A Trivial Pursuit question I once had posed this piece of trivia: ‘Name the person whose image has most been replicated throughout history’. Had to ponder for a moment, immediately assuming it would be a religious figure. Hmmm, Muslims do not make images of people or animals. Thinking of churches & crucifixes, I thought maybe Jesus? But then I realized there was an older Teacher, much revered: The Buddha. And that was correct — more images of him have been created than of any other person in history. Or, even in pre-history, I suppose. Buddhism is practiced today by fewer people than adhere to Christianity or Islam, so why are there more images of this one man, the Buddha?
My guess is because the Buddha taught one thing, an important thing, which literally everyone can identify with, to some degree. And he taught only this one thing: Suffering, & the end of suffering.
((But, wait, you say …… that’s two things! Is it?? Hmmmm, consider: One record, side A & side B. Alcoholism & sobriety, both centered around ‘drinking’. A full astronomical day includes the night. See what I mean? Flip sides of something are different yet, because they revolve around the same issue, are really the same thing. There may be multiple facets of something, various angles of perception of that <<thing>>, but ….. Just One Thing.))
For all the decades of his life, after his Awakening under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha taught on this subject in many different ways. This is known as turning the Wheel of the Dharma (or Damma, in Pali), or the Dharmachakra. He told stories, parables, used anecdotes. He spoke to crowds, to individuals, to the rich & the poor, in cities & the countryside. In simple words, or humble, scholarly, erudite, abstruse, plain, his Teachings & those of his followers have been translated into numerous languages. For two & a half millenia, each culture has put its particular flavor into the Teachings, & they have been passed down through the generations. Why have they resonated so, for so many, for so long? Because they show us the way out.
The Buddha’s Teachings show us the way out of continual suffering. They do this by making us understand how suffering is created, how we create suffering. Then, they show us how to avoid doing that. Simple, eh?? Yes, it is, but we silly humans do not let it be just that easy, oh no! Plus, few of us have the inner wherewithal to do as the Buddha did: leave our homes & families & comforts to go seeking the way to avoid suffering. So, we keep suffering. But, we humans are not only silly, blessedly, because we can learn from those who’ve gone before us, & we can try out the things that they have said worked for them.
There are innumerable versions of these Teachings to access: Songs, mantras, scriptures, sutras, books, CDs, DVDs, forms of meditation, retreats. At this contemporary moment, there are more ways to discover them than ever before in all of history. The basic Teachings, though, on suffering, & the way out of it, are distilled into what is known as the Four Noble Truths. Briefly, they are as follows:
- Dukkha (suffering)
- Samudaya (suffering has a cause)
- Nirodha (suffering can be ceased)
- Magga (the way to do this is working The Noble Eightfold Middle Path)
Now, here are some things many people don’t understand about Buddhist Teachings:
There’s no savior. It is all up to each individual’s own efforts, as each has to pursue the path that takes them out of suffering. It may very well be different for each of us, for the Buddha taught in different ways, in order to reach people according to their way of learning & their capacity to understand. There’s a story (I don’t know the attribution) of curious students asking their master, why the master gave each student different instructions. Why were they not all the same? The master replied (to this effect):
Say two of you students have been here all evening, drinking wine & when it is time to leave you are tipsy. As you go down the pathway toward the gate, one of you falls off the path on the right side, so I tell him how to pick himself up & move back to the left. The other stumbles off to the left, getting lost in the bamboo. I tell him how to find his way back onto the path, by leaving the bamboo & moving to the right. Each of you has the same goal, but it takes different actions from each of you to get you there.
Likewise, there’s no faith involved. And, thus, there is no threat to any other faith-based tradition. The Buddha told each one of us to not rely on his experience, or that of anyone else, not blindly follow what they say. Listen to their Teachings, yes, but explore them ourselves, & use what works best for each of us. As the experience of suffering is unique to the individual, so too will be the exit strategy. It is up to each of us.
And, there’s no deity. The question of whether there’s a form of salvation, or of revering a god, or of these Teachings being counter to another religion is moot. In fact, when the Buddha was asked if he was a god or a man, he answered:
I am awake.
And in that, in waking up, lies the key — The ”dream” or illusion within which each of us lives & moves, so-called reality, keeps us in the same old cycles, where we continue the thoughts & behaviors that create suffering for ourselves, & for others too. By awakening from that dream, by ending our complicity in maintaining that illusion, we become able to discontinue those cycles. We end our ability to, & our willingness to, keep creating all the kinds of suffering that all the kinds of people can experience. Waking up is both the end goal of the Dharma & the practices, that is, the cessation of suffering. AND, waking up is the way to get there. Awakening is the point of it all, & it is the method. The beginning & the end, the alpha & the omega. Enlightened is what we will become when we’ve learned to quit creating suffering, & enlightenment is the means be which we learn it. AND, over & above, through & around it all, enlightened. is. what. we. already. are. There were never any claims by the Buddha that he was, or was doing, anything that all the rest of us cannot also do. There is nothing within us that is not of the Buddha.
So, back to this word, this concept: ”suffering”. This is the word usually used in English translations of the Four Noble Truths, & I have repeated it here. We think we know what “suffering” is, what it means. Perhaps it means something different to each of us. From Pali, the Buddha’s language, we have the word he used: dukkha. This contains much more than our English concept of suffering does, it is not so limited, as it encompasses a wider range of understanding. “Dukkha” includes all forms of suffering:
misery, sadness, the blues, sorrow, grief, bereavement, despair, heartbreak, lamentation, misery, discontent, dissatisfaction, discomfort, stress, distress, depression, fear, anxiety, panic, troubles, hurting, anger ……………………
~~~~~ What else would you add?? ~~~~~
The thing to remember, here, is that these are ways in which people describe sufferings, kinds of sufferings. Think, then, on all the many happenings in life that ’cause’ us to feel those things ………. infinite, yes?? The Buddha never promised that there would be an end to those things, death, disease, aging, loss, not having what you want, having what you don’t want. He only ever taught that it is possible to cease suffering, no matter what life serves up to us. He gave us the ultimate exit strategy: the means to bring about the cessation of suffering.
There have been uncountable numbers of things written to explore & explicate the Four Noble Truths. Here is a small selection:
The Four Noble Truths, by Ajahn Sumedho
The Four Noble Truths, from SouledOut.org
The Four Noble Truths, from DhammaWiki, the Dhamma Encyclopedia
The Four Noble Truths, from Shambhala Sun