Ven. Saddhatissa, The Buddha’s Way. P.37*
Gautama was not a god, a prophet or any kind of supernatural being. He was, as we have seen, one who was born, lived and died a human being. But a remarkable human being, who discovered a way of achieving true wisdom, compassion and freedom from suffering. Rather he rediscovered a very old way that had always existed.
The Buddha did not teach that a God created the Universe. Rather he pointed to a great Law or Dharma running through everything that exists. It is by living in accordance with this Law that true Wisdom and compassion and hence freedom from suffering may be achieved. Suffering may only be overcome, however, by being met and endured. In the Buddha's words: 'Suffering I teach and the way out of suffering.' Fundamental Buddhist doctrines include the following:
(1) Change (2) Suffering (3) no" I "
As regards the second Sign, we have already seen how it was Suffering that sent the Buddha off on his great spiritual quest, though suffering is not a very good translation of the original word, dukkha. Dukkha implies the generally unsatisfactory and imperfect nature of life. Please do not think, though, that Buddhists believe that life is all suffering. They believe that there is joy in life, but know that life can't be all joy; even in the most fortunate of lives there must be suffering.
No-I, the third Sign, is a little more difficult.
Take the analogy of a cart. A cart may be broken down into its basic components -axle, wheels, shafts, sides, etc. Then the cart is no more; all we have is a pile of components. In the same way 'I' am made up of various elements or aggregates (skandhas): form (body), perception, conception, volition and consciousness (mind). Upon death these elements do not vanish from the face of the universe, they form new combinations elsewhere. Thus the whole universe is a great, ever-changing orchestration of interconnected movements without beginning or end.
(1) Suffering and unsatisfactoriness exist. (2) The cause of Suffering and unsatisfactoriness exists. (3) The cause may be brought to an end. (4) The means whereby this may be achieved: The Noble Eightfold Path.
As we have seen, Buddhism begins with the fundamental fact of suffering. But before we can do anything about it, we must know its cause, which is the deeply-rooted sense of 'I' that we all have. Because of this we are always struggling to get things that are pleasurable and avoid things that are painful to find ease and security, and generally to manipulate people and situations to be the way I want them. And because the rest of the world does not necessarily fit in with what I want, we often find ourselves cutting against the general flow of things, and getting hurt and disappointed in the process. Suffering may be therefore brought to an end by transcending this strong sense of 'I' so that we come into greater harmony with things in general. The means of doing this is The Noble Eightfold Path.
1) Right Seeing. (2) Right Thought. (3) Right Speech. (4) Right Action. (5) Right Livelihood. (6) Right Effort (7) Right Mindfulness. (8) Right Contemplation.
The Wheel is the symbol of the Dharma and is shown with eight spokes which represent the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Seeing is important at the start because if we cannot see the truth of the Four Noble Truths then we can't make any sort of beginning. Right Thought follows naturally from this. 'Right' here means in accordance with the facts: with the way things are - which may be different from how I would like them to be. Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood involve moral restraint refraining from lying, stealing, committing violent acts, earning one's living in a way harmful to others, and things like that. Moral restraint not only helps bring about general social harmony but also helps us control and diminish the sense of 'I'. Like a greedy child, 'I' grows big and unruly the more we let it have its own way. Next, Right Effort is important because 'I' thrives on idleness, and in any case if we are not prepared to exert ourselves we cannot hope to achieve anything at all. The last two steps of the Path, Right Mindfulness and Right Contemplation, represent the first footholds on the shore of No-I. They involve meditation. In the most basic form of Buddhist meditation, a person sits upright in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion on the floor. He quietly watches the rise and fall of the breath. If thoughts, emotions or impulses arise, he just observes them come up and go like clouds in a blue sky, without rejecting them on the one hand or being carried away into daydreaming or restlessness on the other.
'Your house is a fire, burns with the Three Fires; there is no dwelling in it' - thus spoke the Buddha in his great Fire Sermon. The house he speaks of here is the human body; the three fires that burn it are Desire/Wanting, Anger and Delusion. They are all kinds of energy and are called 'fires' because, untamed, they can rage through us and hurt us and other people too! Properly gentled through spiritual training, however, they can be transformed into the genuine warmth of real humanity.
The Mahayana emphasised the idea that a Buddhist should aspire to become
a Buddha and
The first step in the Mahayana path is to generate this wish: Bodhichitta (Buddha heart). The foundation of Bodhichitta is a great compassion for all beings. It is understood that each person has Buddha nature or the potential for enlightenment.
With this Bodhichitta the Bodhisattva resolves to practice the Six Paramitas or perfections, which form the path to Buddhahood. Theses are:
A person intent on serious practice of Buddhism is not content with mere intellectual understanding of the teaching and will wish to experience and realize the teaching. This can only be done by practising awareness and meditation, which goes beyond intellectual analysis and understanding.
Bhavana, the Pali word for developing the heart is translated as meditation but has a much wider meaning than spending some time in formal concentration. Practicing awareness means extending awareness so that all actions, thoughts and words are performed with increasing concentration/absorption and consciousness. It applies to bodily actions, feelings, mental states and activities and to the teaching.
Meditation involves the formal training of the mind, concentration and
the development of insight. It is generally accepted that some personal
guidance is needed in meditation. The aim is to empty and transform the
mind/heart and to
The Dhammapada, v. 282
'Not to do any evil; to cultivate good; to purify one's heart - this is the teaching of the Buddha.'
Although Buddhists value highly such virtues as loving kindness, humanity, patience and giving, perhaps they value compassion most of all. The idea of ahimsa or harmlessness is very closely connected with compassion. The compassionate desire to cause no harm to other beings (Buddhists would include animals, plants, inanimate objects and even the world in general in this) has caused many Buddhists to become pacifists or vegetarians, although they are not obliged to do so. In all things Buddhism places great stress on self-reliance and the Buddha himself told his followers not to believe a thing because he told it but to test it for themselves.
Buddhism is also a very practical religion and aims at helping people to live their lives; it is as much if not more concerned with giving people things to do as with giving them things to believe. Doing things like chanting a simple formula, visiting a temple to make an offering or to perform prostrations - such simple acts help to reduce a person's sense of 'I.'
Buddhists also try to practice the Buddhist virtues actively in their everyday lives. The final goal of all Buddhist practice is to bring about that same awakening that the Buddha himself achieved.
Much of this material is from The Buddhist Society publications and the 'Buddhism' section in an Open University set text ' Six World Faiths' published by Cassell Publishers Ltd. and reprinted by Continuum in 2002: ISBN 0-8264-4964-6.