“Our suffering is holy if we embrace it and look deeply into it. If we don’t, it isn’t holy at all. We just drown in the ocean of our suffering.” – Thich Nhat Hanh – The Heart of The Buddha’s Teaching
In northern India, over twenty-six-hundred years ago, a young nobleman, Siddhartha Gautama, determined to understand the nature, cause and remedy to the unique suffering he saw as the plight of human beings, took up the life of an ascetic, one who devotes their life entirely to meditation, ritual, yoga and complete denial of material and bodily comfort. He hoped, as many ascetics have, and has been quite common in Indian culture even to this day, that if he could completely conquer human desire for comfort and social standing, he would overcome suffering and find enlightenment.
After fully exploring and mastering the ascetic’s art, Siddhartha realized that the extremity of this path could not bring him the understanding he sought. He realized that asceticism was its own form of egoic lifestyle, one that was in rejection of what was balanced and natural, and therefore could not lead to the perfect understanding and equanimity that he sought. It is told that he then sat in meditation beneath a bodhi tree and vowed not to rise until he realized enlightenment. He sat all day and all night, and as the morning star arose, it is said that he experienced full enlightenment and saw with clarity the answers he sought. Then after meditating for another forty-nine days he walked to the Deer Park nearby and gave his first teaching. There, to a small group of his fellow ascetics, he related his vision of Life as infinitely connected and therefore “empty” of separateness, of the necessity of a manner of life he called “the Middle Way,” neither ascetic nor indulgent, but rather balanced in the manner that Nature always expresses balance, and that within each human exists the ability to realize full enlightenment, just as he had.
He then presented what is known as “The Four Noble Truths,” a teaching on the nature of human suffering. He said that in all of Nature there is a kind of suffering unique to humans that is of a subjective quality, a product of the mind. He said that there exists a possibility of release from this suffering, and that he understood the path that frees us from this suffering. This is said to have set the “Dharma Wheel” of Buddhism in motion – the path of understanding that eventually will lead to the liberation of all sentient life from affliction caused by humanity’s delusional perception of a Universe of separateness, in hierarchy, with humanity as the foremost species, and self-concern as the highest motivation. From the root word, “buddh” that translates in the Pali language of ancient India as “to awaken,” Siddhartha became known from that day as “The Buddha,” the one who “awakened,” and the path that he taught, “Buddhism,” the path of “awakening.”
The Four Noble Truths are:
The First Noble Truth – Suffering exists. There is pain and sickness and death for humans as for all creatures, and impermanence is a fact of existence. To be human, however, is to experience a unique kind of suffering in all the Universe, a subjective suffering of the mind (dukkha), also translated as “bitter or unsatisfactory experience.” Our sense of place in existence feels uncertain. Our experience of being a separate self in a vast world brings insecurity and our mind creates many strategies to compensate for this insecurity, but all these strategies are doomed to create more insecurity and unhappiness for ourselves and others. Human existence is marred by this cycle of suffering. No other creature suffers in this way.
The Second Noble Truth – There is a reason for this suffering, and it is because of the unique characteristic of the human mind to abstract its experience out of the natural unfolding of Life, to create a kind of virtual reality with the principle experience being of a separate self in a Universe of separate objects with our lives experienced as a struggle for safety and significance. This is called ego, and it creates a delusional sense of self that wants stability, safety, reliable circumstances, and happiness – without end. This is not what happens, and we experience much emotional suffering because of it.
We cling to this idea of a separate self we call “me” with its creative mind capable of endless scheming in its quest for happiness through material possessions, social standing, relationships, even philosophies and religions that promise the specialness and security we crave. We lose touch with our natural self and mind that is an expression of the infinite and harmonious Universe. Rather, we look to what we are instructed to believe, to our psychological conditioning from family, society and culture, all of whom are as lost in the “wrong view” of egoic thinking as we are. We become more or less crazy trying to figure it all out, but there is no figuring it out because this egoic view of self and the world is delusional. Yet we cling to it because we know of no other way. This is the “clinging” and “grasping” commonly associated with this teaching.
Because our minds have the unique ability to imagine, we want Life to be the way we imagine would make it better for us, and we want these better conditions to be permanent. Our understanding of this “better,” however, is deeply flawed and ultimately unattainable, and this creates emotional suffering. In our struggle to make a perfect life as we imagine it and our unhappiness with the way it is, we create much suffering in the world and in ourselves.
We want what we want and are afraid of what we think threatens our ambitions. We cannot see beyond our preoccupation with this “self” in past and future time, and are filled with insecurity. We are blind to the interconnectedness, intelligence, and vast beauty that transcends impermanence and is the principle quality of Life. As characterized by Eckhart Tolle, we are in “resistance to what is.” We are lost in the delusion of our separateness and the feeling of insignificance that comes with it. Our lives become dominated by craving and grasping after what we think will make our lives more satisfactory and less scary and by attachment to what we think will give us security. But this only makes our lives ultimately more unsatisfactory, insecure and scary since it is unachievable. Everything we cling to, everything we attach to, is either unattainable in an absolute way, or impermanent. That which gives comfort will become a source of discomfort, of suffering, when it goes away, as everything in the world of form must. Our lives are spent chasing after security in possessions, ideas, affiliations, and relationships that cannot give the security and happiness we seek.
The Third Noble Truth – is a declaration of healing. It says that there is a path, a way that takes us to liberation from the false ideas of security in control, manipulation and possessions. This Truth also tells us that any interpretation of the Buddha’s Doctrine as “Life is suffering” is in error. The teaching is that Life contains suffering and joy, and that with the mastering of the conditions that lead to suffering, we discover boundless reasons for joy and happiness as our true Nature. We must touch and feel and be honest about the fact that we resist Life-as-it-is. We must see how some suffering is a natural fact of Life, a consequence of karma and impermanence, and we must realize how unnecessary is the subjective suffering we create for ourselves and others that can then turn into more suffering, both in real and imagined circumstances. We must realize that if we look deeply into and truly understand our experiences of suffering, the deep looking will transform the suffering and open us into an expanded experience of Life, and ultimately, into enlightenment.
The Fourth Noble Truth – is the path, the practices, insights and states of consciousness that lead to the liberation from suffering and to a life that is peaceful, joyful, wonder-full. In its simplest form, it tells us to examine our attachments, and ultimately, to release our clinging to this idea of a separate self with all its attachments and grasping, its attempts at controlling Life. Through releasing attachment to this artificial reality and idea of self, we can “awaken” into the Way that Life really is, and when we realize and live within this Way, we will be free of this unnecessary suffering.
It instructs us into a life of fearless inquiry through meditation and mindfulness that is capable of experiencing the true infinite connectedness of everything, of realizing that we and all phenomenon are “empty” of a separate existence, and therefore the foundational existential insecurity that leads to our suffering is delusional. It then offers suggestions about the manner in which Life can be lived so as to bring about this realization – known as “The Eightfold Path,” They are: Right View, Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. It teaches that by living these “right” paths, we will discover the illusion of clinging to this insecure self-centered identity and discover the limitless beauty and boundless interconnectedness of Life, and the compassion that naturally arises from this Right View.
It is very important to understand that the “right” connotation used here is very different than what we are accustomed to in the West as commandments from religious authority. Harkening back to the word, “Dharma” that means the Way or Path that is a natural expression of the harmony of the Universe, what is “right” in this context then is that which leads to harmony, balance and release from suffering, and our faculty for realizing this harmony is not the intellect but rather intuition. We “know” when something is right or wrong because of how it feels, not whether it aligns with some rule. This ability to “know” requires what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “looking deeply into,” more deeply than we are accustomed to. Without it, we are self-centered and can only see the way we are conditioned by society to see, applying only our faculty for thought – the voice of conditioned ego. It has no universality or wisdom. It is always self-referencing and self-centered, and will accumulate and cause suffering. We will have a tendency to make a story out of our suffering, live inside that story, and, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, then be vulnerable to “drown in the ocean of our suffering,” and we will pull others under with us.
If something is right, it will naturally be an expression of the harmony that is the Universe, and since we are an expression, a creation within the Universe, this knowledge is within us. How could it not be? Just as The Buddha went within the quiet of his own awareness to discover the truth of suffering, he taught with his Eightfold Path that we have within us the truth of what is right. The Buddha’s teaching is a finger pointing the way, and we must discover our own intuitive authority that will reveal a Self deeper than our personal self, a concept that is central to Buddhist teaching.
We must get beyond believing in ideas of right and wrong that originate in the artificiality of the human ego, what Buddhism calls egoic delusion, taught to us by the macro-ego of culture and society. Most fundamentally, we must realize that violence, as defined as the imposition of egoic will over the right of all Life to be honored in peace and respect, is not-right. Non-violence, insight, mindfulness, compassion, connectedness and respect are the basis for what is being defined in this context as “right.” With this “looking deeply” we begin to truly see the Universe-as-it-is and we begin to intuit the beautiful necessity of everything, including that which we had previously rejected and was a source of suffering – even our suffering. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “Our suffering is holy if we embrace it and look deeply into it.”
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? – Matthew 6:25
THE EIGHTFOLD PATH
Right View – Of course it all begins with Right View, that is, the view that sees things-as-they-are with clarity, which sees the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. Right View sees the source of unnecessary suffering as self-centeredness, which gives rise to the insecurity of an isolated self that manifests greed, callousness, conflict, exploitation, envy, disrespect, and abusiveness. In the experience of separateness, only the small self and that which is believed to enhance the self is valued. All that is not within the circle of self is irrelevant or threatening, opening the way to harmful, disharmonious action without conscience. Right View also sees that Life exists as both form and energy in perfect balance. To fail to experience Life in its energetic dimension, the energy that gives rise to form, and the energy that gives rise to mind, is to fail to experience the unifying principle of existence. Without the experience of energy as ever-present and necessary for form to hold itself together and relate, there is no understanding of harmony and balance. Ultimately, without a living relationship and experience of the underlying energy of existence we are unable to experience the Source of Everything that is often assigned the word “God.” This “Right View” takes us to a transcendent experience of Life, to a bigger picture where what is experienced as suffering can be understood, and in understanding, managed, even transcended.
Right Thinking: Right Thinking is about thought that does not bind us in fearful ways to anxieties about past, future, and the importance of ourselves. Contrary to what many newcomers to meditation may believe, thinking has a very important role – it’s not the devil. It is a product of the egoic dimension of mind, and ego is not the devil, although most certainly, it can be.
We must understand what role ego and thinking play in our total experience. When ego and thinking are the centerpiece of our experience, and are serving as our identity, that’s trouble. That’s suffering. So it is very important to have a “Right” relationship with thinking and ego, and that role is as a tool for engagement with the world on the level of conceptual mind. Rather than experiencing that we are our thoughts, with Right Thinking, thinking has its proper role and dimension as a tool. We “have” thoughts, much like we have hands – for the purpose of engaging the world and working with it. Suffering is the result of identifying with mind, thoughts and emotions as who we are, and then they run our lives, filled with ghosts and goblins. To have, to own, to manage, mind, thoughts and emotions is to be a player in the game of Life, skillfully using understanding and logic to analyze and communicate our discoveries of the miracle of Life made into forms – both physical and mental forms – free of unnecessary fear.
Right Speech – Speech is the intermediary between thought-form and physical-form. It has the power to shape reality for those who speak and those who hear. It can be a conveyor of compassion and understanding, or of contempt and violence. It can be a conveyor of indifference. We can soothe and make peace with a word or we can violate, disrespect and create conflict with a word, with an angry or contemptuous inflection of speech. Right Speech is using the power of the word as an instrument of connection, harmony, compassion and peace. This kind of speech is an antidote to suffering.
Right Action – Right Action, like Right Speech, is being mindful that our actions shape Karma. Everything that happens is the result of preceding conditions and actions. Every choice we make sets in motion results we often cannot imagine. Mindfulness of action helps us consciously to be instruments of peace and well-being. We are at a choice-point with every action to be in service of self – which will be divisive and disharmonious – or to be in service of the moment as an instrument of harmony, skill, peace, creative expression, and celebration of Life and its wonder, what can be called the realm of Being. Honoring the right of others, through our actions, to exist, express themselves, and be in dignity and freedom is essential if we are to be a presence in the world that alleviates rather than causes suffering.
Right Livelihood – Is the work we do, the means of support of ourselves and our family, an expression of service and honoring the community of Life, or is it exploitive, a source of harm, diminishment, fraying at the bonds of community and dignity for all? Ultimately, much of what society assigns us as livelihood, in the big picture, is in the service of someone’s selfishness at the expense of others. A society is an aggregate of occupations that define whether the society is compassionate or exploitive in its expression and purpose. Exploitation is violence. Occupations that exploit human weakness or vulnerability or defile Nature are not expressions of Natural order and harmony and are therefore sources of suffering. The redirection of human society into mutual service and honoring of all Life will require a redirection of human occupation toward the elimination of suffering of all life on the planet.
Right Diligence (or Effort) – This has to do with intention. In everything we do, including our spiritual practice, we must be diligent that our effort is guided by an intention to express selfless wisdom, to not do harm. This is closely linked to Right View, brought into the world of action. Do we truly understand why we do what we do, and is it motivated by noble and compassionate rather than self-aggrandizing motives? Diligence in these choices will determine whether our lives are sources of well-being or suffering for ourselves and others.
Right Mindfulness – The Eight-fold Path to the cessation of suffering cannot be actualized without Right Mindfulness, for Right Mindfulness is the awareness of the moment-as-it-is and allows our intuitive knowing to inform us, that is, to “in-form” us, to bring into form the energy of a wise mind, of Buddha-mind. Only with Right Mindfulness can we see the-moment-as-it-is and let it be our guide to actualize harmony, skill, compassion, action and view. It is to see this moment, to feel this moment, to hear this moment, to know this moment as who we are. It is to realize awareness as who we are and that all that co-arises with us in this moment are our sacred brothers and sisters, and to live in this realization is the key to living the Buddha’s teaching as an agent of well-being rather than of suffering.
Right Concentration – If we cannot tame the wild swirling mind of ego; if we cannot stop the momentum of our conditioned mind through concentration into the moment, then we cannot break free of the fog of egoic delusion. The swirling activity of the mind has one primary purpose, and it is to hold together the conditioned false view of reality built around the primacy of self-interest. To stop this swirling virtual reality of mind-activity is of absolute necessity. This is realized through Shamatha – “Peaceful Abiding” meditation, without which, our progression into Vipassana – Wisdom and Insight – and Vastness – Right View of the truth of the nature of existence – is impossible.
We must learn to stop, to look deeply, non-judgmentally yet with discernment, into the what-is of the moments of our existence and into the unboundaried vast interconnectedness of our existence to be freed from suffering. This is why our first step in realizing The truth of the nature of suffering and its transcendence is to learn to concentrate clearly through our meditation practice – first into the immediacy of the present moment with awareness of our senses and the physical world they connect us to, and then into the interconnections and infinity of the energetic present moment with our silent intuitive awareness. In the stillness we will discover that awareness is who we are, and therefore, Buddha is who we are. We will have come full circle to naturally discover Right View where the nature and cause of suffering and the path to liberation from suffering is as clear to us as it was to Siddhartha Gotama twenty-six hundred years ago. Suffering happens again and again, but by looking deeply into suffering so as to understand its cause, and constructing our lives based on the Eightfold Path, we have the opportunity to transmute it into enlightened understanding and action – again and again.