Book review:

Buddhism is neither pessimistic or optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and the world. It looks at things objectively (yathabhutan). It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool’s paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquillity and happiness’

(What the Buddha Taught, W. Rahula)

Paris, 1958 and Dr Walpola Rahula a Buddhist monk and scholar from Sri Lanka, is the first bhikkhu to hold a professional chair at a Western intellectual institution. Rahula is in France completing a study of the philosopher Asanga, (founder of the Yogacara philosophy) at the University of Paris. During this time, he composes What the Buddha Taught, in an attempt to communicate the essence of Buddhism with the West.

Today, of all the worldly faiths and religions, Buddhism may seem the most approachable and appealing to an outsider. Instantly recognisable smiling, chubby statues, the glowing Dalai Lama and endless Tibetan Buddhist gift books spouting short, direct and seemingly obvious wisdom… to us Westerners in particular, Buddhism is like a holiday – all warm and glowing with no demands upon our time or intellect.

And yet, in 1958 Rahula spoke of Buddhism as something entirely other. How did this framework become watered down into material for gift cards and calendars? It should be appealing in its purest form– that a philosophy will tell you ‘exactly and objectively what you are’, but in truth, we do not want to know. In fact, we spend most of our lives working away from knowing, because acknowledging the profound simplicity of our existence means acknowledging the sheer silliness of many of our daily thoughts and actions. And that perhaps is why, in the mainstream, Buddhism has been reduced to a kind of simple and sunny outlook on life where enlightenment is a fluffy, lofty ideal rather than a lifelong process.

Many religions and ideologies seek to save and rescue, to explain and absolve individual responsibility. Through acts of faith and ritual, man is purified and connected with a higher being, most commonly in the afterlife. In contrast, Buddhism is not a religious doctrine, and there are no quick fixes or routes to spiritual cleansing. Oh, and there is no afterlife – enlightenment is a journey rather than a destination, and the roads must be walked largely alone.

‘One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge’? (Buddha). 

Buddhism is based on three core concepts: samsara (human cycle of life to death), karma (the actions that result from the intention of an unenlightened being) and rebirth (processes of reincarnation).

According to the philosophy, every individual lives, dies and is reincarnated as the soul attempts to reach enlightenment through human formation. Enlightened beings (like the Dalai Lama) are those individuals who have reincarnated to a level at which they no longer create ‘karma’, as their intentions and actions are pure and unattached. In this conception, an enlightened person is not defined in human years – the soul of a teenager may be ‘older’ than that of an elderly man, and thus the teenager more enlightened. Human years do not define wisdom.

In reaching enlightenment, Buddhism recognises that the biggest barrier to peacefulness and joy for mankind is the concept of suffering, called dukkha. This is the innate sense of pain, anxiety and dissatisfaction that humans feel as a result of karmic actions. As unenlightened beings, the mind and more specifically the ego, generates personal suffering through the development of thoughts, beliefs and values about the world that we live in.

In Buddhism, the frenetic and constant chattering of the mind is referred to as the ‘monkey mind’, and through meditation, Buddhists seek to detach from the thought processes that generate karmic action. Karma has been largely misconstrued in the West. It is not a process whereby good deeds done are cosmically balanced by good deeds received. Rather, karma is a representation of the lessons we have not yet learned, generated by our own thought processes. In this way, we choose our own karma. Put another way, your thoughts determine your actions, and if you do not question your thoughts, you will continue to act in the same way, thereby generating karma and dukkha (suffering) for yourself.

In attempting to understand and overcome dukkha, The Four Noble Truths are used as a framework of Buddhist thought and teachings. They are:

1. Dukkha  (suffering)

2. Samudaya (the arising or origin of dukkha)

3. Nirodha  (the cessation of dukkha)

4. Magga  (the way leading to the cessation of dukkha)

Samudaya acknowledges that dukkha arises from expectations and attachments to ideas through the ‘sense-pleasures’. Essentially, all humans have a natural attraction to pleasure and aversion to pain, which means that we innately seek to pleasure and gratify ourselves rather than to inflict pain or suffering. However, in seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, we develop material and abstract desires about the way that life should be. When our experiences do not mirror our expectations and desires, we feel pain and suffering.

To end suffering, our desires and expectations must be questioned and eventually, removed. Meditation as an active process provides a space for watching the ebb and flow of thoughts and for recognising that all thoughts are constant and fleeting. We make the choice to attach meaning to the musings of our monkey mind, often selecting the same thought repeatedly. When all desire has been removed, there is no more attachment, no more expectation and no more suffering. Only then is there a state of perfect peace, or Nirvana.

Perfect peace or Nirvana remains the destination, but for the vast majority of us, the journey towards smaller destinations on the road – such as detachment and mindfulness – provides challenge enough for this lifetime…