Do not rely upon what you have heard
proclaimed, or upon custom, or upon rumour, or upon scripture, or inference or
established principles, or clever reasoning, or favouring a pet theory. Do not
be convinced by someone else's apparent intelligence, nor out of respect for a
teacher .... When you yourself know what is wrong, foolish and unworthy, and
what leads to harm and discontent, abandon it .... And when you yourself know
what is right, develop it."
A GREAT VARIETY of forms of religious practice are associated
with the word 'Buddhism'. However, they all take Siddhattha Gotama, who lived
and taught in northern India some 2,500 years ago, as their source or
inspiration. It was he who in historical times became known as the 'Buddha'-
that is 'the Awakened One', one who has attained great wisdom through their own
efforts. The Buddha did not write anything down, but left a remarkable legacy in
the form of a teaching (the Dharma) that was at first orally- transmitted by the
religious Order (the Sangha) that he founded and personally guided for
This Order has survived the centuries, preserving the wisdom
of the Buddha in lifestyle as well as in words. To this day, these three
elements, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, are known and respected by all
Buddhists as 'The Three Refuges' or 'The Triple Gem'. They have also come to
symbolise Wisdom, Truth and Virtue - qualities that we can develop in ourselves.
After the Buddha's time, his teaching was carried from India
throughout Asia, and even further. As it spread, it was affected by its
encounters with local cultures, and several 'schools' of Buddhism eventually
emerged, Broadly speaking, there are three such schools: Theravada ('The
Teaching of the Elders'), which still thrives in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand;
Mahayana ('The great vehicle'), which embraces the various traditions within
China, Korea and Japan; and Vajrayana ('The diamond vehicle'), which is
associated primarily with Tibet. Teachers from all schools have made their way
to the West. Some preserve their lineages as found in the country of origin,
while others have adopted less traditional approaches. The approach and the
quotations used below are from the Theravada.
THE BUDDHIST PATH
The Buddha taught a path of spiritual awakening, a way of
'practice', that we can use in our daily lives. This 'Path of Practice' can be
divided into three mutually supportive aspects - Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom.
"Where there is uprightness, wisdom is
and where there is wisdom, uprightness is there.
To the upright there is wisdom,
to the wise there is uprightness,
and wisdom and goodness are declared to be the best things in the world."
You can make a formal commitment to the Buddha's Path of
Practice by requesting the Three Refuges and Five Precepts from a monk or nun at
a Buddhist monastery, or by taking them by yourself at home. Taking the Refuges
implies a commitment to live according to principles of Wisdom, Truth and
Virtue, using the teachings and example of the Buddha. The Five Precepts are
training rules to follow in daily life:
- To refrain from killing living creatures
- To refrain from taking what is not given
- To refrain from sexual misconduct
- To refrain from harsh and false speech
- To refrain from taking intoxicating liquor and drugs
Someone living in this way develops the self-discipline and
sensitivity necessary to cultivate meditation, the second aspect of the Path.
Meditation, as the term is used in common parlance, is the
repeated focusing of attention upon an image, a word or a theme in order to calm
the mind and consider the meaning of that image or word. In the Buddhist
practice of insight meditation, this focusing of attention also has another
purpose - to more fully understand the nature of the mind. This can be done by
using the meditation object as a still reference point to help in revealing the
attitudes that are otherwise buried beneath the mind's surface activity. The
Buddha encouraged his disciples to use their own bodies and minds as objects of
meditation. A common object, for example, is the sensation associated with the
breath during the process of normal breathing. If one sits still, closes the
eyes and focuses on the breath, in due time clarity and calm will arise. In this
state of mind, tensions, expectations and habitual moods can be more clearly
discerned and, through the practice of gentle but penetrative enquiry, resolved.
The Buddha taught that it was possible to maintain meditation
in the course of daily activity as well as while sitting still in one place. One
can focus attention on the movement of the body, the physical feelings that
arise, or the thoughts and moods that flow through the mind. This mobile
attentiveness is called ‘mindfulness’.
The Buddha explained that through mindfulness one realises an
attention that is serene. Although it is centred on the body and mind it is
dispassionate and not bound up with any- particular physical or mental
experience. This detachment is a foretaste of what Buddhists call Nibbana (Nirvana) - a state of peace and happiness independent of circumstances. Nibbana
is a ‘natural’ state, that is, it is not something we have to add to our
true nature, it is the way the mind is when it is free from pressure and
confused habits. Just as waking up dispels the dream state naturally, the mind
that has become clear through mindfulness is no longer over-shadowed by
obsessive thoughts, doubts and worries.
However, although mindfulness is the basic tool to use, we
generally need some pointers as to how to establish the right objectivity about
ourselves and how to assess what mindfulness reveals. This is the function of
the wisdom-teachings of the Buddha.
The most generally used wisdom-teachings of the Buddha are not
statements about God or Ultimate Truth. The Buddha felt that such statements
could lead to disagreement, controversy and even violence. Instead, Buddhist
wisdom describes what we can all notice about life without having to adopt a
belief. The teachings are to be tested against one's experience. Different
people may find different ways of expressing Truth; what really counts is the
validity of the experience and whether it leads to a wiser and more
compassionate way of living. The teachings then serve as tools to clear the mind
of misunderstanding. When the mind is clear, Ultimate Truth, in whatever way one
finds to express it, becomes apparent.
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© Amaravati Publications
The Four Noble Truths
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