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Buddhism for Beginners

Jeff Hooks

In order to stop the suffering in the world, Buddhism advocates replacing the products of speculation with reality. Think of how often human beings are concerned with speculation: "What if . . ." , "If only I had . . ." , "Will I . . " and so on. Buddhism claims that language itself creates misleading speculation; as soon as we name something we begin to speculate about it, manipulating its nature for our own selfish ends or allowing our fears to create delusions about it. Even our own selves, according to the Buddha, are products of speculation. When we think about our selves, we become selfish and delusional. Buddha claims that this speculation is the cause of all the suffering in the world. If people would stop speculating, everything would be great, no more conflict, no more war, no more hunger, no more suffering.

The Buddha says that his teaching is not supposed to be understood because he is not proposing a philosophy nor a theology; instead, he is providing a tool to stop suffering and that's all, that's enough. He literally means tool. Think of using Buddhism in the same way that we use the public transportation system. We don't need to know how an internal combustion engine works or who the driver of the bus is or why a certain route is taken or how the government uses taxes to fund the transportation system as long as we have a token, the bus comes, and the machine gets us to where we are going. The bus saves us from an impossibly long walk. In one sermon the Buddha even says that his teaching should be discarded as soon as we get to our destination. He says that it's foolish to carry a raft on our backs after we've crossed a river. In another Buddhist text, the Buddha is compared to a doctor who can save the life of a man who has been shot with an arrow. The man keeps stopping the doctor with questions about who shot the arrow and why he was shot before he will accept treatment. This is speculation: asking questions about God, the self, the purpose of life, the future of mankind not only does not stop suffering but causes more suffering because it causes conflicting opinions and confrontation that arise from delusion and the selfish manipulation of perceptions. Instead, Buddhism teaches a way of living that avoids speculation in order to stop the suffering of living beings right now.

The historical Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit), was born a rich prince in the kingdom of the Sakyas and lived a childhood and youth protected from the knowledge of human suffering. Upon discovering that people get old, sick, and die, he set off upon the religious life to attempt to do something about this horror he had discovered: people suffered! He became an extreme ascetic in the Vedic tradition, attempting to transcend the world of the flesh, the world of imperfection, by becoming one with Brahman through ordeals: fasting, sleep deprivation, repudiation of pleasure. However, he did not find a satisfactory solution to the problem of suffering by these means even though he had mastered all the techniques and practices of religious renunciation of the world. At this point, he sat beneath a tree (ficus religiousa) that has become known as the Bodhi (enlightenment) Tree and, after a period of deep thought, he saw the morning star and suddenly reached enlightenment. Suffering ceased to exist. Buddha means "enlightened one."

Upon meeting up with his companions from his days as an ascetic, the Buddha began to teach.

The Buddha's main concepts - the basic tools to put an end to suffering - may be understood by looking at two teachings: the Four Noble Truths and the Doctrine of Anatta.

According to the Buddha, suffering comes from speculation. And the speculations that cause suffering can be eliminated. If the speculations are eliminated, then suffering ceases. The method to eliminate speculation is to follow a lifestyle of perfect balance between the extremes of pleasure seeking and renunciation - the two lifestyles the Buddha had experienced. Thus the Four Noble Truths are defined:

1. Suffering is universal in human experience.

2. Suffering has a cause.

3. Eliminate the cause and suffering is eliminated.

4. Follow the Noble Eightfold Path to eliminate the cause.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the lifestyle that is based upon the perfect balance between the extremes of the pursuit of worldly pleasure and the pursuit of religious transcendence, the perfect balance between affirmation and denial.

1. Right Understanding

2. Right Thought

3. Right Speech

4. Right Action

5. Right Livelihood

6. Right Effort

7. Right Mindfulness

8. Right Concentration

These eight rules of behavior are also known as the Middle Path. In brief, they are all balance points that the Buddha says naturally occur if people act without speculation, balance points between affirmation and denial that suspend and make judgment unnecessary. People will naturally and immediately do the right thing if they react to reality and not to the products of speculation. We cannot help but do the right thing if we don't speculate, if we react to what's right in front of us. But we cannot help but become delusional and selfishly manipulative as soon as we enter into speculation. In other words, Buddhism teaches us to do what comes naturally and that it will be the right thing to do. Oftentimes, the Middle Path is presented as a metaphor that epitomizes the Eightfold Path:

Eat when you're hungry;
drink when you're thirsty.

The concept of Anatta is what makes Buddhism different from all other religions. In fact, it's such a strange concept that it seems that Buddhism isn't really a religion at all. Anatta literally means no Atman. The Atman in Vedic tradition is the eternal self, the soul. Buddhism claims that the concept of a self is a product of speculation as are concepts of reality and concepts of God. Buddhism makes no statements about what is real or what is not real. It doesn't say that God exists or that God does not exist, that the self exists or that the self does not exist, that the physical world exists or that the physical world does not exist; instead, Buddhism says that acting or thinking about these things that are the result of speculation causes suffering. God may or may not exist, but acting on either speculation causes suffering. God doesn't cause suffering - religions do, and anti-religions do. People's souls don't cause suffering - people acting as if they had eternal souls do, and people acting as if they didn't have eternal souls do.

The Buddha teaches us never to act or to think in response to a product of speculation, but instead to act and to think in response to the certain, to the reality that is right in front of us at the present moment. Don't act because of what might be or what might have been because that causes suffering. Act in response to the real world in the present moment and suffering will cease for you and for others.

In short, Buddhism may be summarized simply:

Do the Right Thing - Right Now.