. The Buddha took this encounter to be a sign and decided to give up his luxurious lifestyle and embark on a holy quest to solve the problem of suffering.
Initially the Buddha led a life of extreme self-denial, some days surviving on as little as a grain of rice and this led to him becoming extremely thin. The Buddha throughout this time focussed heavily on meditation as he searched for answers, however he arrived at the conclusion that this extreme self-denial was not the answer, nor was reliance on meditation alone.
The Middle Way
The Buddha came to realise that the solution was to find a middle way, neither returning to his previous life of luxury nor depriving himself to the extreme of the things that he needed.
One day whilst meditating beneath the Bodhi Tree (the tree of awakening) the Buddha achieved full enlightenment. That is, he fully awakened to the reality of life.
The Buddha then spent the next forty-five years teaching his enlightenment to his followers, or Arahants (noble ones).
The Buddha’s teachings are known as The Dharma and his followers were collectively known as the Sangha (community of Buddhists).
The Buddha’s Teachings
The Buddha concluded that there are four noble truths in this world:
- The Truth of Suffering (Dhuka)
- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Samudāya)
- The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
- The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga)
The Truth of Suffering (Dhuka)
The Buddha arrived at the conclusion that people are always suffering. For if we are not suffering through sickness, bereavement or any other kind of obvious suffering then we are still suffering.
This is because we are subject to desires and cravings and it is only when these are met that we are happy. These desires could be anything from a simple glass of water to a multi-million-pound mansion.
The problem is that the suffering is only temporarily alleviated when these desires are met. Thereafter it simply reemerges, either in the same form or a new one.
Logically, it followed for the Buddha that since our suffering has an easily identifiable cause that it is also possible to cure it.
The Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Samudāya)
The Buddha taught that the origin of suffering is rooted in desire (tanhā). This comes in three forms, or three routes of evil.
- Greed and desire.
- Ignorance or delusion.
- Hatred and destructive urges.
Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
The Buddha taught that cessation of suffering can be realised by overcoming attachment. The three fires, or evils, outlined in the Truth of the Origin of Suffering must be extinguished – at which point a person may become enlightened (the point of Nirvana). An enlightened person is liberated from the cycles of rebirth, suffering and death.
This takes both a physical and mental form, learning to recognise that physical objects can never really be ‘ours‘ (you can’t take them with you) and learning to stop automatically reacting to everything that happens as ‘good or bad.’
We must learn to simply observe the world for what it is. This brings me onto one of my favourite Buddhist parables.
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.” Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga)
This final truth is known as the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way (not depriving yourself in the extreme, nor living a life of luxury).
It is eight principles, that support each other, which serve to act as a guide to those seeking freedom from suffering and enlightenment.
They are not listed in order of importance.
- Right Understanding. The Buddha does not ask for blind faith, he asks his followers to observe results of his teachings for themselves in order to know that they are true.
- Right Intention. A commitment to cultivate the right attitude.
- Right Speech. Speak truthfully, avoid gossip, slander and abusive speech
- Right Action. Behaving peacefully and harmoniously; refraining from stealing, killing and overindulgence in sensual pleisure.
- Right Livlihood. Avoiding making a living in ways that cause harm, such as exploiting people or killing animals, or trading in intoxicants or weapons.
- Right Effort. Cultivating positive states of mind; freeing oneself from evil and unwholesome states and preventing them arising in future.
- Right Mindfulness. Developing awareness of the body, sensations, feelings and states of mind.
- Right Concentration. Developing the mental focus necessary for this awareness.
“The tool the Buddha holds out to free the mind from desire is understanding. Real renunciation is not a matter of compelling ourselves to give up things still inwardly cherished, but of changing our perspective on them so that they no longer bind us. When we understand the nature of desire, when we investigate it closely with keen attention, desire falls away by itself, without need for struggle.”
― Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering
Schools of Buddhism
Today there are four main schools of Buddhism and within those there are countless more sub-schools.
For me it doesn’t matter so much which school, if any, you follow. What is important is following the Teachings of the Buddha. In today’s world of greed, hostility, ignorance and hatred it’s more important than ever.
If I’ve pricked your curiosity a great place to start is with this easy-to-understand book by Steve Hagen, ‘Buddhism, Plain & Simple.’
For a more in-depth book, check out ‘In The Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of the Pali Canon.’
Some of my ideas of little changes you can make to your life for the benefit of others have been posted in another recent blog. Check it out.