The best way to begin talking about Buddhism is to ask a simple question: What is it all about? Conveniently for us, there is a straightforward answer to that question in the form of the Four Noble Truths, which outline the whole point of Buddhism. (Incidentally, you’ll notice that Buddhists are fond of numbered lists. Perhaps they’re trying to get on Digg.)
The Four Noble Truths are usually stated as follows, which is a bit opaque, so after the official version I’ll expand a bit on them all.
- Life means suffering.
- The origin of suffering is attachment.
- The cessation of suffering is attainable.
- The path to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path.
That’s it; that’s Buddhism in a nutshell right there. Buddhism has been called a “religion of action,” and there’s no clearer way to see that than those four statements: Here is a problem. Here is the root cause. The problem can be solved. Here is the solution.
Note that this isn’t specifically about Zen (yet). These are the fundamentals behind the Buddhism of the first Buddha, and the fundamentals of all of the sects of Buddhism today.
“Great, but what the hell is it on about?” Here’s my current understanding, explained as best as I can for now. Keep in mind that I’m essentially a beginner, though.
- 1. Life means suffering.
- The fundamental problem that Buddhism seeks to fix is that people have a tendency to experience pain, whether physical or emotional. From the moment we’re pulled out of a comfortable womb into the world through to our last breath we are confronted by challenges, we experience desire and disappointment and fear, we become ill and grow old and watch the people we love experience all of these things. That’s not to say that life is only suffering, or that everyone’s suffering is to the same degree, but everyone experiences some suffering.
- As truths go, I think that’s a hard one to argue with.
- 2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
- Buddhism postulates that suffering has a single general cause. Attachment is often expressed as “craving”. We often want things to be different than they are, and when we’re unable to cause that, we experience suffering. “Attachment” is a bit of a strange word to use there, but it makes sense if you think of some forms of craving as clinging to things that once were, or clinging to desires that will never be fulfilled. In fact, when we see someone who is so emotionally invested in an impossibility that it’s ruining the rest of their life, we say they “won’t let go”. They’re attached!
- Examples are easy to come up with. We suffer because we wish we had a better car, or a better job. When a relative falls ill, we feel pain as we worry what will happen to them. We wish we were better-looking, or more popular, or richer. We get angry when people don’t do what they’re supposed to do, or when they do what they’re not supposed to do. We get doubly miserable when we have a cold, or a broken leg, or cancer, not just because it’s uncomfortable but because we want to be healthy again so we can get on with our lives. When we or people or pets close to us are incurably ill, we first wish that life could be prolonged, then we wish that their pain could end sooner.
- Note that this isn’t talking about a solution at all, and that specifically it’s not simply saying that we shouldn’t want a better car, or wish that our great-aunt was in better health, or that we should just be indifferent to all of the things that come in and out of our lives: it’s simply an observation, sort of like a natural law, that the reason there is suffering in every life is that we crave things we do not have.
- 3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
- I don’t think there’s much to say about this one; it simply states that the suffering we all experience, from the first truth, is something that we ourselves can stop. It’s an important truth even though it doesn’t contain any deep concepts. This is essentially the promise of Buddhism!
- Modern Christianity often talks about its “Good News”, which is a more upbeat and baggage-free translation of the New Testament Greek that brought us the word “gospel”. To Christians, the Good News of the bible is that God offers forgiveness through Jesus. All is not lost, because Jesus can get you into God’s good books.
- The third noble truth is the good news of Buddhism. The first truth observes a phenomenon; the second postulates a cause for the phenomenon, and both of those truths are detached and impersonal. But the third truth addresses us directly: “You can escape the cycle of suffering and craving. Others have done it too.”
- This is, more than anything, Buddhism’s article of faith. Because in general Buddhism does not require belief in supernatural beings, it’s often called a “philosophy” instead of a “religion”. I don’t want to get into that particular nitpicking here, but the third truth is what makes me consider it a religion. I mean, for all I know, maybe the cessation of suffering isn’t attainable; the only thing that inspires me to follow this path is that I believe it is.
- 4. The path to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path.
- The Eightfold Path (there’s those numbered lists again!) is big enough to warrant its own post, which will be my next post on Buddhism. But for now, all that’s necessary to understand the Four Noble Truths is to know that the Eightfold Path is a program of self-discipline necessary to attain the cessation of suffering, and it’s a moderate program, between self-indulgence on one hand and asceticism on the other. This is why Buddhism is called “the middle way”.
And that’s all there is to it! In the comments to my intro post, Kalimonster mentioned that there was a lack of starter material in Buddhism, and that one sort of feels dropped into the middle of things expected to already know about everything. I hope I’m off to a good start in avoiding that problem, but I’m counting on you to let me know if it’s still incomprehensible!