Buddhism: Meditating on the Four Noble Truths

Buddhism: Meditatimng on the Four Noble Truths

We have been thinking about the question once asked of Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29, see entries below) and how the answer to that question comes to us through the lens of the question once asked by Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:13-15). This week, we add to these questions another asked of Jesus, by Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38a).

We now focus on Buddhism, estimated to have 376 million adherents at this time. In order to talk about this subject on its own terms, we begin with the narrative about Siddhartha’s enlightenment. This foundational story is told in “The Story of the Buddha – A Summary based on Buddha by Susan L. Roth”, available in the educational package found as a pdf file here.

When we begin to think about Buddhism and locate its origins in time (some 2500 years ago) and space (the region of the Himalaya mountains now known as Nepal), we see how distant it is from those of us living in the American Midwest in 2007. The danger is to attempt to classify Buddhism using western terms and not to attempt to understand it on its own terms, which may seem foreign and difficult to grasp. One question often asked is, “Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy?” This question attempts to force Buddhism into western categories of thought and it is simply not a good question to ask of Buddhism. In fact, to speak of “Buddhism” as one monolithic entity would be as misleading as it would be to speak of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as if they were one single entity.

Siddhartha’s enlightenment led him to the realization of “The Four Noble Truths”:

• The truth of suffering (Kutal)
• The truth of the cause of suffering (Jutal)
• The truth of the cessation of suffering (Mettal)
• The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Dotal)

Buddhism thus begins its thinking with a problem central to all religious traditions; how do we make sense out of the fact (surely it is indeed a “fact”) that there is suffering in the world? Christianity has long wrestled with this issue (known to scholars as “the problem of evil”) and it remains a challenge to Christians to reconcile the attributes commonly ascribed to God (God is all-knowing, God is all-powerful, God is everywhere present, and God is always good) with the observation that suffering is present in the world. Within Buddhist thought, the Four Noble Truths show one way of wrestling with this problem.

The “Truth of Suffering” recognizes that suffering (in the sense that life is like a wheel with an ungreased axle) is a reality:

• The world is full of suffering
• Life involves birth, aging, sickness and death

The “Truth of the Cause of Suffering” asserts that ignorance and karma are the reasons for suffering. In other words, with a recognition that “cause and effect” operate in the universe, it is possible to see that suffering (an effect) is brought about through the things we each think, say and do (the causes). Thus, the analogy might be made to a foolish person who scatters seeds everywhere through thought, word and deed and who is then shocked – even frightened – by what grows as a result. In contrast, the wise person sows seeds very carefully and in consequence is not shocked and not frightened by the outcome. Indeed, we might then argue that the reason we “suffer” – for example when we are ill – is because we unreasonably expected not to become ill and to live a life free of physical pain. It is the unreasonable expectation that leads to suffering – our desires, which are so rarely fulfilled, are the things that cause us to suffer. Thus, in summary, we might observe the causes of suffering:

• Ignorance and karma
• Craving for gratification
• Suffering is caused by desire

“The truth of the cessation of suffering” shows that if we free ourselves from these desires or attachments that cause suffering, we will find the end of suffering in this life. This requires ending ignorance about what causes suffering and understanding that suffering is a consequence of “cause and effect” in the universe. The fact that Buddhism arose in the midst of Hinduism with its explicit understanding of reincarnation and karma leads to the idea that life is like a flame passed from one candle to another s we each live and die. Only when a state of nirvana is reached will the candle be extinguished.

• Extinguishing ignorance and karma results in a state of Nirvana
• Cessation of desire = cessation of suffering

“The Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering” shows a way forward through following “The Noble Eight-fold Path”:

• Right views
• Right thoughts
• Right speech
• Right conduct
• Right livelihood
• Right effort
• Right mindfulness
• Right meditation

We might think of the Noble Eight-fold Path in three groups:

• Right views
• Right thoughts

Moral Discipline
• Right speech
• Right conduct
• Right livelihood

Mental Discipline
• Right effort
• Right mindfulness
• Right meditation

The first step on the Eight-fold Path is described as “Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels”:

• The Buddha (teacher)
• The Dharma (teachings)
• The Sangha (community)

If we now seek to develop a Buddhist worldview based upon the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Three Jewels, we might conclude that such a worldview includes:

• Commitment to “cause and effect”
• This is not “fate”, nor “predestination”
• Words, thoughts and deeds are seeds that we each sow
• We are the architects of our own futures
• Rebirth (reincarnation) results from attachments (karma)
• Nirvana is a peaceful, detached state of mind (“putting out a flame”)
• Achieving Nirvana means escape from the cycle of rebirth
• Buddhism is non-theistic (Siddhartha taught nothing about God as understood in western culture. He refused to deny or affirm God’s existence. He consistently denied that he himself was divine.)

The following concepts are ones that would need to be developed in order to more fully appreciate the Buddhist worldview:

• Dukkha: life is filled with suffering (“the ungreased wheel”)
• Anicca: everything is impermanent
• Anatta: there is no eternal, unchanging self (“no soul” – no atman)
• Suffering is a state of mind

In considering Buddhism today, it is helpful to note some of the major schools (or “vehicles”) of Buddhist thought:

• Theravada – “The Small Vehicle”
• Mahayana – “The Great Vehicle”
• Vajrayana – “The Diamond Vehicle”
• Zen – “The Meditation School”

In brief, we might describe each of these as follows:

• The oldest school (“The Way of the Elders”)
• Monasticism as the ideal
• Focus on wisdom and meditation
• Goal is to become a Buddha
• Found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand

• Dates from ~ 1st century AD
• Includes “lay Buddhism”
• Focus on compassion
• Goal is to become a Bodhisattva (and help others)
• Found in China, Japan

• Dates from ~ 7th century AD
• Intermediate b
etween Theravada and Mahayana
• Focus on meditation, wisdom and compassion
• Goal is to become a Bodhisattva (e.g. Dalai Lama)
• Found in Tibet

• Dates from ~ 500 AD
• Both lay and monastic
• Focus on sudden enlightenment through meditation
• Goal is to achieve the Buddha nature
• Known for Zen koans

Zen koans are illustrative of the ways of Buddhist thought and centrality of meditation. An example entitled “Nothing Exists” is helpful for those who work with students:

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

A second example, “Not Far from Buddhahood”, is helpful is seeing how Christianity might be viewed from within the Buddhist worldview:

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: “Have you even read the Christian Bible?”

“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.

The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these…Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

Gasan said: “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.”

The student continued reading: “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”

Gasan remarked: “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”

When we examine Buddhism and Christianity side by side, we might seek similarities between the morals and ethics taught in Christian Scripture and the attributes of the Eight-fold Path:

Both acknowledge that suffering in the world is problematic
The principles of the eightfold path are similar to principles taught in Scripture:

1. Right Views – “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17).

2. Right Thoughts – “He who has a wayward and crooked mind finds no good. . .” (Proverbs 17:20).

3. Right Speech – “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. . .If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:19, 27).

4. Right Conduct – “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).

5. Right Livelihood – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

6. Right Effort – “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

7. Right Mindfulness – “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

8. Right Meditation – “Let heaven fill your thoughts. Do not think only about things down here on earth” (Colossians 3:2).

The similarities between Buddhism and Christianity are in large part “moral equivalency”, which is not to be confused with equivalency in underlying belief. The traditions differ in many, many areas, including:

• The nature of God (and hence Jesus)…..
• The origins and consequences of sin…..
• The nature of salvation…..
• The question of life after death…..

It is difficult to align a theistic tradition (Christianity) and a nontheistic tradition (Buddhism) in such a way as to compare underlying beliefs; indeed, such an exercise may be a western construct that is ill suited to a conversation about Buddhism.

One way to get a sense of Buddhism is to listen to some modern American-Buddhist folk music. In fact, you can obtain a complete CD (15 mp3 files) at no charge as follows:

1. Perform a priceless act of kindness.
2. Visit http://www.dharmaradio.org/
3. Write and submit a short reflection of your experience.
4. Check your email for the link to download your Paramita music CD

Thanks for visiting!