« Be your own light, be your own refuge, let the Dharma be your light, take refuge in the Dharma.”
Such were the Buddha’s last words to his disciples who were asking him to guide them in their practice after his extinction.
The word Dharma either means the Buddha’s teaching or the truth of the reality or all the phenomena. An essential principle of that teaching is the “conditioned production of causes and effects”. According to it, each cause has effects, everything is linked, everything that exists is devoid of autonomous existence, and nothing exists in itself and thanks to itself.
With these words, the Buddha invites his disciples to be conscious that all human beings are subjected to this “conditioned production of causes and effects”, that they are interdependent of one another. Each of their acts does not only engage them personally but has repercussions on all human beings. Through these last words, the Buddha encourages his disciples to check that his teaching is true by experimenting it. The principle of personal experimentation is the basis of the practice of Buddhism.
The fundamental principles of the Buddhist doctrine
The Buddhist theory of existence: a dynamic and encouraging teaching
The Buddhist theory of existence contains the following principles: impermanence, the nonexistence of a permanent and unchanged “self” or vacuity and the conditioned production of causes and effects. Therefore transformation is possible for every human being thanks to his actions.
Impermanence is the character of what is not constant, not stable, not continuous. This term means that in this world everything keeps changing all the time.
Everything changes and so do we. It does not only mean that when getting older we get physically weaker but that our spirit and our heart also change. Such are human beings. Our “self” changes, day after day, according to our life. There is no such thing as a permanent “self”. And it is even because there is no permanent “self” that our efforts bring about results when and if we learn. Buddhism explains that man’s “self” is made of five aggregates: form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness.
Form is in everything that exists in this world and that has a colour and a shape.
Sensation is what we feel when we encounter matter.
Perception is what gathers and links impressions to form images in our heart and our spirit.
Mental formation is the judgement that operates from what precedes.
Consciousness means knowledge, the conscience that everyone has their own existences.
The theory of the “five aggregates” constitutes the explanation of the very “self”. In other words, the “ego” does not exist outside the accumulation of the relations between form, sensation, perception, mental formation and consciousness. For instance, if we look at a beautiful flower, we can “feel” its beauty and our heart and mind are soothed. On the contrary, when we encounter something ugly, we are disgusted. It is exactly the same with human relationships. If others manifest benevolence, then we feel good, but if they are clearly unpleasant, or hostile towards us, we harden and our heart closes. This is how, by meeting all kinds of things, we are affected by feelings, desires and passions.
Consequently, in this theory, no distinction is made between the “self” and the “rest” contrary to what is stated in the western theory of existence. In this case, the limit that separates the “self” from “what is not the self” actually vanishes. The mere idea of the existence of a fixed limit between the “self” and “what surrounds it” is nothing but an illusion.
The “five aggregates” will acquire cohesion only with life, in other words when everyday life acts are at work. We shape our “self” thanks to all the relations with what surrounds us in everyday acts. We transform this “self” each time that we perceive something or someone and react in such or such ways.
These everyday actions, beyond the usual meaning of volitional acts, are also made of all the waves that are reflected inside and outside the one accomplishing these actions. The law of conditioned production of causes and effects is nothing else but Karma – the everyday actions and their products – of that particular moment that gives shape to the “five aggregates” and that causes the “self” existing at this particular moment to change. Conditioned production is also explained thus: the existence of all that exists in the world has developed from mutual relations, or, nothing exists that was created on its own and independently; everything that exists develops within mutual contacts.
This conscience of an impermanent, continuously changing “self” is the basis on which the several paths aiming at liberating human beings from suffering are founded.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are: the truth of suffering, the truth of the accumulation of the causes of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, the truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.
The most significant feature of human existence is that “nothing ever goes the ways we would like it to” and this attitude towards life engenders suffering. Such is the first truth.All the problems encountered by men find their origin in this attitude. As a consequence, they cannot solve their problems if they are not aware of this. But then, “why does nothing ever go the ways we would like it to?”
The answer is given by the second truth: the accumulation of the causes of suffering. The reason is because human beings have desires. They are endlessly in the grip of new appetites, new wishes, whether good or bad that constantly engender frustration, dissatisfaction or annoyance.
What does the “original Buddhism” suggest we do when we encounter such an unsatisfactory situation? The answer is amazingly simple, it is the third truth. All we need is to kill the desires that are at the origin of the problem. Such is, for the traditional Theravada, the aim of the Buddhist practice – to reach a state of non-desire. By achieving that, you become an ideal human being. This is what is called the state of nirvana.
Yet, let us envisage the problem from a practical point of view. It is easy to say “all we need is to kill desires” but if we manage that, what does the human being become? Does killing desires not mean stopping all human business and dying? Such cannot be the answer. In the Mahayana sutra, called The Sutra of Meditation on Bodhisattva Universal Virtue, it is clearly mentioned the possibility for a human being to practice “without cutting oneself from the desires of the five senses”. In other words, the practice of Mahayana Buddhism stresses the importance of the development of the conscience of the true condition of human beings. So, the point is not to cut oneself from all desires, but rather to be able to see clearly the link between desires and suffering and this way to solve their deep causes. This is how we become able to free ourselves from the suffering caused by ignorance… Such is the answer provided by the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle.
What does the “original Buddhism” suggest in terms of concrete ways to kill desires? The answer to this question can be found in the fourth truth – the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering, the Noble Eightfold Path. To reach this aim or in other words to kill desires, we are invited to live in a right way, to accomplish particular pratices that will engender fundamental transformations.
Buddhism is a dynamic philosophy
Someone’s character determines their actions. Actions contribute to the building of human beings and most probably, the only way to change is by acting. The last noble truth invites us to act: “why not try doing this or that?” If someone actually tries to follow this teaching, they can be called Buddhists. Those who do nothing but think and wonder if it is possible to achieve that purpose are no Buddhists. The basis of Buddhism requires action in order to solve human problems: it is a dynamic philosophy.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In the fourth truth, the eight right actions of the Noble Eightfold Path are the following: the right view (to consider that everything is a succession of causes and effects), the right intention, the right speech, the right action, the right livelihood, the right effort, the right mindfulness, the right concentration. Let us precise that what we call “right” is not the opposite of “wrong”: here, it bears the meaning of “appropriate”. It is important to point out that Buddhism does not issue a set of moral instructions and that these points are not to be considered in great haste.
“Which practices does Buddhism offer?” “How can we realize them? «Such are the eternal main questions. Answers differ according to the sutras. For example, The Great Vehicle Buddhism or Mahayana does not limit itself to “the Noble Eightfold Path” of the theory of the Four Noble Truths. It encourages everyone to follow the path of a bodhisattva.
Photographie : steve-long (haut)