Within the fourth noble truth is found the guide to the end of suffering: the noble eightfold path. The eight parts of the path to liberation are grouped into three essential elements of Buddhist practice—moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. The Buddha taught the eightfold path in virtually all his discourses, and his directions are as clear and practical to his followers today as they were when he first gave them. – Walpola Sri Rahula
Buddhism is a religion that concerns itself primarily with guiding people into spiritual and mental health, not with God or Heaven, souls, or afterlife. It arises out of the Hindu tradition that holds as a given that God, soul, and afterlife are all contained within the unity that is the Universe, and there is a rich mythology of gods and magic and reincarnation that both Hinduism and Buddhism share, but Buddhism gives very little attention to such things. Rather, what Buddhism holds as important is understanding humanity’s place and experience within and as an expression of the Universe, with, as Buddhists like to say, “what is,” and teaches that if we get this straight the rest takes care of itself. Above all else, Buddhism strives for simplicity and practicality. The Dalai Lama is known to answer the question as to the nature of his religion with one word: “kindness,” much the equivalent of Jesus saying it all comes down to love.
Rather than theology, Buddhism focuses primarily on human psychology and human ethics, for it is in these arenas that humanity’s problems arise. It seeks ever-deepening insight into the why and how of the way we fall out of alignment with the Universe, with what is, with what Buddhism calls Dharma, and how we can find our way back. The fountainhead of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gotama, a prince from a kingdom in northern India some 2600 years ago, set as his task to understand the nature of and the remedy for this malalignment, which Buddhism calls dukkha, the Pali language word that translates as human emotional pain or suffering, dissatisfaction, confusion, delusion. He concerned himself with what it is about humans that causes them to make such a mess of their lives and their world, experiencing and expressing life in such confusing, destructive, painful, and out-of-balance ways like no other creature in Nature. His interest was in understanding and correcting this human conundrum. He is reported to have said, “I teach the nature of suffering and its remedy, nothing else.” Not the usual topics of interest for a religion.
The myth of Siddhartha becoming the Buddha (Awakened or Enlightened One) has Siddhartha exploring all the philosophical, metaphysical, and religious teachings and practices of his day looking for the answers he sought, without success. In both frustration and determination, legend has him sitting beneath a tree to meditate on his questions, vowing not to rise until he had figured out the dilemma of human life. He sat and he meditated, it is generally taught, for 49 days during which he experienced the rising and passing of desire, fear, and self-doubt, the mind-states that seem to bedevil humans most, yet because he held to the composure and steadiness of his meditation, he was able to realize these states of mind as delusions created by the uniquely powerful human mind-realm of ego. He further realized that the awareness witnessing these mind-states did not suffer, but could watch them come and go with equanimity. He found the truth of who he was as being awareness, pure consciousness, and he realized further that this core of the human experience is not subject to confusion, but rather, is the seat of human wisdom, insight, and compassion, linking us to our origin as Universal consciousness manifested individually.
With this epiphany, he became The Buddha. (This is a very important legend, for it forms a template for a Buddhist’s practice, learning to hold well-centered, peaceful, inquiring awareness steadfastly, as ego’s desires, fears, and self-doubts pull at us.) Finally, in a state of perfect peace and composure, filled with insight into the human condition, Siddhartha rose and gave his first teaching to five of his fellow seekers with whom he had lived the ascetic’s path. He began by sharing his realization known as the Middle Way, that the way of life most conducive to happiness was neither through asceticism, the denial of the physical and emotional needs of a natural person, or through materialism, seeking to find well-being through possessions, status, hedonism, and emotional indulgences, but rather to hold to balance and moderation. Then he gave them the centerpiece of Buddhism called The Four Noble Truths.
He taught first that the human condition is unique in that it generates states of unhappiness, emotional suffering, and dissatisfaction (dukkha) that no other creature experiences. He secondly shared his observation that this suffering arises through humans attaching to or clinging to a false sense of self, their ego, which lives through ITS attachments, desires, and aversions. He pointed out how humans seek meaning and happiness through ego-inflating ideas, pursuits, affiliations, and possessions which are meant to fill this hole in their sense of well-being but ultimately fail to do so. He thirdly then gave the good news: that he had figured out that this suffering was not necessarily the way things had to be, that there was a way out of this unnatural state. He taught that because this sense of self is false, its ideas concerning how to fulfill itself are then likewise false. This leads to the fourth teaching, which said humans need to cultivate and realize their core sense of self, their “original mind” of awareness, through meditation and mindfulness, releasing attachment to identity through the ego. He emphasized that within us is a pure mind that knows the right way to live so as not to create and experience so much suffering, that it just needs cultivating.
Being a very practical person, Buddha then outlined eight areas of life that a person could focus on getting right so as to live a happier, saner, more spiritual life, and this teaching was called the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha instructed that a person, in order to live a noble and peaceful life, must cultivate what was called Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, grouping these intothree broader categories of wisdom, (thought and understanding), moral conduct (speech, action, and livelihood), and mental discipline (effort, mindfulness, and concentration). Here, it is very important to understand that the “right” in these teachings is not a dictate from the authority of The Buddha, but rather realizations passed on by him as to how a person comes into alignment with themself and the world, with what will work to relieve our unhappiness and confusion. Impressively for a religion, Buddhism teaches that it is up to each of us to come to our own conclusions, confident that with “right,” that is, dedicated and skillful, practice and application of the Buddha’s teaching, the same conclusion will be reached – that it works.
Right Understanding means understanding things the way they really are. Of course, to do this we must be willing to suspend what we THINK we know about the way things are, realizing that mostly we live inside ideas ABOUT life coming from our families, cultures, societies, and reference groups. The way we understand things as 21st century Americans is dramatically different from the way 15th century Native Americans understood things, and this is true from each culture and historical time to other cultures and historical times. And the same is true for all our psychological, social, and political ideas. Right to me is never 100% the same as right for you, and sometimes the overlap of “right” between people may be very little. We have to be willing to come back to some baseline we all share, and for Buddhism, that baseline is our capacity for awareness without pre-judgment, our clear perception into purely the what-is, as best we can manage. We must look deeply in order to see clearly.
Right Thought means realizing that the fundamental human error is that we think about almost everything using our own self and beliefs as the centerpiece and frame of reference. We cling to our self-centeredness and build our world out of it. Inflated and grandiose, or deflated, anxious, and depressed – either way, we make life about us. Right Thought realizes the powerful analytical capabilities of the human mind, advising us to approach each issue of life as “the thing in itself” with as little self-referencing and pre-conception as possible, using precise perception and logic. This means letting go of opinions, and of selfishness, and of the egoic delusion of our separateness. It reorients how we think toward acknowledging and exploring the undeniable truth of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. This leads us to compassion, which concludes in the necessity for kindness, caring, and responsibility as the ways that bring happiness into the world, including for ourselves. It is really quite logical.
Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood then naturally arise out of Right Understanding and Right Thought, and comprise the ethical aspects of this teaching. As we learn to bring ever-refined levels of presence, thought and understanding to our experience of existence, the interconnectedness, the unity, the interdependence of all aspects of life within the harmonious whole that is this world becomes increasingly evident. This leads one inevitably to the conclusion that we must strive to live in, as Buddhism terms it, ahimsa, and metta, nonviolence and loving-kindness. Truthful, kind, and responsible speech, non-violent, honest, respectful, helpful, and skillful action, and honorable and honest livelihood are essential ingredients of an enlightened person’s life, and of an enlightened society. Our eyes are opened to the careless harm we bring from our egocentrism, and the paradox becomes evident that the way we bring happiness into the world for others and how we find our own true happiness is the same. There is no real peace for one who brings violence to others or for a society based in doing violence either in the human or natural realms. More logic. Right Effort, Meditation, and Mindfulness acknowledge that if we are to overcome the “wrong” conditioning of our egocentric upbringing and culture, we’re going to have to work at it. This path recognizes that without the development of a mind that knows itself, knows its multidimensionality with subtlety, clarity, and depth, that has the steadiness, insight, and perceptive capacities to focus into our own mind and the world-as-it-is, we have very little chance, no matter how much we agree with and desire these qualities, of achieving them. We must “awaken” our core perceptive, wise, and compassionate mind, the mind behind the discursive, judgmental, chaotic, and selfish mind of ego, to bring it forward as our true self. We must realize and actualize our true self as awareness. Achieving this, the egoic mind of thoughts and emotions can then be employed skillfully and with the “right” attitudes and understandings to live a life in which we neither create nor fall victim to unnecessary suffering.