The Buddha referred to an unsettling characteristic of life as ‘dukkha’, which is the Sanskrit term that refers to a ‘wheel with an off-centre axle hole’. In stating that all things are marked by dukkha, the Buddha was simply observing that life can often be experienced as something that is out of kilter, always jolting or troubling us, always insisting on our attention. It is in this sense that Buddha framed his core teaching around acknowledgement and acceptance of suffering as the initial path to its cessation and the cultivation of wellbeing, in his Four Noble Truths.
To summarise the teachings of the awakened Buddha I will draw on the work of the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has done so much through his scholarship, poetry, teaching and work for non-violence since the Vietnam War, to translate the insights of the Buddha into a Western idiom. Today, his non-violent orientation to the world extends to a deep engagement with the underlying conditions of ecological collapse, and a translation of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist insights into a call for mindful care of the self as a foundational practice for ecological sustainability and a global ethic.
Nhat Hanh tells a story that is popular in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing on the roadside, shouts, ‘Where are you going?’ and the first replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse.’ The story is about the human condition: the horse is habit energy pulling us along, and the rider is ‘us’….restless, always in a hurry, not quite sure where we are going, often at war with ourselves, and all too prone to falling into conflict with others.
This is why Buddhist meditation has two key aspects: shamatha (‘stopping’) and vipashyana (‘looking deeply’). Meditation begins with the art of stopping – interrupting our thinking, habit energies, forgetfulness, and strong emotions that rush through us like a constant storm. The energy of mindfulness is cultivated to enable the meditator to recognize, be present to and transform these energies. The second function of shamatha is to calm the emotions by following the breath, and the third is resting.
As we have noted, the Buddha’s teaching confronts our human condition. Part art, part science, the Buddha’s approach is full of paradox: the first of his Four Noble Truths is ‘dukkha’, often translated as ‘suffering’ but literally referring to that dimension of human experience that is ‘hard to face’. The word ‘dukkha’ is a compound of ‘duh’ which means ‘difficulty’, and ‘kha’ which can refer to the hole at the centre of a wheel into which an axle fits. So the word dukkha can mean a poorly fitting axle, something out of place, awry, or at odds with itself.
Mark Epstein (2013, 28) compares the observational posture of Buddhist meditation or ‘bare attention’ without reactivity (not clinging to what is pleasant and not rejecting what is unpleasant) to the quality of presence that a mother brings to a child:
One of the central paradoxes of Buddhism is that the bare attention of the meditative mind changes the psyche by not trying to change anything at all. The steady application of the meditative posture, like the steadiness of an attuned parent, allows something inherent in the mind’s potential to emerge, and it emerges naturally if left alone properly in a good enough way.
In his Fire Sermon the Buddha used the metaphorical image of fire to describe the ubiquity of trauma in our lives: everyday life is on fire not only because of its fleeting nature but also because of how ardently people cling to greed, anger and egocentric preoccupations. He counselled that we are all feeding the flames of these metaphorical fires (also known as greed, hatred and delusion) motivated by our insecure place in the world, by the deep and felt experience of dukkha, of not fitting in. For the Buddha the fires are defences against acknowledging things as they are, instinctive attempts at protecting ourselves from what feels like an impossible situation. It is from this imagery that we get the word Nirvᾶna, from the Sanskrit ‘cease to burn’ or ‘blow out’.
The Practice of Wellbeing
In Buddhist terms envisioning a model of ‘simple living’ is inseparable from the invitation to cultivate a deep transformation in our individual and collective orientation to the ‘self’ and to ‘the world’, and the embrace of a new or deeper materialism that implies a new intimacy, care and compassion. Buddha’ core teachings point to practices that give us access to a mode of simple living that gives expression to an experience of liberation: a release from suffering, a discovery of wellbeing, and a restored intimacy with all things. Let us return now briefly to the Buddha’s systematic teaching on liberation from suffering: The Four Noble Truths, and The Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are:
- Arising of Suffering
iii. Cessation of Suffering (wellbeing)
- How wellbeing arises
The passage from the naming and recognition of suffering through to a realisation of wellbeing is signposted by a series of teachings called the Twelve Turnings of the Wheel of the Dharma (teaching on what is). For each of the Four Noble Truths there are three stages: Recognition, Encouragement and Realisation.
This passage or pedagogical journey commences with the first Noble Truth: suffering. The first turning, called ‘Recognition’ refers to a universal recognition that suffering – whether it is physical, physiological or psychological – is a companion of our life. The second turning is ‘Encouragement’ derived from recognition and looking deeply – with compassion, non-judgement and kindness – in order to understand the causes and conditions of suffering. The third turning is ‘Realization’, marking the point of understanding.
The Second Noble Truth of ‘Arising Suffering’ commences with ‘Recognition’ of our tendency to increase our suffering through our initial reactive responses, whether these are words, thoughts or deeds. At this point in the process, attention is given to those elements or ‘nutriments’ that have helped feed our suffering. The Buddha identified four kinds of nutriments that can lead to our happiness or our suffering:
– Edible food
– Sense impressions
The first one, ‘Edible food’ is familiar. The Buddhist teaching is that we must learn to distinguish between what is healthful and what is harmful, and practice Right View when we shop, cook and eat so that we preserve the wellbeing of our body, mind and planet. This entails looking deeply to see how our food is grown and processed, so that we eat in ways that preserve our collective wellbeing, minimize our own suffering and that of other species, and allow the earth to replenish itself. The second nutriment that demands our attention is ‘Sense impressions’. In Buddhism the mind is regarded as one of the senses so we have to consider six realms of contact with sense objects, including media, advertising, movies, TV, social media and video games. Mindful approaches to these stimuli can protect aspects of our consciousness from unwholesome sense objects with the potential to feed our cravings, violence, fear and despair.
The third nutriment is ‘Intention’ or volition also described as the will. In Buddhism, volition is considered the ground of all our actions. It is in this arena where mindfulness and bare attention can interrupt the energy driving us towards certain apparent satisfiers or promises of fulfilment in accumulation, status, revenge, possessions. Thich Nhat Hanh (1998, 35) writes: ‘We need to cultivate the wish to be free of these things so we can enjoy the wonders of life that are always available – the blue sky, the trees, our beautiful children. After three months or six months of mindful sitting, mindful walking, and mindful looking, a deep vision of reality arises in us, and the capacity of being there, enjoying life in the present moment, liberates us from all impulses and brings us real happiness.’
The fourth nutriment is ‘Consciousness’. In Buddhism this is sometimes described as the ‘seeds’ sown by our past actions and the past actions of our family and society. These seeds can take the form of thoughts, words and actions that flow into the sea of our consciousness and create our body, mind and ultimately our world. There’s an old saying, ‘You are what you eat’. In Buddhism this applies equally, if not more so, to everything – every seed – that we allow to feed our consciousness. In a world where we are invited to export our attention – around the clock – to social media, 24-hour news cycles, advertising, and TV – the invitation to cultivate bare attention has never been more challenging and timely.
The Third Noble Truth encompasses a very popular concept in contemporary policy and news circles: wellbeing. The movement from realizing the possibility of wellbeing to its actual realization is a movement from transforming (not running away from) suffering, acknowledging its impermanence, and reaching out to touch those things that bring peace and joy: discovering that the true miracle is to walk on the earth! This is a stage that, above all, demands an alignment of mindfulness and practice or embodied realisation.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path out of suffering towards wellbeing. It commences with a recognition of the Eightfold Path or practice manual which sets out those elements of learning, reflection and practice. The elements of the Eightfold Path are more than guidelines or ethical imperatives but describe the aspects of embodied practice (centred on the individual practitioner’s own life experience) and behaviours sustained by a regular mindfulness practice:
– Right View: The capacity for deep understanding and ‘waking up’ especially to the errors that accompany our experience of subjectivity and perception;
– Right Thinking: Entails an alignment of mind and body, using the breath; interrupting fear-based thinking that leads to further suffering;
– Right Speech: Closely related to Deep Listening with compassion and silence, Right Speech is truthful and aligned with the ends of social justice and non-exploitation;
– Right Action: The basis of Right Action is mindfulness and the practice of non-violence towards self and others;
– Right Livelihood: To practice Right Livelihood is to earn a living without transgressing the Buddhist ideals of love, compassion and non-violence;
– Right Diligence: Nourished by joy and interest, Right Diligence lies in the ‘Middle Way’ – it is neither to be found in the extremes of austerity nor in sensual indulgence; it is associated with joy, ease and even humour;
– Right Mindfulness: The Chinese character for mindfulness or ‘remembering’ is made up of two parts: ‘now’ and ‘mind/heart’. Mindfulness is to be fully present and able to touch deeply what lies before us, with a ‘beginner’s mind’ on the first morning of creation;
– Right Concentration: Living each moment deeply sustains concentration, and this gives rise to insight.