Nowadays, people all over the world are increasingly becoming inquisitive to Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. A beginner, when starting to learn, faces many problems in understanding the philosophy. They wonder where to start and how to understand. Today's Internet generation may wish if Buddha were in this age, he could have delivered a TED talk on his philosophy. Then they could understand his philosophy in ten or twenty minutes. I say, in a way, the Buddha has delivered a TED talk!
The Buddha's first sermon, called the Dharmachakra Pravartan Sutra, is very much in a Ted-talk style – simple, precise, and concise. You can read it within ten to twenty minutes. Based on the Sutra, here I have made a simple and concise presentation of the basic principles of Buddhist philosophy and a short explanation on how to apply them in everyday life.
The whole Buddhist philosophy can be explained in three wheels. These wheels are called dharma chakras – the wheels of dharma. These wheels can be found everywhere on Buddhist sites. The first wheel has four spokes. This kind of wheel is rare, but it has historicity. It refers to the four noble truths. The Buddha's main philosophy is the four noble truths. It is called 'Chatwari Aryasatyani' or in short Arya Satya in Sanskrit.
Another Dharma Chakra has eight spokes. This is the most popular dharma wheel. You can see it at the main entrance of a Buddhist monastery. It represents the Eightfold Path. The eightfold path is known as Ashtanga Marg in Sanskrit or which means eightfold path.
The next wheel consists of twenty-four spokes. It is also called Ashoka Chakra. That is because it was part of the royal emblem of emperor Ashoka, who ruled India in the 3rd century BC. Ashok was a Buddhist king and his lion capital emblems were found in Buddhist shrines. The chakra in the center of the national flag of India is a Dharma chakra with 24 spokes. These twenty-four spokes represent the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and the twelve causations of the world cycle.
Four Noble Truths
Gautama Buddha, after attaining enlightenment, said that there were four truths. He did not refer to any supernatural element for truth. Instead, he called suffering is the truth. Suffering is something that all creatures can experience. So, he established four truths around suffering:
1. There is suffering. 2. There are causes of suffering. 3. There is the cessation of suffering. 4. There is a path leading to the cessation of suffering.
If it is put in the medical language, the first truth refers to symptoms, because suffering is a symptom that deep down there is something wrong. The second truth is 'diagnosis'. The third truth says there is a remedy. The fourth truth is the medical prescription. This much is the core philosophy of the Buddha.
However, knowing the four noble truths will not cure the disease or get you out of suffering. You need to follow the prescription by yourself. The Buddha has repeatedly said that he can only prescribe the cure, but it is you who need to take the medicine or follow the therapy by yourself. The Buddhist doctrine is that no guru or superpower can alleviate you from suffering but only you.
Four noble truths (Arya Satya) are the core philosophy of the Buddha. All the rest are the expansions of the philosophy. The second truth ‘causes of suffering’ is expanded to twelve elements that cause the cycle of suffering to go on. Similarly, the eightfold path (Ashtang Marg) is an extension of the fourth truth. There is one more principle of Buddhism. That is Madhyam Marg or the middle path.
If Arya Satya is the philosophical base of Buddhism, Dwadas Nidan (twelve causations) is the insight. The Ashtang Marg (eightfold path) is the method to do away with suffering. The middle path is the philosophical and practical approach to understand the philosophy and apply the methods.
Now let's see the dharma chakra with eight spokes which represents the eightfold path or the way to do away with suffering.
The eight limbs of the eightfold path are:
1. Samyak Drishti (Right vision)
2. Samyak Sankalp (Right commitment)
3. Samyak Vachan (Right communication)
4. Samyak Karma (Right action)
5. Samyak Ajivika (Right profession)
6. Samyak Byayam (Right Exercise)
7. Samyak Smriti (Right Mindfulness)
8. Samyak Samadhi (Right self-collectedness)
The eightfold path is divided into three parts: the conscience, the body, and the mind. The first two, namely, right vision and resolution, are performed through conscience. The middle three, right communication, right action, and right profession are performed by the body. Similarly, the last three, right exercise, right mindfulness, and right samadhi are practiced by the mind. In today's personal development literature, you often find the phrase mind-body-spirit. That is not something new, but quite age-old. Ashtang Marg includes nourishment for the mind, the body, and the spirit.
Application of Eightfold Path
The Buddha taught the eightfold path to the monks for spiritual attainment. However, not all people would be interested in spirituality right away. The people who have no spiritual inclination can also practice the eightfold path in their life. By practicing it, anyone can get happiness, prosperity, and peace in their life.
For example, the first element of the eightfold path is Samyak Drishti, or right vision. Leadership and management books also say that you need to have a vision in your life. Not only an individual, but a business organization also needs a vision. Psychologists have found that the biggest motivation in a person’s life is not money or promotion in a job, but the person’s vision.
Creating a vision in life alone is not sufficient, you need to be committed to the vision. You need to have a strong resolution towards the vision you have crafted. When you have a vision and you are committed to the vision, you will not be shaken by barriers and difficulties on the way to achieve the vision. So, it is said that these two elements of the eightfold path give you happiness. It is not that they directly give you happiness, but they strengthen your mind so much that you are not shaken by the hurdles and difficulties. You can see how Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela were not discouraged by imprisonments. It was because they had a great vision, mission, and high level of commitment towards them!
Now let us see the next three elements in the eightfold path. They are right communication, right action, and right profession. You know the importance of communication in business success or personal success. Communication does not mean speaking alone. It includes both speaking and listening. Just being skillful in speaking and listening are also not sufficient. They need to be authentic and conscious. There are more aspects of communication than these two alone that you can get only through thorough training and practice.
Now comes the most important element. That is the right action. It does not matter how much big vision you have, but if you do not take action to achieve the vision, you will not get anywhere. You need to have an action plan that aligns with your vision and act on it. Else, you will never achieve the vision. It is an action that takes you forward. Many people design a vision for them, but they do not take action to achieve them. Then they conclude that it does not work.
Every one of us is in some kind of profession. It is not a big matter in which profession you are. What matters, are you functioning through a high level of professionalism? The fifth element of the eightfold path is Samyak Ajivika or right professionalism. Your business could be small or big, but what your clients want to see is professionalism in delivering the service. If you want to grow your business, you need to care about the satisfaction of your client. You need to deliver the value of money to your clients.
When you buy something with your money, you want to be happy with the things you purchase. So are your clients. In spiritual terms, you need to have the qualities of Maitri (friendliness) and karuna (compassion) towards your clients or customers. Yes, some people can become successful by cheating their clients too. But then these successful people will not have peace of mind in their life. If you want to be successful without sparing happiness, you need to have Maitri and karuna in your business.
Now the last three are related to the mind. Practicing them leads you to inner peace. Samyak Byayam or right mental exercise can be linked to positive thinking. However, nowadays positive thinking has been taken lightly and superficially. So, I do not like to use the term. The correct mental exercise makes your mind strong. When you practice physical exercise, your body becomes strong. However, it does not happen in a day or two. Similarly, to make your mind strong you need to practice mental exercises for a certain period. This mental exercise is to empower your mind so that you are not affected by negative situations in your life. When situations are positive, anyone can be positive. It is a challenge to remain calm and composed when things are not working for you.
Samyak Byayam is to recognise your thought patterns. Some thought patterns empower your mind while some others can disempower the mind. You need to see this process in your mind. Slowly you will be able to see how your thoughts affect you. Then you can choose the thoughts that make your mind strong and reject the thoughts that weaken you. Anyway, it is not that you will not have any negative thoughts. No one is expected to be a superman! Your mind will be adversely affected by the negative conditions in your life. The practice of the right mental exercise gives you the strength to accept the negative realities of life as a fact. Then you can stabilize your emotions and again work towards your vision. In Psychology too, there are several ways to recognize and understand your thoughts and emotions. As you understand them, you transform them. When you do not understand your emotions, you are taken over by them.
The seventh component of the eightfold path is right mindfulness. Mindfulness is the central practice in Buddhism. You can understand yourself by being mindful of your actions, thoughts, and feelings. Mindfulness training has been much popular nowadays in the western world among business managers too. It is because when you become mindful, you become more effective. You need to be aware of your patterns of behaviors and mental activities. Then you can increase the frequency of the patterns that are helpful to you, and also remove those which are not helpful. As soon as you practice mindfulness, your mind becomes peaceful. With mindfulness, you can become your mentor, your coach.
The final one is Samyak Samadhi. Mostly this has been translated as right concentration. But samadhi is not concentrated. It is difficult to translate the word samadhi. Here I use the word ‘self-collectedness’. I find this closer to the meaning of samadhi. Still, I do not feel it carries the real meaning of samadhi. It is something you get when you practice all the seven elements of Ashtanga Marg sincerely with spiritual intention.
It is surprising that with Samyak Samadhi you will get Samyak Drishti. This means you will get a clear vision of yourself and samsara. This is why Astangik Marg is portrayed as a wheel. You need to roll it innumerous times to reach the goal. The more you roll, the further you move. I would prefer to say, you will move deeper and deeper.
To get real benefits from Buddhist philosophy or the teachings of the Buddha, it is important to learn how they can be practically applied in our day-to-day life. Just knowing the teaching is not sufficient. It makes you more knowledgeable, but not better. Today’s reality of life is complicated. Buddha’s teaching can help to make life more effective and the mind peaceful. For that, you need to learn how to apply each component of the teaching into your life very practically.
(R. Manandhar has been a Buddhist monk for five years studying Buddhism in Thailand. He has been training Leadership Development to professionals through Buddhist wisdom.)
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