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The Basics

The Story

There was once a man who attained enlightenment. Not by praying to gods, not by worshiping any deities, leaders, or other men, but by sheer will and effort. Siddartha Guatama, considered one of the most influential men of all time, is the Buddha.

Siddartha was born a prince in a small kingdom in India. At his birth, many gurus from the surrounding areas came to see the small prince and celebrate. As the story goes, one of the gurus proclaimed that Siddartha would either become a great king or a great spiritual teacher. His father, wanting to keep his heir, shielded Siddartha from the unpleasant experiences of life and made Siddartha live a luxurious life.

Growing up, Siddartha became a skilled warrior and meditated to increase focus. It is said that in his early childhood, Siddartha developed the first jhana, or deep meditative state, through concentration. At 16, he marries his cousin and spends 13 more years with her and has a son. Still living in lavish, Siddartha has it good.

One day, Siddartha ventures on an excursion outside of the palace walls. He sees what has been purposely veiled from him: a decrepit old man, a diseased person, a corpse being cremated, and a sadhu (a holy man). Realizing that individuals have little control over the life as they will all experience old age, sickness, and death, Siddartha returns to the palace slightly disturbed.

Eventually, Siddartha leaves his princely life behind to become a penniless and homeless wanderer. Brahmanism, a sect of Hinduism, was all the rage at the time, and so Siddartha became a disciple of several famous Brahman teachers and eventually attracts his own. He eventually takes on a life as an ascetic, one who gives up all worldly possessions and limits themselves from food and water.

After a long period of self-mortification and nearly death, Siddartha accepts some rice milk from a local village girl and loses all his disciples. He returns to his practice of meditation and eventually finds himself underneath a Bodhi tree in Bodh-Gaya, India. There he sits for seven weeks meditating until he attain enlightenment.

Siddartha contemplates whether to share his findings with others, thinking most were not ready or in the capacity to understand his realizations. He comes upon his former disciples at a deer park in Benares, and delivers his first sermon.


The Four Noble Truths

In his first sermon, the Buddha (a title for teacher or wise guru) revealed four truths about existence.

1. Inherent in life is dukkha. Dukkha is a Pali word (Indian dialect) for unpleasantness, dissatisfaction, or suffering. There isn’t a concrete translation, but most Westerners commonly regard dukkha as suffering. Dukkha comes in many forms: physical pain, emotional loss, melancholy, depression, PTSD, and many others. The Buddha taught that we experience dukkha in life, despite our best efforts to be happy.

2. The origin of dukkha is tanhaTanha means thirst/craving and is commonly translated as attachment. The reason we experience dukkha in life, despite our best efforts to be happy, is because we crave things. We either crave for tangible objects, for our lives to remain the same, for family members to live forever, or for change. When we experience the opposite of what we want, we experience dukkha.

3. The complete cessation of dukkha is possible. The Buddha says that even though, despite our best efforts to be happy, we continue to experience dukkha, it is possible to completely cease experiencing dukkha. But how?

4. There is a path leading to the cessation of dukkhaThe Buddha revealed that there is a path that leads to the complete cessation of dukkha. It is called the Eightfold Path.


The Noble Eightfold Path

Also in his first sermon, the Buddha revealed the Eightfold Path, which is the path that leads to the cessation of dukkha. Each “fold” of the Eightfold Path begins with “Right.” The Pali word is samma, which can also be translated as appropriate.

Note: The Eightfold Path is not meant to be built on sequentially. While the factors below are listed in the commonly accepted order, they are meant to be simultaneously developed.

Right View/Understanding

This factor directly correlates with the Four Noble Truths. Right View is accepting and truly understanding the Four Noble Truths. Accepting that we have little control over our lives, that we will all age, become sick, and die (as pessimistic as the sounds), and that we all can live a happy, peaceful life is key to developing Right Understanding.

Right Intention/Thought

In Buddhism, intentions are everything. Intentionally killing a bug instead of accidentally stepping on one contribute to different states of mind. Having the right intentions behind actions also generates positive karma for ourselves and others! With different translations, sometimes Right Intention is also considered Right Thought. Simply having the right thoughts in the first place will contribute to a happier life for us and others instead of having to forgive ourselves, make amends to others, or experience dukkha in general, we can start from a better point.

Right Speech

While the first two factors dealt with wisdom, these next three deal with ethics. Ethics are the foundation of any spiritual practice. You must have solid ethics to have a solid practice; in the same way you wouldn’t want crooked concrete for a skyscraper’s foundation, you wouldn’t want crooked ethics for your spiritual practice. The first ethical practice is Right Speech, which means speaking positively and generously in all situations. This means you shouldn’t lie, speak in slanderous terms, use profuse language, or even gossip.

Right Action

The second factor of ethical practice is Right Action. This certainly means acting generously and positively towards other people. However, the Buddha said that one should abstain from intentionally killing sentient beings, stealing, and performing sexual misconduct. (See the Five Precepts below for more information)

Right Livelihood

The Buddha supported that having an appropriate livelihood generates more spiritual experiences than in an inappropriate livelihood. In traditional Buddhism, Right Livelihood focuses on occupation – you shouldn’t engage in the business of weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, or poisons. In a modern sense, Right Livelihood also includes your day-to-day habits and lifestyles, like electronics, social networking, diets, and exercise.

Right Effort

Shifting from ethical practice, the Buddha addressed the “meditative” part of spirituality with the next three factors. Right Effort is the backbone of any practice looking to cultivate mindfulness and concentration (the next two factors). Right Effort looks to conquer The Five Hindrances, which are sensual desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and remorse, and self-doubt. By conquering these, our minds open to new possibilities while meditating and in every day life.

Right Mindfulness

At the heart of Buddhism is the concept of mindfulness – being aware. Mindfulness is cultivated through the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. The Four Foundations are as follows: Mindfulness of the Body, Mindfulness of Sensation, Mindfulness of State of Mind, and Mindfulness of all Phenomena. When contemplating each foundation, it is useful to set an hourly alarm on your phone to observe your posture (Body), observe the current sensation and note if it is pleasant, non-pleasant, or neither (Sensation), or give a one word description of the state of your mind like anxious, calm, or restless (State of Mind). Exploring all Phenomena in the Fourth Foundation is a wonderful experience as it is being mindful of what you say, do, how you live, what you think, your pre-conceptions of other people, etc.

Right Concentration

While mindfulness is the practice of being aware, sometimes we become hyper-aware. We notice everything, but that can be distracting in meditation. Mindfulness is cultivated through meditation by focusing on the breath (see The Basics of Meditation here). However, the Buddha taught that attaining deep concentration is the way to fully understanding reality and attaining enlightenment. Deep concentration are contained in the Four Jhanas and the Four Immaterial States. The Four Jhanas are deeper states of concentration that are cultivated through intensive practice and are as follows: conquering the Five Hindrances and feeling rapture and happiness through sustained thought, feeling rapture and happiness through non-sustained thought, feeling equanimity and peace, and neither feeling love, joy, grief, pain, happiness at all. The Four Immaterial States are deep states of consciousness that lead to further enlightenment and are considered exceedingly abstract concepts for beginners. Please talk with our head Dharma Teacher, Dr. Lucinda Green, about the Four Immaterial States to have a complete grasp.


The Five Precepts

Before a person can attain enlightenment and extinguish dukkha, the Buddha taught it is important to have a solid ethical practice in every day life. For lay people (non-ordained practitioners of Buddhism), there are Five Precepts:

1. One should abstain from intentionally taking the life of another sentient being.

2. One should abstain from taking what is not given.

3. One should abstain from performing sexual misconduct.

4. One should abstain from false and slanderous speech, as well as gossip.

5. One should abstain from intoxicants and drugs that cause heedlessness.


The Four Divine Abidings

The Buddha taught that unconditional love for other beings helps generate a positive lifestyle that continues to cease dukkha. The Four Divine Abidings (sometimes translated as the Four Divine Abodes) are qualities that are generated for yourself and to others and are as follows:

Loving-kindness (metta)

Compassion (karuna)

Sympathetic Joy (mudita)

Equanimity (upekka)


Dependent Origination

At the very heart of Buddhist philosophy is the concept of Dependent Origination. It is the Buddhist principle of conditionality, that all thing are interdependent and arise and cease through the influence of different causes and conditions. This not only lends itself to prove that our actions do affect everyone else, even in minute ways, but also to the idea of samsara (see below). Dependent Origination is usually presented in a 12 link linear fashion, but each link is both a cause and effect of all the other links in the chain. They are as follows:

1. Ignorance

2. Compositional Action (Karma formation)

3. Consciousness

4. Name and Form

5. Sense spheres

6. Contact

7. Feeling/sensation

8. Craving

9. Clinging or attachment

10. Existence or becoming

11. Birth

12. Aging and Death


The Three Unwholesome Roots and Samsara

The Buddha taught that life is a never ending cyclical existence. Dependent Origination (featured above) shows us that we are continually born and re-born out of our ignorance. This ignorance causes us to eventually experience craving and attachment, which causes us dukkha. This constant birth and re-birth is called samsara and is noted as “The Wheel of Life.” Attaining enlightenment (in the Theravada tradition that Rocky Mountain Insight practices and is located in SE Asia) is escaping this never-ending wheel of life and escaping dukkha.

After craving and attachment, we experience loss because things change. We feel hatred for ourselves, for others, or for whatever caused us to lose something or someone. The Three Unwholesome Roots – desire, hatred, and ignorance – are the “hub” of the Wheel of Life. They cause us to continue being birthed and re-birthed. Through effort and practice, as the Buddha taught, we can work to extinguish the Three Unwholesome Roots and dukkha.


The Triple Gem

The Triple Gem is not a teaching, but rather a concept. The Buddha taught that individuals should not blindly believe in anything. They should research existence and figure out what they want to believe. When someone believes in God, they usually “take refuge” in Him, meaning they turn to Him when they are doubtful, sad, or afraid.

In the same way, the Triple Gem is what Buddhists take refuge in. They are as follows:

The Buddha. The Buddha was not a deity or a god, he was a human being like everyone else who attained enlightenment through dedication and practice. We take refuge in the Buddha because he showed us a way to enlightenment.

The Dharma. The Dharma contains many things. It means the teachings of the Buddha, but it is also translated as “universal truths.” We take refuge in the Dharma because it builds a structure for us to practice within.

The Sangha. The Sangha means community. In traditional Buddhism, the Sangha meant only the monks. However, with modern Buddhism, Sangha usually means, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, a “community of mindful harmony.” A Sangha could be a group of practitioners, a crowd at a meditation retreat, or small class studying a certain part of Buddhism. We take refuge in the Sangha because it allows us to grow in our practice and share our experience with others.