Buddhism

I wanted one page on my site where I could collect what I learn about Buddhism and also ask myself questions and curate my answers. Ideally, this will also give me a place to reconcile my Christian beliefs and practices with Buddhist teachings and practices. My gut feeling is that the two can be compatible in some way or other and my gut feeling also tells me that the Buddhist ideas and practices can enrich and enliven my Christian beliefs and practices. I believe this page will give me a place for that inner dialog and exploration.

The Four Noble Truths

From this site and this site, I have learned that after he achieved enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first sermon, which centered on the Four Noble Truths, which are considered the foundation of Buddhism. As a note: I have slightly reworded the Noble Truths to make them more understandable to me, but in a way that still captures the core truth being expressed.

The First Noble Truth: “Dukkha” is a part of conditional existence. This is often written as “life is suffering.” But the Sanskrit word “dukkha” has many possible shades of meaning. The most literal translation is “that which is difficult to bear.” Unfortunately, it is hard to translate “dukkha” into English without going too far, or not far enough, in carrying the meaning. But, it can also mean suffering, stress, pain, anguish, affliction, dissatisfaction, or unproductive discontent.

“Dukkha” can also refer to the dissatisfaction brought about by anything that is temporary or conditional. Even extremely happy times in our lives are touched by “dukkha” because those times are possibly temporary. Or they might be happy times based on current conditions and once those conditions change, “dukkha” comes into our lives.

One thing that warrants special consideration is the “dukkha” of our humanity. The Buddha taught that in our living human form, there are five temporary “skandhas” (components). These are:

  • Our bodily form
  • Our senses
  • The ideas we have
  • Our preferences and biases
  • Our consciousness

To me, this underscores the idea that our Selves are not permanent – we are always learning and growing or we are diminishing through entropy. Either way, from moment to moment, we are constantly changing because every new input makes a change in us in some way or other. The change might be in our physical body, or our energy level, or our emotional state, or in our mental capabilities, or some combination of those. But, as I have been learning more and more, there is ALWAYS a change, which is the textbook definition of impermanence.

The Second Noble Truth: “Dukkha” has a cause. In my simplistic understanding, “dukkha” is caused by our desire to avoid pain or gain pleasure. One word originally used to describe this was “tanha,” which can be translated as “thirst” or “craving.” This is often rooted in our desire to control the world around us by clinging to something or pushing something away or running away from something. It is seeking happiness in anything other than our Selves. Our attachment to external things causes “dukkha.” Our belief that the world should conform to our beliefs about how the world should be, causes “dukkha.”

The Third Noble Truth: “Dukkha” can be ended. This happens when we learn to let go of our attachments to temporary things, to stop clinging to things we think will give us pleasure, to stop pushing away things we think will give us pain. At this point, as “dukkha” ends, we reach a state of “nirvana,” which is literally translated as “unbound” and is often thought of as the Awakening. This is considered the moment of enlightenment, when we are released from the bonds of space and time and understand True Nature, Original Mind, Infinite Life, and Infinite Light.

Everything I have read so far suggests that “nirvana” is actually beyond intellectual understanding and intellectual conception and must be experienced to fully comprehend the profound experience of being released from the limitations of space and time. In essence, we can understand the basic idea on the surface level, similar to reading the definition in the dictionary. But we will never fully comprehend “nirvana” until we experience it.

The Fourth Noble Truth: There is a Path that leads to Awakening. The Path is paradoxical in that it is conditional and impermanent, which leads to “dukkha.” But it is the way we can learn to reduce and eventually eliminate “dukkha” and achieve our Awakening (“nirvana”). The path provides a way to learn everything we need to learn, so that we can unlearn everything we have learned.

One example I read made me think of when I used to look at the moon through my telescope. It was awe-inspiring to see the surface of the moon in my eyepiece, but I was wise enough to never confuse the image in my eyepiece with the actual moon. Similarly, the Path provides a “toolkit” to bring the true nature of reality more and more into our awareness, but the Path must never be confused as the actual true nature of reality.

The Path is usually represented as a wheel with eight spokes. In some of my reading, this is said to represent that each aspect is equally important and they are all best when practiced together. The general idea is that we continue to learn and implement the Path, so we gain more awareness and learn better how to reduce our attachment, which reduces our “dukkha,” until we eventually achieve our Awakening (“nirvana”).

From this site, I have learned the Path supports “the three essential factors of Buddhist training,” which are ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.

The Eightfold Path

The Path, usually called the “Eightfold Path,” is what takes Buddhism beyond just a theoretical or doctrinal framework. By practicing the Eightfold Path, we can bring “dharma” into our lives. According to this site, “to the extent that it can be defined, we can say that [“dharma”] is both the essential nature of reality and also the teachings and practices that enable the realization of that essential nature.”

From this site and this site, I have learned that the Eightfold Path is often shown with the word “right” but this is an awkward, incomplete translation of the word “Samma.” Partly, this is because in the Western mindset, the opposite of “right” is “wrong.” While this could be seen as technically true in many cases, it is incomplete and could lead to the mistaken impression that the Path is a very narrow right or wrong kind of thing. Instead, I’ll be using different words instead of “right.”

The word “samma” means proper, whole, complete, perfect, and also has several other shades of meaning related to those. With all this in mind, I will also include the word “accurate” even though that is not a formally correct translation. For the sake of my own understanding right now, however incomplete and imperfect it might be, I will be using the words “accurate and complete” or “whole” or “perfect” or “proper” instead of “right.”

Accurate and Complete Understanding of the true nature of reality, the cause of dukkha, and the path to Awakening. This is connected to a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Accurate and Complete Emotion, Aspiration, or Intention so that we act from love and compassion for our Selves and others. This also includes our motivation for seeking our Awakening and helping others along their Paths, as well. This supports the gaining of Wisdom and is important because our thoughts typically lead to our actions. The Buddha taught that there are three fundamental “Right Intentions,” which impact our karma, are:

  • Intention of renouncing our emotional attachments
  • Intention of good will or loving kindness for all beings
  • Intention of doing no harm and actively being compassionate

Accurate and Complete Speech that is compassionate, clear, truthful, uplifting, and not harmful. In our current culture, this carries into all the electronic communication as well. The Buddha is said to have taught that “Right Speech,” which impacts our karma, has four parts:

  • Do not lie or deceive others
  • Do not slander others
  • Do not use rude, impolite, or abusive language
  • Do not indulge in gossip

This also includes speaking in such a way that we promote harmony and good will, speaking in a way that we help to ease tensions and reduce anger, and otherwise simply remaining silent.

Accurate and Complete Action that is ethical, not selfish, and not driven by our emotional attachment to our agenda. It is choosing to do things out of compassion and choosing NOT to do things that could be harmful to others. In most Buddhist teaching, this is tied to the Five Precepts and Mahayana Buddhism adds five more.

Since our actions impact our karma, these precepts are important, but they are not intended to be a list of “thou shall not” commandments. Instead, they are intended to provide a framework for how an enlightened being interacts with the world. In other words, if you are an enlightened being, you…

  • Do not kill
  • Do not steal
  • Do not misuse sex
  • Do not lie
  • Do not abuse intoxicating substances
  • Do not talk about the errors or faults of others
  • Do not blame others or selfishly elevate yourself
  • Do not be stingy with resources
  • Do not be angry
  • Do not speak ill of the Buddha, the Dharma, or the Elders

Proper Livelihood allows you to make a living by ethical means and causes no harm to yourself or others. One summary suggested that a proper livelihood is one in which you can make a living without compromising on the precepts. Another said that a proper livelihood allows you to make a living through love and compassionate action. This also extends to love and compassion for yourself, so that if your deepest Self is telling you to find another way to make a living, sincerely consider honoring that.

It is also important to consider that a proper livelihood provides many opportunities to practice the Eightfold Path, which is also a benefit.

Whole and Proper Diligence and Effort in order to develop wholesome qualities and release unwholesome qualities. The Buddha taught that there are four aspects to this. I have slightly reworded and reordered these to better suit my understanding. They are:

  • The effort to strengthen wholesome qualities you already have
  • The effort to cultivate wholesome qualities you do not have yet
  • The effort to release unwholesome qualities you already have
  • The effort to prevent unwholesome qualities you do not have yet

Since this supports the other parts of the Eightfold Path, one thing to bear in mind is the need to avoid extremes and make sure that the diligence and effort bring joy. The Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put this into perspective by saying, “If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly.” In other words, whole and proper diligence and effort should be nourishing…otherwise they are causing dukkha.

The Buddha is said to have taught that there are Five Hindrances to whole and proper diligence and effort, which are:

  • Sensual desire
  • Ill will
  • Sloth, torpor, or drowsiness
  • Restlessness and worry
  • Uncertainty or skepticism

Thankfully, the Buddha also taught that the hindrances can be overcome by being mindful of our body, our sensations, our feelings, and our thoughts. From what I have learned, developing our mindfulness is one reason for learning to meditate.

Whole and Complete Mindfulness or Awareness can help to overcome the Five Hindrances and lead one to better awareness of true reality. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, when “right mindfulness” is present, the Four Noble Truths and the rest of the Eightfold Path is present. The idea is to be wholly aware of the present moment and to be fully in the present moment in body and mind.

Included in this concept is being able to release the habitual need to judge things by whether we like them or not. In other words, we learn to accept things as they are, more and more objectively and release our need to subjectively judge and rate things. Mindfulness also allows for three basic capabilities we often do not have, or do not realize are available:

  • Mindfulness allows us to fully do what we are doing
  • Mindfulness allows us to see things more objectively
  • Mindfulness allows us to see the true nature of what we see

Mindfulness is not developed solely through meditation, but can also be developed by simply choosing to bring your whole mind and body into the present moment in whatever activity you are doing. For example, if you are washing the dishes, take a moment to simply fully be present with every aspect of washing the dishes. The same practice can be extended to everything we do, in order to develop our capacity for whole and complete awareness.

Whole and Complete Concentration is typically thought of as preparing the mind for the moment of Awakening by learning to mentally focus on a single wholesome thought, a single point in space, or a single wholesome object. Over time, this can be mastered by practicing the Four Absorptions, which are typically taught as:

  1. Release passions, desires, and unwholesome thoughts. This results in a deep sense of well-being and rapture.
  2. Replace intellectual activity with a one-pointed mindfulness.
  3. The rapturous feeling fades as mental calmness and mental clarity comes.
  4. All sensation fades away leaving only the mindful calmness.

The most common way of developing whole and complete concentration is through meditation. Meditation is best learned by working with a skilled teacher, but there are many resources for learning how to meditate and many helps such as phone apps for timing or guiding the meditation as the student learns. We must be aware of the fact that it can take years to perfect this practice and give ourselves the room to develop the habit of meditating as we also work to perfect the practice.

Ten Perfections

I have also started learning about the different schools of Buddhism. The first, said to be based solely on the teachings of the Buddha, was Theravada and seems to me to be best suited for the monks in a monastery, who are seeking enlightenment. Another school that emerged over time was the Mahayana school, which seems to me better suited for laypeople.

From this site, I have learned that another key distinction is that Mahayana includes the “ideal of practice” of the Path: becoming a “bodhisattva.” This is someone who “is an ‘enlightenment being’ who has bowed to bring all other beings to enlightenment.”

To help this process, the Mahayana developed a list of six “paramitas” (perfections), which was later expanded to ten perfections that are supposed to be cultivated along the path to enlightenment. The first six are supposed to be complete in themselves, and the last four are supposed to add the dimension of practice that provides for one to become a bodhisattva.

Perfection of Generosity – This is about giving with no expectation of receiving in return, but simply from a spirit of being generous. As you release attachment to possessions, it becomes easier and easier to be more generous with things, time, and Self. This perfection is about giving generously and appropriately as a way of reducing suffering in the world.

This is also about giving the gift of gratitude when someone else gives something to you. Why? Because there can only be giving when there is also receiving. The two are interconnected and interdependent. And you can be grateful for the gift given to you without also being emotionally attached to either the gift or the giver.

Perfection of Morality – This perfection is not about rigidly following any specific strict moral code and it is not about playing by the rules of Buddhism (such as the Precepts). It is more about living in harmony with others by cultivating loving-kindness and compassion. It is more about making good (both morally good, and effective) ethical choices in our interactions with the world, based on the circumstances and conditions at hand.

It is more about following the Eightfold Path to continually learn to let go of ego, let go of desire, and become more disciplined in following the Path and moving toward enlightenment. As we do this, we are also impacting our karma because we cannot escape the karmic laws. BUT…it is important NOT to do good simply to receive good in return, because this is doing good from a selfish intention, which is NOT “right intention” from the Eightfold Path. It is most important to do good, simply because doing good is the right thing to do on the Path to Awakening.

Perfection of Patience – This about being patient with ourselves and with others. And it could also be translated as “able to withstand,” or “unaffected by,” or “tolerant of,” or “able to endure,” or also as being able to maintain your composure. Within the Mahayana “sutras,” (scriptures), there are three dimensions to this Perfection:

  • Enduring Hardship – In today’s way of saying things, we might think of this as facing our difficulties in constructive ways. This dimension begins with a full acceptance of the First Noble Truth and recognizing that we can reduce our suffering as we begin to truly understand that all things are temporary, including our suffering. We can also learn to endure hardship as we begin to truly understand that much of our suffering comes from our resistance to the hardship. As we reduce our resistance, we reduce our suffering.
  • Patience with Others – It is far too easy to become angry with others since they seem to constantly fail to meet our expectations. And it is far too easy to become hateful towards others for a variety of reasons. But we need to learn to release our attachments to our expectations, which will reduce our anger. And we need to learn to avoid hatefulness at all costs because it is a poison that can eventually destroy us.
  • Accepting Truth – This begins with first accepting the truth of dukkha as well as accepting the truth of uncertainty. As we learn to accept the truth of dukkha, we almost automatically start reducing our dukkha. And as we learn to accept the truth that we can never be certain of anything, because everything (including our Selves) is temporary, we almost automatically start reducing our dukkha and increasing/perfecting our patience.

Perfection of Energy – In the Sanskrit words for this perfection (“virya paramita”) the root means “hero,” and that means this perfection carries the connotation of perfecting courageous or heroic effort and also includes both mental and physical energy. There are three components to this perfection:

  • Develop character and courage to walk the Path, however long it takes
  • Take responsibility for your own spiritual training and practice
  • Practice the Eightfold Path to help others learn to reach enlightenment

I love the summary of this perfection offered on this site: “start where you are. Take courage. Develop knowledge and confidence. Dedicate yourself to others. This is virya paramita.”

Perfection of Meditation – Here, meditation is not done for stress relief or to reduce anxiety or any of the other Western ideas that have been attached to mindfulness and meditation. Instead, we do meditation to prepare our minds for wisdom and awareness. It is typically recommended to learn to meditate with the help of an experienced dharma teacher because long-term meditation as part of a spiritual practice can sometimes result in very dark, almost nightmarish, situations arising, as you come face to face with a previously unknown part of your psyche, or emotions, or past traumas.

Perfection of Wisdom – In the Mahayana framework, the perfection of wisdom is equated with emptiness, because all phenomena have no self-essence. It is our need to perceive them that gives them their essence, however temporary. This is moving beyond the surface level, academic, understanding of wisdom, to the full-on personal realization of the true nature, which opens the door to enlightenment.

One example that helps me understand this is to think of a car. The phenomenon I call a “car” is a collection of parts that are assembled in a specific way to accomplish a specific purpose. But if we start taking the car apart, at some point in that process it stops being a “car” and starts becoming a “bunch of parts.” But neither the thing I call a “car” nor the thing I call a “bunch of parts” has any specific essence outside of my subjective perception of them. When we can get to the point of truly realizing and comprehending and embracing this idea with ALL phenomena, including people, we are well on the way to perfecting wisdom.

Perfection of Skillful Means – In the Mahayana school, this is any teaching or activity one does that helps others to realize their own enlightenment. Even if the means are not inherently Buddhist, as long as they are applied with compassion, loving-kindness, and wisdom they are considered good and non-harmful.

Perfection of Vow – This is also called the Perfection of Aspiration and is focused on dedicating oneself to the bodhisattva path and living the bodhisattva vows. While the exact wording of the vows varies from school to school, there are four fairly common bodhisattva vows, which are:

  • Beings are numberless, I vow to save them
  • Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them
  • Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them
  • Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it

We must recognize that we cannot bring EVERY being to their enlightenment, but we should still do our best to help those we can.

Perfection of Spiritual Power – If we let our imagination wander, we might think this includes supernatural powers and working miracles and so forth. While these are not necessarily completely out of consideration for an increasingly enlightened being, the more immediate concept is the increasing ability to practice the Eightfold Path with growing awareness.

Perfection of Knowledge – This ties the other nine Perfections together and allows us to put them to work helping others achieve their enlightenment. We achieve the Perfection of Knowledge by using our wisdom in the world, much like a doctor uses medical knowledge to help people restore their physical health.

The Three Poisons

On this site, the Three Poisons are explained as the source of negative mental states as well as what we might think of as “evil,” or “harmful” actions. The basic idea is that as long as we are conditioned by, or continue to be influenced by, the Three Poisons, our thoughts and actions will generate harmful karma and ultimately cause harm to ourselves and others.

The Sanskrit words for the Three Poisons are usually translated into English as “ignorance,” “hate,” and “greed.”

Ignorance – Ignorance is considered the primary cause of all evil and misery in the world. It is our lack of knowledge about the true nature of reality that causes the hate and greed we so often see or experience. And it is ignorance of the true nature of reality that leads to dukkha. If we can eliminate ignorance, we can eliminate all the harm, all the dukkha. This type of ignorance is most often manifested in the belief that things are fixed and permanent. And it is clinging to this belief and the desire to protect or elevate ourselves that causes hate and greed. The antidote to this poison is Wisdom.

Hate – Hate grows out of our ignorance, especially our ignorance of the truly interconnected nature of all things and beings. When we are ignorant of the true interconnectedness, we begin to cast value judgments on things and people; we like this, or we hate that. When we are ignorant of the true reality, we set ourselves apart and often begin to harbor “natural” suspicions of those who are different. Or we can be taught to hate anyone or anything that is different from us. The antidote to this poison is Loving-Kindness.

Greed – This refers to a desire for something we think will satisfy our wants or that will somehow make us better or “more than” we are now. It also refers to our drive to protect ourselves, including by acquiring many new things in order to elevate our status and protect ourselves in our own minds. This can lead us to exploit others or attempt to manipulate them to get what we desire. But any satisfaction we do receive from these things is only temporary and only leads to more and more need to reaffirm ourselves as “better than.” The antidote to this poison is generosity.