The Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama over 2,500 years ago to a royal family in what is known today as Nepal. On Siddhartha’s day of birth, an astrologer predicted that he would either become a great king, or a great spiritual teacher. Fearing that the latter would come true, the king kept his son locked in the palace and gave him every luxury and pleasure he could imagine, thinking that if he shielded his son from harsh realities of the world, Siddhartha wouldn’t question life, or seek for deeper meaning.
The young prince spent his whole life in the palace, until one day, in his late twenties, he ventured beyond the temple walls and was quickly confronted with the realities of human suffering. He saw a very old man, and Siddhartha's charioteer explained that all people grow old. Questions about all he had not experienced led him to take more journeys of exploration, and on these subsequent trips he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. The charioteer explained that the ascetic had renounced the world to seek release from the human fear of death and suffering.
Siddhartha was overcome by these sights, and the next day, at age 29, he left his kingdom, wife and son to lead an ascetic life, and determine a way to relieve the universal suffering that he now understood to be one of the defining traits of humanity. For the next six years, Siddhartha lived an ascetic life and partook in its practices, studying and meditating using the words of various religious teachers as his guide. While he practiced with strong determination and effort, he still could not achieve the liberation that he was seeking.
Then one night, Siddhartha sat underneath the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he was enlightened. He sat all night and as the morning star arose he had a profound breakthrough. During that moment all veils of mixed feelings and stiff ideas dissolved and Buddha experienced the all-encompassing here and now. All separation in time and space disappeared. Past, present, and future, near and far, melted into one radiant state of intuitive bliss. He became timeless, all-pervading awareness. Through every cell in his body he knew and was everything. He became Buddha, the Awakened One.
The Buddha spent 49 days enjoying the peace of his realization. After that he walked slowly to Deer Park in Sarnath to share his realization with five ascetics whom he had practiced with earlier. The Buddha then gave his first teaching, The Four Noble Truths.
The first noble truth is the existence of suffering. We all suffer to some extent. We have some unease in our body and mind. We have to recognize and acknowledge the presence of this suffering and touch it. To do so, we may need the help of a teacher and Sangha, friends in the practice.
The second noble truth is the cause of suffering. Once we touch our suffering, we need to look deeply into it to see how it came to be. We need to see the spiritual, mental and material actions that are causing us to suffer. The Buddha taught that we suffer because of avidya, or a lack of knowledge about the truth of reality. He revealed that because of this ignorance, we have many blind reactions and habit patterns that lead to our suffering—primarily that we either attach to things and crave for them because we enjoy them, or we avoid things and push them away because we dislike them—both of which result only in suffering. The truth of existence is that it is always changing, it is impermanent. There is nothing we can do to prevent something from changing, whether we like it or dislike it. And so, by seeing this truth of impermanence clearly we can let go of our attachment and resistance, and we can accept and embrace all things, while remaining contented within ourselves.
The Buddha also taught the doctrine of anatma, or no-self, and was speaking to the fact that there really is no ego self or personal entity in reality, but that it is a product of thought, a mental construct that we mistakenly identify with, one that has been conditioned by countless generations of cultural conditioning. By identifying with this ego-self we become ignorant to the truth of reality, and we become attached to an illusory entity, which causes all kinds of anxiety, insecurity, vanity, greed, etc. If we realize there is no self in the sense of the limited, isolated, ego self, then we can awaken to our true Self, the Buddha-nature within, our ever present awareness. Waking up to Buddha-nature enables one to let go of all the suffering that was associated with our ignorant identification with the mind and it’s projected self-image.
The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering, which comes from refraining from doing the things that cause us to suffer. This truth shows us that it is possible to be free of our suffering, it is possible to heal and be whole.
The fourth noble truth is the path that leads to the liberation from suffering, the path that leads to refraining from doing the things that cause us to suffer. This path is known as The Eightfold Path. The eight parts of the path to liberation are grouped into three essential elements of Buddhist practice—moral conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.
The Buddha taught the eightfold path in virtually all his discourses, and his directions are as clear and practical to his followers today as they were when he first gave them. The eightfold path consists in developing: Right understanding, Right thinking, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right mindfulness, and Right concentration.
These eight factors aim at promoting and perfecting the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline: namely: (a) ethical conduct (sila), (b) mental discipline (samadhi) and (c) wisdom (panna). Ethical conduct (sila) is built on the vast conception of universal love and compassion for all living beings, on which the Buddha’s teaching is based. Mental discipline (samadhi) aims at taming the mind from its restlessness, wandering, blind reactions, and negative habit patterns that lead to suffering. And wisdom (panna) is aimed at gaining insight into the true nature of reality and seeing things clearly as they are.
The Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life sharing this teaching, in many different ways to many different audiences according to their capacity and level of awareness. When asked about God, Buddha would always remain silent. He never confirmed or denied the existence of God, but rather stated that all he teaches is suffering and the path that leads to freedom from suffering, and to be free of suffering is one’s own responsibility.
The eightfold path is a way of life to be followed, practiced and developed by each individual. It is not something that one can follow for you, nor is it something that needs to be worshipped or accepted as a dogmatic belief. In their original form, the Buddha’s teachings have nothing to do with what may be called “religious,” but are really lessons in human psychology that help us understand how we create our own suffering, and how we can also create our own freedom and liberation by looking within to understand the nature of our minds, and discover who we are beyond the false sense of self that we have been conditioned to believe we are.
The Buddha’s teachings are based on direct insights into the nature of reality, and one does not need to be a Buddhist to follow them. One can be a follower of any tradition, or no tradition, and benefit from the simple and profound lessons taught by this liberated being, who renounced a life of luxury, pleasure, and material security, to discover a way to be free from suffering, and to help all beings find true happiness. Clearly happiness is not a matter of circumstances or possessions, but rather it is a matter of perception and understanding—it is something that comes from within us.
May we all develop the wisdom to see things as they truly are. May we realize the truth of our own being, beyond the limiting views of the ego-self. May we all be free from our suffering, and may we all realize true peace and happiness!