There is a philosophy that’s been used for thousands of years all across the world by people from all walks of life to help develop a calm and ultimately overcome suffering caused by desire and ignorance.

Buddhism is a school of thought that’s often described as a religion, philosophy or simply a set of beliefs – it’s a practice of following the work and teachings of the Buddha, promoting inner peace, wisdom, and following a way of life that ultimately leads to enlightenment.

This word enlightenment can mean a lot of different things so for the purposes of this, an enlightened person sees the nature of the world around them, the people around them, and themselves with absolute clarity.

They view things just as they are, and they live in accordance with what they see. This is the goal of the Buddhist teaching, to achieve this state of being and as a result, free oneself from suffering.

To begin, I think the best way to understand the intent of the Buddhist practice is to understand who created it, and what they were trying to do.

Over 2,600 years ago, there was an Indian boy born in present day Nepal, supposedly born to a King and Queen, his wealth protected him from the outside world for much of his early years.

However early writings suggest that he became deeply moved by the suffering that seemed to be widespread through birth and death, and the endless, cyclical nature of suffering through rebirth.

Feeling so profoundly about what he was seeing, Siddharta Gautama left the walls of his home, surrendered his wealth, and began to seek a way of life that would lessen, or even remove completely, the suffering in the people he saw around him. This liberation from suffering is also called Nirvana.

On his journey he practised different meditation techniques, philosophy, fasting, and breath control, but none of these practices gave him the liberation from suffering he was after – they were not leading him to Nirvana.

As the story goes, Siddharta then took himself and sat under the leaves of a fig tree and began to meditate, he sat and waited until his meditation peeled away the layers of automatic reactions and response to thoughts and the outside world, and left him contemplating, eventually finding some of the answers he was looking for.

So….what did he find, and how can we use it in our day to day life?

Perhaps the most important teaching from the Buddha was the concept of the four noble truths. These truths are observations about reality that are observed when one has become a Noble One, or one who has reached Nirvana and can see the true nature of existence and reality. These truths are core to the path of reaching spiritual enlightenment, and they are thought to provide profound insight simply in knowing them.

These truths are as follows:

  • Dukkha – commonly translated as “suffering”, “unhappiness”, “pain”, “unsatisfactoriness” or “stress”. This is the truth that refers to the habitual experience of a mundane life as fundamentally unsatisfactory and painful. It is the understanding that suffering is an innate characteristic of existence for those who are unenlightened. This suffering is largely caused by our tendency to crave and cling to things which are impermanent, like possessions, experiences, people. In expecting happiness from states and things that are in their very nature impermanent, we can never find lasting, resilient happiness. It is always fleeting or unsure, it slips away like sand between our fingers, causing us to move onto the next thing, then the next. All in a search for something that cannot be found in the place we look for it.

  • Samudaya – translated as origin, arising, or coming together explains the cause of Dukkha, or suffering- Samudaya is the truth that the cycle of birth, suffering, and death continues because of human nature’s tendency to desire, cling to and thirst for transient and impermanent sources of happiness. This is often the craving to experience pleasure, and the craving to avoid pain. In reality, many people trying to seek pleasure in impermanent things ultimately find pain in things like addiction, and many people trying to avoid pain close themselves off to finding lasting pleasure because fear prevents them from exploring the world.

  • Nirodha translates as “cessation,” “suppression,” “renouncing,” “letting go”: this is the truth that Dukkha, or suffering, can be prevented or ceased. If a person renounces the thirst, desire, craving and clinging, stops the constant search for pleasure and the continual avoidance of pain then they can achieve Nirvana.

  • Magga is a path called the Noble Eightfold Path. It is the path leading to the confinement of tanha, craving, desire and thirst, and therefore the confinement of dukkha, suffering, stress and unhappiness. By following this path, practising self restraint, developing discipline and responsibility, practising mindfulness and meditation, a person can begin to separate themselves from craving and the clinging to impermanent things.

The eightfold paths refers to the way of understanding that the world, by its very nature, is fleeting and unsatisfying, therefore externals are not a reliable source of wellbeing and happiness. It is understanding that craving and desire are the hooks that keep us tied to the impermanent world, and therefore tied to suffering. Instead, the eightfold past promotes a friendly and compassionate attitude to others, a correct way of behaving, a conscious development of controlling the mind through learning not to cling to negative thoughts and emotions, nurturing positive thoughts and a constant awareness of feelings and responses that arise within the body and mind, and the practice of meditations.

The eight are specified as follows:

  1. Right View: our actions have consequences, death is not the end, and our actions and beliefs have consequences after death.

  2. Right Resolve or Intention: the giving up of home and adopting the life of a religious mendicant in order to follow the path; this concept aims at peaceful renunciation, into an environment of non-sensuality, non-ill-will, away from cruelty.

  3. Right Speech: no lying, no rude speech, no telling one person what another says about him to cause discord or harm their relationship

  4. Right Conduct or Action: no killing or injuring, no taking what is not given, no sexual misconduct, no material desires.

  5. Right Livelihood: no trading in weapons, living beings, meat, liquor, and poisons.

  6. Right Effort: preventing the arising of unwholesome states, and generating wholesome states

  7. Right Mindfulness – being mindful of the teachings that are beneficial to the Buddhist path

  8. Right consciousness – practising meditation

Some of this isn’t feasible or reasonable for those of us with jobs, families and commitments preventing us from giving up our homes and living a monastic life, but there is a lot of wisdom in Buddhism that can help us get a little closer to Nirvana, reduce suffering in our life and learn to cultivate habits that not only prevent us from falling into the trap of desires attachment and craving, but help us develop habits that develop compassion, understanding, and a greater wellbeing in our day to day life – even if it’s as simple as a daily meditation practice.

During this time in mediation Siddhartha, now a fully enlightened Buddha, came to believe that the way to enlightenment is found in a practice called the middle way: this can be split into two separate practices.

The first aspect of the middle way is the spiritual practice that steers clear of both extreme asceticism and the surrender to desire. This promotes a balance.

Where asceticism promotes a lifestyle of abstinence, the rejection of possessions, and the practice of voluntary hardship or fasting. And where indulgence has one openly submit to whatever passion, desire or impulse they might have. The middle way promotes a balance of the two – the path to enlightenment is not found in either extreme, but somewhere in the middle, and it’s likely that this perfect balance will differ from person to person, and it’s for us to find. Each of us will know when we’re being too indulgent, and each of us will know when we’ve gone too far into abstinence.

The second aspect of the middle way is a more philosophical one, and concerns how we view the nature of our existence. The teaching of the Buddha again warns about extremes; in this case the extremes of annihilationism and eternalism.

Where annihilationism is the belief that the self or soul is completely annihilated upon death. And where eternalism is the belief that there is an ever present, eternal and unchanging self that transcends the cycle of birth and death.

The issues with annihilationism are such that it can lead to nihilism in an individual. Where nihilism is the view that rejects fundamental aspects of human existence, believing that human values are baseless, that life is meaningless, that knowledge is impossible.

The issues with eternalism being that if one believes the self is ever-present and unchanging, it may lead to the belief that one cannot change who they are, that they are not malleable or flexible, therefore not capable of moving from a state of suffering or destruction, to a state of enlightenment and wellbeing.

This led to the middle idea that a person can change their nature, moving closer and closer to enlightenment, and that they will carry that change with them into the next life.

Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, I personally don’t, I do still think that the belief that a person has the ability to change their nature for the better is a constructive one. Where eternalism is an unhelpful one. And I also believe that the belief that life does have a meaning is a helpful one. Where nihilism is an unhelpful one. Where you get this meaning will vary from person to person – some find it in Karma – like the Buddhists – some find it in God – like many theistic religions – others simply find it by deciding what the meaning of life will be.

I hope you found something here that you can use, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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