Written by Ubasika Edna Lake
Buddhist Dhamma or teaching is encapsulated in the Four Noble Truths – the truth that suffering is universal, that its cause can be known, it may be brought to an end and the Noble Eightfold Path will lead to the cessation of suffering.
The word “suffering” often arouses resistance in the mind of the listener who may think of the kind of suffering we may experience with a broken leg, and obviously we do not experience that kind of suffering all the time; perhaps never. The pali word used originally is Dukkha, and this has a much broader meaning. It means the kind of frustration we feel when things are not as we would wish them to be. It also refers to the grief we know when someone we love dies; to the disappointment caused by changes, to the everyday pin-pricks which we all experience every day, as well as to major events of a catastrophic nature.
The Buddha offers no guarantee of happiness or of redemption, he was a man and not a god, but having found the way of release from dukkha he described it as a path which anyone may discover for himself by purely mundane means. He offered advice and encouragement to his followers, which is still relevant today. Above all he advised us that we have to find and tread the path ourselves and we should not accept any of the teaching unless we can verify it for ourselves. There is no question of blind faith in, or of worshipping the Buddha. It is good to study Buddhist philosophy so as to understand the various concepts, but more important is the practice of morality, generosity, loving-kindness, compassion and equanimity, which purify the mind. The practical way towards enlightenment is via meditation and the development of wisdom.
Doubt is not discouraged unless it is the kind of skeptical doubt which refuses to enquire into the teaching, is completely negative, or is based upon the indecision which paralyses thought. We are free to question, to investigate, to see for ourselves the truth about dukkha and the natural laws which govern the world. It is by observing what actually happens in our life, rather than forming opinions of what ought to be, that we come to see the law of cause and effect in action.
Buddhism focuses on the mind, since this is the only instrument we have for understanding the world. Unfortunately it often creates fantasies and distortions of reality, unless it is trained to see clearly.
We are very much influenced by our likes and dislikes, by opinions, memories and expectations, which distort our perception of reality and often cause difficulties. Much of the dukkha mentioned in the Four Noble Truths is caused by such mental states as greed, clinging, craving, aversion and delusion. Memory of what was, expectations of what will be; in particular the wish to uphold and protect the inner self, or me, are potent sources of pain. This “me” or ego is fully explored later since it is one of the first delusions to be removed on the path to liberation.
The chief cause of conflict is the wish to have pleasure and avoid pain, but we soon discover that no pleasure is permanently gratifying. We get tired of things which at first seem interesting; and a pleasant sensation, too long prolonged, can become painful. It is actually by giving up clinging that we can get freedom from dissatisfaction.
There is a kind of desire which is wholesome. This is the desire for perfect emptiness or freedom from craving, aversion and delusion. At present perhaps we fear emptiness, equating it with boredom or with loss of satisfaction it is only by experiencing it that we can know what the freedom of emptiness is like.
Buddhist teaching is made up of many strands which cross and intertwine. Theories cannot be put into separate boxes. For example dukkha must be thought of, and described, as one of the truths about the nature of existence. It is also mentioned in the discussion about birth and rebirth, the fetters which bind us to existence, and so no. Gradually we come to see the relationship between the different aspects of the one topic so that everything becomes clearer.
Meditation is one way of coming to understand the truth. I would like to start with that, and follow the trails which arise as we consider how we meditate, why we do it, and what are the kinds of discoveries we may make.