Life is suffering; the sooner we all realize it, the better off we’ll be. It’s how we process this suffering that makes us who we are. I am writing this blog post to help others understand the benefits of the Buddha’s teachings and how I apply these teachings to my own life. The great thing about Buddhism is that the Buddha stated the level of commitment ultimately depends upon the person. If one wants to achieve nirvana (nibbana), The Noble Eightfold Path is how one would achieve this; however, you can get pretty close by adapting these principles into your own lives.
I am an atheist–meaning I do not believe in gods or deities. I know, you probably think I am a deviant who enjoys destroying peoples lives and I’ll likely end up spending my afterlife burning eternally in a pit of fire. Truth is, I am a free, independent thinker. It’s not easy; I don’t have the luxury of the belief in an afterlife. I appreciate these facts. I absolutely love Biology; this was my college major. I don’t hold grandiose visions of eternal life, but in a way, I believe we do live on after death–through our children.
I lost my father when I was twenty years old. He is not in a better place; he is dead. That doesn’t bother me. He wasn’t taken at a young age; he died at a young age. I am okay with that fact. However, just as a cell undergoes mitosis, he lives on through me. Is this one life not enough for us? Do we have to live on forever? Seems pretty selfish to feel that your’e so important and need to live on eternally. Human psychology fascinates me. I know that if I were to have an early death, I would be content in the fact that I will live on through my beautiful children.
Being an atheist presents it’s own problems. Moreover, how do you determine your core values or moral compass as an atheist? Interestingly enough, it isn’t as simple as you might think.
I have spent a great deal of what little free time I have had this year learning about Buddhism. Many people view Buddhism as a religion. It’s not; it’s a way of life. For a skeptic like myself, I had my reservations when it came to Buddhism. However, I really enjoyed learning about this amazing ideology. Buddhists believe that life is suffering, there is an end to suffering, and to end this suffering, one must follow the principles of The Noble Eightfold Path. Simple right? Not really, our brains have been wired a specific way since day one. The Noble Eightfold Path requires us to rewire how our brains process information.
The Noble Eightfold Path is comprised of, you guessed it, eight components. These components are subdivided into three categories: The Division of Wisdom, The Division of Ethical Conduct, and The Division of Mental Discipline.
Buddhism is about the self; not a community. It is about freeing the mind from suffering. As someone who has struggled with anxiety, it was easy for me to connect with this ideology.
The Division of Wisdom
The Division of Wisdom is comprised of two components: Right View (samma ditthi) and Right Intention (samma sankappa).
Right View (samma ditthi)
Right View is summarized as the understanding of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering.
This is the noble truth of suffering. Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; separation from the pleasant is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates of clinging are suffering.The Noble Truth of Dukkha (suffering)
When I began my journey on this path, of which I have not yet completed, Right View was important to me. I am an anxious, obsessive person. I have always temporarily eased my suffering through shopping and eating. Simply put, I seek out endorphins to make me feel better (like so many others). This ultimately leads to more suffering in the form of credit card debt and an unhealthy lifestyle (I have the debt and a gut to prove it). It is important to truly understand what makes you suffer before embarking on your journey down the path.
Right Intention (samma sankappa)
Right Intention is summarized as the intention of renunciation, the intention of good will, and the intention of harmlessness.
The Intention of Renunciation
The Intention of renunciation is described by the Buddha as renouncing the way of desire. The Buddha also teaches that desire is the root of suffering and the only way to free ourselves from suffering is to rid ourselves of attachment.
This one is especially difficult for me (and I would imagine many others). What makes a person desirable or admired? Think of a person you view as successful. They probably have a good job, a nice house, a beautiful husband/wife, etc. From an early age, we are bombarded with this idea. We have to surround ourselves with beautiful things to be loved and admired. What we are not taught is that all these things eventually lead to suffering. I have always been a man that needs the latest technology, a nice vehicle, and a beautiful home filled with amazing things. All of these things brought me momentary excitement. The feelings that I felt for these things were fleeting, however. After only a few moments of being the proud owner of these new things, I craved for more. This is how our brains are wired–some have better control over this than others. This addiction of mine ultimately led my family further into debt. More suffering.
The Intention of Good Will
The Buddha describes this as practicing lovingkindness towards all beings. The idea that all beings (yes, even animals) are suffering, and trying to end their suffering, promotes the idea of good will towards others.
When you interact with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers, understand that they are suffering and seek to end their suffering. Whether you are Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, even black or white, we are all suffering. This can be especially difficult for most people because prejudice is ingrained in us at a young age. Reprogramming our thought processes to understand these concepts can be especially difficult. Next time you find yourself harboring ill will towards another, think about their suffering, their cessation to suffering.
The Intention of Harmlessness
The Intention of Harmlessness begins with understanding the suffering of others and delivering a sense of compassion.
How do you offer compassion to those around you who are suffering when you are also suffering? This is also difficult–none of the components of the Eightfold Path are easy to accomplish. The Buddha teaches a form of meditation in which you focus on a person who is suffering and find compassion for them inside of you. Through meditation, you can learn to generate this compassion for all those who are suffering around you.
The Division of Ethical Conduct
The Division of Ethical Conduct is comprised of three components: Right Speech (samma vaca), Right Action (samma kammanta), and Right Livelihood (samma ajiva).
Right Speech (samma vaca)
The Buddha recommends abstaining from false speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter.
“Herein someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people. Being at a meeting, or amongst people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king’s court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what he knows, he answers, if he knows nothing: ‘I know nothing,’ and if he knows, he answers: ‘I know’; if he has seen nothing, he answers: ‘I have seen nothing,’ and if he has seen, he answers: ‘I have seen.’ Thus he never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of his own advantage, or for the sake of another person’s advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever. “
How many people do you know that constantly lie? Each time they do, it weakens their character. I know that Sarah has caught me in a few lies over the years. Each time I lied, I felt it–turns out she felt it too! Why lie? Especially to your wife, best friend. Lies weaken our characters and cause people to distrust you. Is the lie really worth it?
“He avoids slanderous speech and abstains from it. What he has heard here he does not repeat there, so as to cause dissension there; and what he has heard there he does not repeat here, so as to cause dissension here. Thus he unites those that are divided; and those that are united he encourages. Concord gladdens him, he delights and rejoices in concord; and it is concord that he spreads by his words.”
How great it feels to talk about others. It is so easy to get sucked into this. Did you here what Jim did? He is so awful? How could he do that? What about Amy? We do this everyday. We do it for this simple reason that it makes us feel better about ourselves. After I initially read this passage, I began practicing it in my own life. It was difficult, but every time I began talking about someone, I thought about this passage and tried to stop myself–sometimes I was successful.
“He avoids harsh language and abstains from it. He speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, and are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many.”
But isn’t harsh language fun? It is so easy to get caught in this one too. As soon as you let the first “fuck” out, more are sure to follow. It feels good. Like an invisible weight has lifted and your free, free at last. Let the “fucks” fly! But no, we should stop ourselves. We really should avoid harsh language. These words demoralize our character and cause others to dislike us–unless they also like letting “fucks” fly, then have at it!
“He avoids idle chatter and abstains from it. He speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks of the Dhamma and the discipline; his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense.”
Idle chatter can extend to so much more than speech alone. All of the television, music, talk shows, etc. are filled with idle chatter. While these stories are great to watch, and I love me some Game of Thrones, are they benefiting our lives at all? For instance, I will use Game of Thrones again, look at all the emotion people generated for the series finale, could that emotion been put to better use? Did those negative emotions impact their daily lives? Was the work they completed that day sub-par?
Right Action (samma kammanta)
The Buddha summarizes right action as abstaining from taking a life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from sexual misconduct.
“Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. Without stick or sword, conscientious, full of sympathy, he is desirous of the welfare of all sentient beings.”
I think we all know the taking of a human life is wrong, but what about the lives of animals. I should say that I am not a vegetarian and I understand the importance of eating protein. What is most fascinating to me about biology, is the similarities between all animals (that includes us). The differences between us and our food supply is small. Also, remember that all beings are suffering and seek to end their suffering. The animals we eat should be treated with respect–something we certainty don’t do now.
“He avoids taking what is not given and abstains from it; what another person possesses of goods and chattel in the village or in the wood, that he does not take away with thievish intent.”
Theft is wrong. How does one counteract this principle? Generosity. Contentment. Honesty.
“He avoids sexual misconduct and abstains from it. He has no intercourse with such persons as are still under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister or relatives, nor with married women, nor with female convicts, nor lastly, with betrothed girls.”
The definition of sexual misconduct 2500 years ago may have a different definition today. Thankfully, we live in a world where people can express the sexual freedoms they desire. The Buddha knew the social definition of sexual misconduct would evolve with time and stated the essential purpose of this was to prevent sexual misconduct that is hurtful to others.
Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)
How do you make your living? Does your job aid in the suffering of others? Right Livelihood encompasses how each of us make our living. Summarized, it says that we should not contribute to the trafficking of weapons, prostitution, drugs, or poisons.
The Division of Mental Discipline
The Division of Mental Discipline is comprised of three components: Right Effort (samma vayama), Right Mindfulness (samma sati), and Right Concentration (samma samadhi).
Right Effort (samma vayama)
Right Effort is the mental concentration on: preventing unwholesome states from rising, abandoning unwholesome states that have risen, arousing wholesome states that have not yet risen, and nurturing wholesome states that have already risen.
These four elements, called the Great Endeavors, comprise our life’s struggle to end suffering. Understanding and recognizing these elements when they arise will help end suffering. The problem is that we all get sucked into the emotions behind these states. The ability to recognize wholesome and unwholesome states of being isn’t taught to us. We must learn to identify these states so we can prevent or nurture them.
Right Mindfulness (samma sati)
“And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Herein, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief concerning the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings… states of mind in states of mind… phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief concerning the world. “
Have you checked in with yourself lately? Have you ever? The point of mindfulness based meditation is to contemplate your body and your mind. With all these thoughts racing through our minds at all times, it is important to check in and examine all these thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness helps evaluate each and every thought. To pluck it from its course and dissect each component of the thought and emotion, allows the mind to fully evaluate it. When I meditate, I examine these thoughts and emotions and try to evaluate the validity of their purpose.
Right Concentration (samma samadhi)
“Now what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, & right mindfulness — is called noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions.”
I hope that I can one day achieve this. However, to better achieve Right Concentration, one must practice all other components of the path–which can be difficult to attain.
Is Buddhism and The Noble Eightfold Path right for you?
Buddhism isn’t for everyone. The Path isn’t an easy one; it is filled with suffering. Being aware of the things that bring suffering is what Buddhism is about. Through meditation and The Noble Eightfold Path, one can certainly achieve nirvana, but it involves a great deal of self awareness and self control. While I studied these principles, it has been a struggle to incorporate these into my daily life. The fact is that these forms of suffering feel good. Reprogramming our mental processes to shy away from these activities is difficult. My hope is that over the next year, I will incorporate all of these components into my daily life and vastly reduce my suffering.
I hope you were able to learn something about Buddhism and The Noble Eightfold Path. If you would like more information, I would highly suggest reading The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering by Bhikkhu Bodhi.