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A Beginner's Understanding of the Eightfold Path
Buddhism's Different Forms
The teachings of Buddhism came from Siddhartha Buddha, who lived in India about six hundred years before Christ was born. There are two doctrines of Buddhism, one is called Mahayana Buddhism. Maha is great in Sanskrit, yana is a sort of vehicle, so Mahayana Buddhism translates into “great vehicle”. This form is usually found practiced in Northern Asia, in Tibet, China, Mongolia and Japan. It is often compared with Theravada, or Hinayana, “little” vehicle. This form of Buddhism is found in Southern Asia, in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.
The Theraveda is a much stricter form of Buddhism, and is usually practiced by monks. They try to live without any desires, such as girlfriends or wives. They cannot kill anything, so eat only vegetarian diets. They even strain their drinking water in case there are any little bugs in it, lest they kill any living thing by mistake. These Monks spend most of their time in meditation until they attain nirvana, a total disappearance from the external world. Of course, the desire to not desire anything is a problem encountered in this situation.
Buddhism is Hinduism When it Leaves India
It is difficult to separate some cultures from their religions. What does Hinduism mean if you don't live in India? So the form of Hinduism that is practiced outside of India is Buddhism. Humans have three ways of interpreting the world. The Western way is to view the world as an artifact, which was created, as an object would be if made from wood or clay. God supposedly made Adam of the dust, and breathed life into him. The Hindu way is to believe the whole world is a play, a great drama. God is the creator of the play, or drama, and separates himself (or herself) to be all of the players, or everyone in the world. That is why it can be said we all have divinity within us. This goes on for 4,320,000 years, and then the world stops, and then it begins again. It is actually more complicated and there are 4 world stages, but we will not need them for the purposes of understanding this writing. Then there is the Chinese view, which looks at the world as an organism, or body. Buddhism does not separate religion from the person, or the person from the world. Each person is a part of nature, their environment and their religion.
Buddhists Believe the Universe is Just a Thought Pattern
One idea very odd to the western mind is that Buddhists believe the world is not a substantial place made of anything, but a perception that exists only in our minds. The Buddha’s original teachings are that our whole world of experience is just a perception of patterns, constantly changing and rippling, flowing from one thing to another. There is no substance at all. Another common idea in Buddhism is the Sanskrit doctrine of anatman, which means non-ego. There is no “I”, no thinker behind the thought, we are all one in Buddhism, no one person is separate. There is no experiencer behind the experience, an experience is only the process of experiencing.
When a sensation is felt, we do not really feel it, we are it. So a similar illusion comes from the repeating patterns of our nervous systems, and we get the impression that there is an experience, which lasts from the past, into the present, and into the future. But there is no past or future, there is only the present. People gradually build up a resistance to what we experience, which causes us anxiety and frustration. This leads to a development of greed for events, more experiences, more life, and this is tiring. It becomes that vicious cycle of Samsara, the round of existence. The individual keeps being reincarnated into the world again and again, as long as there is an attraction for it.
Buddhism as a way out of the Rat Race
So the original appeal of Buddhism offered a way to get out of the vicious wheel of life. But a fundamental point of Mahayana Buddhism is trying to get out of the way of thinking that there is a real experiencer who is having an experience. This is an illusion. There is simply experiencing, just moving patterns, and a symbol of Mahayana Buddhism is the person no longer seeking to escape from the rat race of life. He realizes there is nothing to escape from, and is called in Sanskrit a bodhisattva.
The most famous bodhisattva was Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of mercy. Bodhisattvas are ones who come back into the world of mundane, everyday things, to live them fully, and to help other beings be delivered, even though at this point they do not have to do this. So the ideal Buddha is not an aloof hermit who shuns life, but someone who loves life and thoroughly enjoys it. The bodhisattva is not afraid to assume any form symbolically, so represents the whole attitude of overcoming life not by escaping from it, but by accepting it. So there are deeds, but no doer, and experiences without an experiencer. The world is not made of stuff, it is illusion, and whatever we do, we become. This is what Buddhist philosophy calls shunyata, the empty void. It is not void because nothing is there, only because our minds have no idea of it.
The Way of Buddhism is called The Eightfold Path, because there are eight practices or components that are part of the last Noble Truth of Marga. The eight steps are normally divided into three phases, which do not have to be followed in a specific order. They are described by the word “samyak” which translates to “right” or more as a sum or total.
Buddhism's Eightfold Path
Right Understanding or Right View--samyak drishti
This is very important to understanding the Buddhist belief system, especially the identification, the causes, and the consequences of the elimination of suffering. Right Understanding shows that the person is familiar with the Buddhist philosophy of the non-permanence of the self. An important teaching in Buddhism is that everything in this universe depends on everything else, or The Doctrine of Mutual Interdependence.
A follower has the right thought when he or she fully understands their purpose in following the teachings of the Buddha, and his view of the world and its issues.
This is a rule to avoid harmful language, such as lying or unkind words. It is always better to use gentle, meaningful and friendly words, even if the situation calls for a truth that may be hurtful. Sometimes people will be hurt by our words even if we have the best of intentions. In the Seven Hermetic Laws, one hermit meditating on a mountaintop can achieve more good in the world than hundreds of people bussed to Washington, DC, to protest something they disapprove of. Why? Because the people in the protest are angry, and the hermit is not, and positive energy is always better.
I have a friend who sends a group email every Saturday evening, and asks everyone on the list to stop whatever they are doing at noon on Sunday, and pray for world peace. She strongly believes that if enough people do this, every week, we would be a much more peaceful world. It's certainly a worthwhile activity, and the power of prayer, or positive thoughts "sent" to a certain person or place to help overcome problems has been proven to be helpful.
Right Action has to do with the second phase of the Fourth Noble Truth. It has three more paths, right action, right livelihood and right effort. If engaged in the Way of Liberation and one wants to clarify their consciousness, their actions must be consistent with that goal. Every Buddhist takes comfort in the Three Refuges and makes Five Vows. The Three Refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma or doctrine, and the Sangha, or the fellowship of all who are on their way.
These are the five precepts or the list of fundamental behaviors all practicing Buddhists should follow.
1. Refrain from destroying any living things.
2. Refrain from stealing, or taking what is not given.
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct (adultery, rape), or exploiting the passions.
4. Refrain from lying.
5. Refrain from intoxicants which lead to inappropriate behavior. You may indulge in them, but not to the point of losing control of yourself.
6. Right Livelihood
People seeking enlightenment should try to pick the right jobs or careers to support the other fundamentals of Buddhism. Followers should avoid employment situations where their actions may cause harm to others, directly or indirectly. I’ll leave this one to your imaginations, I’m sure we all can think of many employers who have done tremendous harm to the Earth and to their fellow man.
7. Right Effort
Sometimes no matter how hard we try, we have negative thoughts about others and even ourselves. Right Effort means to focus on working to improve the bad thoughts and replace them with positive, pleasant thoughts, to whatever degree is possible. Just try to redirect the thoughts, think about something that makes you feel happy. This causes a change in consciousness.
8. The last phase of the Eightfold Path means mindfulness or recollection.
Right Mindfulness or samyak smriti is when a person is completely alert and available in the present, the only place you can be in. Yesterday does not exists. Tomorrow never comes. One has to live in the moment and be "all there."
Right Concentration or samyak samadhi is integrated consciousness. There is no separation between the knower and the known, subject and object. You, as someone who is aware, along with all that you are aware of, are one single process. This is the samadhi state, which can be helped along by the practice of meditation.
This lays the foundation along with Right Mindfulness for proper meditation practices. The two together give instructions on how to work through the steps of focus in effective meditation. This is not easily learned, and can take quite some time before a person can turn off all those pesky thoughts and push them away, in order to clear the mind.
Meditation is the Key
Almost any Buddha figure you ever see is in meditation, sitting there quietly, aware of what is going on, but not commenting or thinking about it. When a person stops talking, putting things in categories, and talking to themselves (I’ll have to work on that one), the difference between the knower and the known, self and other vanishes. There is no longer a thing called difference, it is just an abstraction. It does not exist in the physical world. When you let go of conceptions, you will be in a state of Nirvana, for reasons it appears nobody can explain. When you get here, what will well up within you is karma or compassion. This is a sense that you are not separate from everybody else, but that everybody else is suffering as you are, in solidarity. The person who reaches Nirvana does not withdraw from the world, but comes back from Samadhi into it and all the problems of life, with renewed passion and compassion for everyone. And this is the great secret of the Middle Way. You cannot be saved alone, because you are not alone.