Unlike most other religions, the central figure of Buddhism is not a God but a human being – Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was a prince who lived circa 500 BC and was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom. The young prince was different from your typical prince because he was deeply affected by the suffering he saw around him. Everywhere he looked he saw that men and women, children and old people, all suffer not just from war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration and discontent, all of which seemed to be part of the human condition. The price of being alive.
People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, have sons and daughters, and build houses and fantastic palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, no matter what they do, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to it all. Everything that one has accumulated in life vanishes in an instant like smoke. You don’t take anything of this world with you to death. No souvenirs!
Life is a pointless rat race. But how to *(fucking) escape it?
[* my words, not Buddha’s!]
At the age of twenty-nine Gautama slipped away from his palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his family and possessions. He travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout northern India, searching for a way out of suffering. He visited ashrams and sat at the feet of gurus and baba-jee’s and listened to their wisdom, but none of the explanations he heard satisfied nor liberated him entirely – those vexing questions still remained in his mind.
Why the suffering? How to be free of it?
But he did not despair though. He continued wandering like an itinerant vagabond. And if he couldn’t find the answer from others, he resolved to investigate the matter of suffering on his own, until he found the answer. He spent six years chewing and thinking and meditating on the reasons, causes and cures for human anguish and suffering.
And then one day…he had his eureka moment! He finally knew how to rid the world of suffering and how everybody could be made to be happy!
Guatama, came to the realisation that suffering is not caused by ill fortune, or by social injustice, or by divine whims and gods. Rather, suffering is caused by the behaviour patterns of one’s own mind. i.e. suffering is caused by the thoughts in your own head!
Gautama’s brilliant insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. For example,when the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure remain and even intensify. Therefore, the mind is always unhappy, restless and constantly fidgeting. Think about what happens when you feel pain. As long as the pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content with the pleasant thing. We fear that the pleasure of the pleasant thing will disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.
For example, people dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it because they are worried their loved one will leave them. Or, they dream of becoming rich, and when they do, they fear they will lose their wealth, or they are dissatisfied with their wealth because now they want more than what their neighbour has! It’s a vicious circle this constant craving and wanting with no satiating our desires.
Gautama, however found that there was a way to escape from this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. For example, If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you will continue to feel sadness but you WILL NOT suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness if you accept it for what it is and let it wash over you. Similarly, If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy but without losing your peace of mind that it last forever.
But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving? How do you get the mind to accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain – without wishing any of these to disappear or linger?
Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question:
‘What am I experiencing now?’ rather than on ‘What would I rather be experiencing?’
It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible. And if you learn to master meditation (and many never do because their minds are too restless), and when the flames of craving are completely extinguished, then the craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment, serenity and inner-bliss, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of which is ‘extinguishing the fire’). From then onward’s Guatama was known as the Buddha (The Enlightened One!) – so you see – a person who does not crave – cannot suffer.
He encapsulated his teachings in a single law:
Suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.
Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no influence on the law that suffering arises from craving. If the mind of a person is free of all craving , no god can make him miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering.
But how do Buddhist teaching’s square with the advent of modern psychology and our contemporary understanding of the nature of happiness?
Buddhism has assigned the question of happiness more importance than perhaps any other human creed. And its insights are startling in their modernity. We know that most people spend their lives toiling, worrying , competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims. Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power.
Buddhism shares the basic insight of modern psychology, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. Basically, It’s the weather patterns in your mind that are the problem!
Most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with pain or unpleasant feelings.
The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the weather. One moment you will feel joy and purposeful, and 5 minutes later, for no apparent reason, you might feel sad and dejected. So, it seems that pleasant feelings never stick around. You have to constantly chase after them! While also driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if you succeed in catching the pleasant feeling, it won’t last, so there is no lasting reward for your troubles.
So the question arises in Buddhism – What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that is ephemeral and disappears almost as soon as you have it in your hands?
According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the actual feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, this constant wanting and striving and never being, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied.
Thus, the aim of Buddhist mediation is to extinguish this constant craving and restlessness. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them.
When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what you wish you had.
The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the crazed, frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. The waves wash over him and he no longer fights the forces of the universe.
Such an enlightened man is at one with the world and his inner self. He watches his cravings and desires come and go inside of him. But they never influence him. They are like children. Fun to watch but not to be taken seriously. He is Buddha. How tranquil!