Stuff to Know

Buddhism 101

Buddhism is more than sitting on a cushion.  Hey, meditation is important, and we encourage a daily practice.  But what about the rest of the day?  Here’s what you need to know!

Top Buddhist Concepts

4
Noble Truths

Noble
8fold Path

The 5
Aggregates

8 Worldly
Winds

3
Characteristics

7 Underlying
Tendencies

Papanca

The Four Noble Truths

To have an understanding of Buddhism, it’s essential to start with the Four Noble Truths.  The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of the Buddhist Dhamma.  On the night of his Awakening, these truths became known to the Buddha.  They are, ‘There is suffering, There is a cause of suffering, which is craving, There is a way out of suffering and the round of rebirth, or samsara, and the way out of this cycle of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.’ 

Note that the Buddha is often misquoted as saying, “Life is Suffering.”  No, he didn’t say that!  But we have to reconcile the fact that in every living being’s life, there is a degree of suffering that is inescapable.  But we don’t wallow in that suffering.  No one wants to suffer.  We don’t recommend it!  In fact, the Buddha pointed to a way of liberating ourselves from suffering, and that is the Dhamma.  Keep reading to learn more! 

Cartoon of the Four Noble Truths

The Noble Eightfold Path

While the Four Noble Truths explain the deep nature of our lived reality — that suffering is an inevitable part of life, that there is a cause of suffering, and that there is a way out of suffering — The Noble Eightfold Path is the actual path to liberation that the Buddha laid out for us.  This is the path through which he himself attained liberation.  The Noble Eightfold Path is also referred to as the ‘Middle Way,’ in that it rejects two extremes:  the way of self-indulgence, and the way of self-mortification.  Neither of these extremes, the Buddha taught, lead to lasting happiness, nor ultimate liberation.

Below is an introduction to the path.  The path begins with Right View.  For Right View, we need to have the deep understanding that life is not fully satisfactory, that it is impermanent, and subject to change.  We have to understand that actions have consequences, in this life and beyond, and that while the cause of suffering lies in the mind, the mind is also the means through which we can attain liberation, by practicing, and living, The Noble Eightfold Path.

A cartoon of eight illustrated characters demonstrating the noble eightfold path against a pink background. The noble eightfold path is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration

The Five Aggregates

Having grasped the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, and continuing to integrate these practices and understandings in our lives, it’s important to also embark on an exploration of the Five Aggregates.  By now you understand that it is clinging that causes suffering, and that it is our task to liberate ourselves from this clinging.  But what is it that we cling to?  It is the Five Aggregates to which we cling, from which springs dukkha, or suffering.

When we look at the aggregates, Form is our bodies.  We cling to our body as ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’  We cling to feelings, perceptions, and formations as ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ rather than the conditioned phenomena that they are.  Because we don’t want this body, which we misperceive as ‘I,’ to change, to die, we suffer.

A description of the aggregates, in brief:

Vedana – describes what is called, ‘feeling tone.’  Here, feeling is only experienced in three ways:  Pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.  When a feeling is pleasant, we cling to it.  When a feeling is unpleasant, we cling to its removal.  Either way is dukkha, or suffering.

With perception, we receive contact through the six sense doors: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, tongue and mind.  Perception registers and labels objects according to external stimulus.  For example, for ‘tree,’ we may register ‘green.’  For the sound of bells ringing, we register ‘sound.’  A child sees a silver dollar and perceives, ’round, silver, flat.’

Formations, or sankhara, are the conditioned thoughts and feelings we experience.  One person may see a sculpture, which will be accompanied with what appears to be an automatic thought/feeling, ‘beautiful.’  Another person may see the same sculpture, and within them arises the thought/feeling, ‘boring.’  These thought/feelings that emerge from contact of an object may be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  We get off track when we identify with these thought/feelings and believe they construe a ‘me,’ or ‘I,’ rather than the conditioned thoughts that they are.

Consciousness, describes not only awareness of an object, but the ability to break it down into its component parts.  For example, rather than seeing our body as a thing that is ‘Me,’ we see it for what it is:  a construction make up of functioning parts, comprised of the Four Elements — the Earth element, wind element, water element and fire element.  We have bones, breath moving in and out of our body, liquid moving in and out of our body, and bodily warmth that keeps the organism alive.  While the child may see a coin as ’round, silver, flat,’ consciousness, fully developed, sees a means of exchange.

A depiction of the Five Aggregates through a series of five images of an orange sculpture of a woman against a blue background. The sculpture is used to demonstrate the aspect of each of the five aggregates, including Form, Feeling, Perception, Formations and Consciousness

Learn More About the Five Aggregates

The Eight Worldly Winds

We’ve all experienced our own ups and downs in life.  One day we’re voted most popular, the next, it seems impossible to find just one friend who’s there for us.  One day we’re feeling great about how much we’ve saved in our bank account, the next, it’s all gone in just one car repair.  Basing how we feel about ourselves and the world we’ve created for ourselves can only lead to a continual cycle of highs and lows. While the highs may be enjoyable, are they really worth the inevitable lows? 

According to Buddhism, the answer is  a definite no.  As we’re pushed and pulled according to transitory circumstances, we have no chance at inner peace.  That’s why it’s important to know these Eight Worldly Winds and cultivate a degree of equanimity around them.  They are:  Gain and Loss, Praise and Blame, Pleasure and Pain, and Fame and Ill-repute.

The Eight Worldly Winds

The Three Characteristics

Also often referred to as the Three Marks of Existence, the Three Characteristics are an incredibly important aspect of Buddhism.  Cultivating a deep understanding of each of these characteristics will deepen one’s faith in the Buddhadharma.  Want to level up your Buddhist practice?  Study the characterics, and know over the years you will experience an even deeper, heartfelt connection to them.  As your understanding deepens, your meditation practice as well as your life grow in depth and breath.

The Three Marks of Existence

The 7 Underlying Tendencies

The 7 Underlying Tendencies, or ‘anusaya,’ are those latent tendencies that we all have, to one degree or another, that lie in wait in the dark corners of the mind.  Depending on circumstances,  stimuli via the 6 sense doors (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, physical body, mind) can ‘trigger’ these anusaya, or tendencies.  Once triggered, thoughts can be unleashed in a thought storm, or ‘papanca,’ where one thought leads to another, and to another.  Once in thrall to the mental morass, it becomes difficult, without the exercise of mindfulness, for one to break free from the reoccurring thought loops.  

Ever lie awake at 3 in the morning, worried that you can’t get back to sleep, only to have your thoughts become more and more desperate, conjuring up things you’d long ago forgotten?  This is papanca–the seemingly everlasting train ride to the dark places.  In our practice, though, we can weed out these underlying tendencies, making them weaker and weaker each time we tend to our mental garden.

A cartoon of various animals exemplifying the 7 Underlying Tendencies

Papanca.  A State of Mind.

We’ve all done it:  shaken ourselves out of a serious daydream to nowhere.  Sometimes we may ask ourselves, ‘how long have I been adrift?’  A wise question may be, ‘how did I get here?’  Glad you asked.  You see, getting lost in thought follows a very deliberate pattern, one the Buddha discovered over 2,500 years ago.  Once we become aware of this process and its attendant pattern, we can try to intervene before papanca takes hold.  It may seem impossible, but with practice and training, one can begin to train the mind in a new direction, one away from suffering and towards liberation.

It is important to know that our six sense doors (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, physical body, mind) are susceptible to contact with objects in the world.  These objects are innumerable.  They can be sound, any sound, smell–have you ever smelled a certain perfume that brought with it a flood of memories?  The perfume is the sense object, the sense organ in the nose, and the flood of memories came after sense consciousness, feeling (vedana) and perception.  For an example of how this works, follow the journey to Papanca below. 

A comic strip showing the phases leading to papanca