The Steps of the Buddha
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 7, 2002
A story is told that, early in his ministry, a delegation of seekers came to Prince Gautama, to sit at his feet and to receive his words of wisdom. They were very impressed by all that the somewhat mysterious young man had to say, until one of them finally asked the prince, “Who are you, anyway? Are you a god?”
“No,” the prince is said to have replied.
“Are you a saint?” asked another.
“No,” the prince replied.
“Are you a prophet?”
“No, not a prophet.”
“Well, then,” all the pilgrims cried at once, “who are you, then?”
And very calmly, the story goes, the Buddha replied: “I am awake.” That’s what the word “Buddha” means, literally: to be awake.
Such was the Buddha’s definition of enlightenment: to be awake—fully, vibrantly awake—to everything that is happening all around you. To be awake to the infinite spiritual potential of each and every moment.
Buddhism, at least as it was taught by its founder Siddharta Gautama and his earliest disciples, is the least supernatural of all of the major religions of the world. It emerged as a direct response to humanexperience; it was founded to help people find contentment and meaning in the experience of this world. The religion preached by the Buddha was without ritual or theological speculation. It puts forward no gods or goddesses, but deals directly with the way life is supposed to be lived, here and now.
What then, exactly, did the Buddha teach?
Perhaps you already know the story of how Prince Gautama found enlightenment sitting under the boddhi tree. Well, he actually sat under that tree for 49 days, locked in a spell of rapture. When he finally got up, the story goes, he started to walk—and he walked for over 100 miles, according to the Buddhist tradition—toward Benares, the holiest city in India. He stopped finally just outside of the city, and there, he preached his first sermon. The congregation was small: only the same five monks who had followed him all the way of his100-mile trek. But his subject was important: the Four Noble Truths—the key discoveries that had come to the Buddha after six years of intense searching. These Four Noble Truths form the essential core of Buddhism.
The First Noble Truth is Dukkha—suffering; more particularly, that all life is suffering. Suffering is the inevitable part of human existence. It’s similar, I think, to the way the American poet Robert Penn Warren put it:
Pain. So let us name the truth…
We are born to joy that joy may become pain.
We are born to hope that hope may become pain.
We are born to love that love may become pain.
We are born to pain that pain may become more
How upbeat. Now, admittedly, this all sounds very pessimistic. A real downer. That’s the reason that some people think that Buddhism, as a religion, dwells upon suffering and pain. Sort of: “Life stinks, and then you die.” But (even worse), you then come back again—and it still stinks! In actuality, though, Buddhism is quite optimistic in its view of human capabilities and potential. It starts with pain, but doesn’t end there; it doesn’t wallow in the pain.
The Buddha never doubted that it was possible to have a very good time here in this life. The Buddha probably enjoyed a good party as much as anyone. He didn’t deny that human beings could find great pleasure, indeed. Indeed, the Buddha counseled his followers to taste—really taste—the sweetness of the fruit; to appreciate the particular beauty of each flower; to embrace the moment fully and genuinely and mindfully—to see the joys which it enfolded. But the Buddha saw no reason to put a sugar coating over the pain of life, either.
One day, we are told, a woman who had lost her son came to the Buddha, still deep in grief over his death. The Buddha told her to go to each house in the village and to get a grain of rice from each home in which no tears had ever been shed. The woman set out on her mission; she visited each house in the village; but, of course, she didn’t get a single grain of rice. So, he went to the next village, and the next; she was gone for almost a week, and finally, she returned to the Buddha. She hadn’t received a single grain of rice for her bowl.
Suffering and pain, tears and heartache, touch each one of us. While this realization doesn’t make our pain hurt any less, it can forge strong bonds of passion and empathy between us and one another.
The Second Noble Truth identifies the cause of suffering as Tanha, which can be translated as “desiring” or “craving” or “clinging”.
We continue to crave those things which are pleasurable to us, even when we can no longer have them (perhaps especially when we can no longer have them). We cling to golden moments from out of our pasts. We cling to people we love. We cling to our power and possessions and privileges.
But all too easily, possession can become obsession. Even those things most dear to us are transitory and impermanent. Sooner of later, inevitably, inexorably, they pass away before our eyes. As they pass away, we still yearn for them; we still crave them, and so, our lives are filled with sorrow and suffering…
The First and Second Noble Truths—that life is suffering and that suffering is caused by desire or clinging—presents a straightforward, unvarnished view of the nature of reality. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths present a way for transcending that reality, and growing into harmony with an even greater reality.
The Third Noble Truth—Samsara, or “cessation”, follows directly from the Second: If the cause of life’s pain is craving, the Buddha taught, then the cure lies in ceasing to crave, in letting go:
that the seed of new life has room to grow.
The cure for human misery lies in our non-attachment to the ways of the world.
Another Buddhist story describes four weary travelers in the desert, who finally come upon the walls of a compound. One of the four decides to find out what’s inside, so he scales the wall, and on reaching the top, he gives a whoop of delight and jumps over. The second and third travelers then do exactly the same thing. When the fourth one gets to the top of the wall, he looks and sees what all the whooping was about: below is an enchanted garden, an oasis, with sparkling streams and flowering fruit trees and all abundance and refreshment spread before him. This traveler, too, wants to jump over the wall and join the others, but he resists the impulse. Instead, he decides to go back into the desert, to direct other struggling travelers to the oasis.
The Third Noble Truth reminds us that our egos need to be more humble. By putting ourselves—our small, prone-to-error, limited selves—at the center of the universe, we create a very fragile universe. By worshipping solely at the altar of our own attachments, we worship at a very small altar, indeed.
We break the cycle by letting go of our attachments, slowly, steadily, throughout the course of our lives. The way of the Buddha is sometimes called the “Middle Way” because it calls for neither extreme sensuousness nor extreme denial, but rather tries to strike a balance between extremes of all kinds. What a precious gift this kind of balance could be in this frenzied, manic, first-this-extreme/then-the-other-extreme world in which we live! How we need to listen to the Buddha’s call to let go, to loosen up, not to be so rigid in defense of our egos, our space, our particular point of view!
Buddhism warns us that to cling to our egos is to invite misery; to let go of our attachments, slowly but surely, is to be released from the narrow limits of self-interest into the vast expanse of universal life. Buddhism offers us a way to free ourselves from our suffering.
How to do this is found in the Fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism—Marga, or “The Way”, more particularly the “Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment”. Each of the steps of the path provides precious gifts of priceless wisdom:
The First Step in the Path is “Right Knowledge”.
We are more than our beliefs, but living cannot be devoid of beliefs. We need some kind of faith, some kind of road map, some kind of guiding metaphor, to get us through life. The Buddha also said that we need beliefs that are free of delusions and superstition and senseless speculation.
The next step is “Right Aspiration”. Just as the first steep tells us to “make up our minds” about what life is really about, so the second step tells us to “make up our hearts” about what we truly want out of life. Maybe Emerson was right when he said that God equips each of us to gain the one thing in life we truly want the most. It is so critical that we truly dedicate our lives to that which is really important, and not be sidetracked endlessly by all the various temptations and diversions that will spring up along the way.
The Third Step is “Right Speech”. The human ability to communicate through speech is such a powerful, even holy, thing. We are, in all probability, the only species in this creation able to describe both the seen and the unseen through our language. What a wondrous gift that is! But if human speech is holy, then it can be damnable as well. And how it is abused every time we engage in speech which demeans other people, which denies their worth and dignity, and seeks to dehumanize them. When we demean our language, we demean that in us which is most preciously human; we demean ourselves; we tarnish our full glory as human beings.
The Fourth Step along the Buddha’s path is “Right Behavior”. Very simply: the actions that we take have consequences. The things we do reverberate in our lives, in the lives of others, and in the life of our planet. We are profoundly responsible for how we act.
Fifth, closely related, is “Right Livelihood”. “The hand of the dyer is stained by the dye which it works,” the Buddha is said to have said. Prince Gautama also believed that there were certain occupations that were simply incompatible with spiritual advancement. He named names, too: poison peddler, slave dealer, prostitute. But he also included butcher, brewer, armament maker, tax collector, caravan trader (caravans were the “globalization” of their day, I suppose). I bet that we could draw up an interesting list of “spiritually incorrect” occupations for our own day, as well! The point is that we can never hope to find spiritual fulfillment if we spend all of our waking hours engaged on professions which harm others, which kill the spirit, and which undermine the basic values we say we profess.
The sixth step is “Right Effort”. The Buddha laid tremendous importance on the power of the human will. We don’t make changes in ourselves or in society merely by talking about them, or reading about them, or thinking about them, or even (alas) just by preaching about them. The only way we change is by changing; the only way we get something done is by finally getting off our duffs and doing it.
Seven: “Right mindfulness.” No teacher in religious history credited the mind with more power than did the Buddha. The best known of all Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada, opens with the words: “All we are is a result of what we have thought.”
To an amazing degree, we do create our own realities, and the angle from which we look at something changes it completely.
The Eighth (and final) Step is “Right Absorption” (or, as it is sometimes rendered: “Right Rapture”, or even “Right Meditation”). This isn’t as esoteric or weird as it sounds:
In his later years, the Buddha told his disciples that the first intimations of enlightenment came to him when he was just a boy. One day, he was sitting in the cool shade of an apple tree in deep thought, and suddenly, it was as though we was existing on an entirely different plane. “This is the way to enlightenment,” he told himself then.
The rest of his mortal life would be dedicated to returning to that state of bliss—to following the call of that bliss—and making nirvana something more than a brief instant of ecstasy.
We can all feel such profound moments of transcendence—moments when we feel all of a piece and all at peace, when we see all and know all, just for an instant. These moments can come to us simply and silently, often when we least expect them. They can arise out of the simplest joys and blessings: a great discovery during a walk in the woods; really entering fully into a favorite piece of music; an infant’s smile of recognition; in so many blissful, beautiful ways. So many profound moments lie in waiting in these lives of ours.
But then, all too often, these peak moments leave us as quickly as they came. Then we return to our lives on the surface of things.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The moment will pass, but the bliss can remain, if in each waking moment we remember that we are in the presence of the holy, the presence of the sacred and divine. We can follow our bliss all the way to the deepening of our spirits.
To follow our bliss we need a path down which we can walk. The Buddha pointed the way toward one such path. There may not be room for all of us under the boddhi tree, and perhaps not all of us will want to follow the Buddha’s path. Some of us may have other ways we seek to walk toward enlightenment; we may have other teachers, other traditions, that we yearn to follow. We here are still bold enough to proclaim that it doesn’t really matter which path you choose on your way up the Holy Mountain.
But it is important, I believe, that we each find our path—a spiritual path—if we are to do more than drift through the living of our days.
And along whichever pathway we choose for our spiritual journeys, the insights of the Buddha can remind us that both heart and mind can dance within us—within each of us—and kindle together the radiance we need to be lights unto ourselves, lights to the world, as we walk this way of the Spirit, this path we choose to call our own.