The Buddha taught a path of spiritual awakening, a way of practice that we can use in our daily lives.
The path of the Buddha can be expressed as three mutually supportive aspects:
- Compassionate Action
The foundation of the Buddhist path is a life which expresses compassion in our relationship to all living things through a practice of non-harming.
The entry to the Buddhist path is usually marked by taking the Five Precepts, which are: To refrain from killing any living being. To refrain from stealing or taking what is not ours. To refrain from sexual misconduct, that is, from hurting others through our sexuality. To refrain from speaking what is not true. To refrain from using alcohol or drugs that cause us to be careless or heedless. These simple ethical guidelines are the natural outer expressions of a compassionate heart, and by following them in our lives, we begin to discover the heart of compassion within us.
Of course, the development of compassionate action does not stop with non-harming. An active compassion which wishes to help others can take many forms in the world, such as social work, community development, or political or environmental activism. The term used today for active expressions of compassion as an aspect of the path is Engaged Buddhism, as typified by the work of Nobel Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh of Vietnam and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. A non-harming approach to life brings us into a relationship of respect with the world around us, leading to harmony. Outer harmony in turn gladdens the mind and allows us to live more sensitively. This then prepares us for the second aspect of the path, which is meditation.
Meditation The heart of the Buddhist path is the practice of meditation. The primary meditation practice taught at Spirit Rock is called Insight Meditation, known in the Buddhist tradition as vipassana (pronounced "vi-pah-sa-na"). In Insight Meditation we pay clear attention to whatever exists naturally in this present moment. The specific focus for our awareness can vary, from bodily sensations to sights to thoughts and feelings. We often begin by paying attention to the sensations of breathing. We sit still, either cross-legged on the floor or upright in a chair, and allow our eyes to close gently. Then we turn our attention to the breath and simply experience, in as continuous a way as possible, the physical sensations of breathing in and breathing out. This simple activity of paying attention to our experience in the present moment is what the Buddha called "mindfulness." Mindfulness is the heart of Insight Meditation. Meditation can also be carried on throughout our daily activities. We can be mindful of the movement of our body, the sensations in walking, the sounds around us, or the thoughts and feelings that come into our mind. As our meditation practice develops, we find that the mind becomes calmer and clearer. We start to see the influence of our habitual patterns of moods, expectations, hopes, and fears. In seeing through the mind's conditioning, we can live more fully in the present moment with balance and spaciousness. We are no longer so swayed by the shifting thoughts and feelings of our conditioned responses. This is the first taste of freedom. We are fully in touch with our experience of life, but we are not limited by it. We can act skillfully, with compassion for ourselves and others, even when difficult states of mind are present. As we investigate further from this place of calm, clear seeing, the dimension of wisdom begins to unfold in our practice.
Wisdom When the mind is balanced and fully present, it is open to new understanding, or insight. The Buddha taught that it is insight into the nature of life that brings the greatest freedom. Again and again in his lifetime, when asked to summarize his teaching, the Buddha described what he called the Four Noble Truths. All the Buddha's teachings are contained within these truths, and these truths are common to all Buddhist traditions.
- The First Noble Truth: Suffering is an integral part of normal life. Life as we know it always has its share of disagreeable experiences -- sickness, physical pain, and distress are obvious examples. The world at large is full of suffering, from hunger and war to injustice and environmental destruction. Even in the affluent West we may suffer from anxiety, stress, or a loss of meaning. Moreover, agreeable experiences are limited and transitory. We suffer from the deaths of those we love or for the loss of an intimate companion, and we know that our own death can come at any moment. As human beings we are always vulnerable amid the uncertainties of life, and no manipulation of our outer situation can protect us completely from the possibility of sorrow.
- The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering is craving. While no one can entirely avoid sickness and physical pain, the Buddha taught that our mental suffering has its roots in a deep-seated tendency of mind that wants things to be different than they are. We give this tendency the general name of "craving," but it also expresses itself as disliking, fear, anger, jealousy, confusion, etc. This tendency can be so pervasive that it gives rise to a nearly constant sense in our lives of striving and struggle. When this sense of strife is unexamined, it leads to a belief that we are not sufficient in ourselves or that there is something wrong with us. In fact, the root of the problem is simply the repetitive nature of craving. Worldwide, these same forces of greed, anger, and confusion are the source of enormous suffering for humankind.
- The Third Noble Truth: There is an end to the suffering of craving. When the mind is in a state of craving, it is contracted and painful. When we see it as it is, we may choose simply to let go of the craving. Then the mind returns to its natural state of peace and balance. According to the Buddha, letting go of unnecessary desires is the way to peace and happiness. He said that when we let go completely of the force of craving, we discover the state he called "nirvana," a complete and unconditioned freedom.
- The Fourth Noble Truth: The way to the end of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha described the way to happiness as a path with eight component parts, which he called the Noble Eightfold Path, a comprehensive blueprint for living a spiritual life and coming to awakening. Its eight aspects, each of which supports the others, are Wise Understanding, Wise Intention, Wise Speech, Wise Action, Wise Livelihood, Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Concentration.