1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

The Great Physician; the Great Analyst

By December 10, 2010

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I hope I don't come across as preachy, but several recent comment threads suggest to me it's time for Basic Buddhism Review, so let's do that for the next few blog posts. Not a bad way to end the year, perhaps.

Is Buddhism really just about being more loving and compassionate? While it's true, as one commenter said, that both Jesus and the Buddha praised the value of love and compassion -- the "what," so to speak -- they disagreed considerably on the "why" and the "how." And with Buddhism, the "how" is critical.

The Buddha did not spend the last 45 years of his life merely admonishing people to be more loving and compassionate. Nor did he preach a set of doctrines for people to passively accept and believe. His teachings were nearly all about the "how." How do you do it?

But first, the What and Why.

The first teaching of the Buddha after his enlightenment is called the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, or Setting the Dharma Wheel in Motion. Every other teaching he gave for the rest of his life flowed from this one. In this teaching, the Buddha became the Great Physician. He diagnosed the disease, identified its cause, and explained the cure -- the Four Noble Truths.

First, the diagnosis -- life is dukkha, a Pali word often translated as "suffering." So, in English the First Noble Truth often is rendered into "life is suffering," which is misleading. Dukkha can be translated as stressful, disappointing, unsatisfying, yes. But the Buddha also taught that whatever is impermanent, is dukkha; and whatever is conditioned, is dukkha. See "Life Is Suffering? What Does That Mean?" for elaboration on these points.

So where does this dukkha thing come from? This is the Second Noble Truth. In the Pali text of his first teaching, the Buddha said,

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the thirst [or craving that makes for further becoming -- accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there -- thirst for sensual pleasure, thirst for becoming, thirst for non-becoming."

In later teachings, the Buddha elaborated on the "thirst" and what causes it. The main cause is ignorance, by which he meant ignorance of the self and the true nature of reality. Essentially, our craving comes from our delusional thinking.

This relates also to the teaching of the Three Poisons -- greed, hate, and ignorance -- that the Buddha taught were at the root of evil and suffering. In Buddhist art, greed often is depicted as a rooster, hate as a snake, and ignorance as a pig. And often the pig is shown leading the cock and snake, because greed and hate flow from ignorance.

In the Third Noble Truth the Buddha said that to cure the disease requires "the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that craving."

And how do you do that? This brings us to the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the Eightfold Path.

There are many teachings on loving kindness and compassion woven into the Path. But here in the beginning, he doesn't mention them at all. Here in the beginning, his main point was to explain the nature of dukkha -- what it is, what causes it, how to "cure" it.

If you practice within one of the traditions long enough, you begin to see how all the many "components" of the Buddha's teachings work together and support each other.  The Eightfold Path itself, while consisting of parts numbered one through eight, are best understood as a circle, with no first and last, and all eight elements of the circle are connected to and support each of the other seven. And the Eightfold Path is:

  1. Right View
  2. Right Intention
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

In his many years of teaching, the Buddha carefully explained what he meant by each of these eight elements and how they are to be practiced. And this how is what we speakers of English call "Buddhism."

People often comment here that we are "over-analyzing" Buddhism. But the Buddha himself might also be called the Great Analyst. Believe me, he made Freud look like a slacker. For 45 years, the Buddha taught, he deconstructed, he took things apart in fine detail and showed us what they were made of.  And much of the practice amounts to doing our own analytic investigation.

And what does this have to do with loving kindness and compassion? That comes out in the Eightfold Path, but the main point is that until we come to grips with our own craving and our own delusions, our best efforts to be kind and compassionate will be compromised. Genuine compassion requires wisdom, and at the same time, genuine wisdom requires compassion. You can't have one without the other.

Items one and two on the path are called the "Wisdom" section, and they speak directly to the practice and cultivation of wisdom. I'll take those up in a future post.

December 10, 2010 at 4:54 pm
(1) Lee says:

greed; hate; delusion
compassion; love; wisdom
letting go
so simple
so difficult

December 12, 2010 at 2:50 pm
(2) Mariane says:

now a question *unless, of course this is so far behind in your other writings that it can no lionger be dealt with)

I am very draqwn to buddhism as i find the teachings and practices talk to me in a deep way-However. my catholic boyfriend have some strong disliking to it after visiting Tibethan monasteries asa journalist seeing some of the politics behind the glorious scenes and do not even want to touch upon the subject not to mention the practices which is causing some occasional turmoil… ideas? I must say I am put off as well by the occasional bickering as well as the knowledge monks have been involved in violence… we are human, that is true, but…!!! saints and sinners are to be found anywhere, for sure, but I, naiively, am expecting better behaviour from any one dedicated to profound spiritual matters regardless of chosen direction…

thank you!

December 12, 2010 at 8:09 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mariane — you have asked a very important question that is not easy to answer. If you look at Buddhism worldwide, you can find Buddhists rising above terrible circumstances — the “saffron revolution” of Burma is an example — and other examples of Buddhist institutions corrupted by politics and nationalism — the situation in Sri Lanka is an example. And I think in scope of Tibetan Buddhism you can find some of both. But Tibetan Buddhism has been under extraordinary stress for more than 50 years, and I think it would be superhuman for it to be unaffected by its circumstances.

Beyond that, Buddhism is a hugely diverse religion. I think in many ways it is more diverse than Christianity. So, to judge all of Buddhism by the situation in one school is a bit like judging all of Christianity by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Here in the West there are some very strong, sincere, and nurturing sanghas (in the sense of “congregation”) and some that are less so. Believe me, there’s a huge diversity. What really matters is that you find a teacher and fellowship of practitioners who guide and support your practice.

December 14, 2010 at 10:49 am
(4) Yeshe says:

Mariane, I think the Tibetan Lamas, through over a thousand years of history, have constantly had to contend with political and military forces from both within and without Tibet. This can require a rather careful tightrope walk, designed to preserve Buddhism amongst these forces, without corrupting the very Buddhism being protected. This meant a fair amount of political power fell right in the hands of the Lamas. Now, in modern times, the Lamas are returning to a specifically spiritual emphasis, allowing democracy to take over the political aspect. This seems to be a good thing.

December 17, 2010 at 9:57 am
(5) christine says:

Glad to see these posted, for a while, I try to avoid from the blog.

December 18, 2010 at 1:33 am
(6) Rajeev G says:

Hi Barbara,

It is always good to come back to his basic teachings while we analyse, analyse and go. Otherwise the language, mood, circumstance etc will take us to a different direction altogether.

@Mariane. If a single individual’s perception can get effected by the way he perceived this world through senses, what are all can happen when different people, society mingles with different circumstances. I had many arguments with Barbara on Christ and Christians. You know, I like “Christ”..bot not the christian way of getting others converted to worship Christ. If my understanding about Christ is right, even christ will be ashamed of seeing the ways of conversion happening in many part of the world. Look at “Buddhism” as pure teachings. Not through anyone else’s actions and behaviour. You can like it as I like Christ. I some times tell my Christian friends here..if Christ comes for a second time, jews will not crucify him but will be done by the current “Christians”..not a blasphemy, try to take it in lighter sense. I think it can happen to “Buddha” also…hahaha

December 20, 2010 at 10:49 am
(7) Yeshe says:

Rajeev, Imagine people who like Oprah, and her advice. They don’t try to take over this country or send covert conversion missions to other countries to make everyone devoted to Oprah. And they certainly don’t start wars with those who don’t follow Oprah to teach them the benefits of her loving kindness.

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