On the Path to Freedom

Buddhism – On the Path to Freedom

Are you interested in “personally encountering the Buddha” and following the spiritual path described by him? If you are, then there are a few things you should know before you begin your journey. Buddhism is primarily a path on which you study, get to know, and train your own mind. It is a spiritual and not a religious path. The goal is self-knowledge rather than salvation, and freedom rather than a heavenly kingdom. Buddha’s path is based on rational thinking and analysis and on contemplation and meditation, the goal being to transform mere knowledge “about things” into knowledge that transcends ordinary understanding. What is needed for this is genuine curiosity and a thirst for knowledge.

Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche | Spiritual Director of Kamalashila Institute in his book "Rebel Buddha"

The Historical Buddha Shakyamuni

The historical Buddha Shakyamuni was born around 2,500 years ago in Lumbini in an area bordering on India (now Nepal). He was born as the son of a king and was given the name Siddhartha Gautama. According to the legend, after leading a very protected childhood, he was confronted with human suffering through an encounter with an old person, a sick person, and a corpse. Instead of ignoring this, he chose to leave his home – after having met with a meditator – to search for liberation.

He sought out various teachers and for six years carried out numerous practices and lived the life of strict asceticism. But when he realized that he would not obtain permanent freedom from suffering in this way, and that he would also not be able to free all other beings, he decided to search for his own way.

After six days and nights of deep meditation under a Bodhi tree in what is now Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha realized that there is no separation between occurrences and the one who experiences them. He also realized that there is neither an independent self nor an external world independent of such a self. From that point on, Siddhartha was called “Buddha, the awakened one”. Out of compassion for all sentient beings, Buddha soon began teaching in order to help others to also attain liberation from the cycle of suffering.

The Four Noble Truths

One of Buddha’s first teachings was on the so-called “Four Noble Truths”. At the core of the Four Noble Truths is the fact that although we all want to be permanently happy, we just aren’t able to achieve this. We are confronted with suffering time and time again. It is the recognizing of this that is essential, which is the First Noble Truth. The basic causes of suffering are diagnosed as being afflicted states of mind: desire, hate, fundamental ignorance, envy, and jealousy.

The problem starts with confusion and ignorance. What this means is that, with our unenlightened minds, we are unable to see reality as it is. We lack a feeling of unity with our surroundings and perceive the world through a dualistic filter. As a result of this, we feel separated and alone and have an underlying feeling of dissatisfaction.

To overcome these feelings, we seek out various forms of vicarious satisfaction, such as good food, nice cars, and the like. But as soon as we get what we desire, we generally lose interest in it quite quickly or we try to hold on tight to what is in fact transitory. So we stay trapped in the cycle of suffering without recognizing the actual causes of it.

The third mental poison – referred to as aversion, rage, or anger – comes about because of the division we make between “me” and “others”. We have the feeling that we have to defend ourselves against the others, or we think that our current situation is bad. We suffer from resisting that which just is. The Second Noble Truth therefore talks about the causes of suffering. The causes of suffering are not found in other people or in outside circumstances – such as too little money, obnoxious neighbours, or old age – but in a person’s own inner attitude to such things. Buddha concluded from this in the Third Noble Truth that suffering can therefore be brought to an end. Since we all have buddha nature (our inherent nature being merely obscured), suffering does not belong to our nature. In the Fourth Noble Truth, the Buddha explains how we can bring about an end to suffering.

The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path shows us the way to liberation. In a nutshell, what you need is wisdom, ethics, and practice methods. We first have to understand the mechanics of suffering. Why do we suffer, how does it come about, and how can we bring it to an end? One speaks about right or perfect insight, or right of perfect “view”. Also important is the second point – right or perfect mindset. The point here is to critically question the motivation for our actions. To break out of our habitual victim-perpetrator thinking, or for example to look behind our generosity and perhaps see that our actual intention is to present ourselves as better than the others.

Perfect motivation and perfect view are often combined under the umbrella term “wisdom”. Perfect motivation and perfect view are the preconditions for changing one’s conduct. It is this new ethical conduct that right speech, right action, and right livelihood are concerned about. They are codes of conduct to avoid causing suffering–to others and to ourselves.

Right speech means being careful about the things you say, for example to refrain from lying or from berating or denigrating someone else. Right action means to act for the benefit of all beings as is fitting in the given situation. In a classic sense, this mainly means to refrain from killing, stealing, or consuming narcotics. Expressed positively, it means that we should act for the benefit of all beings. When we attend to the well-being of others with a pure motivation, we also free ourselves step-by-step from our own distressing egocentrism.

But in order to reinforce this new attitude to life and to break through our ego-delusion, we have to learn methods for consolidating these concepts. Buddha recommended right effort, which means the firm intention to tame the mind. For example, by consistently observing our emotions, we learn to apply the right antidote at the right time. Right mindfulness and right concentration also fall within the consolidation methods. Both of these are consciousness-training methods and go beyond normal thinking or normal actions. Through meditation practices, we attempt to be consciously aware of our emotional and mental processes. We pay close attention to our bodily sensations and feelings, we let them come and let them go. We try to observe the nature of our mind and the nature of all things in a nonjudgmental way.

The Various Ways of the Buddha

For 45 years – from the time of his awakening to the time of his death – Buddha travelled from place to place imparting his views and experiences. Depending on the situation, the attitudes, or the aptitudes of the students, Buddha emphasized different aspects of his teachings and taught different kinds of meditation. From this, a diversity of Buddhist approaches arose after the Buddha’s death. These approaches are often referred to as “yanas” (vehicles). Depending on the particular Buddhist tradition, one speaks of two, three, or nine yanas (or vehicles).

There is the Hinayana, which means “small vehicle”, in which one primarily tries to transcend those factors that bind us to samsara, such as greed, jealousy, and anger, in order to break out of the cycle of the suffering of being born again and again. The emphasis is on each individual’s transcendence of suffering through one’s own efforts. Through strict discipline and ethical conduct, one’s mind is tamed and an individual awakening is made possible.

Taking this knowledge of one’s own suffering as a basis and continuing on from there, the Mahayana, which means “large vehicle”, emphasizes the motivation to liberate all beings from samsara. Loving kindness and compassion are regarded as the core virtues. The needs of others must be given priority, but for reasons of compassion and not self-denial. The world we live in is regarded as dream-like and the nature of all appearances as empty. The result of this path is buddhahood.

The Vajrayana is often translated as the “indestructible vehicle”. What is indestructible here is the discovery of our natural, awakened state of mind, which is also referred to as vajra nature. This permeates all of our experiences. Before one of the Vajrayana practices can be exercised, it is advisable to have a solid understanding of the Hinayana and Mahayana views.

Recommended Reading

Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche, Rebel Buddha.
Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind ISBN-10: 15903 09294

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