The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is one of the foundational tenets of Buddhism. Sariputta, a chief disciple of the Buddha, described their scope as being large enough to “encompass the entire teaching, just as the footprint of an elephant can encompass the footprints of all other footed beings on earth.”
The four noble truths are:
1. The noble truth of suffering.
2. The noble truth of the origin of suffering.
3. The noble truth of the cessation of suffering.
4. The noble truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
1. The noble truth of suffering
The Pali term used to denote ‘suffering’ is Dukkha which can also be translated as ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’, or ‘unsatisfactoriness’. The word Dukkha is in fact rich in meaning and its scope extends beyond those things people would generally regard as suffering. It refers to the impermanence of things in existence, and the associated feeling of non-ease. Short-term fleeting moments of happiness and excitement are also Dukkha according to the broader definition of the word. For example, if your football team scores you may feel happy. However, this ‘‘happiness’’ is dependent on outer circumstances and is therefore liable to change. The level of this ‘‘happiness’’ may even equate precisely to the level of sadness you would feel if the other team scores and wins the game. Through maintaining a good attitude and practicing well we can go beyond this kind of duality at the mental level and achieve greater equanimity.
2. The noble truth of the origin of suffering
It is said that ignorance (a misunderstanding of the nature of self and reality) combined with craving, desire, or attachments is the origin of suffering. Another common explanation involves ‘The Three poisons’ of ignorance, attachment and aversion.
3. The noble truth of the cessation of suffering
For many cessation is the goal of their spiritual practice. Once ignorance and craving have been understood we may be able to progress to a point where suffering and its roots have been completely removed and we can achieve Nirvana: a blissful and calm state of mind free from worries.
4. The noble truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering
The path that leads to the end of suffering is often referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Middle Way, which leads to self awakening. The Eightfold Path comprises: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
The Three Vehicles of Buddhism
The Hinayana – or Theravada –tradition of Buddhism, the 'School of the Elders', made its first appearance in the seventh century BC. This was to be the first of three great revelations of the Dharma in the world also known as Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel.
The first turning of the wheel of the Dharma came days after the Buddha’s awakening. After making the decision to teach, he came upon his former fellow-practitioners seated in the forest. He shared with them the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. They emphasize the nature and origin of suffering and provide a prescription for bringing it to an end. This first discourse also set the tone for Theravada Buddhism with its strong emphasis on personal discipline and its very direct approach to eliminating suffering by rooting out its causes within the individual. These causes take the form of root poisons: ignorance, anger and desire.
The Buddha continued teaching into his eighties and his teachings were passed down through an oral tradition by the monks who followed him. These ‘sutras’ (words of the Buddha) along with the Vinaya Pitaka (disciplines) and Abhidharma (commentaries) make up the Tripitaka. The Vinaya being rules for monastics and the Abhidharma being a set of philosophical and psychological discourses and commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings.
In the Theravada tradition, an emphasis is put on purification of the mind through practice of the seven stages of purification, which are based on the threefold discipline of Sīla (ethics or discipline), Samādhi (meditative concentration), and Prajna (understanding or wisdom). In this tradition, the individual is seen as largely responsible for their own realization and the direct experience and perceptions of the individual play an important role.
Today, a large lay community has grown around the monastic tradition, mainly as a support for the monks and to offer a way for those not able or ready to renounce worldly life to accrue merit.
Theravada is mainly practiced in Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
Mahayana Buddhism is the second of the three major branches of Buddhism. It is also referred to as the "Greater Vehicle" or the "Bodhisattva Vehicle." It is the vehicle for a practitioner who seeks to walk the path of a Bodhisattva, one who wishes to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings and does great works to benefit the world. While in Theravada Buddhism the focus is largely on purifying oneself in order to achieve enlightenment, the focus in Mahayana is on practicing for the sake of benefiting others. As a practitioner applies this ethos in their everyday life, they slowly break their habits of greed and become less attached, leading to a state of mind that is often more free and calm.
The idea of Bodhicitta plays a key role within the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Bodhicitta's meaning is broad, encompassing compassion and the idea that we strive for enlightenment to benefit others. It is sometimes known as 'the mind of enlightenment'. Compassion is highly valued in Mahayana Buddhism and is deeply ingrained in its various teachings and practices. One example is the simple practice of seeing all beings as our mothers or fathers in previous lifetimes, which helps to increase compassion, empathy, and a sense of responsibility for others' wellbeing. Mahayana practitioners often develop the habit of 'putting others first' and serving others.
Mahayana Buddhism is traditionally practiced in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Padmasambhava Statue Sculpted by Shang Rinpoche
On the third and final turning of the Dharma Wheel, the Buddha taught Vajrayana – often referred to as 'The Supreme Vehicle', 'The Diamond Path' and 'The Lightning Way' since it is often regarded as the only school through which one can attain Buddhahood in just a single lifetime. Vajrayana Buddhism often involves Mantra recitation, as well as various Tantric practices, by which the practitioner can transform their afflictions and bad habits and find their true 'Buddha nature'. As in Mahayana, compassion is highly valued and the practitioner’s goal is to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
A distinctive feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is the close relationship between a Vajra Master and the student. It is believed that this relationship is what allows the student to achieve so quickly, just as a piano student will likely progress more quickly if they have a great piano teacher. The Master, in the role of a teacher, will often use various 'expedient means' - sometimes unconventional or even radical - to break through the student's clinging and ego. The teacher will also often transmit numerous esoteric teachings to the student depending on their level of ability and commitment.
At the core of Vajrayana is the practice of Guru Devotion which involves maintaining a mind of faith and understanding regarding the Master (Guru) and allows the student's mind to become one with the Master’s wisdom mind. It is said that if we see the teacher as the Buddha we can get the blessings of a Buddha. If we see the teacher as a Bodhisattva we can get the blessings of a Bodhisattva. And if we see the teacher as an ordinary person or friend, we will just get the blessings of an ordinary person or friend.
Generosity is the first of the practices within Mahayana Buddhism known as the six paramitas (perfections). The essence of generosity practice involves eliminating greed, pride, selfishness, and the ego with which we mistakenly identify and cling to.
We do this by turning our focus onto others. Here is a simple thought experiment: if, from the moment you wake to the moment you sleep, your mind and actions are solely focused on bringing happiness to others and alleviating their problems, when would you have time to worry about all of the things that constantly pester you and make you unhappy?
Generosity is a way to try and stop our tendency to look for problems ‘out there,’ and chase after short-term solutions to fix them. Instead, we can find the power to change within ourselves. Imagine if you could be a person who is perfectly calm, mentally still, infinitely patient, full of wisdom and love, and accepts everything that happens gracefully and without expectation. How could you fail to positively transform yourself and all around you, even your enemies?
If everyone has a healthy mind, then the world will become healthy. Even if the world is healthy but our minds are not, then all we can do is create more problems for ourselves and those around us.
Mantra & Visualization
Many think of meditation as sitting on a mat and practicing methods that focus upon the breath and the observation of thoughts. In fact, there are over a hundred types of meditation taught by the historical Buddha, which involve different objects of focus, postures, and verbal techniques.
Mantra recitation is a type of meditation that cultivates concentration and the other qualities of an enlightened mind through the calm repetition of a set of syllables or words. Many mantras were passed on orally from the historical Buddha all the way up to the present day. Each mantra involves a different aspect of the enlightened mind, such as compassion, love, wisdom, emptiness, and so forth. Reciting a mantra while mentally focusing on that particular quality in a meditative state can slowly allow it to develop in our minds. The practice also helps eliminate emotions that can confuse and shackle our inner wisdom, such as anger, jealousy, fear, or sadness.
Visualization is another form of meditation, and is often coupled with mantra recitation. Instead of using the breath as the anchor of our focus, we can use various symbolic images and meditate on their essence. For example, by trying to hold the image of Shakyamuni Buddha clearly and constantly in our mental vision, we can train our concentration and develop the qualities of an enlightened mind.
Try and maintain a calm, relaxed, and open mental state, similar to how you might feel during a sitting meditation. Start by breathing deeply, down into the stomach, and relax your body, keeping your back straight. To anchor your mind and prevent it from drifting, you can choose an object on which to focus. In this case, you can focus on a mantra, the image you visualize, or both.
Focus your mind on the sound of the mantra as you recite, or the image of the Buddha of the mantra you are reciting, without letting any other thoughts interrupt your concentration. If you become distracted, bring your attention calmly back to the object of focus. Recite and visualize as clearly as you can, but you do not have to be anxious about getting it perfect. You can additionally give rise to the Bodhichitta associated with the mantra you are reciting.
The Medicine Buddha
The Medicine Buddha is pervasive throughout Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam in the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon. He is easily distinguished by his skin, the color of the rare semi-precious stone highly prized throughout Asian history known as lapis lazuli. The azure color represents wisdom and compassion, as vast and limitless as the sky.
His left hand rests in his lap in the meditative posture, holding a bowl filled with medicinal nectar and fruit. The right palm faces outward in the gesture of giving, foreshadowing the Hippocratic oath to “apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required.” Extending from the hand is a myrobalan fruit, treasured in Indian and Tibetan traditional medicine for its unmatched healing abilities.
Known as the Master of Medicine, he is revered as both a representation of our inner nature, and as a living Buddha who resides and teaches in his pureland, called Pure Lapis Lazuli. Many who practice his dharma have found healing in anything from soured relationships to depression, infertility and cancer.
The Medicine Buddha’s Significance
At the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism lies the wish to help others and oneself find happiness and overcome strife. In other words, to reach a state beyond all worries and troubles, a person must not only understand the true nature of their own mind, but must be filled with an inexhaustible wish to help all beings reach that same state. This is known as bodhicitta, the mind of awakening.
We learn through the teachings of the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni) that the Medicine Buddha was a human being who diligently completed his path to enlightenment. As he advanced on the path, his sorrow at seeing the suffering of beings moved him to make twelve Great Vows to cure people of all manner of difficulties and illnesses, especially those for which modern medicine has no answer. His example is a model of ultimate compassion - someone who cherishes every being in the same way they would cherish their loved ones, fearlessly plunging into any situation to pull beings out of their misery and strife.
Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava (the Lotus-Born), is regarded by many Buddhists the world over to be the second Buddha after Buddha Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama) who lived in India around 2,500 years ago. Guru Rinpoche also came from India and is revered in Tibet as the one who firmly established and spread the Buddhist teachings throughout the country in the 8th century.
He taught dozens of fully accomplished masters such as Yeshe Tsogyal, Mandarava, and his 25 main disciples. His disciples would later go on to establish many of the oldest branches of Tibetan Buddhism and help to completely transform Tibet from a war-torn land into a peaceful place full of practitioners. Along with Yeshe Tsogyal, he hid hundreds of teachings, called termas, throughout Tibet. These teachings continue to be discovered by masters throughout the ages, constantly revitalizing Buddhism and bringing in new methods to accomplish the same goal.