Buddhism began with Siddhārtha Gautama Shakyamuni. History tells us he was born a prince 2500 years ago, son of the King Śuddhodana. His father wished him to be shielded from religion and human suffering to become a great king. He married at sixteen and had a son himself. The story goes that at twenty nine he ventured beyond the palace walls and came upon old age, sickness, death, and asceticism. He wished to know more, so left his family and future to study with meditation masters. Unsatisfied with their teachings, he and friends gave up all possessions and pleasures to find inner satisfaction.
At thirty five he nearly starved himself to death through personal deprivation in search of enlightenment. Siddhartha is said to have taken milk and rice pudding from a village girl and realized that neither extreme of sensual pleasures nor deprivation was the path he sought. I prefer the story in which he saw a musician playing an instrument and realized that we must follow the middle path, as the string cannot be either too loose or too tight to function properly. This was the basis of his enlightenment as he saw into the depth of suffering and realized that attachment to desires was the cause and letting go of the attachment and leading a virtuous life was the solution.
He wandered India teaching for forty five years. The Buddha's final words are reported to have been: "All composite thing are perishable (impermanent). Strive for your own liberation with diligence." According to tradition, the Buddha emphasized ethics and correct understanding. He questioned everyday notions of divinity and salvation. He stated that there is no intermediary between mankind and the divine; gods are subjected to karma themselves and the Buddha is only a guide and teacher for beings who must tread the path of enlightenment themselves to attain the spiritual awakening and understand reality.
The Buddhist system of insight and meditation practice is not claimed to have been divinely revealed, but to spring from an understanding of the true nature of the mind, which must be discovered by following the path guided by the Buddha's teachings. What follows is my personal understanding of Buddhist wisdom culled from my years of study from books, videos, teachers, meetings, and my own personal experience of life.
A note on Theism: Buddhism has no God. Although many Buddhists pray, there is no entity that is all power, knowledge and presence. Such a higher power could easily be seen as refuge, or savior to rescue us from our troubles we may come to be dependent upon. Without this, we are somewhat naked and forced to relate to ourselves as is, on our own personal experience.
Buddhists do take refuge, but it is in the Buddhas (enlightened ones or teachers), the dharma (teachings) and the sangha (community), The closest things to a god I have found is alaya, which translates to home, as in Himalaya; the home of snow, and the yidam deities of Vajrayana. These deities are "personifications of your particular nature."
I find the most important and foundational problem of life to be a lack of understanding of our own personal experience. I call this "PPPS.". We tend to think what happens in our life is personal, permanent, pervasive (our whole life), and serious. This entity that is self is the root of most of our problems. A favorite Zen saying of mine is "I am - the cause of all misery." The Buddhist solution that I find very effective is dismantling this small and scared self and realigning with greater good and higher law, the "One Self." My favorite way of achieving this is through the five aggregates.
First, dismantling the small self. This is very important because many people fear anything that is an "ism," especially if they are followers of another "ism." But Buddhism is simply about understanding the self, the egoic or false self in particular, that we may find the "True Self." We simply seek to understand the self that we may abandon this small and think and do what is best for all. The Buddhist self is called "atman," and the goal: "non-self," is called "anatman."." Perhaps the "three prisons" are me, myself, and mine.
The Five Aggregates or Heaps:
1. Form or Matter. Externally this is the world and all creation, personally it is our bodies and sense organs in particular.
2. Sensations, Feelings, or Emotions. We experience these as pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.
3. Perceptions, Distinctions, Discriminating Awareness. Occurs when something is recognized just as it is prior to thinking such as the sight of a tree, the sound of a bell, or the taste of sugar.
4. Thoughts, Ideas, Opinions, Beliefs, etc. "Mental Formations" we have created to understand ourselves, our lives, and our world.
5. Consciousness, Cognizance, or Discernment. The over-riding system that processes and organizes all of the information of our thinking and experience.
The great importance and value of the aggregates is a much better understanding of how we operate on so many levels. When we have a good understanding of how we work, how we make an identity of the "PPPS" experience of life we can disassemble it and let it go. Life really isn't PPPS, we just thought it was! A modern example is the computer: if you unhook the monitor, the processor, the keyboard, the mouse, the wi-fi, and the printer, where is the computer? The wi-fi, keyboard, and mouse are the sense organs that collect information (input), the monitor images (imagines) the information and the processor processes information (thinks) like the mind, and the wi-fi and printer communicate the information to others either through words or actions like the body. Like us, the computer is an entity that consists of the sum of its parts, so is lost when disassembled.
Another way out of the small self is Dependant Origination (Oneness/Interbeing), or how everything is connected. From Thic Nhat Hanh: "For a table to exist, we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. Each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. Each of those things, in turn, has to be brought about by other causes and conditions. If we continue to look in this way, we'll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one."
This is good reason to let go of our small and scared self and connect with the big picture of greater good and higher law. It allows a peace, quiet, and calmness to come into our lives as we connect to all creation through-out all time and space in true at-one-ment. This practice and awareness leads to the possibility of breaking the chains of suffering and finding the total freedom of Nirvana which translates as "to blow out". What are we blowing out? All preconceived notions of this personal, permanent, serious ME binding us to limiting opinions, ideas, and beliefs that keep us trapped in a hell of our own making.
I find this to be of great value and comfort. Life is not really all about me. Through this liberating new awareness or "enlightenment" our world is turned upside down unto "we." Only then can we be truly of service in the world. Next we will explore in depth "The Three Poisons" that cause us so much suffering when we are caught in their grip.
The Three Poisons:
1. Attachment (Desire/Passion/Greed): is often translated as desire, but the problem isn't wanting something, rather an extreme attachment to that desire. If we translate "de" to "of," and "sire" to "father" then desires become God given, and so virtuous. Trouble ensues when we become self righteous about them and make other people and things wrong. I want to get eight hours sleep, but if I don't it is much wiser to accept that reality and do the best I can rather than become upset.
2. Aversion (Anger/Aggression/Hatred): is the "don't want" side. I like to finish work on time, but if I get angry because I'm stuck later it is poisonous for me. I have kicked and thrown things in a fit of rage, hating my company, bosses, and job at times. A very illuminating aspect of this problem is becoming aware of aversion at the low level of annoyance, irritation, and aggravation before it escalates. This level is so common we consider it normal and justified, but it is a slippery slope and fast slide into a living hell of our own making.
3. Ignorance (Confusion/Bewilderment/Delusion): is 1. When we just don't care, and so ignore opportunities or suffering in ourselves, others, and the world. 2. We don't quite know what we are thinking or feeling so just spin around uselessly in our heads and life dazed and confused. 3. We "mistake a rope for a snake" or similar delusions where we are making decisions based on wrong information or misunderstandings.
Together these three cause a multitude of problems. Understanding and identifying how they work in our lives and world is HUGE. They also play into the next topic and foundational principle of the "Four Noble Truths" where we look into our personal suffering in order to come out the other side a fully functioning, virtuous person, ready to do our very important part in the world.
The Four Noble Truths:
1. The problem of life is it has suffering. This is usually stated as life is suffering, but that statement tends to skew life towards suffering, inferring there is little else. It is true, life is suffering, but life is love, joy, and well being as well. Therefore, I don't take suffering or well being as seriously as I used to so now enjoy the Buddhist quotes: "Stand up in praise of your misery!" and "suffering is not enough!" The point is that we can't eliminate problems, difficulties, and unpleasantness from our lives completely or have things the way we want all the time.
This is why it is said: "there is no cure for hot and cold." Extreme heat or cold can be unpleasant, even deadly, but it isn't personal. This is also why we hear "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." We too often consider the facts of life such as pain, hot, cold, and other situations as negative when they are in fact neutral. It is our own beliefs and opinions of these facts that overlays suffering onto them. This is just as true for "positive" things like good health, prosperity, and others, as attachment to these can be just as painful when lost.
2. The cause of suffering is excess concern for self, or ego. Ego in this sense is selfish, meaning deeply personal. This is manifested through "the three poisons" or unwholesome roots of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Ignorance (Confusion/Bewilderment/Delusion) is the foundational principle as we take our thinking, bodies, others, and the world much to concretely and seriously (see Aggregates above). This sucks us into extreme desire for what we want and hatred for what we don't want (i.e. attachment and aversion).
A classic example is the monkey trap. If you tether a jar with a small opening to a tree and put a piece of fruit inside a monkey will grab hold of the fruit but can't get it's hand out because the opening is too small. The monkey will allow itself to be captured rather than let go of one small piece of food. Like the monkey we become attached to comfort, possessions, ideas, and other things, clinging to them even unto death.
3. The cure is awareness and surrender. We can let go. This is called "cessation of suffering." When we realize the origin of suffering as our own beliefs, we create an opening or opportunity for freedom and choice. This is usually done through meditation by taming, training, and transforming the mind, more about that further on. Here is where we learn that "loss/gain, shame/fame, praise/blame, pleasure/pain, all same."
4. The Eightfold Path:
1. Right View (Perspective/Outlook/Understanding): is seeing life and the world as it really is, not through rose colored glasses, or a glass darkly. Either one is overlaying our belief systems and opinions over the true and neutral nature of life. Right view is clarity, is wisdom, and an understanding of life that colors all the other paths leading to a full, rich, and virtuous life. Thic Nhat Hnah also advises refraining from a closed mind, rather, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness, and do not avoid looking at suffering.
2. Right Intention (Thought/Resolve/Aspiration): is renouncing worldly things and ill will in favor of greater good, non-violence, and harmlessness. It seems an intention, dedication, and commitment we resolve towards prior to setting out. A predisposition towards what is right, right from the start. Thic Nhat Hnah advises not to maintain anger or hatred, rather to transform them into compassion.
3. Right Speech: is refraining from false, abusive, divisive speaking and idle chatter. Speaking what is factual, true, beneficial, uniting, endearing, agreeable, and timely. Thic Nhat Hanh calls it "loving speech," a truly fitting addition as love entails compassion, forgiveness, kindness, authentic presence, and caring for others. Hanh also advises not to criticize or condemn what you are unsure of.
4. Right Actions or Conduct: are refraining from warring, killing, stealing, and sexual abuse. Also working to end social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. Thic Nhat Hanh also advises to: avoid controlling others, not to seek fame, wealth, or sensual pleasures, rather to live simply and share time, energy, and resources. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding. Make every effort to resolve all conflicts. Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body only as an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of the Way. And lastly, sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment.
5. Right Livelihood: means not to engage in trades or occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm for others, all life, and our mother earth. Also being honest and ethical in business, not to lie, cheat, or steal.
6. Right Effort (Endeavors, Diligence): is efforts to abandon all wrong and harmful thoughts, words, and deeds. Instead persisting to give rise to what is good and useful to ourselves and others in thoughts, words, and deeds, without concern for the difficulty involved.
7. Right Mindfulness (Awareness/Attention): Do not lose yourself in distractions, rather, be aware of the present moment. Constantly keeping our minds alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind, making sure not to act or speak due to inattention or forgetfulness.
8. Right Concentration or Meditation: can be developed through mindfulness, visual objects, and through recalling or repeating phrases (mantras) until every everyday experience is meditation.
The Four Immeasurables: I mention these because many people are enmeshed in anger, negativity, shaming, blaming, and violence. To counteract these poisons it may be helpful to meditate on these virtues instead. I must caution however, that suffering must be meditated upon as well, brought to light and resolved (pull the weeds) for these to take root and flourish well.
1. Loving-Kindness: the hope and wish that all persons and beings, without exception, be happy.
2. Compassion: the hope and wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.
3. Empathetic Joy: rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all persons and sentient beings.
4. Equanimity: learning to accept loss and gain, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and shame. All with equal detachment, for oneself and for friend, enemy, or stranger.
Three Seals or Marks of Existence: These are here because they are just so darn important and will come up in reading and conversations, so it may be helpful to have an understanding of them.
1. Impermanence: refers to the fact that all conditioned thing are in a constant state of flux. In reality there is nothing that ultimately ceases to exist; only the appearance of a thing ceases as it changes from one form to another. water, sun, and earth react with seeds to become trees to grow and die and become water, dust, and earth. So too with life situations, as all arise, display, and dissolve.
2. Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness: Nothing found in the physical world or even the psychological realm can bring lasting deep satisfaction. Please remember though, life "has" suffering and dissatisfaction, not "is" suffering and dissatisfaction. The only way I can deal with this sad truth is to say that the game is worth it with all its ups and downs. The "playing field" of life is going to see victories and failures, triumph and tragedy. I consider it much better to "get in the game" than sit on the side lines, playing it safe, watching, as others enjoy plying whether they win or lose.
3. Non-self: I started out with this (see five aggregates above) as I find it the most basic, problematic, and transformational of all Buddhist teachings. Even our bodies were built to create separation as we differentiate between this and that with our "stereoscopic" senses of two eyes and ears. We see and hear things as separate and it starts a pattern that colors everything we think and believe. The most foundational being me as different and separate from you and everything else.
There are actually two antidotes. The first is disassembling the self as in the five aggregates, and the other is in dependant origination or emptiness. Emptiness can also be thought of as "empty of any separate self," that everything is connected intimately and infinitely in an intricate and all encompassing web of oneness (Indras web). You also saw that above in Tich Nhat Hanh's description of dependant origination. I could go on but it all comes together as you will see.
Next up, Karma, the "cosmic cashier." Perhaps cosmic accountant is more precise, as karma supposedly keeps an account of all our deeds, mental and physical. This is how karma is generally regarded, as something we have, as a baggage of sorts. I prefer to think of karma as something we do, "instant karma" as John Lennon sang. This applies to my view of rebirth also, moment to moment, rather than lifetime to lifetime.
With this view, what we do is very important, as our "states" (also mental or physical) become "traits," as actions become habitual. The ripples of our actions then spread out to others and the world ripples from a stone tossed into a pond. These ripples come not only from us, but to us, also from others and the world. Should we poison our world or relationships, these too will come around to haunt us one way or another, as it is sometimes said; "time wounds all heals."
Next we will cover the three main schools, or Yanas (vehicles) of Buddhist practice and some of their terms: Hinyana; the older or lower school, Mahayana; the newer or higher school, and Vajrayana; the indestructible vehicle. We begin with what is: our basic goodness as well as our addictions and dysfunction. All quotes are from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche unless noted.
1. The Hinayana path: provides the framework practices of Shila discipline, Samadhi meditation, and Prajna wisdom:
Shila: "That which cools off neurotic heat" translates as discipline or ethics. Here one stabilizes one's self. For example with sitting meditation we visualize ourselves as a tree or mountain solid and serene. "We follow the Buddha's example so that our state of mind becomes workable."
Samadhi: With a foundation of shila discipline, we practice samadhi (meditation). There are two basic types of meditation. We first practice Shamathha calming, stillness, tranquility meditation, then Vipasyana insight or clear seeing meditation. Meditation acts to slow and simplify our lives, learning to "be" rather than always doing or having (acquiring).
The most basic style of meditation is to focus our perception (not thinking) of the breath while sitting or walking quietly to bring us out of thinking and into perceiving the body. This has the quality of stabilizing or restraining our emotions, addictions, etc. This helps build emotional and meditative health as we become kinder, gentler, friendlier and more accepting and authentic.
With practice we eventually relax our anxieties and drama to find peace and calm. This Trungpa calls "cool boredom" as we become "in tune with the power of the practice." Here we also develop empathy for ourselves, forgiveness for our transgressions, caring for our inner child, and enjoyment of ourselves as we are.
Prajna: With a solid foundation of shamatha, prajna discriminating awareness (transcendent knowledge, or wisdom) arises. This is the power and presence needed to cut through ego and the suffering it causes.
2. The Mahayana path of Bodhicitta: "Bodhi" translates as awakened and "citta" as heart or mind, so bodhicitta is the enlightened heart and mind of awakening and compassion. Persons who follow this path whole heartedly are known as bodhisattvas.
What are you waking from? The three poisons: passion, aggression, and ignorance or delusion. It is the "natural state of being awake, tender, and genuine. That which combines spaciousness, sympathy, and intelligence; or shunyata (emptiness) compassion and knowledge. The basis of being awake and open. In order to be exposed to prajna (wisdom), you have to understand that it is not worth struggling, that you have to give up ego fixation.
In order to be exposed to empathy or compassion, you have to give up territoriality, possess- iveness, and aggression." As we tame our minds through the meditation practice and other disciplines in daily life "the possibility of further learning is taking place." Our true nature manifests as "some kind of gap, some discrepancy in our state of being that allows basic sanity to shine through."
Bodhcitta: Has two aspects; absolute and relative bodhicitta which are illuminated in the lojong mind training slogans:
Absolute bodhicitta: 1. Regard all life as a dream; although experiences may seem solid, they are passing memories. 2. Examine the nature of unborn awareness. 3. Self-liberate even the antidote. 4. Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence, the present moment. 5. In post meditation, be a child of illusion.
Relative bodhicitta: 1. Sending and taking should be practiced alternately (practice Tonglen). These two should ride the breath. 2. Three objects, three poisons, three roots of virtue -- The 3 objects are friends, enemies and neutrals. The 3 poisons are craving, aversion and indifference. The 3 roots of virtue are the remedies. 4. In all activities, train with the lojong slogans. 4. Begin the sequence of sending and taking with yourself.
Tonglin: In the practice, one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness and success to all sentient beings. As such it is a training in altruism. One starts with oneself then extends out to loved ones, friends, acquaintances, strangers, neutral persons, then enemies.
Basic Goodness: "Exploring the reality of our mind further, we discover that the basic state of our existence is fundamentally good, something that we can rely on. It is the natural state of virtue or goodness of the alaya-the level of consciousness that is the basis of all experience." Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche "There is room to relax, to open up. It is the basis of the possibility of absolute bodhicitta."
3. The Vajrayana path: is "the indestructible diamond path of sacred outlook".
"We learn how to respect our world. We realize that this particular world we live in is not an evil world, but filled with sacredness altogether. We learn to develop a sacred outlook... (That) stems from the experience of mindfulness-awareness practice. Sacred outlook is not only about thinking that everything is good; it is the absence of imprisonment. You begin to experience freedom that is intrinsically good... unconditionally free. The vajra world you are entering is basically good, unconditionally free, fundamentally glorious and splendid."
The Vajrayana journey incorporates the other vehicles as it focuses and gathers energy from Hinayana extending it out in Mahayana unto full manifestation without hesitation. Through a solid, sacred outlook it is the vehicle of Upaya skilful means to be truly helpful and of service. The practice is expansive, fresh, sacred of boundless space. It is luminous, vast, and empty of separa- tion (interdependent) taking in all of phenomena.
Vajrayana meditation is of deities to invoke wisdom and power within (manjushri, aloeskite- shavara, etc). It is naturally simple, free, relaxed, carefree, confident, and non striving. Like water, it simply flows with life, inhabiting the low places free of egoic ambitions. " In order to become decent Vajrayana people, we need to establish a strong foundation through Hinayana discipline and Mahayana benevolence... we constantly go back and forth."
Vajrayana is based on wisdom and compassion, rooted in mindfulness it becomes uncompromising, radical, even severe. It's nature is determination, fearlessness, and no bullshit. All sights, sounds, gestures are portals to awakening. No limits or excuses.
"If you are treading on this path, it is very important that you demolish the hidden corners of samsara, the devastating tricks that exist and that you have been able to maintain for such a long time. All three yanas vehicles are cyclical, as obstacles and breakthroughs can occur anywhere along the path. X marks the spot on this treasure map. You are on it, you are it".
Beyond the three basic vehicles is maha ati, the ultimate vehicle, or "the yana of complete transcendence." This is also known as Dzogchen, the great completion. "'A' expresses awake, and 'ti' the ultimate or final thing. (One is) continuously awake, utterly awake, ultimately awake all the time. The highest level of cool boredom, which is very exciting. In the maha ati realm, the journey itself is the goal."