The quality of our lives is conditioned by the quality of our actions. Buddhism teaches us to have a firm conviction in human potential. It says that we are creatures that possess the wonderful ability to take responsibility for what we think, do, and say, and to make our lives expressions of wisdom and compassion, rather than selfishness, fear, and greed.
We can develop the power and skill to refrain from acts of body, speech, and mind that cause ourselves and others pain. We can learn to perform those acts of body, speech, and mind that lead to happiness and peace. We can purify our minds. Thus Buddhism is concerned with the nature of our lives and the means by which we can eradicate the discontent and hollowness which so afflicts them. Consequently the teachings of Buddhism are not to be seen as dogmas to be adhered to, but tools to be used to develop our inherent potential.
Buddhism is a religion that considers wisdom, rather than faith, to be the single most important virtue. The Buddha said that if we look at ourselves very closely and honestly, we find a well of disease and conflict within our mind. He said that the underlying root of that pain is our ignorance of and the fundamental misconceptions that we cherish about the true nature of our existence. The way to true happiness thus lies in remedying our wrong ideas about the way things are, and for this task we need a wisdom founded on generosity and morality and fortified by a calm clarity of mind. In Buddhist perspective our lives have dignity and meaning to the extent that they incline towards and testify to truth.
On its most basic level, our wrong understanding of life, characterised by a tenacious clinging to the sense of "me" and "mine", manifests externally as selfishness and possessiveness. The first level of Buddhist practice entails undermining our foolishness by countering its expressions. We develop a generous heart. The Buddha encouraged us to give, wisely and selflessly, not seeking for any kind of reward.
He spoke of three kinds of giving: the giving of material things to those deserving of it, e.g., food to mendicant monks, alms to the poor; the giving of forgiveness to those that have wronged us; and lastly and most excellently, the giving of truth, gladly sharing any worldly knowledge or spiritual understanding that we have acquired.
Generosity, apart from eroding selfish concern, gives a joy and lightness to the mind and creates bonds of love and friendship within a society. The less grasping at things we have, the more we can open up to the world around us and contribute positively to it.
Morality, the second aspect of Buddhist training, is also deeply concerned with the things we do and the things we say. Action and speech that proceeds from unwholesome mental states harms both ourselves and others. In Buddhism, morality is defined as the will to refrain from all such words and deeds. By not reinforcing the power of ne.g.ative emotions through internal repression or outward expression, but by simply observing and calmly enduring through them, the hold of the afflictions over us is weakened, and we be.g.in to free ourselves from them.
The training in morality consists of a commitment to certain precepts as guiding principles in one's daily life. For lay Buddhists these precepts are five in number, namely:
- to refrain from taking life
- to refrain from stealing
- to refrain from sexual misconduct
- to refrain from false speech
- to refrain from use of intoxicants.
These precepts are not commandments or to be blindly obeyed but are tools to be skilfully used to harmonise the way we live with spiritual truths.
Although framed ne.g.atively the precepts naturally engender virtues of kindness, honesty, contentment, truthfulness, and heedfulness. One who keeps the precepts purely finds feelings of guilt and self-reproach supplanted by those of well-being and self-respect. One's mind inclines toward peace and clarity. Morality is thus the firm basis for all spiritual endeavour and can be seen to provide the indispensable foundation for an intelligent and caring society.
The third aspect of Buddhism is meditation, the development of mental calm and insight. In their normal state, our minds are scattered and out of control. We find it hard to stop thinking even for a moment. The tremendous energy of the mind is thus never harnessed and put to good use. Meditation is a way to focus the mind, so as to enable it to withdraw from its usual preoccupations, and penetrate the truth of our existence.
Meditation is not merely a means of relaxation, nor is it a technique to escape from stressful responsibility into blissful trance. It is rather a precise means for sharpening, strengthening, and ultimately purifying the mental faculties. Initially one concentrates the mind on a particular object, just as to tame a wild animal, one might tie it to a post. There are many possible objects to use for this purpose. One that many people find useful is the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nostrils, but whatever object is employed, the important point is to maintain a close, alert, and continual awareness of it.
At first, of course, we can't. Concentration is difficult. It goes against the grain of our distraction. But with patience, perseverance, and good humour, it is not impossible. When the mind strays away from the object one gently but firmly brings it back again - again and again and again.
Eventually the concentration becomes more or less effortless and the mind bright and firm. Here, fore.g.oing the initial object, one merely maintains a sharp, bare awareness of whatever is arising consciousness - be it a physical sensation, a feeling, a thought, a perception, or whatever - staying with the changing nature of each phenomenon rather than its content.
If the mind has been sufficiently stabilised by concentration one is able to maintain an equanimous gaze on the present reality and a direct non-conceptual appreciation of the true nature of our existence be.g.ins to grow. As we come to realise the changing, unstable, and inconsequential nature of all that goes to make up our lives, our wrong ideas and assumptions about ourselves fall away and our grasping attachment to things is completely undermined. It is here that true peace and liberation, the highest achievement of human beings and the goal of Buddhism, is finally achieved.