I am one of the least ‘religious’ people you will ever meet. I am acutely skeptical of most things and I’m not easily convinced of someone else’s ‘truth’. My belief system stems from agnostic to total atheist however I struggle with the word atheist.
(Quote: “The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says, ‘I do not know, but I do not believe there is any God.’ The Atheist says the same.”)
That being said, I am drawn to life lessons and as much as I struggle to maintain them I do enjoy what they teach me. Some people can pick up a book, read it and remember it’s plots and/or lessons forever; others have to read it again and again and never seem to remember the plot/lessons…. I am of the latter group.
So knowing all this about me personally I give you this:
The Four Noble Truths (Explained)
After Buddha gave up worldly life and sat down for meditation under the Bodhi tree, he attained enlightenment. He laid down his teachings in easily understandable language for the common man in the form of Four Noble truths.
Though Buddhism is now divided into several schools each of which has its own set of beliefs, the essence of Buddhism is summed up in the Four Noble Truths enunciated by the Buddha.
First Noble Truth – To live means to suffer
Until the age of 29, Prince Siddhartha (Buddha’s real name) was confined to the four walls of the palace by his father. When he first stepped out of the palace, he saw four things which left a deep impact in his tender and naïve mind: a new born baby, a crippled old man, a sick man and the corpse of a dead man.
The Prince, who had been brought up in the lap of luxury, oblivious to the suffering in the world outside the palace, was deeply perturbed when he saw death, misery, and suffering with his own eyes.
During his meditation, he realized that ‘life is suffering.’ The reason for this being the fact that human beings are not perfect. Likewise, the world inhabited by them is also ridden with imperfections.
The Buddha realized that during their journey through life, a human being has to endure many sufferings- physical and psychological- in the form of old age, sickness, separation from beloved ones, deprivation, encounters with unpleasant situations and people, lamentation, sorrow and suffering.
All these misfortunes befall human beings because they are subject to desires and cravings. If they are able to get what they aspire for, they derive pleasure or satisfaction. But this joy or pleasure is also short lived and does not last too long. If it does tend to last too long, the pleasure associated with it becomes monotonous and fades away.
Second Noble Truth – The origin of suffering is attachment
The second noble truth tells us that the root of all suffering is attachment. To avoid suffering, we need to understand what causes suffering and then weeding out these causes from our lives.
According to Buddha, the basic cause of suffering is “the attachment to the desire to have (craving) and the desire not to have (aversion)”.
All of us have desires and cravings. Since we cannot satisfy ALL our desires and cravings, we get disturbed and angry, which is but another manifestation of suffering.
The same holds good for people who are over ambitious and seek too much. As they achieve what they desire, they get lustful and want more of it. And so the vicious circle continues.
The other problem pointed out by Buddha here, which is very pertinent, is that denying desire (or depriving oneself) is like denying life itself. A person, he said, has to rise above attachments and for that, he need not deprive himself. The problem arises when he does not know where to put an end to his desires. And when he yields into his desires, he becomes a slave to them.
Third Noble Truth – The cessation of suffering is attainable
Buddha stated that to put an end to suffering, we need to control our desires or practice non-attachment. This may sound difficult but can be achieved through diligent practice.
This liberation from attachment and sorrow frees the mind of all troubles and worries. The attainment of this liberation is called “Nirvana” in Sanskrit and “Satori” in Japanese.
Fourth Noble Truth – The path to the cessation of suffering
Buddha says that salvation (Nirvana/Satori) is a condition that can be attained by leading a balanced life. And to lead a balanced life, one needs to follow the Eightfold path which is a ‘gradual path of self-improvement.’
The way to the Eightfold Path is Zen.
The Eightfold Path: The Ending Of Suffering
The Buddha laid down the eightfold path for his followers and enunciated that by following this path, they could put an end to their suffering.
Directly related to the Four Noble Truths, the eightfold path, as laid down by Buddha, helps an individual attain the state of Nirvana by freeing him from attachments and delusions and thereby helping him understand the innate truth of all things. This path, therefore, helps a person with his ethical and mental growth and development.
Buddha laid great emphasis on implementing the teachings since a higher level or existence can be attained only by putting translating thoughts into actions.
The eightfold path suggested by Buddha involves adherence to:
1. The right View
By right view, Buddha means seeing things in the right perspective. Seeing things as they really are, without any false illusions or pretenses. He wanted his followers to see and to understand the transient nature of worldly ideas and possessions and to understand that they can attain salvation only if they practiced the right karma.
2. The right Intention
Buddha says that we are what we are because of what we think. What goes on inside our minds (our thought process) determines our course of action. It is, therefore, necessary to follow the path of Right thought or Right Intention. To have the Right Intention or the Right Thought, a person should be aware of his purpose or role in life and is studying the teachings of Buddha.
3. The right Speech
Buddha asks his followers to speak truth, to avoid slander and malicious gossip and to refrain from abusive language. Harsh words that can cause distress or offend others should also be avoided while also staying clear of mindless idle chatter which lacks any depth.
4. The right Action
Behaving peacefully and harmoniously; Right action, according to Buddha, lies in adherence to the following guidelines:
– Staying in harmony with fellow human beings
– Behaving peacefully
– Not stealing
– Not killing anyone
– Avoiding overindulgence in sensual pleasure
– Abstaining from sexual misconduct
– Not indulging in fraudulent practices, deceitfulness and robbery
5. The right Livelihood
By laying down this guideline, Buddha advises his followers to earn their bread and butter righteously, without resorting to illegal and nefarious activities. He does not expect his followers to exploit other human beings or animals or to trade in weapons or intoxicants.
6. The right Effort
Buddha believed that human nature imposes undue restrictions on the mind at times, causing a person to harbor ill thoughts. So we have to train our mind to think in the right direction if we wish to become better human beings. Once we gain control over our thoughts and replace the unpleasant ones with positive ones, we shall be moving in the right direction.
7. The right Mindfulness
The Right Mindfulness, together with the Right Concentration, forms the basis of Buddhist meditation. By proposing this, Buddha suggests his followers to focus mentally on their emotions, mental faculties, and capabilities while staying away from worldly desires and other distractions.
It refers to the ability of the mind to see things as they are without being led astray by greed, avarice, anger and ignorance.
8. The right Concentration
This eighth principle laid down by Buddha is fundamental for proper meditation. Zazen (or, Zen meditation) is the way used in Zen to reach the right concentration or “state of mind”. Needless to add, this is the most vital of all the aspects stated in the Noble Eightfold path since, without proper meditation, an individual cannot move on to a higher level of well-being.
The Middle Way
When Buddha saw suffering for the first time, he was deeply disturbed to see death and misery in the world. He gave up his place in the darkness of the night and set out to find out the cause of all suffering.
As was the custom of the day, the Buddha gave up all worldly possessions and started living the life of an ascetic. To the extent that he tortured his body in his quest for the divine revelation. While doing so, he grew so weak in the body so as to be near death.
However, after having done so, he realized that exaggerated asceticism was not required to attain enlightenment. All the same, he was convinced that a person living a luxurious life might not be able to see things in the right perspective
After much deliberation, he came to the conclusion that an individual who seeks enlightenment in his pursuit of Nirvana needs to avoid both- sensual self-indulgence as well as self-mortification. Since he advocated avoiding both these extremes, the path laid down by him came to be known as The Middle Path.
Zen embraces the two opposites and integrates the two to bring about a condition which can help an individual reach the highest dimension, mushotoku. Zen, in contradiction to modern civilizations, is beyond any dualism.
The European civilization, on the other hand, is based on dualism. Materialism, for instance, is at cross ends with spiritualism. Buddhism, however, believes in oneness of the spirit/mind and the body. And to understand this oneness, a person must tread The Middle Path. It can help the person understand how spiritual can become material and vice versa.
By “middle”, Buddha essentially meant that we need to embrace both spiritualism as well as materialism, just like the front and back sides of a sheet of paper.
The Three Jewels
To become a Buddhist is to take refuge in the Three Jewels, also called the Three Treasures or the Three Refuges. The Three Jewels are the Buddha (The Teacher), the Dharma (The Teaching), and the Sangha (The Buddhist Community).
In Zen Buddhism, instead of looking for any external savior like Christianity, Buddhists believe one can take refuge in oneself.
The English word refuge refers to a place of shelter and protection from danger. What danger? We seek shelter from the passions that jerk us around, from feeling distressed and broken, from pain and suffering, from the fear of death.
The implication is that by finding my home in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha I can free myself from blind conditioning and realize true nature, with sincerity and commitment.
As it is said in Zen, “I take refuge in the Buddha, wishing for all sentient beings to understand the great Way profoundly and make the greatest resolve. I take refuge in the Dharma, wishing for all sentient beings to delve deeply into Satori (enlightenment), causing their wisdom to be as broad as the sea. I take refuge in the Sangha, wishing all sentient beings to lead the congregation in harmony, entirely without obstruction.”
History Of Zen
A long time ago in India, the Buddha, resolute in solving the problem of human suffering, realized Enlightenment while practicing Zen meditation under a tree.
The Buddha realized intuitively that even if we possess everything we desire, we still are often unsatisfied. This is because true happiness does not depend on what we have, but on what we are.
The Awakened One left a teaching, practice, and doctrine that everyone can experience in daily life. This is called dharma in Sanskrit.
According to tradition, the transmission of Zen from master and disciple has formed an uninterrupted ‘spiritual bloodline’ that has lasted for more than 2500 years.
In the sixth century, Buddha’s teaching was transmitted from India to China by a monk named Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese).
Since its spread to China, the Buddha’s dharma has flourished there under the name of Chan or Chinese Zen.