I’ve decided to get back into meditation properly in 2019 and so I’m spending some time each week reviewing some of the material I’ve written on Buddhism. I thought I may as well proofread this material, modify it as necessary, and slap it on the blockchain. It is after all the most useful knowledge anyone can possess.
I used to be well into Buddhism back when I was in my 30s, but I just sort of got out of the habit of meditation specifically and mindfulness more generally over the years, but back to it in 2019. It should help me be more productive, and if it doesn’t help me with that, it will help me give less of a toss about it!
IMO the core of Buddhism is the Noble Eightfold Path, or ‘eight things you should do to realise enlightenment’, so I’ve broken down the material into 10 posts in total – an intro, 8* posts about the 8 aspects of the path and then a final concluding post.
Warning, yogalates was not one of the 8 things The Buddha suggested we all need to do to realise enlightenment, so this isn’t going to be a series of posts talking about self-love and quaint lifestyle remedies to improve your mental health.
The first part (which I published over a year ago and then never followed up on) is here: The Noble Eightfold Path: An Introduction and in this post I summarise Aspect one: right understanding.
The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path Aspect one – Right Understanding
The essence of this first aspect of the path is contained in the Buddha’s sermon on The Four Noble Truths, the first sermon the Buddha gave on realising Enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths contain within them the basic Buddhist view of the self and reality more generally and are the foundational truths that underpin the other seven aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths are
- Ordinary, mundane, human existence is inherently unsatisfactory.[i]
- The root cause that chains us to this unsatisfactory existence is selfish craving.
- There is a way of out of this unsatisfactory existence, which is Enlightenment.
- There is a means whereby one can move from unsatisfactory, conditioned existence towards Enlightenment, which is the Noble Eight Fold Path.
Truths One and Two: ordinary LIfe is unsatisfactoryTruths one and two, that mundane existence is unsatisfactory and the root cause of this is craving, are tightly fused together, and so I will start by examining these together.
Buddhists view ordinary mundane existence as inherently unsatisfactory because it consists, for the most part, of the individual seeking temporary happiness through attaching themselves to external objects, people and states believed to be desirable. The type of happiness achieved through adopting this basic happiness strategy is unsatisfactory is because it is dependent on objects outside of ourselves and thus temporary because the happiness will only ever last as long as we are linked with those objects we believe to be desirable. The ultimate cause which keeps us chained to this unsatisfactory existence is selfish craving, or I wanting.
Buddhists see truths one and two as the beginning of a cyclical process that goes something like this: I am unhappy about the way I look in my shabby old clothes and decide I want some new clothes. I expend some time and money buying my new clothes and as a result I become happy. However, after a couple of weeks and a couple of washes my clothes don’t fit me quite as well as they did when I first bought them, not to mention the fact that there’s a new fashion trend on the up, and so I once again become unsatisfied with my current clothes and want some more new ones.
This logic of happiness – The logic of ‘I will only be happy if I can attach myself to those things I desire’ is extremely widespread. It not only applies to clothes, but to a wide range of other goods and services. Consider how common the following trains of thought are: ‘I’m so bored with tuna pasta bake, but now I’ve got my new cook book, meal times will be so much more refined’; ‘now I’ve got my promotion my run-of-the-mill Citroen doesn’t suit my new job role, an Audi would be more appropriate; or it could apply to places: ‘If only I had a house in that area, my life would be so much better’; or ‘the last holiday was good but it would have been better if person x wasn’t there, so next year I’ll make sure she’s not invited’.
The tragedy of this strategy of happiness through attachment is that it is temporary and insecure, because my happiness only lasts as long as I am attached to the things that I like. Once these things or states have ceased to be, then my happiness also ceases to be. It follows that ‘happiness’ of this nature is characterized by happy highs when things are as I want them to be, interspersed by miserable lows when things are not as I want them to be: The weekend will eventually become Monday morning, Christmas Day will become Boxing Day, that session will become a hangover, and youth will become old age.
In Buddhism, even the happy high times are seen as unsatisfactory because their temporary nature means they have embedded within them the seed of further suffering. If you think about it, many of the times when we should be happy are actually tinged with misery. Sunday evening is a good example of this, a time which can sometimes be tinged by the dread-feeling of having to go to work or school on Monday morning.
This ordinary mundane existence is also unsatisfactory because it is characterised by a profound sense of unfreedom – in which I am not in control of my desires, but driven by selfish and often unconscious cravings for things outside of myself. Think about it for a moment, when I want something, where does this wanting actually come from? There are actually many theories: Biological need, childhood experiences, media-manipulation, but wherever these desires come from, the source is outside of myself. I may well nurture certain desires, but I am never the source. Craving is something I am not in control of, it is something I am subjected, something I endure, and something I desperately try to end, but always end up returning to.
The Buddhist response to this suffering or to the condition of I wanting is to realise that you cannot control or change the rest of the world. There will always be some element of the world out there that you are not in control of, there will always be things going on that you do not like. So rather than giving into externally induced wants by chasing after them to gain short term happiness only to end up back in misery, a more appropriate response is to focus on changing yourself, which in the short-term means watching and controlling your wants without acting on them. In order to do this practicing the remaining seven aspects of the Noble Eight Fold Path is crucial, as is the realisation that in so doing there lies the prospect of transcendence of the self itself, which brings us onto truths three and four.
Truth Three: enlightenment is possible
Truth three holds that it is possible to be free of craving and thus to be free from unsatisfactory mundane existence through the attainment of Enlightenment, a state which is technically beyond the comprehension of ordinary human consciousness, but which can be approximately rendered as the lived realisation of the truth of no-I.
If the notion of no-I is little difficult to accept, then try this very straightforward reflection: consider the breath. The act of breathing is just about the most vital thing to your continued existence. You can survive without food for weeks, water for days, but if you stop breathing for just 10 minutes, then you are dead. Yet breath, which is the most crucial thing for the continuation of life, is something you ultimately have no control over, in that you cannot choose to stop breathing and end your own life. Think about it: if you are so important, then why is it that you have so little control over that which is most central to your continued existence? Surely this suggests the complete irrelevance of the independent self?
From a Buddhist perspective, the notion that I actually exist as an independent phenomenon is a delusion that locks us into the cycle of I wanting and the corresponding logic of thought that if ‘I make an effort to get what I want then I will be happy’.
In Buddhism, however, there is no-I, you have no essential nature. There is nothing you can actually point to and say ‘this is my essential nature’ independent of everything else. Rather, ‘reality’ is simply a kind of holistic oneness in which everything exists in universal interconnectedness. Becoming one with this ‘universal oneness’ is essentially what enlightenment is.
This idea of Enlightenment might be a little bit hard to grasp, but that is to be expected when Enlightenment is beyond ‘I’ and thus beyond human comprehension. This actually makes it quite difficult to talk about Enlightenment, although this hasn’t actually stopped people from trying. Below I provide three conceptions of what Enlightenment is, in approximate terms.
Firstly, Enlightenment is sometimes rendered as a state of bliss consciousness. The image often used to depict it is that of The Buddha, usually seated on a lotus under a Bodhi tree and radiating light in a state of bliss consciousness. Such images appear somehow other worldly and transcendent of everything to do with this mundane human life. One way of imagining Enlightenment as transcendence which is associated with the Zen tradition (Myokyo-Ni 2001) is through the ten bull pictures, where the bull represents our ‘true nature’. These pictures envisage the Buddhist path to Enlightenment as consisting of ten stages, starting with ‘finding the bull’, which means finding our true nature, working through riding and gentling the bull, and eventually moving onto more esoteric stages. Just to give you an idea of how esoteric this rendering is, stage eight, with two more stages to Enlightenment afterwards, is ‘both man and bull forgotten’, so enough said from me, I recommend you read the book.
Even if there is a perfect state of Enlightenment that is bliss personally I[ii] do not think a transcendent notion of Enlightenment is especially useful because not only is its existence unverifiable, our chances of attaining it are remote. To my mind, for the sake of walking the N8P in the day to day, it is much more useful to dwell in a more down to earth concept of Enlightenment in which Enlightenment is either existing right here in this moment or acting out of genuine compassion for other beings, both of which essentially involve the dissolution of the self, either into whatever you are doing right now, or simply through compassionate action meaning you are putting yourself last. The former of these notions of Enlightenment appears to be most strongly associated with the Zen tradition, while the later is more the focus of the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism.
In the Zen tradition Shunryu Suzuki (2011) refers to Enlightenment as ‘nothing special’. What I think he means by this is that Enlightenment is simply the lived realisation of no-I which presupposes the dissolution of the self into whatever it is you are doing in this moment - if you are sitting in meditation, enlightenment simply means to sit and breath, if you are walking, it simply means to walk. In this interpretation of Enlightenment, we are already actually expressing our true nature by doing what it is we are doing in any given moment. That is to say that all of the qualities of an Enlightened state are already here, all we have to do is drop the ‘something else’ and realise this.
While Zen emphasises the being in this moment aspect of Enlightenment, Tibetan Buddhism seems to emphasise the joyous compassion aspect more, stressing that Enlightenment is a state in which one is free from all unnecessary cravings and self interested motivations and is thus able to act out of compassion for others. Acting out of genuine compassion for other beings is considered the most important guiding principle in life. Simply put this means that in everything you do, you should consider the wellbeing of generalised others.
This tradition also stresses that you just focus on being content with the situation you find yourself in. An advantage of this type of practice is that even if you don’t achieve full-blown transcendence then at the very least you will end up wanting a lot less and developing a much more stable happiness that is not as dependent on this-or-that.
What is useful about the above two down to earth renderings of Enlightenment are that they both enable us to see how we can really, genuinely transform the self. Even without reading anything else about Buddhism, we could all try to be a bit more focussed on what it is we are actually doing, and we can all think of ways that we could be kinder to others. Both of these interpretations probably mean it is more likely that we actually take the next steps on the Noble Eightfold Path.
Truth Four: There's a path to get from unsatisfactory mundane life to Enlightenment
Truth four, The Noble Eightfold Path is the means whereby we can move from our present unsatisfactory existence as described in truths one and two towards the Enlightenment as described in truth three. This means is the Noble Eightfold Path which is concerned with the total transformation of the self so that one’s actions move from being motivated by ignorant, narrow minded self- interest to being based in wisdom and motivated by compassion for others.
Practising the N8P can thus be conceived of as a journey from the realm of materialistic ignorance to one of enlightened wisdom.
And given the woefully unsatisfactory nature of ordinary mundane life, best get cracking immediately!
[i] The word ‘suffering’ is sometimes used instead of ‘unsatisfactory’. Thus you may have come across the first noble truth as ‘all conditioned existence is characterised by suffering’, or the very famous phrase associated with the Buddha ‘Suffering I teach and the way out of suffering’. I don’t like to use suffering because the common usage of the word implies only negative, wholly unpleasant states, yet in Buddhism, all conditioned states are unsatisfactory, even states when we are happy, because they are temporary and they are not ‘as good as’ enlightenment. Hence I think unsatisfactory is more appropriate than suffering.
[ii] Of course in saying this ‘I’ might just be forcing an interpretation onto the concept enlightenment that gives me peace of mind, because it fits in with the summation of the way that I see the world to date. Just because ‘I’ like the way certain conceptions of Enlightenment sound doesn’t mean that that is what Enlightenment is. Whatever, this is only stage 1 of the path, and the other stages involve not dwelling on intellectual meanderings about what it is that Enlightenment is and actually getting on with realising it. NB It’s also worth nothing that my analysis of Enlightenment here has stemmed from years of reading, reflecting and meditating, so I do think it’s potentially useful.
Sad etc... (they're all free!)
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