The Buddhist Path
The Buddha taught a path of spiritual awakening, a way of 'practice' that we can use in our daily lives. This 'Path of Practice' can be divided into three mutually supportive aspects: Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom.
The foundation of the Buddhist path is a life that expresses compassion in our relation to all living things through a practice of non-harming. The entry to the Buddhist path is usually marked by taking the Five Precepts.
1. We undertake the precept of refraining from killing.
In undertaking this precept we acknowledge the interconnection of all beings and our respect for all life. We agree to refine our understanding of not killing and non-harming in all our actions. We will seek to understand the implications of this precept in such difficult areas as abortion, euthanasia, and the killing of pests. While some of us recommend vegetarianism and others do not, we all commit ourselves to fulfilling this precept in the spirit of reverence for life.
2. We undertake the precept of refraining from stealing.
We agree to not take that which does not belong to us and to respect the property of others.
We agree to bring consciousness to the use of all of the earth's resources in a respectful and ecological way.
3. We undertake the precept of refraining from sexual misconduct.
We agree to avoid creating harm through sexuality, sexual exploitation or adultery, and will observe celibacy while at True North Insight Meditation Centre. We agree to develop consciousness of how we are influenced by sexuality in our relationships, and will express respect and loving-kindness in this dimension of human experience.
4. We undertake the precept of refraining from false speech.
We agree to speak that which is true and useful and to refrain from gossip in our community.
We agree to cultivate conscious and clear communication, and to cultivate the quality of loving-kindness and honesty as the basis of our speech.
5. We undertake the precept of refraining from intoxicants that cause heedlessness or loss of awareness.
It is clear that substance abuse is the cause of tremendous suffering. We agree that there should be no use of intoxicants during retreats or while on retreat premises.
The above five precepts are reprinted from Jack Kornfield's book A Path With Heart (Bantam Books, 1993, pages 341-342). The third and fourth precepts have been re-arranged to follow the traditional order, and the wording of the third precept has been altered.
Someone living in this way develops the self-discipline and sensitivity necessary to cultivate meditation, the second aspect of the Path.
Meditation, broadly speaking, is the repeated focusing of attention upon an image, a word or a theme in order to calm the mind and consider the meaning of that image or word. In the Buddhist practice of insight meditation, this focusing of attention also has another purpose, which is to more fully understand the nature of the mind. This can be done by using the meditation object as a still reference point to help in revealing the attitudes that are otherwise buried beneath the mind's surface activity.
The Buddha encouraged his disciples to use their own bodies and minds as objects of meditation. A common object, for example, is the sensation associated with the breath during the process of normal breathing. If one sits still, closes the eyes and focuses on the breath, in due time clarity and calm will arise. In this state of mind, tensions, expectations and habitual moods can be more clearly discerned, and through the practice of gentle but penetrative inquiry they can be resolved.
Cultivating goodwill and kindness gives another dimension to the practice of insight. Meditation naturally teaches patience and tolerance, or at least it shows the importance of these qualities. To encourage an open hearted attitude to life and to enhance compassion in daily living the Buddha recommended meditations where the qualities of love and amity are deliberately cultivated in meditation practices.
Meditation is normally associated with the sitting posture but in fact walking is commonly alternated with sitting as a form for meditation. Choosing a short path of perhaps twenty paces and tuning in to the gentle rhythm of walking to and fro calms the mind and puts us in touch with the present moment in a simple and uncomplicated manner.
The Buddha taught that it is possible to maintain meditation in the course of daily activity as well as while sitting still in one place. One can focus attention on the movement of the body, the physical feelings that arise, or the thoughts and moods that flow through the mind. This mobile attentiveness he called 'mindfulness'. The Buddha explained that through mindfulness one realizes an attention that is serene. Although it is centered on the body and mind, it is dispassionate and not bound up with any particular physical or mental experience.
Although mindfulness is the basic tool to use, we generally need some pointers as to how to establish the right objectivity about ourselves and how to assess what mindfulness reveals. This is the function of the wisdom-teachings of the Buddha.
The most generally used wisdom-teachings of the Buddha are not statements about God or Ultimate Truth. The Buddha felt that such statements could lead to disagreement, controversy and even violence. Instead, Buddhist wisdom describes what we can all notice about life without having to adopt a belief.
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha often used a medical model to describe his core teaching. There is sickness, the cause of sickness, the end of sickness and a cure for sickness. In the same way there is suffering. There is a cause of suffering. There is an end to suffering and there is a way that leads to the end of suffering. These are known as the Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth:
There is suffering.
Life as we normally know it must always have a proportion of disagreeable experiences. Sickness, pain and distress are obvious examples. Even in relatively affluent societies people suffer from anxiety, stress or a loss of purpose or they feel incapable of dealing with life's challenges. Moreover, agreeable experiences are limited and transient. As human beings we are always vulnerable amid the uncertainties of life and no manipulation of our outer situation can protect us completely from the possibility of suffering.
The Second Noble Truth:
There is a cause of suffering.
Suffering, in this case, is the inner conflict that we have with the natural ups and downs of life. Sickness and loss are natural as are gain and health. Our inability to peacefully abide with life's changes expresses itself in a variety of ways: fear, anger, greed, confusion, self-hatred, jealousy etc. This is because we often want what we don't have and don't want what we do have. This wanting is known as craving and attachment to craving is the cause of suffering.
The Third Noble Truth:
There is an end to suffering.
When our lives are ruled by craving we are in a perpetual state of imbalance and discontent. If we learn to let go of craving our hearts return to a natural state of balance and ease in which there is a possibility of deep peace and profound compassion. The deeper the letting go, the deeper the peace and love.
The Fourth Noble Truth:
There is a Way to the end of suffering and that is the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path offers guidelines for the development of one's spiritual life. Right Understanding begins with an intellectual appreciation of the cause of suffering and culminates in a profound realization of the way things are. From Right Understanding, one's thinking becomes attuned to truth and hence Right Intention motivates one's actions, speech and thought. From here lifestyle issues are addressed in terms of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. All of this requires Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. Finally the ability to stay present and mindful is strengthened by Right Meditation.
The 'Right-ness' of these is that they entail living in accordance with virtue, meditation and wisdom, rather than from any self-centred position. Such a Way is therefore 'Right' for others as well as for oneself.
Someone who has fully cultivated this Way finds serenity and patience in themselves in times of difficulty, and the wish to share good fortune when things go well. They live a life free from guilt, and, rather than having violent mood swings, the mind and heart stay steady and buoyant through the circumstances of life.