Buddhism has caught my attention for the past few weeks. I have been reading about the origin of Buddhism, the teachings of the buddha, and its practices. In my last post, I wrote about nurturing the Buddha Nature that secretly resides within you. In this post, I shall attempt to explain the foundations of the Buddhist path and try to answer the most common question i.e. how to practice Buddhism.
In order to practice Buddhism, you must first understand the term Buddhism.
What Is Buddhism
There are many scholars who consider Buddhism as a religion however it is nontheistic i.e. Buddhism does not have any official god or deity. Gautam Buddha, the founder of Buddhism was an ordinary man just like you and me who wanted to share his spiritual understandings and ideas.
The more I read about Buddhism I am starting to believe it is a “way of living life” rather than a religion. It is a practice to experience ultimate reality with a state of inner peace that has enormous potential for transformation, often referred to as “enlightenment”.
With this idea let us explore the core teachings of Buddhism that form the foundation of Buddhist practice.
The Four Noble Truths
The four noble truths are in essence the teachings of Buddha to liberate us from the path of suffering. It is believed that this was the first talk he gave to his disciples after he got enlightened. These four noble truths provide you a framework to attain nirvana (The final goal of Buddhism – It is a state of ultimate freedom from suffering, desire, and happiness).
First Noble Truth – There is suffering or dukkha
The term suffering does not mean extreme pain or trauma. It simply refers to the state of dissatisfaction, sadness, anxiety, stress, regrets, fear, and worry. Every human being goes through these sufferings in life. It is all around us – Isn’t it?
Second Noble Truth – There is a cause of suffering or dukkha
Buddha says there is always a “cause” for your suffering. He says if you look deep into your sufferings you would understand there are three main causes for your sufferings. He calls it three poisons or the three mental states that are the root causes of your suffering:
This is a mental state that is always craving for pleasant experiences or clinging to pleasant memories. The moment the mind notices something undesirable or particularly something it does not like then it starts resisting and fighting with it. This battle happens in the mind and leaves the individual in a constant state of agitation & tension.
The mind keeps feeding this state by creating several conditions such as “I will be happy once I have___”. This mental conditioning to escape from facing the reality only increases your suffering.
This is a mental state that follows craving. It is a state wherein you start using your ‘will’ against the natural flow of life. You try to gain control over life and its situations. You push experiences that you don’t like and often display resentment. Such rigid mental states often block the flow of energy and cause more suffering.
The confused mental state is the one that is ignorant or lacks knowledge. It is continuously lost in mental states of either craving something else or escaping reality. This can be a dangerous loop and can be one of the biggest causes of suffering.
Third Noble Truth – There is a cessation of suffering or dukkha
There is an end to all your sufferings. Buddha says if you can abandon the three mental states discussed above (that are the chief causes of suffering) then you can bring an end to suffering.
However, you can’t simply shut your mind and put an end to these mental states as they are deep-rooted in your psyche. It is only through the practice of Buddha Nature you can achieve permanent freedom from suffering.
Fourth Noble Truth – There is a path to end suffering or dukkha
Buddha shows the path or a way of living to end suffering. This path is called the Noble Eightfold Path (explained below). It is only by practicing this path you can uproot all the causes of suffering and bring an end to suffering.
As you bring an end to suffering you experience a deep sense of peace and ever joyful state which is often termed as – Buddhahood.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The eightfold path is like a prescription that Buddha offers to end suffering. This path has eight factors or qualities that you need to nurture and bring to practice in your daily life. Buddha says these are not new qualities that you need to cultivate in you. He says, you already possess these qualities however it often gets covered under the impurities of the mind.
Let’s understand these qualities and take the noble eightfold path.
1. Right View
The first factor talks about having the right understanding in life. When I say “right understanding” I am referring to having a wise perspective in life. The term “perspective” is not subjective here…so read carefully as this is the foundation of your path.
Buddha says to have a “wise perspective” you need to understand the following three qualities often referred to as “Three Marks of Existence”.
Life is constantly changing. There is nothing in life that is permanent. This is a hard truth that is difficult to accept. Due to which most people are not open to change and find immense discomfort to adapt to a changing environment.
Buddha says if you try to protect yourself from change by building invisible walls around yourself then you are heading in the direction of suffering. If you try to control events of life, manipulate situations, cling on to pleasant memories & push away undesirable circumstances then you are welcoming distress & pain to your life.
This is one of the reasons you do not experience true “freedom” as you are always tied to something and constantly live in the fear – Think about this for a moment? Don’t you think you should be open to the idea of impermanence?
Have you noticed a sense of “unsatisfaction” prevailing in your life all the time? No matter where you have reached in life and whatever you have achieved in life if you notice closely you will find some aspect of your life wherein you will experience dissatisfaction.
When you look back at the good moments of your life, you feel happy for some time however in the very next moment you feel sad & dissatisfied realizing this was your past. Again if you notice closely here – It is your idea or belief of holding on to something permanently that makes you vulnerable to dissatisfaction.
Buddha says if you can remain open to the idea of impermanence i.e. Look at life as series of events unfolding in front of you with an understanding that everything will pass then you would truly give everything to every moment of your life. Because you know you would never come across that moment again.
(iii) No Self:
No self is a translation of Pali’s word Anatta. According to buddha, the “self” that is conditioned by the mind out of the experiences is “no-self”. When you identify yourself with things (like my car, my property, my job, etc) then you cling to it and make that your “identity”. This attachment to a wrong identity causes distress and suffering.
Buddha says, if you can incorporate the above three qualities then you will have the right perspective or wise understanding. He says every other factor on the eightfold path stems from having a right view and hence considers it to be the backbone of the eightfold path.
2. Right Intention
Right intention and Right View are inextricably tied together. If you do not have the right view then you won’t have the right intentions. Buddha says there three kinds of “Right Intentions” and it is important to understand them to develop wholesome intentions instead of intentions that are governed by personal desires.
(i) The intention of renunciation:
These days the word “renunciation” is wrongly misinterpreted as “giving up on one’s desire” or abandoning life, being non-materialistic”. Buddha says you can enjoy all pleasures of your life but do not get attached to them. Do not tie your happiness to them.
The idea of renunciation is to renunciate the habit of grasping, the constant feeling of “wanting”. He wants you to understand that you are clinging to experiences that are not permanent in nature. If you don’t have these experiences and if you notice a strong sense of discontentment, emptiness, frustration – Then it is a sign of attachment to impermanent objects of desire that would lead to continuous suffering.
For instance: You go out with your friends, have a good meal come back home and the next day you feel dissatisfied thinking it’s over or when will I go out next. You buy a new car and as you are driving on the road, you notice other cars and wonder when will I upgrade to that car – This habit of craving & attachment to desires is what Buddha wants you to renunciate. You must learn to break this habit and rise above the suffering.
(ii) The intention of goodwill:
This intention centers around kindness and well-being for everyone including self. This intention stems from the fact that all beings in this world are suffering and everyone can liberate themselves from suffering. This is a deep intention that displays compassion to the suffering in others without any expectation in return.
(iii) The intention of harmlessness:
The intention of harmlessness stems from the Sanskrit word “ahimsa”. Buddha says to set intentions in a way that won’t be the cause of pain, loss, or destruction to others. It is a practice wherein you knowingly should not harm anyone.
3. Right Speech
Have you been in a situation where you said something to someone and later regretted it? I am sure you have been in such situations. There is tremendous power in your words.
Right speech is the third factor in the eightfold path, it is also called Wise Speech. Buddha says the foundation of Right Speech is based on the following four aspects:
(i) Don’t tell lies
Buddha says to refrain from speaking lies. You should practice speaking the truth. You should not try to camouflage or manipulate the truth for your benefit.
(ii) Do not engage in divisive speech
You should speak in a way that promotes harmony among people. Your speech should not create division or lead to enmity among individuals.
(iii) Do not use abusive language
Buddha says to refrain from using harsh and especially abusive language in your speech. If you have to correct someone then use words that encourage them and make them realize their mistakes.
(iv) Don’t indulge in gossips
Mindless gossips can drain your mental energy. Budhha says to stay away from such frivolous talks that have no meaning and can easily drift into criticism and backbiting.
4. Right Action
Your actions are governed by your view or moral understanding. Right action stems from the three main components of the five precepts i.e. not to kill, not to steal & not to indulge in sexual misconduct.
Buddha says you should not involve in the deliberate killing or torturing of a being. Instead, you should develop kindness and compassion for other beings.
He further says you should not steal or rob. You should practice honesty and be grateful for what has been given to them. You can strive to achieve more in life without engaging in any deceitful ways.
The third component talks about abstaining from sexual misconduct wherein Buddha says married individuals (husband & wife) should be faithful, devoted to each other, and be content with the relationship. They should work towards improving the relationships instead of violating the principle of marital union.
5. Right Livelihood
Buddha says to make a livelihood by engaging in occupations that are righteous and respect life. You should not acquire wealth and means by deceit and unscrupulous ways.
Buddha discourages certain types of works like dealing with drugs, weapons, and human trafficking for making a livelihood. He encourages everyone to engage in an occupation that promotes well-being for all, equality for everyone, and respect for life.
6. Right Effort
Effort is an important factor in the eightfold path. Effort is often equated with long hours of working, striving hard to in order to achieve your goals. However, what’s the point in putting in so much effort, if you don’t enjoy the process and are mentally exhausted or stressed about your life the whole day? Think about this for a moment.
Buddha says the idea of “Right Effort” means to choose a “Middle Path”. He gives an example of a “string instrument” (like a guitar) if the strings are too tight then it would break and if the strings are loose then you won’t be able to play any sound. Only if the strings are finely tuned then you can play the instrument. The same logic applies to your life.
According to Buddha, the notion of right effort has four aspects:
(i) Effort to prevent unwholesome qualities such as greed, anger, and ignorance:
Buddha says the “Right Effort” to prevent unwholesome qualities is to practice mindfulness to stay in the present moment. He says when you practice mindfulness you can look carefully at all these mental states. You can look closely at anger and all other emotions such as hatred, revenge that tend to rise altogether in your mind and body.
Such a practice helps you see the consequences of negative emotions on your body and actions. If mindfulness is practiced regularly in the right way then you can manage these emotions skillfully and keep the unwholesome qualities at the bay.
(ii) Effort to release the unwholesome qualities that are already within you:
As you take the effort to prevent the bad qualities, you must also take the right effort to release the unwholesome qualities that lies within you. Most people tend to repress negative feelings such as hatred, resentment, jealousy, anger, etc.
Buddha says when you push negative feelings, you strengthen them within you. He says you need to release the baggage that stored within you to find peace and joy. You don’t fight with negative feelings, you don’t struggle with them, you simply decide to let go of them i.e. when such feelings arise, you recognize them and don’t engage in them or react to them. You relax and let them pass by being mindful in that moment.
If you do this consistently every time negative feelings arise, over a period of time, you will be able to release all the ill feelings that are stored in you and experience peace within you.
(iii) Effort to cultivate wholesome qualities such as compassion and loving-kindness:
Buddha says every time negative feelings arise within you, instead of fighting or regretting them, you need to make peace with them. This simply means to accept them and be kind to yourself. You will come across situations & people in life that would evoke such feelings, take such opportunities to cultivate the qualities of self-love and compassion within you.
It is only by accepting unwholesome qualities or feelings with love you can heal yourself. This paves the way for radical self-transformation.
(iv) Effort to strengthen & maintain wholesome qualities:
Buddha advocates the right effort to practice meditation, mindfulness on a daily basis to strengthen and maintain wholesome qualities in you.
Don’t make meditation a mechanical activity i.e. like a daily chore. Instead, use meditation and mindfulness as tools to shape your character to live a more meaningful life.
7. Right Mindfulness
You must have heard the term “Mindfulness” many times – However what is “Right Mindfulness”? Does it mean that you need to be mindful at a certain time i.e. while eating or walking or working? Does it mean that you practice meditation for five minutes every two hours during the day?
According to Buddha, Right Mindfulness is a way of living. Mindfulness is not something that you practice during a particular hour of the day or while carrying out a certain activity. Mindfulness should be the way of living. Buddha teaches four foundations of mindfulness that are easy to understand and can be practiced in the right way:
Being mindful of the body
- Here you use breath as an anchor to quiet your mind and become mindful of your body, sensations that arise in your body. As your mind gets distracted in thoughts you bring it back to the present by focussing on the breath.
Being mindful of the feelings
- As you quiet, your mind notices any feelings, emotional pain that arise in your body. There can be frustration, sadness, fear, etc. As these feelings arise you simply watch them, acknowledge them and let them go.
Being mindful of the thoughts
- As you notice your feelings, they will be followed by thoughts. You may notice the inner chatter begins & you start judging, blaming, justifying. Watch these thoughts don’t feed the energy of these thoughts, just simply notice and let them pass.
Being mindful of the state of mind
- Notice as these feelings and thoughts emerge in your mind, your mind is not in peace. You enter the state of mind of confusion or dissatisfaction. However, with the right understanding and knowledge, the practice of mindfulness can overcome sorrow, pain, suffering and put you on the path of clarity and peace.
8. Right Concentration
With the practice of Right Mindfulness, one can develop the Right Concentration. The term concentration means single-pointed attention to the present moment. It is a state of mind that is not distracted but intensely focused on an object or task at hand.
There are about 8 levels of concentration and the final level is considered to be the deepest state of awareness that leads to enlightenment. The objective is not to reach the final level of enlightenment instead it is to train your mind and sharpen your concentration that can extremely beneficial in today’s time.
In essence, be open to whatever comes in your mind, don’t judge, simply be as they are, concentrate on the present moment, and trust the life unfolding in front of you.
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