Introduction to Buddhism

The Buddha or Enlightened One, the One Who Knows, is how we call the Indian sage Gotama who, more than two and a half thousand years ago, left his royal home and after a six year struggle in forest wildernesses, realised the Truth and attained Enlightenment.

Soon after his birth beneath the trees of the Lumbini garden it was predicted that the young Prince Siddhattha Gotama would grow up to be either a great and powerful king or, in a search for the meaning of life, he would embrace things spiritual and become a Buddha. Understandably, the father, himself a ruler and a warrior, preferred his son to follow his own example and win power and influence as a king. So, he determined to protect the boy from anything that might make him question his life, while at the same time having him trained as a warrior. Prince Siddhattha married when he was sixteen and went on to live a relatively happy and trouble-free life. Then, when he was twenty-nine, at about the time his only son was born, he went out and encountered for the first time old-age, sickness and death. So vividly were these experiences impressed upon him and then so keenly did he feel the utter pointlessness of a life spent in pursuit of worldly things, things which must age and spoil and break up, that he decided he must be like the wandering monk he’d seen and go forth in search of a means to overcome the ills of life and attain to a perfect calm and peace. During the years that followed when he’d cast aside his wealth and home, he made several attempts at some sort of breakthrough to satisfy his deep spiritual yearning, but without success. Extreme asceticism brought him fame and respect, and disciples, but they were quick to leave when he gave up his ascetic practices. With his body wasted and desperately thin, almost at the point of death, he remembered a day in his childhood when his mind had become very sharp, still and alert as he steadily paid attention to his breath. After a nourishing meal, and all alone now, he sat beneath a great tree and concentrated on his breath. As before, his mind became very bright and alert, then concentrating more and more he was able to look into the innermost recesses of his mind, to observe the comings and goings, the thoughts, the feelings, everything – and so he awoke an understanding of the true nature of things. Properly knowing what it’s all about, his mind became free of Greed, Hatred and Delusion. Then he was the Buddha.

The thrust of the Buddha’s message is The Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness,
  2. the Cause of Suffering,
  3. the Stopping of Suffering,
  4. and How to stop Suffering – the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha wanted the first to whom he would try and explain what had happened to him to be those five ascetics who’d looked after him and then left when he stopped fasting. They didn’t really want anything more to do with him, but when he eventually found them in a deer park not far from Benares they were struck by the change in him and agreed to hear him out. So they sat around, out in the open, under the trees, and he talked and they listened. First he spoke of his early life and how he’d been very privileged and until he’d left home had had just about everything he wanted – and a bit more, but had never been really content and at peace. Then he reminded them of the terrible way he’d tormented his body with breath control and fasting and how that hadn’t done much for him either. Left by himself, he’d tried a middle way and that was the first principle he wished to impress upon them – the avoidance of extremes, the Middle Way. Then came Suffering: he drew their attention to the hurt in life with its aches and pains, perpetual tension in the face of ceaseless, unstoppable change, and our abiding selfishness. Not really understanding why we’re here or what it’s all about we allow desire to put us at odds with everything. We try to control, we want, and then we don’t want. Wanting colours our relationship with everything. This thirst just leads to more thirst, and never satisfied we suffer. Depressing? Well, it could be, but the Buddha went on to say that it might be stopped and furthermore he concluded by explaining how, the practice that can overcome this problem. Many times throughout his long life, before passing away at the age of eighty, he emphasised that it was principally Suffering and the End of Suffering that concerned him. Apart from qualities like generosity, patience and loving-kindness it was that Noble Eightfold Path:

  1. Right Understanding,
  2. Right Thinking,
  3. Right Speech,
  4. Right Action,
  5. Right Livelihood,
  6. Right Effort,
  7. Right Mindfulness,
  8. Right Concentration

– the training in Morality, Meditation and Wisdom that he constantly advised as the way to end Suffering.

Buddhist morality is rooted in Harmlessness. In five ways the Buddha encourages you to offer others, and to share in yourself, the gifts of security, and freedom from hate and injury: learning to live without killing, stealing, indulging in sexual misconduct, lying and abusing alcohol and drugs.

When you no longer threaten another’s person, nor their property, nor relationship, when you prove to be a contented, reliable person whose word can be trusted, then others will be at ease with you and you with them. This is an enormous contribution to the happiness and well-being of everyone – including you!

We’ve all done good things and bad things and much that are a bit of a mix – not all bad, not all good. If you leave the bad alone, what’s left? It’s the same as in your garden, remove the weeds and the flowers bloom. Drop the bad and the good will blossom.

Your mind is a thing of great power for which you should try and take responsibility. Suffering always follows an impure mind, but a pure mind brings happiness. When your mind is calm and clear you will see and know things as they really are and you will live in peace. So it’s worth training your mind, and the first thing is to try and concentrate.

Concentration is nothing more than keeping the mind focussing continuously on the same thing for a given period. Obviously if you can do that nothing else gets a look in and ill-will, laziness, restlessness and all that spoils your mind is temporarily absent. If you use particular meditation subjects they may bring certain additional benefits, like if you focus on Loving-Kindness then that may encourage you in pleasant, friendly, loving attitudes. But a popular way to begin is to sit quietly and concentrate on the breath.

You must be mindful of sitting properly, either cross-legged or on a sensible upright chair, with both body and mind alert. Then notice the sensation of the air entering and leaving as you breathe in and breathe out. Find the spot where you are most aware of the breath and try to hold your attention there. Then start to count the breaths. If you lose the count, start all over again. If your mind just wanders, bring it back and carry on. Or you can use a word like Buddho (the One Who Knows) to hear repeating in your mind in time with the breath. Patiently try to keep the mind focussed. Begin and end each sitting by offering Loving-kindness to yourself and others.

These are simple ways to quieten, concentrate and stabilise your mind. Later you can learn just to sit in awareness, mindfully watching what’s going on – all your experiences – as you sit. Watching with a concentrated bare attention, insight accumulates. But you will need to practice and you will almost certainly benefit from some guidance.

While morality will make you kind and gentle, and concentration will steady your mind making you calm and serene, wisdom or insight solves the entire problem of suffering.