The other day a friend asked me ‘so what is Buddhism?’ For me it is like opening a can of worms or the opening of the Pandora’s Box. Prince Siddhartha, who went on to become the Buddha, on attaining enlightenment, explained the first noble truth as the truth of suffering. He meant that whatever we like or are attached to, will make us unhappy and bring suffering, with hundred percent certainty. That is why it feels like a can of worms or a Pandora’s Box when you set out to explain what is Buddhism.
Although our attachment brings suffering, it is not the original cause of suffering. It is important for us to understand this. The original cause of suffering is the ‘I-ness’ or the ego that we are deeply attached to. These are in our thoughts and ideas and in the people, places and things that we are connected to. So if this ‘I’ is absent, where is the question of attachment?
Attachment essentially causes suffering in bewildering ways. Take the case of an impoverished yogi who is presented with a new loincloth. He begins to worry that the mice running around his hut could bite holes into it and therefore keeps a cat; to feed the cat with milk, he has to keep a cow; to protect the cow from wild beasts while grazing in the forest, he himself has to keep watch over the cow; and so eventually his attachment to his brand new loincloth robs him of the time for yogic practices. So attachment arising from our ‘I-ness' can be a huge distraction.
If desire, attachment, greed form one side of the coin, the other side is anger, aversion, fear. Whatever we desire deeply or pine for greedily has a shelf life after we have got it. There is the law of diminishing returns. There is also entropy and deterioration. So when ‘the time comes’ for us to lose it or part from it we get into negative moods and behaviors. Losing becomes very painful and we suffer.
So getting separated from what we like, becomes a cause of suffering. In his second noble truth, the Buddha says there is cause of suffering. Once there was a lady who was very distraught when her son passed away. She came to the Buddha with hopes that he would make him alive again. In Greek mythology, we have Orpheus, who tried to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead with his enchanting music. We basically want to enchant, bribe, cajole, and beg that the status quo of our attachments prevail beyond all else, realizing little that our ability to ‘play enchanting music’ diminishes over time. The reaper threshes all asunder, irrespective of our worldly resources, pretensions, and the masks we adorn.
Gautama Buddha advised that we could actually get out of this loop of suffering. This was his third noble truth. In the fourth noble truth he elucidated a path that one could travel on, to free ourselves from pain, anguish and suffering, caused by attachment to the idea of self and the objects of desires that we incessantly and relentless craves and pine for.
According to him, there was a misunderstanding on how we see ourselves and perceived our ‘I-ness’. It was not about negating or disowning the ‘I’ but to know how the ‘I’ actually exists.
However, the manner in which we usually live our lives with loads of attachments only feeds our current sense of ego. it is not really possible to explore who we actually are or how we really exist. It is as though we are moving in the wrong direction and we first need to stop, before we can begin our journey on the right pat again.
Our customary proclivities, passions, dreams and desires are like gusts of breeze that keeps the flame of our consciousness fluttering in all directions. When we try to look within to know who we are with the help of superficial ‘spiritual’ practices that we pick up in the bazaar, they only allow us to see flickering glimpses of distorted images of our self. If we are really serious to find our true self, the first stage is to attain calm abiding or samatha. It requires us to distance ourselves from all materialism, expressly those of the religious and ‘spiritual’ kind.
The steady flame of consciousness resulting from distancing ourselves from distracting thoughts, and getting immersed in the practice of meditations such as samatha or vipassana allows a special clarity to dawn on our consciousness. This clarity provides special insights into how we really exist. We then get answers to who we are, how we exist and how the cosmos exists.
We also know then how to connect meaningfully with one another, respect the spaces we dwell in, and fortify our own bodies and minds. We become capable then to want to sustain all things both within and without. When we realize the essence of living, our ‘I-ness’, attachments and desires do not affect us.
The author is a master trainer of NLP and faculty at Srishti Institute of Design, Bangalore