Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 or 466-386 BC), was born to a royal Ksatriya family. Because of a prophecy at his birth his father feared that his son would grow up to give up all worldly possessions and become an ascetic. Therefore during Siddhartha’s early life his father protected him from all misery, problems and evils of life so that he was never given temptation that would lead him to spiritual contemplation (Ross, K., 2007).
However, at the age of thirty when Siddhartha experienced the various pains of life by encountering a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a wandering ascetic, he became interested in renouncing the world and seek enlightenment like the ascetic (Ross, K., 2007).
For four years Siddharta went through various ascetic practices but at the end he felt that he had achieved nothing. He stopped fasting and sat under a tree (Bodhi/ Enlightenment Tree) to contemplate and meditate and decided that he would not rise from the tree until he had achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha became Buddha, the one who “Woke Up” (Ross, K., 2007).
After this, Siddhartha began to impart his experience of achieving this state amongst others. He did not proclaim to have any divine guidance during his experience. He explained that the method he used was simply based on common reason and devotion towards attaining the state of enlightenment.
Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to Nirvana
Buddha imparted the essence of its teachings very clearly and explicitly in his first sermon in the Deer Park. In this sermon he explained the Four Noble (Aryan) Truths of life. These were existence is unhappiness, unhappiness is caused by selfish craving, selfish craving can be destroyed, it can be destroyed by following the eightfold path. The eightfold path was also explained by Buddha as having the right understanding, right purpose, right speech, right conduct, right vocation, right effort, right alertness and right concentration. Following this eightfold path a man will be able to reach the cessation of pain which is the state of Nirvana (Extinction). This state is the marked by enlightenment, inward peace, liberation for the constant pains of craving, love towards all creatures in the universe. (Burtt E. A., p28)
First Truth: Existence is Unhappiness
The word used by Buddha for unhappiness is “dhukha” and points towards old age, sickness and death. It also points towards misery and sorrow over death or loss. Buddha points out that a man is faced with these problems that bring misery and unhappiness to his life.
“Now this, monks is the noble truth of pain: birth is painful, old age is painful, death is painful, sorrow, lamentation, dejection and despair is painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful, not getting what one wishes is painful. In short the five groups of grasping (“skandhas”) are painful.” (Burtt E. A., p30)
Second Truth: Unhappiness is caused by selfish craving
Buddha used by Buddha in the sermon for craving is “tanha”. He pointed out that we have the nature of demanding for things that are not there which leads to discontentment and misery. Moreover, when are demands remain unfulfilled we begin to indulge in acts that lead to the unhappiness of other people.
“Now this, monk is the noble truth of cause of pain: the craving that tends to rebirth, along with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure and here and there; namely the craving for passion, the craving for existence and the craving for non-existence.” (Burtt E. A., p30)
Third Truth: Selfish craving can be destroyed
This “tanha” or selfish craving is something which can be controlled and eventually completely removed by a person. This he realized after his own experimentation of meditation and self deprivation under a Bodhi tree in the Deer Park.
“Now this, monks is the noble truth of cessation of pain, a cessation without remainder of the abandonment, forsaking, release, non-attachment.” (Burtt E. A., p30)
Fourth Truth: Eightfold path
The eightfold path presented by Buddha which is used to destroy craving. This Eightfold path is called the Middlepath as it is the path of neither over-indulgence “with the passions and luxury, low, vulgar, common, ignoble and useless” and nor asceticism “conjoined with self-torture, painful, ignoble, useless”. In his own words he explains the eightfold path as follows:
“Now this, monks is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of pain: this is the noble Eightfold Way; namely right views, right intentions, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” (Burtt E. A., p30)
The first of the two eightfold are basically understanding a problem and deciding upon a course of action. If these two steps are ignored or a man is mislead during these two steps he will be unable to reach the stage of cessation of pain ‘Nirvana’. Buddha points out that it is at this final stage a man will become liberated from pain and misery and attain the state of the highest happiness.
Teachings of Buddha
One very important teaching of Buddha is that everything is finite and has an end. Hence, man has to face the beginning and end of everything around him. Thus this world is in constant change and in a state of transitions as one thing comes to end while another just begins. He pointed out that death is an unavoidable truth and man has to learn to accept it gracefully.
This principle of accepting the reality of death is explained beautifully in the story about Kisa Gotami. When Kisa Gotami’s son dies she comes to Buddha’s asking him for a medicine for her son (apparently not accepting the death of her boy in her grieve). Buddha tells her to go into a nearby city and get a mustard seed from each house where no death has occurred. As Kisa goes from door to door she realizes that death is a very common phenomenon which has touched ever life. Returning to Buddha empty handed she ask Buddha to give her refuge and guidance (Burtt E. A., p44-46)
Knowing that everyman faces the same pain of death compassion for others helps reduce ones own pain and also helps him realize oneness with all living beings. This is another lesson that can be driven from Kisa Gotami’s story. Once she realizes that she is not the only one on whom the pain of death of a loved one was afflicted, she is able to accept the death of her son and comes to terms with it (Burtt E. A., p44-46). She says on this realization “Dear little son, I thought you alone had been overtaken by a thing called death. But you are not the only one death has over taken. It is a law common to all mankind.” (Burtt E. A., p45)
A very comprehensive guide to Buddha’s teachings is the “Dhammapada”, the Way of Truth. It is consistence of sayings of Buddha organized in topical order (Burtt E. A., p51). It is in this book we find the Buddha’s emphasis on thoughts and intentions, which are also the first two steps of the eightfold path. “All what we are is the result of all what we have thought” (Burtt E. A., p52)
Amongst the saying of Buddha presented in the book, are those about earnestness. Buddha believed that earnestness and focus. Earnestness can be understood as the habit of focused thinking or meditation (Burtt E. A., p54). “Even the gods envy those who are awakened and not forgetful, who are given to meditation and are wise, and who delight in the repose of the retirement of the world” (Burtt E. A., p54). Buddha points out in his sayings that earnestness drives away the evil of vanity. Thus it reduces selfishness and allows man to have compassion for others. It also drives away thoughtlessness and ignorance. Hence, it is necessary practice to reach enlightenment.
“When a man of understanding drives away vanity by earnestness, he the wise, climbing the terraced heights of wisdom, looks down upon the fools; free from sorrow he looks down upon the sorrowing crowd, as one that stands on a mountain looks down upon them that stand upon the plain” (Burtt E. A., p54).
According to Bhudda’s teaching earnestness is a necessary trait of a man who is able to attain Nirvana. “A bikshu who delights in earnestness, who looks with fear on thoughtlessness, cannot fall away from his perfect state—he is close to Nirvana” (Burtt E. A., p55).
Bhudda emphasizes that man should avoid both evil thoughts and evil actions. He says that people who do evil face pain in their lives while people who do good face delight and happiness in their lives.
“If a man commits a sin, let him not do it again; let him not delight in sin—the accumulation of evil is painful. If a man does what is good, let him do it again; let him delight in it—the accumulation of good is delightful” (Burtt E. A., p58).
Buddha teaches man to avoid pleasure. According to him pleasure leads to grieve and fear. When a person experiences pleasure he fears that the pleasure will soon cease. Eventually, when the pleasure does cease which is unavoidable grieve sets in at the loss of the pleasure. Hence if a man does not feel pleasure he will not have to face grieve and fear. Pleasure includes various emotions such as lust, desire and craving.
Buddha also taught his disciples to control and avoid anger.
“Beware of bodily anger and control your body! Leave the sins of the body and with your body practice virtue! Beware of the anger of the tongue and control your tongue! Leave the sins of the tongue and practice virtue with your tongue! Beware of the anger of the mind and control your mind! Leave the sins of the mind and practice virtue with your mind!” (Burtt E. A., p64).
The most important of the Buddha’s teachings are those of self control. He emphasized to his disciples on the importance of self control and abstinence. Controlling ones anger in itself is a type of self control. But generally speaking self control is the control of speech, thought and actions. A self controlled man who speaks calmly and wisely, who tolerates intolerants, is mild and is not greedy.
All the teachings of Buddha were aimed at showing man the path to Nirvana. However, even though he was asked again and again, Buddha never gave the exact characteristics of the state of Nirvana. Buddha once told one person on his question about the characteristics of Nirvana “…there is Nirvana; but it is not possible to show Nirvana by its color or configuration” (Burtt E. A., p113).
Another important point that must be discussed here, is his stance about meta physical elements. Buddha avoided taking any position between the alternatives available when asked such questions. In Majjhima-Nikaya Sutta 63 (Burtt E. A., p32-36), Buddha neither accepts nor rejects the following ideas posed to him:
“…that the world is eternal, that the world not eternal, that the world is finite, that the world is infinite, that the soul and the body are identical, that the soul is one thing and the body another, that the saint exists after death, that the saint does not exist after death, that the saint both exists and does not exist after death, that the saint neither exists not does not exist after death” (Burtt E. A., p36).
Thus Buddha’s aimed at only pointing out a practical way for people to achieve a state in which the cease to feel pain and misery because of the worldly problems. He aimed at showing people how they could master their own thoughts, speech and actions and achieve a state of perfection called Nirvana where they could be source of serenity to themselves and also to others.