A well written and lighthearted introduction into the nature of Buddhism covering its theoretical foundation, meaningful examples and an overview of practical tools to get started.
Reading Recommendation: 8/10
Part 1: Theory
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” (Albert Einstein). This is one of the core ideas of buddhism. Instead of avoiding suffering, Buddhism claims that it can be used as part of the practice.
Anxiety has been part of human nature for centuries. Usually, we try to escape from our anxiety or we surrender to it. Buddhism offers a third option. If we accept disturbing emotions and other problems we encounter as unavoidable and befriend instead of trying to escape them, we can reach a state of inherent clarity and wisdom.
“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” (Carl Jung)
In our culture, the cultivation of “outer wealth ” often goes at the expense of “inner wealth” – qualities such as compassion, patience, generosity and equanimity. This imbalance leaves people particularly vulnerable when facing serious issues like divorce , severe illness , and chronic physical or emotional pain.
We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are.
What we notice is just a friction of what we experience. Less than one percent of the information our brains receive through the senses actually reaches our awareness. The brain competes for limited resources of attention and therefore only focuses on what appears to be important. The problem of this is that we end up mistaking a very small fraction of our experience for the whole. This is especially problematic in the case of unpleasant experiences.
When unpleasant experiences come, neither block them nor give in to them. Instead, welcome them as friends: “ Hello, fear ! Hello, itch ! How are you? Why don’t you stick around awhile so we can get to know each other?” This practice of gently welcoming thoughts , emotions , and sensations is commonly referred to as mindfulness.
“That’s one way to describe enlightenment: turning on the light in a room we’ve spent most of our lives navigating in the dark.”
At some point the Buddha realised that true freedom lay not in withdrawal from life , but in a deeper and more conscious engagement in all its processes.
The Four Noble Truths form the core of all Buddhist paths and traditions. They can be seen as a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to healing what we might nowadays call a “dysfunctional” perspective that binds us to a reality shaped by expectations and preconceptions and blinds us to the inherently unlimited power of the mind.
The First Noble Truth: Truth of Suffering
The first of the Four Noble Truths is known as the Truth of Suffering. Life has a way of interrupting, presenting even the most content among us with momentous surprises . Such surprises — including things such as the frustration of waiting in line at the grocery store or simply running late for an appointment — can all be understood as manifestations of suffering. Acknowledging this basic condition of life is the first step to becoming free from discomfort or uneasiness .
Natural suffering includes all the things we can’t avoid in life. In classical Buddhist texts, these unavoidable experiences are often referred to as “The Four Great Rivers of Suffering” categorized as Birth, Aging, Illness and Death.
Birth is considered an aspect of suffering because the transition from the protected environment of the womb into the wider world of sensory experience is considered as a traumatic shift in experience. The experience of expulsion from an enclosed, protective environment leaves a dramatic impression on the brain and body of a newborn.
Another category of pain (also called dukkha) is the “self-created pain”. This includes experiences that evolve from our interpretation of situations and events, such as impulsive anger or lingering resentment aroused by others who behave in ways we don’t like, jealousy toward people who have more than we do and paralyzing anxiety that occurs when there’s no reason to be afraid.
Self-created suffering can take place in the stories we tell ourselves, often deeply embedded in our unconsciousness, about not being good enough, rich enough, attractive enough or secure in other ways .
Many buddhist teachings divide suffering into three categories. The first is known as “The Suffering of Suffering ” which can be described as the immediate and direct experience of any sort of pain or discomfort .
The second category of suffering is called “The Suffering of Change” and is often described in terms of deriving satisfaction, comfort, security or pleasure from objects or situations that are bound to change. More precisely, it stems from the attachment to the pleasure derived from getting what we want: be it a relationship, a job, a good grade on an exam or a shiny new car.
The Suffering of Change could be understood as a type of addiction, a never-ending search for a lasting “high” that is just out of reach. The high we feel simply from the anticipation of getting what we want is linked to the production of dopamine. Over time, our brains and our bodies are motivated to repeat the activities that stimulate the production of dopamine.
Seeking satisfaction in others or in external objects or events reinforces a deep and often unacknowledged belief that we, as we are, are not entirely complete; that we need something beyond ourselves in order to experience a sense of wholeness or security or stability.
Everything in our experience is always changing. In Buddhist terms, this constant change is known as impermanence. In many of his teachings the Buddha compared this movement to the tiny changes that occur in the flow of a river .
The Second Noble Truth: Origin of Suffering
The Second Noble Truth is often translated as the “origin” or “cause” of suffering. Our normal tendency is to assign the cause of suffering to circumstances or conditions. According to the Second Noble Truth the cause of suffering lies not in events or circumstances, but in the way we perceive and interpret our experience as it unfolds.
Left makes sense only in relation to right, night makes sense only in comparison to day , and warm makes sense only in comparison to cold. That’s a short course in what is often referred to in Buddhist teachings as relative reality: a level of experience defined by distinctions.
Dukkha (suffering) arises from a basic mental condition referred to in Pali as tanha, that is “craving.”
The most basic of these yearnings is the tendency, often described in Buddhist texts as ignorance, to mistake “self” and “other”; “subject” and “object”; “good” and “bad” and other relative distinctions as independently, inherently existing.
Collectively, ignorance, desire and aversion are referred to in Buddhist writings as “The Three Poisons,” habits of relating to experience that are so deeply rooted that they cloud or “poison” the mind.
The Three Poisons and all the other mental and emotional habits that arise from them are not in themselves the causes of suffering. Rather, suffering arises from attachment to them.
The essential lesson of the Second Noble Truth is acknowledging that all conditions are bound to change, we can approach each moment with a bit more clarity and confidence, relaxing into it rather than resisting it or being overwhelmed by it.
In order to get rid of attachment we need to stop trying. When we try to get rid of something, we’re really just reinforcing hope and fear. The middle way proposed by the Buddha begins by simply looking at whatever it is we’re thinking or feeling: I’m angry. I’m jealous. I’m tired. I’m afraid.
The Third Noble Truth: The Truth of Cessation
The third noble truth, often translated as “The Truth of Cessation”, tells us that suffering can be brought to an end. We accomplish this not by suppressing our desires, our aversions, our fixations or by trying to “ think differently. Rather, we need to turn our awareness inward, examining the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that trouble us and to begin to notice and even appreciate them as expressions of awareness itself.
The cause of the various diseases we experience is the cure. The mind that grasps is the mind that sets us free.
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Truth of the Path
The Fourth Noble Truth , the Truth of the Path, states that in order to bring an end to suffering we need to cut through dualistic habits of perception and the illusions that hold them in place – not by fighting or suppressing them, but by embracing and exploring them.
We need to look out for three obstacles in particular: permanence, singularity, and independence.
One of the most important and difficult concepts of Buddhism is the concept of ‘emptiness’. It could be described as an open potential for any and all sorts of experience to appear or disappear.
The inherent qualities of humans (also called ‘buddha nature’) such as wisdom, capability, loving-kindness and compassion have been described by the Buddha as “boundless,” “limitless,” and “infinite.”
Our thoughts, emotions and sensations are like waves rising and falling in an endless ocean of infinite possibility. The problem is that we’ve become used to seeing only the waves and mistaking them for the ocean.
Part 2: Experience & Application
Forms of Meditation
There are two parts on the road to enlightenment. One part is an understanding of the principles of suffering, buddha nature, emptiness, etc. The second one is the application of these concepts in one’s own life .
Meditation asks us to begin by simply observing our physical, intellectual and emotional experiences without judgment (i.e. to use the mind to look at the mind).
To recognize emptiness you have to look at the roots of “I” — ignorance, desire and so on.
The 7-point position for meditation.
- Establish a firm base or anchor that connects you to the environment in which you’re practicing while providing a reference to the rest of your body . Cross your legs so that each foot rests on the opposite leg.
- Rest your hands in your lap
- Allow some space between the arms and the upper body by lifting and spreading the shoulders a little bit.
- Keep your spine as straight as possible, the ultimate physical expression of alertness
- Lengthen the neck by tilting your chin slightly more toward your throat while allowing yourself some freedom of movement. The sensation could be described as simply resting your head on your neck
- Allow the mouth to rest naturally as it does when we’re at the point of falling asleep – not forced in either way
- Leave your eyes open
Form Meditation has two aspects: shape and color. The idea is simply to rest your attention on either its color or its shape, engaging awareness only to the point of barely recognizing shape or color. How? Start with objectless attention. Then look at the form or the colour. After a few moments of looking at someone or something, let your mind simply relax again in objectless attention . Return your focus to the object for a few moments; then allow your mind to relax once more.
Thoughts come and go, as an old Buddhist saying holds, like “snowflakes falling on a hot rock.” The best way to work with thoughts is to step back and rest your mind in objectless attention for a minute and then bring your attention to each thought and the ideas that revolve around it.
Insight practice offers a way of relating to experience that involves turning the mind inward to look at the mind that is experiencing
Start loving-kindness meditation by focusing on ourselves: Allow your mind simply to relax in a state of objectless attention. Recognize that you have a body as well as a mind that’s capable of scanning it. Recognize how wonderful these very basic facts of your existence really are and how precious it is to have a body and a mind capable of being aware of the body. Appreciating these gifts plants the seeds for happiness and relief from suffering. There is such relief in simply knowing you’re alive and aware.
Another approach to loving-kindness: Ask “How much do I want to be happy? How much do I want to avoid pain or suffering? Then gradually turn your attention to the object you’ve chosen and imagine how he or she would feel in the same situation.
The three practices of attention, insight and empathy in terms of step-by-step processes that can be applied to any mental or emotional state.
Attention practice consists of two stages:
- The first involves simply looking at a thought or emotion with what in Buddhist terms is known as ordinary awareness – bringing attention to thoughts or feelings without any express purpose or intention. Just notice and identify what you’re thinking or feeling
- The second stage involves meditative awareness – approaching thoughts and emotions as objects of focus through which we can stabilize awareness
- The third stage is taking a step back: If an emotion or a disturbing state of mind is too painful to look at directly, seek the underlying condition that holds it in place
The point of insight practice: the recognition that all phenomena are interdependent, impermanent and made up of many different parts.
- Stage one: Look at a thought or emotion with ordinary awareness – simply identifying thoughts or feelings without any specific purpose or intention.
- Stage two: Recognize the nature of the emotion, which is that awareness is inseparable from emptiness. How do we do this? Begin by considering the impermanent aspect of emotion
- Stage three and four: Step Back and take a break
- The first stage is similar to that of attention and insight practice — that is, to simply draw awareness to whatever you’re feeling
- The second stage involves recognizing that other people suffer from overwhelming emotions or emotional conflicts, a realization that “I’m not the only one who suffers.”
- The third stage of the main practice involves the practice of tonglen. You begin by drawing attention to your own suffering, recognize that others suffer, and then use your imagination to draw into yourself all the suffering and painful emotions and situations experienced by countless sentient beings
As you begin to see your emotion as a representation of all sentient beings’ emotions, you are deepening your commitment to connect and to help other sentient beings become free from disturbing or destructive emotions.
The Buddha Nature Blocker
The Buddha’s goal was to awaken our capacity to approach every experience — grief, shame, jealousy, frustration, illness and even death — with the innocent perspective we experience when looking at things for the first time.
The first Buddha Nature Blocker is known as “faintheartedness” or “timidity.” The term points to a deeply ingrained tendency to judge or to criticize ourselves, exaggerating what we may perceive as defects in thought, feeling, character or behavior.
Our judgmental attitude toward others is the essence of the second Blocker. Often translated as “contempt for inferior beings,” this second impediment represents the opposite extreme of what we might call the dimension of judgment: a critical view of others .
The third could be as “seeing the unreal as real.” Basically , it’s the belief that the qualities we see in ourselves, others or conditions are truly, permanently or inherently existing. In Buddhist terms , this tendency would be known as eternalism — a tendency to hold certain aspects of experience as absolute and enduring rather than as a combination of temporary combinations of causes and conditions.
The fourth, “seeing the true as untrue” represents the reverse perspective: a denial, or perhaps more strongly, a rejection of buddha nature altogether.
The fifth and final Buddha Nature Blocker, which might be considered the foundation of the others, is traditionally interpreted as self – obsession or the “myth of me.”
At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts , emotions , and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited — or you can remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned and incapable of being harmed.