Read the new & improved version of this post: The foundational teachings of Buddhism and the Eightfold Path
Siddhartha Gautama lived the first part of his life as a prince, his every whim catered for, no expense spared. Growing tired of this, he became determined to discover what went on beyond his privileged bubble. After venturing outside the palace walls, he saw for the first time what human suffering really meant and was overwhelmed by a vision of illness, old age and death.
Vowing to discover a way to be liberated from life’s vicissitudes and suffering, he left the palace, abandoning his wife and baby son. He became an ascetic: starving himself and practising extreme austerities, all but dying in the process.
Under the Bodhi tree he attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha – one who is awake. On realising the mistake he had made in going to such extremes in his quest, he began to teach the Middle Way to liberation.
The Middle Way
Since suffering is caused by desire, he saw it was impossible to be free unless that desire was transcended. Indulging yourself never works because you just want more. Whatever you have is never enough and it never lasts due to the impermanent nature of life. If you swing to the other extreme and deny your desires, that doesn’t work either. You end up miserable, starving and half crazy.
So the Middle Way carves a path between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. It recognises the importance of taking care of yourself, treating yourself and others with compassion, and living with wisdom in a balanced and harmonious way.
Ultimately the ego can be transcended by recognising its true nature as illusory. There is no sense in clinging to the self, trying to bolster and strengthen it, indulging in its whims and desires. There is no sense in denigrating the self, trying to destroy it in a nihilistic frenzy.
The Middle Way brings the realisation that there is no self to transcend.
How do you attain this realisation?
The Four Noble Truths
Buddha saw that it was possible to live in a way which was free from suffering. But first certain facts must be accepted. You will never be truly happy or free if you are constantly running away from or denying reality. So the first step is to confront the truth.
Buddha set out these truths as basic facts of existence, calling them the Four Noble Truths. They are:
- The fact of suffering – we experience suffering due to the impermanence of life
- The fact of the cause of suffering – we desire life to not be impermanent
- The fact of the cessation of suffering – we can free ourselves from that desire
- The fact of the cause of cessation – we can follow the Eightfold Path to liberation
In other words, we suffer because life keeps changing when we want it to stay the same. We want to be happy but the things and people we love change or die. We cannot control life and trying to control it makes us suffer.
The good news is we don’t have to suffer. There is a way to free yourself from the desire to control life and fix impermanence.
And that brings us to the focus of this series: the Eightfold Path.
This is the path to freedom as taught by the Buddha throughout his life. It is divided into three parts covering Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Discipline. Each of the eight divisions are to be practised simultaneously, which is why they are often depicted in a circle using the Dharma Wheel.
All the teachings and disciplines interconnect and feed into each other, providing a comprehensive guide to enlightened living in the world. The entire path is built upon and grows out of compassion and universal love for all sentient beings, and is a perfect manifestation of the realisation of the True Self or Buddha Nature.
1. Right Understanding – seeing yourself and the world as it really is
2. Right Thought – thinking and intention arising from Right Understanding
3. Right Speech – communicating with compassion
4. Right Action – acting appropriately in each situation
5. Right Livelihood – earning a living in a way that promotes respect and equality
6. Right Effort – cultivating a positive attitude and cheerful determination
7. Right Mindfulness – being aware of the moment with a clear focus
8. Right Concentration – disciplining the mind to see reality as it is
In this series we’ll look at each step on the path to freedom, starting with Wisdom and Right Understanding.