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What is Theravada Buddhism ? (part II)

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by John Bullitt
Copyright © 2002 John Bullitt For free distribution only.

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A Brief Summary of the Buddha's Teachings

The Four Noble Truths

Shortly after his Awakening, the Buddha ("the Awakened One") delivered his first sermon, in which he laid out the essential framework upon which all his later teachings were based. This framework consists of the Four Noble Truths, four fundamental principles of nature (Dhamma) that emerged from the Buddha's honest and penetrating assessment of the human condition and that serve to define the entire scope of Buddhist practice. These truths are not statements of belief. Rather, they are categories by which we can frame our direct experience in a way that is conducive to Awakening:

1. Dukkha: suffering, unsatisfactoriness, discontent, stress;

2. The cause of dukkha: the cause of this dissatisfaction is craving (tanha) for sensuality, for states of becoming, and states of no becoming;

3. The cessation of dukkha: the relinquishment of that craving;

4. The path of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: the Noble Eightfold Path of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. To each of these Noble Truths the Buddha assigned a specific task which the practitioner is to carry out: the first Noble Truth is to be comprehended; the second is to be abandoned; the third is to be realized; the fourth is to be developed. The full realization of the third Noble Truth paves the way for the direct penetration of Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), the transcendent freedom that stands as the final goal of all the Buddha's teachings.

The Eightfold Path The last of the Noble Truths

-- The eightfold path -- contains a prescription for the relief of our unhappiness and for our eventual release, once and for all, from the painful and wearisome cycle of birth and death (samsara) to which, thanks to our own ignorance (avijja) of the Four Noble Truths, we have been bound for countless aeons.

The eightfold path offers a comprehensive practical guide to the development of those wholesome qualities and skills in the human heart that must be cultivated in order to bring the practitioner to the final goal, the supreme freedom and happiness of Nibbana.
The Buddha taught the eightfold path to his followers according to a "gradual" system of training, beginning with the development of :

sila, or virtue (right speech, right action, and right livelihood, which are summarized in practical form by the five precepts), followed by the development of
- samadh
, or concentration and mental cultivation (right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration),
and culminating in the full development of
- pañña
, or wisdom (right view and right resolve).

Despite the stepwise structure of the eightfold path, progress along the path does not follow a simple linear trajectory. Rather, development of each aspect of the eightfold path fosters the refinement and strengthening of the others, leading the practitioner ever upward in a continuing spiral of spiritual maturity that leads, step by patient step, towards Awakening.

Seen from another point of view, the long journey on the path to Awakening begins in earnest with the first tentative stirrings of right view, the first flickerings of wisdom by which one recognizes both the validity of the first Noble Truth and the inevitability of the law of kamma (Sanskrit: karma), the universal law of cause and effect.

Once one begins to see that harmful actions inevitably bring about harmful results, and that wholesome actions ultimately bring about wholesome results, the desire naturally grows to live a skillful, morally upright life, to take seriously the practice of sila. The confidence built from this preliminary understanding inclines the follower to place an even greater trust in the teachings.

The follower becomes a "Buddhist" upon expressing an inner resolve to "take refuge" in the Triple Gem: the Buddha (both the historical Buddha and one's own innate potential for Awakening), the Dhamma (both the teachings of the historical Buddha and the ultimate Truth towards which they point), and the Sangha (both the monastic community that has protected the teachings and put them into practice since the Buddha's day, and all those who have achieved at least some degree of Awakening).
With one's feet thus firmly planted on the ground by taking refuge, and with the help of an admirable friend or teacher (kalyanamitta) to help show the way, one can set out along the Path, confident that one is indeed following in the footsteps left by the Buddha himself.

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