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The West has long been intrigued by Buddhism. The insurgence of research and interest in "mindfulness" in recent years is part of this intrigue. Despite the West’s long fascination with Buddhism, there are many common misconceptions. We will address a few of them here.
Life of the Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama lived in the 6th century B.C.E. in what is now Nepal. He was a wealthy prince and grew up with much privilege and comfort. When he was an adult, however, he became dissatisfied with sensual life and left home to study with the ascetics. Ascetics radically deny the desires and even the needs of the body in the search for spiritual insights. Though Gautama learned much from the ascetics and gained spiritual knowledge, he came to reject this path too. Leaving the ascetics along with his old princely life, Siddhartha went off on his own until he discovered the Middle Path.
The Four Noble Truths and the Middle Path
What Gautama discovered was the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha, or the Middle Path.
"Dukkha" is difficult to translate and has often been misunderstood. It is normally translated as "suffering" which is not wrong, but it’s not quite right either. Translating dukkha as "suffering" has lead many to see Buddhism as a pessimistic, or even nihilistic, religion. Some better translations are "imperfection," "impermanence," "emptiness," or "insubstantiality." For Buddhist, dukkha is the imperfect and impermanent world we live in, the world of constant change and flux. This often though not always leads to suffering. Everything must end, all things die--including our loved one and even ourselves--and this fact makes us suffer, causes us anxiety. Even sublimely beautiful moments--a first kiss, the birth of a child-- are dukkha. Again, this does not mean that these wonderful moments are themselves a kind of "suffering" but that they are all impermanent, temporary. They too shall pass, and their passing is what causes suffering. This, then, is the first Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha, of impermanence or dissatisfaction.
2. The arising of dukkha
The second is on the arising of dukkha, the cause of this suffering that results from this impermanence. The cause of dukkha and ultimately any suffering we undergo is "thirst" or craving. It is our desires that lead to suffering. Or, more accurately, it is our desire that all our desires are permanently satisfied and fulfilled that is the cause of our suffering. Dukkha arises because we desire permanence in an impermanent world, in a world where everything--our lives, our selves, our cultures, our languages and homes, our friends and family--is in a constant flux, is always changing. Who hasn’t wished that a beautiful, romantic night with our significant other or an extremely relaxing vacation or even a delicious meal would never end? It is this desire for never-ending pleasure which never changes or fades away that give rise to dukkha, to dissatisfaction and suffering.
3. The cessation of dukkha
All is not lost, however, because of the third Noble Truth: the cessation of dukkha. Buddha discovered that it is possible to end dukkha, to end this dissatisfaction and suffering, once and for all. This "extinction" of dukkha is famously called Nirvana. Nirvana is the end of dukkha, of suffering. But it is not, as many think, the end of desire forever--it does not lead one to becoming a robot, utterly and completely detached from others and reality. That’s sociopathy not Nirvana. Nirvana is also called the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality--it is not the escape from reality but the full awareness of it. Nirvana is the awareness and acceptance of dukkha as dukkha, of the inescapable fact of impermanence and the guarantee of suffering. Paradoxically, Nirvana is the cessation, the "extinction", of dukkha through the total awareness and acceptance of the inescapability of dukkha. Even the most satisfying and truly loving marriage, for example, must end eventually, at the very least in death. Buddhist Nirvana is the awareness and total acceptance of this impermanence and the suffering that this constant change will necessarily cause. You know that even your wonderful marriage cannot last forever so you appreciate it even more while it lasts, in the present moment.
4. The way leading to the cessation of dukkha, or the Middle Path
This is, of course, easier said than done. But Buddha tells us it is possible, that the cessation of dukkha through the acceptance of this dukkha is possible. It is possible through the Middle Path he discovered between the two extremes of sensual pleasure and ascetic renunciation. This path can only be achieved, said the Buddha, through meditation and living correctly. It is through the insight gained in meditation that the Four Noble Truths and the end of suffering can be reached.
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