This short essay is intended to give a brief introduction
to Buddhism. It will discuss the way Buddhists perceive the world,
the four main teachings of the Buddha, the Buddhist view of the
self, the relationship between this self and the various ways in
which it responds to the world, the Buddhist path and the final
goal. - Mike
Three Marks of Existence
has been described as a very pragmatic religion. It does not indulge
in metaphysical speculation about first causes; there is no theology,
no worship of a deity or deification of the Buddha. Buddhism takes
a very straightforward look at our human condition; nothing is based
on wishful thinking, at all. Everything that the Buddha taught was
based on his own observation of the way things are. Everything that
he taught can be verified by our own observation of the way things
we look at our life, very simply, in a straightforward way, we see
that it is marked with frustration and pain. This is because we
attempt to secure our relationship with the "world out there",
by solidifying our experiences in some concrete way. For example,
we might have dinner with someone we admire very much, everything
goes just right, and when we get home later we begin to fantasise
about all the things we can do with our new-found friend, places
we can go etc. We are going through the process of trying to cement
our relationship. Perhaps, the next time we see our friend, she/he
has a headache and is curt with us; we feel snubbed, hurt, all our
plans go out the window. The problem is that the "world out
there" is constantly changing, everything is impermanent and
it is impossible to make a permanent relationship with anything,
we examine the notion of impermanence closely and honestly, we see
that it is all-pervading, everything is marked by impermanence.
We might posit an eternal consciousness principle, or higher self,
but if we examine our consciousness closely we see that it is made
up of temporary mental processes and events. We see that our "higher
self" is speculative at best and imaginary to begin with. We
have invented the idea to secure ourselves, to cement our relationship,
once again. Because of this we feel uneasy and anxious, even at
the best of times. It is only when we completely abandon clinging
that we feel any relief from our queasiness.
three things: pain, impermanence and egolessness are known as the
three marks of existence.
Four Noble Truths
first sermon that the Buddha preached after his enlightenment was
about the four noble truths. The first noble truth is that life
is frustrating and painful. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves,
there are times when it is downright miserable. Things may be fine
with us, at the moment, but, if we look around, we see other people
in the most appalling condition, children starving, terrorism, hatred,
wars, intolerance, people being tortured and we get a sort of queasy
feeling whenever we think about the world situation in even the
most casual way. We, ourselves, will some day grow old, get sick
and eventually die. No matter how we try to avoid it, some day we
are going to die. Even though we try to avoid thinking about it,
there are constant reminders that it is true.
second noble truth is that suffering has a cause. We suffer because
we are constantly struggling to survive. We are constantly trying
to prove our existence. We may be extremely humble and self-deprecating,
but even that is an attempt to define ourselves. We are defined
by our humility. The harder we struggle to establish ourselves and
our relationships, the more painful our experience becomes.
third noble truth is that the cause of suffering can be ended. Our
struggle to survive, our effort to prove ourselves and solidify
our relationships is unnecessary. We, and the world, can get along
quite comfortably without all our unnecessary posturing. We could
just be a simple, direct and straight-forward person. We could form
a simple relationship with our world, our coffee, spouse and friend.
We do this by abandoning our expectations about how we think things
is the fourth noble truth: the way, or path to end the cause of
suffering. The central theme of this way is meditation. Meditation,
here, means the practice of mindfulness/awareness, shamata/vipashyana
in Sanskrit. We practice being mindful of all the things that
we use to torture ourselves with. We become mindful by abandoning
our expectations about the way we think things should be and, out
of our mindfulness, we begin to develop awareness about the way
things really are. We begin to develop the insight that things are
really quite simple, that we can handle ourselves, and our relationships,
very well as soon as we stop being so manipulative and complex.
Buddhist doctrine of egolessness seems to be a bit confusing to
westerners. I think this is because there is some confusion as to
what is meant by ego. Ego, in the Buddhist sense, is quite different
from the Freudian ego. The Buddhist ego is a collection of mental
events classified into five categories, called skandhas, loosely
translated as bundles, or heaps.
we were to borrow a western expression, we could say that "in
the beginning" things were going along quite well. At some
point, however, there was a loss of confidence in the way things
were going. There was a kind of primordial panic which produced
confusion about what was happening. Rather than acknowledging this
loss of confidence, there was an identification with the panic and
confusion. Ego began to form. This is known as the first skandha,
the skandha of form.
the identification with confusion, ego begins to explore how it
feels about the formation of this experience. If we like the experience,
we try to draw it in. If we dislike it, we try to push it away,
or destroy it. If we feel neutral about it, we just ignore it. The
way we feel about the experience is called the skandha of form;
what we try to do about it is known as the skandha of impulse/perception.
next stage is to try to identify, or label the experience. If we
can put it into a category, we can manipulate it better. Then we
would have a whole bag of tricks to use on it. This is the skandha
final step in the birth of ego, is called the skandha of consciousness.
Ego begins to churn thoughts and emotions around and around. This
makes ego feel solid and real. The churning around and around is
called samsara -- literally, to whirl about. The way ego feels about
its situation (skandha of feeling) determines which of the six realms
of existence it creates for itself.
ego decides it likes the situation, it begins to churn up all sorts
of ways to possess it. A craving to consume the situation arises
and we long to satisfy that craving. Once we do, a ghost of that
craving carries over and we look around for something else to consume.
We get into the habitual pattern of becoming consumer oriented.
Perhaps we order a piece of software for our computer. We play with
it for awhile, until the novelty wears out, and then we look around
for the next piece of software that has the magic glow of not being
possessed yet. Soon we haven't even got the shrink wrap off the
current package when we start looking for the next one. Owning the
software and using it doesn't seem to be as important as wanting
it, looking forward to its arrival. This is known as the hungry
ghost realm where we have made an occupation out of craving. We
can never find satisfaction, it is like drinking salt water to quench
realm is the animal realm, or having the mind like that of an animal.
Here we find security by making certain that everything is totally
predictable. We only buy blue chip stock, never take a chance and
never look at new possibilities. The thought of new possibilities
frightens us and we look with scorn at anyone who suggests anything
innovative. This realm is characterised by ignorance. We put on
blinders and only look straight ahead, never to the right or left.
hell realm is characterised by acute aggression. We build a wall
of anger between ourselves and our experience. Everything irritates
us, even the most innocuous, and innocent statement drives us mad
with anger. The heat of our anger is reflected back on us and sends
us into a frenzy to escape from our torture, which in turn causes
us to fight even harder and get even angrier. The whole thing builds
on itself until we don't even know if we're fighting with someone
else or ourselves. We are so busy fighting that we can't find an
alternative to fighting; the possibility of alternative never even
occurs to us.
are the three lower realms. One of the three higher realms is called
the jealous god realm. This pattern of existence is characterised
by acute paranoia. We are always concerned with "making it".
Everything is seen from a competitive point of view. We are always
trying to score points, and trying to prevent others from scoring
on us. If someone achieves something special we become determined
to out do them. We never trust anyone; we "know" they're
trying to slip one past us. If someone tries to help us, we try
to figure out their angle. If someone doesn't try to help us, they
are being uncooperative, and we make a note to ourselves that we
will get even later. "Don't get mad, get even," that's
some point we might hear about spirituality. We might hear about
the possibility of meditation techniques, imported from some eastern
religion, or mystical western one, that will make our minds peaceful
and absorb us into a universal harmony. We begin to meditate and
perform certain rituals and we find ourselves absorbed into infinite
space and blissful states of existence. Everything sparkles with
love and light; we become godlike beings. We become proud of our
godlike powers of meditative absorption. We might even dwell in
the realm of infinite space where thoughts seldom arise to bother
us. We ignore everything that doesn't confirm our godhood. We have
manufactured the god realm, the highest of the six realms of existence.
The problem is, that we have manufactured it. We begin to relax
and no longer feel the need to maintain our exalted state. Eventually
a small sliver of doubt occurs. Have we really made it? At first
we are able to smooth over the question, but eventually the doubt
begins to occur more and more frequently and soon we begin to struggle
to regain our supreme confidence. As soon as we begin to struggle,
we fall back into the lower realms and begin the whole process over
and over; from god realm to jealous god realm to animal realm to
hungry ghost realm to hell realm. At some point we begin to wonder
if there isn't some sort of alternative to our habitual way of dealing
with the world. This is the human realm.
human realm is the only one in which liberation from the six states
of existence is possible. The human realm is characterised by doubt
and inquisitiveness and the longing for something better. We are
not as absorbed by the all consuming preoccupations of the other
states of being. We begin to wonder whether it is possible to relate
to the world as simple, dignified human beings.
path to liberation from these miserable states of being, as taught
by the Buddha, has eight points and is known as the eightfold path.
The first point is called right view -- the right way to view the
world. Wrong view occurs when we impose our expectations onto things;
expectations about how we hope things will be, or about how we are
afraid things might be. Right view occurs when we see things simply,
as they are. It is an open and accommodating attitude. We abandon
hope and fear and take joy in a simple straight-forward approach
second point of the path is called right intention. It proceeds
from right view. If we are able to abandon our expectations, our
hopes and fears, we no longer need to be manipulative. We don't
have to try to con situations into our preconceived notions of how
they should be. We work with what is. Our intentions are pure.
third aspect of the path is right speech. Once our intentions are
pure, we no longer have to be embarrassed about our speech. Since
we aren't trying to manipulate people, we don't have to be hesitant
about what we say, nor do we need to try bluff our way through a
conversation with any sort of phoney confidence. We say what needs
to be said, very simply in a genuine way.
fourth point on the path, right discipline, involves a kind of renunciation.
We need to give up our tendency to complicate issues. We practice
simplicity. We have a simple straight-forward relationship with
our dinner, our job, our house and our family. We give up all the
unnecessary and frivolous complications that we usually try to cloud
our relationships with.
livelihood is the fifth step on the path. It is only natural and
right that we should earn our living. Often, many of us don't particularly
enjoy our jobs. We can't wait to get home from work and begrudge
the amount of time that our job takes away from our enjoyment of
the good life. Perhaps, we might wish we had a more glamorous job.
We don't feel that our job in a factory or office is in keeping
with the image we want to project. The truth is, that we should
be glad of our job, whatever it is. We should form a simple relationship
with it. We need to perform it properly, with attention to detail.
sixth aspect of the path is right effort. Wrong effort is struggle.
We often approach a spiritual discipline as though we need to conquer
our evil side and promote our good side. We are locked in combat
with ourselves and try to obliterate the tiniest negative tendency.
Right effort doesn't involve struggle at all. When we see things
as they are, we can work with them, gently and without any kind
of aggression whatsoever.
mindfulness, the seventh step, involves precision and clarity. We
are mindful of the tiniest details of our experience. We are mindful
of the way we talk, the way we perform our jobs, our posture, our
attitude toward our friends and family, every detail.
concentration, or absorption is the eighth point of the path. Usually
we are absorbed in absentmindedness. Our minds are completely captivated
by all sorts of entertainment and speculations. Right absorption
means that we are completely absorbed in nowness, in things as they
are. This can only happen if we have some sort of discipline, such
as sitting meditation. We might even say that without the discipline
of sitting meditation, we can't walk the eightfold path at all.
Sitting meditation cuts through our absentmindedness. It provides
a space or gap in our preoccupation with ourselves.
people have heard of nirvana. It has become equated with
a sort of eastern version of heaven. Actually, nirvana simply means
cessation. It is the cessation of passion, aggression and ignorance;
the cessation of the struggle to prove our existence to the world,
to survive. We don't have to struggle to survive after all. We have
already survived. We survive now; the struggle was just an extra
complication that we added to our lives because we had lost our
confidence in the way things are. We no longer need to manipulate
things as they are into things as we would like them to be.