The Buddha's four
realisations led to the formulation of an eightfold path,
a 'middle way' that leads from suffering and rebirth to nirvana.
Central to Buddhism is the Buddha's realisation of four
truths namely that (1) life is suffering, (2) suffering is
caused by craving, (3) suffering can have an end, and (4)
there is a path that leads to the end of suffering.
The Four Noble Truths
The first truth may seem pessimistic, a common criticism of
Buddhism, but the Sanskrit word dukkha can be translated as
"dissatisfaction", which is perhaps easier to
accept. It refers to the fact that life is often difficult.
The human body is prone to illness and ultimately death and
while life has many pleasures, none are permanent. Even in
a happy, healthy life, a person can sometimes feel disappointed
in his relationships, work or hobbies.
The reason a person suffers, according to Buddhism, is because
they crave "good" and reject'bad'
experiences too strongly. The greatest human desire is to
exist and when something threatens a person's survival they
naturally feels anxious. On a much smaller scale a person's
everyday expectations of pleasure, if disappointed, can cause
mild suffering too.
That's not to say that all desire is wrong. Buddhism
uses two terms to describe craving: tanha refers to desire
that has become perverted, excessive or misdirected, while
chanda describes having positive goals for oneself and wishing
happiness for others.
The Buddha suggested that once a person accepts the fact
of suffering they can set in motion a process to end it. To
end suffering is to attain the state of nirvana, the cessation
of greed, hatred and delusion. He set out a path which, if
followed, can lead from suffering and rebirth to nirvana.
The Eightfold Path
This is also known as the middle way8216' because
it takes a moderate course avoiding both indulgence and austerity.
The eight elements of the path fall into three categories:
wisdom, morality and meditation, and are designed to cultivate
intellectual, moral and mental virtues respectively.
In cultivating wisdom, according to Buddhism, one must have
(1) Right Understanding and (2) Right Resolve, which mean
accepting Buddhist teachings and making a serious commitment
To develop morality one must cultivate three habits. (3)
Right Speech means not lying and always speaking thoughtfully.
(4) Right Action means physically acting in a responsible
way by not stealing, killing or over-indulging in sensual
pleasures. (5) Right Livelihood means making a living in a
way that does not negatively affect others.
Meditation is a central part of Buddhist practice and requires
more attention than can be given here. In short, it is controlling
one's mind to induce altered states of consciousness
from general calmness to deeper states of reflection that
may result in spiritual insight. (6) Right Effort means attempting
to gain control of one's thoughts and (7) Right Mindfulness
is cultivating awareness. Both are practiced not only in periods
of formal meditation but in everyday life, too. Finally (8)
Right Meditation is the practice of certain techniques, usually
in a formal situation, which are designed to induce deeper
levels of consciousness.
This concept is difficult for Westerners to accept but was
a popular belief in Asian cultures even before the Buddha's
time. While Buddhism rejects the idea of a soul, the craving
that causes our suffering in this life also propels us on
to new lives. An addiction to pleasure creates a momentum
whose energy is so great it does not cease at death but continues
its search for fulfilment into the next life. While to some
this is a comforting notion, Buddhism sees this as a negative
situation because of the suffering inherent in our craving.
To break this cycle and enter Nirvana is the goal of Buddhism.