| Introduction to Buddhism
This short essay is intended to give a brief introduction to
Buddhism. It will discuss the way Buddhists perceive the world, the
four main teachings of the Buddha, the Buddhist view of the self,
the relationship between this self and the various ways in which it
responds to the world, the Buddhist path and the final goal. - Mike
The Three Marks of Existence
Buddhism has been described as a very pragmatic religion. It does
not indulge in metaphysical speculation about first causes; there is
no theology, no worship of a deity or deification of the Buddha.
Buddhism takes a very straightforward look at our human
condition; nothing is based on wishful thinking, at all. Everything
that the Buddha taught was based on his own observation of the
way things are. Everything that he taught can be verified by our
own observation of the way things are.
If we look at our life, very simply, in a straightforward way, we see
that it is marked with frustration and pain. This is because we
attempt to secure our relationship with the "world out there", by
solidifying our experiences in some concrete way. For example, we
might have dinner with someone we admire very much, everything
goes just right, and when we get home later we begin to fantasise
about all the things we can do with our new-found friend, places
we can go etc. We are going through the process of trying to
cement our relationship. Perhaps, the next time we see our friend,
she/he has a headache and is curt with us; we feel snubbed, hurt,
all our plans go out the window. The problem is that the "world out
there" is constantly changing, everything is impermanent and it is
impossible to make a permanent relationship with anything, at all.
If we examine the notion of impermanence closely and honestly,
we see that it is all-pervading, everything is marked by
impermanence. We might posit an eternal consciousness principle,
or higher self, but if we examine our consciousness closely we see
that it is made up of temporary mental processes and events. We
see that our "higher self" is speculative at best and imaginary to
begin with. We have invented the idea to secure ourselves, to
cement our relationship, once again. Because of this we feel
uneasy and anxious, even at the best of times. It is only when we
completely abandon clinging that we feel any relief from our
These three things: pain, impermanence and egolessness are
known as the three marks of existence.
The Four Noble Truths
The first sermon that the Buddha preached after his enlightenment
was about the four noble truths. The first noble truth is that life is
frustrating and painful. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves,
there are times when it is downright miserable. Things may be fine
with us, at the moment, but, if we look around, we see other people
in the most appalling condition, children starving, terrorism, hatred,
wars, intolerance, people being tortured and we get a sort of
queasy feeling whenever we think about the world situation in even
the most casual way. We, ourselves, will some day grow old, get
sick and eventually die. No matter how we try to avoid it, some day
we are going to die. Even though we try to avoid thinking about it,
there are constant reminders that it is true.
The second noble truth is that suffering has a cause. We suffer
because we are constantly struggling to survive. We are
constantly trying to prove our existence. We may be extremely
humble and self-deprecating, but even that is an attempt to define
ourselves. We are defined by our humility. The harder we struggle
to establish ourselves and our relationships, the more painful our
The third noble truth is that the cause of suffering can be ended.
Our struggle to survive, our effort to prove ourselves and solidify
our relationships is unnecessary. We, and the world, can get along
quite comfortably without all our unnecessary posturing. We could
just be a simple, direct and straight-forward person. We could form
a simple relationship with our world, our coffee, spouse and friend.
We do this by abandoning our expectations about how we think
things should be.
This is the fourth noble truth: the way, or path to end the cause of
suffering. The central theme of this way is meditation. Meditation,
here, means the practice of mindfulness/awareness,
shamata/vipashyana in Sanskrit. We practice being mindful of all
the things that we use to torture ourselves with. We become
mindful by abandoning our expectations about the way we think
things should be and, out of our mindfulness, we begin to develop
awareness about the way things really are. We begin to develop
the insight that things are really quite simple, that we can handle
ourselves, and our relationships, very well as soon as we stop
being so manipulative and complex.
The Five Skandhas
The Buddhist doctrine of egolessness seems to be a bit confusing
to westerners. I think this is because there is some confusion as to
what is meant by ego. Ego, in the Buddhist sense, is quite different
from the Freudian ego. The Buddhist ego is a collection of mental
events classified into five categories, called skandhas, loosely
translated as bundles, or heaps.
If we were to borrow a western expression, we could say that "in
the beginning" things were going along quite well. At some point,
however, there was a loss of confidence in the way things were
going. There was a kind of primordial panic which produced
confusion about what was happening. Rather than acknowledging
this loss of confidence, there was an identification with the panic
and confusion. Ego began to form. This is known as the first
skandha, the skandha of form.
After the identification with confusion, ego begins to explore how it
feels about the formation of this experience. If we like the
experience, we try to draw it in. If we dislike it, we try to push it
away, or destroy it. If we feel neutral about it, we just ignore it. The
way we feel about the experience is called the skandha of form;
what we try to do about it is known as the skandha of
The next stage is to try to identify, or label the experience. If we
can put it into a category, we can manipulate it better. Then we
would have a whole bag of tricks to use on it. This is the skandha
The final step in the birth of ego, is called the skandha of
consciousness. Ego begins to churn thoughts and emotions
around and around. This makes ego feel solid and real. The
churning around and around is called samsara -- literally, to whirl
about. The way ego feels about its situation (skandha of feeling)
determines which of the six realms of existence it creates for itself.
The Six Realms
If ego decides it likes the situation, it begins to churn up all sorts of
ways to possess it. A craving to consume the situation arises and
we long to satisfy that craving. Once we do, a ghost of that craving
carries over and we look around for something else to consume.
We get into the habitual pattern of becoming consumer oriented.
Perhaps we order a piece of software for our computer. We play
with it for awhile, until the novelty wears out, and then we look
around for the next piece of software that has the magic glow of
not being possessed yet. Soon we haven't even got the shrink
wrap off the current package when we start looking for the next
one. Owning the software and using it doesn't seem to be as
important as wanting it, looking forward to its arrival. This is known
as the hungry ghost realm where we have made an occupation out
of craving. We can never find satisfaction, it is like drinking salt
water to quench our thirst.
Another realm is the animal realm, or having the mind like that of
an animal. Here we find security by making certain that everything
is totally predictable. We only buy blue chip stock, never take a
chance and never look at new possibilities. The thought of new
possibilities frightens us and we look with scorn at anyone who
suggests anything innovative. This realm is characterised by
ignorance. We put on blinders and only look straight ahead, never
to the right or left.
The hell realm is characterised by acute aggression. We build a
wall of anger between ourselves and our experience. Everything
irritates us, even the most innocuous, and innocent statement
drives us mad with anger. The heat of our anger is reflected back
on us and sends us into a frenzy to escape from our torture, which
in turn causes us to fight even harder and get even angrier. The
whole thing builds on itself until we don't even know if we're fighting
with someone else or ourselves. We are so busy fighting that we
can't find an alternative to fighting; the possibility of alternative
never even occurs to us.
These are the three lower realms. One of the three higher realms
is called the jealous god realm. This pattern of existence is
characterised by acute paranoia. We are always concerned with
"making it". Everything is seen from a competitive point of view. We
are always trying to score points, and trying to prevent others from
scoring on us. If someone achieves something special we become
determined to out do them. We never trust anyone; we "know"
they're trying to slip one past us. If someone tries to help us, we try
to figure out their angle. If someone doesn't try to help us, they are
being uncooperative, and we make a note to ourselves that we will
get even later. "Don't get mad, get even," that's our motto.
At some point we might hear about spirituality. We might hear
about the possibility of meditation techniques, imported from some
eastern religion, or mystical western one, that will make our minds
peaceful and absorb us into a universal harmony. We begin to
meditate and perform certain rituals and we find ourselves
absorbed into infinite space and blissful states of existence.
Everything sparkles with love and light; we become godlike beings.
We become proud of our godlike powers of meditative absorption.
We might even dwell in the realm of infinite space where thoughts
seldom arise to bother us. We ignore everything that doesn't
confirm our godhood. We have manufactured the god realm, the
highest of the six realms of existence. The problem is, that we
have manufactured it. We begin to relax and no longer feel the
need to maintain our exalted state. Eventually a small sliver of
doubt occurs. Have we really made it? At first we are able to
smooth over the question, but eventually the doubt begins to
occur more and more frequently and soon we begin to struggle to
regain our supreme confidence. As soon as we begin to struggle,
we fall back into the lower realms and begin the whole process
over and over; from god realm to jealous god realm to animal
realm to hungry ghost realm to hell realm. At some point we begin
to wonder if there isn't some sort of alternative to our habitual way
of dealing with the world. This is the human realm.
The human realm is the only one in which liberation from the six
states of existence is possible. The human realm is characterised
by doubt and inquisitiveness and the longing for something better.
We are not as absorbed by the all consuming preoccupations of
the other states of being. We begin to wonder whether it is
possible to relate to the world as simple, dignified human beings.
The Eightfold Path
The path to liberation from these miserable states of being, as
taught by the Buddha, has eight points and is known as the
eightfold path. The first point is called right view -- the right way to
view the world. Wrong view occurs when we impose our
expectations onto things; expectations about how we hope things
will be, or about how we are afraid things might be. Right view
occurs when we see things simply, as they are. It is an open and
accommodating attitude. We abandon hope and fear and take joy
in a simple straight-forward approach to life.
The second point of the path is called right intention. It proceeds
from right view. If we are able to abandon our expectations, our
hopes and fears, we no longer need to be manipulative. We don't
have to try to con situations into our preconceived notions of how
they should be. We work with what is. Our intentions are pure.
The third aspect of the path is right speech. Once our intentions
are pure, we no longer have to be embarrassed about our speech.
Since we aren't trying to manipulate people, we don't have to be
hesitant about what we say, nor do we need to try bluff our way
through a conversation with any sort of phoney confidence. We
say what needs to be said, very simply in a genuine way.
The fourth point on the path, right discipline, involves a kind of
renunciation. We need to give up our tendency to complicate
issues. We practice simplicity. We have a simple straight-forward
relationship with our dinner, our job, our house and our family. We
give up all the unnecessary and frivolous complications that we
usually try to cloud our relationships with.
Right livelihood is the fifth step on the path. It is only natural and
right that we should earn our living. Often, many of us don't
particularly enjoy our jobs. We can't wait to get home from work
and begrudge the amount of time that our job takes away from our
enjoyment of the good life. Perhaps, we might wish we had a more
glamorous job. We don't feel that our job in a factory or office is in
keeping with the image we want to project. The truth is, that we
should be glad of our job, whatever it is. We should form a simple
relationship with it. We need to perform it properly, with attention to
The sixth aspect of the path is right effort. Wrong effort is struggle.
We often approach a spiritual discipline as though we need to
conquer our evil side and promote our good side. We are locked
in combat with ourselves and try to obliterate the tiniest negative
tendency. Right effort doesn't involve struggle at all. When we see
things as they are, we can work with them, gently and without any
kind of aggression whatsoever.
Right mindfulness, the seventh step, involves precision and clarity.
We are mindful of the tiniest details of our experience. We are
mindful of the way we talk, the way we perform our jobs, our
posture, our attitude toward our friends and family, every detail.
Right concentration, or absorption is the eighth point of the path.
Usually we are absorbed in absentmindedness. Our minds are
completely captivated by all sorts of entertainment and
speculations. Right absorption means that we are completely
absorbed in nowness, in things as they are. This can only happen
if we have some sort of discipline, such as sitting meditation. We
might even say that without the discipline of sitting meditation, we
can't walk the eightfold path at all. Sitting meditation cuts through
our absentmindedness. It provides a space or gap in our
preoccupation with ourselves.
Most people have heard of nirvana. It has become equated with a
sort of eastern version of heaven. Actually, nirvana simply means
cessation. It is the cessation of passion, aggression and
ignorance; the cessation of the struggle to prove our existence to
the world, to survive. We don't have to struggle to survive after all.
We have already survived. We survive now; the struggle was just
an extra complication that we added to our lives because we had
lost our confidence in the way things are. We no longer need to
manipulate things as they are into things as we would like them to
-Reprinted with permission from Buddha.net and