The teachings of the Buddha are synopsised in the four noble truths. “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach”, declared the Buddha 2,500 years ago. So, in lay person’s terms, what’s it all about and how does Buddhism teach calm and joy? My understanding is as follows.
The truth of suffering
It may sound a bit miserable and pessimistic, but suffering is all around us. Bear with me. Apart from the obvious hardships of old age, sickness and death, life is full of unfulfilled plans, shattered dreams and yearning for things to be better. Seriously, don’t stop reading just yet.
The truth of the origin of suffering
The Buddha taught that basically, the reason we suffer is because of desire or a yearning for things to be different. This is broken down into: greed – we want more of what we think will make us happy; delusion – we are ignorant when it comes to what will actually bring us happiness; and hatred – a rather hyperbolic term for being unkind to others.
The cessation of suffering
At last, some good news! The Buddha taught that the way to extinguish desire, which causes suffering, is to liberate oneself from attachment: liberation from the constant yearning for things to be different, and the yearning for things which we believe will eventually help us to finally reach our “goal” of happiness.
We often feel that once this goal is reached or that event happens, we will finally be happy. Once I have that dream job, it will be OK. Once I have x number of kids, I will feel complete. So long as there’s great snow on that skiing holiday, it will be a good holiday. Once the pandemic ends, life will return to normal and we’ll all live happily ever after. If we can let go of our attachment to these ideals and instead allow the ups and downs of life to happen non-judgementally, life really does become far less disappointing. Once those disappointments are gone, it’s easier to appreciate the many tiny, good things which previously went unnoticed.
If things are tough, just notice the sadness. It won’t last. If things are rosy, notice the joy. It won’t last.
Everything changes, nothing stays the same and that’s OK. Learning to accept the impermanence of everything helps us to ride the ups and downs without the need to judge every event as “good” or “bad”. It stops us desperately trying to hold onto a good moment as it fades into the past. It prevents us from trying to race to the end of the pandemic only to be hit in the face with another new variant setback.
The path to the cessation of suffering
So, how do we do it – achieving Nirvana and everything along the way? Well, the Eightfold Path is not something to be undertaken lightly. There are no shortcuts and, to be honest, we are unlikely to reach full enlightenment or Nirvana.
But the reason behind at least being educated about the path is because knowing about it leads to enough emotional nourishment that it encourages even the busiest of us to give part of it a shot. And, in giving it a shot, the effects are immediately noticeable. Otherwise, how else would mindfulness have achieved so much acclaim?
The eight stages are not to be taken in order, but rather support and reinforce each other:
Right understanding: accepting Buddhist teachings. Basically, reading this synopsis and deciding if it can guide you
Right intention: a commitment to cultivate the right attitudes
Right speech: speaking truthfully, avoiding slander, gossip and abusive speech. This can be hard to do
Right action: behaving peacefully and harmoniously
Right livelihood: avoiding making a living in ways that cause harm, such as exploiting people, drug dealing, etc. Hopefully, for most of us, this is relatively easy to do
Right effort: cultivating positive states of mind. This doesn’t just happen because we yearn for it. We have to put in the effort and the hours. For many of us, that means an hour less sleep every night so we can meditate pre-dawn. For others of us, it means a conscious effort to spend 10 minutes every day in mini meditation.
Right mindfulness: developing awareness of the body, sensations, feelings and states of mind. See Veterinary Practice November 2019 to February 2020 for an introduction to mindful meditation
Right concentration: developing the mental focus necessary for this awareness. Meditation takes practice. It gets easier each time you do it
The eight stages can be grouped into wisdom (right understanding and intention), ethical conduct (right speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (right effort, mindfulness and concentration). The Buddha described the Eightfold Path as a means to enlightenment, like a raft for crossing a river. Once one has reached the opposite shore, one no longer needs the raft and can leave it behind.
The vast majority of us will never reach the opposite shore. But the gentle cruising on the river is worth the effort it takes to get onto the raft.