2. Basic Buddhist Concepts
QUESTION: What are the main teachings of the Buddha?
ANSWER: All of the many teachings of the Buddha center on the Four Noble Truths just as the rim and spokes of a wheel center on the hub. They are called ‘Four’ because there are four of them. They are called ‘Noble’ because they ennoble one who understands them and they are called ‘Truths’ because, corresponding with reality, they are true.
QUESTION: What is the First Noble Truth?
ANSWER: The first Noble Truth is that life is suffering. To live is to suffer. It is impossible to live without experiencing some kind of pain or distress. We have to endure physical suffering like sickness, injury, tiredness, old age and eventually death and we have to endure psychological suffering like loneliness, frustrations, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, anger, etc.
QUESTION: Isn’t this a bit pessimistic?
ANSWER: The dictionary defines pessimism as ‘the habit of thinking that whatever will happen will be bad,’ or ‘the belief that evil is more powerful than good.’ Buddhism teaches neither of these ideas. Nor does it deny that happiness exists. It simply says that to live is to experience physical and psychological suffering which is a statement so true and so obvious that it cannot be denied. Buddhism starts with an experience, an irrefutable fact, a thing that all know, that all have experienced and that all are anxious to avoid. Thus, Buddhism starts by going straight to the core of every individual human beings’ concern – suffering and how to avoid it.
QUESTION: What is the Second Noble Truth?
ANSWER: The Second Noble Truth is that craving causes all suffering. When we look at psychological suffering, it is easy to see how it is caused by craving. When we want something but are unable to get it, we feel disappointed or frustrated. When we expect someone to live up to our expectations and they do not, we feel let down and angry. When we want others to like us and they don’t, we feel hurt. Even when we want something and are able to get it, this does not often lead to happiness because it is not long before we feel bored with that thing, lose interest in it and commence to want something else. Put simply, the Second Noble Truth says that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your wanting. Wanting deprives us of contentment and happiness.
QUESTION: But how does wanting and craving lead to physical suffering?
ANSWER: A lifetime of wanting and craving for this and that and especially the craving to continue to exist creates a powerful energy that causes the individual to be reborn. When we are reborn, we have a body and as we said before, the body is susceptible to injury and disease; it can be exhausted by work; it ages and eventually dies. Thus, craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.
QUESTION: That’s all very well. But if we stopped wanting altogether, we would never get anything or achieve anything.
ANSWER: True. But what the Buddha says is that when our desire, our craving, our constant discontent with what we have and our continual longing for more and more does cause us suffering, then we should stop doing it. He asked us to make a difference between what we need and what we want and to strive for our needs and modify our wants. He taught us that our needs can be fulfilled but that our wants are endless – a bottomless pit. There are needs that are essential, fundamental and that can be obtained and we should work towards this. Desires beyond this should be gradually lessened. After all, what is the purpose of life? To get or to be content and happy?
QUESTION: You have talked about rebirth, but is there any proof that such a thing happens?
ANSWER: There is ample evidence that such a thing happens but we will look at this in more detail later on.
QUESTION: What is the Third Noble Truth?
ANSWER: The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness attained. This is perhaps the most important of the Four Noble Truths because in it the Buddha reassured us that true happiness and contentment are possible. When we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time, enjoying without restless wanting the experiences that life offers us, patiently enduring the problems that life involves without fear, hatred and anger, then we become happy and free. Then and only then, are we able to live fully. Because we are no longer obsessed with satisfying our own selfish wants, we find we have so much time to help others fulfil their needs. This state is called Nirvana.
QUESTION: What or where is Nirvana?
ANSWER: It is a dimension transcending time and space and thus is difficult to talk about or even to think about, words and thoughts being only suited to describe the time-space dimension. But because Nirvana is beyond time, there is no movement, no friction and so no aging or dying. Thus Nirvana is eternal. Because it is beyond space, there is no causation, no boundary, no concept of self and no self and thus Nirvana is infinite. The Buddha also assured us that Nirvana is an experience of great happiness. He said:
‘Nirvana is the highest happiness.’ Dhp.204
QUESTION: But is there any proof that such a dimension exists?
ANSWER: No, there is not. But its existence can be inferred. If there is a dimension where time and space do operate and there is such dimension – the world we experience – then we can infer that there is a dimension where time and space do not operate – Nirvana. Again, even though we cannot prove Nirvana exists, we have the Buddha’s word that it does. He told us:
‘There is an Unborn, a Not-become, a Not-made, a Not-compounded. If there were not this Unborn, Not-become, Not-made, Not-compounded, there could not be an escape from what is born, become, made, and compounded. But since there is this Unborn, Not-become, Not-made, Not-compounded, there is an escape from what is born, become, made and compounded.’ Ud, 80
We will know it when we attain it. Until that time, we can still apply those aspects of the Buddha’s teachings that we can verify.
If a characteristic of Nirvana is the absence of desire and craving, how can you attain it by desiring to attain it?
Like any other goal one has to focus one’s effort and energy to attain Nirvana. However, in time, as you understanding deepens, you come to realize that Nirvana is not a thing ‘out there’ which you can ‘get’, but rather the state of being without desire, a state of complete knowledge, satisfaction and fulfillment. When you understand this your desire fades and eventually ceases. Then you have attained Nirvana.
QUESTION: What is the Fourth Noble Truth?
ANSWER: The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path leading to the overcoming of suffering. This path is called the Noble Eightfold Path and consists of Perfect Understanding, Perfect Thought, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness and Perfect Concentration. The Buddhist life consists of practicing these eight things until they are brought to completion. You will notice that the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path cover every aspect of life: the intellectual, the ethical, the social and economic, and the psychological and therefore contain everything a person needs to lead a good life and to develop spiritually.