The following is an essay I wrote for my religions course at university, enjoy!
A pillar of the Buddha’s teaching is suffering. In our course textbook, “Living Religions” by Mary Pat Fischer, she writes “In his very first talk on Dharma at Sarnath, the Buddha set forth the Four Noble Truths, the foundation for all his later teachings: The truth of pain and suffering, The truth of the arising of pain, The truth of the cessation of pain, The truth of the path to end pain: The Noble Eightfold Path.” (Fisher Mary Pat. (p. 142) Living Religions) The Four Noble Truths outline the causes of human suffering, and The Noble Eightfold Path offers the solution for ceasing that suffering.
The First Noble Truth identifies the existence of Dukkha; meaning pain, suffering, or dissatisfaction. The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha is caused by craving sensory pleasures; fame, fortune, attachment to worldly things and ideas, etc. We are ignorant to the motivations behind our cravings, and this creates suffering. The Third Noble Truth is that Dukkha will stop when craving and clinging stop. This is easier said than done. Especially considering we don’t understand why we are attached to things and ideas or why we experience cravings. And finally, The Fourth Noble Truth is that suffering can be stopped by following The Noble Eightfold Path. Having outlined the causes of suffering, Buddha goes a step further to lay out instructions on ending the suffering. (Reference: Fisher Mary Pat. (p. 143) Living Religions).
The Noble Eightfold Path allows humans to stop experiencing Dukkha, suffering, and to break free from the cycle of death and rebirth, to experience nirvana. Again, from our textbook, “Living Religions”, the author provides the following excerpts outlining the basics of the Noble Eightfold Path.
“The first aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path is right understanding — comprehending reality correctly through deep realization of the Four Noble Truths.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). This means developing a proper perceptual map. We have to see the world correctly, through a clear mind, free from the bias and programming of society.
“The second aspect is right thought or intention. The Buddha’s teachings help us to uncover any afflictive emotions that affect our thinking, such as selfish desires or a tendency to hide our imperfections.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). This is saying we must let go of our ego-centric thinking and self-interest. Thinking and engaging with the world, not for self-gain, but for a higher purpose.
“The third aspect is right speech. The Buddha taught his followers to relinquish the propensity to lie, gossip, speak harshly, or engage in divisive speech, and instead to use communication in the service of truth and harmony.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). This is one of the most important aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. It says to speak properly, and positively. But there is also an understanding of when it is best to say nothing.
“The fourth aspect is right action, which begins with observing the five basic precepts for ethical conduct: to avoid destroying life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxicants.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). The five basic precepts can be thought of similar to the 10 commandments. It is a more compact set of rules to live by but encompasses a lot of the same morals.
“The fifth is right livelihood — making sure that one’s way of making a living does not violate the five precepts.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). This aspect is particularly interesting when applied to 21st century western society, where an emphasis is placed on securing a high paying job to provide security. Although these jobs do not inherently violate the five basic precepts, the capitalist nature of American jobs oppose Buddhist teachings.
“Right effort, the sixth aspect, means striving continually to eliminate the impurities of the mind and diligently cultivating wholesome actions of body, speech, and mind.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). The sixth aspect is one of the more lighthearted of the eight. It simply requests joyful effort. This explains the stereotype that Buddhist are always smiling and happy, even while doing simple task.
“The seventh aspect, right mindfulness, is a distinctive feature of the Buddhist path.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). This awareness is a pillar of Buddhist practice. Being fully conscious of the moment at hand. Mindfulness takes intention and a lifetime of practice, maybe a few lifetimes.
“The eighth aspect, right meditation, applies mental discipline to quiet the mind and develop single-pointed concentration. The various schools of Buddhism that developed over the centuries have taught different techniques of meditation, but this basic principle remains the same.” (Fisher Mary Pat (p. 144) Living Religion). Meditation is perhaps the most widespread practice of Buddhism, though it was also used in other religions around the world under different names like prayer, chanting, yoga, etc. All of these practices are essentially meditations.
According to the Buddha, by following the guidelines provided in The Noble Eightfold Path, one can cease their own experiencing Dukkha, and eventually end the cycle of rebirth and death completely. It may take several lifetimes and incarnations to perfect one’s practice of following The Noble Eightfold Path. With each rebirth one should strive to live better than their previous incarnation.
As described in our textbook, “Living Religions”, Zen Buddhism emphasizes direct insight into the true nature of one’s own mind, to reveal one’s own Buddha nature. (Fisher Mary Pat. (p. 160) Living Religions) In “The Spirit of Zen” by Solala Towler, he writes “Each of us has our own unique embodiment and expression of Zen. Each time someone sits down on a cushion or a bench and enters deep meditation… each time someone brews and shares a cup of tea with grace and humility… each time a teacher instructs his or her student on the Way… each time someone let’s go of their egoic self and instead embraces their eternal self, each time someone shares what they have learned and unlearned on their quest for spiritual understanding…” (The Spirit of Zen (P. 19) Solala Towler) This ties in with the seventh aspect of The Noble Eightfold Path, which covers mindfulness. This excerpt is emphasizing the practice of mindfulness and awareness in all task. By engaging in this constant practice, one can become a Buddha in their own regard.
In “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh, he writes “There is a science called Buddhology, the study of the life of the Buddha. As an historical person, the Buddha was born in Kapilavastu, near the border between India and Nepal, got married, had one child, left home practice many kinds of meditation became enlightened and share the teaching until he died at the age of eighty. But there is also the Buddha within ourselves who transcend space and time. This is the living Buddha, the Buddha the ultimate reality, the one who transcends all ideas and notions and is available to us at any time. The living Buddha was not born at Kapilavastu, nor did he pass away at Kushinagar.” (Living Buddha, Living Christ” (P. 34–35) Thich Nhat Hanh) The author goes on to explain how there is also Christology, the study of the life of historical Jesus, as well as the Living Christ. The point of explaining the difference in the historical and living Buddha or Jesus is to show us how we can access their wisdom and embody their teachings.
Hermann Hesse tells a fictional story based on the historical Buddha’s life in the classic novel, “Siddhartha” which was Buddha’s birthname. In the novel he writes “Siddhartha had a single goal before him, one and one only: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dreams, empty of joy and pain. To die away from himself, no longer to be I, to find the peace of the emptied heart, by thinking away from the self to stand open to the miraculous: this was his goal. When the entire I was conquered and dead, when every passion, every drive in the heart was still, then the ultimate had to awaken, what was innermost, most essential in being, that which is no longer I, the great secret” (Siddhartha (P. 13) Hermann Hesse) This is a beautiful representation of the Buddha realizing the Noble Eightfold Path. In the novel, Siddhartha sets out to do exactly this, though his journey takes a different turn from the historic accounts.
Outside of Buddhism, other philosophers around the world had different interpretations of suffering. The Stoics in ancient Rome and Greece did not believe in reincarnation like the Buddhist. They saw this life as the only opportunity to express free will. This fundamental difference leads to two very different philosophical paths. In “The Obstacle Is The Way” by Ryan Holiday, a modern stoic book, he writes “Most of the time we don’t find ourselves in horrible situations we must simply endure. Rather we face some minor disadvantage or get stuck with some less-than-favorable conditions. Or we’re trying to do something really hard and find ourselves outmatched, overstretched, or out of ideas. Turn it around. Find some benefit. Use it as fuel.” (The Obstacle is The Way (P. 4) Ryan Holiday) This call to action is very different from the solution provided by the Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path. Instead of living our lives with purpose to negate the existence of suffering, the Stoics tell us to embrace the suffering and use it to our advantage. There is no emphasis placed on ending the suffering.
American culture is more similar to the Stoics culture, so their guide to dealing with suffering relies on understandings I possess as a Westerner. Buddhist thinking requires an understanding of Eastern philosophy, if it is to be successfully adapted. The Buddha was far ahead of his time with his understanding of suffering, its causes and the remedy. The Noble Eightfold Path is a beautiful guide to living properly. There is no religious dogma attached, or oppressive rules to follow. If applied properly to current times, The Noble Eightfold Path can allow one to cease suffering.
1. “Living Religions” by Mary Pat Fischer
2. “The Spirit of Zen” by Solala Towler
3. “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh
4. “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse
5. “The Obstacle Is The Way” by Ryan Holiday