Born Siddhartha Guatama around roughly 563 B.C.E., the man who would later be given the title of Buddha (meaning “Awakened One”) experienced a series of disillusioning events during his twenties that led him to question the possibility of finding true fulfillment in the physical world. Huston Smith, in The World’s Religions: Our Greatest Wisdom Traditions outlines with remarkable clarity the philosophy which arose out of the Buddha’s struggle to understand and overcome these experiences. After embarking on a six year long quest to understand these experiences, the Buddha had emerged with guidelines for what exactly these experiences were, and how they could be overcome. This set of guidelines became known as the Four Noble Truths.
The first Noble Truth, known as “dukkha”, roughly translates into “suffering”, although Smith writes that this philosophy is not pessimistic – rather, Buddha firmly asserted that the human situation of suffering could be improved if one was willing to embark on the effort. But for the average person, life consisted of uncertainty, insecurity, and pain. Life is a sort-of off balance wheel that will never truly set itself right again, and if the center is off balance, than it follows that human life will be off balance as well. Buddha outlined six major areas in which life’s suffering was particularly visible: at birth, in sickness, in witnessing and experiencing decrepitude, in fear of death, in being bound to one’s discomfort, and in being separated from what we love. Smith writes that, as these six pinnacles of life in fact constitute the majority of one’s life, the Buddha concluded that life itself consisted entirely of suffering.
The second Noble Truth, “tanha”, usually translates into “desire” and is regarded as the cause of that suffering. However, “tanha” is not desire in every sense of the word, for as Smith reminds us, there were some desires that the Buddha actively preached that we should strive for: the desire for liberation, for example, or desire for the happiness of others. The desire that the Buddha wished his fellows to break away from was the desire for personal fulfillment – in other words, selfish desire. When we desire the happiness of others, our concern is outside of ourselves – our concern is drive for a greater change, a social initiative, a broader concern. However, when we harbor selfish desires, such as a certain meal at our favorite restaurant, not only will we be upset when we do not have access to it (bringing us back to the first Noble Truth), but that selfish desire produces no good and causes only pain. Our selfish desires rupture the ties that bond us with the rest of humanity. Therefore, selfish desire is the cause of human suffering.
The third Noble Truth then follows from the second. As Smith writes, “If the cause of life’s dislocation is selfish craving, its cure lies in the overcoming of such craving.” We cannot be truly free while we still attempt to garner enjoyment from the same objects and desires that are only serving to hurt us. By overcoming the desire to serve our own egos and realizing that our desires must connect to humanity as a whole, we thus have taken the next step onto the fourth Noble Truth, the philosophy which compliments the Four Noble Truths by providing the next step for those seeking enlightenment.
The Eightfold Path is the fourth Noble Truth, an internal training practiced in order to break free of the suffering of the physical world. Proceeded by a step Smith refers to as “right association” (associating with those who will encourage us, not consider our path foolish), the Eightfold Path is not an immediate cure for the ills inflicted by society, but rather a process undertaken with much effort and which must be practiced with much diligence in order for the person to be successful in completing it. The steps of the Eightfold Path folly (briefly) as such:
Right Views. Essentially, holding right views consists of keeping in mind the Four Noble Truths and following them to the best of one’s ability. Right Intent. If one follows the Four Noble Truths in mind but not in heart, one is not really following them at all. The Truths must be felt in one’s heart in order to be truly practiced. Right Speech. This includes constant awareness of our language and what it reveals about who we are. Never speaking unkind words, never harboring unkind thoughts, and eliminating the motives that promote unkind action are all included in Right Speech – as is equally only speaking if one’s words will not be harmful. Right Conduct. An extension of Right Speech, this includes understanding how one behaves and acts, both in public and in private, to determine where one’s behavior may be improved in order to bring peace and harmony. Promotion of selflessness and charity is key, as is eliminating the ego and the drive for selfish pleasure. The Five Precepts, which Smith likens to the “ethical half of the Ten Commandments”, assist us in Right Conduct: “do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not be unchaste, and do not drink intoxicants” (pg 109). Right Livelihood. For those who feel drawn to strict regulations of livelihood, this might include joining a monastic order or instilling other such disciplinary guidelines. For those who do not feel such a strict call, Right Livelihood includes dedicating one’s life to a purpose that promotes life, rather than destroying it. For example, if one held a job as a butcher, one would need to leave that job for one that did not involve a violent act. Many have argued that Right Livelihood also includes bearing in mind that an occupation is a path in life – it is not the end of the path. Right Effort. Essentially, strength of one’s will and determination. Saying to yourself that you will accomplish something but not putting forth any effort to do so will not have you seeing desirable end results. Right Mindfulness. In keeping with the popular proverb “practice what you preach”, Right Mindfulness reminds us to not only keep our actions and words pure, but our thoughts as well. If we harbor hateful thoughts but practice peace, the peace we practice will not last long.We must be constantly aware, and constantly alert. We must control our mind, so that our senses and our minds do not control us. Right Concentration. Active, continuous practice of the Eightfold Path is required to achieve full enlightenment. The Way is difficult and requires much time and effort, but it is not impossible.
Information garnered and analyzed from: Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Greatest Wisdom Traditions, HarperOne Publishing