Siddhartha Guatama Buddha was an ancient Indian philosopher and spiritual leader born in Northern India in the 6th century BC. After becoming “enlightened” while sitting under a Bodhi tree, Buddha realized that human suffering is caused by the desire for permanence in a world where everything is impermanent and constantly changing. He denied the ancient Indian religious and philosophical belief maintained in Hinduism that we have a soul which is eternal (Atman), and instead taught that we are merely a collection of mental and physical components which are in constant flux. Buddha explaines that there are Four Noble Truths: suffering (dukkha), desire (tanha), annihilation (nirvana), and the eightfold path (marga). He teaches a “Middle Way” for those who seek to escape from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) caused by our actions (karma).
Having grown up as a prince in Nepal, one day at the age of 29 Guatama decided to leave his palace. In the outside world, he saw that people were suffering from old age, disease, and death. He decided to devote himself to figuring out what was the cause of suffering, and so he joined up with different religious groups. He began to practice an ascetic (harsh) lifestyle, where he would eat only one meal a day. Feeling that he had not found what he was looking for, he decided to sit under a Bodhi tree and meditate. Here, he achieved a moment of “enlightenment” and became “awakened” (a buddha). He devoted the rest of his life to teaching what he called the “Middle Way,” a path to overcoming suffering and achieving enlightenment (nirvana).
The Buddha realized that the world is constantly changing. In Hinduism, there is the belief that our true selves (Atman) are eternal, and continue to live after we die. Buddha did not believe this was true. Rather, he saw ourselves as being comprised of different things, such as sensations, perceptions, and thoughts, what he called the Five Aggregates, which are constantly changing. He believed that there is no underlying “I” beneath these things, and that man’s desire for such permanence is the cause of his suffering. This doctrine is known as anatta (No-Soul). By recognizing that everything in the world, including ourselves, is impermanent, we are ready to begin the path of overcoming suffering.
The Buddha recognized Four Noble Truths which he uses to explain reality, why we suffer, and what is the solution. The first Noble Truth is that there is suffering (dukkha). The second Noble Truth is that this suffering is caused by our desires or “thirsts” (tanha). Because we desire things, but everything will ultimately perish or die, we suffer. The third Noble Truth explains that if we can eliminate our desires, we can eliminate our suffering. This is known as annihilation (nirvana). The fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path which we can follow to end our suffering, known as the Eightfold Noble Path (marga).
The Eightfold Noble Path consists of acting properly, having mental disciple and attaining wisdom. In order to act properly, one must have love and compassion for all things. One must be careful with how they speak, act, and what they do for a living. One mustn’t lie, or steal, or kill, and one should also not have a profession which causes harm to oneself or others. Mental discipline comes from cultivating one’s mind to improve awareness and concentration, and to avoid being distracted or having hateful thoughts. The mind can be trained through meditation, for example, by focusing on one’s breathing. Wisdom involves overcoming selfishness and violence and understanding the true impermanent nature of reality.
For the Buddha, everything in the world is interconnected. This is known as the concept of “dependent arising” (pratityasamutpada). Rather than having one cause, the Buddha sees everything in the world as both the cause as well as the effect of everything else. For this reason, he sees one’s actions (karma) and even one’s intents as having an effect on the world. Even though there is no true self or “I,” when we think “self-ishly,” we become embodied as “things.” Only by realizing the true interconnected and impermanent nature of the world will we become enlightened (nirvana), and cease to participate in this cycle of rebirth (samsara).
By following the Middle Way and understanding the Four Noble Truths, we can understand the cause of suffering and how to overcome it. The Buddha encourages us to live in peace and harmony with the world, to avoid causing harm and violence to ourselves and others, and to act with moderation and cultivate our minds and awareness through meditation. By living in the moment and acknowledging reality for what it really is, rather than what we’d like it to be, we will overcome our suffering and be able to achieve happiness. The Buddha’s teachings serve as the basis for Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy, which is practiced in India and Southeast Asia, as well as in China and Japan where it has developed into what is known as Zen. The Buddha’s thoughts continue to inspire people throughout the world today.