Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama, better known as Buddha, is regarded historically as the founder of the religion called Buddhism, but that was not his intention and were he alive today he would disavow any connection with the religion that has grown up around his name.
Buddhism is a cultural product and is a very far cry indeed from the simple teachings of Buddha on how to free ourselves from the illusions that cause our suffering. What Buddha offered was a beautifully simple, unique, and yet detailed description of The Way of The Livingness.
While his teachings have been corrupted when codified into a religion and, like all great teachers discussed here, his teachings were a blend of true philosophy, science and religion, what he particularly gave to humanity was perhaps the most profound psychological insights ever offered.
He knew that the cause of human distress lay in our minds, so his teachings focussed especially on how our minds lead us to the poor choices that result in our suffering, and how to arrest this.
Buddha was born an Indian prince, who lived in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. His father had heard a prophecy that his son would see the misery of the world and abandon the palace and his life as a prince to become a spiritual leader, and as Buddha was the heir to the throne, his father took great care to keep him sequestered in the palace from the squalor and misery outside of it. The story goes that he persuaded his father to allow him out of the palace; his father did so but only after he had ‘cleansed’ the streets of anything that could disturb the young prince. The young prince was only intended to see happy, young people enjoying life. However, he came across a frail old man and in essence his world was turned on its head – he saw that people get old. He was moved by the man’s condition to further explore the world, leaving the palace a few more times he witnessed a sick man, a dead man and according to Buddhist custom, a wise man.
What is unique about Siddhartha Gautama is that he witnessed this simply as the reality of the world; he saw the world as it truly was, with the fact that old age, sickness and death comes to us all. In this he observed that life was a misery that always included the pain of birth, sickness, old age and death. The prince was appalled and vowed to leave the comforts of his old life, become a renunciate and seek out the causes of this misery.
Siddhartha Gautama travelled far and wide in ancient India, studied with many teachers of diverse traditions and undertook many of the austerities prescribed for religious renunciates in that era, including fasting and extreme physical endeavours such as sleeping on a bed of thorns, starving himself and sitting for many days in motionless meditation, but all to no avail: the answer to the causes of suffering eluded him.
He became aware that a life of luxury offered no answers and neither did the life of the extreme ascetic – neither led the Way to Truth.
Finally he elected to abandon self-torture and sat under a tree, resolving to not arise from that position until the answer came to him. He sat for 49 days and nights, determined to find the source of all pain and suffering. He overcame the astral temptations that were sent to stop him in his quest. Buddhist scriptures describe ‘Mara’ (a demon) sending very real images of sensuality to invoke lust and desire, emotional scenes to enrage him or instil fear or to inspire pride, all to distract him from his quest. Symbolically Mara represents the psychological nature of all our cravings and attachments that keep us from experiencing the absolute truth. Buddha was unwavering in his commitment to his purpose and was not swayed by the temptations he was presented with. He recognised that Mara, and each ‘temptation’, were empty, in the sense that they only had substance if the mind gave them that power.
He no longer searched for what he was seeking outside of himself, but realised that all that was true was to be found within.
Having done that, he was then able to set forth teachings that allowed others to renounce and detach themselves from the delusions and enticements of the world, what he called ‘craving’, and ignite the same fire within themselves.
He overcame desire because of the profound recognition of the emptiness of such phenomena. Although laden with thousands of years of misinterpretation, this can most accurately be understood as an understanding of the illusion of creation.
In this process Buddha understood the nature of all things arising in creation and was able to withstand its temptations.
This experience is called Buddha’s enlightenment, his awakening; the name Buddha means ‘Awakened One’. From his awakening he began his mission to spread the truth of the causes of human suffering, to release humanity from its binds to the illusions that cause all suffering.
Buddha went on to teach for many years after his enlightenment. His teachings were supremely practical: his goal was to provide humanity with guidelines that would allow us to free ourselves from the delusions that lead to our suffering. If we consider Buddha’s teachings today we can see he was a master of psychology, with a depth of understanding the human condition. He had lived as a rich man, a ruler, a father and a renunciate and had observed humanity closely in all its ways; he was not a man who dwelled in a cave apart from people, but a man engaged with others. He taught from his enlightenment at 35 right up until his last moments at 80 years of age.
Buddha’s teachings began with the Four Noble Truths.
1. The first Noble Truth. The first of these is that life for almost all is marked by dissatisfaction and a sense of unease. We live in tension and anxiety at various levels, not living in connection with the present and fearful of the future. This, Buddha says, is due to the three marks of existence in our embodied state in this material world, the three characteristics of all created things.
The first of these is impermanence. Everything that exists in creation comes into existence and then passes away; nothing in creation is permanent. The world of creation is a constant flux of change; as Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher of the same period, said ‘everything flows’. But this irrefutable fact of existence creates anxiety for us because we strive for a sense of security, a comfort, in things staying the same. We feel comfortable in what we have become accustomed to and fear and try to prevent disturbances in that. But it is all impossible because impermanence and change is a basic and unalterable characteristic of life; all our resistance to this fact leads to our dissatisfaction and sense of unease.
The second mark of existence in creation is that it is inherently unsatisfactory, less than what we know we are and are from. We are fundamentally Divine beings who have lost our way in the apparent delights and indulgences of the material world. But deep down we know we are much more than this plane of life can offer, and whatever it will offer will never satisfy us. We can seek as much solace as we want here, but it will never suffice.
Our activities in creation will always be much less than what we know is our true destiny. The pull of our Soul to evolve never ceases, and at some level, however unconscious, we are aware of this and the evolution it offers. The fact of our fallen state of existence we feel as our dissatisfaction and tension in life, a fundamental trait of existence in creation.
The third mark of existence is translated as ‘no self’. This teaching has been badly corrupted in much of codified Buddhism as amounting to both a claim of atheism and a lack of any abiding non-material essence of us like the spirit and Soul. But this was not Buddha’s intention.
What he meant by ‘no self’ is that nothing in creation exists on its own, separate from all else in creation. Nothing exists on its own; everything is interconnected with everything else. Failing to recognise this fundamental feature of existence, we regularly seek to rip an object from this interconnectivity and seek to appropriate it for ourselves, to meet our own ends apart from those of others. But this leads to suffering both for ourselves and others, because the bounty of creation is meant for everyone, not a select few. Those who have successfully seized the desired object suffer the constant tension of the fear of losing it, while those who lack it, but desire it, feel the pangs of jealousy and the constant tension of striving for the unattainable. Further, this downward path of desire, its resultant fear of loss or greed for attainment, has no end. The need to acquire never supplies lasting satisfaction, or, as Buddha put it, such ‘thirst is unquenchable’.
2. The second Noble Truth follows from the first: it states that suffering has a cause, and that cause is selfish craving. Selfish craving leads to suffering because we crave objects in creation and all such objects have the three marks of existence: impermanence; inherent unsatisfactoriness – because they are always much less than what we know we are from and belong to – and interconnectivity to everything. Because of these three marks, they cannot but disappoint us when we desire to appropriate them for ourselves, and so we crave to acquire more and more in the forlorn hope that more will satisfy. But this only compounds the problem and therefore escalates the tension and unease we feel in life.
3. So is there a way out? Yes, and that is the third Noble Truth: selfish craving can be ended, and when one has achieved this state, that is nirvana, literally, ‘the blowing out’ of the fire of craving, so that we have true awareness of the way things are. Nirvana is no more than this; it is not the achievement of some transcendent state of utter quiescence, as is the misapprehension of so many, who really just have imagined another form of escape. Buddha’s teachings were never about escape from life, but in living life in all its full and vivid suchness that is our true birthright. What is the way, then, to end selfish craving?
4. That is the fourth Noble Truth: selfish craving can be destroyed by following the Eightfold Path.
The core of Buddha’s teachings on how to live life on a daily basis in full love, truth, joy and harmony were presented in what is referred to as The Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path consists of eight spokes that cover our thoughts, words and actions.
1. The first is Right Understanding. This means having a true understanding of what life is about and its problems – not living in a delusion that some God or force will free us of them or has visited them upon us. We need to understand that we ourselves in our choices create our problems, and, foremost our choices are deluded by the fact that we do not recognise the truth of the Four Noble Truths and the three marks of existence.
2. The next is Right Intention. This is the resolve to free ourselves and others of the suffering that comes from not having Right Understanding. We resolve to live in the ways of the Eightfold Path so as to end our selfish craving and to act in such loving ways as to reflect this to others, so that they can recognise this possibility and choose this path themselves, always recognising their right by free will to choose otherwise. Crucial to Right Intention is recognising that all of us are equal and carry the same basic spark of Divinity within us to re-awaken and respond to the pull of the Soul; this is called ‘Buddha nature’. Whatever we do, this can never be defiled; however lost a person may seem, that nature is still within and equal to everyone else’s.
The next three aspects of the eightfold path deal with our behaviour; they can be summarised as bringing love to all that we do and never accepting anything less than love.
3. The First behavioural aspect is Right Speech: speaking truthfully and in ways that promote our own and other’s growth, never in ways that diminish or harm.
4. Next is Right Conduct, acting only in ways that build self-love in ourselves and reflect love to others.
5. Last comes Right Livelihood, which means working in jobs that benefit humanity and aid our evolution back to our Divine Source, not in those which retard it, harm our fellow humans and encourage their indulgences in illusion.
The final three aspects of the eightfold path deal with training our minds to free ourselves from our illusions and indulgences and to choose to align to the pull of our Soul. In order to understand these, it is necessary to be aware of Buddha’s teachings of the working of our mental processes and how they lead to craving and then suffering, on which he gave very detailed descriptions.
Buddha described the workings of our minds in terms of the five ‘aggregates’.
- The first of these is our embodied form, which includes our five sense organs plus the sixth, the mind and its imaginations and fantasies.
- From their focus on objects, either external in the material world through the five sense organs or internal in our minds, we generate sensations or impressions; this is the second aggregate of sensations.
- Next is the aggregate of perceptions, which is the identification of what these sensations are. The aggregate of sensation sees the colour blue, but that of perception identifies it as blue.
- Then follows the aggregate of evaluations, in which we choose how to respond to these perceptions, either with attachment or aversion, and produce states of mind toward the perceptions like attention, repugnance, desire to attain, etc. This is the crucial stage at which, if we lack Right Understanding and are lost in ignorance, the evaluations we produce are sunk in illusion and ignorance and bind us further to choose acts which pull us away from the Soul and retard our growth.
- Finally, there is the aggregate of consciousness, which is our constant state of awareness that underlies and makes possible the operation of the other four.
How this explanation of our mental processes relates to the production of suffering is explained in Buddha’s teaching of Interdependent Origination.
The Law of Cause and Effect is crucial here; nothing happens without a cause, and all effects have a cause. Interdependent Origination describes the closed circular chain of twelve causes that leads to suffering in the plane of our material existence.
Because the chain of causes is always represented as a closed circle, we can start anywhere, no cause presupposes the others, but conventionally we start with ignorance. Ignorance is a stubborn refusal to recognise the way things truly are, and accept the Four Noble Truths and the three marks of existence, that is, to deny Right Understanding. Through ignorance and the momentum of poor choices we have built up, we live with a clouded and confused consciousness.
As a thread, underneath this cloud pure Buddha nature always remains, but it has become obscured due to our past ill choices.
From this confused and clouded consciousness, we pollute our mental states with delusional ideals and beliefs. These in turn predispose our five senses and mental states to seek out objects that are unwholesome for our growth. Our senses are attracted to objects that are unwholesome. The cycle continues, for these in turn result in sensations tied to these unwholesome objects. On the basis of these sensations and the resulting perceptions and evaluations of the objects as desirable or repugnant, we then develop craving to grasp the desired objects and repel the repugnant ones. Then on the basis of this craving we act to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want.
All these actions, when they are tied to a deluded belief in an independent, pervading and separate self (as they must in one steeped in ignorance and lacking Right Understanding of the three marks of existence), cause us to behave in selfish, disharmonious ways, which binds us to delusions of the material world and continues the dysfunction and suffering of humanity.
The clouded consciousness that Buddha so precisely described results from seeking solace in the wrong places, in the shimmering seemingly desirable objects of the material world, which, because of the three marks of existence, will never suffice. Buddha instructed that the way to cut this chain of cause and effect is to retrain the deluded and clouded consciousness.
The last three spokes of the Eightfold Path deal with retraining the mind in exactly this way.
The first of these is Right Effort, which is the resolve to avert our five senses and mental states from unwholesome objects that retard our growth, toward wholesome ones that advance it. We redirect our mind toward the goal of the advancement of ourselves and all of humanity, the true purpose of our life, back toward our Divine source.
The next, Right Attention, is to bring awareness to all that we do, bringing the acts of our body and the states of our mind into harmonic alignment, so that we do not act carelessly or absentmindedly. And these acts we do in Right Attention accomplished in Right Conduct are acts of love, acts which advance our own and others’ freedom from the delusions which have resulted in such suffering over the ages.
Finally, the last is Right Concentration. This is often misunderstood narrowly as the practice of formal meditation sessions developing one pointed concentration, but its meaning is quite different and far wider than that. It means watching with great care and attention the workings of our mind so as to retrain it. We vigilantly watch our minds, the objects, sensations and emotions that are attracted or repelled by it, and when they drift towards those that are unwholesome, we pull it away from these and toward those that are wholesome. Any object or sensation to which the mind is pulled is interrogated under the three marks of existence to determine its true value for us or its lack thereof: does it advance our growth by responding to the pull of the Soul or retard it by deepening in the shadows of delusion?
Buddha showed that by living the Eightfold Path and making right choices, gradually we free ourselves of the craving that has tied us to delusions and the resulting suffering, and we step into the clear Light of true awareness.
Buddha's teachings came from a profound experience, an experience that was a realisation of the absolute truth; the fundamental source of all existence. Simply to study these teachings, as universally encompassing as they are, as a way to free ourselves from suffering, misses the living reality to which Buddha was a living testament. He was the first man in our recorded history to defeat Maya (that is, seeing the nature of things as they actually are) by the power of his own being and bring that awareness to all who chose to listen. The foundation of the teachings is first and foremost this experience.
What is key here is that the teachings may prepare the mind for the experience but they are not the transformative experience itself.
No longer was real awakening to our divinity a possibility only for monks and holy men engaged in tortuous practices, but now it was available for any earnest seeker after truth in the embrace of his company. This included women and all social orders; social status held no place in brotherhood.