Buddhism is a religion, philosophy of life and ethical framework for helping to make good moral decisions. It’s one path to spiritual fulfillment. Born more than 2500 years ago before Christ and Christianity, according to the Pew Research Center, there are about 488 million Buddhists worldwide (that’s about 7% of the world’s total population).
Buddhism has three major sects: Mahayana Buddhism is prevalent in China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam; Theravada Buddhism is common to Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia; and Tibetan Buddhism (sometimes called Vajrayana Buddhism) is practiced in Tibet, Nepal, Northern India, Bhutan and Mongolia. Each branch cherishes its own texts, myths, legends, spiritual teachers and rituals bound to the culture that has nourished and sustained it over millennia.
BUDDHISM as a PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE
Tradition suggests that after actualizing his personal enlightenment, Buddha preached his first sermon to five followers who had previously renounced him for detouring from his previous spiritual path of strict self-denial and extreme aestheticism. This first teaching would became the fundamental basis of his message and the core of the oral tradition that would evolve to become Buddhism. With less dogma and more personal sharing of his own experience, he spoke simply of Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth is that life hurts. Living includes suffering (Dukkha). Suffering includes pain, old age, illness, trauma, grief, loss, separation, anxiety, depression, fear, disappointment, fatigue and the basic stress of living… there is an underlying dissatisfaction. From birth to death… we suffer, we are wounded, we scar. Living is damaging. We mature and decay. We suffer from unmet needs. We mourn unrealized desires. This Truth is not so much negative as it’s pragmatic. The truth of suffering is that it exists. Its real and its painful. I suffer.
The Second Noble Truth is that we create our own suffering. Dissatisfaction is caused by the desires, expectations and attachments we perpetuate. We yearn for ourselves instead of the whole. We will always have suffering. Just like kids at Christmas wanting the new toy and then, having received that, will long for yet another, we seek fulfillment of our desire, just to then move on to another. All the time, our lives are only temporarily satisfied. Suffering has a cause. It can can be identified. I can understand why I suffer.
So you don’t start thinking that Buddhism is a negative or fatalistic philosophy… the next two Truths are positive, optimistic and hopeful.
The Third Noble Truth teaches that if we end our attachment to desire, we will end our suffering. Precisely: I can be free of suffering if I change my thinking. Changing my perception and reducing my attachment to desire reduces my suffering. Perception, understanding, moderation and balance are key. I can end my suffering. I have choices. I need to balance/temper my desires.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path; the road map to the end of suffering. He offers a basic set of guidelines/directions/instructions toward successful living. The key to stopping suffering is to follow a middle way – The Eight-Fold Path. Providing an alternative path to day to day living, he suggests another way that leads to the end of suffering. The path is in the mind… in our perceptions. I can lead myself to enlightenment! The Noble Eight-Fold Path is Right Understanding, Right Intent, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. I now have instruction for living. I can cultivate my own discipline, mindfulness and wisdom. Enlightenment is up to me.
I like to remember that Buddha reached his middle way after living literally from one extreme to another. As a youth and young adult, he was royalty (think: Prince Harry) enjoying tremendous wealth and abundance while well protected/insulated from the caste society surrounding him. He had complete access to every pleasure imaginable for he was a Prince destined to be the King of India. Walking away from that opulence and power, his six year spiritual journey brought him to the complete opposite kind of life literally depriving himself of the bare essentials of food and water culminating in his near death from starvation.
Buddha’s Noble Eight-Fold path suggests a way of choosing that’s neither decadent, hedonistic, over-indulgent nor extremely austere, abstinent or self-denying. I have choices regarding how I want to create my experience. Those choices originate in my mind. I need to train my mind.
The Three Characteristics of Existence as defined by Buddha are suffering, impermanence and the no unique self. Life hurts. Life is constantly in flux. What we think of as our identity… who we really “are”… is a myth. We are constantly changing from moment to moment and from incarnation to incarnation. While Buddha understood life continuing after death, he suggests it more like lighting one candle from another, the flame originates at the first flame, but the second is a consequence of the first, and not a unique reproduction of it. Essentially, we’re are our body, feelings, perceptions, ideas and consciousness… all changeable.
An early Buddhist teaching says: “What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind”.
Karma is the notion of intended action and is a dynamic concept frequently misunderstood. Karma is not fate or predestination. Rather karma is a consequence of what has gone before. In other words, today you are in circumstances because of previous thoughts and decisions…and this is an on-going, dynamic process. Essentially, new thoughts and new actions create new karma. Karma happens in this moment… in the now and it is NOT retribution for previous past life ills. (Think: we reap what we sow).
I honor Buddhist philosophy as one way to live my life.