The first of the Four Noble Truths attributed to Buddha is life is suffering (dukkha).
But what is meant by this? Is every moment in life suffering? Am I in perpetual sadness?
Obviously, no. I am happy, or at least not sad at this moment. For most of my life I have been fairly happy and content. I can see that others also are not suffering or in constant pain.
What Buddha meant by this that at any moment we are susceptible to suffering. This susceptibility is what is meant by dukkha.Actual instances pain and happiness are “clues” to impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the self as an illusion.
The founder of Buddhism was a historical figure from two-and-a-half millennia ago. Siddhartha Gautama, which is his birth name, was born a prince of the Sakya Clan. He was born in Lumbini, a forest, while his mother, Maya, was returning to her family. With no more reason to continue the journey she returned to Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya Kingdom.
All the soothsayers predicted that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great leader of the world, except one. This lone soothsayer predicted that he would definitely become a great leader of the world. Worried, Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, wanted to make sure his son would succeed him as king by sheltering him from ugliness of the world. The king was able to shelter his son until he was 29. Siddhartha was about to marry and to have a son. Finally given some freedom he saw the outside world – reality – for the first time. What is saw was sickness, old age and death, the truth of existence his father had wanted to conceal from him. Siddhartha also saw an ascetic who was radiant with happiness and contentment. Siddhartha wondered how this could be.
Around the time of his son’s birth he had decided to find the truth and happiness which does not rely on the things of the world. He left his palace and comfortable lifestyle to seek and follow the best teacher of the day. Siddhartha, now called Sakyamuni (The Sage of the Sakya Clan), mastered two of the leading ascetics’ teachings in a short time. And was offered successorship, both of which he declined. He left them behind and continued to seek enlightenment on his own. Following a routine of extreme asceticism he slowly wore his body down to the point of dying. Concluding that he may well find enlightenment at the point of death he also realised this would mean nothing if no one can know and find the truth. Siddhartha decided that both decadence and asceticism were unrealistic ways to the goal, and that the only way is one which is neither self-indulgent nor self-deprivating. This is The Middle Way of Buddhism.
At age 35, with his health restored and with full concentration of mind and body he became enlightened, and he, now called The Buddha (The Enlightened One), taught the way to enlightenment to others for the next forty-five years until his death at age 80.
What I mean by this is that within context things make sense. But what if you expand or contract the context? The meaning changes. So this in itself is an indication of the inherent instability of meaning.
So meaning is contextual. It is empty of any independent “substance”. Nothing new about this. Socrates said something similar about words in Cratylus. As did Buddha. And so the jump to this conclusion is not hard to reach.
The Buddha was born a prince. His mother died soon after giving birth to him. So there is no claim of divinity of any kind. He was an ordinary man with ordinary problems just like you and me. And therefore he is not a god. Nor should he be worshipped as such.
Buddhist iconography was something which arose after his death. And temples are not places of worship. Both of these are created to help us understand his teaching, the dharma, which is we alone can liberate ourselves from unhappiness through attention to the nature of one’s body and mind.
This then means that Buddhism is not about faith but practice. The practice espoused was to look after the mind as much as we look after our body. This Buddhists do through meditation. Meditation does not have any special powers as such but only allows one to focus the mind to see clearly what the mind and body are. Some kind of basic understanding is necessary of course, but essentially it is that everything is impermanent, without self and suffering. Nothing including Buddhism lasts forever. That includes the self which many people cling on to. The self is an illusion. And that is perhaps the greatest of all roots of our suffering. Understand that this is what existence is then we can proceed to find the happiness which does not diminish.
Sometimes – more often than not – Right Speech means silence in a matter, not in ignorance or in ignoring something (not wanting to know or wishing its nonexistence) but refraining from speaking in the understanding that to talk about it will not help the situation, and that speaking out may even make the situation worse.
I started out in Buddhism with Zen Buddhism. I think it has a lot to offer. But at the same time one should think about what it doesn’t offer. One should weigh the pros and cons.
One of the interesting developments in Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a part of) is that of the Bodhisattva and its (it is both a he and she. And it is a non-existent person) ideal. A bodhisattva is said to strive to save all beings before its leaves this world into Nirvana, the final extinction.
In contrast the Theravada has the Arhat ideal. An Arhat is anyone who has vowed to become enlightened, the highest ideal that leads to contentment. Mahayana sees the Arhat ideal as selfish which is why they developed the Bodhisattva ideal. This was a later development after the Buddha’s time.
So if you ask me which is “correct” I will say both.
I doubt The Buddha meant for his teaching to be selfish (the supposed Arhat ideal interpretation) in any way. But neither did he mean for it to be an active and engaging teaching (the Bodhisattava interpretation) either.