By Molly F, GGY 2019
Buddhism has always been a word in my vocabulary, but after the past few weeks of really diving into the deep wisdom of this way of life, I finally have strengthened my knowledge and relationship to this beautiful religion. All of the information below that is sourced outside myself is from the following sources: Buddhism for Beginners by Tai Morello, interviews with local Nan monks including Montrthat Yananboonsiri. I have had an incredible time visiting temples, interviewing various monks, observing my Buddhist host family, and spending most nights reading about the science that is Buddhism. In a country where over 95% of the residents are Buddhist, I have really enjoyed expanding my own personal relationship to this religion among so many spiritual people. Below I will outline the basic back story of Siddhartha Guatama, as well as the following core pieces to Buddhist beliefs: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Five Precepts. If you scroll far enough, you will also find a little blurb about my thoughts on some of these ideas.
Siddhartha’s Story: Birth of Buddhism
Born in Nepal around 480 BC, Siddhartha Guatama entered this world, shortly to become recognized at the end of his life as the Buddha, a title meaning either “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One”. Although the exact details of his life are scientifically unknown, different Buddhist sects have created many different versions of his life story. After reading several different articles and books, I found a common thread through all the different stories, which I will explain below.
Siddhartha was born to the king and a queen of a specific kingdom. These parents chose an interesting way to raise Siddhartha: they decided to shield him from all things unpleasant in the world. From birth, Siddhartha was not exposed to any sick, ill, ugly people or things (think ill servants, ugly commoners, wilting flowers, etc). His parents went to great extremes to keep the palace completely rid of any unpleasantness. This couldn’t last forever, though. At the age of 29, Siddhartha reached his peak of complete boredom and frustration with his sheltered life and decided to explore what’s outside the palace walls. He had a deep curiosity not only to see wanted to see if life outside was different, but also to explore the kingdom which he was going to inherit, so he snuck out of the palace several times with his loyal attendant.
This was his first encounter with the real world, a world full of life and death, healthy and extremely ill. Siddhartha had to ask his attendant what these “creatures” were (just sick people), and finally stumbled on a dead man. His attendant explained the concept of death, that everyone will eventually die, and Siddhartha was quite taken aback. Thinking of all the people he loved and cared for and knowing that one day they will all pass away, he sunk into a deep depression.
He eventually met an old, sick man and observed that he was filled with a surprising amount of inner peace, despite his circumstances. Siddhartha realized that although death, old age, sickness, etc. are unavoidable, suffering was completely different and potentially avoidable completely.
Siddhartha then sought out many spiritual teachers and mentors, all who taught him about different forms of meditations and yoga. He mastered these things, yet still felt somewhat empty, as if he was really missing something from his life. He eventually studied under mentors who were extremists, teaching him how to mortify the flesh. These methods were very extreme and almost cost Siddhartha his life. He became so skeletal and weak that he was quite convinced death was just around the corner. He decided to prepare for his death, only to be discovered by a village girl. She realized he could still live, and her family nursed him back to life.
He had a realization. His overly sheltered life was extremely unsatisfying because the way he was living was accomplishing nothing and serving no one. However, on the other hand, a life of extreme deprivation was not accomplishing anything or serving anyone either. He knew that in that moment that there must be a balance between the two. A Middle Way. This became his guiding principal. In an interview with a monk at a local temple in Nan, Thailand, I was told a metaphor for the concept of the Middle Way: just like a guitar, if the strings are too tight or too loose, they will either snap or not make a sound. We must find the balance, the true path that lies between indulgence and deprivation.
At age 35, Siddhartha was still not satisfied with all of his learning from all these different teachers, even the ones he sought out who were not extremists. He decided that he must sit down under a tree and meditate non-stop until he discovered “the truth”. This took 49 days, and on the last day the truth came to him. Urged to tell his former teachers, he made his way to the Indian city called Varanasi. He found out his teachers had passed away, and then decided to sit and meditate as people walked by him. A very famous parable in Buddhism describes the next part of the story as follows:
“Passersby were impressed by the depth of his meditation, so when he finally came out of it, they asked him if he was a god.
He said ‘no’.
They then asked him if he was a messenger of a god, a holy being, or a prophet of some sort, but he said ‘no’ to each. They then asked him what he was, to which he replied,
‘I am awake.’ ”
And as the story goes, that is how the Siddhartha got his title of “Buddha”, meaning the Awakened One.
The connecting belief for Buddhists is Siddhartha’s alleged experience, whether it is even accurate is irrelevant. A monk advised me other day that, yes there are many different versions of this story, but you are supposed to believe in what helps you the most. It seems that Buddhists are not too concerned about the accuracy of the details, but rather the picture that all those details paint. The stories, the lessons, and the wisdom: these are the things that matter the most about the story of the Buddha. Theravada Buddhism, the type of Buddhism widely practiced here in Thailand, stresses the importance of the teachings that come straight from the Buddha. Originally written and taught in Pali, the language of the Buddha, the 4 Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, and 5 Precepts are the pillars of how to live life as a Buddhist.
Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are the pillars of the Buddhist philosophy regarding suffering. The Buddhist view of suffering is something quite unique, and sets this religion apart from the rest in my eyes. It goes as follows:
1) The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha)
2) The Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Samudaya)
3) The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
4) The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga)
Through the four noble truths, the Buddha identifies the obstacle of our life: suffering. He identifies its presence, cause, cure, and then outlines the way to achieve a release from suffering, also known as the Eightfold Path.
DUKKHA: Suffering is Inevitable
The first Noble Truth. The very general sense of unease, dissatisfaction, and suffering is what Buddhism refers to as “dukkha”. The origin of this word came from the meaning of a badly made wagon wheel- one where the hole where the axle is fitted is very off-center, therefore causing quite a bumpy ride. If you don’t fix or replace this wheel, it will eventually break and everything else with follow down the same unpleasant path.. so the main idea behind dukkha is that something is off in our minds. We are looking at things sideways. We are off center.
As humans, we have the power to create even more suffering in our lives but trying to avoid/suppress these difficult emotions. Our lives are sprinkled with our fair share of unpleasant feelings such as loss, sadness, boredom, anxiety, fear, etc. Attaching to expectations, material items, and emotional states are usually the cause for things like frustration, disappointment, and a sense of emptiness. So rather than fearing the presence of these forms of suffering, the Buddha tells us to simply recognize our suffering. We must expect that death, sickness, suffering, and loss are a part of life. We are told to practice acceptance in the face of strife. We must stop attaching to the idea that life should be easy and pain free, whether that be emotional or physical. Bottom line, we must open our hearts to uncertainty, because that is all we can put trust in. We will always run into the opportunity of suffering, whether it is plain old suffering, suffering as a result of change, or background suffering. The Buddha does not prescribe a way to remove the pain of a broken foot or a broken heart, however he does give advice on the way to transform the way we experience and respond to the many ups and downs of life.
One of the key insights of Buddhism is the fact that our emotional/mental states come about due to causes and conditions. My take on this second Noble Truth is similar to what I wrote above: the cause of suffering is ignorance and something Buddhist teachings refer to as “neurosis”. The form of neurosis his teachings refers to is a combination of passion, aggression, and confusion. It is the attachment to objects, people, and experiences that we want to possess. We are attracted to possessing certain things because it typically makes us experience pleasure, but through subconscious or conscious attachment, we trap ourselves into the experience of dukkha.
Basically, if you set up the right conditions for suffering, then you will have the experience of suffering. That gets us to our next Noble Truth.
Like I just stated, if we set up the right conditions for suffering, then you will have the experience of suffering. Likewise, what the third Noble Truth says is that if we set up the right conditions for eliminating suffering and experiencing freedom, we will have the experience of freedom from suffering. If we practice constant awareness of our mind, seeing the patterns of attachment, expectation, ignorance, we will begin to give ourselves more space to respond in a different way to any given thing in our human experience. So often we try to solidify the experience of our ever-changing life, and if we avidly try to embrace all of the ever-present change, we can give ourselves even freedom to not engage in suffering.
Magga refers to the set of principles on how to live an ethical lifestyle as a path to the cessation of suffering. The eight principles are:
1) Right View
2) Right Intention
3) Right Speech
4) Right Action (5 precepts)
5) Right Livelihood
6) Right Effort
7) Right Mindfulness
8) Right Concentration
Cisco is publishing a post explaining each aspect of this path, so I will briefly explain the main gist of this last Noble truth.
The main idea behind morality in Buddhism is ahimsa, or non-harm/ non-violence. According to the Buddha, living a moral life is about not harming yourself or others in thought, word, and deed. If we were to intentionally do something to harm ourselves or others (especially in our thoughts), we have then fallen captive to neurosis: passion, aggression, or confusion.
With this being said, the Eightfold path is a set of ethical guidelines to live your life by in order to avoid suffering. All the steps are meant to be equally valued and implemented into your daily decisions, not stressing one more than another.
These eight principles are typically understood in three different sections: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Concentration.
Wisdom: Right View, Right Intention
Ethical Conduct: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood
Concentration: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration
There is a way to live your life in a mindful and intentional way, with conscious wisdom, ethical conduct, and concentration. Check out Cisco’s blog to read about the details of each principle.
The Five Precepts are five extremely important rules of training regarding one’s morality. They are as follows:
1) To abstain from taking life
2) To abstain from taking what is not given
3) To abstain from sensuous misconduct
4) To abstain from false speech
5) To abstain from intoxicants as tending to cloud the mind
ABSTAIN FROM TAKING LIFE
This first precept refers to ending the life of any living beings. “Taking life” requires the will to kill anything that is perceived as living. Regarding animals, Buddhist believe that it is worse to kill larger animals than small, however, neither is great. This is because it takes more effort to kill a larger animal, therefore a stronger will to terminate its life.
ABSTAIN FROM TAKING WHAT IS NOT GIVEN
The second precept regards to “taking what is not given”. The act of taking what is not yours is the will to steal something that one perceives as belonging to someone else. According to most Buddhist traditions, this crime involves five factors: someone’s belongings, the awareness that those belongings are not yours, the thought of theft, the action of carrying it out, and the taking away as a result.
I believe these precepts can be applied in any sort of way that resonates with you. The other day I was on a hike through some caves in Nan, and I found this beautiful stick- I’m serious, it was a small branch with a texture that I had never encountered before. I decided to hold onto it for the rest of the hike, thinking I might take it home after… however, as we were nearing the end, these Buddhist precepts on my mind, I decided that for some reason it felt wrong to take it. This stick belongs to nature and it simply was not given to me, and therefore not in my place to take. This is an extremely small example of what potential “theft” could look like, and probably to most reading this, you see nothing wrong with taking a tiny little stick home (I know I typically would never have even second guessed myself about it). But for some reason, I knew in my gut that I must leave it here, and I can’t explain it much beyond that.
.ABSTAIN FROM SENSUOUS MISCONDUCT
Abstaining from sensuous misconduct here refers to these four factors: someone who should not be “gone into”, the thought of sexual misconduct, the actions which lead to such sexual misconduct, and its actual performance. Some Buddhists believe that this offence becomes more serious depending on how moral and virtuous the person transgressed against is. All in all, this precept is pretty self explanatory.
ABSTAIN FROM FALSE SPEECH
Oh lying… “false speech” refers to the effort to deceive others through words or deeds. The seriousness of this offense is circumstantial of course, but most Buddhists make it a point to speech as truthfully as possible all of the time. What good are you putting out into the world by trying to deceive someone through falsity in your speech? In your actions? Typically these actions just put us in traps, with ourselves and the universe. What is the motivation behind the lie? Most likely it can be described with some type of attachment to something. And what do attachments do? They are the root of suffering for both ourselves and others.
ABSTAIN FROM INTOXICANTS AS TENDING TO CLOUD THE MIND
The last precept states to refrain from engaging in intoxicants that cloud the mind and cause mindlessness. Drugs and alcohol are so, so common in our society and social culture. However, when we take in these intoxicants, the Buddhist teachings point out that we are causing our own heedlessness. If our judgment is clouded and we are not able to make mindful decisions, we are much more likely to not act in the best interest of those around us, as well as ourselves. When lubricated with some intoxicants, we may think we are being spontaneous and authentic, however we actually become slaves of the neurotic and ego-clinging mind. The Buddha’s advice for this is to simply not engage.
The five precepts are something that my host family hold very true to their hearts. In fact, when I was asking them about their Buddhist faith, their first response was regarding the importance following these five guidelines no matter what.
From the many small chunks of Buddhist literature that my dad likes to randomly grace with me, along with now being immersed in a country where over 95% of the people follow the Buddhist lifestyle, I am taking a real dive into my own experience of Buddhism.
As I mentioned earlier, what makes the Buddhist philosophy so unique is its approach to the idea of suffering, as well as the idea of impermanence. Texts make it very clear that the Buddha never looked for a cure for things like sickness, old age, and death. Instead, he discovered a way to just understand suffering, its origin and causes, and how to approach it when it comes your way. The causes of suffering, however, are not actually things produced in the external world like war, famine, pestilence… The real root of our own suffering is the nature of our own minds. Our minds are inherently undisciplined. They are programmed to create delusions which lead us only to have preconditioned responses (physical/emotional) which in turn causes us individual suffering.
In order to undo our preconditioned responses and re-train our minds, we can attempt to unravel our own delusions… and the first step is simply observing the behavior of our own mind. Its patterns, habits, and assumptions. Then, through practicing mindfulness, we can become more familiar with the way each of our unique brains function. All of our knowledge in our bodies comes from our experience in our human body. The nature of our experience as humans is having a conscious life filled with ever-flowing and changing thoughts and emotions. It is extremely easy to get distracted with wants and desires, both consciously and subconsciously. Here is where meditation can really step in: we can create an opportunity to make a break in our preconditioned minds. We can create a space in between the craving and the grasping of these desires. With a trained mind, we will be able to open that gap up so much that we can stop the chain of events (of attachments/wants/desires) completely.
This is what I am working on right now: being extremely cautious with the way my mind likes to set expectations that cause me to subconsciously attach to outcomes in the future. This is so dangerous because the future is utterly unknown and out of our control. I am already finding a lot of freedom and space within myself as I give everything up to the Universe. We are here simply to experience what the world throws at us, and if we do this in a mindful way, there is no doubt we can reduce our suffering.
I will leave you with this anonymous quote: “Things are as they are, we suffer because we imagined different.”
Things really are just what they are, nothing more and nothing less. We hold all the power in our minds to intentionally release ourselves from the delusions that hold us captive and cause us suffering. There is a freer, much simpler life out there waiting for us. One free of attachment where we accept life as it is and ourselves as we are, working with nothing but loving-kindness.