To understand the basic principles of Buddhism, it is not necessary to believe in heaven or hell or to chant mantras. The aim of the Buddha was simply to show mankind how to live without turmoil and in harmony with all living creatures by following The Middle Way between the extremes of over-indulgence and self-denial. Buddhism affords believers an oasis where they can regain equilibrium by following the Middle Way. Buddhism enables people to look at life anew and stop blaming God, the universe, and others for their plight. They are the creators of their own worlds. Once they can grasp this great truth, life becomes a joyful journey.
To this end, he introduced the Eight-Fold Path and the Ten Precepts, as well as the Four Noble Truths. While monks must practice all the precepts, the lay Buddhist (if he is to be called Buddhist) is expected to follow the five main precepts.
Buddhist principles are based on the basic idea of cause and effect, also known in eastern philosophy as karma. According to this law every intention thought and action has a consequence that equals the energy invested in it. From good deeds come good results. Leading a disciplined life can ensure that suffering is kept to a minimum. The calm mind that comes from a disciplined life leads down the path of spirituality to the goal of all human life – self-realization, or what the Buddhists call Nirvana.
The Buddhist philosophy and way of life are laid out in the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path and the Five Precepts. The first three doctrines are pursued by those who either adopt a monastic life or are involved in a deep philosophical interpretation of Buddhism.
The Philosophy of Buddhism
Buddhist philosophy accepts the inevitability of disease, death, and emotional pain in a human’s life. The cause of human suffering is attributed to the attachment to things that have shape and form. The antidote offered is simple – to cure suffering, free yourself from attachment. Practical ways to end suffering has been prescribed through eight pursuits – right speech, right action, right livelihood, right concentration, right view, right intention, right mindfulness, and right effort.
The Buddha presented his philosophy in the Four Noble Truths:
- Life is suffering: Disease, death and emotional pain are inevitable.
- Attachment causes suffering: An attempt to derive happiness from things that have shape and form results in suffering because these are not permanent.
- To cure suffering, free yourself from attachment: The cause of suffering is attachment, so make attempts to free yourself from attachment.
- The eightfold path will show you the way out of suffering: The Buddha taught practical ways to end suffering through eight pursuits – right speech, right action, right livelihood, right concentration, right view, right intention, right mindfulness, and right effort.
The Five Precepts are what a “lay Buddhist” is expected to follow in day-to-day living.
The Five Main Precepts
- Refrain from killing: This teaching is about being non-violent. To live peacefully and harmoniously with and respect others, living beings must not be killed. Approval of killing by others and participation in killing is also considered wrong. This precept is about protecting lives and cultivating an innate kindness towards other beings. Since this teaching advocates non-violence, it also urges people to be vegetarians.
- Refrain from stealing: This precept is about respecting other people’s properties and not taking it by stealing or by force. If something hasn’t been given to you, then you have no right to it. Stealing not only applies to material goods, but also to time and effort. You should be responsible and not fritter away someone else’s (e.g., an employer’s) time. This precept also urges people to be generous, kind, sympathetic and respectful to everyone.
- Refrain from sexual misconduct: According to the teachings of Buddhism, sexual desire is one of the biggest hurdles to enlightenment and one of the most difficult temptations to overcome. Sexual misconduct like adultery and rape, which cause mental, emotional and physical injury to others, are absolutely forbidden. This precept, like all Buddha’s teachings, urges people to respect others by abstaining from sexual misconduct.
- Refrain from lying: Respecting the truth is one of the most important principles of Buddhism. Denying the truth is actually lying, which can create guilt, confusion, and disharmony. Buddhists are also asked to keep away from half-truths, exaggeration or understatements and, instead, work on being honest. It is believed that being completely honest with oneself and others will reduce disharmony and misunderstandings in the world.
- Refrain from drugs and alcohol: Buddhism places a lot of importance on wisdom. Consuming intoxicants like alcohol and drugs can erode that wisdom and these are also harmful to health. A state of intoxication increases the chances of committing crimes and wrongdoing. It is easier to commit evil deeds or injure others when people are drunk or drugged. It is believed that anyone who breaks this precept will actually be dishonoring all the other precepts.This precept is about respecting one’s mental health and not relinquishing control of one’s mind. Meditation is important to become more aware and attentive and only a calm mind can meditate. People who observe this precept will lead happy lives. These practical precepts can be practiced not only by Buddhists but by anyone who wishes to lead a happy, simple and honest life.
Jewels of Buddhism: The Eightfold Path
The teachings of Buddhism encourage people to follow a spiritual path that will lead them to the jewels of life – happiness, freedom, and enlightenment. The Eightfold Path is actually a set of eight practical guidelines that can not only end the suffering in people’s lives but also enhance mental strength and conviction about following an ethical way of living. The eight teachings of Buddhism are about simple yet effective truths. They are all interdependent.
Right View: This is the first principle and it teaches people about the right way to see the world. Often, our view of the world is colored by our expectations, hopes, and fears. If we can keep these factors aside and see things as they are without bringing in our feelings, then that is the right view of the world. We need to have an open attitude towards what we see and perceive and have a simple and straightforward approach to life.
Right Intention: According to this guideline, if we are able to let go of our judgments, hopes, fears, and expectations, then we can behave in a straightforward way, instead of being manipulative. An absence of preconceived ideas will ensure that we can accept the reality of things. This principle will follow naturally if we have right perception.
Right Speech: If our intentions are right, then we do not have to worry about our speech – of what we should speak, how we sound if we are saying the things people want us to say. Right speech stems naturally from right intention and happens effortlessly.
Right Action: This guideline urges us to practice simplicity. A person should be kind and not harm anyone, not take something that does not belong to him and not indulge in sexual misconduct. Right action is also about being honest and respectful. An action is a manifestation of thought. With the right view and right intention, changes are made at the thought level, and right action follows automatically.
Right Livelihood: This principle emphasizes that livelihood should be earned in a righteous manner and by doing what we like. Most of the stress in the world is created because of people being stuck in jobs they do not like and spending long hours slogging on something they would rather not do. Often, people wish for jobs that pay better or sound better. Buddha urges people to be sincere in whatever they do and to ensure that their livelihood does not cause harm to others. Right thought and right action will ensure that the right livelihood is chosen.
Right Effort: This guideline is about doing work without aggression or struggle. If we are able to see things as they are, have clear intentions and speech, then putting in the right effort to do what we have to do isn’t difficult. Being aggressive, jealous, pushy or manipulative is ruled out by this principle. The right effort comes effortlessly with right livelihood.
Right Mindfulness: This guideline urges people to be mindful of every detail of the experiences they have. If we are mindful of the way we speak, work or interact with people, then we can be happy. Right effort ensures a stress-free mind, which in turn ensures optimum output in any work that the mind is applied to.
Right Concentration: This guideline is about concentrating on the present and on whatever we are doing at the moment. The philosophy of meditation is based on this fact. Right concentration is a natural outcome of a stress-free mind putting in the right effort.