Imagine being able to have everything in life. All of your desires are fulfilled immediately. You have awesome, well, everything, and an infinity pool in your backyard (because you know those are the best). Basically, you’re living the best life imaginable.
Or are you? What happens when you finally get a glimpse of the outside world? Where not everyone has infinity pools like you do? Unfortunately, the whole “get whatever you want” deal doesn’t apply to everyone else. What happens then?
Do you relax in your infinity pool, laughing at the plight of the lower-class? Do you become a philanthropist, and donate 10% of your immeasurable fortune to feel better?
About 2500 years ago (and no, they did not have infinity pools), someone chose option c. Leave everything behind and become a hermit.
(DUN DUN DAH)
His name was Siddhārtha Gautama (yikes that’s a mouthful), and if his name sounds familiar, it’s because he later became known as the Buddha. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Siddhārtha (who I’m now calling Sid because I really don’t want to type that) had the life that I described above, where every desire he had was fulfilled. (Yes, rich people existed 2500 years ago, just no infinity pools.) This was because his father was a king, and it was prophesized that he would either become an awesome king, or really cool spiritual leader. Sid’s father decided that he did not want his son becoming a spiritual leader (and he didn’t have any other sons, which ends up creating a big drama when you’re a king), so he sheltered Sid from all suffering for as long as he could (it was surprisingly long, 29 years).
One day, at the (not-so-tender) age of 29, Sid had a major revelation. He was walking outside, and he saw . . . an old man. Not a huge surprise for you (hopefully) or me, but that was when Sid realized . . . he was going to grow old and die. (No, a mid-life crisis did not lead him to become the Buddha . . . I think.) He also saw a sick man (which led him to believe that he would suffer — gasp of horror!), a dead man (really cementing this whole realization that he was going to die), and an ascetic (more on this later, for now think of it as a monk). These were collectively known as the Four Sights — four things that changed the course of history (and Sid’s life) forever.
Sid decided that he couldn’t stand by while people suffered and died, not while he had an immense fortune and everything he had ever wanted. Being a completely rational human being, he decided to do a total 900-degree turn on his life (basically a 180 but I added two extra 360s for good measure). Sid chose option c — abandon everything he had ever known and become an ascetic.
The full explanation of what an ascetic is is someone who completely deprives themself of any and all indulgence and desire. They will have only the mere essentials needed to survive. This was the complete opposite of Sid’s previous life (Now you see why I added the two extra turns). Sid went from rich guy who had never seen suffering to ascetic who actively tried to destroy suffering by simply depriving himself of everything (except for one grain of rice a day — harsh, right?).
Sid eventually realized that becoming an ascetic was not the way to go (no, he didn’t run home to Daddy). He thought that the ascetics’ way was getting there, but not totally correct. He realized that suffering was not caused by external factors (usually), rather, it was our preoccupation with ourselves (ego) and our own desires that cause suffering.
It’s said that after realizing this, he went to meditate under a fig tree (I’m kind of disappointed, out of all of the 700 different trees). It was after a solid 49 days of meditation (just go with it, it’s a legend) that Sid finally stood up, no longer Siddhārtha Gautama. Now . . . he was the Buddha. I’m going to stop calling him Sid now, because it is said that Buddha reached enlightenment once he stood up from that tree. He finally understood what he needed to do to avoid suffering (it must have been pretty popular, there’s a religion, books, articles).
Buddha created the idea of the Four Noble Truths, which were meant to be the key to stopping suffering.
We are in a constant state of dissatisfaction
True? Yes. Noble? Questionable for all four. As humans, we are constantly dissatisfied, mostly due to our desires. There’s actually an entire other philosophy based on this known as the hedonistic treadmill. It basically says that we have a base level of happiness (usually not very happy) and we do things like eat chocolate (which usually makes us happier), or go to the dentist (which always makes us more sad), which alter our happiness level. However, no matter what we do, we’re always going to eventually be pulled back to our base happiness level.
The reason we’re always dissatisfied is that if we were content, nothing would ever get done. Evolution has therefore selected for people who always want more. Thanks to the hedonistic treadmill, once one desire is fulfilled, it’s on to the next!
Suffering comes from desire
It’s true. If you didn’t want anything, you couldn’t possibly suffer. You only suffer when your wants go unfulfilled. Also, the more wants you have, the more suffering you get. Thanks to evolution, we always have wants, so it requires a lot of training and mental discipline to fix that, but that’s truth 4 . . .
Minimizing unnatural desires (so not basic needs) is the key to this truth. It also ties in nicely with:
Suffering can be ended
Buddha argues that suffering can only be ended by eliminating all craving, desire, and attachment. By eliminating our sense of self (or ego), Buddha thought that we could escape the cycle of suffering. He thought that we could do this through following the path that he laid out.
The Noble Eightfold Path
Welcome to a gigantic rabbit hole! The Noble Eightfold Path is the path that Buddha laid out for us to become enlightened like himself (it does not involve sitting under fig trees). The path goes:
Right Understanding — Basically just understanding the Four Noble Truths, but it’s still very important.
Right Thought — This is mainly about control over your mind(and will relate to a few other steps on this path), but it’s also about determination and resolve in the Buddhist faith.
Right Speech — You know when your Grade 1 teacher tells you not to be mean to other kids? And your Grade 6 teacher tells you not to cyberbully? Exactly like that.
Right Action — Really just being nonviolent. It’s also influenced by right thought and speech. (Incidentally almost exactly like right speech, but instead of your teachers talking about speech, they’re talking about action.)
Right Livelihood — This is more about your means of making a living. Buddha doesn’t believe in professions that make money off of the pain of others (good luck being a businessman).
Right Effort — Interestingly, this is about being aware and in control of your mind by eliminating negative thoughts (it should probably be renamed to right mental effort). It’s also about eliminating desires, because these are what create suffering. This is key to Buddha’s way of life.
Right Mindfulness — This is about being aware of your state, physical and mental, and being in touch with yourself and your feelings.
Right Concentration — As the name implies, it’s about meditation. Buddha did it for 49 days straight on a grain of rice! His philosophy is all about learning how to control your mind and clear it.
That’s a lot of right. Buddha’s philosophies are extensive, and while he did live 2500 years ago (which makes his legend subject to warping over time), millions of people practice these every single day. Whether or not Buddha did sit under a fig tree for 49 days, he’s still an extremely influential person today.