What did the Buddha teach?

Great Buddha statue in Kamakura, Japan

The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura, Japan | Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo

According to some of the earliest Buddhist texts, after the Buddha became enlightened he didn’t know whether he could teach anyone what he had realized, because it was so far beyond normal experience. But old friends and acquaintances could tell he had achieved something absolutely extraordinary, and they wanted what he had.

Eventually, after enough people begged him to share his realization, he agreed to teach. What he could impart, he said, was only a handful of leaves compared with the infinitely vast forest of wisdom inherent in awakening. But simply believing in what he said wasn’t the point, the Buddha cautioned. The important thing was having a roadmap to enlightenment. That handful of leaves was sufficient to provide a complete path of practice by which anyone could attain the same awakening he had.

The first sermon the Buddha gave was the heart of his teaching, known as the four noble truths. The first truth is that life inevitably contains dukkha—suffering, pain, and dissatisfaction. Indeed, life itself—the very fact of being born, getting old, and dying—is suffering, never mind all the limitless other types of stress and suffering experienced in a lifetime.

The second noble truth is that suffering has a cause, and the cause is manufactured by our own minds. It is the mind’s craving and ego-fixation that keep us bound to the endless cycle of birth and death, and thereby endless suffering. Because we are ignorant of the cause of our suffering, we constantly look to the wrong sources for happiness, none of which are enduring or reliable.

The third noble truth is that there is a way out. By apprehending the true cause of dukkha and the means to its end, we can free ourselves and achieve enlightenment. The way out is based not on belief, however, but on our own embodied experience of how we cause ourselves to suffer and of the true nature of reality.

The fourth noble truth is the path of practice that leads to awakening. This is known as the noble eightfold path, a path of living ethically, training the mind, and cultivating wisdom. When factors of the path are developed and enacted simultaneously, they can open the door to enlightenment.

Temple

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