Who Was The Buddha?


 Ask someone this question and you’ll be likely to hear “The Buddha was a spiritual leader who founded the religion of Buddhism.” This, while correct in its own way, is only a small part of the entire picture, and is far from an adequate explanation for someone attempting to give a full account of Buddhist philosophy.  Buddhist principles have their origins in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama; a prince turned guru, who lived sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. Siddhartha’s father was the ruler of Sakya people  in what is now present day Nepal. As was customary for princes at that time, Siddhartha was married at the age of 16 and was, for his own protection, forced to live a solitary life. This is how he would remain until the age of 29, when Siddhartha wandered from the palace walls and into the public. Here he saw the sufferings of human life; including old age, disease, and death. He became obsessed with finding a cure for these afflictions and, shortly thereafter, left his palace walls; as well as his wife and his child, to embark on a quest to stop these atrocities. For 6 years he would follow a path of meditation and ascetic teachings, though admittedly never having experienced the satisfaction he was seeking, until a young village girl, seeing his emaciated body, offered him a bowl of rice. He accepted the offering and from this would go on to disavow the ascetic teachings he had been following; leaving the practices of extremism  for a path of balance; this would become what is known as the middle way in modern Buddhism. Shorty after this event, Siddhartha sat beneath a bodhi tree, vowing not to leave his place until he had found enlightenment. It’s said that he sat there for 49 days, purifying his mind, until, at the age 35, he is said to have achieved enlightenment. This is how the former prince became known as The Buddha, or enlightened one. 

Four Noble Truths

Credit: hintha cc-by-3.0 via wikimedia commons

For the remaining 45 years of his life the Buddha would continue to travel, teaching these new found principles; which we now know as Buddhism. One of these fundamental teachings is the doctrine of the four noble truths. Though interpreted in a variety of ways, the main concept of these teachings remains essentially the same. They can be loosely translated as;

The truth of suffering

The truth of the cause of suffering

The truth of the end of suffering

The truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering

This is often how they are translated from Pali, though it’s widely believed that the word dukkha, or suffering, loses its original meaning when translated to the English language, as dukka in its native language can depict anything from uneasiness to misery, as well as everything in between. The goal of the first noble truth is for the practitioner to realize their life as dukkha, or as the Buddha describes it: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha. Once dukka is understood in the first noble truth, it brings us to the second, or Dukkha Samudaya; the origin of suffering. Within Buddhist texts the second noble truth is often associated with the word tanha, a pali word meaning desire or craving. Because of this, the cause of suffering is often misinterpreted as the desire for a material object or a desire that is separate from the self. However, tanha, when properly translated, extends beyond a single, relegated craving, and instead encompasses any desire no matter the intensity. So now we have the second noble truth, Dukkha Samudaya; the cause of the suffering, leading to the first, dukkha; the suffering itself, which brings us to the third noble truth; the end of the suffering. The third noble truth brings with it an introduction to the main goal of Buddhism; enlightenment.  This is achieved in the third noble truth by the cessation of the desires, which have been understood in the second noble truth. And because a cessation of these desires would then end the sufferings understood in the first noble truth, this brings about nirvana, or complete peace. So that leaves us with the way in which one gets to this peace, or The fourth noble truth; the path that leads to the end of suffering.

Noble Eight fold Path

buddhist pray

The fourth noble truth goes into further detail in the Buddha’s teachings of the noble eightfold path. They consist of;

 Right understanding

Right thought

Right speech

Right action

Right livelihood

Right effort

Right mindfulness

Right concentration

As you can see, they each began with the word right, which is again a loose translation. Samma, translated from pali, has an undertone in the language of cohesion and togetherness, and in a certain context, perfection or idealness. The first, right understanding, or sometimes referred to as right view, is not used as a step within the process of the noble eightfold, but is instead continually understood throughout the practice, to be grasped from conception to completion, and as well as the stages within. It is contrasted with ignorance, which is said to be the antithesis of the middle way. The second step in the path; right thought, or right intention, is based on the idea that if ones intention is right, then their actions will also be right. Right thought also serves to carry the practitioner onward in the path, integrating the wisdom gained in right view into real life circumstances, before putting them into action in the following three steps, which are known as the moral triad. Right speech is the first of the part of the moral triad followed by right action and right livelihood. Sometimes as a group referred to as right effort, these three promote mental discipline in order to achieve mental purification.  The Buddha divided the stages of right speech into 4 parts; abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harmful speech, and abstaining from idle chatter. He then describes right action in 3 parts; abstaining from taking life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct. In the final piece of the moral triad, right livelihood, the Buddha gives 5 activities to avoid within right livelihood;

Dealing in weapons

Dealing in human beings

Dealing in the production of meat

Dealing in poisons,  

Dealing in intoxicants

The final three stages of the path directly relate to the new found wisdom that has been achieved throughout the practitioner’s journey.  As a group they are translated from the word samadi; which is a sanskrit word, meaning mental discipline or concentration. The first, right effort or right endeavor, is taught in four phases,

To prevent the arising of unarisen unwholesome states

To abandon unwholesome states that have already arisen

To arouse wholesome states that have not yet arisen

To maintain and perfect wholesome states already arisen and used to cleanse the mind of all wrong or harmful thoughts.

 The second, right mindfulness, or right awareness is again broken up into 4 foundations; mindfulness of the body,

Mindfulness of feeling

Contemplation of state of mind

Contemplation of phenomena

The final step in the noble eightfold path is right concentration, or right meditation. The development is taught in two methods; the development of serenity and the development of insight. The former is a deep concentration on the object itself, while the latter delves within the object to find insight.