The Basic Teachings of the Buddha
The Four Noble Truths
Although one phrase cannot encompass the depth and richness of the Buddha’s teachings, the phrase that may best condense them is the phrase, “Four Noble Truths,” Many teachings are variations of this theme, so they are a good place to begin an outline.
The First Noble Truth
All conditioned existence contains Dukkha (a word encompassing an inherent inability to satisfy our desires, and is usually translated as suffering, uncomfortableness, disappointment, etc.). For example, we want things that give us joy (like our goods, our relationships, our opinions, our control) to be stable but we live in an unstable, ever-changing world where some experiences are painful, some are pleasant but transient, and where we also change over time.
The Second Noble Truth
Dukkha has a cause. The root-cause of Dukkha is not the capriciousness of nature, the anger of the gods, something we said or did or something predestined by fate. The root-cause of dukkha is “tanha,” a word meaning “thirst,” which is a good analogy. We thirst for things to be the way we want, often in a selfish and unrealistic manner. Even when we satisfy our thirst, we will eventually become thirsty again. Like our dukkha, our thirst can range from an easily tolerated, barely noticeable annoyance, all the way to a severe threat to our life.
The Third Noble Truth
Dukkha can be completely brought to an end. This is good news, because by removing the cause of Dukkha, we can remove its effects. A cure does exist!
The Fourth Noble Truth
- Right View/Right Understanding. We begin by understanding that our viewpoint and character have consequences, and the more skillful they become, the better.
- Right Intention/Right Thought. Intention forms a major part of our future. Our intention includes our attitude, our inclinations, and our habits. Much of the Buddhist path involves directing our intent in a skillful direction. Our intentions are so largely based on our habits that they can resist our attempts to change, so persistence is vital.
- Right Speech. Right speech includes placing a high priority on truthfulness, beneficence, purposefulness, timeliness, and kindness. Speech also indicates we benefit from placing a high priority on the welfare of others, not just our selfish desires, and we should notice when we do so or do not do so.
- Right Action. We benefit when we point ourselves in the direction of kindness for all beings, avoiding taking what is not given (which could include theft of time, mental well-being, or credit for work performed), and misconduct in sensual activities like sex (which covers a wide range of activities, from outright exploitation to increasing all those desires which can frustrate us).
- Right Livelihood. We spend much of our time engaged in making a living, and the Buddha indicated we should do so using respect for life, avoid harming, and with great care in how we interact with others and with our environment.
- Right Effort. This includes developing methods to prevent unskillful states from arising (or for removing ones which are present), and to maintain skillful states (or to arouse skillful states which are not yet present).
- Right Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a broad topic, and hard to define – but the Buddha indicated we should practice mindfulness rather than try to define it. It includes awareness, a joyful and relaxed attentiveness, persistence, freedom from desires with regard to the world or an outcome, and alertness to what is going on. At first, we simply pay attention to what is going on, but eventually, we can cultivate a skill in directing our mind. Our skill in doing this can increase with practice, both in our meditation and in our daily life away from formal meditation. The Buddha gave specific instructions for applying mindfulness to our physical sensations, our initial responses to an event, our mental states, and our mental contents.
- Right Concentration. The Buddha gave specific instructions for developing the mind while meditating, in order to clear our mind and sharpen its abilities to observe. Right Concentration is best developed through instruction, meditation, and practice, not simply by reading about it.
The Unwholsome Roots
These unwholesome roots lead us to suffer, perpetuate our suffering, and prevent our release: Greed, Hatred, and Delusion. Their antidotes are non-greed, non-hatred, and wisdom. Progress in the path requires awareness of when they are present and when they are absent, when they are being encouraged, and when they are being reduced.
The Five Precepts
The Buddha gave five guidelines for developing our behavior consistent with preventing and healing suffering. They are not commandments, but guidelines and suggestions for developing a better foundation for meditative excellence and wisdom, by training our minds to more joyfully perform them. These five precepts are for non-monastics; monastics have hundreds more!
- I undertake the way of training to abstain from killing living beings.
- I undertake the way of training to refrain from taking what is not given.
- I undertake the way of training to refrain from sexual misconduct.
- I undertake the way of training to refrain from improper speech.
- I undertake the way of training to refrain from intoxicants which lead to carelessness.
Although not specifically given in the scriptures, their corollaries are:
- I undertake the way of training to respect all living beings.
- I undertake the way of training to respect what does not belong to me.
- I undertake the way of training to honor relationships with respect.
- I undertake the way of training to show integrity in all my dealings.
- I undertake the way of training to be mindfully aware of my activities (including my intentions).
The Four Divine Abodes
Buddhism is not simply a matter of developing meditative excellence or understanding. The Buddha’s experience before his Enlightenment showed him, quite clearly, that Reality includes the presence of four states which are critical for progress in eliminating the causes and conditions of suffering. They are developed in our meditation and our aspirations.
Metta (translated as Unconditional Friendliness or Loving Kindness; derived from a word meaning Friendship).
The common aspiration is, “May all beings flourish; may all beings be happy.” It is the opposite of ill-will or of a self-centered attachment or pity, and arises from seeing the admirable qualities in others and oneself.
Karuna (translated as Compassion; derived from a word roughly meaning, “to have the heart quiver alongside,” or “to be empathetic with”).
The common aspiration is, “May all beings be free from suffering.” While Metta aspires for creatures to be as supremely happy as they can be, Karuna aspires for creatures to be free from outright sorrow. It is the opposite of cruelty or of depressive grief, and arises from recognizing how all creatures wish to be free of suffering and realizing release from suffering (and that you can help).
Mudita (translated as Empathetic Joy or simply Joy; derived from the word for Joy).
The common aspiration is, “May I be open to the joy which others are experiencing,” or “May I be open to the Goodness which surrounds me.” It is the opposite of envy or a frivolous giddiness, and arises when one attends to the good fortune of others and the goodness of Existence.
Upekkha (translated as Equanimity; derived from the word for Balance).
The common aspiration is, “May all creatures be at peace,” or “May all creatures be trustingly free of aversion and clinging.” Upekkha is considered the most challenging of these aspirations, and a balanced approach to events is essential. It is the opposite of craving or aversion, and arises when one sees that all creatures are responsible for their conduct and actions.
Even though all things change, they do so in a causal manner. Every instant of our existence, without fail, depends on causality. Because we cannot determine every element of this process (nor do we need to), the Buddha’s term is “conditioning.” Conditioning is a middle ground between a strict determinism and a chaotic randomness. We can use this process to remove conditions which reduce or eliminate the effects of Dukkha, and to establish conditions which lead to liberation and happiness (the traditional formulation is, “When this arises, that occurs. When this ceases, that fails to occur.”). Without this causal process, healing and liberation would be unpredictable and practically impossible. This is one of the Buddha’s original insights.
Dependent Origination is often presented as a twelve-fold, mutually interdependent process, to explain the origination of old age, sickness, suffering, and death.