When you think of Buddhism, what images or events come to mind? Meditation, the Buddha, monks chanting in a temple, prayer flags on the sides of Himalayan mountains? None of these images is inherently incorrect, but each one is incomplete.
As with most religions, Buddhism, although it is complex and diverse, has a core set of teachings that contains its principle beliefs. In Buddhism these teachings are known as the Four Noble Truths. They are:
Suffering (dukkha) – foundational to all Buddhist thought and belief is that every living being experiences suffering (such as grief, pain, dissatisfaction, and death). Dukkha is not so much an evaluation as it is an observation. The first Noble Truth of suffering is the foundation on which the remaining three stand.
Origin/Cause – suffering is experienced because all living beings have an insatiable craving for sensual pleasure, wealth, power, and so on. Craving leads to suffering because of ignorance. Humans tend to crave what is illusory and try to hold onto what is always changing – therefore satisfaction is never achieved. In Buddhist thought, even life and death are not permanent – every living being dies and is then reborn.
Cessation/Ending – the end of suffering will be achieve when craving (ie ignorance) has ended. Once the illusion of pleasure, wealth, etc has ended, nirvana will have been achieved – a state of ultimate selflessness and compassion. Once a person has achieved nirvana, they are free from another rebirth.
The Path – the fourth Noble Truth is that craving and suffering can be extinguished (ie, nirvana can be achieved) by following the Eightfold Path:
- Right understanding – In Buddhism, everything is governed by how one thinks. If one’s mind is pure and well trained by the Four Noble Truths, then illusions will fade away, and happiness and well-being will be experienced.
- Right motivation – the Four Noble Truths help uncover impure intentions and thoughts.
- Right speech – words should be used to communicate truth, not to cause suffering.
- Right action – Buddha’s followers were taught the five precepts: avoid harming others, stealing, lying sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants.
- Right livelihood – making a living should not violate the five precepts, but should aid in the pursuit of nirvana.
- Right effort – developing a consciousness that is free from craving requires a lifetime (or more) of perseverance.
- Right mindfulness – the ongoing practice of meditative awareness so that one’s mind is always disciplined.
- Right meditation – mental discipline to quiet the mind and develop concentration and clarity.
As can be seen above, Buddhism is a carefully integrated system of thought. So much so, that some scholars have suggested that it should not be classified as a religion. That is, perhaps Buddhism is primarily a philosophy of life, and it only secondarily crosses over into religious belief and practice (life after death, the supernatural, etc).
Given this brief introduction, would you consider Buddhism to be philosophical or spiritual? Or both? Which elements of Buddhism have you personally seen or experienced?