The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom
- Life is suffering;
- Suffering is due to attachment;
- Attachment can be overcome;
- There is a path for accomplishing this.
- Suffering is perhaps the most common translation for the Sanskrit word duhkha, which can also be translated as imperfect, stressful, or filled with anguish.
Contributing to the anguish is anitya — the fact that all things are impermanent, including living things like ourselves.
Furthermore, there is the concept of anatman — literally, “no soul”. Anatman means that all things are interconnected and interdependent, so that no thing — including ourselves — has a separate existence.
- Attachment is a common translation for the word trishna, which literally means thirst and is also translated as desire, clinging, greed, craving, or lust. Because we and the world are imperfect, impermanent, and not separate, we are forever “clinging” to things, each other, and ourselves, in a mistaken effort at permanence.
Besides trishna, there is dvesha, which means avoidance or hatred. Hatred is its own kind of clinging.
And finally there is avidya, ignorance or the refusal to see. Not fully understanding the impermanence of things is what leads us to cling in the first place.
Perhaps the most misunderstood term in Buddhism is the one which refers to the overcoming of attachment: nirvana. It literally means “blowing out,” but is often thought to refer to either a Buddhist heaven or complete nothingness. Actually, it refers to the letting go of clinging, hatred, and ignorance, and the full acceptance of imperfection, impermanence, and interconnectedness.
And then there is the path, called dharma. Buddha called it the middle way, which is understood as meaning the middle way between such competing philosophies as materialism and idealism, or hedonism and asceticism. This path, this middle way, is elaborated as the eightfold path.
- Right view is the true understanding of the four noble truths.
- Right aspiration is the true desire to free oneself from attachment, ignorance, and hatefulness.
These two are referred to as prajña, or wisdom.
- Right speech involves abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk.
- Right action involves abstaining from hurtful behaviors, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex.
- Right livelihood means making your living in such a way as to avoid dishonesty and hurting others, including animals.
These three are refered to as shila, or morality.
- Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in regards to the content of one’s mind: Bad qualities should be abandoned and prevented from arising again; Good qualities should be enacted and nurtured.
- Right mindfulness is the focusing of one’s attention on one’s body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance.
- Right concentration is meditating in such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.
The last three are known as samadhi, or meditation.
The Kalama Sutta
In the Kalama Sutta, we find the Kalamas, a people of apparently skeptical natures, asking Buddha for guidance in distinguishing good teachers from bad ones, and proper teachings from evil ones. The Buddha answers in three parts, which are treasures of wisdom. First, he outlines the criteria we should use to distinguish good from bad teachers and teachings:
“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain…. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher….’
“What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?” — “For his harm, venerable sir.” — “Kalamas, being given to greed, hate, and delusion, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, hate, and delusion, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?” — “Yes, venerable sir….”
“Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them. “
Next, Buddha presents The Four Exalted Dwellings or Brahma Vihara:
“The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who in this way is devoid of coveting, devoid of ill will, undeluded, clearly comprehending and mindful, dwells, having pervaded, with the thought of amity, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of amity that is free of hate or malice.
“He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of compassion, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of compassion that is free of hate or malice.
“He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of gladness, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of gladness that is free of hate or malice.
“He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of equanimity, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of equanimity that is free of hate or malice.
And finally, Buddha reveals how, no matter what our philosophical orientation, following this path will lead to happiness, The Four Solaces:
“The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now.
“‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him.
“‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him.
“‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him.
“‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him.
“The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found.”
(quotations adapted from The Anguttara Nikaya 3.65, Soma Thera Trans., emphases added.)
For other original sutras concerning the basics of Buddhist wisdom, see the following:
- Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion
- An Analysis of the Path
- The River
- The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya
- The Dhammapada
By Dr. C. George Boeree, Shippensburg University
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