Let’s start at the beginning. Buddhism was born from Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince who lived between 500 and 600 BCE. According to legend, seers foretold he would be a great ruler or an enlightened teacher. It all depended on his exposure to the realities of life outside the palace. As the story goes, despite his father’s best efforts to shelter him, Siddhartha saw the realities of old age, sickness, and death. He shed his wealth and privilege and stepped onto the path of spiritual exploration. First, he lived in the forest as an ascetic, learning from those who denied themselves comfort. But eventually, when truth did not come to him, he saw the “middle way.” There was a path between the luxury he experienced in the palace and the extreme austerity his body underwent in the forest.
Meditating under a bodhi tree, determined to stay there until he discovered the truth of suffering, he finally saw through ego and desire. For the rest of his days, Siddhartha was known as the Enlightened One, the Awakened One, or Buddha. These are not original titles. Anyone can attain enlightenment and reach Nirvana, the state of wakefulness. Siddhartha, now the Buddha, decided to share his newfound knowledge with the world. He traveled the realm for the rest of his life, teaching others what he had discovered.
“Of paths, the eightfold is the best. Of truths, the four statements. Detachment is the best of dhammas. And of two-footed ones, the one endowed with eyes.”
The Four Noble Truths
What he awakened to under that tree, which he shared with his followers, are the Four Noble Truths. They are:
The truth of suffering
Dukkha, the truth of suffering. Our lives are full of it in large and small ways. The translation is not exact. While sometimes it is a large and profound agony, such as death or losing a home to a tornado, it doesn’t have to be, it is always present, like the underlying anxiety each of us experiences throughout our days. Worry, worrying because we’re worrying too much, and so on. Are we good enough? Does this person like me? Did I say the wrong thing? This is dukkha in everyday life.
The truth about desire
The number two truth is the cause of Dukkha, desire, also known as craving, wanting, or the clinging mind. It’s the need to have, own, and attain. To make permanent when there is no permanence in our lives, the world, or the universe. It is the tendency to define ourselves through objects or concepts when, in reality, there is no self to define and no amount of toys, cars, or houses will ever bring us peace. And anxiety and desire are a cycle that feeds on each other. Let’s buy that new car but only drive it on weekends so we don’t scratch it or put miles on it. We need to keep it new, which is impossible. But we’ll worry about it every time we slide into the driver's seat. Not a conscious worry so much, but underlying anxiety we carry with us each time we think of the shiny new car. But it’s not new anymore and we can’t keep it that way.
There is cessation from suffering
Can we find respite from the clinging mind, from desire and anxiety? The third truth is simple. It says yes, there is cessation from suffering and anxiety, a way to not attach to our desire and cravings. Not that we turn feelings off or “detach,” rather, that we observe the truth of life, the impermanence, and even as we feel emotions, big or small, we know they will rise and fall, ebb and flow. Rather than detach, we can practice non-attachment, which leaves us room to feel and experience without the need to cling. We do not have to attach to feelings or create identity based on them, or any object in the physical world. Those emotions and thoughts are going to rise and fall of their own accord. Sometimes doing nothing is the best option. Just be. Let the monkey mind move as it will without attaching. As Ekart Tolle would frame it, be the watcher and observe without getting pulled in. It’s harder than it sounds when emotions are strong, but here is a way, according to Buddha’s teachings.
Follow the Noble Eightfold Path
The number four truth shows us that the Noble Eightfold Path is a road map to living that, if followed, helps deliver us from our desire, anxiety, and suffering. The path emphasizes morality, meditation, and insight, also known as morals, mental state, and wisdom.
The components are:
· Right view
· Right resolve
· Right speech
· Right action
· Right livelihood
· Right effort
· Right mindfulness
· Right concentration
In the next Buddhism Basics article, we’ll dive into the Noble Eightfold Path and talk about what each component means in modern life.