Unlike animals, we are born without a natural instinct to help us with survival, much less suffering and satisfaction.
Born with a highly and uniquely evolved brain, which earns us the title: Homo sapiens–wise human, we nonetheless are faced with a worsening situation of human relations, an alarmingly elevating severity and number of criminal and suicidal cases, and a vivid reality of an approaching apocalyptic war between nations.
Helpless and hopeless a condition insofar as our worrisome survivability prospect may indicate, we need not be in depression or despair.
One day 2,613 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, a 29-year old Indian Prince, having not hitherto publicly seen a helpless elderly, invalid, corpse and a renunciate sitting under a tree absorbed in meditation, and after listening to his charioteer’s observation that all humans, including the prince, his father, his wife, and his kinsmen, would one day likewise become no longer youthful nor meaningful but old and depreciated, while there would also be those meditating to seek refuge from such depressing fate, became so overwhelmed by the deeply moving scenes that he resolved to make it his life mission to search for a state beyond birth and death.
According to early scriptures, Siddhartha subsequently “abandoned” his beloved family and comfortable palace so as to commence an uncharted odyssey searching for an answer to his quest on behalf of humanity, “though his parents did not consent and wept full of affliction.”
Prince Siddhartha spent his next six years in mendicancy, meditation, indulgence and asceticism. One day, after realizing that neither indulgence nor asceticism would lend support to his life mission, he resumed eating a meal, took a bath, sat cross-legged under a bodhi tree, and began a determined, intense, and non-stop meditation aiming at the ultimate answer to his quest.
Deep into the ensuing full-moon night of May, upon realizing that this world really had no essence at all, i.e., was in the state of Sunyata, viz., emptiness/voidness, while we humans were caught in a mental strain between personal identity and zero identity, continuity and cessation, historical and ahistorical, as well as Samsara and Nirvana, thereby preventing us to think clearly, he suddenly and intuitively achieved the absolute Enlightenment moment wherein he envisioned a path which went beyond the state of birth and death toward the cessation of Dukkha, i.e., suffering, viz., a painful or grieving state which encumbered our life via our own volitional action but lifted our life through our own salvation. Henceforth, he became known as the Buddha–the Awakened One.
Soon the Buddha proclaimed, initially with hesitation, his one and only “Four Noble Truths” (Truths), subsequently recognized as the ultimate key for the cessation of suffering, and embarked upon a new mission to share his salvation messages with interested audiences during the rest of his 45 years until he attained his ultimate Nirvana and passed away in a blissful state of complete deliverance from the Dukkha.
The radically unique, though actually nothing innovative, and intuitively discovered Four Noble Truths consist of (1) Truth of Suffering; (2) Truth of Suffering Causation; (3) Truth of Suffering Cessation; and (4) Truth of the Path leading to Suffering Cessation, viz., the “Noble Eightfold Path.” (Path) The Truths represent the doctrine part of the Buddha’s teaching intended for reading and discussion.
The Truths are obviously rooted in the universal “Law of Cause and Effect” rather than “Supernatural Powers” since the Buddha was fundamentally nontheistic. He questioned the utility of debating about a possible cause of a fire engulfing a house while its effect, viz., safety or survivability, on its occupants were indisputably a top priority.
Referencing the cause-effect law, Buddhists believe that a natural phenomenon, such as an earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, or pandemic, represents neither a wrath nor a punishment imposed upon humans by a powerful God or gods but a manifestation of an underlying cause-effect process activated by related natural laws.
On the human side of the world, the Buddha introduced a distinctive cause-effect law, named “Law of Karma,” which differed from its namesake in Hinduism. His karmic law asserts that our volitional action, a cause, entails a reaction, an effect, upon us, and is obviously equivalent to Sir Isaac Newton’s physical law of “every action must have a reaction.”
The Buddha, while latently evoking his karmic law, reminded us to approach nature with respect by pointing to a natural symbiosis between a bee and flowers thus:
“As a bee takes honey from the flowers,
Leaving its color and fragrance unharmed,
So should the sage wander in the village.”
(The Buddha’s Words in the Dhammapada, p. 90)
As we think, speak, or act with volition, Buddhists believe that we are activating an energy which cannot be eradicated and will react to us, our society, and the world, sooner or later, rendering either suffering or satisfaction, pending our evil or virtuous act according to the Path.
The Path, alias the “Middle Path,” characterized by a bargaining, compromising, collaborative, or self-sufficient, but certainly not an indifferent, sense of direction, offers a set of suffering cessation essentials for us to learn and practice in order to achieve “a balanced way of life.” Having mastered them, the suffering is lifted, and we begin to experience, by default, an emerging state of satisfaction, which was previously buried by our ignorance of the Truths as well as the Path.
Generally, instead of satisfaction, we are inclined to seek “happiness,” a misnomer in popular self-help literature, with a view to defeating our own pervasive suffering but to no avail. Semantically, we misconstrue happiness as a shallow and short-lived sensation like amusement, cheerfulness, enjoyment, fun, gaiety, glee, gratification, joyfulness, jubilation, laughters, merriment, or pleasure.
In reality, happiness happens when an altruistic mind fulfills its inner need to unconditionally contribute to the outer world whereas satisfaction becomes real when a balanced life arises out of our practicing the Path.
As such, Buddhists traditionally rise up very early to prepare foods to unconditionally give to monks who would walk past their residences to receive alms. In such a giving and accepting of food, both parties gain practical benefits: the Buddhists feel an inner peace or true sense of happiness, a positive way to start off a day, while the monks receive their daily sustenance to support their conveyor roles of the Buddha’s teachings and renunciation livelihood.
Distinctively, the Path trains us to achieve a qualitatively balanced–not quantitatively averaged–way of life between two extremes such as indulgence and asceticism, rest and work, or, day and night, wherein we each would need a certain “qualitatively balanced number” of, for instance, sleep hours per night, and not necessarily a “quantitatively averaged figure,” viz., 12 hours per night out of the 24-hour day-night, in order to attain optimal functioning of mind and body. The aforementioned certain number would vary according to individual mental and physical compositions.
A person with a qualitatively balanced way of life can be visualized in an analogy of a violin. This musical string instrument would be in a qualitatively balanced, i.e., playable, condition provided each of its four strings is stretched, or tuned, with just enough, i.e., the “right” amount of force, so that each is neither too tight nor too loose but ”just right” by itself to produce a “balanced” or satisfying tone when played with a bow. Anyhow, when one or more of the strings happens to go out of balance, i.e., ”not rightly tuned,” the violin would be in an imbalanced state thereby producing an awful or unsatisfying, i.e., suffering tone.
Likewise, when conducting our life according to the Path, or the Buddha Mind, discussed below, we would intuitively sense an inner “balanced,” or “just right” dynamism characterized by an absence of suffering and, by default, a presence of satisfaction. Where the Path or the Buddha Mind is absent, we would be inclined to opt for either a “too tight” (asceticism) or “too loose” (indulgence) lifestyle thereby throwing ourselves into the suffering mode.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, a rich and 3,000 years old medical system rested on the pillars of balance, harmony, and energy, believes that maintaining a “balance” between opposites is key to health. You are in a wellbeing state when your yin and yang of Qi are in balance; you become sick if they are out of balance. Here Qi represents the force that makes up and binds together all things in the universe.
Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst, sociologist, philosopher, and a briefly ordained Budhdist monk, echoed the importance of maintaining a balanced way of life when he referred to a “sane society” as one with a psychologically “balanced” condition.
To help us maintain a “balanced” life force, and for that matter a sane society, the Path offers the following eight suffering cessation essentials: (1) Right Understanding, ( 2) Right Thought, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and, (8) Right Concentration.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Ph.D. in philosophy, The American University, Washington, DC, abbot of the Bhavana Society Monastery, West Virginia, offers an in-depth analysis of the Path in his notable book titled: Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, 2001.
In a nutshell, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a most revered Buddhist monk of Thailand, and one of the Great Personalities recognized by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, explains the eight essentials of the Path thus:
Right Understanding: Realizing that there is really no essence at all except Sunyata, i.e., emptiness, in our world; Awakening to the Truths and the Impermanence Truth; Clinging on to preferences entails suffering; Perceiving the Law of Karma as the law of Cause and Effect, wherein, with volition, a skilled, i.e., trained, act causes satisfaction, and an unskilled, untrained, act entails dissatisfaction, i.e., suffering.
Right Thought: Holding on to the right volition; Seeing through the facade of worldly people and things and staying away from them; Refraining from harming people overcome by delusion; Extending love and compassion to suffering people; Rescuing suffering people with utmost efforts.
Right Speech: Communicating truthfully, diplomatically, and with utility volition; Abstaining from conveying lies, malicious, harsh languages, or worthless matters.
Right Action: Abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, intoxicants, or addiction.
Right Livelihood: Engaging in a career not inherently harmful to self or others.
Right Effort: Overcoming evil thoughts and deeds while nurturing and maintaining virtuous thoughts and deeds.
Right Mindfulness: Perceiving insight into the true nature of our body; Being aware of our nature-based and duty-bound bodily function; Refraining from deluding ourselves with an occurrence; Being mindful of the fluidity of our mind; Practicing the Buddha’s teachings to achieve Nirvana.
Right Concentration: Observing our mind while being aware of its running wildly; Holding our active mind in proper space; Maintaining the right knowledge and right understanding to lend support to our goals.
For a quick summary of the Path, The Buddha subdivided it into three complementary groupings: (1) Morality = Right Speech + Right Action + Right Livelihood; (2) Samadhi (Attentiveness) = Right Effort + Right Mindfulness + Right Concentration; and, (3) Wisdom = Right Understanding + Right Thought. The Path represents the discipline part of the Buddha’s teaching intended for consistent and thorough practices for efficacy.
Having truly mastered the Path, thereby achieving an Enlightenment moment and arriving at a blissful state of Nirvana, we would no longer need to cling on to the Path any more as the aforementioned Truth of Suffering Causation reminds us that clinging on to anything entails suffering. Here it is like saying that we want it, and once we have it, we detach from it. Such a paradoxical mindset has unfortunately confounded many a rational-minded Westerner.
After all, having graduated from Grade 12, who would want to repeat it?
Here the Buddha explained that, once we reached the other side of a river with a raft, i.e., the Path, we henceforth detached from it. In other words, we no longer needed to carry it with us as we continued with our life journey. The detachment denotes the letting go of our desires for likes or preferences once we have obtained their Return on Investment. Such let-go orientation would also inspire us to declutter our living space.
Not only do we have the Path, which guides us toward suffering cessation, we, Homo sapiens, the wise human, also possess “at conception” a seed of a rather marvelously evolved though imperfect brain. Here is how long ago and how we have arrived on this planet earth: “Just six million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.” (Source: Sapiens (2011) by Yuval Noah Harari)
Today, after millions of years of evolution, the at-conception seed of the brain gives rise to a marvellous “at-birth” brain, or mind, which Buddhadasa Bhikkhu defined as Original, Empty, Void, or “Buddha” Mind.
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu described the Buddha Mind as comprising a trio of suffering cessation essentials, viz., Purity--unyielding to greed and unskilled, i.e., untrained, desires; Serenity--maintaining calm and refraining from making preconceived notions; and, Perceptiveness--perceptivity uncontaminated by ignorance of the Truths or delusion.
Interestingly, the trio of the Path literally correspond to the trio of the Buddha Mind, thus: Morality to Purity; Samadhi (Attentiveness) to Serenity; and, Wisdom to Perceptiveness.
Is the aforementioned nature of the Buddha Mind, embedded with Purity, viz., Morality, based on personal conjecture or supported by scientific discovery?
The Yale University Psychology Department has scientifically discovered that morality is something we are all born with. Professor Paul Bloom, the Yale psychologist researcher, asserts on infant morality, thus: “At birth, babies are endowed with compassion, with empathy, with the beginning of a sense of fairness.”
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India, a biophilia, who dedicated her life to the services of all the sick and helpless, represents for Buddhists an ideal-type of the Buddha Mind notwithstanding her being declared in 2016 a saint in a canonization Mass held by Pope Francisin in the Vatican.
What really matters in Buddhism is that we humanity are all under one universal “Law of Humankind,” viz., the “Law of Morality,” which serves to interconnect us into one integral whole. Happily, our universal sense of morality readily manifests itself each time we voluntarily reach out to help neighbors or strangers who suffer misfortunes, disasters, anguishes, etc.
Unfortunately, the Buddha Mind, like the universe, is subject to the Buddha’s impactful discovery of the “Truth of Impermanence,” as demonstrated by all phenomena which inescapably go through the cycle of arising, existing, and expiring. Given no exception to the impermanence truth, countless galaxies in the universe likewise maintain their cycle of birth, aging, clashing into one another, and death.
Thus, while developing into adulthood, certain persisting outer forces, imbued with greed, hatred, delusion, as well as poisonous cultural dictates, can overwhelm and eventually subdue our Buddha Mind thereby regressing it to what Buddhists call the “Thief Mind” or “Evil Mind.”
Adolph Hitler, a necrophilia, and the supreme Nazi leader, who led his exceedingly powerful nation to ruins as well as own unskilled life to suicide in World War II, represents an ideal-type of the Evil Mind.
Typically, we all hold in our heart a combination of the Buddha and Evil Minds in varying degrees along a continuum. Rarely would we encounter a person with exclusively either one of the two minds like the aforementioned Saint Teresa of Calcutta or Hitler. We fundamentally differ in terms of being more often driven by one mind than the other. As such, we tend to exhibit our individual characters with one predominant mind–Buddha or Evil–in our daily life.
Is it possible for a person who has been overcome by the Evil Mind to make a U-turn back to the original Buddha Mind?
Absolutely. Based on the Impermanence Truth, both the Buddha and Evil Minds could potentially transform into one another. For the Evil to progress toward the Buddha Mind, we would need to get hold of the Path and start practicing it in its entirety with earnestness until we truly master it.
Whenever our life force goes out of balance into the suffering mode, the Path could then serve as a “reset button” to redirect us toward suffering cessation and, by default, satisfaction.
On the other hand, for the Buddha to regress to the Evil Mind, we would have to be in a vulnerable position succumbing to outer influences or powers imbued with greed, hatred, and delusion, as well as poisonous cultural dictates. These evil outer forces would then drive us into a relentless pursuit for insatiable wealth and material acquisitions in a “dog eat dog” world.
At this point, we would become at risk of getting buried in anguishes like anxiety, paranoia, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, terminal illness, despair, and even suicide, especially when we are abruptly hit by an unfortunate and absolute financial loss even while being healthy.
For Buddhists, we cannot overemphasize the importance of practicing, as opposed to reading or listening to, the entire Path. It is practicing with a qualified coach, and not just reading or listening to swimming lessons, that makes us a swimmer. Also, in a lavish banquet, an invited guest, who simply sits, looks at all the sumptuous meals prepared by a top chef, but declines to partake even a morsel of the food, simply ends up leaving the feast starved.
Importantly, the Path does not necessarily renounce wealth. All of its eight suffering cessation essentials prepare us to navigate and maintain a productive relationship with others as well as to uphold a spontaneous outlook on life unencumbered by greed, hatred, or delusion.
Specifically, the Samadhi (Attentiveness) alone, consisting of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, has enhanced the potentials of many people–rich or poor–as attested by growing science-based research. When reinforced by Morality and Wisdom, the entire Path aptly prepares us for astute wealth acquisition.
That, however, by no means suggests that Buddhism values greed. On the contrary, by inviting us to maintain a balanced life force via the Path or the Buddha Mind, it teaches us to approach wealth acquisition with Morality or Purity, Samadhi (Attentiveness) or Serenity, and, Wisdom or Perceptiveness.
As such, Buddhism helps safeguard us not only from neurosis caused by our being overconcerned with losing all our lifetime hard-earned wealth, but also from committing suicide after, unfortunately, losing it along with our associated high self-esteem thereby leading to a total loss of face with zero meaning to live.
What is the goal of Buddhism?
For Dr. Fromm, he sees in Buddhism, specifically the Zen tradition, as having the positive goal of attaining Enlightenment so that we can transcend subject–object duality, seeing an object from the inside, perceiving awareness as being centerless, i.e., being free of a permanent, unchanging ego or soul, and having no dichotomies.
The centerless awareness perception echoes the Buddha’s distinctive doctrine of Anatta, viz., the state of non-self or substanceless.
By combining Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha (suffering), with Anatta (non-self), Buddhism introduces an impactful doctrine asserting the aforementioned trio life-advocating elements as representing the common characteristics of human existence and reminding us to conscientiously control greed, hatred, and delusion so as to maintain a balanced and sane life.
In addition, Dr. Fromm very much agrees with Zen’s emphasis that the goal of life is “to be,” viz., to be spontaneous and productive to self and others, rather than “to have,” viz., to have a livelihood devoted to the blind and relentless pursuit of insatiable wealth and materials in a “dog eat dog” world, while suffering, as a result, a host of the anguishes, including a breakdown with neurosis, which represents a common mental illness afflicting those who would think of nothing except variable ways of acquiring the never-sufficed sum of money on a 24X7x365 schedule.
Simply put, we are naturally born to “eat to live” and not “live to eat.”
In addition, based on his over five-decade long of professional practices, Dr. Fromm made a significant contribution to psychoanalysis by distinctively recommending in one of his well-read books, The Sane Society, that, after diagnosis, it would be in the best interest of the patient for a mental health care provider to prescribe her/him additional remedy directions with a view to enhancing recovery. Interestingly, his recommendation parallels the approach by the Buddha in his rendering of spiritual healing for humankind.
The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths provides a diagnosis of our suffering thus: Our suffering is (1) a universally existential condition; (2) caused by our clinging on to our likes or preferences; (3) subject to cessation; and, our suffering could be (4) ceased by our practicing of a set of remedy directions expounded in the Path.
In a parallel manner, Dr. Fromm recommended that a mental health care provider, after diagnosis, should inform the patient thereof and prescribe her/him specifically customized psychological remedy directions, e.g., requiring changes in her/his realistic life situation, systems of values, norms, as well as ideals so that they do not reproduce the suffering which she/he wants to eliminate at the outset.
The Path can thus be considered one of the oldest self-help instructions; it has withstood the test of time for some 2,608 years!
Taking a bird’s-eye view, the most distinctive characteristic of Buddhism lies in its dynamic orientation. It perceives the world and universe in an active state of arising, existing, and expiring as stated in the Impermanence Truth. Obviously, its communication pattern fundamentally consists of more “verbs” than “nouns.”
As such, Buddhism advocates an active internal salvation over a passive external deliverance. In other words, it values an inner spiritual development more than an outer power acquisition.
To cite an example, Bhutan, a tiny Asian nation whose citizens are basically composed of Buddhists who are relatively unexposed to Western lifestyle influences, represents the only country to famously rank Gross National Happiness above Gross Domestic Product.
Conclusion:–The reset button of the Middle Path serves to help us remedy our suffering and enhance satisfaction once we are awakened to, embrace, follow, and practice the Four Noble Truths, Buddha Mind, Law of Morality, Law of Karma, Anicca-Dukkha-Anatta, Detachment, Enlightenment, as well as Nirvana.
Viewing ourselves as a vessel, we have the Path as our “right” rudder and the Buddha Mind as our “skilled,” i.e., “trained,” captain. Under such circumstances, we are prepared to sail from the island of suffering to the shore of satisfaction. And, having reached our destination, we detach ourselves from the vessel, continue with our pilgrimage, and follow our inherent Buddha Mind until the Impermanence Truth prevails over us.
As a result, just like the Buddha, we will one day leave our short visit to this world in a blissful state after having practiced the Middle Path or followed the Buddha Mind thereby delivering us from suffering and ushering in satisfaction as well as the ultimate Nirvana.
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