The religious language of India is called Sanskrit. It is similar to Latin in that over time its primary purpose was to convey religious thought. Due to this fact it was a language known only to the religious class in India called Brahman. One of the many very interesting things about the Buddha is that when he taught he spoke in a language known to the common people called Pali. This of course made the teachings much more accessible to the average person then something like the Hindu Vedas and the Upanishads which were written in Sanskrit. There are Buddhist teachings in Pali called Sutta, as well as in Sanskrit which are called Sutra. The group of writings that are in Pali are called the Pali Cannon or Tipataka (Three Baskets). This is similar in concept to the Bible in Christianity but is massive in comparison being made up of 40 to 50 volumes. The Pali Suttas are not always easy to read as they are often very repetitive and even when translated still use a variety of Pali words. The original words of the Buddha were memorized by monks and passed on from monk to monk. Much later on they were written down on palm leaves. I believe that this may explain the repetitive nature of these Suttas. I have no proof of this but it would seem that they would be easier to remember in this repetitive format. I have always been the type of person that would rather read the original writings myself then to have someone else tell me what they say or mean. If you are of the same mind it is not a bad idea to get a Pali dictionary or you can use one of the free online ones like the one in this link:
The first of the core teachings that we will look at is what the Buddha called the Middle way and the Four Noble Truths. These two teachings are central to all forms of Buddhism. After the Buddha’s enlightenment he preached at the Deer Park near Varanasi, this is thought to be the first sermon he gave. It is worth noting that you will often see deer in Buddhist Iconography and that stems from the Deer Park at Varanasi. The title of that Sutta is, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth (The Dhamma)”. This is where the icon or motif of the wheel with the eight spokes comes from. The circle in the wheel represents the cycle of life and the eight spokes represent the Nobel Eightfold Path that the Buddha outlines in this Sutta. It is said that the Buddha set the wheel of the Dhamma in motion with this sermon.
THE MIDDLE WAY:
“Thus have I heard:
On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Deer Park at Isipatana (the Resort of Seers) near Varanasi (Benares). Then he addressed the group of five monks (bhikkhus):
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.
“Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (The Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata…? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This is the Middle Path realized by the Tathagata which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, and to Nibbana.
The Buddha had followed the teachings of several ascetics (a person who practices severe self-discipline and abstention) for six years. The ascetics practiced many different forms of denial of pleasure and the needs of the body as a means to reach enlightenment. The story goes that the Buddha was very weak and malnourished from following these practices when he heard a music teacher telling a student “If the string is too tight it will snap. If the string is too lose it will not play.” This wisdom showed him that up until now he had been on the wrong path. He was about to snap! The true path was in between these extremes. At this point he took some kind of porridge from a shepherd girl. The fact that he took the food and especially from a girl caused his followers at the time to leave him. It is an interesting side note to consider the possible connection to the Manji and impermanence. In a previous blog “The Swastika and the chocolate box…” I pointed out that the vertical and the horizontal line of the Manji represented dualism (opposites or extremes). I don’t think it was the intention in this Sutta but his realization of avoiding extremes could also be extrapolated out to include the untruth dualistic thought that the Manji represents.
There are a couple of other points that I would like to make. The Buddha says:
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life”. I have mentioned this before that In the Pali scriptures the Buddha is generally speaking to the Monastic community. A monk or an ascetic is “one who has gone forth from the household life”. One who leads a normal life with a family, home, and responsibilities is a “householder”.
The Buddha’s reason for creating the Monastic institution was primarily because this life style is the most conducive to the religious development on the path to Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit). Put simply living this lifestyle lets one concentrate totally on the holy life with the least possible distractions. It isn’t impossible for the householder (the lay practitioner) to progress toward that goal, it is just much more difficult. There is a Sutra called the Vimalakirti Sutra that tells the story of one such householder (we will talk about this Sutra in a later blog).
The other point here is that many people unfamiliar with Buddhism think that it is negative and teaches a denial of pleasure. This is just not true. Here we can see:
“Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
The fact that there is a middle ground between addiction to sense-pleasure and self-mortification means that pleasure in and of itself is not a bad thing. Just like your mother might have told you “moderation is the best policy”. When I cover the five precepts we will look more at this misconception of the motives behind these practices.
THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS:
“The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering — in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.
“The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).
“The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.
“The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
Like a doctor the Buddha diagnoses the problem, tells what the cause is, and then gives a prescription for the cure. The problem is this thing called “Dukkha”. It turns out that this thing called “Dukkha” is even more of a problem because there isn’t any English word that is its equivalent. Most often it is translated as “Suffering”. Although this is close I feel that on its own the word suffering has inaccurate overtones to it. I feel that “un-satisfactoriness” is much closer. Or at least that we suffer due to the fact that ultimately we find everything un-satisfactory. Think of something that you wanted very badly. So much so that you could not stop thinking about it. Then the day comes when you finally acquire this thing that you couldn’t live without. If you pay close attention usually soon after you have it (sometimes within minutes) it just doesn’t seem so important anymore! You often feel a sense of disappointment. Somehow these things never live up to what we thought they would be. If you really love to eat a particular food like chocolate for example. Someone buys you a huge one pound bar of it. You eat it until you start to feel sick. How much do you crave chocolate now? Now that you have all the chocolate you could ever eat it just doesn’t taste so good anymore. People think that if they were only rich they would be happy. Then they strike it rich and have all the fame and fortune that anyone could want. Next thing you know you see a news article that this famous rich person has just committed suicide. The poor think that if only they had a lot of money their problems would go away. The rich spend all their time worrying about losing their money and that having all these material things do not actually make them happy. This is Dukkha.
The cause of Dukkha is craving. The constant craving that our minds have due to the fact that everything is unsatisfactory. There seems to be nothing that can satisfy this craving. This craving is also tied to a false notion of satisfying that which encompasses the “self”. We will talk about that when we discuss the The Ti-lakkhana or the “Three marks of existence” – Impermanence, Not-self, and Dukkha. The Buddha does give his prescription to stop the craving, it is the Noble Eight Fold Path.
The Noble Eightfold path is:
Right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. In the book “Entering the stream” The Theravada (the style of Buddhism most prevalent in South East Asia) monk Bhikku Bodhi wisely divides the path into three divisions.
- Wisdom (Prajna) – Right understanding and right thought.
- Morality (Shila) – Right speech, right action, right livelihood
- Concentration (Samadhi) – Right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration
These three work in a circle. Concentration leads to morality, morality leads better choices which leads to Wisdom. Wisdom leads to a calm mind and inspiration of the value of your practice which enhances concentration. So each of the three enhances and strengthens the others. So together Wisdom, Morality, and Concentration are the path to the elimination of desire which is the cause of Dukkha.
The Buddha regarded the Four Noble Truths as a profound teaching and you can find references to it all the the Pali Tipitaka. In the Maha Parinibbana Sutta the Buddha said this about the Four Noble Truths:
“And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you. What are these four? They are the noble truth of suffering; the noble truth of the origin of suffering; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of suffering. But now, bhikkhus, that these have been realized and penetrated, cut off is the craving for existence, destroyed is that which leads to renewed becoming, and there is no fresh becoming.”
- Thus it was said by the Blessed One. And the Happy One, the Master, further said:
Through not seeing the Four Noble Truths, Long was the weary path from birth to birth. When these are known, removed is rebirth’s cause, The root of sorrow plucked; then ends rebirth. “