As I write about Buddhism, I often find myself trying to avoid jargon or words that will not make sense to people who have not encountered Buddhism before or who don’t know much about it. However, there are times when I can’t avoid that so I decided to put together a short list of some of the terms or ideas that I write about and put them here.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is the original message of the Buddha. After he had his enlightenment experience and understood the way to deal with suffering, this is what he taught.
- Life is suffering — The word “suffering” here is a translation of an ancient word dukkha. This word has a lot more to it than what we add to the word suffering in English. Dukkha means a sense of disjointedness or that something is just not right. It includes a general unhappiness about life. One word I have seen used to translate dukkha is “disquietude”.
- Suffering is caused by attachment to desires — This is the answer to the question “what is suffering”. I’ll expand on the idea of attachment later. For now, this can be understood a statement that everything changes and we have two responses to that: first, we don’t want things to change and second, we do want things to change because they are unpleasant in their current form. Either way, we create suffering because our minds are in turmoil because of the impermanence of everything in life (more on impermanence later).
- Suffering is stopped when attachment to desires is stopped — This is the answer to the question “what do we do about suffering”. The Buddha taught that once we realize we are suffering we can find the cause of our suffering (that’s the second truth up there) and once we know the cause, we can find the solution (that’s this truth here). Suffering will cease when attachment ceases. There’s actually a list of 12 different components that make up attachment to desires and stopping that attachment. I’ll dig into all 12 later.
- Freedom from suffering can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path — At this point, we know that there is a problem, we know the cause of the problem, we see a solution for the problem but how do you put that solution into practice? That’s the fourth noble truth. The Eightfold Path is a set of steps one takes in every part of ones life in order to alleviate suffering. If you haven’t figured it out already, Buddhism is big on lists. It’s only fitting that the fourth item on this list is actually a list of eight different things. Let’s look at those now.
The eightfold path is a set of steps one takes in each part of ones life in order to alleviate suffering. They are listed below.
- Right View
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Meditation
Everything makes total sense now right? With the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, you’re ready to go out and end all suffering. Simple huh? Oh, you want more? You want to know what this stuff actually means? OK, read on.
This means to look at life and understand it just as it is. Right View is an understanding of the way that reality works. When one starts to practice Right View, it brings into focus just how much we go through life trying to hide behind wishes and desires and delusions.
Right Thought is the application of Right View to one’s thinking. Each of us has opinions and we are often very attached to them. We have likes and dislikes and have very strong feelings about them. We have our condition and situation in life and we often use there to identify and define our selves. Right Thought means not becoming attached to any of these views or holding on to our opinions condition and situation.
When we are are attached to our opinions, thoughts, desires and condition we often do whatever we can to defend those things. A lot of time, this comes through in our words. We use our tongues to do great harm. Some of the deepest emotional blows I have ever had come from being the recipient of unkind words. Right Speech means in each moment being careful to about what the tongue does. It means using your tongue to help people with clear, compassionate speech. If you have Right View and Right Thought, Right Speech will naturally arise because you will no longer feel compelled to use your words to defend your attachments.
Whatever we do in the world is a reflection of our thinking. Our thoughts are powerful motivators and our actions are taken to support and enhance those thoughts. Just as words are used to defend attachments, actions are too. This is the point where the Buddhist precepts come into play. They are prescribed actions that assist us in living a life that reduces rather than enhances suffering. Not killing, not lying, not stealing, not having illegitimate sexual relations and not taking intoxicants to produce heedlessness (that’s a big word I know but I’m taking these directly from my school’s list and that’s the word they use).
Everyone has something that they do in life. I work as a computer programmer in the Intranet department of a large hospital. Yesterday, I drove by a guy whose job was to fill a big hole in the road with new pavement. There were a bunch of other guys there who had similar jobs making the road something safe for me to drive on. One of the biggest political issues here in the U.S. is jobs and joblessness. It’s amazing how much emphasis we put on a person’s livelihood. When getting to know someone, one of the first questions we ask them is, “what do you do?” Right Livelihood means having a job that does not add to suffering. Just as there are jobs that help people, there are jobs that add to the suffering in the world. Jobs that involve killing or polluting or dealing with harmful substances also exist. What you choose to do to provide for yourself and your family is your personal choice but one should answer the question “Why do that?” before choosing a profession. If it is clear that suffering will not be increased if you choose a particular job then it is Right Livelihood.
I am going to quote from The Compass of Zen on this one. Zen Master Seung Sahn had this to say about Right Effort on page 102.
Right Effort means always trying hard in your meditation practice. Sick or healthy, busy or free, tired or rested—it does not matter. Only try, try, try, for ten thousand years, nonstop. Only do it. That is all!
I don’t think I can add much to that. If that’s all Zen Master Seung Sahn had to say about Right Effort, I’m not going to heap more words onto the topic.
In every situation, we have a choice about how we respond. We can follow our thinking, desire, anger and ignorance and get suffering in that situation or we can choose to see a situation clearly and pay attention to the reality of where we are in that situation. Doing only what needs to be done and not bringing extra baggage into the situation is Right Mindfulness. It is a singlemindedness that keeps us on track with the situation at this moment. If I were not practicing Right Mindfulness, it would be very difficult for me to write this down. My mind would be so unfocused that I would not be able to put words together in a way that makes sense to a reader.
Here’s the biggie. When you think of Buddhism (specifically Zen Buddhism in my case) you think of meditation. Meditation is an action that Buddhists (should) take every day. It’s an act of sitting down and clearing the mind and being attentive to the reality of ones situation. It’s an amazing exercise that brings one to a solid understanding of the functioning of the mind. However, this is not all that there is to meditation. Once again, to quote from Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Right Meditation means from moment to moment keeping a not-moving mind. In any situation and any condition, keep a mind that is clear like space, yet that functions as meticulously as the tip of a needle.” Whatever situation we are in, a quiet and clear mind is the greatest tool at our disposal to put the other seven aspects of this path into practice. The physical act of meditation teaches us what this mind should look like but we are to keep that mind with us once we leave the meditation cushion. Otherwise, we’re just setting aside some time to sit on our butts and relax (not that there’s anything wrong with relaxing from time to time).
And that is the Eightfold Path. Pretty heady stuff isn’t it? So far, I’ve used a lot of words to describe what Buddhism is but there’s no comparison to actually putting it into practice. Without a practice, what we have here are just bits of data and pixels on a screen. To really understand the Eightfold Path, you need to live it so get busy.