More than any individual in history, Buddha has epitomized the ‘human condition’ that life is suffering. Life may be more than that but no one can deny that truth of suffering. It was Buddha’s genius that turned it into a religion and a spiritual movement that continues to lead human beings to towards spirituality and enlightenment.
In his lifetime, Buddha had gathered a small following in the Varanasi region. But few details of Buddha’s life are available to us because he discouraged the personality cult and exhorted his disciples to be independent and be “light unto themselves” and pursue their spiritual progress without distractions. He discouraged them from following any authority or a charismatic leader.
DHAMMA: It stands for the teachings of Buddha. To Buddha karma is intention plus physical action. Every karma has consequences either in this or in future existences—which may result in a lower form of like an animal. Thus, the doctrine of karma leaves room for personal volition and action. Man does not need any outside assistance to break the circle of life and rebirth. Only man can achieve that goal by personal efforts–Buddha shows the path. Regardless of his position in his life—his caste, race, wealth or power—every man can attain the ultimate goal of life (release from suffering) by joining the Buddhist sangha—community. What is the path of the Buddha?
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
In his first sermon at Benares (Sarnath, Varanasi), the Buddha proclaimed:
1. Life is suffering (birth is suffering, so are old age, diseases, dejection and death, not getting what one wishes is suffering);
2. The impermanence of all existence. Existence is an eternal flux of becoming and decaying, without beginning or end. If so, how did the universe originate? In the limitless expanse of space, the Buddhists conceive of infinite number of world systems coming into existence and passing away through beginning-less and endless time. It is all just an eternal becoming. However, Buddha discouraged his disciples from fruitless speculations.
3. There is no permanent soul or self. This Buddhist doctrine is diametrically opposed to the Vedic belief described in the Upanishads that each individual possesses a permanent, immaterial and invisible soul which enters the body at birth and leaves it at death. The Buddha held that the concept of this soul or self is a great delusion for it gives rise to attachment to self, to egoism, to craving for pleasure and fame which leads to suffering. It was a revolutionary idea. The so-called self or soul is an aggregate of our body, feelings, perception, predispositions and consciousness, and this self keeps changing every moment. Once we accept this self as a stream of perishing physical and psychic phenomena, then we destroy our selfish desires and self-interests, and instead of suffering from disappointments and anxieties, we can enjoy peace and serenity.
But if there is no permanent self, how are our actions (karma) connected to rebirth? The Buddha believed that our new body and other aggregates inherits the past karma and continue through endless number of existences. There is continuity in the operation of karma even though the different physical aggregates (past and present) are not the same. To the Buddhist, the history of an individual does not begin at birth but reaches back to the countless rebirths, countless lives in the past. The present birth is the result of past karma, but the individual in the current birth can better himself by self-efforts and discipline; he has the opportunity to attain nirvana or deliverance from birth-rebirth cycle. In nirvana, this living composite dissolves to be reborn no more for there is no more karma to bring about a rebirth.
THE EIGHTFOLD PATH
It can be reduced into three disciplines: moral conduct, mindfulness meditation, and wisdom or insight into the reality of life. Moral conduct is at the top. So what is moral conduct? “Not to commit sin, to do good, to purify one’s own mind.” [Dhammapada v. 183, Sacred Books of the East, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1881, 10.50] And what is sin? Any act that is harmful to oneself or to another is sin.” Note that sin is not the breaking of some divine law; it originates in the mind (by evil thoughts) and deeds of man. Evil thoughts arise because of egoism, lust, greed, hatred and prejudices. Right speech is avoiding lies, malice, abusive language, and harsh words. Refraining from violent deeds, stealing, and unchastity is right action. In today’s culture, we can add drug abuse to the list. Some positive actions are emphasized: loving friendships, charity, compassion [for the suffering and afflictions of all others] and forgiveness. The concept of charity led the Buddhists to establish hospitals for the sick and lodging for the poor pilgrims.
After moral conduct, mindfulness meditation comes next, the purpose of which is to expel evil thoughts [desires, ego and so on] by controlling the mind. By focusing on one point, the mind is not troubled by external disturbances and can experience the state of bliss. This meditation requires long and arduous practice and is described in detail in Buddhist manuals such as The Path of Purity. Buddha recommended that it should be learnt from a teacher, and performed in quiet, comfortable surroundings. Gradually, the aspirant would begin to experience trance. In the first stage of trance, there is calmness and serenity but some activity of the mind is still going on. In the second stage, the mind stops to reflect and investigate. In the next stage it reaches the state when it is free from all roots of attachment.
There are several advanced stages of meditation. In the first stage, the practitioner is freed from distinction between objects and the mind sees everything as boundless state. Moving further, he sees everything as unlimited consciousness. In the next stage, the mind begins to grasp the unreality of things and is imbued with the idea that nothing exists—of nothingness. Next, he goes into the realm of in which remnants of perception and consciousness are extinguished. Outwardly this is the state of coma—a state that differs from death only because life and bodily warmth are still there. Before entering this state, the practitioner has to decide when he wishes to emerge from it.
Note: Several investigations have been carried out to determine whether mind can control the body to such an extent. The most famous one was carried out by scientists at the end of eighteenth century on a famous yogi named Haridas who was buried alive in a grave for four months and when disinterred, he was still alive. In the 1950’s, the pit experiment was investigated at the Institute of Mental Health, Bangalore, by five researchers, including one European. The experiment was repeated three times at few weeks’ intervals. It showed that the yogi was able to slow down the life processes, just as an animal would in hibernation.
The third path is wisdom or insight– the third of Buddhist disciplines, flows from meditation. Thus, meditation is not an end-goal; it leads to the insight into things as they really are. By discovering this truth, Gautam became enlightened, the Awakened, the Buddha. However, the concept of Nirvana presents some difficulties for the non-Buddhist since it has not been clearly defined in Buddhist literature. For the Buddhists, Nirvana cannot be described but only experienced.