The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama said he didn’t teach religion. Maybe he wasn’t trying to start a religion at all. He said he only taught suffering and the way out of suffering.
You see, his childhood, as the story goes, was different from most. He was born in a very wealthy family. His father was told by a fortune teller that his son would either grow up to be a great king or a great spiritual teacher. His father wanted him to inherit the kingdom. So, as a child he was only exposed to all the great things in life.
He had the best toys. He had the best food. All of his needs were met. And, when he was old enough, he had access to the best women too. No part of his life was ever difficult.
But he became curious about the world outside the palace anyway. He knew his life was sheltered and thought that there might be something more out in the world. So one night he sneaked out with a servant and went to a nearby village.
He encountered what’s called the Four Sights. These were things that he hadn’t encountered in his life and they really shocked him. He saw an old man and the servant told him everyone gets old. He saw a sick man (probably a leper) and the servant told him everyone suffers from illness. He saw a dead body and the servant told him that sooner or later everyone dies. No one can escape these things.
But then he saw one more thing. He some spiritual people called wandering ascetics. The servant explained to him that these were men who had given up worldly life to just be spiritual mystics all the time. They spent their days meditating and engaging in different spiritual practices. Their purpose was to transcend the ordinary world, to leave behind the world of suffering and find spiritual truths.
Siddhartha decided this was what he wanted to do.
He left the palace and went to live in the forest and try to find spiritual truths.
And he found them. After six years of searching, while sitting under a tree he attained Enlightenment. He would go on to say, “I don’t teach religion. I teach the cause of suffering and the end of suffering.”
This is important.
He discovered the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths are a central teaching in Buddhism. It was the first thing, or one of the first things that the Buddha taught.
The Four Noble Truths are:
1)There is suffering
2)The cause of suffering is attachment
3)There is a way out of suffering
4)The way out is the noble eightfold path.
This fundamental teaching of Buddhism is a teaching that I don’t like very much. When I sit around talking about Buddhism with my friends (like you do) I like to focus on Buddhism as the cultivation of the six perfections, or as a series of practices designed to help us experience oneness or dissolve our delusions.
I don’t often think of it as the way out of suffering. But that’s what it is.
Buddhism is a mystical journey to dwell in our true selves. But it really all started with the Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha is sometimes called The Supreme Physician. That’s what he’s doing here. He’s acting as a doctor. He’s diagnosing a problem (suffering), explaining the cause of the problem (attachment), telling us there is a treatment (a way out), and telling us what the treatment is (The Eightfold Path).
It sounds pretty good, right? So, why don’t I like it?
People struggle to understand this teaching, I think. People ask all sorts of questions about it.
Life is Suffering.
We all experience things like not getting what we want, or worrying we will lose what we have. We all get stubbed toes. We all get sick. We all grow old. We all lose the people we love. That’s why life is suffering.
But, to some this sounds negative.
I can remember goth kids from my high school, the kids who were mad when movies had happy endings, the ones who went on and on talking about how miserable their lives were (okay, I wasn’t much different). Sometimes that’s what I tend to think of when I think of the First Noble Truth—angst-ridden teenagers in all black who say, “Life is pain.”
And, also, one could say, “Life isn’t suffering. Sure, there are bad parts, but I ate a burrito yesterday. And I had sex this morning. There’s plenty of good things going on too.” And that’s true. There are awful things in life, but there are things to celebrate too.
But, you see:
The Cause of Suffering is Attachment.
That burrito will be gone soon. And the sex will be over (hopefully not as fast as the burrito). We want things we don’t have. And when we do have them, we want them to last forever. But nothing ever does.
Happiness is one delicious cup of coffee. We drink it and it feels good. And then it’s gone.
There’s a Way Out of Suffering.
This is where I can say, “See, Buddhism isn’t negative.” It’s a prescription. The Buddha didn’t save us. He told us how to save ourselves. There’s a way out, and he’s an ordinary human (like us), so we can do what he did.
The Way Out is the Eightfold Path.
If we can cultivate and strengthen these virtues, we can dwell in Enlightenment.
We can spend our lives trying to know how to cultivate these. This is how we save ourselves. This is the Buddha’s path.
I’m going to unpack the Noble Eightfold Path a little bit here.
Right Understanding: Understanding how the world works and our place in it. Understanding what it means to be Buddhist.
Right Thought: Cultivating our ability to control our minds. To think about things we want to and stop thinking about things we don’t want to.
Right Speech: Use only kind words and don’t tell lies.
Right Action: Be kind to others. Don’t harm people and animals.
Right Livelihood: Work on learning how to do things that help the world instead of things that cause harm.
Right Effort: Always try your best. This is what keeps us motivated on the path. If we don’t put effort into it, we probably won’t get very far.
Right Mindfulness: Pay attention to the world around you. Don’t miss important things that are going on because of distraction.
Right Concentration: Learn how to meditate and put it into practice.