Buddhism 101

by Jessica Mui

Today, many people think of mindfulness meditation as a way to reduce stress or handle emotional pain. But mindfulness is just one of the many mental faculties essential for a healthy and happy mind. The Buddha’s wisdom is his teachings on the causes of suffering and the end of suffering, achieved by cultivating the eight mental faculties in the Noble Eightfold Path. Here, it is worth nothing that the word “suffering” in the Buddhist sense, which comes from the Pali word “dukkha,” does not just mean suffering in the mental or physical sense alone. It describes the very nature of human condition: no matter how hard we try to make things right or chase after pleasant experiences, sometimes things will go wrong anyway.

According to the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta (Four Foundations of Mindfulness), the purpose of practicing mindfulness meditation is:

  • for the purification of beings,

  • for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation,

  • for the destruction of suffering and grief,

  • for reaching the right path (Noble Eightfold Path),

  • for the attainment of Nibbana (End of Suffering).

What did the Buddha Teach?

Traditionally, the wisdom of the Buddha can be understood as follows:

The Four Noble Truths
  1. The Truth of Dukkha: the nature of existence is unsatisfactory. Suffering here does not just mean unpleasant experience, but extends to all our experiences, including pleasant ones. This is because even pleasant experiences are dependent on impermanent conditions that we do not control.

  2. The Cause of Dukkha: Because of our self-centered desires and greed, we create the unsatisfactory nature of life. Often, we think: if only we have more, or if we only have this or that, then I will be okay. We spend most of life chasing after pleasure and avoiding pain, which is essentially meaningless because the very essence of life is change.

  3. The End of Dukkha: The Dukkha together with its causes can be extinguished at Nibanna

  4. The Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering: Right View, Right Intention/Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, Right Effort, Right Concentration.

Causes & Conditions

All mental and physical phenomena happen because of causes and conditions, which has the following characteristics:​

  • They are impermanent as causes and conditions arise and disappear all the time;

  • They are impersonal, as there is no self or creator. We do not control these causes and conditions, they happen of their own accord. In the Buddhist worldview, the “self” is just a collection of physical and mental energies that change from moment to moment – if no two moments are the same, how can there be a fixed, permanent self?

  • Our experience is essentially unsatisfactory because these causes and conditions are not under our control and are impermanent.

The Buddha points out that suffering is caused by the ignorance of these truths and our self-centered craving to pursuit “happiness.” To end suffering, the mind has to be cultivated with the eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Noble Eightfold Path
WISDOM: Right View & Right Intention/Thought

Right View


The most important of the path, Right View represents the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings in its entirety. The key to Right View is the understanding of dependent origination and non-self: that is, all mind and body phenomena, from the most insignificant physical sensation to the pain of aging, sickness, and death, are a result of causes and conditions–nothing is personal, or “mine”. Because almost everyone acts out of a sense of self with many ideas about our perception, beliefs, and behaviors, we don’t realize the true nature of the body, the mind, and life itself. In truth, it’s all just nature, and a process of cause and effect. When we don’t understand this fundamental wrong view, we act out of greed and aversion. This too can taint our meditation practice by setting us up with expectations of what meditation should be or shouldn’t be.

Right Intention/Thought

When we have Right View, then we will have Right Intention:

  • intention to renounce self-centered desires and impulses

  • intention to be free from aversion

  • intention to do no harm

How to Cultivate Wisdom?


The importance of wisdom cannot be stressed enough. It is the mental factor that will expel delusion and lessen craving. In Buddhism, wisdom is acquired and cultivated in three stages:

  1. learning from hearing,

  2. reflection through reasoning, and

  3. practice through experiencing.

The culmination of all three steps enable one’s own direct experiential understanding of the wisdom of the Buddha in different degrees. At first, we hear and understand Right View and bear it in mind. Then, we start to practice the other factors in the Eightfold Path. What encourages the wisdom to grow is the understanding of wisdom’s benefits, as well as interest, patience, effort, courage, and faith.

ETHICAL: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood

Right Speech


We speak the truth, employ beneficial speech, and speak kindly.

Right Action


We refrain from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.

Right Livelihood


We avoid making our livelihood from things that will harm others, such as trafficking in weapons, humans, poisons, and intoxicants.

 

Though these are related to conduct, it begins from the right attitude. The essence of right conduct is to not harm others, built on the foundation of Right Intention/Thought and the lovingkindness aspect of the mind.

CONCENTRATION: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration

Right Effort

We put in energy and direct the mind to cultivate wholesome mind states, with Right View as the leader.

Right Mindfulness

We cultivate objective awareness, attentiveness, and alertness of all mental activities as continuously as possible. From observation of mind and body phenomena, we will gain understanding into the ultimate reality of mental and physical processes, or in other words, wisdom.

Right Concentration

This describes the stable, calm mind that is free from any hindrance for wisdom to arise.

 

These three factors are cultivated by practicing meditation techniques based on the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness.” In this discourse, the Buddha gave numerous bodily and mental phenomena that we can experience as objects of mindfulness, together with other supporting mental factors. In the process of cultivating each factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, we will bring light to the darkness of the deluded mind, and lessen the hold craving and aversion has over us.

Summary

The key to Right Practice still lies with Right View. In the context of meditation, no matter what the experience is, we need to remember that this is not personal. It is not mine, nor I, or myself. All phenomena happens because of conditioning of mind and body. For example, we may believe “I am someone who gets angry easily.” We identify with then, then act out of that. In the Buddhist worldview, however, we investigate our likes, dislikes, and perception and dismantle it with the steadiness of an intelligently aware mind: e.g. a disposition toward anger may owe itself to countless conditions in childhood and can stretch as far back to previous lifetimes. It is just nature and has nothing to do with “I”. In this view, we also understand that all our liking, disliking, and judging are also part of nature, part of the same causes and conditions arising, and we let it be. Our responsibility is just to be aware of all this with the intelligence of Right View.

 

We highly recommend people who are new to Buddhism and those who want to practice meditation to get familiar with this basic understanding of the Buddha’s teachings before, or alongside with the practice of meditation. It is also important to note that although mindfulness is necessary for wisdom to arise, it is not the sole condition. Although mindfulness practice can stabilize and tranquilize the mind, temporarily easing mental stress, mindfulness alone is not enough. The entire Noble Eightfold Path must be practiced, and many supporting wholesome mental factors must be cultivated, to achieve the ultimate happiness.

 

May we all awaken together on this path!

 

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