2. LEARN THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS

The story of the Buddha

The Buddha was a man, and not a god. He was born as Siddharta Gautama, the prince of small kingdom in northern India. Until he was 29 years old, he lived the life of King's son - that is to say, he partied a lot, ate a lot, probably had sex a lot, and he remained protected from the seedier side of life outside the palace walls.

The story goes that one day the pampered prince accidentally saw a old sick man in the street, and Siddharta was overcome with horror at this unaccustomed sight of ugliness, disease, and decay. How could people ever be happy knowing that all life must end in death and decay? Siddharta remained in this deep funk until he one day encountered an ascetic holy man. In the midst of all the working-class depression, this man somehow managed to maintain a serene attitude. The prince became a follower of this holy man, and thus embarked on his spiritual career.

In Siddharta's day, being a beggar monk was an acceptable lifestyle; people respected these mendicants for giving up earthly ambitions and devoting themselves to a virtuous poverty. They received shelter and handouts of food from pious folk everywhere. There was a lot of disagreement, however, as to what exactly it means to be holy and virtuous. Ask a dozen different gurus and you'd get a dozen different answers. Which was the right way? Siddharta, having become a poor monk, joined the school of ascetics, who believed that mortification of the body leads to the purification of the mind and spirit. Starving yourself, sitting upright for days without sleep, poking needles through your body - this was all pudding and lollipops to the ascetics. Siddharta pursued this path to paradise with varying degrees of success until the age of 35. But finally, having reduced himself to a mere skeleton, he realized that this self-denial wasn't anymore satisfying than his original lifestyle of ignorant hedonism had been.

Siddharta abandoned his vows of asceticism, much to the disgust of his fellow practitioners, and he strengthened his body and sat down under a fig tree to meditate. And that's when it happened: Siddharta Gautama realized the Middle Way between hedonism and asceticism, and became enlightened. He was now the Buddha.

The Buddha made no fuss about this experience, but his former holy man pals, who were still annoyed with him for abandoning his ascetic vows, noticed that he seemed to be peculiarly serene and that his eyes seemed to shine with the light of understanding. So they gathered one day and asked the Buddha what was going on. That was when the Buddha gave his first talk as the Awakened One, the lecture which explained the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These noble truths are the core of the Buddhist belief system; the only way to reach enlightenment (which is good) is to accept these Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth
The Second Noble Truth
The Third Noble Truth
The Fourth Noble Truth

The First Noble Truth

Life can suck. There's disease, injury, high rent, final exams, warm beer, natural disasters, and death. There's lots of good stuff about life too, so much time is spent attempting to protect ourselves from the bad, that we completely ignore the good. Even when you're happy, it's difficult to free yourself from the memory and anticipation of stressful things. People end up living always for tomorrow, whether that means the anticipation of a promotion, retirement, a better job, or the Second Coming. Life is characterized by suffering, pain, and dissatisfaction.

The Second Noble Truth

The origin of suffering is the craving for pleasure, existence, and non-existence. You get it in your head that you want things, and your mind then becomes an instrument for chasing those things. The actual objects you desire are irrelevant; wanting things - anything - severely circumscribes a person's capacity to be joyful and serene. The body needs sustenance, but it's the self that craves pleasure, existence and non-existence, and it's the self that must be seen as insubstantial.

The Third Noble Truth

Some people say that all this talk of suffering makes Buddhism a pessimistic religion. And perhaps so it would be, if it weren't for the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering; that there is a way to rid yourself of this suffering. Good news, eh?

The Fourth Noble Truth

You wanted a way out of the madness and stress? To rid yourself of suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path. As you've probably guessed, it consists of eight parts. Get to know them, but don't expect to fully understand them right away. A fair amount gets lost in the translation when you're dealing with concepts. Read on to familiarize yourself with the path.